National Security & Defense

The Fall of Palmyra Is a Strategic, Historical, and Human Loss

Palmyra is a place seemingly designed for an Islamic State purge.

After all, Palmyra is one of the great treasures of the world, a living museum for multiple civilizations, a city embodying everything that the Islamic State is not. It is a place of incredible archaeological diversity — of ancient temples and theaters — an amalgam that testifies to the magnificent complexity of Middle Eastern history. It stands as proof of the power of trade to build great civilizations from nothing. Truly, whatever the moral failings of the cultures enshrined in its ruins, Palmyra is remarkable. But as Sayyid Qutb’s musings attest, Palmyra is a place that all Salafi-jihadists would naturally abhor.

And now it belongs to the Islamic State.

Of course, some — like the “hair on fire” White House (Josh Earnest’s inopportune choice of words) — will likely claim that Palmyra’s fall is a transient defeat: something for the Syrians to worry about and everyone else to basically ignore. Think again. Palmyra’s loss is, unequivocally, a major problem for all of us.

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For a start, in basic strategic terms, Palmyra provides IS with extraordinary strategic mobility. The death cult now controls the highways that link Palmyra to the Islamic State capital in Raqqa, and to the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Al Qa’im. In turn, the highway from Al Qa’im cuts across Anbar province to Ramadi (which matters), and then on to nearby Baghdad. Oh, and Palmyra also offers an arterial highway link to the Syrian cities of Homs and . . . Damascus. 

The loss of Palmyra is an unmistakable tragedy for the world history that now is almost surely going to be obliterated.

In short, Palmyra’s collapse poses a bit of an issue. If only — as I and others have long suggested — we’d supported the Sunni tribes of Dei ez-Zor and Anbar.

What’s more, the loss of Palmyra is an unmistakable tragedy for the world history that now is almost surely going to be obliterated. Believing that civilizational diversity is an affront to their ludicrous interpretation of Mohammed’s divine order, the Islamic State will now sell or shatter the vestiges of Palmyra’s ancient past. And they’ll do so with pride. They seek a world of Islamic purity in which individuality (and the history of individuality) is subjugated to the rule of a few frothing psychopaths.

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#related#Of course, in that there is also hope. If any good can be found in this looming double-edged atrocity against history and peoples, it is the fact that the Islamic State will once again show their true colors. While al-Baghdadi’s hordes claim the mantle of Sunni emancipation and theological honor, by desecrating Palmyra the fanatics would again display their truly despicable nature. They offer nothing but a kingdom of ignorance, despair, and death — one in which which slavery is worshipped and freedom is, quite literally, stoned into oblivion. With time, this existential impotence will invite the Islamic State’s inevitable demise.

Unfortunately, time is currently on their side. While the Islamic State’s defeat is indeed inevitable, President Obama’s ludicrous strategy is giving the murderers the space to spread their mayhem, as Palmyra will no doubt soon discover. And some of what they do cannot be undone.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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