Isis amputates the hand of teenager they accused of theft. Picture:
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Isis is not a spent force in Syria or Iraq, and the execution of men for having homosexaul sex by the fighters who had sex with them in the first place is just one regular atrocity among thousands.
The terror group retook Palmyra on Sunday, the site of the execution of two men for homosexuality. The naked power of a resurgent Isis is evident in the way they execute for homosexuality the teenage boys who were raped by Isis commanders.
In March 2016 when the culturally significant site of Palmyra was recaptured from Isis the west rejoiced.
There was a narrative here, a clear good versus evil that was easy to understand and easy to communicate.
Isis had held the site for almost a year. In that time they'd destroyed artifacts over two thousand years old and killed anyone who had prevented them from plundering the temples' treasures.
The execution of archaeologist and retired keeper of antiquities Khaled al-Asaad on 18 August 2015 was and remains a gruesome tragedy.
The retaking of Palmyra seven months later by the Syrian government forces and Russian aircraft was transformed into a symbolic victory. This was a history-conscious civilisation defeating an anti-history, anti-cultural, barbarism.
In Trafalgar Square, liberal democracy was celebrated by a 3D printed version of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph, which had been destroyed by Isis. As if touting the west’s commitment to freedom, in the same week protestors climbed Nelson’s column fewer than 30 feet from the reconstructed arch, both were visible symbols of whose side we were all on.
Russia’s own contribution to the war of civilisations was to use the reconquered landmark as the venue for a classical concert. An orchestra played the music of the imperial eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Kremlin ordered their jets to return home.
The west was winning, Isis was being targeted, and the real threats were cells of gunmen attacking European and North American capitals.
On Sunday Isis took back Palmyra, showing that the force was by no means being defeated. The narrative was complicated by Isis’ week long offensive after seven months of absence from Palmyra.
Speaking to Time, Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Violence said that the west’s strategy had reduced the number of Isis fighters but not its potency.
The victory at Palmyra, given undue significance by the west’s victorious coalition in May, will buoy the morale of fighters and possibly lead to fresh ones joining their cause. In November, an Isis newspaper quoted one of their commanders planning these raids for the purpose of raising morale.
Palmyra, a Syrian site, was perhaps less well defended due to an overstretched Assad regime focused on Aleppo, and also the absence of Russian deterrence from the air.
The loss of Palmyra shows that the narrative of a retreating Isis is unreal. It also places the emphasis on front line casualties, as opposed to those living in Isis controlled territory. Isis is not a medieval approach to morality and the world. It is doctrinaire but also hypocritical in a way only tyrannies can achieve.
One of the many acts subjected to their wrath has been homosexuality, which Isis has punished by throwing the perpetrators from roof tops. In January 2016 news that a 15 year old boy who had been raped by an Isis commander Abu Zaid al-Jazrawi was executed in this manner. Hypocritically, the grown man was spared. When another boy was thrown from a roof in August, al-Jazrawi was again believed to be involved, but the commander was given some lashes, and posted to the front line.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has previously told The Independent that at least 25 people have been killed by ISIS for being gay: six stoned to death, three shot in the head, and 16 thrown from high-rise buildings. The figure since these observations were taken is unknown.
Aware of Palmyra’s cultural significance in the west, Isis had previously used its ancient amphitheatre as the location for their filmed executions. While these acts and their motivation are barbaric, they do not mean Isis is a wild beast on the loose. The “barbarism” versus “civilisation” narrative fails to recognise the use of public relations and control of optics. Moreover the ability to hypocritically execute teenage boys for sex with a male commander, and leave the commanders unpunished, shows this is not a blind rage but a much more sinister exercise in absolute power.