Turkish-backed factions loot four more ancient archaeological hills in Cafrin and Tal Abyad

CAFRIN and TEL ABYAD, Syria — Local sources from Turkish-occupied Tel Abyad region reported that the members of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) excavated and robbed the ancient Tel Dahleez south of the town of Suluk under the pretext of establishing a military point on the hill. Civilians have reportedly been prevented from approaching the site.

Excavating operations were also reportedly being conducted on Tel Hashisha, east of Suluk on the road between the occupied towns of Tel Abyad and Rish Ayno (Ras al-Ayn).

The archaeological site at Tel Sahlan near the village of Khirbet al-Raz has also been looted.

The Human Rights Organization in Afrin published satellite photos of Tel al-Sheikh Abd al-Rahman archaeological hill, registered in the General Directorate of Syrian Antiquities, showing that the site has been exposed to digging operations with heavy machinery by the SNA presumably to loot the site.

The Turkish occupation of Syrian territory has taken a toll on the rich cultural heritage of the country.

In August, Adnan Berri, Director of the Archaeological Directorate of the Democratic Autonomous Administration in Hasakah Canton, said that archaeological sites around Turkish-occupied Tel Abyad and Rish Ayno were “under threat”.

Berri said that they had recently monitored excavations at archaeological sites by heavy machinery, pointing out the routine theft of antiquities and acts of hate-motivated destruction in the areas under Turkish and SNA control.

The areas under Turkish occupation since the country’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2016 have witnessed widespread looting and destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage sites. Gravesites and places of worship are desecrated and ravaged in the hunt for artifacts or precious metals.

In April, members of the SNA desecrated a Yezidi holy place, the Sheikh Ali shrine, in the village of Basoufan, south of Cafrin (Afrin). The dome of the shrine was destroyed, and the tomb of Sheikh Ali exhumed in search of gold and artifacts. According to a local Yezidi, the shrine dates back to the first century A.D.

Yezidis are often targeted by extremists for their religious practices. It is often believed that the Yazidis bury their dead adorned with gold, though no such custom exists.

On several occasions, Turkish forces were directly responsible for the destruction.

Following its invasion of Cafrin in January 2018, Turkish forces built a military base on top of Jinderis Hill, an active archaeological site.

Also during the Cafrin invasion, Turkey significantly damaged Ain Dara, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple dating back to 1,300 B.C. Of no military value, and with no military presence, Turkish Air Force jet fighters reduced approximately 60% of the site to rubble, destroying the entire façade.

Ain Dara was later used by factions of the SNA as a live-fire training site in late November 2019. Not long after, one of the sites major elements, the basalt lion, was stolen by the Hamza Division, a member of the SNA.

According to Berri, the Archeological Directorate was unable to document most of the violations at sites in the region because of the difficulty of accessing them.

The threat to the cultural heritage sites in the region comes from people seeking to profit by selling artifacts illegally on the lucrative antiquities market but also from politically motivated destruction by those wanting to rewrite the history of the region. “These sites are political in that they are a testament to the civilization and heritage of the peoples of this region,” Berri said.