Islamic State has just taken the city of Palmyra in Syria, putting at risk its magnificent ruins and raising two questions: Why did the government and its military not fight harder to hold the town and its oil fields? And will the Islamist radicals now engage in an orgy of cultural destruction, as they have done in Iraq?
It will be a while, if ever, before we know the precise circumstances under which Palmyra was taken. But the cafe owner who cried “Treason! It’s treason” as soldiers and police fled has cause to be suspicious. Public relations is an integral part of war, and losing Palmyra may work for President Bashar al-Assad.
Something similar happened around Dubrovnik, the Adriatic jewel of Croatia, in 1991 during the Yugoslav war. The fight for Dubrovnik was a turning point in that conflict, not because the Croats poured resources into the city to defend it, but because they didn’t – whether by choice or because they lacked the resources – until much later. The city’s Croatian commander, General Nojko Marinovic (who at the time put on a brave face in daily morning briefings to reporters such as myself), said afterward he had quickly realized “the city was practically defenseless.”
The Serbian rump of the Yugoslav army more or less walked up to Dubrovnik, slowed mainly by the logistical complications of looting, and laid siege. They obliterated the modern town outside of the ancient walled city, and were stupid enough to drop a substantial number of shells on the irreplaceable Venetian Old Town, too (having said they wouldn’t). International opinion hardened around the feeling that the Serbs were barbarians – in a war where, until then, many people had felt like U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that they had “no dog in this fight.”
The world already knows Islamic State to be barbarians, but it hasn’t yet picked Assad’s side. From the start of the Syrian conflict four years ago, Assad’s goal has been to persuade the world he is a lesser evil, necessary to stem the rise of Islamist extremism. This is why he has enabled the growth of Islamic State, concentrating his fire power on more moderate rebel forces instead. So while taking Palmyra was animportant success for Islamic State, for Assad – whether by accident or design – the heritage site might eventually provide the kind of propaganda victory that Dubrovnik became for the Croats.
The question for Islamic State is whether to fulfill expectations by destroying another irreplaceable treasure of human history. Judging from their record in Iraq, probably so. But respect for Palmyra crosses Syria’s divides, and Islamic State has at times proved alive to the need to make itself seem more Syrian, and less foreign, to build local support. One can only hope.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.