Expanding Foothold, Islamic State Captures Syria's Ancient Palmyra After Fall of Iraq's Ramadi

May 21, 2015


Charles Glass

former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His latest book is titled Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring.

Image Credit: Reuters

The self-described Islamic State has seized control of the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. Palmyra is home to some of the world’s most renowned historic structures and is classified as a World Heritage Site. There are fears it could see the same fate as other cities where ISIL has destroyed ancient cultural sites and artifacts. With Palmyra’s capture, ISIL now reportedly controls more than half of Syrian territory. The seizing of Palmyra in Syria comes as the U.S. has launched airstrikes and expedited weapons shipments for the campaign to dislodge ISIL from the Iraqi city of Ramadi. ISIL seized Ramadi on Sunday, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands to flee. Iranian-backed Shiite militias are staging a counteroffensive to retake the city. We are joined by Charles Glass, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent and author of "Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Fighters from the self-described Islamic State now control more than half of Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The announcement was made after the Islamic State seized control of both the ancient and modern cities of Palmyra in central Syria. Palmyra is home to some of the world’s most renowned historic sites, including the Temple of Ba’al, an ancient theater and a 2,000-year-old colonnade. The fall of Palmyra comes just days after fighters from the Islamic State seized control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. The Islamic State attacked the city by sending in a wave of 30 suicide car bombs. Ten of the vehicles were packed with enough bomb-making materials to carry out explosions the size of the blast of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

AMY GOODMAN: Iranian-backed Shiite militias are now staging a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi. The United States has begun carrying out aerial bombings to support the effort. Former State Department official Ramzy Mardini told the Military Times, quote, "The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against ISIS." The United States has also expedited shipment of 1,000 additional AT4 anti-tank weapons for Iraqi forces.

Joining us now is Charles Glass, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His latest book is titled Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring.

Charles, first address this latest news that the self-proclaimed Islamic State has moved from Ramadi and has now taken over the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, and that ISIS now controls more than half of Syria.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, it hasn’t moved from Ramadi. The Islamic State is fighting a two-front war, one in the east against the Iraqi army and the peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government, and then in the west against the Syrian army. They have substantial forces on both sides so that they’re able to attack in both places and, as now we’ve seen with Palmyra and Ramadi falling, successfully to fight this two-front war. The fact that they can do this means that they’re—they have not given up, they have not retreated. There were hopes in Iraq that there would be an attempt to retake Mosul—obviously, that is going to wait—while Baghdad itself is protected, because Ramadi is so close to Baghdad. And in Syria, taking Palmyra or the town of Tadmur next to Palmyra, where there was a notorious prison where there were many Islamist prisoners, is a major coup for them. But when we say that half of Syria is now under ISIS control, what that means is that half the territories, but three-quarters of the population is still under government control.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Charlie Glass, could you talk about the significance of Palmyra? I mean, not only is it the site of these ancient ruins, but it is also close to the oil and gas fields, which the Syrian government uses to generate electricity for a part of the country.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, ISIS had already last year taken oil and gas fields near Raqqa, which is its—the capital of the Islamic caliphate. So this is simply expanding their access to more crude oil, which they are selling extremely cheaply on the world market through Turkey.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And do you think—there’s been some concern expressed that ISIS will gain revenue, possibly, from the illegal trafficking of the antiquities that are there in Palmyra?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, ISIS and the other extreme Islamic group, the Nusra Front, have been selling antiquities from northern Syria for the past couple of years. It’s nothing new. Traders are coming down from Turkey to buy the most valuable artifacts and then sell them in Turkey and in Europe. This will simply increase the plunder. So what they don’t sell, they will destroy, saying that they’re destroying idols. And they particularly would like to destroy pre-Islamic Roman structures that are in Palmyra. Palmyra is in the middle of the desert; it’s not really easily accessible from anywhere. But it is a most beautiful ancient city, which, if they behave the way they behaved in ancient cities in Iraq, won’t be there anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: The Syrian antiquities chief said hundreds of statues had been moved from the historic, ancient city of Palmyra to locations safe from Islamic State militants, who managed to take control of areas today. He called on the international community to help protect the ancient site.

MAAMOUN ABDULKARIM: [translated] It is an international battle. If IS succeeds, it will not be a victory against only the Syrian people, but one against America, China, France, Britain and Russia and all the permanent members in the Security Council, as well as the international community. They must at least prevent the advance of any reinforcement to the groups that have already crept into the city.

AMY GOODMAN: The city is called Palmyra, or Palmyra, by some. But talk about what this means even beyond Palmyra in Syria. You wrote a book on this, Charles Glass, that’s just been published, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring.

CHARLES GLASS: The military conflict between the Syrian government and its Islamist opponents, this is part of the seesaw that’s been going on since the war began. The regime makes gains in certain areas, and the Islamists retreat, then the Islamists make gains. And this is a measure of the inability of either side to defeat the other. So, the fall of Palmyra militarily doesn’t mean very much. From there, there aren’t many places to strike out. However, psychologically, it means a lot because it’s an important part of Syrian and human civilization. But militarily, the struggle will go on. This war could go on for years as each side takes and loses territory, conquers and loses control of populations, and drives—and particularly with the Islamists, drives populations out of their homes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you say, Charlie Glass, to the fact that the antiquities chief also asked for more international help to help protect Palmyra? Do you feel that there should be a more robust international military intervention now to prevent the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s military successes?

CHARLES GLASS: I’m not sure what the antiquities chief in Syria meant when he said that there should be intervention, if he means military intervention or if he means UNESCO should act to rescue those—the things that can be moved and taken to a safe place, in safer parts of Syria or outside Syria, until the war is over. I’m not sure. It would be, I think, very demoralizing for Syrian people to see an international military intervention to protect ruins, but not to protect the 50,000 people who live around those ruins in the city of Tadmur. It would be saying—it would be a way of saying to the Syrian people, "Your lives are not important, but these stones are." And that would probably reinforce the Islamic Front’s propaganda that the world doesn’t really care about you, but we do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Charles Glass, talk about what is happening now in Syria. What is happening with Assad, who is still the ruler? What are the different alliances that are forming, and then the role of the West, like the United States?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, the alliances in Syria haven’t changed much. I mean, the Iranians and the Russians still back the Assad regime, and the United States, indirectly, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are supporting the opposition. The United States says it’s supporting a mythical moderate, non-Islamist opposition. But the weapons that it gives to those people end up in the hands of ISIS or the Nusra Front, anyway, as soon as they cross the border. The balance of forces, in that sense, have not changed for the last two years.

I think that one of the problems that the United States has is it has two different policies in this war. It is confronting actively IS in Iraq, because the United States supports the regime in Baghdad, but is allowing its client states—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—to support that same IS against a regime in Damascus that it doesn’t like because of its alliance with Iran and Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the role of Saudi Arabia here?

CHARLES GLASS: Saudi Arabia’s role has been consistent from the beginning. It wanted to see Assad thrown out, and it would—it was giving funding and arms to anyone who would do that. And because of its own particular Wahhabist ideological bent, it gave the bulk of those supplies to people like that. And those were the people who formed the major—the two major Islamist groups in Syria, the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what do you think accounts for the fact that U.S. policy is different in Iraq than it is from Syria?

CHARLES GLASS: As I said, they want the regime in Damascus to fall because of its relationship with Iran, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its alliance with Russia. They want that regime to go. In Baghdad, they want the regime, since they set it up after the invasion of 2003—they want that regime to stay. But the problem is, these two regimes, in Baghdad and Damascus, are the forces opposed to the Islamic Front, and it’s the Islamic Front that wants to overthrow both of them. So, until there’s a coordination of forces—the Syrian army in the west, the Iraqi army and the Kurds in east—to have a coherent strategy to squeeze the Islamists in the middle, the war will go on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of the U.S. announcing that special forces had conducted a rare raid against a senior Islamic State figure at his residence in Omar, in Syria’s oil-rich southeast, commandos killing Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian jihadi described as a manager of the Islamic State’s oil and gas operations, which has been a significant source of income for the organization?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, I’m not sure what your question is. I don’t—you just—

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of them killing him in this rare raid on his home?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, if it’s true, then it’s an attempt to cut off some of their supply of money, because they’re using that to fight the Iraqi army and have successes like the one they’ve just had in Ramadi, if—that’s if it’s true. I mean, a lot of these reports that come out, they’re impossible to verify, because there’s only one source for that—for that story.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I also wanted to ask about Iraq. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke acknowledged the loss of Ramadi was a setback, but pledged continued U.S. support.

JEFF RATHKE: We’ve always known that the fight would be long and difficult, especially in Anbar province. And so there’s no denying that this is a setback, but there’s also no denying that the United States will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi. As of today, we are supporting the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq with precision airstrikes and advice to the Iraqi forces. Our aircraft are in the air searching for ISIL targets, and they will continue to do so until Ramadi is retaken

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The fall of Ramadi came despite weeks of U.S. airstrikes and is considered one of ISIL’s biggest victories since it seized territory across Iraq last June. Speaking Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he expects the Islamic State’s gains to be reversed.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: In addition, their communications have been reduced, their funding and financial mechanisms have been reduced, and their movements, by and large, in—most certainly where there are air patrols and other capacities, have been reduced. But that’s not everywhere. And so, it is possible to have the kind of attack we’ve seen in Ramadi. But I am absolutely confident, in the days ahead, that will be reversed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Charlie Glass, that was John Kerry speaking on Tuesday. So could you talk about this question of whether the U.S. should now engage—I mean, even the Iraqi government has said that they need more military assistance to be able to fight the Islamic State. And because, as you pointed out, the U.S. is supporting the Iraqi government, whereas of course it’s not doing so with the Assad regime in Syria, do you think that the U.S. should now consider perhaps troops in Iraq?

CHARLES GLASS: It seems to me obvious that the first measure should be to deprive the Islamic State of its arms and money from—coming through Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States. It can close that border. It has not closed that border. The United States has not forced it to close that border. Until that border is closed, it has free and easy access to supplies and to funding and to places for its fighters to receive medical treatment and to get rest when they need it. Without that, they’re going to find themselves surrounded by the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and the Kurds, with no lines for outside—no lines of communication for outside support. I would think that if the United States wants to stay out of another war in the Middle East, which I think most of the public does want, that the correct strategy would be to cut off the supplies and the funding through Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, you’re in France, and on June 2nd, ministers from members of the coalition fighting the Islamic State will meet in Paris to devise strategies to reverse recent losses. What do you think needs to happen, as we look from Iraq to Syria?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, first, as I said, to cut—to close the border. Second, there has to be coordination among the Syrians, the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Americans, who are all actively involved in opposing the Islamic State. Without that kind of coordination, it’s not going to work, because the—as we see, that the Islamic State can effectively pick which side it’s going to fight at which time and then go after the other side when it suits it. At the moment, it’s setting the agenda. I think that this coordination is vital. I think also it’s vital to bring an end to the war in Syria through discussions between the United States and the Russians. So, the United States supporting the opposition, the Russians supporting the regime, if they can come to an agreement between themselves, that would be a huge step forward, that they want—if they do indeed want to bring peace to Syria rather than simply force their own agenda at the expense of the Syrian people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Charlie Glass, you mentioned the question of funding and cutting off funding and closing the border. In your book, you conclude your book, Syria Burning, by citing an Arab diplomat in Damascus who said about support for the Islamic State, "It’s like the lion tamer. He feeds and trains the lion, but the lion might kill him at the right moment." So, given this concern, is it your view that countries like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, etc., have now relinquished funding, military and financial, to the Islamic State?

CHARLES GLASS: No, clearly, they haven’t stopped funding and supplying them. The Turks are still allowing fighters to go through their border and to take part in fighting in Syria and Iraq. No, that simply hasn’t happened. It probably should happen. I think one of the fears that all of the backers of these two big Islamic groups have is that if the fighting in Syria stops, that they’ll come home and make problems for them at home. In a way, the Saudis, by encouraging these people to fight in Syria against what they see as an idolatrous, Alawite, non-Muslim regime is a way of making sure they don’t come back and make problems in Saudi Arabia itself. And the Turks also would be very worried if some of these fighters decide to go after Turkey and try to set up an Islamic State in Turkey, or indeed any of the countries that have supported IS.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to finally turn to the comments made by former Florida governor, Republican presidential hopeful and first brother Jeb Bush. Speaking Wednesday, he suggested the Obama administration’s policies led to the creation of the Islamic State.

JEB BUSH: ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president. There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure, but the surge created a fragile, but stable, Iraq that the president could have built on, and it would have not allowed a ISIS, or ISIL.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, your final comment to Jeb Bush?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, he is right that President Obama did allow the Islamic Front to be created during his term of office, but he’s also minimizing the role that al-Qaeda in Iraq played in being the nucleus of IS and of the Nusra Front, both. While they did go underground during the surge, they didn’t disappear. And by the way, they did not exist before the American invasion under Bush’s brother took place in 2003. They didn’t exist at all. They are a function of that invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, we want to thank you for being with us, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His latest book is titled Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, crime spree on Wall Street, but who goes to jail? Stay with us.

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