Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Great Damascus Antiquities Bust?

Two days ago, there was a lot of Internet traffic about a reported major new discovery with regards to antiquities trafficking in Syria. These reports came from the leaders and media of the Syrian opposition, and they stated that a government raid had discovered 'two metric tons of antiquities' in a house in the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood of Damascus belonging to Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan, the commander of the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Force unit. Several archaeobloggers helped disseminate this information, but I decided not to (despite the claims of those this blog discomforts and who have no other arguments, I do not deliberately peddle "fake news"). I held off because this news was unconfirmed and aroused my suspicions. Now it seems that I was correct to do so. Christopher Jones (Department of History - Columbia University NY) considers on his "Gates of Nineveh" blog  (8th December 2018) this "Great Great Damascus Antiquities Bust?" and concludes that the reports were a propaganda gambit. In his text he details the role of militias in today's Syria and says that 'the story remains interesting for what it can reveal about the inner workings of the Syrian regime and the role played by archaeological artifacts in the war in Syria'. He sees this report as an attempt to discredit Suhail al-Hassan by his rivals
Due to his popularity, in order to take him down, his rivals must first take down his reputation. Allegations of criminal activity are a good way to do that. Allegations that he is profiting from the destruction of the ancient past while Bashar al-Assad has presented himself as fighting to preserve civilization against the forces of barbarism are even better. The fact that many members of the regime are likely profiting from the same sorts of enterprises is irrelevant – those who survive will cover it up while those for whom the knives are out will have their misdeeds exposed.
Jones states the fact of which we are all aware, that it is 'entirely likely that senior members of the Assad regime are trafficking in antiquities as well as weapons and oil'.
Many sites in regime-held territory, most famously the site of Apamea, have been looted. A great deal of antiquities trafficking takes place through Lebanon, which almost entirely borders territory held by Assad loyalists for most of the war.
He points out that even though the civil war in Syria is becoming less newsworthy as it reduces in scope and intensity, the militias remain a problem and a cause of conflict between the old and new guard in Syrian society as individual militia leaders struggle to retain influence 
The trafficking in antiquities and other looted property may well be one part of these power struggles. Financially, the impact of antiquities will be small, but as a propaganda weapon it may have an effect many times greater.
I think though that the 'small' financial impact of any antiquities smmuggled out of Syria today may have, they are still conflict antiquities and should not be being bought by any 'responsible collectors'.

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