Syria: antiquities-for-arms trade – Sky News interview

Yesterday, Sky News invited me to give a live television interview (at lunchtime today) on the illicit trade in Syrian antiquities, which was nice but a bit daunting, as I’m inarticulate at the best of times and even worse around strangers or in public. In the end, they got someone from the World Monuments Fund (WMF) to take part in a piece on the trade in (and market for) conflict antiquities from Syria – how they’re traded, who they’re bought by, etc. (so it should be good and you might catch it now or in a repeat later today).

Still, to refresh my dangerously poor memory, I’d gone back over my posts on the funding of regime and rebels through looting and smuggling, the Syrian-Lebanese antiquities-for-arms trade, and the “men with gunsin the antiquities-for-arms trade, and summarised what (I think) we know so far; and this is it.

Difficulties in getting and checking information on sites and from people

Lebanese archaeologist-journalist Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly, the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Director-General Julien Anfruns and UNESCO have all stated that it was difficult or impossible to inspect historic sites. Moreover, the Assad regime has severely restricted foreign journalists’ access to the country; and at least some media have refused freelance reporting in order not to encourage ‘exceptional risks‘. So there is too little processed information to learn the whole situation.

At the same time, there is a mass of social, activist, professional and armed-group-attached reporting, translation and comment, from individuals such as Alisar Iram and NMSyria (on Facebook and Twitter), to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (online, and on Facebook and Twitter), to Archaeology in Syria and the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (on Facebook and YouTube), to the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (which is staffed by professionals but controlled by the regime). So there is too much raw data to work out the situation (beyond the certainty that it is a disaster).

Cultural crisis, humanitarian crisis, civil conflict, criminal opportunity

The cultural crisis is dwarfed by the humanitarian crisis, but it is also part of the humanitarian crisis, and part of the conflict. And the resolution of the cultural crisis will be part of any rebuilding of Syria’s community and economy, because its cultural heritage sites refute extremist interpretations of its history, embody and create a space for mixed community life (including cooperation in their reconstruction and preservation) and offer the possibility of a sustainable cultural tourism industry.

Who digs antiquities?

The antiquities diggers range from ‘starving farmer[s]‘ and other ‘amateur diggers‘ who engage in subsistence digging to armed groups’ industrial ‘excavation teams‘.

Who smuggles antiquities?

The antiquities smuggler-dealers range from refugee families who take the antiquities as currency to access immediate needs or savings to guarantee minimal security, to individual or small-scale multi-commodity smugglers, to FSA fighters and the Assad regime, to ‘professional international gangs‘ who specialise in the illicit antiquities trade.

How do antiquities cross the border?

While there are a range of ways to hide or disguise illicit antiquities to enable their smuggling (or to prevent a police search, such as impersonating a journalist), it seems that Syria’s borders have been overwhelmed by the enormous refugee crisis, so smugglers simply hide amongst asylum seekers and bribe the few guards who catch them. Obviously, it is also manageable where there are politically-sympathetic guards (or none at all).

Who buys antiquities?

The antiquities are first smuggled into and sometimes collected in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon; but they are mainly smuggled on to Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Gulf states (and other, smaller antiquities markets).

Who makes money?

In most cases, looters get less than 1% or 2% of the money; smugglers, dealers and auction houses keep more than 98% or 99%. In this case, the first dealers (in a long line of launderers) only take 1% or 2.5%, so the looters must get far less (even far less than other extremely-exploited antiquities diggers). The villagers and refugees must truly struggle to survive.

The antiquities-for-arms trade

Is it reality or regime propaganda?

As well as all of this testimony from those most intimately involved in the trade, journalists’ investigations and Lebanese police operations have found physical evidence that armed group-looted antiquities have crossed Syria’s borders and entered the black market (from where they will eventually make their way to the ostensibly legal market), and more investigative journalism has affirmed cash-strapped rebels’ antiquities sales to fund arms purchases and antiquities-for-arms bartering.

Which armed groups loot, smuggle and sell antiquities?

Other armed groups are certainly involved (the Assad regime does it ‘to pay the shabiha [hired thugs]‘), but those most frequently mentioned are the FSA’s fighters.

The Free Syrian Army

Indeed, they have publicly defended their crimes against cultural property as acts of necessity. FSA fighters have insisted that they have both the moral ‘right to use whatever resources [they] can find‘ and a ‘vital’ need to loot, smuggle and sell antiquities in order ‘to sustain their uprising‘ against the Assad regime; and their client smugglers and dealers have gleefully exploited their need in order to buy antiquities low, sell guns high.

Men with guns

Yet even this is too simplistic, because ‘the FSA… does not exist‘, only ‘MWG, or men with guns’, comprising Sunni, Kurdish, Turkmen, Palestinian, Druze and Alawite fighters, formally-incorporated and independently-associated non-Islamist and Islamist units; and there are not-allied, not-opponent Kurdish defence forces and not-allied, not-yet-opponent (local and foreign) Salafist jihadists, too.

Islamist fighters

According to Arab diplomats involved in the Syrian crisis, ’30-40% of rebels claim affiliation’ with the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front (Jahbat Al Nusra), but ‘few believe its ideology, they just want guns‘; and ‘Nusra gets funding from Saudi individuals so [their] supply [of weapons is] constant’. Somewhat awkwardly, then, it appears that the FSA rebels who are dependent upon the illicit antiquities trade for the funding of their struggle are the anti-extremist, pro-democracy factions of the Free Syrian Army.

7 Responses to “Syria: antiquities-for-arms trade – Sky News interview”

  1. Can we talk about doing a little bit of media training. It isn’t as frightful as you imagine. More qualified people need to be on MSM talking about these issues. 🙂


  2. does the assad regime need to smuggle looted antiquities “to pay the shabiha”i dont think so.i think you will find that it is the fsa that are the main culprits.


    • As I’ve said here and elsewhere, I agree that rebel groups are probably primarily responsible; but there have been reliable, first-hand accounts of the regime’s engagement in the trade.



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