In 2015, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the renowned city of Palmyra, which was then under the control of the Syrian regime. The subsequent battles between ISIS and the Syrian regime over Palmyra led to the devastation of the modern city and the displacement of its 100,000 inhabitants.
The majority of the civilians who were displaced did not manage to go back because of their fear of reprisals from the Syrian regime militias and the continued presence of ISIS militants in the surrounding desert. The return of these local people to Palmyra will be a cornerstone in any attempt to rehabilitate the ruined city and revive its tourist industry after the war. But the obstacles to that return show no sign of being resolved.
Palmyrenes are fearful of the regime and its allied militias
Following the battles between ISIS and the Syrian regime, many of the displaced people avoided taking refuge in regime-controlled areas, fatigued by living under a repressive regime and distrustful of how they would be treated as internally displaced people. Only a small minority were allowed to stay in Homs, while the majority of these displaced people were dispersed between the governorate of Idlib and the al-Rukban refugee camp.
Since 2015, the regime militias, accompanied by other Iranian militias and Russian military advisers, have commandeered different houses in the city of Palmyra for use as military bases. Some locals who made it back to Palmyra recently found militias that spoke a foreign language occupying their homes. These locals avoided conflict with the foreign fighters even though some of the foreign fighters were living in their houses and using their furniture. The locals’ response was to avoid confrontation and leave Palmyra.
Despite the regime’s state media claiming that it is encouraging locals to go back to Palmyra, this return is happening on a very small scale and only for those who have connections with the regime and fought alongside its national defence militias. Encouraging these particular people to go back is an attempt to strengthen the regime’s presence in Palmyra, enabling it to withdraw some of the militias from Palmyra to fight at the frontlines in Hama and Idlib.
Palmyrenes who live in al-Rukban refugee camp, who were promised amnesty by the regime if they return to Palmyra, have been arrested, some killed, while others have been conscripted into fighting with the regime’s militias. Those who returned from Idlib without permission have been exposed to arrests and disappearances.
Incidents like these and the previous experiences of living under the regime will continue to play in an important role in deterring people from going back even if they live under extremely difficult conditions in al-Rukban refugee camp and the rural areas of Idlib.
ISIS in the desert surrounding Palmyra
Since the beginning of its activity in Syria, ISIS has been active in the mountainous areas to the north of Palmyra. When the group captured Palmyra in the middle of May 2015, it executed approximately 500 locals, including Khaled al-Assad, the director of the Department of Antiquities in the city, accusing them of being collaborators with the regime.
Although ISIS has been driven out of Palmyra, the group continues to have a strong presence in the surrounding desert, particularly in the mountain of Abu Rujmain, which has deep natural caves which makes it suitable for hiding. The group’s active militias in this area have arrested and killed many Palmyrene sheep herders and truffle gatherers.
Moreover, using hit-and-run attacks, the group has killed dozens of Syrian army soldiers around Palmyra since their withdrawal from the city in 2017, and captured some of their armoured vehicles and machine guns.
During its lifespan in Syria, the group attracted more than 150 youths from Palmyra itself who became active members in the group, providing intelligence and logistical information about the city and its inhabitants. Even regime loyalists, protected by the regime’s militias, returning to Palmyra would be concerned that their identity could berevealed to ISIS by these local members.
These local members of the group played an important role in creating a ‘death list’ before ISIS captured Palmyra in 2015 and 2016. They also have knowledge of the desert routes that enabled the group to capture Palmyra, which could potentially enable them to sneak into the city and kidnap some of its people.
The continued presence of ISIS militias in the surrounding mountainous areas of Palmyra and the local members among its ranks are constant reminders of the group’s ability to retake the city, which it did in December 2016 when they massacred dozens of locals, accusing them of being supporters of the regime.
Lack of sincere action
The return of local Palmyrenes to their hometown in the near future seems far-fetched. Regime loyalists who live in Homs and Damascus are terrified about the prospects of ISIS resurging and taking over their city again, while those who oppose the regime are certain that they will be persecuted by the regime militias if they go back. The recent cases of arrests and disappearances of returnees from Idlib and al-Rukban refugee camp shows that the current regime is not keen on allowing people to return to Palmyra unless they constitute part of its support base.
The regime has announced on more than occasion that it wants to restore the archaeological site and activate the tourist industry in the city. However, unless the official plans to rebuild the world heritage site are accompanied by sincere action from the Syrian state to allow the safe return of local people regardless of their political background, any attempt to rebuild Palmyra will founder.