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Struggling Syrian rebels sell off country’s past to fund its future

Ancient artifacts sold just over border to give fighters needed cash

The Washington Post, AFP-JIJI

To the caches of ammunition and medicines that they lug each day from this border city back into their homeland, Syrian rebels have added new tools to support their fight against President Bashar Assad: metal detectors and pickaxes.

The rebels, struggling to finance their effort, have joined an emerging trade in illicitly acquired Syrian artifacts and antiquities, selling off the country’s past as the war for its future intensifies.

Fierce clashes once again raged between Syrian troops and several rebel battalions Sunday in Aleppo, with insurgents seizing an army checkpoint near Nayrab military air base, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Nayrab is adjacent to Aleppo’s airport, a key target for the rebels, who have also been battling troops guarding the Kwiyres air base east of the city and Menegh air base to the north.

The opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, accused members of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah of intervening in the two-year conflict in Syria. Hezbollah fighters crossed into Homs Province on Saturday and attacked “three Syrian villages in the Qusayr region near the Lebanese border,” the SNC said. The operation resulted in “civilian casualties and the exodus of hundreds of people,” and it has also “stoked sectarian tensions” in the area, the opposition said.

Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, the international community has expressed alarm over the fate of the country’s diverse heritage landmarks and stunning archaeological sites, as rebel and government forces have transformed historical treasures such as the 1,000-year-old Aleppo souk and the crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers into theaters of war.

As the war nears its third year, the United Nations and conservationists warn that Syria’s historical sites face a new and more dangerous threat: a sophisticated network of smugglers and dealers — prime among them members of the cash-strapped insurgency — looking to capitalize on the country’s cultural riches.

“In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high,” said Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The extent of the trade is unknown due to difficulties accessing historical sites in the war-torn country, according to UNESCO, which hosted a regional workshop in Amman this month on protecting Syrian cultural heritage from trafficking. There are conflicting reports about the fate of artifacts from Syria, long a cultural crossroads.

Twelve of the country’s 36 museums have been looted, according to the France-based Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology. In a Jan. 22 report, however, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums said the bulk of the items have been accounted for and transferred to secure locations. Only two pieces had been taken from display cases since the start of the conflict, the ministry reported.

But other looting has followed the release of the report. At least 18 ancient mosaics depicting scenes from Homer’s “The Odyssey” have been stolen in northern Syria, Culture Minister Lubana Mushaweh said Sunday.

She said an Aramaic gold-plated bronze statue was stolen from the museum in Hama, a raging front in the war between loyalist troops and rebels.

Mushaweh admitted that her ministry faces great difficulties in “safeguarding 10,000 historical sites scattered around Syria,” cautioning against illegal excavations that “could damage some sites and buried cities.” But she insisted that museums are “well guarded” and “their prized possessions for all humanity have been archived and placed in very secure locations.”

Among Syria’s archaeological treasures are six UNESCO World Heritage sites: the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city of Bosra, Crac des Chevaliers crusader castle, the citadel of Saladin and the ancient northern villages.

Syrian authorities and conservationists concur on the increasing vulnerability of the country’s archaeological sites, which, according to the government report, have been subject to “several” acts of vandalism and illegal excavations.

“This isn’t just the history of Syria, but the history of mankind at stake,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Syrian Antiquities Directorate. Before the conflict, he said, plunderers “were digging at night. Now they are digging in broad daylight.”

Conservationists and officials in Damascus say the emerging trade is driven by an increased desperation among rebel forces, who control the bulk of Syria’s archaeologically rich regions.

Although the rebel Free Syrian Army has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the protection of heritage sites, rebel leaders defend their participation in the illegal antiquities trade, deeming it a vital source of funding to sustain their uprising. Average hauls can command $50,000 on the black market, insurgents have said in interviews.

“We have been left to face an entire army without arms, without money and without help from the outside world,” said Abu Mohammed Hamad, an FSA coordinator at a safe house in the Jordanian city of Ramtha who described overseeing the excavation of Roman tombs outside Damascus, the Syrian capital. “It is within our right to use whatever resources we can find.”

Syrian rebels interviewed said they have begun dispatching loosely formed “excavation teams” — groups of young men who scour archaeological sites for gold, mosaics, statues and other transportable artifacts that can be sold easily.

In a little over three months — a period in which rebels say looting has accelerated — the excavators claim to have uncovered an inventory that reads like the index of a history textbook: Bronze Age vessels from the southern town of Tal Shihab, Byzantine mosaics from the Church of St. Simeon near Aleppo, and statuettes more than 2,000 years old from Bosra, an ancient city that is home to a well-preserved Roman theater.

Jordan has emerged as the primary first stop for the goods, according to the rebels, who said Turkey and Lebanon also are active markets. The rebels and Jordanian security sources say most of the illicitly acquired artifacts are smuggled into Jordan amid the daily influx of about 2,000 refugees. They end up on the market in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where merchants have reported a flood of Syrian artifacts in recent weeks.

“Every day we are getting calls about Syrian gold, Syrian mosaics, Syrian statues,” said Mohammed Khalil, an antiques dealer in Amman. “Damascus is being sold right here in Amman, piece by piece.”

At one downtown Amman shop, a merchant who gave his name only as Ahmed cleared his counter top of the keychains and Chinese-manufactured bottles of “holy water” he reserves for foreign tourists. He arranged a row of artifacts that he said represented a span of the various civilizations that once thrived in ancient Syria — red earthen Bronze Age vases, blue Iron Age glass vessels, the head of a marble Roman statue and a gold-encrusted dagger from the early Islamic period.

“This is only a sample. I keep the rare pieces at home,” said Ahmed, adding that he acquired the items from a Syrian dealer in Amman, who told him that they came from families that had fled the fighting.

In Amman, Syrian smugglers and intermediaries said the artifacts command prices that range from $50 for a stone vessel to $3,000 for statues and stone tablets. Jordanian traders then sell the items for prices that are three times as high. Ahmed, the merchant, said the hottest antiques are Nabataean-era and Aramaic-inscribed stone tablets, which he said wealthy patrons use to adorn hallway entrances of their Amman villas.

The influx of artifacts is familiar for authorities in Jordan, which served as a transit point for Iraqi archaeological treasures looted after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

Although battle-tested, Jordanian customs officials have yet to break the growing Syrian smuggling network. Earlier this month, Jordanian police seized 40 Syrian artifacts in a raid of an apartment in Ramtha, the largest horde of smuggled Syrian antiquities discovered in Jordan since the onset of the conflict.

The items have yet to hit international auction houses, said Martin Wilson, general counsel for Christie’s and head of its art law department. But Wilson said Christie’s will remain “vigilant,” because “it is possible that in years to come, they may be offered to us when they have passed through many hands.”