Creating new perspectives since 2009

The recapture of Syria’s Palmyra: A defining moment in the coverage of the conflict

May 10, 2016 at 1:50 pm

Russia’s renowned Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra took to the stage on Thursday. They were not performing in their usual setting, the grandiose of Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, but on the ruins of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra. The Syrian regime, with the help of Russia, recaptured Palmyra from Daesh in March in what was perceived as a massive victory against the group which filmed its destruction of some of the site’s historic buildings. The performance was a celebration of this and Russia made sure it was a widely reported event, with around 100 journalists transported to the heart of war-torn Syria and a televised broadcast from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The performance was heavy in symbolism – a Russian orchestra playing the symphonies of classical musicians Bach and Prokofiev in a Roman era-amphitheatre, the same spot that Daesh executed dozens of people last year – and was designed to invoke images of civilisation triumphing over barbarism. This narrative supports the attempts by the Syrian regime, since the early protests of the Syrian revolution, and its backers, to frame the conflict as exactly this.

The BBC used the term “liberation” to describe the Syrian army’s advance towards the ancient city, as did the Telegraph. A regular contributor to the Guardian wrote that the city’s recapture “must lift the spirits of all who knew its former glory”. The defiant words of Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, were quoted in all major British news outlets without question, as if he was not a crucial part of an agency owned by a government accused of committing war crimes.

The Mayor of London wrote an article in the Times desperately stressing the importance of saving Palmyra, describing a “physical sickness at the idea of surrendering this urban masterpiece to the monsters of ISIL,” using another acronym for Daesh. When it was recaptured, he wrote another piece that, while also outlining the crimes of the Syrian leader, read: “The victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology, a victory for all those who care about the ancient monuments of one of the most amazing cultural sites on Earth.” Palmyra became a symbol of our united revulsion against Daesh and by default; the Syrian regime leader and Putin became partners in this battle. When it was recaptured by the Syrian forces, British news reports portrayed it as a victory and in doing so the two dictators also became the heroes of the story.

The ruins of Palmyra are no doubt much safer under the control of the Syrian leader than they were under Daesh – an army of archaeologists were allowed access to the ruins almost immediately after the area was recaptured. But, framing Assad as the gatekeeper of civilisation is by no means accurate. Palmyra is just one of Syria’s UNESCO world heritage sites that have been left with battle scars. Krak de Chevaliers, near Homs, one of world’s best-preserved fortresses from the 12th century, sustained heavy damage from government airstrikes. The Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology posted a video of the regime bombing a citadel is Bosra, another UNESCO site.

The recapture had another strategic gain – it successfully averted people away from the human devastation. Palmyra seemed to become more important. Archaeologists were being interviewed as if they were experts on Syria. Meanwhile, the strength of disgust at the destruction and pillaging of Palmyra, shown in countless articles penned by people who had probably not even heard of the site prior to its capture by Daesh, was seen as a sign of humanity (all of which did not recall the UK’s history of pillaging from historical sites, something it has not tried to rectify).

A replica of the Arc of Triumph was built in Trafalgar Square as a message that was meant to read “you can destroy, but we will rebuild”, a gesture of “solidarity with Palmyra”, according to London’s Mayor, as if it is possible to have solidarity with a historical site. Indeed, Palymra is more than just a collection of artefacts, they are monuments of Syria’s past and their preservation is important for Syria’s future. But the solidarity only extended as far as the crimes of Daesh, now perceived as a shared threat and Assad’s regime faded from thoughts. It is all part of a trend in which the enemy of the Syrian people is being redefined by the British media, as if the inhumanity of Daesh erases the awfulness of Assad.

This is Al-Assad’s battle tactic – being the lesser of two evils. Stoking the rise of groups such as Daesh was part of this plan. Over a period of several months in 2011, Al-Assad released an estimated 1,500 Islamist militants from prison to subvert the peaceful uprising and justify his heavy crackdown on protestors (according to a Wall Street Journal article, nine of the prisoners released went on to lead “extremist” groups).

Those present at the Russian orchestra’s performance included officials from the Syrian Red Crescent, religious leaders and dignitaries from across the country, a delegation from the Russian culture ministry, and even a few UNESCO ambassadors.  They were celebrating the preservation of civilisation.  And, while they were listening to the beautiful sound of Bach, the gatekeepers of this civilisation were bombing a refugee camp sheltering fleeing families on Syria’s border.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.