ISIS has conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert,” and in all likelihood is gearing up to demolish it. We know this because they’ve done it before. ISIS used hammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud near Mosul, and they did it on video.
“These ruins that are behind me,” said an ISIS vandal on YouTube, “they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”
Muslims have ruled this part of the world for more than 1,000 years. All this time, they’ve been unbothered by the fact that Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud include pagan monuments, temples, statues, and inscriptions that predate Islam. Only now are these places doomed to annihilation. ISIS is more belligerently Philistine than any group that has inhabited the region for a millennium. The only modern analogue is the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns, artillery shells and dynamite in March 2001, mere months before their al-Qaida pals attacked New York City and Washington.
This attitude toward history harks back less to the seventh century than to the twentieth, when Pol Pot reset the calendar to Year Zero after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, and when Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution murdered millions in the war against everything “old.”
Maamoun Adbulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told Reuters that the army carted hundreds of ancient statues away to safety, but of course the giant Roman columns and the museum itself aren’t going anywhere except, perhaps, underneath the jaws of ISIS bulldozers. “This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.
That’s how bad things are in Syria now. The mass-murderers, war criminals, sectarian gangsters, and state sponsors of international terrorism in Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime can plausibly tout themselves as the defenders of civilization. In this particular case and in this particular place, they’re right.
Palmyra is more than 2,000 years old. It began as a humble caravan stop in the second century B.C., but Rome eventually annexed it and turned it into a dazzling and prosperous metropolis. Lying in an oasis in modern-day Homs Governate, during Rome’s time it served as a crucial hub linking Europe to Persia, India, and China.
The ruins sprawl over a vast area, preserved in the desert, away from the dense and overbuilt coastal areas of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Unlike most Roman ruin sites, this one includes nearly intact buildings, some of them enormous. The architectural style is a delightful blend of Roman, Greek, and Persian. Some of the standing columns bear inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. It’s a magnificent place, the Levantine melting pot at its finest, a startlingly beautiful crossroads where the East meets the West, where everything and everybody is blended.
But now it has been overtaken by a totalitarian death cult that uses mass murder and heavy weapons and machinery to transform everything and everyone into a single block-like structure, with itself at the center. ISIS is the Borg of the Middle East.
UNESCO is asking for an international effort to safeguard its World Heritage site, but who is going to step up do it?
The Syrians can’t. They just ran away. The Iraqis can’t defend their own cities, let alone somebody else’s. The Jordanians might be willing if they could project enough power abroad, but they can’t. The Israelis are theoretically capable, but the costs of yet another military intervention in an Arab morass would be catastrophic. The Turks could pull it off, but they’re more worried about Syria’s Kurdish population than ISIS and would rather see ISIS victorious if they had to pick one or the other. The Russians? Vladimir Putin will never ride to the rescue of any “civilization” that isn’t his own.
That leaves the United States. We’re the only real hope. Except that we aren’t.
We could send in ground troops to protect Palmyra. The city is part of our heritage (sort of), since the city once belonged to the Roman Empire, and we’ve done this sort of thing in the past. George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men, released in early 2014, dramatized efforts by a small American army unit during World War II to protect buildings, bridges, and fine art before the Nazis could destroy them. “You can wipe out an entire generation,” says Frank Stokes, played by Clooney, “you can burn their homes to the ground, but somehow they’ll find a way back. But if you destroy their history and destroy their achievements, it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for.”
That was then. The United States Army occupied much of Europe. If Americans already occupied Syria, of course we’d protect Palmyra. But we will likely never occupy Syria. The 82nd Airborne could parachute in and hold the city for a while, but they’d be surrounded by ISIS on one side and the Assads and Hezbollah on the other. They’d also be cut off logistically. And how long would they stay there—until the war is over? Until ISIS is a spent force? That could take more than a decade.
So yes, the United States could go in and rescue Palmyra, but the odds that that will happen are negligible. President Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not getting sucked into these sorts of quagmires. On this issue, at least, he’s backed by the majority of Americans in both political parties.
Inaction has costs, however. Aside from the hundreds of thousands of people who have already been killed, a psychopathic terrorist state that will likely be with us indefinitely is rising in the desert and gearing up to broadcast its destruction of the most beautiful real estate for hundreds of miles in any direction.
“The world does not care about us,” a resident told CNN. “All they are interested in is the stones of ancient Palmyra.” That isn’t actually true. The rest of the world has grown numb to the staggering body counts over there, but Palmyra was supposed to outlive us all. And now it probably won’t.
There’s something else, too. Armies willing to commit cultural genocide are always willing to commit genocide against humans. ISIS thinks that it’s following the Prophet’s example. It’s also following that of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao.