Hours after they swept into the Syrian city of Palmyra last week, Islamic State militants carried out scores of summary executions, leaving the bodies of victims — including dozens of government soldiers — in the streets.
Then, residents say, they set about acting like municipal functionaries. They fixed the power plant, turned on the water pumps, held meetings with local leaders, opened the city’s lone bakery and started distributing free bread. They planted their flag atop Palmyra’s storied ancient ruins, and did not immediately loot and destroy them, as they have done at other archaeological sites.
Next came dozens of Syrian government airstrikes, some killing civilians. That gave the Islamic State a political assist: Within days, some residents had redirected the immediate focus of their anger and fear from the militants on the ground to the warplanes overhead.
In Palmyra, the Islamic State group appears to be digging into power in a series of steps it has honed over two years of accumulating territory in Iraq and Syria.
But Palmyra presents a new twist: It is the first Syrian city the group has taken from the government, not from insurgents. In Raqqa, farther north, and in Iraq, the group has moved quickly and harshly against anyone perceived as a rival.
The Islamic State alternates between terrorizing residents and courting them. It takes over institutions. And it seeks to co-opt opposition to the government, painting itself as the champion of the people — or at least, the Sunnis — against oppressive central authorities.
That method has helped the group entrench itself in the cities of Raqqa,Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, and is now unfolding in Palmyra.
The Palmyra takeover was detailed by half a dozen residents of the city, including supporters and opponents of the government, via phone or electronic messaging. All asked not to be fully identified, to avoid reprisals from the government or from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. Most cast themselves as caught between the threats of government airstrikes and ISIS beheadings or other killings.
On Wednesday, for example, several residents reported that the Islamic State had killed 20 army soldiers in an ancient amphitheater. Others recalled seeing the bodies of soldiers burned alive or beheaded by militants.
“They slaughtered many,” a cafe owner exclaimed about ISIS, then switched to the subject of air raids that he would later blame for the deaths of several friends: “God knows what they’re bombing, it’s so scary!”
Some expressed surprise that so far ISIS abuses had not been even worse — while at the same time they worried that the group might be refraining from wider brutality while it courted support.
“They are treating Palmyra’s people as if they were captured as human shields by the regime,” said a Palmyra native who is outside Syria and receives daily updates from family members there.
The resident, who asked to be identified by a nickname, Dahham, said the group’s message to everyone but pro-government fighters seemed to be: “We have nothing to do with you. We know that you were under this regime and nobody helped you.”
That was unexpected, Dahham said; he had feared ISIS would punish Palmyra for the freewheeling approach of its heavily Bedouin population, and what he called its relationship with the West. Traditional and tribal but not always strictly religious, many mixed easily with the foreign touristswhose business long sustained them.
But in Palmyra, where a small local insurgency was crushed in 2012, there is no armed antigovernment rival. Perhaps feeling less threatened, ISIS militants have not immediately attacked activists who oppose both them and the government.
One such activist, Khaled al-Homsi, said he had relatives in ISIS and was able to sit and talk with a group of fighters. The largest number, he said, were foreigners, mixed with a few locals and many Syrians from all over the country.
Their only demand, he said, was to discard his cigarette, saying he could smoke in his house, not in public.
“Daesh are trying to show some leniency,” he said. “But I don’t know how long it will last.”
Asked how residents viewed the group, Mr. Homsi, who uses a nom de guerre for safety, said civilians had little choice but to submit.
“They can do nothing,” he said. “Of course, we have a few who support the Daesh presence since their sons are with them.”
Ali, a government security officer from another province, told a different story, saying some residents helped ISIS. He had served for years in Palmyra and fled last week “with my weapon only, no clothes, no nothing.”
“The civilians didn’t collaborate with us,” he said. “How do you expect the government to operate if a sniper uses your building and you don’t notify the army?”
Ali said most of those summarily executed were soldiers and government employees. Residents described personally seeing 30 to 80 corpses, mostly soldiers and some civilians, including some known as recruiters for pro-government militias.
Mr. Homsi said he saw the bodies of a large group of soldiers burned in a truck, perhaps while preparing to flee, and another four who refused to come out of a house, and were burned inside.
By contrast, residents in the security forces who had been avoiding the battlefield — by paying bribes to stay home — were offered a chance to “repent,” Dahham and others said.
Members of prominent families are calculating where to throw their support. The director of the Palmyra Museum, Khalil al-Hariri, a government supporter, fled. One of his relatives, said to be a pro-government militia recruiter, was killed. Another, residents said, pledged allegiance to ISIS.
In speeches broadcast from mosque minarets, residents say, ISIS has been laying out rules and intentions. It has ordered them to surrender any soldiers hidden in their houses. It has distributed black, flowing chadors to stores, saying women should wear them. It has declared that people can leave town for Raqqa, but only with permission.
So far, ISIS appears to have placed a priority on establishing Palmyra as a new outpost of its self-declared caliphate, rather than immediately harming or looting the city’s magnificent Greco-Roman ruins, one of the best preserved remnants of antiquity.
ISIS’ record of destroying or smuggling artifacts in Syria and Iraq has raised worldwide alarms, particularly after it bragged of having bulldozed ancient sites near Mosul this year.
On Wednesday, in a radio broadcast, a man identifying himself as Abu Layth al Saudi, the leader of the group in Palmyra, offered a clue to its plans. The sprawling ruins “won’t be damaged, God willing,” he said. “We will not touch it with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.”
But he said the fighters would smash statues “worshiped by infidels in the past.” (ISIS members had already entered Palmyra’s museum once, Mr. Homsi said. Most portable statues had already been removed by officials, so they smashed plaster statues depicting prehistoric life in the area, locked the door and left.)
On Wednesday, though, according to Mr. Homsi and others, ISIS used the ruins to stage a macabre spectacle, shooting 20 government soldiers in an ancient amphitheater better known in prewar days for a music festival.
Residents focus on a survival strategy, cowering from airstrikes and digging wells when the pumps fail. The cafe owner, now in another city, said he had lost several friends in bombardments; seven people from two families died, including a gym teacher and a general’s wife. Now, he said, was fretting over how to evacuate his parents.
We will lose a lot of martyrs in the upcoming days,” he said.
Ahmad, the owner of a souvenir shop, said he had driven all the way to Raqqa to fill his car with canned food. Roads to government-held Homs were impassable, he said, with military forces stopping Palmyra residents, “calling them traitors because they didn’t fight with them,” and arresting some.
“I feel sorry for the civilians: They are being used as fuel,” he said. “Between us, I might become an infidel to all the world’s religions.”