The world seems to be stunned by the rise of Islamic State, paralysed and unable to act in a coherent and effective fashion. ISIS is like a plague, spreading, infecting and destroying, yet the international community, including their leaders and organisations, is confused and helpless.
The latest shock the world has received is the capture of Palmyra by ISIS this week. The ancient city of Palmyra is a jewel, an oasis of history and heritage in the Syrian desert. It is mentioned in the Old Testament in 2 Chronicles 8, in some translations by its Arabic name Tadmor: King Solomon is recorded as fortifying it after building the Temple and his palace.
Palmyra is not a city of which you find only in fragments in the sand; it is a magnificent and glorious kingdom still standing, challenging time and revealing the roots of Syrian civilisation which goes back many millennia. The way the Palmyrans depicted their queens holding their infant sons became the genesis of the Madonna and child icons that have so enriched our Christian worship. Palmyra saw the rise and fall of many empires and civilisations around it, yet now it seems that we may be the ones to witness its fall.
Most of us might wonder why ISIS would want to destroy such a rare treasure. The answer is that the monsters of IS do not see the value of anything, either human or cultural, that is not in line with their distorted and misguided interpretation of Islam and their desire to create a state that embodies this interpretation. Because Palmyra is not of “ISIS-brand Islam”, it should be destroyed.
What the world still does not grasp is the vastness of the resources that have enabled, and are still enabling, IS to have the most sophisticated weapons. I spoke this week to people fighting against IS south of Damascus; they told me that they had captured ISIS weapons, vehicles and equipment, and all of it is absolutely up-to-date, the best that any army could have. The Syrian and Iraqi armies could never dream of having such equipment – if they did, they would have destroyed ISIS.
IS cannot continue without constant support from outside: a steady influx of jihadi volunteers, weapons, equipment and, of course, money. Turkey’s borders are open to ISIS and the West is not challenging its fellow NATO member. And what does ISIS export? Oil, through Turkey, and propaganda via the internet. The only way even to start to defeat ISIS is by cutting off their external resources, and preventing them from recruiting impressionable young Muslim men and women. As I told MPs in a meeting at the House of Commons a few months ago, internet service providers, search engines and governments have collaborated to prevent access to online child pornography; why can’t they do the same with jihadi materials?
There is something else that we must do, and that is to equip our young people, in the West and in the Middle East, with the culture of peace so that they can overcome the extremist culture of ISIS. I returned last week from Syria, where I led an Awareness Foundation programme to teach more than 85 young Christians to become Ambassadors of Peace so that they can engage with their communities to build a future for everyone in Syria. I believe that Ambassadors of Peace remain our greatest and best counter to the IS Emissaries of War.
Revd Nadim Nassar, the Church of England's only Syrian priest, is the Director and co-founder of the Awareness Foundation, which promotes interfaith understanding and works to equip Christians to counter intolerance
Top: the author's visit to Palmyra shortly before the civil war began. Above: Palmyra relief. Photo: Niklaus Bürgin Fotografie