As Raqqa falls, US left picking up pieces of a shattered Middle East

WASHINGTON (AP) — The imminent fall of the Islamic State’s de facto capital leaves America a multitude of tasks to restore stability in the Middle East, starting with pockets of remaining IS resistance in Syria and Iraq.

Then there are the more deeply rooted problems, not fixable by guns or bombs, that allowed extremism to rise and flourish: Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s intractable political, religious and ethnic disputes, which turned violent again this week.

The challenge is more than the US can handle alone. It likely will keep some troops in Iraq for years to come to train and advise the army, police and other members of security forces that imploded when IS fighters swept across the Syrian border and captured Mosul in June 2014.

The militants also have footholds in Afghanistan and beyond. On Monday, the Pentagon said it used drone aircraft to strike two IS training camps in Yemen, killing dozens.

Syria has been fertile ground for IS, which capitalized on the civil war to expel al-Qaeda and more moderate opposition fighters from Raqqa almost four years ago, making the city the capital of its self-declared “caliphate.” The Obama administration sought to stay out of the civil war even as it claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

The Trump administration has largely stayed on the sidelines of attempts, now led by Russia and Iran, to organize local cease-fires and create so-called “de-escalation zones,” with the exception of one such area near the Israeli and Jordanian borders. But it has been generally supportive of UN-led efforts to resurrect stalled political talks aimed at forging a transitional administration.

On the ground in Syria, the administration has redefined America’s priorities to focus primarily on securing military gains and providing immediate reconstruction assistance to restore critical infrastructure and temporary governance.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, said that once Raqqa is fully liberated the US and its coalition partners will focus on helping to remove dangers posed by unexploded bombs in the area.

The collapse of IS defenses in Raqqa, after four months of fighting, does not necessarily equate to the collapse of the militant group. The US military on Tuesday estimated 6,500 IS fighters remain in eastern Syria and western Iraq, many concentrated along the Euphrates River valley straddling the border. Even if they no longer control significant territory, they pose an insurgent threat in both countries and an ideological threat globally.“Eventually, we would get to the point where we would start to remove some of the rubble, get to the point where we would get the electricity going once again, providing clean water — the same types of things that the US and coalition partners were able to do in Mosul,” she said.

Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon that Raqqa is about 90 percent freed, but more fighting will be required to fully liberate the city. As evidence of remaining risks, he said the Syrian commander of a so-called Raqqa Internal Security Force, whose task will be to keep order in the city once the last IS fighters have been ousted, was killed Monday by an improvised bomb.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that IS is “close to being crushed.” He also cautioned against assuming an easy end game, likening the problem to squeezing a tightly packed snowball.

“You can compact them and compact them, and eventually it shatters,” meaning IS remnants “can show up in other places.” He was speaking about four soldiers killed this month in the African nation of Niger, possibly by an IS affiliate.

Planning for some of the major attacks in Europe in recent years was traced back to Raqqa. These include the 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, and the 2016 suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and subway, which killed 32.

“That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly, and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before,” he said.The breadth of the problem was underlined by Britain’s chief of domestic intelligence, who said in London that the Islamist extremist threat facing his country has accelerated at an alarming pace and is worse now than at any time in his 34-year career. MI5 Director General Andrew Parker said the risk is further heightened by the possible return to Britain of people who had joined IS in Syria and Iraq.

In Iraq, optimism created by a series of relatively swift victories by Iraqi security forces was punctured by renewed conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government, whose peshmerga militia fighters had taken control of the disputed city of Kirkuk after IS took Mosul in 2014.

The Kurds had included disputed areas, including Kirkuk, in a non-binding referendum last month in which more than 90 percent of voters favored independence. The Iraqi government, as well as Turkey and Iran, which border the land-locked Kurdish region, rejected the vote.

Baghdad has spent the last three years demanding the Kurds return Kirkuk to federal control, and appeared to be on the verge of taking military action after the referendum. Sporadic clashes broke out as Iraqi forces moved toward Kirkuk on Monday, but within hours Kurdish forces had withdrawn from the city’s airport, an important military base and nearby oil fields.


Trump Reverses Pieces of Obama-Era Engagement With Cuba

MIAMI — President Trump announced on Friday that he was reversing crucial pieces of what he called a “terrible and misguided deal” with Cuba and will reinstate travel and commercial restrictions eased by the Obama administration in an attempt to obtain additional concessions from the Cuban government.

During a speech in Little Havana, the epicenter of a Cuban exile community that enthusiastically supported him in last year’s election, Mr. Trump said he was keeping a campaign promise to roll back the policy of engagement begun by President Barack Obama in 2014, which he said had empowered the communist government in Cuba and enriched the country’s repressive military.

“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” Mr. Trump said at the Manuel Artime Theater, named for a former supporter of Fidel Castro who became a leader of Brigade 2506, the land forces that spearheaded the United States-led Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

“Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Mr. Trump said.

But Mr. Trump’s action fell well short of doing so. After the speech, he signed a six-page directive that ordered new travel and commercial restrictions while leaving in place some key Obama-era measures that eased sanctions.

As part of the new policy, Americans will no longer be able to plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who go as part of authorized educational tours will be subject to strict new rules and audits to ensure that they are not going just as tourists. American companies and citizens will also be barred from doing business with any firm controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence or security services, walling off crucial parts of the economy, including much of the tourist sector, from American access.

“We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba,” Mr. Trump said.

Despite his grandiose description, the policy represents a middle ground between hard-liners in Congress, including Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans who have called for a complete reversal of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, and business leaders, human rights groups and many of Mr. Trump’s own advisers who wanted to preserve it.

It drew swift condemnation from diverse quarters, from congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans who support greater engagement with Cuba, to business-minded conservatives like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argued the move would hurt American businesses and jobs.

Still, Mr. Trump’s action allowed him to claim credit for taking a tough stand while leaving in place many of the changes made by Mr. Obama, which polls have shown are broadly supported, including by most Republicans.

Under the directive, embassies in Washington and Havana will stay open and cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected under an exception from the prohibition on transactions with military-controlled entities.

Nor does the measure affect the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island and send money to relatives there, or a broad array of rules the Obama administration put in place aimed at making it easier for American companies to do business in Cuba.

But Mr. Trump’s speech was a stinging rejection of Mr. Obama’s announcement in 2014 that he and President Raúl Castro of Cuba would begin normalizing relations between the two countries. Mr. Trump’s speech evoked, instead, the Cold War thinking that dominated the United States government’s stance toward Cuba for a half-century.

“To the Cuban government, I say: Put an end to the abuse of dissidents,” Mr. Trump said. “Release the political prisoners. Stop jailing innocent people. Open yourselves to political and economic freedoms. Return the fugitives from American justice.”

Just over one year ago, Mr. Obama took the stage at a theater in Havana, with Mr. Castro in attendance, to reject that thinking and declare that he intended to “bury the last vestige of the Cold War” and “leave behind the ideological battles of the past.”

On Friday, Mr. Trump sought to revive that struggle, listing the misdeeds of the Castro government over more than five decades. “We will never, ever be blind to it,” Mr. Trump said. “We remember what happened.”

His audience of Cuban exiles and their families, including Mr. Rubio and Mr. Díaz-Balart, roared its approval. “President Trump will treat the Castro regime as the malevolent dictatorship that it is,” Mr. Díaz-Balart said.

But critics argued that Mr. Trump was returning to a strategy that had been a proven failure.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser for Mr. Obama who led secret negotiations with Cuban officials that led to the rapprochement, said Mr. Trump’s moves would undermine his stated objectives, pushing the Cubans into the arms of the Chinese and Russians, who have no restrictions on their dealings there, and emboldening hard-liners in the country who are opposed to moving toward democracy.

“If you want Cuba to change and reform, we are doing the opposite of what would be most likely to bring about reforms inside of Cuba,” Mr. Rhodes said.

But some Cuban dissidents who had backed Mr. Obama’s thaw in the hopes it would lead to greater openness on the island said the opposite had occurred. Among them was José Daniel Ferrer García, head of the Cuban Patriotic Union, the largest opposition group in Cuba, who was among the dissidents Mr. Obama met last year in Cuba.

“We believe that this is the moment for a maximum reversal of some policies that only benefit the Castro regime and does very little or nothing for the oppressed people,” Mr. Ferrer wrote in an open letter to Mr. Trump last week. “It is time to impose strong sanctions on the regime of Raúl Castro.”

Under Mr. Trump’s directive, the Treasury and Commerce Departments will have 30 days to begin writing new travel and commercial regulations. They are instructed to reverse a rule that Mr. Obama put in place last year to allow Americans who are making educational or cultural trips to initiate their own travel to Cuba without special permission from the United States government and without a licensed tour company, as long as they kept records of their activities for five years.

Such trips will now only be possible through a United States government-approved tour company, as was the case before 2016. The move shuts down what amounted to a backdoor way to allow American tourism in Cuba, despite the decades-old embargo that prohibits it.

Mr. Trump is also directing a broad prohibition against Americans doing business with companies controlled by the military, intelligence or security services in Cuba, which own large segments of the economy through the military’s business arm known as Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., or Gaesa.

The change could have sweeping implications for American companies, but it is not clear how it will affect existing deals, such as the one struck by Starwood Hotels and Resorts last year to manage hotels in Cuba, including one owned by the military conglomerate Gaviota.

A senior White House official said the administration’s intent was not to disrupt existing business. It was also not clear how the new travel rules would affect Americans who have already planned their own trips to Cuba.

Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona and a sponsor of legislative efforts to lift the travel ban, which has 55 supporters, took to the Senate floor on Friday to lament that “we seem to be going in the other direction.”

“By denying Americans the freedom to travel to Cuba, we will be denying them customers, and they will be worse off,” he said of the Cuban people.

Why the Idea of Cracking Syria into Pieces Would Be America’s Latest Imperial Disaster

Far away from Syria, in the air-conditioned offices of think tanks and war rooms sit the intellectuals of our current order. They gaze at maps of Syria – a country to which they have no emotional ties or on whose land they might not have walked. They are not the first men driven by the fantasy of seizing resources and solving problems by drawing new borders. They follow in the 1916 tradition of the British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot, who carved up Ottoman Syria into zones of influence for their respective countries. A hundred years later, the men who follow Sykes and Picot couch their imperial ambitions in humanitarian rhetoric. Their lines begin with ‘safe zones’ and then move to a confederation and finally to a dismembered Syria. Partition, guaranteed by American airpower and troops, they argue, is the solution to the Syrian crisis.

Deeply battered by the civil war, with half its population displaced and over half a million dead, Syria is weakened to the point of virtual collapse. The fall of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus would not be – as many of these intellectuals of the American Empire agree – the best possible outcome. ‘Realistically,’ as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute put it in 2015, ‘the replacement of Assad’ does not ‘appear within reach’ given the lack of palatable alternatives. Moderate forces – as far as the US determines – are simply not available. Therefore, the ouster of Assad in a precipitous way is considered foolhardy.

Instead of removing Assad, then, the United States should – argues O’Hanlon – push for the establishment of ‘one or two safe zones in relatively promising locations,’ backed by ‘perhaps 1,000 American military personnel.’ In these ‘safe zones, local forces – moderates, it is hoped – could be trained to put pressure on Assad’s government. ‘Ultimately, and ideally,’ O’Hanlon argues, ‘some of the safe zones might merge together as key elements in a future con-federal arrangement.’ This dynamic could very well lead to the ‘outright partition of the country if necessary.’ The partition is envisaged along the lines of sect and ethnicity – a Sunni zone, an Alawite zone, and a Kurdish zone. O’Hanlon calls this ‘deconstructing Syria.’

In a recent column, New York Times’ Thomas Friedman muses over the possible futures for Syria. ‘The least bad solution is a partition of Syria,’ Friedman suggests, ‘and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area – protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some US troops.’ The gap between O’Hanlon and Friedman is merely in that the former recognizes that in the large mixed cities of Damascus and Aleppo, Hama and Homs, a partition would not be easy. ‘Prudence would have to be the watchword,’ writes O’Hanlon.

Neither O’Hanlon nor Friedman – both influential voices in Washington, DC – seem bothered by their imperial gestures. They are quite happy to speak for Syrians, to offer tutelage to Syria which cannot seem to define its own destiny. These are men who will speak of democracy and human rights when it suits them, but then transform just as easily into imperial bureaucrats with their crayons ready to draw lines on someone else’s map.

The influence of these men can be felt quite palpably in the corridors of power. Late last year, CIA Director John Brennan said quite casually, ‘I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction, so many continued, seething tensions and sectarian divisions.’ The outcome of this, he suggested, is the partition of Syria. Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has said that there is already an ‘emerging partition’ of Syria into six zones leading to the ‘Somalization of Syria.’ Amos Gilad, the Strategic Advisor to the Israeli Defense Ministry and well-regarded in US intelligence circles, said, ‘Syria has reached its end.’ They – quite cavalierly – call for the dismemberment of the country.

Last month, before the US strikes on a government airfield, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that once ISIS is removed from the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, it would be ‘governed by local forces’ with US backing. What is being considered is that the US would create – in northern Syria – an analogous development to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is autonomous of the Iraqi government. This statement was made in Turkey, where there is fear of a Syrian Kurdish state on its border. Turkey is not bothered by the break-up of Syria. What it fears is the concrete reality that this fracturing shall produce a Syrian Kurdish autonomous region with US support long the length of its southern border. Even here Turkish sentiments are over-read. Last November, US General Joseph Dunford and Turkish General Hulusi Akar agreed that ‘the coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa.’ This means that the US and the Turks would adopt this region, with the Turks eager to make the Kurds marginal to their occupied zone.

In sum, all the major players who speak the syrupy language of democracy are quite willing to undemocratically plan for the dismemberment of Syria.

Weaken Syria To Weaken Iran.

Iran, since 1979, has confounded the West and its West Asian allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia. The point for these powers has been to find a mechanism to weaken Iran. Saudi Arabia and the West backed Iraq’s long war against Iran precisely to hem in the Islamic Republic.

In 1979, right after Iran’s Revolution, US embassy official Talcott Seelye wrote from Damascus that his government should exaggerate the Alawite hold on the Syrian state so as to break the legitimacy of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president. It was important to get rid of Assad, Seelye wrote, to dent Iran’s role in the region. ‘We are inclined to the view that his days are numbered,’ Seelye wrote, even if by ‘the assassination of Assad.’ Although there is not really an Alawite control over the government, Seelye noted, ‘perception is more important than reality.’

During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the United States wished to hit Syria as a way to weaken Iran. In a revealing cable from 1983, CIA chief Graham Fuller urged his paymasters to bring ‘real muscle to bear against Syria.’ Fuller suggested that ‘the US should consider sharply escalating military threats against Syria from three border states hostile to Syria: Iraq, Israel and Turkey.’ He hoped that if these countries simultaneously attacked Syria, it would weaken its position and its prestige. If Syria’s position was dented, Fuller argued, Iran would be forced ‘to reconsider bringing the war to an end.’ What is important is that the regional countries – such as Iraq – ‘still need to remain on guard against Iranian influence and power throughout the Gulf.’ Hitting Syria would weaken Iran. That was the posture in 1983 as it was in 1979 and as it is today.

Twenty years later, in 2006, the US political officer in Damascus, William Roebuck, wrote that his country should join with Saudi Arabian intelligence to stoke fears of sectarianism in the country. Their stick would be to suggest to the Sunni community that Iran was promoting a Shiite agenda in Syria. Roebuck’s cable reveals the continuation of fear mongering around Iran to increase sectarian feeling to weaken Syrian society and the state. ‘There are fears in Syria,’ Roebuck wrote, ‘that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis.’ What is startling is that Roebuck then conceded that this is ‘often exaggerated.’ The Americans, Roebuck said, against all evidence, should join with the Saudis to ‘better publicize and focus regional attention to this issue.’

The evidence actually showed that Saudi preachers had entered Syria in large numbers and they had established themselves in the slums. It was in these mosques that they preached virulently sectarian rhetoric and prepared society for the outbreak of sectarian violence. This is precisely what overran Syria in 2011. Roebuck advised his paymasters to encourage splits in the military, advised the Gulf Arabs to stop investing in Syria and encouraged any mischief that would deprive the regime of any support. In other words, Roebuck insisted on preparing the terrain for regime change which would harm – as US intelligence openly said a decade ago – both the Lebanese political-military group Hezbollah and Iran.

Two years ago, the US State Department noted in a memorandum, ‘The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.’ Fear of Iran saturates this document. The basic argument is that Iran has its grip on West Asia through Syria and into Hezbollah. These have to be brought to heel. If Assad’s government falls, then Iran’s conduit to Hezbollah would break. It was – therefore – essential to overthrow Assad. This has nothing to do with the Syrian people or their needs, but everything to do with the Washington and Tel Aviv’s hallucinations about Iranian power. The fall of Assad, the US diplomats calculated, would mean that ‘Iran would no longer have a foothold in the Middle East from which to threaten Israel and undermine stability in the region.’

If Assad falls and a new – perhaps radical Islamist – regime comes to power in Damascus, how would this help Israel? A US intelligence official told me this week that the word of this period is ‘Yugoslavia.’ The break-up of Yugoslavia, he said, left behind minor states with no regional power. Balkanization, he said with a smile, would be the appropriate solution for Syria. Break it up and Iran would lose its foothold and no powerful state would remain on Israel’s border to pose a threat. Israel could permanently claim the Golan Heights, a US-backed state would emerge on the Syrian border, Jordan could help itself to the totality of the Hawran plateau, an Alawite state would take the coastal plain, leaving a series of Sunni states from the al-Ghab valley to the Hamad desert. A weak Syria would be easy to dominate.

Mischief surrounds Syria. Partition is seen as a way to destroy that state and offer Israel relief on its borders with Syria and Lebanon. The rights and ambitions of the Syrian people are irrelevant to these plots and schemes.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.

Zealandia – pieces finally falling together for continent we didn’t know we had

Zealandia – a new continent submerged in the southwest Pacific – is a step closer to being recognised, the authors of a new scientific paper claim.

A paper published in GSA Today, the journal of the Geological Society of America, contends that the vast, continuous expanse of continental crust, which centres on New Zealand, is distinct enough to constitute a separate continent.

The paper’s authors argue that the incremental way in which it came to light goes to show that even “the large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked”.

Zealandia covers nearly 5m square km, of which 94% is under water, and encompasses not only New Zealand but also New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe Island group and Elizabeth and Middleton reefs.

A map showing the outline of Zealandia Photograph: GNS Science

The area, about the same size as the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have broken away from Gondwana – the immense landmass that once encompassed Australia – and sank between 60m and 85m years ago.

“This is a big piece of ground we’re talking about, even if it is submerged,” said Nick Mortimer, a New Zealand geologist who co-authored the paper.

Geologists have argued in favour of Zealandia being recognised as its own continent intermittently over the past 20 years.

The American geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk was the first to apply the name Zealandia to a south-west Pacific continent in 1995. Since then, the paper’s co-authors say, it has had “moderate uptake” but was still not broadly known to international scientists.

Mortimer and his fellow co-authors from the GNS Science research institute and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand; the Service Géologique of New Caledonia; and the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences contend that Zealandia has the necessary geological elements to be considered a continent.

Mortimer told Guardian Australia that it was the first robust, peer-reviewed scientific paper to define and describe Zealandia, but its findings would offer “nothing new” for most New Zealand geoscientists. “They probably wonder what all the fuss is about.”

He said he and other researchers began to piece together the submerged continent with the release of a bathymetric map in 2002.

“That’s when the penny dropped, really … From that point, that map was literally our road map for some crosses, just trying to get rocks out of all the four corners of Zealandia that we could, so we could prove up the geology.”

There had been no formal Zealandia project, he said; it had been “a gradual process … [of] joining the dots”.

“It was a question of confidence, fundamentally, I think, with the accumulation of data and what to do with it.”

Zealandia shown on a map of world continents. Photograph: GNS Science

Zealandia would be the world’s seventh and smallest continent, after Eurasia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia. (Europe and Asia are sometimes recognised separately, despite being the same landmass.)

“It turns out New Zealand isn’t just a couple of small islands at the bottom of the world,” Fairfax Media New Zealand triumphantly reported.

Barry Kohn, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, who had done work with Mortimer on Zealandia in the past, said there was a “fair consensus in the scientific community” in favour of its existence.

“It’s pretty clear that that whole area is not part of the ocean. It’s got all the hallmarks of a continent.”

He said rock dredged up from the area was clearly continental crust, “fairly continuous” and defined. More data had been gathered over the past decades to confirm its existence.

“Like anything in science, the penny doesn’t always drop straightaway. You build up a body of evidence.

“It was all once part of a big continent that’s all broken up into little pieces of the puzzle.”

But despite the evidence in support of it, whether or not Zealandia would come to be widely recognised as the seventh continent was dependant on history, said Mortimer.

“If you want to name a mountain, there are certain procedures you have to go through to get it formally ratified. With this, it will just come with time.

“If Zealandia makes its way into popular culture and onto maps, that’s all the validation that we’ll seek.”

ISIS says it destroyed archaeological pieces from Palmyra


Islamic State group jihadists have destroyed a famous statue of a lion outside the museum in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the country’s antiquities director said Thursday.

Maamoun Abdelkarim said the statue, known as the Lion of al-Lat, was an irreplaceable piece and was apparently destroyed last week.

“IS members on Saturday destroyed the Lion of al-Lat, which is a unique piece that is three meters (10 feet) tall and weight 15 tons,” Abdelkarim told AFP. “It’s the most serious crime they have committed against Palmyra’s heritage,” he said.

The limestone statue was discovered in 1977 by a Polish archaeological mission at the temple of al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, and dated back to the 1st century BC. Abdelkarim said the statue had been covered with a metal plate and sandbags to protect it from fighting “but we never imagined that IS would come to the town to destroy it.”

IS captured Palmyra, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site, from government forces on May 21, prompting international concerns about the fate of the city’s antiquities. So far, the city’s most famous sites have been left intact, though there are reports IS has mined them. Most of the pieces in the city’s museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before IS arrived, though the group has blown up several historic Muslim graves in recent weeks.

Also on Thursday, the group released photos showing its members in Aleppo destroying several statues from Palmyra that were being smuggled through the northern province.

“An IS checkpoint in [the] Wilyat [region of] Aleppo arrested a person transporting several statues from Palmyra,” the group said in an online statement. “The guilty party was taken to an Islamic court in the town of Minbej, where it was decided that the trafficker would be punished and the statues destroyed.”

The statement included photos showing several carved busts being destroyed with sledgehammers.

Abdelkarim said the busts “appear to be eight statues stolen from the tombs in Palmyra.”

“The destruction is worse than the theft because they cannot be recovered.”

IS’s harsh version of Islam considers statues and grave markers to be idolatrous, and the group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in territory under its control in Syria and Iraq. On Wednesday, the head of the UN cultural organisation UNESCO urged a campaign against IS’s “culture cleansing.”

“Extremists don’t destroy heritage as a collateral damage, they target it systematically to strike societies at their core,” Irina Bokova said in a speech at the Chatham House think tank in London. “This strategy seeks to destroy identities by eliminating heritage and cultural markers.”