Syria: conflict antiquities and funding of regime and rebels through looting and smuggling

Happily, WordPress have unblocked (my access to) my blog.

As Dorothy King says of the Syrian situation, the ‘[l]oss of life [is] terrible, huge compared to looting going on’. Our primary concern must always be the human cost. Grotesquely, one of the reasons I don’t address the human cost here is that too many people are being maimed and killed too fast for me to keep track. All I can hope with any of my work on conflict antiquities is that it somehow, sometime, contributes to the re-establishment of peaceful community life.

David Meadows (@rogueclassicist), Dorothy King (@DorothyKing) and Paul Barford (@PortantIssues) have been discussing the illicit trade in antiquities amidst the Syrian civil war. Thankfully, Meadows and King debunked the Assad regime’s claims about the looting-and-smuggling of the Odyssey mosaics from Apamea. However, I fear that some of the scepticism towards allegations of rebel engagement in antiquities looting and smuggling ignores repeatedly, independently-confirmed information from non-partisan sources on the ground.


David Meadows has cautioned that the ‘clearly deliberate vagaries’ of the Assad regime’s claims about the looting-and-smuggling of the Odyssey mosaics ‘suggest that Syria’s “official” channels are clearly playing up the looting aspect to gain political points in the Western media‘. They make him – and should make all of us – ‘genuinely wonder’ about who is looting, how much they’re looting, and why they’re looting.

Distrust of UNESCO and journalists, and limits on access to information

Dorothy King judges that UNESCO are ‘better desk-jockeys, writing reports rather than actually getting off their arses to do something to help’. And Paul Barford asks, ‘why [are we] having to rely on speculating about the truth behind stories written by reporters in far off lands and not able to find a monthly report posted on the UNESCO website from its National Committee actually on the spot[?]’

UNESCO says that the ‘extent of the trade is unknown because of difficulties accessing historical sites in the war-torn country’. They are not alone. Last year, Lebanese archaeologist and journalist Joanne Bajjaly noted that conditions in Syria were ‘impossible to verify due to the inaccessibility of archaeological and other sites’; and the Director-General of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Julien Anfruns, stated that ‘the situation is too “hot” in Syria to enable investigators to work out on the ground what has actually been stolen’ (paraphrased by Ian Johnston; paraphrasing also cited by Paul Barford). I haven’t heard that the situation has improved since then.

Indeed, there are both practically unavoidable and morally defensible limits on information. First, the Assad regime has ‘sharply limited the number of foreign journalists entering the country’. Second, at least some media are ‘refusing [freelance] copy or pictures from Syria so as not to “encourage freelancers to take exceptional risks“‘.

Complexity in the antiquities trade and complexity in news reports

Barford rightly doubts that rebels are ‘selling antiquities to refugees for cash with which they then buy guns’. Therefore, he queries, ‘how much [are journalists] cobbling together snippets of information from various sources (including some they are ‘fed’) to produce a roughly-coherent story, when the situation is far more complex[?]’ However, neither his cited news report nor any other has either stated or implied that rebels were raising fighting funds by selling antiquities to refugees.

Luck reported: that the rebels had ‘excavation teams’; that some antiquities ‘came from families that had fled the fighting’; and that ‘most of the illicitly acquired artifacts [were] smuggled into Jordan amid the daily influx of about 2,000 refugees‘. Presumably, (at least some of) the rebels’ smugglers enter Jordan amongst refugees. In addition, the refugees themselves take antiquities as a form of international currency.

In fact, the mainstream media have shown that there are people selling antiquities to buy bread and people selling antiquities to buy yachts as well as people selling antiquities to buy guns. The MSM have reported the complex mixture of ‘amateur diggers‘, ‘small-scale “individual”‘ smugglers and ‘professional international gangs‘ as well as rebel and regime structures.

The realities of journalists’ access to information and the reliability of sources

So, where are journalists getting their information and are their sources reliable? Meadows, King and Barford are absolutely right about the Odyssey mosaics story, successfully planted in the press by the Assad regime then reported by the AFP, then repeated by France 24, the Global Post, the Raw Story (@RawStory), Saving Antiquities For Everyone (SAFE (@saveantiquities)) and others.

However, I fear that personal experience (mine most of all) and anecdote are insufficient to judge the overall situation; and a demonstrably mistaken presumption of journalistic ignorance is an unhelpful approach.

Claims of rebel looting of antiquities bear little resemblance to ‘the reality’ King is ‘hearing about’: ‘this is mostly a mixture of pro-Assad regime propaganda and speculation by cultural property management agencies… My experience is also that the people selling antiquities, or trying to, are from the Assad regime.’

Barford questions ‘to what extent is this [rebel-organised antiquities looting] propaganda being fed to journalists by the state to discredit the rebels against its authority?

Barford’s distrusted ‘stories written by reporters in far off lands‘ seem to have been written by the Jordan Times‘ (Jordan-based) editor Taylor Luck (@Taylor_Luck); if he included last year’s stories, they would also have been written by Time‘s Lebanon-based correspondent Aryn Baker (@arynebaker) and NBC News’ (presumably US-based) online editor Ian Johnston (@IJohnstonNBC). Jordan and Lebanon, at least, are not far-away lands. Moreover, they are key markets and transit points for the trade in Syrian antiquities, so they’re actually quite good places to investigate that trade.

Formally, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is committed to cultural property protection. An FSA spokesperson, Louay al-Moqdad, told Baker that ‘there are people [rebels] who loot, but they work alone. If that is how they buy weapons to fight, we can’t control them.”‘ That may well be true.

However, individual ‘rebel leaders’ have repeatedly and independently ‘defend[ed] their participation in the illegal antiquities trade, deeming it a vital source of funding to sustain their uprising‘.

A rebel, Jihad Abu Saoud, told Luck: ‘Some days we are fighters; others we are archaeologists.’ An FSA coordinator and “excavation” overseer, Abu Mohammed Hamad, told Luck that it was within their ‘right to use whatever resources [they could] find‘ to fund their fight against the Assad regime’s military forces. A rebel smuggling overseer, Abu Majed, commented: ‘People may judge us and call us thieves…. But sometimes you have to sacrifice the past in order to secure the future.’

‘Syrian rebels’ told Luck about the ‘excavation teams’ that dug for easily-sold, portable antiquities, and their markets/transit points in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. FSA ‘rebels and Jordanian security sources’ told Luck about the presence of smugglers (and quantity of smuggled goods) amongst refugees. And Syrian rebels and Jordanian merchants, including Amman-based antiquities dealer Mohammed Khalil, affirmed the availability of Syrian artefacts on the Jordanian market.

Amman-based Jordanian antiquities merchant “Ahmed” showed Luck his “own” looted/stolen Syrian artifacts and relayed the second-hand information from an Amman-based Syrian antiquities dealer that he bought Syrian antiquities from refugee families.

A pseudonymous ‘small-time’ multi-commodity smuggler, Abu Khaled, told Baker that he and other smugglers ‘buy antiquities cheap, and then sell weapons expensively…. The rebels need weapons, and antiquities are an easy way to buy them.’

Rebels incriminate themselves, and impartial sources incriminate both rebels and regime

A pseudonymous antiquities smuggler, Abu Jabbar, told Baker that he had ‘bought looted items from both sides. “Even the regime is dealing with antiquities, because they are collapsing economically. They need cash money to pay the shabiha [hired thugs].”‘

So, the information concerning rebel (and regime) activities has been repeatedly confirmed by different journalists in different places each with multiple sources. Many of the sources are on the ground in the conflict zone (at least some of the time); many of the sources are non-partisan; and many of the sources incriminate themselves rather than their enemies. Both rebel fighters and regime elements are trading in illicit antiquities.

Ebbs and flows in information

Within and between communities, there are interesting – and sometimes disturbing – ebbs and flows in information. Since social media provide an (electronic) paper trail, it is possible to show not just that people pull acceptable/convenient strands out of the fabric of a story, but how people choose those strands. It is possible to identify not only key amplifiers of messages, but also key gatekeepers. The story of looting in Syria provides a tiny example.

My tweets critical of the Assad regime were repeatedly considered newsworthy; one was even scraped twice. But my note that ‘rebel looters/smugglers [had] “confessed” to fighting-funding looting’ was only retweeted once and was actively not scraped.

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