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Syria’s ‘Blood Diamonds’

A Preview of “What Happened to Syria?” with Christian Sahner on October 16, 2014

While the wanton destruction of Syria’s historical patrimony—from Roman temples to Byzantine churches, Umayyad mosques to Crusader castles and Ottoman palaces—has received a lot of attention, the real purpose behind that destruction hasn’t always been clear. These aren’t necessarily isolated acts of vandalism or profiteering. They are an intrinsic part of the battle in Syria over identity, values and history that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives over the past three years. The nation’s heritage has been used as a weapon to finance bloodshed, to settle sectarian scores and to erase entire chapters of the country’s past in the expectation of radically reshaping its future.

The most pronounced manifestation of Syria’s war on cultural heritage has been the sale of treasures looted from archaeological sites and museums for guns and cash, much like blood diamonds. The most prized commodities on the black market include Roman mosaics, Palmyrene statues, ancient jewelry, medieval manuscripts and prehistoric religious artifacts, which are slowly making their way into private collections across the Middle East, Europe and North America. Many groups in Syria’s civil war profit from trade in such objects, including regime-affiliated militias and rebel battalions. Among the most notorious is the Islamic State, or ISIS, the hardline Islamist group that controls a “caliphate” stretching from Raqqa, its capital in eastern Syria to the suburbs of Baghdad. According to scholars Salam Al Kuntar, Amr Al Azm and Brian Daniels, ISIS derives a steady income from stolen antiquities, especially the taxes it imposes on looters and smugglers operating inside its territory. While income from antiquities may not match the cash ISIS derives from plundering banks or selling oil, it still accounts for millions of dollars a year, which go to pay for bullets, terrorist training and other war-related expenses.

To read the full article, which appeared on September 8, 2014 in the Wall Street Journal, please click here.