The recapture of Palmyra from ISIS is undoubtedly a major battlefield victory for the Assad regime. For the first time in six months Syrian regime forces have recaptured significant territory from rebels. Prior to Russian intervention in September Assad’s forces were teetering on the brink of collapse, worn down by years of heavy casualties and equipment losses. Now Assad’s front lines are secure, the opposition has been further divided, and Russia has begun to draw down its military commitment.
Bashar Assad is now seeking to spin his battlefield victory into an even greater propaganda victory. Palmyra and its famous ruler Zenobia have long held special significance to the Assad regime as symbols of Arab nationalism and resistance to the West. The recapture of Palmyra allows him to counter allegations that he entered into a tacit nonaggression pact with ISIS in order to defeat the Western-backed Free Syrian Army first. It also him to sell his fight to stay in power as a war by the forces of civilization against the barbarians who threaten it.
The first step in the media offensive was to bring a parade of foreign journalists into Palmyra to photograph destroyed ancient ruins and shattered statues in the Palmyra Museum. These photographs allowed an assessment of the damage done to archaeological remains, but as more and more news stories were filed a definite pattern emerged. Story after story focused solely on the ancient ruins. Photo spreads showed only photographs of the damaged and undamaged archaeological remains rather than the rubble of the modern town. Articles quoted only Syrian antiquities officials or western scholars and never quoted anyone currently living in the modern town of Tadmor.
A few photos surfaced of areas of the town adjacent to the ruins. The commonly circulated explanation was that ISIS had seeded both the modern town and the ruins with mines. No one asked why the ruins were de-mined first.
Is the way this story has been covered an example of western priorities which grant the remains of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic past a higher status than its present inhabitants? Or can journalists only photograph and write about what they are allowed to see?
The next step came when Russia’s Hermitage Museum offered to aid the restoration of Palmyra. Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky declared that “restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us.” Iran quickly followed suit. Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim called for “archaeologists and experts everywhere to come work with us because this site is part of the heritage of all humanity.” The Syrian regime liberated Palmyra and now seeks to present itself as a defender of global civilization. One group of reporters who visited Palmyra were even told by a Syrian officer that “The Syrian army is defending Rome and London in as much as it is defending Damascus.”
A third step came on March 31 when Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin delivered a letter to the Security Council alleging that “The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$ 150-200 million per year.” No evidence was cited to support this figure, which he appears to have made up, and it can be safely said that the figure is absurdly high. My own open source analysis concluded ISIS has made a few million dollars at most from the sale of looted antiquities and antiquities make up a relatively small source of funds for the group. I have seen nothing in the past three months that contradicts this assessment.
(The letter also included a number of allegations that Turkey is a major transshipment point for looted artifacts, which is already well known, and claims that Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi is currently administering ISIS’ antiquities division, which would be rather difficult for him to do since he has been dead for almost a year).
This was followed by an announcement on April 1 by the state news agency SANA that government troops had uncovered a mass grave containing 42 bodies, including three children.
These attempts to shape the media narrative are notable not so much for what they include as for what they leave out. There is little discussion of the destruction wrought by indiscriminate aerial bombing of the town of Tadmor. Russian airstrikes frequently hit hospitals in rebel-held areas. ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative Weekly Reports are full of information about cultural heritage sites damaged by Russian and Syrian airstrikes.
Before the war, Palmyra was infamous among Syrian Islamists not for the pagan temples but for the notorious Tadmor Military Prison, into which regime opponents frequently disappeared. The prison was the scene of an infamous massacre on June 27, 1980 when, following an assassination attempt against Hafez Assad, soldiers under the command of his brother Rifaat entered the prison and slaughtered over a thousand inmates. After they captured Palmyra in May 2015, before touching any temples or tombs ISIS made a show of destroying Tadmor Prison. No photographs of that pile of rubble have been splashed across the front pages of major western newspapers.
Photos smuggled out from inside Assad’s prisons show that nothing has changed since 1980.
During the occupation of Palmyra by government forces from 2012-2015 the archaeological site was damaged by government forces using bulldozers to construct military positions among the ruins. Tower tombs were frequently looted.
I could go on.
The point is not to engage in reductionist debate about which side is committing worse human rights abuses. The point is to show how recent events are being manipulated by the Assad regime in order to capitalize on the opportunity to gain positive press coverage (not counting Russian and Iranian media) for the first time in five years.
People want to see threatened antiquities saved. Those who save them are hailed as heroes. Western minds and their media have a deep need to find a good guy and a bad guy in every conflict story.
Archaeology has once again been turned into a weapon, one tool of the ideological battlefield alongside many other types of weapons.
 Robbert A.F.L. Woltering, “Zenobia or al-Zabbāʾ: The Modern Arab Literary Reception of the Palmyran Protagonist,” Middle East Literatures 17, No. 1 (2014): 25-42; Christian Sahner, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2014), 133-135.