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Syria’s Truce Bodes Well for Salvaging our Cultural Heritage

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Aleppo

The tentative cessation of hostilities in Syria, which came into effect on 2/28/2016, brokered by Washington and Moscow, is only in its second week. The sides have agreed to an initial cease-fire of two weeks with an extension if it works. The AL-Assad government has announced that it would participate in renewed peace talks in Geneva, offering new proposals, which are due to begin next week (3/14/16). The opposition is still considering whether to attend despite a lull in fighting.

It is well documented that there have been daily incidents of artillery shelling, airstrikes and clashes. Yet, for the nearly 12 million displaced civilians, half of Syria’s population, it’s a much welcomed respite and diminution of the five year slaughter which has decimated hundreds of towns and nearly 1000 villages, killing between 300,000 and 475,000 depending on which body counts one credits. As of this week nearly half a million Syrians trapped in areas under siege are finally receiving desperately-needed food and medicine.

Various monitoring groups including the office of Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, have estimated that the overall per-truce violence has decreased by 90 percent. Opposition groups, including the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which claims scores of on the scene volunteers, have agreed with this estimate. But due to “logistical” problems the cease-fire has failed to achieve one of its most important objectives which is to facilitate a long term free flow of desperately needed aid supplies to more than 160, 000 people in nearly two dozen besieged areas.
More time is also required to learn if there will be reasons to discourage more massive numbers of citizens from fleeing Syria and whether those who have done, and whose numbers have reached nearly five million, will contemplate returning from neighboring countries or from even further afield including European countries.

In all areas where the bombing and shelling have ceased there is palpable relief and even reported celebrations. Damascus is perhaps the main city that has experienced relative peace without serious breaches. Much of Damascus is nearly blissful with hope aided one imagines by the arrival of a motherly warm spring. Visitors notice countless family picnics and children filling this cities many parks, playgrounds and green spaces.

From Lebanon one hears expressions by Syrian refugees who have been forced to flee their homes, declaring their intentions to return to Syria as soon as possible, within weeks, if the cessation of hostilities even partially holds. Explaining that his family’s home in Aleppo was reduced to a pile of rubble, Ahmad, a father of six, explained to this observer, “If the violence ends, and if we can get water back, we will return home and live on our property in a tent and immediately start to rebuild.”

There are also reports that in certain areas of Syria which host archaeological sites, most also being tourist destinations, citizens and volunteer civil society organizations are ready to help restore them immediately when security conditions allow. So too is Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) under the direction of the indefatigable international patriot, Dr. Maamoun AbdulKarim.

A number of developments over the past several months, and since the start of the current truce, create some optimism that damaged and destroyed archaeological sites can be largely restored. Some estimates, including this observer’s calculations based on more than two years of site-visits and study of recently available archaeological site reports put the number currently able to be repaired, restored or rebuilt at between 85 and 95%. Obviously looted artifacts and burned historic documents are much more problematical and based on the information provided to this observer by different sources, as well as personal observations, it is safe to say some world heritage sites, or at least some of its components, are irrevocably lost to us and to those who will follow us.

When one has conversations with villagers or a local population representatives of those forced to flee but whose families have lived among particular archaeological sites for generations, one hears emphatic pledges to restore the piles of rubble, as best craftsmen and science can achieve, to their previous splendor. Locals explain that the restoration may not be perfect in every respect but that they will gratefully welcome expertise from anyone in any country who wants to help them and their government with restorations.

The current truce is exciting the many would-be antiquities restorers across Syrian society. And even among many rebels and former rebels who do not accept the rabid iconoclasm of ISIS and like minded groups. An archaeological student from Aleppo University opined to this observer last week that “Every true Syrian nationalist wants to rebuild our shared cultural heritage and now we have good reason to hope that restoration can begin soon.”

Similar sentiments are being expressed in other places which have experienced iconoclasm. One example being by citizens in Timbuktu , Mali many of whom reportedly have declared about the destruction of ancient shrines by Ansar Dine, “Let them destroy them. We will rebuild them.” This observer recalls that during his last visit to heavily damaged Aleppo, the director of the National Museum insisted, “Just as the Germans restored and rebuilt Dresden, we |Syrians shall rebuild Aleppo.”
Art and Archaeology historians have begun to talk about Syria’s attitude toward, in some cases, difficult restorative challenges, as the principle of “substitution” found in many cultures. “Substitution” means that many times something new can be built as best recreating that which was destroyed and be substituted for something that has been lost. In the case of the Timbuktu shrines they are made of mud brick and thus have always required repairs and rebuilding.

Just last week (3/2/2016) Malian jihadi leader Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi appeared at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for a hearing to face charges of destroying part of the North African country’s rich cultural heritage. Al-Mahdi is accused of overseeing the 2012 destruction of medieval mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque, which formed part of Timbuktu’s World Heritage Site. Al-Mahdi is the first suspect in the ICC’s history to face prosecution for attacks against our cultural heritage as opposed to direct humanitarian reasons. The Timbuktu case represents a much needed, if egregiously overdue, application of international law and the Responsibility to Protect t from and punish cultural heritage crimes.

Syria’s cultural heritage restoration process will no doubt have a profoundly cathartic effect and engender pride in Syria as it begins the healing process. Modern history offers precedence.

One recalls that on 11/9/ 1993 in Bosnia, the elegant Mostar Bridge, which was completed in 1566 after nine years of construction and which was designated a World Heritage site in the 20th century, was destroyed in a frenzy of hate by a barrage of tank shells. The local population with help from UNESCO and the World Bank launched a project to rebuild the 429 year old bridge. Using as much of the original white limestone as possible salvaged from the river bed below and adding new stone from nearby quarries, the project became and stands today’s as a much valued symbol of peace and culture and of the ability of a population to restore obliterated heritage sites.

Having come to know many Syrians over the past few years, this observer predicts that the same will happen across Syria at scores of archaeological sites, and that the restoration efforts will aid in the reunification of Syria and will be an essential part of this cradle of civilizations healing process.
Syria’s planned massive archaeological site restoration efforts do not have to be perfect in every cm of detail-although surely that is the goal. But what must be avoided is falling into the temptation of quick money by destroying archaeological sites and turning them into strip-malls of boutiques for the rich tourists as Beirut’s leaders did during the 1990’s. They bulldozed their and our damaged culture heritage into the Port of Beirut to create more space for “development.” On top of the archaeological sites speculators created an empty abomination “chic” stores and restaurants many of which have shut their doors due to the local population boycotting them in protect and few, if any at all these days, rich Gulf tourists are to be seen. Many Lebanese are rightfully enraged.

This observer has seen no evidence over the past few years that the Syrian people intend to follow Lebanon’s solution at damaged cultural heritage sites.

The frenetic destructive iconoclasm of ISIS in Syria may be lessening to some degree given the growing popular resistance in a majority of areas under its Caliphate. ISIS brutality and its wanton destruction of Syria’s much cherished past is increasingly meeting local resistance.

It is well known that ISIS views its movement as a return to the roots of Islam although this claim is contested by Muslims throughout Syria and the world. The ISIS perception involves a built-in brutality toward non-Muslims and its definition of Shirk as any form of innovation (or “Bid’ah”) in Islamic belief, theology, worship or custom. In the overarching scheme to “command right and forbid wrong,” ISIS militants will often physically destroy all material artifacts and edifices they define as Shirk. ISIS sees itself as the all-encompassing educator about, eradicator of and enforcer against Shirk. More than one ISIS supporter has explained to this observer that they strongly condemn the Taliban and others who have failed to totally erase Shirk in their wake and left some centers of reverence, ritual prayer and devotion, or amulet production behind. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi repeatedly commands his followers to “strike the apostate’s Shirk with your Tawhid (Tawhid is the indivisible oneness concept of monotheism in Islam) and Allah will break their strength.”

There is a growing rising chorus among Sunni and Shia Muslims in Syria and elsewhere rejecting this Shirk idea as applied by ISIS. Many Syrians, especially those under its domination, are accusing ISIS of not defending the true Koranic heritage of the Prophet Mohammad which generally admired and valued and even protected antiquities including Greek and Roman architecture. Rather, ISIS is increasingly be accused of inventing a modernist, opportunistic perverse cult for political and not religious purposes. A Muslim ‘dialogue’, more likely an internecine Sunni-Sunni bellum sacrum-not to be confused with the deepening Shia-Sunni sectarian war, appears to be underway to confront and expel ISIS. History will judge its course.

At the same time, given a truce among their many enemies, ISIS faces heightened challenges of manpower, finance, and credibility about its message among local populations. ISIS has been forced to cut salaries by 50% reduce public services, and face up to and punish significant desertions among its fighters who want to opt out of the Caliphate.

Contrary to earlier recruit-centers hype of salaries of $ 600 per month for recruits, the salary this week is only $50 per month for fighters, raised to $100 if he is married, and another monthly sum of $35 per child. The latter figure obtains except for male children over the age of 15, in which case they are required to become Caliphate fighters and head to the front after four weeks or less of military and religious training. Too make matters worse for ISIS, for a number of reasons foreign jihadists are not arriving in the numbers as during the heady Caliphate days of much of late 2014 and 2015.

If the truce holds and the war ends, there are many reasons to believe it will have helped save our cultural heritage in Syria. And that its protection, preservation and restoration will begin in earnest.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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