The Islamic State has reportedly captured part of a city adjacent to the millennia-old ruins of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert, heralding a potential propaganda coup and valuable haul for the militant group, which in recent months has expanded its looting and destruction of antiquities.
Images circulating Saturday morning on social media purportedly showed the Islamic State's black flag flying atop a building in the ancient city, and AFP cited a monitoring group as saying the northern part of Palmyra had fallen.
The United Nations previously sounded the alarm as fighting between the Islamic State and Syrian government forces neared the oasis settlement. Labeled a World Heritage Site by the UN's Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Palmyra dates back to the 2nd millennium BC. Many of its shrines, tombs, statues, and colonnaded thoroughfares were built during Roman rule in the first three centuries AD.
"The site has already suffered four years of conflict, it suffered from looting and represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world," UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said Friday.
Bokova appealed to all parties to prevent the destruction of the site. Similar pre-Islamic ruins in both Syria and Iraq have been destroyed and looted by the Islamic State (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh — which practices an extreme and theologically dubious form of Sunni Islam that disdains any form of idolatry.
Speaking from Damascus on Friday evening, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's director-general of antiquities and museums, told VICE News that IS forces had been repelled in the hours before by the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "The situation is better than yesterday," he said.
"They are about two or three kilometers away," cautioned Abdulkarim. "We are very afraid of what will happen if they enter the city."
The modern city of Tadmor is located a short distance from the UNESCO site. On Friday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS killed 23 civilians, including nine children, in Amiriyeh, a village just north of Tadmor.
'They are smashing antiquities and artifacts at the front end of the house, but the lion's share is being sold out of the back.'
Tadmor is home to a prison of the same name, which during the rule of Assad's father Hafez al Assad became notorious for its brutality. In 1980, after an assassination attempt on Hafez, the president's brother Rifaat — then commander of the country's paramilitary Defense Companies — oversaw the slaughter of more than 500 prisoners, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had agitated against the country's Alawite leadership.
Bashar al-Assad shuttered the prison when he ascended to the presidency in 2001, but re-opened it in 2011 and filled it with Arab Spring protestors.
The Syrian regime has positioned itself as the safeguard of the country's antiquities, but its barrel bombs have laid waste to other ancient settlements, including Aleppo's old city, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike IS, the Syrian regime has not publicized its destruction of historically significant areas, and has played down the civilian toll it has incurred. Some 220,000 people have been killed in the country's four-year civil war. UN officials have claimed Assad's forces are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in the conflict.
On Friday, the primary Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, blamed the Syrian regime for placing its "military positions in such historical sites," and suggested Damascus might view the destruction or damaging of Palmyra as a diversion from its own transgressions.
Abdulkarim insisted Palmyra "is for all Syrians," and said he had worked with his colleagues and UNESCO to usher some of Syria's antiquities to the capital for safekeeping. But at sites like Palmyra, much of the stonework — including its amphitheater and columns — cannot be transported.
"How can we protect all the magnificent, extraordinary tombs?" Abdulkarim asked.
"It will have the same fate as Mosul," he added, referring to sites in and around the Iraqi city where IS released video of its fighters smashing and destroying artifacts. One video, released in April, showed militants taking sledgehammers to ancient Assyrian statues and reliefs among ruins in Nimrud, some 20 miles south of Mosul.
The Iraqi government this week claimed that while much had been destroyed at the site and others, the footage masked what they called a concerted effort to loot — not destroy — substantial numbers of moveable artifacts in the country, presumably to later sell and help finance their operations.
As one Iraqi official put it, speaking to VICE News on condition of anonymity, "they are smashing antiquities and artifacts at the front end of the house, but the lion's share is being sold out of the back."
Amr al Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University, told VICE News that the filmed destruction of sites in both Syria and Iraq serve propaganda purposes, and pointed to their looting activities as proof that the group's ideology is flimsy at best.
"When it comes to cultural heritage, ISIS is persistently and consistently looting cultural heritage on a very wide scale," said al Azam, who formerly served as director of scientific and conservation laboratories at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria and now associates himself with the opposition. The April video, he said, was released months after the actual destruction with the intention of rallying IS forces.
Al Azm said that in 2012, when Syrian forces withdrew from areas in northern and eastern Syria, the Islamic State — then affiliated with al Qaeda — encountered existing looting operations, from which they soon found ways to profit.
"ISIS said you can continue looting, but you are going to have a tax," said al Azm.
According to the professor, the Islamic State began issuing so-called "looting licenses" in early 2014.
When IS vastly expanded its territory in Iraq last summer, the group came to control a great number of valuable archaeological sites, including those around Mosul.
"By mid-2014, they are getting a little more organized," said al Azm. "They contract out the looting operations; by the end of 2014 they are doing it themselves."
Estimates of what ISIS has reaped from the illicit sale of antiquities vary widely. Experts that VICE News spoke with said it was impossible to verify the extent of the trade, but they also said that as coalition airstrikes continue to target the group's main economic operations, such as oil infrastructure in Iraq and Syria, the group could increasingly rely on the trade to fill its coffers.
Though Palmyra occupies a strategic point in central Syria along thoroughfares to Syria's east and the Iraqi border, the site itself could also be a goldmine for IS.
"You can save some of the small finds, but there is still going to be a lot of valuable material such as the busts and carvings and tombs that are carved out of marble," said al Azm. "Taking over Palmyra would give them access to a very important archaeological repository there."
In February, the Security Council passed a resolution focused on disrupting the funding streams of IS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, including oil exports, ransom payments, and looted antiquities. The resolution bound member states to "take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance" that had been illegally removed from Syria since March 2011.
European dealers, informed by the resolution and INTERPOL databases of stolen works, are hesitant to touch anything whose provenance is known to be Iraq or Syria. It's still possible that some artifacts have made their way to Europe, or possibly to markets in the Middle East, Asia, and the US.
Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery Group, a UK-based organization that tracks the sale of looted art and artifacts, said he has been approached multiple times by individuals who either have for sale or know of items for sale that appear to be from Iraq and Syria. In some cases, Marinello said, those who brought evidence to him were trying to mitigate existing investigations into their illicit activities in the British smuggling world.
In one of those instances, a Lebanese man living in the UK met Marinello in person and showed him what appeared to be a binder filled with photographs of illicit artifacts.
"We cannot confirm whether the objects were actually in the United Kingdom, or whether they were in route, but we were shown photographs — everything from cylinder seals to vases, to leaves — a vast catalog of antiquities," Marinello said. "It was pretty clear that this material had not been on the market before, and that it was most likely looted."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford