Syria/Lebanon: Syrian-Lebanese antiquities-for-arms trade

In the past week, two investigations have explored the Syrian antiquities market in Lebanon. One has found material evidence that armed groups are managing to fund their fighting through looting, smuggling and selling antiquities; the other has gathered further testimony from illicit antiquities traders that (at least some of) the armed groups who are selling or bartering antiquities for guns are the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The antiquities-for-arms trade in the Syrian Civil War

First Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) and George Arbuthnott (@Arbuthnott) reported that Syrians loot Roman treasures to buy guns in the Sunday Times, then Fernande van Tets (@fernandevtets) discussed the Art of Civil War in Foreign Policy; both investigations explored the Syrian antiquities market in Lebanon.

Most significantly, Jaber and Arbuthnott’s material evidence has corroborated fighters’, looters’, smugglers’ and dealers’ testimony that regime and/or rebel armed groups’ looted cultural property has made it across the border and onto the illicit antiquities market; the trade in illicit Syrian antiquities is funding the Syrian conflict. And van Tets’ participant testimony affirms that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are funding their struggle for the future of their country by plundering the remains of its past.

Men With Guns (MWG)

I’ve worked up a post on the ‘men with guns‘ who loot antiquities in Syria – whether it’s possible (and helpful) to identify them, what the causes and consequences of their activities are, what the responses to their activities might be, and what the consequences of those responses might be.

Armed groups’ looting of Palmyra

Several illicit antiquities traders offered Jaber and Arbuthnott’s “art dealer” undercover reporter (repeatedly, independently, expert-verified) relics from the World Heritage Site of Palmyra (and the rest of the ancient city(?)).

There is video evidence of the looting of statues and fragments – heads? – from Palmyra by armed, body-armoured (bulletproof vest-wearing), uniformed men (which was published on 26th July 2012). The FSA-sympathising Flash News Network (FNN) allege that it shows ‘Assad forces stealing’; but the identity of the looters is not clear.

One dealer showed the Sunday Times‘ undercover reporter both a ‘warehouse packed with antiquities‘ that were not from Syria (but from Lebanon?), and a CD of genuine-but-cheap Syrian antiquities and forgeries. Smuggler-turned-dealer Abu Khaled had just-dug-up, not-even-cleaned sculptures from a temple, and glass vases from tombs, in Tadmur. The sculptures and the vases might even be from the same tombs, but obviously that information (and so much else) was lost in the looting process. Yet another dealer had gold coins and column capitals.

(Tadmur is the Arabic version of its ancient Aramaic name Tadmor. All three names may be used interchangeably, but some people may use the ancient Greek Palmyra to distinguish between the UNESCO-listed site and the rest of the ancient remains that lie beneath the modern city.)

There is video evidence of the looting of sculptures from Tadmor/Tadmur (which was published on 17th August 2012). Again, the FSA-sympathising video-uploader freeeeelibyan alleges that it shows ‘Assad thugs loot ancient treasures’; but the identity of the looters is not clear.

FSA rebels’ bartering of antiquities for guns

Lebanese multi-commodity smuggler Abu Khader told van Tets that ‘Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters low on cash have started offering alternative payment for the guns they crave — stolen Syrian antiquities…. “They give me antiquities, and I give them guns.”‘ A part-time dealer, part-time appraiser who identified himself as “the teacher (mu’aallem/moa’aallem(?))” affirmed the identity of the armed groups who looted and smuggled antiquities; he said that he ‘apprais[ed] the objects that FSA fighters bring’ (to Khader).

The price of success and the cost of vulnerability

Abu Khaled’s Syrian labourer told the “art dealer”: ‘These belong to Syria and the Syrian people so it’s only right that we find them and sell them.’ If so, they’re not getting a very good deal for the Syrian people: a box of glass vases was offered for £6,420 (less than 33% of market value); twelve column capitals were offered for £9,600 (2.5% of market value); and eleven sculptures were offered for £19,200 (1% of market value). (A different dealer told another reporter that he expected ‘at least $2,000’ for his Roman bust, which is similar to Khaled’s £1,745 price-per-piece.)

That may reflect a relatively flat pricing policy at the beginning of the chain (from looters, to smugglers, to unashamedly illicit dealers, through chain-laundering until the antiquities appear clean, to apparently licit dealers and auction houses, to private collectors and cultural institutions primarily in Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Gulf states), wherein there is a spike in antiquities’ value once they appear licit.

However, the ‘price of antiquities has increased tenfold over the past decade, thus providing even more motivation for would-be looters’. And, one way or another, looters commonly receive more money for more valuable antiquities. It makes commercial sense: if they were paid the same for very valuable, rare, fragile objects as for not-very-valuable, everyday, tough objects, they would have an incentive to dig through as much soil as quickly as possible, and they would carelessly destroy many of the market’s most-prized material.

As a rule of thumb, looters earn less than 1% or 2% of an artefact’s sale price; but if the first dealers only earn 1% or 2.5%, then the smugglers must earn less than that for their time-intensive, comparatively high-risk work; and the looters must earn even less than that for their own time-intensive, comparatively high-risk work.

So, why are Syrian looters earning so little?

  1. Because there is less risk of capture and punishment in the middle of a civil war? Perhaps, but 97% of Syria’s cultural heritage sites are in active conflict zones, so looting is not a risk-free enterprise.
  2. Because there’s so much looting that the market is being flooded? It would seem logical: ‘at least 4,000’ illicit antiquities were confiscated by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in 2012 so, on the (generous) one-in-ten rule, tens of thousands of antiquities were lost; and antiquities dealers have told Lebanese archaeologist-journalist Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly precisely that ‘the markets of Jordan and Turkey are flooded‘; but seemingly the Lebanese market ‘has not been saturated’ yet. Smuggler Abu Khaled told van Tets: ‘Due to high demand, fakes are taking off. “About 50 percent of what I get is fake.”‘
  3. Because the “antiquities reserves” are so great that their “miners” can afford to pile-’em-high-and-sell-’em-cheap? Again, seemingly not (at least, not yet). Syria’s potential for “artefact-mining” (and its existing stashes of looted antiquities) may indeed be great, but the border still forms a bottleneck in the supply line. Dealer Abu Khader told van Tets: ‘After the war, much more will be coming out of Syria than now, because some people are not [yet] able to get the things they find across the border.’
  4. Because, whether the money is for bread and shelter or guns and ammunition, many looters in Syria are even more desperate for cash than looters elsewhere, so they’ll take what they can when they can?


Without providing any evidence, the Assad regime’s Syrian National Commission for UNESCO and its astroturf activists have alleged that the Turkish government ‘is involved in illicit trafficking in Syria’s antiquities‘, based upon the entirely separate and equally evidence-free allegation that ‘”Jabhat al-Nusra” terrorists, backed politically and militarily by the Turkish government’, destroyed ‘the southern gate and one of the minarets of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo’.

The Great Mosque

As the mosque has been fought over and taken over by both sides, ‘valuable Islamic relics [have been] ransacked and ancient artefacts – including a box purported to contain a strand of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair – [have been] looted’; but it is not clear which side (or whether both sides) stole the antiquities. It has not been confirmed, either, which side fired the shot that brought down the minaret; unsurprisingly, each side blames the other. Regime forces may have done so while storming the mosque; but if the attack on the rebel-militarised site were deemed militarily necessary, the destruction would not be illegal.


It is true that Turkey had first ‘turned a blind eye‘ to the al-Nusra Front (Jabhet al-Nusra), then ‘timidly’ given it ‘a hand’; but its Western allies’ opposition to supporting the jihadist, al-Qa’ida-allied al-Nusra, which they define as a ‘terrorist organization‘ and which they fear may drive Salafist terrorism in the West, has ‘forced [Turkey] to wash [its] hands‘ of the militia. At least, it has tried to do so, but now the Islamists (the Islamist Men With Guns – the al-Nusra Front, the Farouk Brigade, the splinter Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade…) lead the resistance to the Assad regime, it may be (militarily) impossible for any who oppose the regime also to oppose the Islamists.

Paramilitary funding, mafia business or subsistence digging?

The Syrian state antiquities director, Maamoun Abdel-Karim, presents no evidence for the allegation that ‘armed archeological mafia gangs…. from Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq’ conduct ‘most of the looting’. And Farchakh-Bajjaly rightly observes that ‘a lot of the smaller artifacts’ are products of subsistence digging: ‘If you are a starving farmer and you know there are objects in the site next door, you will go dig it up if you get hungry enough.’ Nonetheless, it is plausible that mafias and parastate elements within Lebanon, Iraq and/or Turkey are involved (to some extent).

Such antiquities gangs do operate in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere; ‘they have networks and contacts in place and know which doors to knock on when the opportunity arises’. The Turkish ‘deep state’, for example, has a massive (heroin-and-)antiquities trafficking network through which Syrian antiquities could be smuggled and sold immediately and easily.

But the Turkish state is locked in battle with the political-criminal-paramilitary network that constitutes the (ultranationalist and anti-democratic) deep state; the deep state has infiltrated the country’s institutions, but the state cannot be held responsible for the terrorist network’s activities. And, if anything, the Turkish state’s support for the Syrian revolution actually reduces the Syrian rebels’ dependence on antiquities looting for funding.

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