Saturday 20 June 2015

Museum Hit by Syrian Army Bomb

The results of Monday's air strike on the Ottoman era Murad Pasha
caravanserai (AD 1565) in Maaret al-Numan now serving as
a museum with a collection of ancient artifacts and mosaics.

There is a war going on in Syria. To judge by what is being written on US antiquities trade lobbying websites today, it seems necessary to point that out. They are up in arms about a museum being hit by a "barrell (sic) bomb" and being "massively damaged". The lobbyists and their associates give the impression that they think this was the first such bomb ever dropped in the Syrian civil war. Of course they care not whether any adjacent residential buildings were hit by the blast and whether any civilians were hurt, there were old mosaics in that museum which had not been evacuated before the rebels took over the town.

But not even that is what they are writing about. No, their take from all this is that we should not be fighting the trade in illicit artefacts from this contact zone (which in true American style they misrepresent as being only about "repatriation" - reading between the lines removing material from Manifest Destiny American hands). They say things like "dictators who purposefully target museums are most certainly not the best stewards of cultural hertiage (sic)", and "Barrell Bombs Burst Repatriationist Bubble", therefore we should turn our backs on pleas by heritage protection staff (working for that same "dictator" as the military commander who ran that operation) to oppose the trade in illicit antiquities and other 'appropriated' cultural property. Dictators come and go, but the cultural property of a region once ravaged and scattered (no-questions-asked, no-papers-kept) among foreign dealers and collectors has gone for ever. It is precisely that scattering that US antiquities trade lobbyists are advocating to "save" the objects from the very people to whom they belong. Pure colonialist paternalism of the worst, self-interested kind. Nasty, nasty antiquities dealers.

The state of the city two years ago is well-described by Ewa Jasiewicz ('You are now entering the liberated area of Ma’rrat al Numan' RedPepper 12 August 2013). By the end of summer 2013, only 40% of the buildings in the city centre were intact - one of them would have been the museum.

Take a look at the map, the version I use here for its graphic clarity is a bit out of date (Wikipedia), but a comparison with a map showing the current situation (Institute for the Study of War Syria Updates, 'Control of terrain in Syria June 19th 2015', or ArabThomas's map here) shows that in this area of Syria, the broad picture remains the same, except for recent substantial ISIL advances in the bottom right corner of the map.
The rebel enclave, pinky-red Syrian regime, green 
various rebels (FSA and others), white Jabhat al-Nusra,
yellowish -kurds, expansive grey - guess who (Wikipedia).
Thomas van Linge's map shows better the complexities on the ground within this rebel enclave. Certainly the area is partly under the control of Islamist militants (Jabhat al Nusra for example)and the map shows various ISIL-held towns deep inside the rebel enclave. The area of government control on the borders with ISIL-held territory on the east side of the map looks precariously prone to being cut off by ISIL advances (which in fact are shown on van Linge's map). If the government forces there are not to be isolated and exterminated by rebels and ISIL pushing in from both sides, the government has to open a corrodior through rebel-held territory, and the town of Maaret al-Numan has a strategic position within that region.

Now some of these rebels in the green-shaded area are the ones the Americans have not-so-secretly been funding and supplying weapons to. It is these rebels that US-based commentators such as Amr Al-Azm tend to side with against the Assad government. It is the museum in Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province which was the beneficiary of a Penn State initiated mission to secure the mosaics left in this museum against the effects of just such an eventuality (we will see how effective the American methods are when the rubble is cleared). This is not the first time that accusations and counter-accusations about the fate of museums in Idlib province have been used in anti-government propaganda: 'Who Emptied Idlib Museum and Why?' PACHI Saturday, 2 May 2015.

Quite why this building was hit is not discussed in the media, was it hit by accident? Or was it hit because as one of the few large buildings left standing in this part of town it was being used as a stronghold by one of the rebel groups? Obviously if the Syrian government is to regain control over the rebel-held territory, it will have to break the hold the rebels on towns like this. The Syrian government ratified the 1954 Hague Convention (in March 1958), but the rebels fighting it and "the Islamic State" have not. This means they are not obliged to:
refrain from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict; and by refraining from any act of hostility, directed against such property.   
 (The Convention allows an exception to its general principles in the case when the property is utilised by the enemy for military purposes.)  So what else apart from some old mosaics and a library was housed (or thought to be housed) in this building before it was hit by an air strike last Monday?

The US newspapers are full of the story of how a museum was bombed by 'Assad' (recte a local commander in the Syrian military who may not even be in direct everyday contact with his superiors in Damascus about everyday running of his campaigns). The same newspapers carry very little about the role of the US government in the ongoing destabilisation of Syria which fuels this conflict. To stop damage to the cultural property in Syria, the war has to stop. But I would say there are 22 million reasons more important than saving a few mosaics for this war to stop now. Their lives are in danger, and it would seem all dealers and their US supporters can focus on is thinking up pathetic arguments 'justifying' them getting their sticky hands on Syrian cultural property, to "save it" from the Syrians.

UPDATE 21st June 2015
In a rare case of collecting advocate John Hooker actually making a useful contribution to the heritage debate, he makes a point about the lack of accuracy of so-called barrel bombs which has relevance to what the IAPN lobbyist is claiming, especially if you follow the link to the film of them being dropped. Hooker writes:   
If the museum was targeted,they most likely would not have hit it as barrel bombs are not used with bomb sights and are terribly inaccurate. They are mainly used against human targets in a well populated area, see:
Having watched the video it is clear that dropping such unstable missiles from such a height, there is no way one can claim that the museum was targeted. Thank you Mr Hooker for bringing the shocking realities of this fighting closer. Mr Tompa has yet to apologise for his earlier misleading comments - instead he has made a new post just claiming that my discussion of the issue of his "Two Wrongs" approach (based on false premises as it now appears) to stopping the trade n conflict antiquities was somehow "irresponsible". I have taken the question up with his IAPN paymasters, let's see what they have to say in defence of such views.

Now, in a very flustered late night afterthought, Mr Tompa attempts to reply to Hooker, but his comments are as wide off the mark as a barrel bomb thrown out of a helicopter at 10 000 feet:
if anything the Assad regime should be held to a much higher standard given UNESCO's default position that antiquities should be repatriated to national governments. [...] I would argue, however, that there should be an exception to this default position where, as here, the national government acts with unclean hands.
And who is going to "hold" it to those higher standards than what? The US with its record of not killing civilians in, for example, the Vietnam war? So citizens "should" according to Mr Tompa be deprived of their heritage because they have at the moment what (Mr Tompa believes to be) a "bad government"? 


Nathan Elkins said...

Isn't the lobbyist engaging in straw man tactics again? In this period of civil war I don't think anyone is repatriating or advocating immediate repatriation to Syria. Another attempt at distraction from the real issues.

Paul Barford said...

I don't know about the Americans, but the British Museum is looking after stuff smuggled out of Syria and has announced (a) it will not be keeping it like the Iraqi archives Washington went back on its word over and (b) that it will go back when it is safe to send it back. Is that so difficult to understand?

Nathan Elkins said...

It's not difficult, but it is evidently expedient to distort the issue.

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