I suppose it is bizarre to feel such joy at the military success of one of the vilest regimes on earth. But I cannot conceal my elation as the news comes in from Palmyra and it is reported that the Syrian army is genuinely back in control of the entire Unesco site.
There may be booby traps in the ruins, but the terrorists are at last on the run. Hooray, I say. Bravo – and keep going. Yes, I know. Assad is a monster, a dictator. He barrel-bombs his own people. His jails are full of tortured opponents. He and his father ruled for generations by the application of terror and violence – and yet there are at least two reasons why any sane person should feel a sense of satisfaction at what Assad’s troops have accomplished.
The first is that no matter how repulsive the Assad regime may be – and it is – their opponents in Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) are far, far worse. These are the people who have carved out this foul statelet in the desert, this dark star whose tractor beam of evil has sucked in so many pathetic would-be jihadists from Britain and other countries in western Europe. These are the nutjobs whose hideous ideology expressed itself again last week at Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station.
They somehow claim a religious justification for the murder and maiming of hundreds of innocent civilians. Assad’s regime may be thuggish and brutal and callous and evil in its own way. But these people are warped and sick almost beyond belief. They burn people alive – simply for holding to a slightly different version of Islam. They throw gays off cliffs or out of windows. They put their opponents in cages and then lower those cages into swimming pools, all filmed to the accompaniment of their droning music and their pompous commentary.
They are engaged in what can only be called genocide of the poor Yazidis (though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide). They are a threat to our security in Europe; they are a nightmare for the people of Syria. If ever a group of terrorists deserved to be wiped off the face of the Earth, to be expunged from the roll of the human race – that group is Isil.
And then there is a second reason why I rejoice at the news from Palmyra – and although I am aware that for many people this is a very secondary consideration, it is, for me, of deep emotional importance. The victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology, a victory for all those who care about the ancient monuments of one of the most amazing cultural sites on Earth. The monsters of Isil were not just content to murder anyone who refused to accept their barbaric version of Islam. They were so small, so narrow, so stunted in their understanding of the will of God that they regarded any pre-Islamic building or structure – no matter how beautiful – as being somehow a blasphemy. They have mined, bombed and demolished some of the most sublime buildings in the world. They took the devoted curator of the site, Khaled al-Assad, and punished him for his scholarship by killing him in the amphitheatre.
The period in which Isil has held Palmyra – now almost a year – has been a moral and cultural catastrophe. And yes, that is why I am glad that they have been driven from the site.
On April 19, we in London will show our solidarity with Palmyra by erecting in Trafalgar Square a digitally reproduced copy of the 15-metre gateway of the Temple of Bel. The project is being led by the Institute of Digital Archaeology, and it is a joint venture with Harvard, Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future.
It will not be perfect. It will not be made of the same pinkish-golden stone of that original temple gateway, which Isil has blown to atoms. It will be made of resin. But it will still look amazing, and it will symbolise our collective determination – across the world – to put this ghastly epoch behind us, and to remember that for almost 2,000 years there was a willingness on the part of every conqueror who came to Palmyra to enjoy the architecture for what it was.
That temple was sacred once to Bel; then it was a church in the Byzantine period; and then it was a mosque. No one, until these sickos, thought to destroy it. I am glad the gateway will be going up in London, because I hope it will also be a sign of our British determination to be useful in the reconstruction of the country.
It is alas very hard to claim that the success of the Assad forces is a result of any particular British or indeed Western policy. How could it be? We rightly loathe his regime and what it stands for, and for the last few years we have been engaged in an entirely honourable mission to build an opposition to Assad that was not composed simply of Isil. That effort has not worked, not so far.
It has been Putin who with a ruthless clarity has come to the defence of his client, and helped to turn the tide. If reports are to be believed, the Russians have not only been engaged in air strikes against Assad’s opponents, but have been seen on the ground as well. If Putin’s troops have helped winkle the maniacs from Palmyra, then (it pains me to admit) that is very much to the credit of the Russians. They have made the West look ineffective; and so now is the time for us to make amends, and to play to our strengths.
We have some of the greatest archaeological experts in the world. I hope that the Government will fund them to go to Syria and help the work of restoration. It is far cheaper than bombing, and more likely to lead to long-term tourism and economic prosperity. One day Syria’s future will be glorious, but that will partly depend on the world’s ability to enjoy its glorious past. British experts should be at the forefront of the project.
By Boris Jonson Mayor of London MP, for “The Telegraph”