The day Palmyra fell to ISIS
Al-Hasakah - It took seven days of fierce battles between the Syrian Army and its allied militias against Islamic State (ISIS) before the militants reached the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, but only four hours of fighting in the city before it was surrendered to the invaders.
As ISIS seized Palmyra, an ancient Syrian city that dates back more than 3,000 years, a crumbling Syrian Army fled, leaving 100,000 vulnerable inhabitants at the mercy of the militants.
“The main reason for our defeat was the American arms used by ISIS in the battles over Palmyra,” one of the fighters allied with the Syrian Army told The Arab Weekly in an interview. He insisted on anonymity.
ISIS is known to have seized large caches of weapons from US-backed opposition groups in Syria and government arsenals in neighbouring Iraq.
ISIS fighters advanced towards Palmyra, from their strongholds of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour. In Raqqa, a witness, also insisting on anonymity over fears for his personal safety, told The Arab Weekly that, in preparation of Palmyra’s seizure, ISIS left the city the night of May 13th in a convoy of 150-armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns.
Advancing ISIS fighters captured Al-Sukhnah, about 40 kilometres north-east of Palmyra, as other militants advanced from Deir ez-Zour form the east.
In Al-Sukhnah, ISIS began its massacres immediately, according to a resident who identified himself as Abu Abdullah. He told The Arab Weekly that militants killed some locals, including policemen, the mayor and some of his workers “using the excuse that they cooperated with the Syrian state”.
With Al-Sukhnah’s fall, Palmyra’s defeat loomed.
ISIS advanced to the northern and eastern gates of Palmyra, grabbing residential neighbourhoods, such as the Ameriyeh district and a nearby compound for army officers.
There, more massacres were carried out, residents said.
“At least 38 people, including women and children, were killed, while many fled to Palmyra as soon as ISIS moved in,” said one of the residents, who insisted on anonymity.
In Palmyra, ISIS had a list of army officials and others allegedly working for the government who it hunted down and killed, according to residents.
They said the men were beheaded and the women were shot.
Abu Abdullah, who fled Al- Sukhnah to Palmyra and then sought refuge with his family in Al- Hasakah, said ISIS set up a religious court that handed down sentences on people, specifically those suspected of having cooperated with the Damascus government.
“If a suspect has two witnesses who testify he was innocent, the court would let go of him but, if not, he would be executed,” Abu Abdullah maintained.
Syrians fleeing the areas said they saw dozens of corpses on the ground. Speeding cars escaping the area ran over some of the bodies.
Residents told The Arab Weekly that ISIS banned people from leaving for Homs or Damascus but allowed them to head to Raqqa, which is under its control.
The residents said ISIS imposed $1,700 exit fee on every individual leaving Palmyra, provided that the person was not with the army nor working for the government. Women were told to have escorts.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent body monitoring Syria’s civil war, said May 25th that ISIS killed 262 people, including children, in the battle over Palmyra. It said some of those killed were accused of acting as government informers or hiding regime members in their homes.
Palmyra itself could become one of ISIS’ next casualties. ISIS despises antiquity, since it represents culture that predates Islam, and extremist militants have vandalised many of the most ancient artefacts of humanity in Iraq and Syria. The militant group flattened the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed statues in Iraq’s Mosul Museum.
Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was an ancient cultural crossroad city known to be inhabited since at least 2000BC. Its art and architecture combines Greek, Roman and Persian influences.
The government, including army officials, said some of Palmyra’s artefacts and sculptures were moved to Damascus three days before ISIS captured the city. Prisoners at the notorious Palmyra jail were also taken elsewhere.
Officials suggested some of the militants who captured Palmyra were from Iraq’s vast western desert province of Anbar, which has been under ISIS control for several months. They told The Arab Weekly that the US-made armoured vehicles and the other vehicles ISIS used in the battle for Palmyra are usually seen only in Iraq.