By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
When Bashar al-Assad’s army backed by Russia and other allies marched into Palmyra in the spring of 2016 he got applause from some around the world who saw him as “saving” Syria’s antiquities. Among those was Boris Johnson, now the foreign minister of the UK. Russia flew in an orchestra and hosted a victory concert. Journalists were awakened in the night to fly in and cover it.
Then on December 10th Islamic State fighters reportedly drove back into the ancient city and its environs. They captured tanks and numerous other weapons abandoned by “second line” troops who had been left to defend the area. Assad’s attention was on destroying the Syrian rebel presence in Aleppo. On December 12th most of the massive city was in his hands, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
The dichotomy between Assad’s focus on Aleppo and the inattention to Palmyra shows once again the true face of the regime. Since Russia and others intervened to support Assad they have continually claimed to be “fighting ISIS,” but in fact the bulk of the resources have been directed at the Syrian rebels. ISIS never threatened the regime, it was always headquartered in the desert at Raqqa, along the Euphrates river. The Syrian rebels threatened the regime because, despite their fragmented nature, they had the backing of many Sunnis who make up the majority of Syria. Assad successfully tarred them as “Al Qaeda,” and little by little commentators around the world bought into this.
In October the regime hosted numerous journalists who helped whitewash its image and bring it in from the cold. But where are the journalists today to ask questions about Palmyra and Aleppo? Where are all those who laundered the propaganda machine to boast about the orchestra?
The reality is that Assad’s focus on Aleppo is symbolic of the Syria he wants to rule over. He wants a Syria gutted of opposition, cities retaken at any cost, bereft of their citizens. He wants to rule over a depopulated Syria. Palmyra can be sacrificed because it represents the past. The past is the people of Syria, their mosaic, their diversity. But for the regime, the future is Assad. Everything for Assad. Afghan mercenaries. Iraqis. Iranians. Lebanese. The whole world, for one family.
A country that does not have a history, is a country without a future. Syria does not have a real future. But Assad will live on. Even as Aleppo and Palmyra may fall into dust.