very busy investigating the trade in oil from ISIL-held territory with Turkey. This is part of the growing antagonism between the two countries and has great propaganda value. Now Russian journalists claim to have documentary evidence about the antiquities trade between the two regions apparently from the same sources that gave them the information about the oil trade (RT Exclusive, 'Department of Artifacts’ document exposes antique loot trade via Turkey; RT News 31 Mar, 2016). The existence of this 'evidence' has already been widely repeated in the social media, I'd like to express a bit of caution. The material concerned was apparently seized in Shaddadah (Hasakah province) where it was among caches which concerned other matters such as trade in oil (For the background, see also: RT 'ISIS, oil and Turkey: What RT found in Syrian town liberated from jihadists by Kurds' RT 24 Mar, 2016):
According to a document that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) turned over to an RT Documentary crew, the so-called Ministry of Natural Resources established by ISIS to hold grip of the oil operations has a separate “Department of Artifacts.”[...] The note, apparently addressed to checkpoint sentries, asks “brothers at the border” to allow a Turkish antiquity seller into Syria for the purposes of mutual profit. It reads:No information is provided on where this note was found, and in association with what. Was it on the body of Brother Hussain? Note, there is no indication on which section of the border this border post was supposed to have been, nor any reference to the commanding officer. Nor is there any indication of a date. The name Abu Uafa A[l]-Tunisi appears not to be known (?). It could be the name of an operative who replaced Abu Sayaff (Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi) killed in May 2015. Searching for this name suggests that it could however as easily be a pastiche of the names of two militants killed recently in drone strikes in the region, We note however the suggestion that an ISIL official ("Hussein Hania Sarira") went across the border into Turkey with the antiquities trader (who is not named). This would be an explanation on how the tax could be assessed and collected from sales taking place outside Syria and Iraq. (They'd probably have sat down together and shared meals on the journey - raising the issue of who portable antiquity dealers associate.) If this document is not a forgery, it also means ISIL officials had no problem entering Syria from Turkey.
“To the brother responsible for the border, Please assist the passage of brother Hussein Hania Sarira through your post along with the man from Turkey – the artifacts trader, for the purpose of working with us in the department of artifacts in the Ministry of Natural Resources. May Allah bless you, Loving brother Abu Uafa At-Tunisi.”[...] Besides providing revealing insight into ISIS money-making, the note supports the previous suppositions that ISIS is selling artifacts via the same trade route, which, according to what RT’s crew was told, it used to bring across weapons and supplies, right under Ankara’s nose.
The documents which RT claim to have seen suggest that the oil from the region is being taken west by "intermediaries from Raqqa and Allepo" and thence across the border to Turkey. As noted on this blog earlier, the loss of Tel Abyad to YPG advances last summer probably has dealt a severe blow to Islamic State activities and its trade routes ("as well as direct commutation lines with representatives of Turkish security services: adds RT). Any movement of foreign fighters in and out of Syria on this route would have been curtailed.
As supporting evidence, RT reports that a television crew came across "archaeological pieces, fragments of various ceramic pots" abandoned in a tunnel used by ISIL in Shaddadi where they were
discovered by the Kurdish YPG troops after they liberated Shaddadi from jihadists in February 2016. No one knows where those objects originally came from, but Kurdish fighters also found an old map in French, which could date as far back as colonial times. It indicates the excavation grounds.(The 'old map motif' recalls the 'Books among the Bombs' story I covered a while back). I am in two minds about the authenticity of this report. Let us see some more independently-verifiable evidence. There is of course nothing inherently improbable in this, the town is just north of Deir ez Zor, a region where there has been looting of sites (though not only by ISIL) for long enough for the traces to be visible in my survey of the Google Earth shots before other later imagery became available. I have covered evidence of looting in the province in a number of past posts here.