NORTH AND EAST SYRIA — The General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) held a meeting attended by SDF leadership, officials of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), and representatives of the Culture Authority of the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) of North and East Syria to discuss ways of coordinating between the security forces and the Culture Authority’s Directorate for the Protection of Antiquities to protect archaeological sites in region.
During the meeting, the Directorate explained the nature of the archaeological sites and the obstacles they face in preserving them and stressed the need to coordinate with internal security forces and military police to ensure their protection from looters and smugglers.
At the end of the meeting, the SDF stressed its commitment to assist in the protection of cultural property in compliance with international conventions and Law No. 4 of 2019 of the DAA.
The Syrian civil war has taken a toll on the rich cultural heritage of the country.
Perhaps the most well-known for its destruction of cultural heritage sites was the Islamic State which plundered museums and archaeological sites across the country. Most well-known, though, is the groups capture of the ancient city of Palmyra.
Palmyra, once a pivotal wealthy, oasis city along the Silk Road, was once a part of the Roman empire reaching its peak in the third century when it was briefly a regional empire that stretched all the way to Egypt. Queen Zenobia, who oversaw much the expansion, eventually lost out to the Roman Empire.
The fame of the city lived on and was one of Syria’s top tourist destination until the outbreak of the civil war.
The Islamic State seized the town in 2015 and used it to stage atrocities. In August of that year, the group executed Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who oversaw excavations at the site for decades, and hung his headless body from a column.
Days later, the group wired the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baal Shamin with explosives and reduced it to rubble.
No less devastating to the cultural heritage of the country than the Islamic State is Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) — a collection of militias, including several espousing Islamist ideologies, formed and funded by Turkey.
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 (Ras al-Ayn) were “under threat” after the Turkish army and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Arm (SNA) took control of them.
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 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 Afrin in January 2018, Turkish forces built a military base on top of Jinderis Hill, and active archaeological site.
Also during the Afrin 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.