‘smuggling antiquities [through Turkey] is the route to easy money’ in the Syrian civil war

Le Temps have managed to capture a Snapshot of a Syrian Smuggler: Arms, Antiquities and Jihad along Turkey’s Border [Ayham, Profession Contrabandier].

Complementing the evidence of the Syrian-Lebanese smuggling route, it reconfirms rebels‘/men-with-guns‘ involvement in antiquities smuggling. Even more worryingly, this new evidence suggests that, while previously mainly pro-democracy militias had funded their activities through looting-and-smuggling, now Jihadist militias have taken over the antiquities trade.

Subsistence smuggling

Would-be fashion designer Ayham appealed, ‘What can I do to survive? It has become impossible to do legal business in Syria if you are not part of an armed group.’ In Turkey, there’s plenty of profit for traffickers large and small.

Driven to multi-commodity smuggling by the Syrian civil war, first Ayham and two partners smuggled ‘guns, oil, cigarettes and even flour’, then Ayham alone(?) branched out into ‘people, helping refugees to cross the border into Turkey, and foreign jihadists into Syria’.

Crime over conflict

Judging by the fact that his former partner-in-crime had betrayed him (and their third team member) and returned to al-Assad-controlled Latakia, but that Ayham could not return because he was a revolutionary, their smuggling team must have functioned as a cross-political operation. (The group’s splitting up is a nice example of the peculiar ways that criminal activities and conflicts can affect each other.)

And, as Ayham observed, ‘[e]verybody does it [antiquities looting]’, including ‘every katiba (military camp)’.

Conflict over crime

It has even become impossible to do some illegal business in Syria if you are not part of an armed group. Beyond the local level, crime has been paramilitarised. In the beginning, ‘[m]ost of the weapons were sold by corrupt army officers’ but, ‘for the past six months, the jihadists [have taken] control of the traffic and imposed their laws’. ‘Small traffickers’ – independent traders who do not take sides in the conflict – ‘aren’t safe anymore.’

Turkish market for Syrian antiquities

Ayham sells looted antiquities from ancient Greek/Christian sites (or, according to an antiquities trader from Istanbul, ‘pale copies’ of Greek/Christian material). Whether or not his material is genuine, there is evidently a market for Syrian antiquities in Turkey (or, probably more precisely, a market for Syrian antiquities that reach the market through Turkey).

And there is apparently little barrier to that trade: ‘Turkish customs officials… turn a blind eye on Syrian objects smuggled into their country’; hence, people now know that ‘smuggling antiquities [through Turkey] is the route to easy money’.

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