Syria: ‘Men With Guns’ in the antiquities-for-arms trade

This is just a note on the “Free Syrian Army” (or Free Syrian Armies, or Men With Guns) and the discussion of which armed groups were involved in the Syrian-Lebanese antiquities-for-arms trade.

Men With Guns (MWG)

Paul Barford (@PortantIssues) is quite reasonably concerned to highlight Paul Danahar’s observation that ‘the FSA… does not exist‘, only ‘MWG, or men with guns, because having guns and firing them in the same direction is the only thing that unites them’, and that the ‘situation has been further complicated by the introduction into the arena of al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and armed criminal gangs’. Still, Danahar himself said he had spoken with ‘FSA activists’, and smugglers and traders quoted in my previous posts on Syria discussed dealings with ‘FSA fighters’, so it is a functional shorthand for a disunited movement.

Barford also thinks that it might be ‘less than helpful‘ to discuss which armed groups are involved in the looting-for-arms trade. I don’t know. I think it’s an intrinsic part of the problem and it’s worth trying to clarify as much as possible, perhaps particularly so in a particularly confusing situation. I also believe that it is possible to get a good idea of who’s involved in the looting-for-arms trade, and it is worthwhile to explain that situation.

Which men with guns are looting and smuggling antiquities to get those guns?

The non-Islamist FSA rebels are the most desperate for cash, and are the most heavily involved; there have been many independent testimonies to their involvement since the existence of the trade was first revealed.

The Assad regime needs less money, but is still somewhat involved; there have been fewer but very explicit reports of its increasing engagement in the trade as its resources have been consumed. It trades in illicit antiquities to raise funds ‘to pay the shabiha [hired thugs]‘.

But the Islamist FSA rebels simply do not need (much) money, so they are not (significantly) involved. That does not mean that they are not committing (worse) cultural property crime, as they are committing sectarian violence and destroying “infidel” sites and symbols; they may actively approve of the removal of evidence of Syrians’ jahili (pre-Muslim) past and its non-Salafist present; it solely means that they don’t need to raise funds through the looting and trafficking of antiquities. As an Arab diplomat told Danahar (@pdanahar): ‘Rebels in #Syria [are] armed on [the] whims of international diplomacy. Nusra gets funding from Saudi individuals so [their] supply [of weapons is] constant’.

What we could do but might not

Armed groups’ industrialised pillage will continue as long as it is a necessary means of funding their activities. Financial and/or military support for the Syrian revolution would reduce or end Syrian rebels’ dependence on antiquities looting for funding. People cannot logically will them to win their struggle against the Assad regime without willing them the means to win; and if no-one gives them military equipment and other supplies, or another way to fund their struggle, they will take the means to access those things out of the ground.

Outside states may not be willing or able to arm the rebels because they do ‘not know what to do or whom to do it with‘; and obviously it would be neither moral nor strategic to arm an unknown force in a conflict zone in order to reduce the destruction of cultural property.

However, it might also be neither moral nor strategic to force non-Islamist pro-democracy revolutionaries either to plunder their cultural resources or to ally themselves with Islamist militants in order to maintain their struggle against a dictatorial regime. Diplomats involved in the Syrian crisis have told Danahar that ’30-40% of rebels claim affiliation with Nusra front but few believe its ideology, they just want guns‘.

It might be both moral and strategic to arm the non-Islamist rebels in order to minimise Islamist activity in the war and influence in any post-war situation (including sectarian destruction); serendipitously, that would also minimise rebel looting and smuggling of antiquities. And those cultural consequences, too, would have genuine and worthwhile social benefits.

The destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage promotes sectarian hatred and further violence, eliminates the previously-shared spaces of life in which communities could be reconciled and rebuilt (and with which non-sectarian Syrians could counter Islamist propaganda), and destroys the cultural resources that could provide a sustainable cultural tourism industry.

Now, in consultation with the US CIA, the states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are working with the Syrian National Council’s General Command to ensure that arms are delivered to non-Islamist rebels (though some are still delivered to or accessed by Islamist militias); individuals in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are continuing to supply hardline groups outside the Syrian National Council’s structures. Hopefully, the (more effective) arming of the non-Islamist rebels will reduce the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage (not for the sake of archaeology, but for the sake of the Syrian people who will suffer the consequences of their archaeology’s destruction).

What we should do but might not be able to

Local and internally displaced Syrians’ subsistence digging (and refugees’ smuggling and selling) of antiquities will continue as long as it is an essential and functional way of coping with the crisis, of reducing physical and economic insecurity. And personally, I wish them good luck. Our (financial or practical) inability to provide them with emergency aid in Syria and in the refugee camps does not change their need to access food, medicine, shelter and protection.

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