Archaeologist-journalist Joanne Bajjaly has managed to get some great insights into some of the networks engaged in the ‘systematic’ pillage of Syrian antiquities. Evidently, the looters and smugglers were ‘not reluctant to justify their reprehensible and illegal actions’, because they were economically necessary or (allegedly) politically defensible.
Just as Turkey and Syria and Lebanon are transit routes for Iraqi antiquities, so Turkey and Lebanon are transit routes for Syrian antiquities. Since even archaeological sites that aren’t in the Syrian war zone have been looted, a huge number of antiquities must be being smuggled out of the country. And every country’s security forces are involved.
On top of the knowledge that ‘smuggling antiquities [through Turkey] is the route to easy money’, Bajjaly’s information explains how the illicit antiquities trade network functions.
Repatriation of cultural property into a conflict zone
The General Director of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, Mamoun Abdul-Karim, has stated that ‘Lebanon is the only neighboring country’ that has ‘contacted us and informed us about seizing smuggled antiquities’. Indeed, Lebanon has repatriated eighteen looted mosaics into the midst of the very ‘raging war’ that is ‘eliminating [Syria's] heritage’.
Abdul-Karim has argued that this demonstrates that Lebanon is ‘truly concerned with the fight against smuggling Syrian antiquities’, though others might understand it to show wilful disregard for the security of the seized artefacts. Furthermore, while the recipient might be considered to be the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums or the Syrian Arab Republic, it might equally and more problematically be considered to be the Assad government/state.
Local militia-managed/mafia-protected looting
According to a former director of archaeological excavation in Syria, Michel Makdissi, ‘[non-combatant] armed groups‘ (mafias) have ‘protect[ed]‘ – or managed(?) – ‘workers [antiquities diggers]‘ at Dura-Europos and Mari. (Even if the armed groups were local defence militias, they would also meet the definition of mafias.) Elsewhere, rebels themselves have stated that they have ‘excavation teams‘.
So, in some places, the illicit digging operation is an intrinsic part of the rebel organisation; in others, civilian antiquities digging is enabled by mafia protection, wherein either the dig is managed as a mafia business or it is subjected to a mafia protection racket. The longer this business goes on, the more established it becomes, the more organised these groups will become.
(Some) smugglers ‘do not mix’ commodities
Bajjaly relayed that ‘[s]mugglers do not mix merchandise or roads’ or even agents. According to the Lebanese Office of International Thefts’ Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Saad, ‘trading in antiquities is never mixed with trading arms‘.
That may refer to smugglers in Lebanon, but it cannot be a general rule in Syria or Turkey, because Syria-Lebanon multi-commodity smugglers and Syria-Turkey arms-and-antiquities smugglers have confessed their own activities.
(Some) arms dealers ‘do not exchange’ weapons for antiquities
Again according to Lieutenant Colonel Saad, ‘middlemen and local salesmen’ do ‘exchange artifacts for guns’ (too), but arms dealers would ‘not risk’ being caught during their border crossing to sell arms by transporting antiquities as well.
They do not exchange weapons with archaeological pieces, since they are not in the business of selling them. They want their money in cash.
Again, that cannot be generally true, because some Syria-Lebanon multi-commodity smuggler-dealers have stated that they barter with paramilitaries, receive antiquities and supply arms.
Warring parties and supporters have ‘facilitated’ the antiquities trade
Lt. Col. Saad explained how, ‘since trading in antiquities aims to fund a war that has its believers, it is no longer illegal’ in practice; the warring parties and their supporters have ‘legitimized’ the trade (to themselves) and ‘facilitated its channels’.
Elements within Syrian army and rebel forces, and Lebanese and Turkish security forces, collude with smugglers
Saad also stated that (somewhat necessarily) ‘there is collusion between [at least elements within] security forces [and customs officials] on each side of the border‘. [There are three lines of checkpoints within the Syrian-Turkish land borders - gendarmerie, narcotics police, immigration and customs agents.] So, west-bound smugglers are taxed by (elements within) the Assad regime’s army and Lebanese security forces, north-bound smugglers are taxed by (elements within) the (jihadist) rebel forces and Turkish security forces.
Apparently, of the few smuggling gangs that are caught, ‘[m]ost’ are caught because their bought-and-paid-for security forces feel under-bribed.
Trade in conflict antiquities through Lebanon
An anonymous archaeologist suggested that only a minority of arms-for-antiquities trafficking occurred between Syria and Lebanon because the cross-border roads ran through battlefields, but I think it may simply be because only a minority of the demand for illicit arms comes from the Syrian regime. (After all, the specialist ‘antiquities-exporting mafias’ continue to operate and most are based in the regime-controlled areas on the border with Lebanon.)
Saad observed that ‘Lebanon imports weapons and stolen cars, and exports antiquities and hashish’, and forms a transit point for Syrian antiquities that are being smuggled to the western art market (possibly along the existing supply lines for Lebanese antiquities).
Local paramilitaries, international mafias
According to Bajjaly, international antiquities mafias target conflict zones, hook customers with ‘huge sums of money… for common archaeological pieces’, then reduce their bids, increase their purchases and gut the place’s cultural heritage. The antiquities flow along a very long supply line, from (local mafia-protected) peasant, to local market dealer, to local antiquities merchant, to smuggling associate, to smuggling network, to foreign antiquities merchant, to museums and collectors.
Trade in conflict antiquities through Turkey
The anonymous archaeologist detailed how ‘trading “arms for artifacts” is… concentrated in Turkey,…. [because] the borders with Turkey are wide open and the traders can move with great ease’. Certainly, the porous borders make the smuggling much easier, which explains the quantity of trading, but it doesn’t explain the type of commodities being traded. As I said, I believe that is a product of rebel forces’ far greater demand for illicit arms.
Moreover, the ease of crossing the Syrian-Turkish border may not be essential to the antiquities-for-arms trade, because at least some ‘goods are transported by airplanes to selected locations’.
A very dirty business in a very dirty war
This is especially worrying because a heroin smuggling mafia boss has stated that ‘Turkish [NATO] army officers‘, indeed the Turkish government, supported and participated in drugs trafficking, and an FBI intelligence translator/whistleblower has testified that ‘[Turkish] NATO planes routinely shipped heroin‘. So, the Syrian-Turkish antiquities-for-arms trade mirrors the Turkish heroin-for-arms trade.
And it is not an outlandish conspiracy theory or a blind and blithe analogy from one particularly grim corner of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict to the whole history of Turkey. According to (Turkish-Syrian border town) Ceylanpınar’s mayor İsmail Arslan, Turkey is ‘involved in a very dirty war’; according to its other residents, Turkish security forces are (secretly but no less officially) ‘hosting [Islamist] Jabhat al-Nusra fighters’ and supporting their cross-border activities.
I am trying to find out which planes were involved in these transports…