Syria sends reinforcements as IS closes on ancient city

Syria sends reinforcements as IS closes on ancient city
3 min read
Syria's army attempts to push back Islamic State fighters after the group advanced on Palmyra, raising fears the world heritage site could face the same destruction already wreaked in Iraq.
Unesco describes Palmyra as a heritage site of 'outstanding universal value' [AFP]

Syria's army dispatched reinforcements to Palmyra in a bid to push back fighters from the the Islamic State group, who advanced Friday to within touching distance of the ancient city, officials and a monitor said.

"The regime sent reinforcements and the army is bombing the surroundings of Tadmor from the air," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, using the Arabic name (Tadmor) for Palmyra.

     If Islamic State enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction. It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul

Syria's head of antiquities issued an urgent appeal for international action on Thursday to save Palmyra, saying extremist militants were less than two kilometres from the remains of one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.

The world "must mobilise before, not after, the destruction of the artefacts" at the site, Mamoun Abdulkarim said in a telephone call.

"If IS enters Palmyra, it will be destroyed and it will be an international catastrophe," Abdulkarim added.

However, the governor of central Homs province, where Palmyra is located, said the situation was "under control".

"The army has sent reinforcements and it is bombing the (IS) positions from the air," said Talal Barazi.

According to Barazi, the inner city houses about 35,000 people, including displaced Syrians who fled there after their hometowns were engulfed in violence, and the suburbs host roughly another 35,000.

The Britain-based Observatory said more than 100,000 people lived in and around Palmyra.

Since Tuesday, IS seized all regime checkpoints between Palmyra and the town of al-Sukhna, which lies roughly 80 kilometres (50 miles) away.

Unesco describes Palmyra as a heritage site of "outstanding universal value".

The ancient city stood on a caravan route at the crossroads of several civilisations, and its 1st and 2nd century temples and colonnaded streets mark a unique blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian influences.

The advance on the well-preserved remains came as an international conference was underway in Cairo to address destruction already wreaked by IS on the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq.

'Barbarism and savagery'

Foreign affairs and antiquities officials from 11 Arab countries gathered in Egypt to condemn the demolition of Iraq's heritage by IS fighters with sledgehammers, bulldozers and high explosives.

Abdulkarim said Syria's antiquities officials would try to ensure the safety of artefacts found in Palmyra's archaeological digs over the years now housed in an adjacent museum.

"We can protect the statues and artefacts, but we cannot protect the architecture, the temples," he said.

"IS will just destroy it from the outside."

Abdulkarim said he had no doubt that, if Palmyra fell to the IS, it would suffer a similar fate to ancient Nimrud, which the group blew up earlier this year.

"If IS enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction... It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul."

It would not be the first time that government troops have lost control of Palmyra. Rebels held the site from February to September 2013 before the regime recaptured it.

One of the ancient city's masterpieces, the Temple of Baal, suffered some damage during the accompanying artillery exchanges.

But those rebels did not share the fanatical devotion of IS to demolishing all of the region's pre-Islamic heritage.

There was ferocious fighting as IS overran the town of al-Sukhnah on Wednesday in their drive across the desert towards Palmyra.

Syria's official news agency reported that military aircraft had destroyed IS vehicles near al-Sukhnah and that army units "killed IS terrorists" in the area.