PALMYRA (Syria) • Russia has made its mark on Syria with the crash of bombs and the thud of artillery. Now the Russians have added gentler sounds: live classical music.
It echoed through an ancient stone theatre and into the eerie, empty desert as Russia deployed a symphony orchestra led by one of its best-known conductors, Valery Gergiev, and the cellist Sergei P. Roldugin, an old and - according to the Panama Papers documents leaked last month - very wealthy friend of President Vladimir Putin.
Their performance space on Thursday was Palmyra, the city of ruins left by Roman and other ancient civilisations and ruined further by the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The orchestra played pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and two Russian composers, Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin, in a second- century Roman amphitheatre, the set for a 2015 film produced by ISIS that featured the execution of 25 people.
The contrast was intended to underscore what Russia sees as its underappreciated role in helping Syrian forces liberate Palmyra from zealots and fighting on the side of civilisation against barbarism.
The Russians were so eager to make that point that they flew a group of reporters from Moscow to Syria and bused them to Palmyra to see the performance.
Mr Putin said the performance signalled "hope for Palmyra's revival as the heritage of the whole humanity, but also as hope that our contemporary civilisation will be relieved from this horrible disease, international terrorism".
On the same day, air strikes killed at least 28 civilians in a camp for the displaced in northern Syria near the Turkish border as a 48-hour ceasefire took hold in the battleground city of Aleppo.
The music concert production, attended by a heavily guarded VIP guest list, was broadcast live on Russian state television. Viewers in Russia saw the concert spliced with videos of ISIS atrocities, part of a domestic political operation intended to mobilise pride in Russia's military role abroad at a time when the economy at home is mired in the second year of a deep recession.
Mr Putin thanked the musicians by video link from his vacation home on the Black Sea.
He said the performance signalled "hope for Palmyra's revival as the heritage of the whole humanity, but also as hope that our contemporary civilisation will be relieved from this horrible disease, international terrorism".
Also taking part in the Palmyra spectacle, before an audience of Russian and Syrian soldiers, officials and dignitaries, was Mr Putin's friend, Roldugin, the cellist whose name surfaced last month in leaked papers from a Panama law firm that indicated he had US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in offshore accounts.
While showcasing Russia's musical richness, it was also a military mission, with guests bused in a heavily guarded convoy escorted by helicopter gunships. The route from Latakia, the site of Russia's main military base on Syria's Mediterranean coast, led past Syrian military outposts, destroyed villages, clusters of burnt vehicles and other reminders of the fierce fighting that had raged in an area held by ISIS from May last year until March this year.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday that insurgent groups captured a strategically important village from government forces in fierce fighting south of Aleppo that killed 73 people.
The insurgents, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, on Thursday launched an attack on government forces at the village of Khan Touman, which is important because of its location near the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
The observatory said the air strikes which killed 28 on Thursday hit a camp near Sarmada, in Idlib province, which is controlled by Nusra Front. Fifty others were wounded, it said.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS