Syrian Cultural Property in the Crossfire:
Reality and Effectiveness of Protection Efforts
Joris Kila's article comes at a time when cultural property has suffered and continues to suffer severe damage during the recent upheaval and armed conflicts in the Middle East. The essay is written from the perspective of a military archaeologist. Drawing upon a good set of data, it highlights a number of significant issues of great importance to the ongoing threat to cultural property and current protection efforts.
I enjoyed reading this essay, and share many of Kila's ideas and perspectives. The first comment I would like to make concerns Kila's discussion of military necessity. Although demonstrating the multifaceted problem of the concept, as well as its definitions and interpretations, he does not tackle the heart of the problem which lies in the concept itself. In my opinion, although the Second Protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention attempts to fill in certain gaps in the legal instrument and to limit exceptions and misuse, the protocol still allows for a problematic loophole in international law. Endorsing the concept of military necessity permits favoring military advantage over the protection of cultural property (Forrest 2007). Kila's suggestion to include cultural property experts in military decisions such as lifting immunity from cultural property is beyond the pro-active role that experts should play. I wonder under what circumstances a cultural expert can approve the destruction of cultural property regardless of how much s/he shares the objectives of a “just war” with the military.
My other points in this response will specifically focus on the relevance of the discussion to the Syrian case, which is so urgent today. I will start with articulating a major problem in the field of Near Eastern archaeology that is archaeologists' reluctance to address questions related to current politics or the politics of identity both in their investigations of past Near Eastern civilization and in their engagement with the present population of the regions where they work (Meskell 2002). This trend is largely connected to the anti-theoretical tendency that characterizes the majority of Near Eastern archaeological research and the continuous dominance of colonial field practices. Near Eastern archaeologists may see themselves as being neutral, but their silence about these issues can be viewed as a political stance.
In the wake of the recent Syria crisis, a primary stakeholder and producer of cultural heritage that is the Near Eastern archaeological community continues to be reluctant to engage in any major role in CPP. The lack of interest in socio-political engagement is clear from the mobility patterns.1 Rather than addressing the problems at hand in a country where they have worked for many years, archaeologists simply move on to the next project located elsewhere. As soon as their fieldwork is put on hold, they pack their trowels and get moving, from Iraq or Iran to Syria and Turkey and then back now to Iraqi Kurdistan. In this movement, they carry with them their archaeological traditions, norms, and even their maneuvering skills with local Middle Eastern authorities (Steele 2005). Being an archaeologist myself, I understand the academic pressure for new research venues and difficulties of fund raising. What I am critical of is the lack of initiative to act on the destruction of a heritage in a case where one contributed to its production, let alone in a country where s/he spent years of their life and interacted closely with the local population, with various connections and memories. This is not to discredit many Western archaeologists and their efforts to reach out to organizations and provide humanitarian help to the local communities where they work—my attempt here is to identify a general pattern.
The ethical question addressed by Kila on whether to engage with the military is challenged in the Syria situation where ethics are clearly not an issue here, but rather passivity in response to crises (Stone 2011). The complication of the situation on the ground has allowed somehow for a legitimate pre-prepared answer of practicality and limitations.
Kila provides a brief overview of the history of iconoclasm demonstrating how cultural resources have historically been targeted during wartime and invasion. He also illustrates the types of damage that might occur to cultural property such as artillery destruction, looting, illicit trafficking, and the like. And although he acknowledges the complications and variation of recent wars in the Middle East, his discussion and recommendations revolve mainly around experiences from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while a discussion of appropriate measures for CPP during a typical civil war is lacking.
Damage to cultural heritage sites in Syria, including World Heritage sites, museums, and cultural landscapes, has been taking place for over two years. Both the regime army and the armed rebels have exchanged accusations of the destruction of Syria's heritage sites and used it for propaganda purposes. The regime blames the “terrorists” of the Free Syria Army (FSA) and jihadi groups for the looting, while the opposition emphasizes the regime's indiscriminate use of heavy artillery against historic sites where rebels are hiding. The vocal condemnation for the destruction in the media, yet a main concern for cultural heritage at this tragic time, is considered by many ordinary Syrians as indifference to the losses of thousands of lives.
In addition to shelling and gun fire damage, cultural heritage is abused in situations of a power vacuum or control of small militias. The areas under the control of the armed rebels (mainly under the umbrella of FSA2) are active combat zones and, thus, it is neither in the capacity nor the interest of these rebels to safeguard cultural heritage sites and stop artifact smuggling. Although Syria is party to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its First Protocol and has signed the Second Protocol, and the FSA does have responsibilities under these legal instruments, the lack of knowledge and communication with other stakeholders render any concern for CPP insignificant. Unfortunately, there has not been a breakthrough in the agenda of the political opposition, namely the Syrian Coalition, to include a CPP plan. To create bridges between stakeholders, any CPP program must rely on the access and contacts of the Syrian Collation within FSA to hope for a program's implementation and success. Kila's suggestion to include a small group of militarized cultural experts in the UN chemical weapons mission is a step in the right direction. This would put into effect the obligation of Syrian rebel forces to abide by international treaty and customary law to protect cultural property.
Kila's notion of the relationship between cultural property and identity is of particular interest to me because the destruction of cultural landscapes during war time may have a severe impact on the identity of the people who survive this war (Bahrani 2008). This was clearly the case in other recent wars, for example, in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq today.
The cultural heritage of Syria is not a static entity belonging to the past, but a dynamic concept in which time is captured in a living historical landscape. Expression of the past is manifested in contemporary society both in tangible and intangible forms. Not only impressive ancient buildings have value for Syrians, but the entire setting of the ancient urban landscape, historical and religious buildings, souqs or bazaars, cafes and restaurants, and even the narrow warm streets. In the historical consciousness of Syrians, relatedness to all the various ethnic and religious groups is embedded in the communality of religious and historic buildings, the sharing of material culture, and social ethics. Cultural identity is associated with monuments and artifacts of past ancestors from different periods of history, which is best reflected in the sharing and identifying with the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus by more than one group. Although I do not consider the Syrian war a “cultural war,” sectarian-driven destruction has increasingly been reported in a number of places.3 These developments call for more action to keep cultural heritage from harassment in order to advance sectarian aims.
Kila touches upon the role of international heritage organizations and points out their bureaucratic nature and risk avoiding strategies. Beyond appeals and statements of condemnation since the start of the Syrian war, organizations like UNESCO, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the International Council of Museums have held several meetings and organized training for employees of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) mostly via the internet.
When considering a stance of “neutrality and impartiality” (Bernbeck quoted in Stone 2011) in the current conflict, it must be indicated that, due to centrality of the administration system in Syria, DGAM is a government-run body centered in Damascus and controlled directly by the regime's current government. For the Syrian regime, there is no room for neutrality at this point and this is clearly reflected in the use of the same regime media terminology by DGAM.4 People in higher-up positions in the civil service have to adopt and express the regime's discourse and views of the current conflict. Any connection to people in the opposition is not tolerated. Nonetheless, international heritage organizations choose to conduct activities through the same communication channels they had in Syria before the war. I would like to raise the question about the value of online training 5 for employees based in Damascus who can barely make it to work, or in the coastal city of Tartus (fully controlled by the regime) which has not suffered any major damage to its cultural property.
On the contrary, no reported efforts have been made by international organizations to reach out to areas beyond the civil control of DGAM. A large amount of territory in Syria has been transferred to the effective control of FSA and other armed groups, particularly in the north and east of the country. These regions contain a great number of significant heritage sites and museums. Lacking a clear civilian governance structure, these places are now at increasing risk for looting or other destruction.
The Way Forward
The heart of Kila's argument is to move forward with practical solutions and measures for CPP in times of war which must include engagement with the military as a stakeholder. I agree with Kila on the idea that pro-active measures should be the way forward during conflict and in post-conflict periods, and that these measures are only possible via exchanged education and training between cultural experts and the military. Because control over heritage in Syria has become a political issue, cultural experts concerned about CPP in Syria should be willing to explore a limited window of opportunity to prevent damage via cooperation with FSA, still within compliance of international agreements. Furthermore, despite the unclear US intervention plans in Syria, an important connection has already been established between the US military and FSA. Therefore it is time for cultural experts with previous experience with the US army to initiate CPP plans. To build on Kila's suggestion and recommendations, I would like to add few suggestions6 specific to the Syrian case in order to move forward with current CPP efforts.
Develop a network of international experts to cooperate with expert Syrian nationals in FSA-controlled areas. Organizing communication among key stakeholders will encourage the distribution of best practices for emergency care, communicate risks to specific sites in real time, and permit a reconstituted community of heritage practitioners and leaders to emerge.
Reconstruct the documentary record of Syria's cultural sector. This will result in a comprehensive database of cultural heritage sites and repositories in Syria and a dataset of known damage. Such an inventory can act as a baseline assessment and permanent resource for Syria's reconstituted DGAM. It would also provide a viable data set for any conservation and restoration plans in the post-conflict period.
Restore the governance capacity for the cultural heritage sector in FSA-controlled regions of Syria. This can be accomplished by providing an administrative structure and coordinating program with Syrian heritage professionals, many of whom remain in place, and others are willing to go back. In principle, this structure would act as a shadow DGAM in FSA areas.
Launch a training program for FSA protection of heritage sites. This training should focus on introducing the concepts of international treaties and customary law to protect cultural heritage. It also should be modeled on other Blue Shield military training programs that have informed military officers, policymakers, and servicemen of their obligations during armed conflict. The Syrian Coalition must facilitate negotiations with a few key officers within FSA who have the potential to cultivate military personnel focused on CPP.
Develop a community security program for key heritage sites at risk. Cultural experts, in cooperation with heritage activists in FSA-controlled areas, could enlist the help of local groups of volunteer civilians. These individuals would be able to “police” sites and museums located within their towns and villages. This policing would provide a presence to discourage looting, report to the local FSA brigade, and document damage. Elected individuals should have the ability to talk effectively with all people, from community leaders to residents. Their role should also include significant cooperation with FSA soldiers and officers operating in the area in order to discourage illicit activities at cultural heritage sites.
In summary, the complexity of CPP in war zones should not discourage cultural experts from engaging with other stakeholders who do not necessarily share the same interests and values. To arrive at the best practical solution, a pro-active strategy should be developed for the protection of cultural property in an armed conflict that takes into consideration those who control the fire.
- 1.I should stress here the difference between mobility required for research based on a wider anthropological perspective (Bernbeck and Pollock 2004) and mobility that is motivated by political reasons.
- 2.FSA comprises the largest group of armed rebels. It includes several brigades and battalions, such as al Tawheed, al Fatah, and al Farouk. The head of FSA is the dissident General Saleem Idrees and his military council who maintains good connections with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US military. FSA are considered moderate in their political and religious views. Other powerful jihadi groups include the Ahrar al Sham Battalion with no clear affiliation, and Qa'ada-related groups namely Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Great Syria.
- 3.Regime forces have been responsible for serious damage to a number of important Sunni religious building such as the Omari Mosque minaret in Dar'a, the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, and more recently the Khalid bin al Waleed shrine and mosque in Homs. On the other side, armed rebels are reported to have destroyed the tomb of Hajer Ibn Oudey al-Kindy, located at a Shi'a shrine to the northeast of Damascus, and extremists, most likely members of the Al Nusra Front, destroyed the Sufi Maqam of the “Prophet Abraham” near Aleppo.
- 6.These suggestions are part of an initiative launched by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Syrian expatriate archaeologists, and the US Institute of Peace's The Day After Project, which include a group of Syrians representing a large spectrum of the Syrian opposition.
- Bahrani, Z. 2008. The Battle for Babylon. In The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, ed. P. G. Stone and J. Farchakh Bajjaly, 165–72. Heritage Matters Series 1. Woodbridge: Boydell.
- Bernbeck, R., and S. Pollock. 2004. The Political Economy of Archaeological Practice and the Production of Heritage in the Middle East. In A Companion to Social Archaeology, ed. L. Meskell and R. W. Preucel, 335–52. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Forrest, C. J. S. 2007. The Doctrine of Military Necessity and the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict. California Western International Law Journal 37:177–219.
- Meskell, L. 2002. The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:279–301.
- Steele, C. 2005. Who Has Not Eaten Cherries with the Devil? Archaeology under Challenge. In Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives, ed. S. Pollock and R. Bernbeck, 45–65. Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Stone, P. 2011. Introduction: The Ethical Challenges for Cultural Heritage Experts Working with the Military. In Cultural Heritage, Ethics and the Military, ed. P. G. Stone, 1–28. Heritage Matters Series 4. Woodbridge: Boydell.