Islamic State militants have reportedly taken near full control of the Syrian city of Palmyra, endangering the oasis city's remaining population and the 2,000-year-old ruins adjacent to it.
In a statement Wednesday evening, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the Islamic State (IS) had gained control of most areas of Palmyra. Syrian state TV reportedly said government forces had retreated from the city, which is also known as Tadmor.
Last week, the UN appealed to armed groups to protect the ruins located southeast of the city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, many shrines, tombs, and large stone structures — such as the aqueduct and necropolises — at Palmyra date back to Roman rule in the first three centuries AD.
Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told VICE News that authorities had moved some smaller artifacts, including hundreds of statues, from Palmyra to Damascus, but added nothing could be done to protect the bulk of ancient Palmyra's colonnaded streets and stonework.
"This is a disaster," Abulkarim said.
IS views much of the pre-Islamic art in the region as idolatrous and has publicized its destruction of ancient sites and antiquities in areas under its control. But authorities in Iraq, where IS has released videos of militants taking sledgehammers to Assyrian antiquities in and around Mosul, say the dissemination of such destruction belies a prosperous illicit trade in the very artifacts IS claims are un-Islamic.
On Saturday, IS reportedly broke into parts of Palmyra, and pictures on social media showed the group's black flag hanging from the window of a building in the city's north. In the following days, government forces appeared to dislodge the militants. On Wednesday, however, a reinforced IS force proved too much for the regime troops.
The successful taking of Palmyra comes just days after IS captured Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, Iraq's largest province.
Taking Palmyra would give IS a strategic foothold along routes towards the country's east, and further isolate the remaining government forces in Deir ez-Zur. The city is also near gas fields that were assaulted by IS last week.
The city is home to the Tadmor prison, which is infamous for its brutal treatment of detainees and seen a symbol of the repressive regimes of President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez.
Charlie Winter, a researcher on jihadism in Syria and Iraq at the Quilliam Foundation, told VICE News it could take some time before IS would be in a position to dismantle the ruins. But he added that the recent coverage of the site has only furthered its propaganda value.
"Because of the media frenzy around it, they will probably destroy it," Winter predicted.
In a statement, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said she was "deeply concerned" that fighting in Palmyra "is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population."
"It is imperative that all parties respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict," Bokova said.
But by Wednesday evening, it appeared the only force in a position to heed Bokova's call in Palmyra was IS.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
Photo via Wikimedia Commons