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ISIS Takes Control Of Syria's Ancient City Of Palmyra


ISIS appears to have achieved another important strategic victory, this time in Syria. Extremists have flooded into the central city of Palmyra. That is home to precious historical artifacts, including magnificent Roman ruins. And there's serious concern that ISIS will destroy them. NPR's Alice Fordham is monitoring this from Beirut, and she's on the line with us. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: What do you know about what's happening in Palmyra?

FORDHAM: Well, there's been a lot of fighting there for weeks. Over the weekend, it seemed like the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had pushed ISIS out. But now it seems ISIS have quite decisively taken over the city and nearby gas fields. Regime forces have reportedly been pushed to the east and the west, where there's speculation they will be evacuated. Though, they could conceivably still push back. Assad's planes are still conducting airstrikes. We've spoken with someone with family in the city who confirms the regime forces disappeared yesterday. Now the urban areas are controlled by ISIS. Some people were evacuated. But he says there's still tens of thousands left. But most of them haven't been harmed. Some people have left their houses and moved around the city unmolested by ISIS. In fact, ISIS handed out bread to people. But people are afraid of airstrikes. They're hiding in their basements. And some eyewitnesses reported that this morning, they saw decapitated regime soldiers on the streets of the city. And this is pretty typical behavior for the group. When they take a new place, they attack members of the security forces, representatives of the government. But they try to reassure local people; they want them to stay. They want to be holding and maintaining populated urban areas.

MONTAGNE: Well, one other thing they do, as we know, is destroy or steal antiquities. And you've been to Palmyra in the past. This is a UNESCO world heritage site. Talk to us about that history.

FORDHAM: Yeah, it was a wonderful place. We referred to Roman ruins, but actually, it's a little bit more than that. It was way out on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. And it was on the Silk Road, so it was on the trading routes from cities further east, like Samarkand. And caravans would come through with silk and jewels and spices and all the things that they would trade from the East. And the city itself, today, because it was in the desert, because it was so hot and dry there, because the new urban development hasn't really encroached on it, it's kind of still there. You're not going to see, like, a temple or an amphitheater. It's the whole skeleton of this magnificent city with colonnaded avenues and so one. And you can climb up a nearby hill, and it doesn't take very much to kind of imagine the people coming and going 2,000 years ago. It was an amazing place.

MONTAGNE: Well, the U.N. and others have called on international parties to do what they can to save Palmyra. But what are the options?

FORDHAM: They are complicated there, Renee, 'cause the U.S.-led coalition still condemns the Assad regime as brutal and illegitimate. And it doesn't want to be seen to be supporting his forces. And most of the anti-ISIS airstrikes have taken place in areas that the regime pulled out of quite some time ago. But to strike in Palmyra, where the army has just left, would be seen as directly supporting Assad's forces. And Palmyra itself is actually kind of emblematic, in a way, of this dilemma because in Syria, the town is famous for two things - the ruins, which most people agree are now under threat and should be saved and are precious, but also the prison, which was notorious as the place any kind of dissident was sent to be tortured, a central part of this oppressive regime for which Assad is condemned and which the U.S. doesn't want to be seen supporting. Plus, of course, the group is once again now within a civilian population center, which the coalition would usually try not to bomb, so as to avoid civilian casualties.

MONTAGNE: Alice, thanks.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.