Leaders: Palmyra proves there is no easy Syrian solution

Part of the remains of the Triumph Arc monument that was destroyed by Islamic State. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Part of the remains of the Triumph Arc monument that was destroyed by Islamic State. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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ASSAD’S retaking of the city from IS is welcome in the short term but looking ahead, we face new complications in terrible civil war

The rescue of Palmyra from the ravages of Islamic State is to be welcomed. The wanton destruction of the World Heritage site simply reinforced the barbaric group’s credentials as a mediaeval cult. There can be no doubt about the significance of IS being driven from Palmyra, but it heralds some very difficult decisions for the international coalition ranged against IS in Syria and Iraq.

It was, of course, the forces of President Bashar al-Assad which re-rook the psychologically important town. A statement from the Kremlin said that President Assad accepted his forces could not have achieved this victory without Russian air support, and that is certainly true . Although president Vladimir Putin did announce that he was withdrawing some of his forces, the ones still there are very capable of making the difference for Assad’s forces. One of the positives the international coalition will take from Palmyra is that at least Putin was using his aircraft against IS and not against the Syrian groups it backs for a change.

The re-taking of Palmyra by his forces means that Assad will be even more unwilling to make any concessions to the faltering peace talks in Geneva. As far as he is concerned he (with Putin’s help) is now winning.

For IS, the fall of Palmyra will be a strategic blow given its location on the road between the capital, Damascus, and the contested city of Deir al-Zour, but it will be a bigger psychological blow. Up until recently, not only was IS the usual victor, when it did lose it bounced back and made significant gains. Although it is a long way from imminent defeat, it is unlikely that IS has the resources to come back militarily from this setback.

But it will have to stage some sort of response, and the sad fact is that that will probably include even greater use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq – but is also likely to bring more terror attacks like the outrages so recently perpetrated in Brussels and Istanbul.

So the coalition countries will have that do deal with – but meanwhile Palmyra and the Russian backing of Assad’s successful forces raises some more difficult choices.

The leaders of Europe and Turkey are looking for the quickest way of annihilating IS in order to best protect their populations from growing terror attacks, and establishing peace in Syria to begin the end of the migrant crisis. The dilemma for them is that Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, are now on the front foot in the battle and lining up the other Syrian rebels to co-ordinate attacks would be the best strategy militarily.

But that would leave the possibility of a defeated IS but Assad still in power. Would that bring peace to Syria? Will Assad and his Russian allies then turn their considerable firepower on the other Syrian groups they call “terrorists”. How could the Gulf states and the West, who have backed these organisations, thole that? Does this have the potential of pitching the West and the Gulf states against Russia?

There is much to be resolved but it would appear Mr Putin’s intervention may be telling.

We must acknowledge past crimes

Agnes Sampson was a midwife who lived at Nether Keith near Haddington. She was also a Catholic. In 1591 she was accused of various acts of witchcraft. After being tortured she confessed to many things including dancing with the devil in a North Berwick church. She was strangled then burnt at the stake in a public spectacle at Edinburgh’s Castelhill.

She was just one of more than 4,000 people tried by the state for witchcraft over a period of two centuries. Around 75 per cent of all accused were women. For many it was about religion, some were mentally ill, some were just plain unlucky when a curse made in anger appeared to come true or they were at the centre of unexplained events. Sometimes is was just neighbours settling old scores in a very nasty way.

It seems bizarre to us now – the idea of belief in witchcraft and the hysteria surrounding it are not a part of the modern scientific world. There might even be a view that it is best not to acknowledge what was done in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries because it all seems just so ridiculous, best to just ignore it. But it resulted in the torture and death of many innocent people at the hands of the state and it was a very real and very dark part of our history. Worryingly it continued as part of our legal system until not all that long ago. The Witchcraft Act 1735 was famously used to prosecute fraudulent medium Helen Duncan in 1941, who received a jail sentence for her crime. The act was only repealed in 1951.

So it is right and fitting that we acknowledge the victims of the past, and the Edinburgh World Heritage suggestion of a new landmark being created on the Castle esplanade would seem to be an appropriate place.