The Syrian army’s retaking of the desert crossroads city of Palmyra is significant for several reasons.
Most people know Palmyra as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of magnificent ruins dating back to the second millennium B.C. The Islamic State group seized it in May 2015, destroying some monuments and selling off pieces of others.
While it has lost Palmyra, the Islamic State appears to be retreating elsewhere as well. Other territory occupied by the extremists in eastern Syria, including the IS de facto capital Raqqa, may be subject to reconquest by government forces, backed by Russian firepower and soldiers from Iran, Iraq, Lebanese Hezbollah and Afghanistan.
Palmyra has changed hands often, having been occupied by forces of different nations and empires, including Arabs, Romans, Turks and the French. Each invader has built and destroyed, frequently focusing on the places of worship of prior conquerors. Last year IS destroyed the city’s Temple of Bel, dating from 32 A.D.
Some preservationists who have looked at the liberated Palmyra say the damage by the Islamic State was not as bad as they had feared. With money, time and a lot of work, much can be reconstructed.
For the United States there are two messages in the recapture of Palmyra. One is that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime were not as vulnerable as they appeared in 2012 during Syria’s version of the Arab Spring. Another message is that Russia, as a military power and an ally of its friends, appears to be back. It is largely responsible for the rebirth of Assad’s Syria, although it is unlikely that Syria’s previous borders will be restored.
Seeing the Islamic State on its heels is a positive development. The restoration of stability to some places in Syria is also progress.