Friday, 3 July 2015

Syria - Palmyra: The Mother of All Blog Posts

I thought some of my blog posts were long, but.... Sam Hardy has outdone me for length this time! The mega-post 'Palmyra: looting under the rebels, the Assad regime and the Islamic State?' went up today. It's a cracker, a must-read. That is except for antiquities trade lobbyists whose attention span will obviously not be up to it, and will probably stop at the bit, if I know them, where he says "But, for one reason or another, more and more false information is entering the public record; and it is being used more and more actively".

Sam has obviously put in a lot of hard work on critically comparing the various available sources and finding material that many of us passed over. He points out the problem of a routine uncritical churning out of near-duplicate texts by journalists which seems to be "an increasingly pervasive problem in reporting of illicit trade and political violence in Syria and Iraq". He uses the term "churnalism" for this problem that has plagued any attempt to try and work out what is happening in the middle East. Texts on Palmyra are a very indicative example of the process.

Sam approaches in a very systematic and objective manner the problem of looting under the (US-supported) FSA and then what happened when the Syrian military gained control of the site.
Illicit extraction of cultural assets may not have been (visibly) intensive (though that may be because the construction of the tombs covered the evidence from satellite view), but it was extensive, after the Free Syrian Army had been driven out, yet before the Islamic State had taken over.
Quite clearly the Syrian military was in some way involved in looting this site in 2012 onwards. The city fell to ISIL on May 21st. Sam adduces evidence to show that the Palmyra museum in fact had not been effectively evacuated before 17th May, even though local officials were stating that it had. There was a last-minute evacuation of statues by the Syrian authorities which Hardy suggests was a
grand act of propaganda, ironically to make the regime appear civilised, a cultured alternative to the barbaric Islamic State. That, and the wider media campaign about protecting cultural property by a regime that has militarised archaeological sites and is barrel-bombing historic cities, demonstrate that information about trafficking and policing, too, will be an instrument of propaganda.
Which is going to make our work harder. Sam then goes on to the Thursday "Flogging propaganda" of ISIL, citing my texts on the material.
Could looters have stolen this material from the museum or one of the antiquities service’s safe houses, when the Islamic State certainly has control of the museum and probably has control of the safe houses? [...] Could the Islamic State have uncovered the unevacuated objects and destroyed a few (and scapegoated someone) for show, but preserved a lot for sale?
This would make sense if they are planning to flog off the rest to raise cash. By putting out widely-discussed material about "How ISIL is stopping smuggling artefacts to foreign markets" which will no doubt very soon be picked up gratefully by the lobbyists, the group could be hoping we lower our guard. That's what the dealers want too.

Scapegoating, or an outright fraud? How realistic
is this flogging scene? Note position of victim's hands, the
effete way the whip is held and at what distance from the
victim. Now look at the faces of the crowd.

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