If they can’t sell it, they’ll blow it up. That’s been the modus operandi for Islamists for decades. It happened to the giant Buddha statues of Afghanistan, tombs in Mali and museums in occupied Iraq. The idols are to be smashed. The smaller antiquities are to be sold on the black market to collectors and hawkers. There is no heritage but Islam.
Recently, Islamic State forces were reported as advancing on the ruins of ancient Palmyra, an oasis kingdom that flourished in the pre-Roman Levant, and became the capital of a separatist empire under Queen Zenobia during the Third Century Crisis. The ruins are a beautiful example of ancient Near Eastern architecture and probably some sort of world heritage UNESCO thing. And they’re part of Syrian history and identity.
Ok great. But now there’s this clamoring that we need to save Palmyra, four years into the Syrian proxy war. As it turns out, you have to make tactical decisions in foreign affairs. You fucked up, concerned Westerners. By supporting “moderate” and “pro-democracy” forces against the de jure government of Syria, the Assad regime, you have created a vacuum. And that vacuum was deftly exploited by what are essentially Sunni nationalists. And they don’t like pagan and idolatrous history. That is not part of the identity they want to create. They are iconoclasts and supremacists.
The message, ideology, resources and recruiting power of the Islamic State dwarf that of any of their disparate domestic rivals, except the de jure government. If you want to save a country’s physical heritage, you need stability, not civil war. Support for the rebels has lead to every inch of sand taken by the Islamic State, whether intentional on the behalf of moderate-supporters or not.
The other way to save Palmyra is, quite simply, to take it. Countless artifacts from around the world are currently held in Western museums, safe from the violence and instability of third worlders. The Ishtar Gate that once guarded the entrance to Babylon is in Berlin, not Iraq. It cannot be destroyed by terrorists unless its German curators were to become grossly incompetent.
So there you have it. You could have saved Palmyra by remaining neutral, or you can save it by imperialism. Your choice, international community. Your choice.