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Cultural Racketeering in Syria

October 9, 2015

Franklin Lamb  Intifada Palestine

One of the many gut-wrenching dimensions of the soon to be five-year Syrian crisis is that whenever one surveys the conflict on the ground and concludes that the maelstrom can’t possibly get any worse, it plummets deeper into the abyss. The condition of people in Syria has never been worse in modern times.

This is also the case with the spreading cultural cleansing of our shared global heritage in Syria which this observer views as a precursor to ethnic cleansing. This scourge has been documented in detail by studies from the UN, EU, Archaeologists, Syria’s DGAM (Directorate General of Museums and Antiquities) and others who closely monitor the desecration, looting and destruction at archaeological sites. According to APSA (Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology) and other surveys, more than a third of Syria’s 10,000 archaeological sites are currently under the control of IS (Islamic State), who are looting them on an industrial scale for sale globally on the black market.

It is not known, which or how many other Islamist nihilist militias are controlling other sites. A new report from the US Congress reports that 30,000 people have traveled, including 250 from the USA, to join terror groups in the Middle East and IS in particular, doubling the numbers of one year ago. “We are witnessing the largest global convergence of jihadists in history,” the report warned.

 According to the Antiquities Coalition, raising just one million US$ from illicit trafficking of historic artifact in Syria supplies the group with more than 11,000 AK-47 machine guns or 1,250 rocket launchers. This is one of the reasons why Satellite images are revealing that archaeological sites in Syria are increasingly dotted by thousands of illegal excavations.

Syria excavation

It is recalled that the looting following the United States-led 2003 invasion of Iraq involved organized international gangs, sometimes with corrupt “Operation Iraqi Freedom” coalition military personnel involved that were contracted to raid the National Museum in Baghdad and Mosul Museum. Mosul Museum director Bernadette Hanna-Metti and Mosul Museum curator Saba al-Omari reported that radio carrying looters also targeted specific antiquities at Nimrud, some with “shopping lists” in hand. Site director Muzahim Mahmud reported that the looters “ignored everything else, went right to that frieze” of a winged man carrying a sponge and a holy plant, “and took it” in a customized looting operation, fulfilling “orders from a buyer.”

The 18 statues that were intercepted as part of one lot in Jordan during 2004 were determined to be filling orders from dealers and within weeks of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, US customs officers intercepted an illicit shipment of 669 of its artifacts en route to an antiquities dealer in New York. But apart from police reports labeling these acts as “looting to order”, “theft to order”, “stolen to order” or “commissioned theft” no one has ever been charged with a crime. It is not surprising, that in 2005, when al Qaeda was trafficking in looted antiquities, it was second as a source of funding only to kidnappings and ransom.

Syria historic sites map 3 copy

Similar cultural crimes are being committed today in Syria. It has been documented that IS and Jabhat al-Nusra use WhatsApp and Skype, and some militias are using smartphones and are employing social-media savvy experts around the world (often teenagers) to design and apply looted antiquities marketing programs.

The financial incentives to looting are so powerful that to date the international community’s existing methods of prevention are largely ineffective.

But we must not be idle bystanders to a fire sale of our and Syria’s national and historical heritage.

So what can we do now that the continuing destruction of our cultural heritage has sparked a fresh round of global outrage? How can this outrage be harnessed to save other heritage sites under nihilist IS control? Short of defeating the entrenched jihadists militarily which appears highly unlikely anytime soon?

IS destroy history 4

The challenges are great. Tens of thousands of foreign would-be jihadists have poured into Syria, most to join the perceived “A-team-Varsity Squads” of IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. There is little evidence of success from international efforts to diminish their ranks. Few on the ground are impressed by the new Russian hyped 4+1 planned coalition or the Russian proposed bilateral coordination with the USA against IS. This is partly because currently an average of about 1,000 foreign fighters are arriving every month via Turkey, ready to turn Syria into Russia’s new “Afghanistan” with pledges to fight for as long as it takes to expel Putin’s arriving forces. In the past year jihadists from 20 additional countries have crossed the Turkish border, bringing to more than 100 the total number of countries with fighters in Syria.

IS destroy history 13

Many suggestions have been heard by this observer in Syria, including from local officials and citizens who are on the front lines trying to preserve and protect the cultural heritage that we all share. Some are proposing that cultural heritage benefactors buy the looted objects off looters and errant regular citizens and secure them in safety vaults somewhere until the fighting ends. This has actually been done in Syria with modest success but given its sensitivity, without much publicity. It has been reported that nearly 330,000 artifacts, many from lawless non-state actor areas, have been moved to safety from imminent danger by jihadists and profiteers.

The Syrian government currently has 2,500 people working to save Syria’s past on both sides in many parts of Syria. Fourteen DGAM employees have been killed so far. It’s Director-General Dr. Abdul Karim has reported to this observer and others that “We saved 99 per cent of the collection in our museums. It’s good. It’s not just for the good of the government. It’s for the opposition, for humanity, for all Syria. It is our common identity, our common heritage.”

Palmyra Syria 12

Ricardo J. Elia, an archaeologist at Boston University, endorsed a moratorium on purchasing trafficked item, arguing that “looting is a function of a system that runs on supply and demand. Would it not be possible for museum associations, dealer associations, auction houses, and private collections to say “look: this is a horrific crisis. Let’s just stop these things. Let’s diminish the demand side.” To avoid collecting potentially looted antiquities, Richard Stengel, US under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, recently proposed: “Don’t sell; don’t buy. That’s the best solution.”

A similar proposal comes from American cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire who has prepared a proposal to avoid purchasing “blood antiquities.” It also promotes as a protective measure a “Don’t Buy” initiative backed by strict due diligence. It is worthy of implementation and can be linked to the 2009 Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts authored by individual collectors that is being considered again given our current cultural heritage crisis. It urges the public and all buyers to protect archaeological heritage and uphold the law, check sources, collect sensitively, recognize the collector’s role as custodian, keep artifacts in one piece and consider the significance of groups of objects, promote further study, and dispose of artifacts responsibly.

To achieve these goals, the ethics code highlights common sense, due diligence, and acquisitions advice, including: “Ask the vendor for all relevant paperwork relating to provenance, export etc. Take extra care if collecting particular classes of objects which have been subjected to wide-scale recent looting. Verify a vendor’s reputation independently before buying. Assure yourself that they are using due diligence in their trading practices, and do not support those who knowingly sell fakes as authentic or offer items of questionable provenance. Do not dismember any item and don’t acquire a fragment which you believe to have been separated from a larger object except through natural means. Consider the implications of buying an item from an associated assemblage and the impact this could have on study. Liaise, where possible, with the academic and broader communities about your artifacts.”

IS protest 2

One encouraging sign that those destroying our cultural heritage may be more apt to face legal accountability before the International Criminal Court in The Hague is this month’s arrests and extradition of the alleged Islamic extremist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, also known as “Abu Tourab,” who the ICC claims was a member of Ansar Dine, an affiliate of Al Qaida. He appeared on September 30 before the ICC and was formally charged with involvement in the 2012 destruction of 14 of the 16 mausoleums and other historic buildings, including a Mosque, in Timbuktu, Mali. The entire city of Timbuktu, nicknamed the “City of 333 Saints’” is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and during the 15th and 16th centuries operated 180 schools and universities that received thousands of students from all over the Muslim world. According to Corrine Dufka of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, “The Abu Tourab case signals that there will be a price to pay for destroying the world’s treasures.”

Several encouraging and admirable public and private initiatives are employing creative ways to protect Syria’s millennia-long cultural heritage are currently underway, as experts and locals scramble to save what they can. Others are about to be launched, and all warrant our support.

destroyed artefacts

Some of the current initiatives include, but are not limited to the following:

The Million Image Database is a large-scale scholarly project targeting both object documentation, and trafficked object identification. The project is sending thousands of low-cost, easy-to-use 3-D cameras to volunteers across the Middle East to document sites and objects in their area. Images and videos collected in this way are received for processing by the project’s technical team in Britain via uploads to the project’s website. Some of these images will be used to create detailed maps of Syrian sites, and to create 3-D models of buildings and artifacts that will be usable as blueprints for full-scale reconstruction.

The project website is closed to the public to protect volunteer’s anonymity and also to ensure that the initiative remains a purely scholarly venture, not a social media platform for activists, according to Alexy Karenowska, the project’s director of technology. But she assures that as project progresses, it will find a way to share storytelling from the material to the public. The images are to be collated in a huge, publicly accessible database. Available to all, and under development in collaboration with UNESCO, this project aims to become an ever-growing archaeological catalogue which includes all available scholarly information about sites and artifacts, rises awareness of cultural heritage and cultural heritage preservation, and provides a new platform for the identification of trafficked objects. The database will be integrable with existing catalogues and lists of known missing or stolen items and will employ the latest image comparison and feature recognition based search technology, removing the need for those who are inspecting suspect cargo or objects to have specialist knowledge.

Another project would carry out far more detailed scans of antiquities in Syria using laser scanners. The scanners bounce lasers off the surface of objects in the field, measuring millions of points a second to create a data set known as a point cloud. The data can be used to create 3-D images accurate to two or three millimeters to create models or virtual tours of the sites or allow full-scale reconstructions. This project, called “Anqa,” the Arabic word for the phoenix, the legendary bird that rises from the ashes, aims to laser-scan 200 objects in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region, according to the California-based scanning company CyArk. It hopes to work with DGAM and other antiquities agencies in Syria, as well as UNESCO, to deploy teams in Damascus and other accessible areas.

Syria dead city

A recently launched campaign is taking a more low-tech approach aiming at directly protecting at least some sites. The project by ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research), provides supplies and funding to local experts and volunteers for crates and other items to store artifacts and also sandbags to pack around unmovable structures to give some protection against shelling or bombs. According to LeeAnn Gordon, project manager for Conservation and Heritage Preservation at ASOR, satellite images are used to track destruction of antiquities. One problem this initiative has to deal with is, that US policy toward Syria prohibits the funding of governmental groups, thus limiting ASOR’s options in a country divided between government-controlled and jihadist held areas.

We can all help raise awareness in our communities and instruct our politicians to tighten and enforce current national and international laws and to ratify the instruments of international humanitarian law that protect cultural heritage.

Specifically the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague 1954) and its two Protocols (1954 and 1999), as well as the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Paris 1970) should be implemented swiftly and efficiently into national legislation in accord with their spirit and overarching goal to preserve cultural heritage.

Irina Bokova, the Director of UNESCO has called on governments to implement the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2199, which was adopted in February of this year and lays out serious penalties for the illegal importation of antiquities trafficked from regions under cultural threat.

IS destroying Assyrian church 4

Traveling around Syria one comes upon many heritage unfunded preservation projects through the initiative of local private citizens who love their country and want to preserve the cultural heritage of all of us. Some are reportedly being accomplished in rebel held areas where there is little technology and no resources. One of countless examples is the work of a history teacher, Suleiman al-Eissa, who lives in Busra Sham, one of UNESCO‘s six World Heritage sites in Syria. As reported recently by the AP, Suleiman al-Eissa, a history teacher leads a self-created “revolutionary” antiquities department to protect the ruins in his hometown of Busra Sham in southern Daraa province, one of the six UNESCO World Heritage sites. Mr. Al-Eissa, like many Syrians, is documenting in writing current damage at local archaeological sites while guarding some sites from looting.

We can and must support new dedicated groups like Heritage for Peace and the more than two dozen NGO’s recently formed, that are working to protect archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq. In each of our communities we can work on strengthening our national capacities, providing more resources, experts on the ground, and better coordination with government forces, Interpol, and other actors while encouraging volunteer organizations willing to send international volunteers experts as Cultural Heritage Monitors to the scene. Their work would be to assess, protect, and investigate cultural property destruction and looting. All this while working with locals of all religions and ethnicity who want to protect our and their cultural heritage. In other words we need to establish the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross and Blue Shield, providing an emergency response to cultural property at risk from armed conflict.

The growing global groundswell of popular support spawning an international volunteer movement to confront and expel the non-state actors endangering our cultural heritage in Syria is cause for hope. And it’s a clarion call for each of us to join the growing public support for confronting ‘looting to order’ and ‘cultural racketeering’ in Syria to preserve and protect our shared culture heritage for those who follow us.

Museum cat

One comment

  1. […] Who will stop Erdogan? Seeds of terror and desperation Clarifications about the Syrian conflict Cultural Racketeering in Syria Judo in […]



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