The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The problem with rebuilding a Palmyra ruin destroyed by ISIS – does it simply help Assad?

London Mayor Boris Johnson attends the unveiling of a replica of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph in Trafalgar Square on April 19. (Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse)
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London Mayor Boris Johnson unveiled a stunning site in his city's historic Trafalgar Square on Tuesday: a replica of the 2,000-year-old Arch de Triumph from Palmyra, Syria.

The original arch, once part of the internationally famous UNESCO world heritage site in Palmyra, was destroyed in an explosion by the Islamic State after it took control of the city last year. This new 20-foot-tall re-creation of the monument was crafted by the Institute of Digital Archaeology, a joint venture among Harvard University, the University of Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which used 3-D imaging technology to map the arch and digital tools to carve it out of Egyptian marble.

During the unveiling ceremony, Johnson told spectators that they were gathered "in defiance of the barbarians" who destroyed the arch, the BBC reports. But despite the triumphant nature of the day and the clear delight that many had in the rebuilding of the historic ruin, some were concerned about what, exactly, Palmyra had come to represent.

Although few would argue that the ancient sites of Palmyra shouldn't be protected, there are concerns that the city's ancient wonders could become a propaganda tool for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Annie Sartre-Fauriat, an expert on Syrian heritage who works with UNESCO, said the Palmyra site should be evaluated and perhaps restored once the conflict is over.

"For the moment, we should not be fooled of the manipulations of opinion by a bloody dictator," Sartre-Fauriat said.

Syria's government declared just last month that it had forced the Islamic State from Palmyra after a prolonged campaign. "The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism," Assad said at the time.

For Assad and the Syrian regime, the capture of Palmyra seems to have been not only a symbol of the newfound prowess the Syrian military had on the battlefield with Russian air support, but also a claim that Syrians were the only ones who could protect Syria's heritage. Palmyra itself had relatively little strategic value for the Islamic State, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank, told Al Jazeera as the city was liberated. "Palmyra is more important for the regime, symbolically, to present itself as the defender of civilisation against barbarism," Tamimi said.

This message has an international audience, too. The Islamic State's destruction of Palmyra had created a global outcry. Now the Syrian regime and its Russian backers were able to portray themselves as the protectors of the ancient cultural site. In the days after their troops took Palmyra, the Syrian regime quickly took Western journalists to the ancient city to show them what the Islamic State had destroyed and what, by extension, Syrian troops had saved.

In doing so, the Syrian regime was ignoring the damage it had caused to Palmyra, Sartre-Fauriat said. Assad's troops had inflicted their own damage on the site, Sartre-Fauriat explained, firing shells and rockets into ancient sites and also looting graves.

"Assad has never had an interest for history and heritage," Sartre-Fauriat said. "He has never protected any places from looting, destruction or in the perspective of a danger, he has never respected the resolutions of UNESCO on any World Heritage Sites."

Johnson, the mayor of London, was among those Western leaders who offered praise to Assad for saving the ancient site, writing a column for the Telegraph that declared "Bravo for Assad" -- although he also called the Syrian president a "vile tyrant."

Outside of the ruins, Palmyra has long been known as the site of some of the worst excesses of the Assad regime. The city was home to one of the regime's most notorious prisons, called Tadmur. The prison inflicted such horrors upon political prisoners from the late 1970s onward that Faraj Bayrakdar, a Syrian poet who spent four years there, dubbed it "a disgrace for the history of Syria and for all humanity."

Assad is accused of being involved in a variety of alleged war crimes, and many pin responsibility for the continuing Syrian war on his refusal to give up power. Many also believe that Assad's regime allowed the Islamic State and other extremist groups to prosper in a bid to discredit and weaken more moderate rebel groups.

Joseph Willits of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he worried that the attention placed on Palmyra's ruins Tuesday overshadowed the plight of Assad's people. "While the digitally created replica of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph looked glorious in the London sunshine, I cannot help but feel this project plays a role in cementing the idea that Syria's monuments and heritage are far more important than its people," Willits said, noting that Assad's role in the horrors of Syria was not discussed Tuesday.

Alexy Karenowska, the director of technology at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, said that the Syrian government had "no involvement whatsoever in the project" to rebuild the Arch de Triumph and that the project was well underway before the Syrian government retook Palmyra. "Our focus is entirely on the betterment of archaeology and cultural heritage," Karenowska said. "We do not take a political position of any kind nor is it our place to comment on political issues."

However, a representative of the Syrian regime, director of antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim, did attend the event in London on Tuesday. Abdulkarim told the BBC that the ceremony in London was an "action of solidarity." The arch is to stay in London for a few days, before setting off on a tour of global cities and ending up in Syria.

Also in attendance were representatives of the campaign to free Bassel Khartabil, a Palestinian-Syrian software developer and open source activist. Khartabil cared dearly for Palmyra and wanted to help people enjoy Syria's rich history. He had spearheaded a plan to build 3-D models of the city to be posted online for anyone to see as part of the New Palmyra project.

But he isn't able to see the replica of the Arch de Triumph. Khartabil had been held in a Syrian prison since 2012. In October 2015 , he was taken out of his cell by military police, and his family does not know what happened to him. The campaign to free Khartabil hopes that his work on Palmyra could trigger a presidential pardon.

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