Late in March, forces fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime completed their takeover of the city of Palmyra, well known for its antiquities. While the battle showed the Assad regime’s increasing reliance on foreign backers, it was presented as proof of its importance in defeating the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Syria and its allies “liberating” the city from ISIS garnered significant media attention worldwide thanks to the famous archaeological sites around Palmyra. But the fate of the city residents, who still cannot return to their homes seven months after “liberation,” has not gained similar interest.
The city of Palmyra – where about 50,000 people lived before the start of the Syrian uprising – was captured by ISIS in a blitz attack in May 2015. Despite the small number of the attacking force, President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers chose to flee instead of fight. Some who fled to the desert were captured by ISIS and executed in the ancient Roman amphitheater of Palmyra. During ISIS’ rule over the city, its fighters demolished some of the ancient sites, which they claimed were idolatrous.
The “liberation” of Palmyra from the “barbarians” who demolished it boosted the regime’s public relations line, presenting it as secular and civilized – in contrast with its opponents. This civility did not prevent regime militiamen who participated in the Palmyra battle from posting photos of themselves beheading prisoners-of-war and torturing elderly civilians who did not escape in time, as well as looting the ancient site themselves.
Iran and Russia were instrumental in the recapture of the city. Although only a small contingent of ISIS fighters was responsible for defending it, two offensives by regime militias failed to capture Palmyra. Only the third offensive was successful thanks to the influx of large numbers of foreign Shia jihadists and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps fighters, and the heavy and indiscriminate Russian bombings.
After the recapture of the city, international media outlets covered the damage caused by ISIS to the archaeological sites, some of them sending reporters to the field, under the tight supervision of Assad regime minders. Media attention did not focus on the large-scale damage to Palmyra wrought by Russia’s air raids, nor the systematic looting of homes by regime forces. It was left to local activists who risked their lives to document how the “liberators” of the city looted and torched homes.
After the recapture of the city, the head of the Homs governorate announced that its residents could return soon, after it was de-mined. Seven months have passed since then and no more than 2,000 of the city’s residents have returned. Foreign Shia militiamen are still present in the city, occupying homes of some of the residents who left. Those civilians who returned have ties to military or security forces – the men in their family serve or have served in regime armed forces or intelligence services. Some residents who attempted to return to Palmyra without having such ties were jailed and accused of supporting ISIS.
Unable to return home, tens of thousands who have fled Palmyra currently live in Rukban camp, in the middle of the desert next to the border with Jordan. Jordan almost completely closed its border to refugees from Syria over a year ago and totally stopped regular entry of Syrians after an ISIS bombing of the border crossing in June 21. About 75,000 people live in the camp, most of them residents of Palmyra and surrounding villages. The living conditions in Rukban are miserable, even compared to other IDP (internally displaced person) camps in Syria. People live in tents or mud huts with no running water, electricity or proper sewerage. Aid reaches the camp only sporadically and the residents suffer from hunger, thirst and lack of proper medical treatment. Dozens have died because of these harsh conditions and were buried in makeshift grave sites near the camp.
The Assad regime consistently prevents the return of Syrians displaced from their homes after it recaptures cities or neighborhoods from rebels or ISIS. In Homs and around Damascus it prevented the return of the original inhabitants to ensure that rebellious communities do not re-establish themselves, and to punish the population for rebelling. In some cases, such as Palmyra, regime forces torched homes that had not been destroyed by shelling, to prevent residents from returning. In other places, such as Zabadani, the occupying forces blew up homes that survived the fighting.
The case of Palmyra illustrates a few points. First, while the Assad regime employed the “liberation” of Palmyra to garner international attention for combating the menace posed by ISIS to the remnants of ancient civilizations, the regime itself did not protect those antiquities. Even before ISIS took the city, regime fighters had looted the treasures and this looting persists to this day, despite the Russian presence in Palmyra. It demonstrates the inability of the regime and even its state backers to fully control the regime’s local fighters.
Second, many Syrians would choose life-threatening conditions instead of returning to live under the Assad regime, which means incarceration and torture. Unwilling to live under this terror or under ISIS, thousands of Palmyra residents are stuck in no-man’s-land near the Jordanian border, awaiting salvation.
Lastly, since seizing the city from ISIS, the regime has continued its practice of demographic re-engineering, which it has employed in other areas recaptured from rebels such as Homs, Zabadani and parts of Damascus. The case of Palmyra demonstrates what an Assad takeover of additional parts of Syria means – such towns and cities will remain largely empty of their original inhabitants, and instead will be occupied by local militias or foreign militias loyal to Iran. This protects Assad from another popular uprising, but also ensures he will not be able to reunite and stabilize Syria on the basis of national identity and good governance. The locals will not be able to return and continue to languish in IDP camps or survive as refugees in neighboring countries. Those calling for the West to back the regime in recapturing all of Syria should take into account what happened in Homs, Damascus and Palmyra.
This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.