As if the nearly six-year civil war in Syria couldn't get any worse, it appears that militants with the so-called Islamic State have inflicted further damage to the ancient Roman-era site of Palmyra.
Left: The central section of Palmyra's amphitheater as it appeared in 2016; Right: The same section as it appeared in February 2017. (Image: Russian Ministry of Defence)
The drone footage, released today by the Russian Ministry of Defence, shows the central section of Palmyra's famous amphitheater now lying in ruins. The city's majestic Tetrapylon -- an arrangement of 16 columns at the city's main crossroads -- also appears to have suffered extensive damage. Russia is now warning that ISIS is planning to inflict more damage at the UNESCO Heritage Site. The video, captured in February, contrasts footage taken before and after the Islamic State's most recent offensive in the region.
In addition to holding strategic significance, Palmyra is home to some of the world's most precious and important archaeological sites. The city, once known as the "Pearl of the Desert," dates back to the First and Second Century AD. It contains monumental ruins of what was once an important trade hub, where goods, ideas and culture mingled between the Roman empire and the Far East.
The ancient town first fell to ISIS in May of 2015. The militants held Palmyra for nearly a year, driving out local residents and deliberately destroying portions of the ruins, including many ancient temples. ISIS was eventually driven out by Syrian and Russian forces in March of 2016, but it has since returned. News of new damage surfaced in late December, along with satellite photos in January. The latest Russian drone footage now shows the extent of the damage done; ISIS militants appear to have inflicted serious damage to the facade of the Roman-era amphitheater, while only two of the Tetrapylon's original 16 columns remain standing.
ISIS has damaged other archaeological sites in both Syria and Iraq, perceiving them as monuments to idolatry. The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has characterised the latest demolitions as a "war crime."
The Russian defence ministry says Syrian government troops are now advancing towards the city, and are about 12 miles (20 km) away. Last week, Russian warplanes carried out more than 90 sorties to provide air cover for the offensive. The ministry says it has seen significant truck movement in the area, leading to concerns that ISIS militants are bringing explosives to the site. The Russians have not offered any evidence to corroborate this claim.
As important as it is to get the word out about what's happening in Palmyra, Russia is capitalising on the situation for propaganda purposes. In what was seen as a dramatic publicity stunt, the Russian government flew in an orchestra to play a three-piece concert in the ancient amphitheatre just six weeks after the city was retaken. According to accounts, the sound of outgoing artillery could still be heard as the orchestra was setting up.