Civilians may have been kidnapped and exchanged for arrested paramilitary antiquities looters in Syria

In a scary (and strange) turn of events, civilians from Afrin/Efrin – a town and canton in Rojava, the autonomous region of Western Kurdistan (Rojavayê Kurdistanê) in north-western Syria – appear to have been kidnapped and released in return for paramilitary antiquities looters [or, rather, antiquities-looting paramilitaries].

Uncertainty

There is quite some confusion. Were 300 men and older children kidnapped or were 300 people detained then 200 men and older children kidnapped (and 100 women and younger children released)? [Or were 30?] Were they taken from ‘five coaches and a mini-bus’ at one checkpoint or from ‘several’ checkpoints over two days? Were they kidnapped by the jihadist al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)) or the Islamist merger Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam (JI))? [Or was their release secured by JI?]

Kidnapped

Nonetheless, it seems clear that they were civilians who left Afrin to go to Aleppo and/or Damascus in order to collect their wages. (They were not kidnapped for their own assets, because they were kidnapped before they could collect their wages and released without financial payment.) According to an official in the canton of Kobani, Idris Nassan, they were taken from Tuqad village in Aleppo governorate to al Dana town in Idlib governorate. Idlib city has been held by the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fatah (JF)) since the 28th of March 2015.

Jaysh al-Fatah is a tactical, anti-regime alliance of the independent rebels of Ajnad al-Sham and Jaysh al-Sunna, who are linked to the Free Syrian Army (FSA); the Islamist coalition of Faylaq ash-Sham (the Sham Legion); and the jihadists of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya (or Ahrar ash-Sham – the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), Jabhat al-Nusra (or Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahli ash-Shām – the al-Nusra Front or Support Front for the People of Al-Sham), Jund_al-Aqsa (the Soldiers of al-Aqsa) and Liwa al-Haqq (the Right Brigade).

Exchanged

Paraphrased, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that ‘the captors had demanded, through the released women, that three men arrested by authorities in Afrin be freed’; ‘the captives were released after [Afrin canton] authorities… freed three Islamist rebel fighters who were arrested last week‘.

Paraphrased, a European spokesperson for the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD)), Nawaf Khalil (or Newaf Khalil), too, stated that they had been ‘detained by Jaysh al-Islam’ and ‘released in exchange for three Islamist fighters who had been detained in Afrin by Kurdish forces’.

Arrested as looters, exchanged as paramilitaries

As first contextualised and translated by political analyst Arj Dunon, journalist Barzan Iso reported that ‘3 people who looted antiquities at Mount Leylon were caught red-handed by public security officers. We did not know that they were members of the Army of Islam. [Leylon dağında arkoloji hırsızlığı yapan 3 kişi asayişimiz tarafından suç üstü yakalandı.İslam ordunun üyeleri oldukları bilmiyorduk].’ ‘In return for the release of the 3 thieves who were held in Afrin, al-Nusra set free 300 Kurds [El-Nusra, Afrin’de tutuklu 3 hırsızın serbest kalması karşılığında 300 Kürdü serbest bıraktı.]’

As Lynda Albertson has noted, the ‘only’ immediately identifiable ‘mention of looted archaeological sites [is] in [the] orig[inal] tweet‘. I assume the journalist or his source either knew the case directly or knew that there had only been one arrest of one group of three people in that place in that time frame. Otherwise, it would be an exceedingly strange association to make. Still, it is not entirely clear where it happened, from whom the information comes, or whether the events correspond.

Mount Leylon?

Looking for mount (tell) sites near Afrin, I guessed that Leylon Dağı might be Tell Ain Dara. (The slight similarity in sound is completely irrelevant. “Dağı” corresponds to “Tell” not “Dara”.) Syrian civil war mapper Hans Scholl judged that it might be there, but that it ‘could also be cyrrhus, tell jindires, or a smaller site’; ‘the place where they were arrested might be this [Mount Layla]’ (which would make far more sense, as “Mount” is a more accurate translation of “Dağı” and “Layla” is a closer sound to “Leylon”). Does anyone know?

Update

Moments after this was published (asked about sites with similar names in nearby areas), @SamAbdelGhafour suggested Jabal Laylun, which means Mount Laylun and is quite near Afrin, though it does not appear to be within YPG territory; still, it might at least be close enough for ‘hot pursuit‘.

Arj Dunon was told that it was ‘close to Atmeh‘ and also came up with Tell Layla and Jabal Laylun.

Mount Laylūn, also known as Mount Simeon, long ago known as Mount Nebo, is part of the landscape of the 700 “dead cities” or “forgotten cities”, amongst which sit the World Heritage site of the (40) Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. ‘”dead city” sites, which I’m sure are very attractive looting targets‘.

A developing story…

Hans Scholl, to whom I’ve linked before but whose knowledge has been invaluable, has pointed out that ‘antiquities are clearly important‘ to the community; the ancient city of Cyrrhus is the background for the website of Afrin Canton. He suggests that JN ‘expansionism‘ may have pushed Afrin into a state of alert, wherein it found the looter-fighters as part of a check on unknown persons in insecure areas.

Hot pursuit of antiquities looters through insecure areas would demonstrate extraordinary commitment to the protection of cultural property. The exchange of two or three hundred hostages for three suspects, who (successfully) gave every impression of being looters rather than fighters, would be equally extraordinary. It’s a developing story…

Update

Arj Dunon heard ‘Islamic Front & [al-]Nusra [Front] from another source’…

Aside

As Elif noted in an aside, the Kurdish MP for the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP)) in Şırnak in Turkey, Faysal Sarıyıldız, observed that ‘the YPG forces in Rojava protect the historic buildings in Girêmoza [Tell Mozan or Urkesh, Jazira Canton, north-eastern Syria], which are thousands of years old, twenty-four hours a day [Rojava’da YPG güçleri, Girêmoza’daki binlerce yıllık tarihi yapıları, yirmidört saat boyunca koruyor]’.

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