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Erasing the Past: ISIS, Palmyra and Doomed History

There is something grimly appropriate about the capture of the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra by a supposedly weakened ISIS. Accounts of history are being settled, unmade and reconstituted. The fundamentalist warriors have never made any secret of their hatred of idolatry – at least of the sort condemned by Quranic edict. Religions of the book have tended to fight wars over that very fact and craven worship of images was always deemed to be a vital point of difference.

What then, of Palmyra, that pearl and bride of the desert supposedly fortified by Solomon? It may be drawn out of existence, just as whole swathes of civilisation were removed under the direction of commissars and revolutionaries inspired by the hammer and sickle.

Generalissimo Stalin was so enthusiastic in his redrawing of the Soviet cultural landscape he destroyed basilicas and religious monuments with committed fanaticism. Chairman Mao did likewise with pre-Communist relics that reeked of feudalistic reminders. The making of history, when done at the end of the barrel of a gun, entails destruction rather than preservation.

That said, it may well be that some of Palmyra’s treasures may be sparred. Parts of it may be hewn and sold off for ready cash. Such acts of philistinism are never purely ideological. ISIS has shown itself to be adept at finding cash reserves for weapons, making contacts, obtaining supplies and profiting from a range of sources.

The sale of antiquities is no more hypocritical on their part than European archaeologists and buccaneers of gravel and stone who carted off good chucks of the ancient world to private collections and museums. Naturally, these efforts have been given ex-post facto legality. All is commodity, all can be monetised, whether one is worshipping a particularly cruel God, or the incentive of culture.

Just as some have argued that saving the Parthenon in Athens was assured by the unscrupulous Lord Elgin in the 19th century, albeit in vast segments, we can be assured, if only in small part, that some aspects of Palmyra will survive. “If Elgin had not intervened,” surmised former criminal barrister Dominic Selwood last year, “they [the Parthenon marbles] would be a mere memory, like the Afghani Buddhas at Bamiyan, dynamited into oblivion by the Taliban in 2001.”

Ancient city of Palmyra. (Ulrich Waack)
Ancient city of Palmyra. (Ulrich Waack)

While ISIS engaged in its own act of historical erasure, the forces marshalled against them are also seeking to write, or at the very least deny, their historical agency in the calamity. As ISIS applies drills and bulldozers to monuments, the spin doctors in Washington, London and Canberra busy themselves with policy rationales for further interventions in the Middle East that ignore the intrusions of fact. They insist on the modern confections so popular in public relations management. No, Iraq did not dissolve into tribal sectarianism because of Western interventions, and in any case, the country is better off without Saddam Hussein. Obviously.

Currently, the game of false representation involves giving impressions that ISIS is being undermined, that it is being held back. Yet ISIS, with less than two hundred soldiers, defeated a garrison of 6,000 Iraqis in Ramadi. With the capture of Palmyra, it now supposedly controls half of Syria, a rather staggering feat for a force weakened by airstrikes. As the Institute for the Study of War suggested, the loss of Palmyra constitutes a “major defeat for the Assad regime that is likely to jeopardise the regime’s ability to maintain a foothold in Deir ez-Zour.”

President Barack Obama’s reaction has been a customary one steeped in illusions: denial. Deny that the war against ISIS, if one can call it that, is not going the way of its enemies. Deny that air strikes and remotely engineered targeting only impair selectively, momentarily scattering forces that regroup and multiply. Overall, claimed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, we had “seen periods of progress and success.”

Ambushed at a press briefing about how successful the effort against ISIS had really been, Earnest decided to speak in riddles. “What we’ve also seen is –we’ve seen a coalition of 60 nations within the region and around the world which has joined the United States in this fight.”

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to also add to the repository of vast illusions by suggesting that the Iraqi Security Forces were “not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi.” Denialism tends to be the great disease of the interventionist. It colours and stains the history of foreign interventions.

The lure of putting boots on ground grows by the day. New York Republican and former Gov. George Pataki said on Wednesday that the United States should commit to destroying the ISIS centres for recruitment, training and “the area where they are looking to plan to attack us here and then get out.” He did not, however, wish “to see us putting in a million soldiers, spend 10 years, a trillion dollars, trying to create a democracy where one hasn’t existed.”

Similar opinions have been voiced by former Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Send in troops, only 10,000 or so, do some fighting and mending, and leave. So simple, till the old trap of Middle Eastern politics ensnares the supposedly more powerful state.

As the conflict continues, other power plays are being made, with the use of Popular Mobilization Units persisting, and in many instances openly backed, by Tehran. Washington insists that Iraqi control over such units must be maintained, but the views from US personnel are becoming less relevant by the day.

All sides in this conflict have mobilised their accountants of history, drawing up ledgers that are going to look rather different a generation from now. For the moment, ISIS is sitting prettily – at least more so than the US-led mission against it would suggest.