Wednesday 12 September 2012

More on Syrian Blood Antiquities

As we all know, criminal activity thrives in chaos, and the theft of antiquities for a greedy international black market is no exception. In previous wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan sites and museum objects have all fallen victim to looters. In the uprisings in Egypt and (probably) Libya there was looting of both during their more recent uprisings. Time Magazine now is reporting concerns about looting in Syria. It starts off discussing a particular guy, operating under a pseudonym to protect his identity:
 Abu Khaled knows the worth of things. As a small-time smuggler living along the porous border between Syria and Lebanon, he has dabbled in antiquities as much as the cigarettes, stolen goods and weapons that make up the bulk of his trade. 
Where are these artefacts now? How many dealers and collectors have so far ended up buying the ancient items Mr Khaled had been smuggling before the civil war broke out? How many are masquerading as "from an old collection"? Think about it Mr Tompa. Anyhow to continue with his story and the main point of the Time article:
So when a smuggler from Syria brought him a small, alabaster statue of a seated man a few weeks ago, he figured that the carving, most likely looted from one of Syria’s two dozen heritage museums or one of its hundreds of archaeological sites, could be worth a couple thousand dollars in Lebanon’s antiquities black market. So he called his contacts in Beirut. But instead of asking for cash, he asked for something even more valuable: weapons. “War is good for us,” he says of the community of smugglers that regularly transit the nearby border. “We buy antiquities cheap, and then sell weapons expensively.” 
So dealers buying these antiquities are financing the weapons trade, financing the killing of people. These are more 'blood antiquities'. The burgeoning market for this ancient land’s priceless treasures could actually prolong and intensify the conflict, providing a ready supply of goods to be traded for weapons. The business of antiquities for arms, he says, is about to get better.
 Fighters allied with the Free Syrian Army units battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad have told him that they are developing an association of diggers dedicated to finding antiquities in order to fund the revolution. “The rebels need weapons, and antiquities are an easy way to buy them,” says Abu Khaled
In theory the looting of archaeological sites in the country carries a mandatory 10-15-year prison sentence, and until recently this was enforced by the regime’s ubiquitous secret police, but it still went on, fuelled by the strong foreign demand.
Abu Jabbar, a second-generation antiquities smuggler based in Beirut who goes by a professional nickname, says he has seen an explosion in amateur diggers in Syria, all trying to take advantage of the conflict to earn a few extra dollars, whether to buy bread or weapons. “War is an opportunity. For us, and for arms dealers,” he says with a dark smile. [...] The looting is being carried out by all sorts of opportunists. Abu Jabbar’s most recent acquisition, a necklace of hammered-gold beads and large triangles he reckons is two centuries old, came to him via a provincial government official, he says. Abu Khaled, the smuggler with the alabaster statue, says that he has bought looted items from both sides. “Even the regime is dealing with antiquities, because they are collapsing economically. They need cash money to pay the shabiha [hired thugs].” Neither case could be independently verified.

 Yet, both the Assad regime and the rebels have actively sought to use the destruction of Syria’s heritage sites for propaganda purposes. The regime blames the FSA and “terrorists” for the looting, while the opposition highlights the military’s indiscriminate use of heavy artillery against historic sites, like the 12th century Krac de Chevaliers fortress that was, before the uprising, one of the most visited destinations in Syria. Even the Facebook group has been accused of having an anti-regime bias, excising posts that may incriminate rebels. [...]  Louay al-Moqdad, a FSA spokesperson based in Turkey, denies that the looting is organized by the FSA, but admits that some individuals may resort to looting in order to pursue their fight against the regime. “Sure, there are people who loot, but they work alone. If that is how they buy weapons to fight, we can’t control them. It’s revolution, we are not organized, and no one is supporting us.” 
Aryn Baker and Majdal Anjar, 'Syria’s Looted Past: How Ancient Artifacts Are Being Traded for Guns',  Time September 12, 2012.

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