The Fall of Palmyra

UNESCO HQ, Beirut.

The ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur) has been in existence for 30 centuries, and is one of the world’s most cherished archeological and cultural heritage sites.  Will it be cease to exist within the next 30 days?

According to Da’ish (ISIS), the answer is yes and they will see to it, for the reason that religious obligations in their jaded views require the destruction of pre-Islamic pagan idols, which they view as akin to devil worship.

According to some Syrian government officials ,and also Irina Bolova, UNESCO’s Director of World Heritage Sites List, which Palmyra has been on since 2013, the answer is also yes-unless. She means unless the UN takes immediate action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and immediately acts, with force if necessary (it is) to save Palmyra.

“The situation is very bad,’ Syria’s antiquities chief, Dr. Mamoun Abdel-Karim told reporters yesterday. ’If only five members of IS go into the ancient buildings, they’ll destroy everything. Our fear is also for the museum and large monuments that cannot be moved. Dr. Abdel-Karim is calling on the US-led military coalition against IS to prevent the group destroying the ancient site. “This is the entire world’s battle!” he exclaimed.

And so it is.

On 5/20/2015 museum employees in Palmyra packed up additional items, having over the past three years, along with Syria’s other 27 national museums moved thousands of irreplaceable artifacts to secured, climate controlled safety vaults. In a brief telephone conversation, Syria’s top antiquities director told Reuters that hundreds of objects from Palmyra were being moved to safety.  Dr. Khalil al-Hariri, the Palmyra museum’s Director, with whom this observer spent time last year and who provided a detailed briefing at the Palmyra museum and among the ancient ruins, told the NY Times yesterday: “It’s very bad today” while a museum employee added, “Pray for us.”

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO advised the UN Security Council again two days ago: “I am deeply concerned by the situation at the site of Palmyra. The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population” she said. “I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the Security Council to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra.”

News of Palmyra’s fall came shortly after a State Department official announced that the weekend loss of Ramadi had prompted the US take an ‘extremely hard look’ at its strategy to confront the extremists. This morning, videos are being shown by Da’ish purporting to show smoke rising over Palmyra, which ISIS now completely occupies.

Just two months ago, when the Da’ish pulled back from the Iraqi city of Tikrit, the Obama Administration and plenty of others expressed the view that the event was a game changer and Da’ish was skidding toward collapse.

One Da’ish spokesman has just reported to contacts of this observer that ISIS does not urgently need more fighters at the moment from Palmyra’s Tadmur prison, which it just took control of and emptied of inmates because, while they welcome all  to join their Islamist ranks, Da’ish is currently having some logistical problems vetting and training the thousands who seek to join them monthly. Despite recent assertions and ‘feel-good’ reports from Western capitals, Da’ish numbers continue to increase, and as of 5/21/2015 the Islamic State is becoming a reality with expanding borders.

Secretary of State John Kerry seems to understands and care about what’s at stake for Syria’s, and our own, cultural heritage and fortunately unlike most of us, Kerry and Barack Obama’s administration joining with the UN, could do something about it immediately.

During his 9/22/2014 speech at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Kerry emphatically pledged that the United States would defend Syrian cultural sites from the Islamic State. Said Kerry,  “How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization. Extremists want to rob future generations of any connection to this past. That is profoundly what is at stake. And if you leave it unstopped, if you don’t stand up, we are all complicit. I want you to know that President Obama and our Administration are laser-focused on protecting this cultural heritage.”  Kerry added that “our heritage in Syria is literally in peril in this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now.”

According to one former aid, who was a Kerry staffer during many of his 29 years in the US Senate: “John is much more passionate about the subject of Syria and Iraq’s sculptural and cultural heritage than many other issues he faces, for example, the Iranian nuclear can of worms which he finds exhausting.”

Playing two key roles during consultations within the Obama administration and with the UN Security Council, reportedly arguing that the UN protect Palmyra, are Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power. What Kerry and Powers have apparently agreed, as reported by two Congressional staffers on 5/20/2015,  is that with the White House imprimatur, the UN Security Council will be strongly urged to etch a Chapter 7 ‘red-line’ around Palmyra’s archeological sites and defend them with whatever force and costs are required.

This report, confirmed by a staff member of the US Foreign Relations Committee, if accurate, is of great import for all of us and most especially for the people of Syria.

The current Obama Administration plan is reportedly to move as follows:  For political reasons, the Security Council member Malaysia, whose term ends in 2016, will introduce the US drafted resolution.   The Syrian government via her UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari (with whom US mediators from Europe have reportedly been in contact) is expected to forestall a potential Russian veto threat.  Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, with whom Kerry had a excellent relationship before the current crises, and who is respected in Washington and the West, as well as in Moscow for his diplomatic skills, is expected to play a key behind the scenes role to secure Assad government cooperation of the kind that allowed US-led coalition airstrikes in Raqqa, Kobani and elsewhere without endorsing them publicly.  Security Council members, France, China, and the UK will support the resolution and the other Security Council members, Angola, Chad, Chile, Jordan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain and Venezuela are already on board.

The Security Council and the White House, rather than put together yet another coalition, realize that by the time a new force was configured, requiring weeks or months, there would likely be little left of Palmyra. The UNSC reportedly will ordain the US-led coalition named, Operation Firm Resolve (OIR), to be responsible for doing the job in Palmyra and doing it fast. The White House reportedly believes OIR is ready.

In addition, key Congressional committee chairs are arguing to the White House that time does not allow for a new coalition and US Congressional staff sources reported to this observer on 5/20/2015 that key Congressional and Administration leaders are urging that the US-led coalition shift some of its 11 months of largely ineffective bombing of ISIS and its allies across Iraq and Kobani and Raqqa in Syria, south westward, and establish a red circle around Palmyra to engage advancing jihadists and back up troops on the ground to expel them from the ruins.

Since President Obama authorized the U.S. Central Command to work with partner nations to conduct targeted airstrikes to degrade and defeat Da;ish (ISIS), Operation Inherent Resolve has grown to 62 member nations. States actively conducting airstrikes in Syria and who have been studying Centcom plans to target Da’ish at Palmyra include the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. If required, the following coalition partners operating now only in Iraq have agreed to enforce the Palmyra red circle. They are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

If the global community acts quickly through its UN Security Council and immediately protects and preserves Palmyra, it will set an important precedent for protecting our global cultural heritage elsewhere. It will also help prevent a repeat of the Islamic State attacks on other renowned ancient sites in recent months.

Such Security Council action would also help resuscitate the United Nations Organization in other needed ways.

And it may well create international momentum to bring peace to Syria.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).


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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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