By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
When Muhammed the XII had surrendered Granada to the Catholic king and queen of Spain in 1492, he was riding away and looked back in tears. His mother, Aixa, turned to him and said “you should not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” The story may be apocryphal legend, but it symbolizes the many times people have shed crocodile tears.
In May of 2015 ISIS was able to capture the ancient city of Palmyra in the desert east of Damascus. At the time Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was able to use ISIS threats to Palmyra and other places to bolster his legitimacy as the leader of Syria. Commentators forgot that it was his own regime and that of his father that had helped create the extremism and vacuum into which ISIS slithered. Assad abandoned Palmyra in May of 2015, only to triumphantly “reconquer” it in March of 2016. Newspapers are now hailing his “triumph” and The Telegraph oped by Boris Johnson even congratulated him with the headline “Bravo.” But Assad did not “save” Palmyra, in fact he was the reason it was endangered in the first place. He allowed ISIS to grow, and he purposely abandoned some areas to ISIS, although not areas he wanted such as Deir ez-Zor. Assad is not a “savior” of Syria, he has destroyed Syria and sent 10 million people into refugee status internally and externally.
The conquest of Palmyra
The ruins at Pamyra have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980. “An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world,” reads the description. Famous architectual and archaeological buildings such as the Temple of Bel rose majestically from the desert and had been among the major tourist sites of Syria before the rebellion in 2011.
When ISIS took Palmyra it was well known they would threaten the ancient heritage of the site, they had already harmed Nimrud in Iraq in March of 2015. In August it blew up the temple of BaalShamim in Palmyra, which UNESCO called a “war crime.” This was part of the Islamist extremist agenda, similar to the Taliban dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. By the end of 2015, in what was being labelled a form of cultural genocide, ISIS was said to have harmed more than 41 sites in Syria and Iraq.
The harm done to Palmyra, including the beheading of Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad in August 2015, helped cement the image of Bashar al-Assad as “defending” Syria’s heritage from the “nihilists” of ISIS. Assad had always used the rebellion against the forty year rule of his family’s regime as a way to settle scores and blame others. First it was Israel and “conspirators” and then “resistance against Israel and Western Domination” and blaming “imperialists” for why his forces had to gun down Syrian civilians who were protesting in 2011 and 2012.
Assad’s “war on terror”
In a July speech in 2012 he claimed he would crush “terrorist enemies” part of emerging “war on terror” narrative that Assad was using to make himself seem palatable in the West and Russia. He admitted “concern for our soldiers forces us to let go of some areas.” One of those areas was Palmyra.
Charles Lister told media in May of 2015 that “The regime didn’t seem to put up a sustained fight against the Isis attack on Palmyra, which is in and of itself concerning…Increasingly over the last several months, a new regime strategy has been emerging whereby only the most strategically critical locations and regions receive total support and thus put up the most resistance against attack.” In September 2015 Russia’s Vladmir Putin adopted George Bush’s “war on terror” story to vow at the UN the need to aid Assad against ISIS as part of the “international coalition against terrorism.” He also said “The only way to fight international terrorism…is to act preventively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house,” in October of 2015.
With the help of Iranian support, Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Russia, Assad’s regime was preserved in 2015. Many Western journalists began waxing poetic about it. Robert Fisk claimed “we’ve all been forgetting the one institution in that Arab land which continues to function and protect the state…the Syrian military is going to come out of this current war as the most ruthless, battle-trained and battle-hardened Arab army in the entire region. Woe betide any of its neighbours who forget this.” This is the same Fisk who had written about how “anti-Soviet warrior” Bin Laden was working toward “peace” in Afghanistan in 1993.
Assad and Putin was able to gain a sympathetic following in the West. Simon Jenkins, who had opposed Bush’s war on terror, wrote at The Guardian “as everyone knows, the only way to stop the slaughter in Syria is for the US and its allies to work with President [Bashar] Assad – and stop worrying about what looks good.” The Stop the War Coalition in the UK claimed “the only intervention likely to work in Syria just now is from Moscow.” The Telegraph “bravo” headline was reprinted in other websites, claiming Assad “saved” Palmyra.
There are few parallels to the Assad narrative of having been a dictator of a country, slaughtered protesters, purposely abandon part of the country, allow an extremist movement to emerge, and then re-take sites from that movement and pretend to have “saved” them. It’s true that ISIS is an extremist, murderous, genocidal movement. But where did ISIS come from? It emerged after two years of brutal war in which the chaotic coalition of Syrian rebels who were trending increasingly towards Islamist partnerships, led to masses of foreign volunteers entering Syria. Most of these volunteers had no interest in Syria, and no particular interest in toppling Assad. They wanted to have a “caliphate” and were promised war booty and slaves. They spent more time blowing up Christian monasteries and selling Yazidi women to rape, than they did fighting Assad.
There is ample evidence that Assad released large numbers of extremists in 2011. Some conspiracy theories see this as a calculated way to “radicalize” the rebellion which was widespread, less sectarian, and secular, and turn it into a Sunni Jihad that could be more easily confronted. The more reasonable explanation is that the geography of where ISIS emerged, near Raqqa, allowed it to fester unimpeded and that the Syrian rebels became sandwiched between it and the regime. Assad may have gone easy on ISIS, seeing it as a kind of godsend that would allow him to tar all rebels as “ISIS,” even as ISIS spent much of its time attacking moderate rebels and weakening them in the face of Assad’s onslaught and forcing them to divert forces to confront ISIS. The Syrian regime concept was to discredit the rebels. This worked fantastically, since 2014 a massive international coalition has been fighting ISIS and lost interest in Assad. Many of those who opposed Assad remaining in Syria, such as the US and many Western powers, and Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East, have begun to soften their tone.
Assad will leverage the re-conquest of Palmyra to present himself as “saving” Syria. But he has not saved Syria. He endangered Syria and his war against the rebels have driven millions into refugee camps, it has helped radicalize extremists in Europe, it has spread genocide and death to Iraq, it has harmed Libya, and will have long term affects on Turkey and the EU. Palmyra is a symbol in a sense. It was partially destroyed, and then “saved”. Syria must be destroyed by Assad in order to “save” it. Many commentators in the West will buy this narrative. There is already an extreme left and right wing lobby that supports Assad. The foreign legislators will be flocking back to Syria soon, perhaps touring Palmyra. Media will do puff-pieces again, like the infamous glowing profiles about Assad’s wife and kids.
Beware these stories. Don’t accept the romantic narratives of Assad’s romantic “Syrian Arab army.” It is imperative to oppose the evils of ISIS while not believing that just because Assad is fighting ISIS that he is “good.” The Assad-ISIS war is like the Hitler-Stalin war, there is no good. One is committing genocide, the other has destroyed whole countries. They bring ruin and destruction together, and in many ways they ally against the peoples of the Middle East. They are not opposites. There are more positive voices in the war, such as the remaining non-extremist Syrian rebels, and the Kurds. Don’t fall for the Assad narrative.