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Confronting ‘Looting to Order’ and ‘Cultural Racketeering’ in Syria

Damascus

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 Directorate General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) and others who closely monitor the desecration, looting and destruction at archaeological sites. According to the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) and other surveys, more than 1/3 of Syria’s 10,000 archaeological sites are currently under the control of Da’ish (ISIS) who are looting them on an industrial scale for sale globally on the black market. It is not known with precision 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 US, to join terror groups in the Middle East and Isis in particular, doubling the numbers of one year ago. “We are witnessing the largest global convergence of jihadists in history,” the report warned.​

Palmyra in early May 2015 before the arrival of Da’ish (ISIS). As of early October 2015 it is not known precisely what has been spared. (Photo: fplamb)

According to the Antiquities Coalition, raising just $1 million 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.

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 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 “looting to order”, “theft to order”, “stolen to order” or “commissioned theft” no one has even been charged with a crime. Going back to 2005, when al Qaeda was trafficking in looted antiquities, it was second as a source of funding only to kidnappings and ransom.

Similar cultural crimes are being committed today in Syria. It has been documented that Da’ish (ISIS), and Jabhat a-Nusra (al-Nusra Front) use WhatsApp and Skype (Parkinson, Albayrak, & Mavin, 2015), and some militia are using smartphones (Sogue, 2014) as well as employing social-media savvy experts around the world, often teenagers, to design and execute looted antiquities marketing programs.

The financial incentives to looting are very powerful such 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 it be harnessed to save other heritage sites under nihilist Da’ish control? Short of defeating the entrenched jihadists militarily which appears highly unlikely anytime soon?

The challenges are great. The tens of thousands of foreign would-be jihadists who have now poured into Syria, most to join the perceived “A-team-Varsity Squads” of Da’ish (ISIS) and Jabhat Al Nusra. There is little evidence of success from international efforts to diminish their ranks. Few on the ground are much impressed by the new Russian hyped 4+1 planned coalition or the Russian proposed bilateral coordination with the U.S. against Islamic State. This is partly because currently, an average of about 1,000 foreign fighters are arriving every month 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 entered Syria bringing to more than 100 the total number of countries with fighters in Syria.

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 from 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.”

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 object 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, or 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.”

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 9/30/2015 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.”

On a related matter, during his 9/28/2015 UN General Assembly address, Ban Ki-moon called for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the International Criminal Court. This would include jurisdiction over all cultural heritage crimes committed at Syria’s archaeological sites.

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. .

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 the United Kingdom 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, the vision for this resource is for an ever-growing archaeological catalogue which brings together scholarly information about sites and artifacts, raises 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 employ the latest image comparison and feature recognition based search technology, removing the need for those 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.

A recently launched campaign is taking a more low-tech approach aiming at directly protecting at least some sites. The project, by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), 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. This, according to LeeAnn Gordon, project manager for Conservation and Heritage Preservation at ASOR also using satellite images 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); to implement them swiftly and efficiently into national legislation and in accord with their spirit and overarching goal to preserve cultural heritage, and to observe and enforce them.

Irina Bokova, the Director of UNESCO has called on governments to implement the U.N. 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.

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, training for soldiers, more resources, experts on the ground, and better coordination with armed forces, Interpol, and other actors while encouraging volunteer organizations willing to send international volunteers experts as Cultural Heritage Monitors on 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.

As Dr. Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist at Oxford University pointed out recently: “Today’s Monument’s Men are often volunteers. Some are local people, such as the Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks, who work in Aleppo (a UNESCO World Heritage City) to try and save the monuments and buildings there during the current conflict. In 2006, America formed a Committee of the Blue Shield, a group of individuals committed to the protection of cultural property worldwide during armed conflict. The UK Committee was established last year, and other committees are located across the world.”

And there are many others.

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.

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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