In a previous post, I proposed that people who are seen as purveyors of ideologies which give support to armed conflict are increasingly becoming targets in modern warfare.
Technology allows this to happen. The revolution in artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous weapons systems coupled with big-data analysis has the potential to create a digital panopticon which also has the ability to reach out and strike.
This also has the potential to give states an edge against decentralized networks in 21st century warfare.
Fielding a fully autonomous robotic army will likely be possible only for a major power. This could make robot warfare the future of war between major powers. Such wars will be limited conflicts fought primarily for interest rather than ideology.
Two scenarios could play out. The first would be a limited struggle over disputed territory such as the Spratly Islands, where each side could feed robot weapons into battle at a steady rate with little risk to any of its own personnel and little chance of serious domestic opposition to the war. Such conflict could go on forever, or at least until the equipment losses for one side or the other became prohibitively expensive.
The second would be a clash between automated armies over some inhabited territory such as the Korean Peninsula or the Baltic states. This is a much more dangerous kind of robot warfare. Once one side’s army is destroyed they now have two options: Surrender, or continue the fight with a human army (likely using lesser quality equipment due to cost, or waging guerrilla tactics).
If they choose to fight on, there will be a strong incentive for the party with an intact robot army to launch a countervalue strike, that is, to attack whatever the enemy values the most. This would serve to minimize their own losses and compel the enemy to quickly surrender.
Possible targets of a countervalue strike could include the civilian population, civilian infrastructure, the food supply, or symbolic, ideological or cultural sites.
Deep Maneuver Warfare
The other possibility involves a tactic called Deep Maneuver. Deep Maneuver refers to the ability of an autonomous system to position itself for an attack weeks, months or years in advance and then activate at just the right moment.
One example of such a weapon is the famous Stuxnet virus. The virus propagated itself through computer systems and removable media, remaining benign until it installed itself on a specific type of computer which controlled the centrifuges used to enrich uranium for Iran’s nuclear program. At this point the virus activated, took control of the system, and spun the centrifuges until they broke down.
Another was the Soviet Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which was originally designed to put a nuclear warhead in orbit where it could circle the earth with unlimited range and be suddenly de-orbited onto a target with no advance warning. This weapon was judged to be so potentially destabilizing that it was banned from space under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and finally deactivated from earth under the SALT II agreement.
Deep maneuvering could allow robotic weapons to penetrate all aspects of an enemy country and position themselves for a surprise attack against everything at once.
Such an attack would likely target key infrastructure and economic nodes in order to trigger an economic collapse. Cultural heritage sites of tourist or economic importance could become targets, just as they are for terrorist attacks today.
Cultural heritage sites also form nodes in an ideological economy. Destroying sacred sites causes extensive social disruption and furthermore makes statement proclaiming the superiority of one’s own ideology over that of whatever was destroyed.
Such an attack could take several forms:
- Drones loaded with explosives position themselves days or weeks in advance. At a designated time they swarm cultural and historic sites during peak tourist hours and detonate their payloads. Unlike a suicide bombing or mass shooting, this does not require a commitment to death from those who carry out the plot.
- A virus is programmed which propagates across the internet and erases material which is ideologically opposed to the organization which created the virus. This could include attacking projects seeking to digitally recreate or preserve cultural heritage objects which the group has destroyed. A similar program designed to scrub the internet of ISIS propaganda has been proposed by the Counter-Extremism Project and has received White House backing.
- Micro-drones loaded with small explosive charges identify all the ideological leaders of an opposing group, track them, and then strike all at once. The group is instantly decapitated.
Unlike robot warfare between great powers, all of these scenarios may well be within the capabilities of non-state actors within the next fifty years.
(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
Just before 2:20 in morning of April 23, 1999 a B-2A Spirit bomber slipped undetected through the night air at 40,000 feet towards downtown Belgrade.
The plane had taken off from Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri more than fourteen hours earlier and crossed the Atlantic while refueling multiple times in midair. As a stealth aircraft the B-2A was one of the few aircraft trusted to fly above the heavily defended Serb capital. From its high perch over the center of the city the bomber dropped a single 2,000-pound GBU-31 GPS-guided bomb. The intended target had been programmed into the bomb before it was dropped.
Below, the staff of the government-operated Radio Television of Serbia were hard a work at their studio headquarters preparing for the next morning’s broadcast. The bomb slammed into the production room, shearing off one side of the building and collapsing several floors. It was a precision strike. A historic church located mere meters away from the studio sustained only a few broken windows. Inside the studio sixteen staff members were killed and sixteen more injured.
That morning the world awoke to find that the war of ideas in the Balkans had now merged with the shooting war.
RTS was only knocked off the airwaves for a couple of hours before broadcasting resumed from a secret location. In terms of civilian casualties it was the single deadliest strike on Belgrade of the 78-day war. In a press conference given by NATO to defend the attack, Colonel Konrad Freytag of the German Air Force argued that the building “housed a large multi-purpose communications satellite antenna dish” and that it was being used as part of the Serb military communications network. Yet the same time NATO spokesman Jamie Shea promised “there will be no sanctuary for those aspects of the regime which are spreading hatred and creating this political environment for repression.”
The United States had first proposed targeting Slobodon Milosevic’s propaganda arm on April 12, but the French had vetoed the strike due to concerns that bombing civilian targets would only strengthen Milosevic’s political position. But as the war dragged on with little visible progress NATO began to expand its targets to include more and more civilian infrastructure. Strategic bombers flying from bases in the United States were never integrated into the NATO command structure, allowing USAF commanders to bypass French objections and attack whatever targets they desired. A few nights before the RTS bombing another plane had bombed the headquarters of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On that same night two electrical power stations in Belgrade were bombed. Later targets would include businesses owned by Milosevic associates such as cigarette factories and fertilizer plants.
RTS had long played a sordid role in supporting Milosevic’s brutal policies in the former Yugoslavia, broadcasting false reports of massacres and even claiming that Bosnian Muslims besieged in Sarajevo were feeding Serb children to hungry lions at the zoo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued the day after the RTS bombing that state-controlled media “is the apparatus that keeps him [Milosevic] in power and we are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those targets.”
Amnesty International’s Balkans expert labeled the attack a war crime and “a deliberate attack on a civilian object.” A report issued by Human Rights Watch concluded that “Even if one could justify legal attacks on civilian radio and television, there does not appear to be any justification for attacking urban studios, as opposed to transmitters.” Stopping propaganda which supported the Serb war effort did not offer “the ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary to make them a legitimate military target.” The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia declined to prosecute, having determined that the station was a legitimate target if it was attacked for its dual purpose for relaying military communications but that if the station was attacked solely because it was broadcasting propaganda this might constitute a war crime.
Yet both reports added another caveat, allowing that a studio might be considered a legitimate target if it broadcast nothing but incitements to genocide. Both reports cited the role of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in promoting the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a situation where targeting a radio station could be justified solely based on the content which was being broadcast.
But who decides when that line has been transgressed?
Fast forward to 2010.
Is Cultural Heritage Protection Another Form of Nation-Building? A Review of “The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency” by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones
M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 262 pp.
The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the academic study of insurgencies, producing a voluminous amount of publications whose consensus has been distilled into the United States Army Field Manual 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies as well as the British Army Field Manual Vol. 1, Part 10: Countering Insurgency. Military officers such as David Petraeus, David Kilcullen, and H.R. McMaster became academic and media stars. The United States military deployed dozens of anthropologists to Afghanistan and moved counterinsurgency to the forefront of military doctrine as it reconfigured its forces to fight insurgencies.
This thoughtful albeit sometimes polemical work by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones seeks to deconstruct some of the unacknowledged assumptions supporting contemporary counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. They begin by questioning whether “insurgency” is even a useful category for analysis. Many definitions of insurgency focus on an asymmetrical relationship between the combatants, but the authors point out that all wars involve unequal combatants and that trying to match one’s own strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses is basic military strategy. Others define an insurgency as an attempt to challenge a government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which would mean that all governments are constantly in a state of counterinsurgency whenever they enforce their own laws.
Imprecise definitions lead to very different conflicts being lumped together under the category of “insurgency,” grouping campaigns such as the French war in Indochina which were essentially made up of set piece battles between standing armies alongside more diffuse conflicts in Malaya or Northern Ireland as well as international terrorist campaigns like that waged by Al-Qaida. (p. 3-33)
According to Smith and Jones, by downplaying the essential differences between various conflicts COIN theorists seek to describe a general theory of insurgency and then develop a set of best practices which can then be applied to defeat any insurgency, anywhere. The problem is that wars are products of very specific circumstances, and one-size-fits-all theories tend to miss vital details. The authors spend an entire chapter debunking supposed “British expertise” in counterinsurgency, arguing that British victories in Malaya, Palestine, Kenya, South Africa, Northern Ireland and elsewhere were achieved through the common colonial method of finding a local faction opposed to the insurgents, giving them a lot of guns, and letting them do the dirty work. (p. 35-44, 86-87, 123-148)
While the authors’ own presuppositions lead them to contend that “skepticism should be practiced towards all grand social science theorizing in general,” (p. 184-185) their most trenchant observations concern the nature of COIN itself. COIN, they argue, pretends to be an apolitical set of “best practices” for defeating an enemy but is actually a deeply ideological enterprise rooted in American Cold War era modernization theory.
Originating in the age of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations’ “best and brightest,” Cold War modernizers “assumed that a rationalist, technocratic state could solve all social and economic ills.” All societies moved from superstition to reformation to enlightenment. Pluralist democracy in its mid-twentieth century American form could be universalized. Modernization meant industrialization, rationalization, secularization, bureaucratization, and a quest for efficiency which saw non-Western traditional social systems as obstacles to be overcome. (p. 57-92)
The underlying assumption was that modernity has civilizing, democratizing and secularizing effects which can be brought about through economic and technological modernization. Democratic peace theory, “Golden Arches” peace theory, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and most The World is Flat-style globalization theory all spring from this line of thinking. So, according to the authors, does COIN. The goal of COIN is to create and strengthen a legitimate government which effectively provides services and security to its people, thereby cutting off support for the insurgency. To this end the United States Army spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan on infrastructure projects, schools and economic development. “Buried within Western counterinsurgency thinking,” the authors have asserted elsewhere, “was an ideology that successful nation building would conduce to a liberal democratic end of history.”
The problem is that COIN is preaching the virtues of modernization to people who have already considered and rejected it. Militant Islamist ideology developed as a result of contacts between the Islamic world and modernity since the nineteenth century. Its major thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb spent significant time living and studying the West. Its followers have already taken a long look at what the modern West has to offer and decided that they want none of it. And because COIN unconsciously reflects ethnocentric Western value judgements which rank economic and material concerns above spiritual and religious ones, it is doomed to fail. (p. 57-103)
Is Heritage Preservation an Exercise in Nation Building?
While Smith and Jones limit their criticism to COIN theory, it is worth considering how closely the assumptions made by the cultural heritage enterprise align with the assumptions underlying contemporary COIN theory. Is current dialogue about antiquities preservation, replete with calls for greater education and normative claims about the value of cultural heritage, rooted in the same sort of assumptions about modernity and the end of history?
For example, UNESCO director Irina Bokova stated in June 2013 that “protecting the heritage of the world’s cultures concerns us all” because “cultural heritage can serve as a powerful tool to reinforce mutual understanding, social cohesion and ultimately, world peace.” In December 2014 she said there was “no purely military solution” to the war in Syria but that “to fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defense against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”
Or consider the remarks made in September 2013 by Anne C. Richard of the U.S. State Department on the importance of Syria’s cultural heritage for nation-building:
When we help protect heritage sites or preserve cultural objects throughout the world, we also support a nation’s efforts to restore its national identity. Citizens of all ethnicities, faiths, backgrounds, and economic stations can feel the pride and sense of national unity that comes with that.
We are also supporting the potential rebirth of an economy which, at one time, accounted for 12 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year. In fact, 11 percent of the workforce was employed as conservation professionals, teachers, tour guides, museum curators, hotel owners and employees, travel agents, bus and coach drivers, and shopkeepers.
It is not new to point out the colonialist origins of the field of ancient Near East scholarship (Bahrani 1998); the use of the ancient past as a tool for building the modern state (Baram 1991; Hamilakis 2007); how the concept of “universal heritage” actually empowers the state at the expense of local interests (de Cesari 2010; Meskell 2005); nor is it new to promote the use of cultural heritage as a tool for economic development (Hassan, de Trafford & Youssef 2008).
What may be overlooked, however, is that some of these ideas of universal heritage may be rooted in the same assumptions as counterinsurgency theory. Strengthening national capabilities to ensure a desired outcome for the protection of cultural heritage. Using heritage as a tool for economic modernization, which in turn is hoped to bring about social and political modernization. An assumption that all normal people value heritage in the same way that Westerners do and thereby heritage should be preserved by establishing national museums and government ministries as duplicates of those in the West. An assumption that all cultures will develop in this general direction. These assumptions may not all be faulty, but they should be examined.
One of the largest unexamined assumptions relates to the nature of ISIS itself. Jobs and education alone are not the solution to the ideology of an organization which counts in its ranks tens of thousands of people who left life in the west to join the Islamic State. ISIS is not made up of undeveloped primitives, it is made up of people who took a long look at modernity and decided they preferred a modern mythological version of a seventh-century caliphate.
All of this is meant as a caution, not a prohibition. A reminder that whenever we hear another UN official talking about the self-evident need to protect “the universal heritage we all share” or promoting pictures of government officials all over the world holding #Unite4Heritage signs, it may serve us well to be cautious about assuming that these values are quite as universal as the international organizational class claims, or that other people will prioritize them as highly as educated people in the West.
Special thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a review copy of this book.
Bahrani, Zainab. “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and World Past.” 159-174 in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Baram, Amatzia. Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-1989. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
De Cesari, Chiara. “World Heritage and Mosaic Universalism: A View from Palestine.” Journal of Social Archaeology 10, No. 3 (2010): 299-324.
Hamilakis, Yannis. The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hassan, Fekri, Aloisia de Trafford and Mohsen Youssef, eds. Cultural Heritage and Development in the Arab World. Alexandria, Egypt: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008.
Meskell, Lynn. “Sites of Violence: Terrorism, Tourism and Heritage in the Archaeological Present.” 123-146 in Embedding Ethics. Oxford: Berg, 2005.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
Yesterday, ISIS sources released two videos showcasing the destruction of archaeological sites at Nineveh and Nimrud. There is significant overlap between the videos, but put together they show the destruction of several items not noted in yesterday’s post about the destruction of the gates of Nineveh and the Southwest Palace.
The Nergal Gate
Some of the footage shows a bulldozer destroying the Mashki Gate in Nineveh. This was already depicted in a photo essay released by ISIS and the video footage is nearly identical.
However, a brief scene shows a bulldozer backing down the ramp from the Nergal Gate, turning, and disgorging a section of a lamassu sculpture into a waiting dump truck:
Another shot shows a bulldozer making a hole through the rear of the gate and toppling what remains of the lamassu on the right with its shovel. The lamassu on the left appears to have already been destroyed:
Readers may recall that ISIS fighters chiseled the face off of the right lamassu last February. This suggests that ISIS has gone back to re-destroy artifacts that it already destroyed once, in order to get footage for new videos.
The lamassus at the Nergal Gate were originally installed during Sennacherib’s massive expansion of Nineveh between 704 and 690 BC. They were originally uncovered by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but reburied. In 1941 heavy rains exposed them again, and the reconstruction of the Nergal Gate was built in part to protect the statues. These were some of the few lamassu which remained in the location where they were originally discovered.
The reconstructed gate itself appears to have sustained some damage to the rear wall but is still standing.
The Temple of Nabu at Nimrud
Additional footage shows several exterior shots of the Fish Gate of the Ezida Temple of Nabu at Nimrud. As with the gates at Nineveh, the gate and the walls are modern reconstructions. The statues at the entrance were once mermen, but their heads were broken off in antiquity, leading to the structure being called the “Fish Gate.”
Video taken from several angles shows explosives being detonated behind and under the arch. The double dust cloud is caused by gasses and debris venting through the arch.
As can be seen in after shots, the arch collapsed but the majority of the structure is still standing. This is confirmed by satellite photographs which show the damage was done sometime prior to June 3, 2016.
The mermen sculptures appear to have suffered heavy damage. Fragments of one can be seen in a shot of the rubble pile:
In a move surely calculated to provoke a media reaction, the video concluded with an ISIS member stating that the group intends to go to Egypt and blow up the pyramids and the sphinx.
The worship of Nabu originated in Borsippa in southern Mesopotamia and later spread north. The Ezida Temple of Nabu at Nimrud was built by Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BC) as one of nine temples he founded at Nimrud. Excavations in the 19th century by Hormuzd Rassam and in the 20th century by Max Mallowan discovered several colossal statues (now preserved in the Iraq Museum) and a large number of shrines and dedicatory inscriptions as well as a collection of cuneiform texts related to the operation of the temple.
 J.P.G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq 10, No. 1 (Spring 1948): 9-18.
 Joan Oates and David Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2001), 111-112.
 Oates and Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed, 111-123.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
As the focus has shifted to Palmyra, relatively little media attention has been paid over the past several months to ISIS’ continued destruction of cultural sites in and around Mosul. Nevertheless, ISIS’ campaign to eliminate anything it perceives as being opposed to its ideology has continued. Over the past few months, many structures previously left untouched have been destroyed.
The Southwest Palace of Sennacherib
Situated atop the ancient tell of Kuyunjik, the Southwest Palace was one of the first buildings of Nineveh to be excavated by Austen Henry Layard in 1847. The palace contained the famous Lachish siege reliefs now preserved in the British Museum.
Over a hundred reliefs were left in situ and the palace was preserved as a museum. Some of the reliefs were broken or looted in the 1990s.
The palace had not been touched by ISIS until sometime between April 1 and May 2, when the metal roof protecting the remains from the elements was removed. After this, the walls separating various rooms were torn down, the pillars which supported the roof were removed. Satellite photos show vehicle tracks, indicating material was hauled out by the truckload. In the most recent images few reliefs can be seen and it appears they were either taken away or destroyed.
The Southwest Palace was one of two preserved Assyrian royal palaces formerly open to visitors, along with the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. The Northwest Palace was destroyed by ISIS in April 2015.
The City Gates of Nineveh
Nineveh from the reign of Sennacherib onwards featured fifteen major gates in the city wall. Each one was a monumental building in its own right, often featuring decorative reliefs and large lamassu statues.
The gates have been the target of numerous excavations. Several of them have been reconstructed in modern times along with sections of the city walls.
ISIS already destroyed the lamassus standing inside the Nergal Gate in February 2015, at the same time as they destroyed the artifacts in the Mosul Museum.
On April 10, ISIS destroyed the reconstructed Mashki Gate and its associated walls with bulldozers and later released propaganda photos online captioned simply “The demolition of idolatrous archaeology in the city of Mosul.” Satellite photos obtained by ASOR showed the gate has been completely razed and no trace of it remains.
On April 14 they also destroyed the Adad Gate. Its destruction was revealed through satellite photographs obtained by ASOR as well as photographs on the ground obtained through clandestine measures.
As the gates and the walls are modern reconstructions, it is not immediately clear how much damage was done to ancient remains by these actions.
Tunneling in Ancient Nineveh
In addition, ASOR has identified several locations in the ancient city where tunnels are being dug into the side of the tell. This technique has also been used at the tells of Qara Tepe and Khidr Alyas near Tal Afar. The tunneling is not visible from satellite photos and can only be identified by the growing backfill piles.
Archaeological looting is typically conducted by digging numerous pits on the surface in order to overturn as much soil as possible. Digging from the side minimizes the amount of soil being turned over, which would seem to reduce the chances of finding a valuable artifact. While there may be other motives to dig this way such as concealment, there would seem to be little reason to conceal digging if ISIS has authorized it. This raises the possibility that the digging may be being conducted for other purposes such as the construction of military bunkers.
The Latin Church
The Iraqi news outlet Al-Baghdadia was first to report on April 25 that the historic clock tower of the Latin Church in Mosul had been destroyed. The story was quickly picked up by the Telegraph and spread from there to other news outlets.
The tower was built in 1873 by the Dominican monks who also built the Latin Church. Its construction was financed by the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.
As of yet there is no hard evidence as to the status of the tower. No photos have surfaced to confirm its destruction. Further clouding the issue, the destruction of the tower was first reported this past September and was said to have taken place in February 2015.
The clock tower has been the target of attacks before. On November 1, 2006 a bomb exploded outside the entrance to the Latin Church. No one was killed in the attack, but the violence caused the monks to flee the city for Arbil. On April 9, 2008 the tower was damaged by a car bomb which targeted a passing police patrol. Two people were killed in that attack and ten were wounded.
Mosul War Cemetery
The cemetery contains the remains of 191 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in World War 1 and 145 who died in World War 2. Fourteen civilians are also buried there, including British consuls who died in Mosul. By nationality, 75 of the servicemen buried there are British, two are Australians and one Canadian. The rest of the total from both World Wars came from British India, many of whom were Muslims. Reports indicate at least 29 Polish soldiers may also be buried there.
The Mosul War Cemetery was reported to be in very poor condition prior to the beginning of the war in 2003, as is the case with most Commonwealth war cemeteries in Iraq. In 1998 the Polish Embassy reported that all of the tombstones had been smashed to rubble. However, photos taken in 2014 showed that two memorial obelisks were still standing at that time.
The satellite photographs showed that ISIS leveled both obelisks as well as the Cross of Sacrifice. The walled cemetery to the upper left of the photograph was also destroyed, however it was not part of the Mosul War Cemetery.
Given the indiscriminate nature of this destruction it appears it was carried out as part of ISIS’ general campaign against graves which began in the fall of 2015.
Dair Mar Elia Monastery
Situated just south of Mosul, the Monastery of St. Elijah (Dair Mar Elia) is one of the oldest monasteries in Iraq. Founded between 582 and 590 AD, the Chaldean Catholic monastery remained active until 1743, when the Persian king Nader Shah massacred 150 monks for refusing to convert to Islam. The monastery was not restored and fell into ruin.
In January 2016 the Associated Press obtained photographs showing that the monastery had been razed sometime between August 27 and September 28, 2014. Its destruction had not previously been reported, nor had it been publicized by ISIS in any way.
The lack of publicity accompanying the destruction of many of the monuments discussed in this post cannot be ignored. First, it undercuts arguments that ISIS destroys sites solely to generate publicity in the media. Second, it raises the possibility that many other sites have been destroyed without being reported.
Finally, what it does suggest is that ISIS’s campaign of cultural cleansing in Mosul, so clearly designed to remove signs of any ideology opposed to ISIS, has continually expanded in scope from destroying Islamic sites, to ancient images, to replicas of ancient structures.
It could be argued that the drive for absolute ideological purity will always lead to a “scope creep” as it creates a thought process which is always searching for the next violation of the rules, and must continually find something to eliminate in order to keep functioning. Alternately, a more prosaic explanation could simply lie in the allocation of resources, priorities and scheduling. Regardless, while the news concerning cultural destruction in Mosul was quiet for many months, it can now be said that this was a deceptive quiet, and we can likely expect more news of destroyed cultural sites in the future.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
The recapture of Palmyra from ISIS is undoubtedly a major battlefield victory for the Assad regime. For the first time in six months Syrian regime forces have recaptured significant territory from rebels. Prior to Russian intervention in September Assad’s forces were teetering on the brink of collapse, worn down by years of heavy casualties and equipment losses. Now Assad’s front lines are secure, the opposition has been further divided, and Russia has begun to draw down its military commitment.
Bashar Assad is now seeking to spin his battlefield victory into an even greater propaganda victory. Palmyra and its famous ruler Zenobia have long held special significance to the Assad regime as symbols of Arab nationalism and resistance to the West. The recapture of Palmyra allows him to counter allegations that he entered into a tacit nonaggression pact with ISIS in order to defeat the Western-backed Free Syrian Army first. It also him to sell his fight to stay in power as a war by the forces of civilization against the barbarians who threaten it.
The first step in the media offensive was to bring a parade of foreign journalists into Palmyra to photograph destroyed ancient ruins and shattered statues in the Palmyra Museum. These photographs allowed an assessment of the damage done to archaeological remains, but as more and more news stories were filed a definite pattern emerged. Story after story focused solely on the ancient ruins. Photo spreads showed only photographs of the damaged and undamaged archaeological remains rather than the rubble of the modern town. Articles quoted only Syrian antiquities officials or western scholars and never quoted anyone currently living in the modern town of Tadmor.
A few photos surfaced of areas of the town adjacent to the ruins. The commonly circulated explanation was that ISIS had seeded both the modern town and the ruins with mines. No one asked why the ruins were de-mined first.
Is the way this story has been covered an example of western priorities which grant the remains of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic past a higher status than its present inhabitants? Or can journalists only photograph and write about what they are allowed to see?
The next step came when Russia’s Hermitage Museum offered to aid the restoration of Palmyra. Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky declared that “restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us.” Iran quickly followed suit. Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim called for “archaeologists and experts everywhere to come work with us because this site is part of the heritage of all humanity.” The Syrian regime liberated Palmyra and now seeks to present itself as a defender of global civilization. One group of reporters who visited Palmyra were even told by a Syrian officer that “The Syrian army is defending Rome and London in as much as it is defending Damascus.”
A third step came on March 31 when Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin delivered a letter to the Security Council alleging that “The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$ 150-200 million per year.” No evidence was cited to support this figure, which he appears to have made up, and it can be safely said that the figure is absurdly high. My own open source analysis concluded ISIS has made a few million dollars at most from the sale of looted antiquities and antiquities make up a relatively small source of funds for the group. I have seen nothing in the past three months that contradicts this assessment.
(The letter also included a number of allegations that Turkey is a major transshipment point for looted artifacts, which is already well known, and claims that Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi is currently administering ISIS’ antiquities division, which would be rather difficult for him to do since he has been dead for almost a year).
This was followed by an announcement on April 1 by the state news agency SANA that government troops had uncovered a mass grave containing 42 bodies, including three children.
These attempts to shape the media narrative are notable not so much for what they include as for what they leave out. There is little discussion of the destruction wrought by indiscriminate aerial bombing of the town of Tadmor. Russian airstrikes frequently hit hospitals in rebel-held areas. ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative Weekly Reports are full of information about cultural heritage sites damaged by Russian and Syrian airstrikes.
Before the war, Palmyra was infamous among Syrian Islamists not for the pagan temples but for the notorious Tadmor Military Prison, into which regime opponents frequently disappeared. The prison was the scene of an infamous massacre on June 27, 1980 when, following an assassination attempt against Hafez Assad, soldiers under the command of his brother Rifaat entered the prison and slaughtered over a thousand inmates. After they captured Palmyra in May 2015, before touching any temples or tombs ISIS made a show of destroying Tadmor Prison. No photographs of that pile of rubble have been splashed across the front pages of major western newspapers.
Photos smuggled out from inside Assad’s prisons show that nothing has changed since 1980.
During the occupation of Palmyra by government forces from 2012-2015 the archaeological site was damaged by government forces using bulldozers to construct military positions among the ruins. Tower tombs were frequently looted.
I could go on.
The point is not to engage in reductionist debate about which side is committing worse human rights abuses. The point is to show how recent events are being manipulated by the Assad regime in order to capitalize on the opportunity to gain positive press coverage (not counting Russian and Iranian media) for the first time in five years.
People want to see threatened antiquities saved. Those who save them are hailed as heroes. Western minds and their media have a deep need to find a good guy and a bad guy in every conflict story.
Archaeology has once again been turned into a weapon, one tool of the ideological battlefield alongside many other types of weapons.
 Robbert A.F.L. Woltering, “Zenobia or al-Zabbāʾ: The Modern Arab Literary Reception of the Palmyran Protagonist,” Middle East Literatures 17, No. 1 (2014): 25-42; Christian Sahner, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2014), 133-135.
On March 27 Syrian troops loyal to the Assad regime, with the help of Russian air power and special operations forces, recaptured the ancient ruins of Palmyra and the modern town of Tadmor. The town had been captured by ISIS in May of 2015 and in August several well publicized photos were released showing the temples of Bel and Baalshamin being destroyed. That same month ISIS beheaded Khaled al-As’ad, the site’s retired chief archaeologist and hung his body from a lamp post. During the ensuing months more reports came in regarding the destruction of other ancient structures in Palmyra, some of which were confirmed by satellite photography.
Palmyra is the second major archaeological site to be recaptured from ISIS (the first was the early Islamic site of Samarra last year). It is the first site to be retaken which has suffered sustained destruction at the hands of ISIS, giving us an opportunity to examine the damage.
The recapture of ancient Palmyra is a potent propaganda victory for Bashar Assad, whose regime heavily promoted the site in the past as symbolic of Syria’s alleged stance against western imperialism and irredentist goals of ruling “Greater Syria.” The government has brought in a steady stream of journalists to photograph the ruins, leading to a large number of photographs becoming available which will be analyzed below.
ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative has already published two reports on the damage done to the site:
Palmyra: Heritage Adrift (February 2012-June 2015)
Special Report: Update on the Situation in Palmyra (May 2015-September 2015)
UNESCO has also published a report on damage to the site from looting and military operations prior to October 2014.
Update 4/5/2016: ASOR has released a report analyzing the new footage from Palmyra. The report offers the following:
These findings add to a growing list of damage to Palmyra. Over the course of the war the Palmyra Museum, eight mosques, and Islamic cemetery, a church, two Shia shrines, the Baalshamin Temple, the Temple to Bel, the Triumphal Arch, Qalaat Shirkuh, Funerary Temple S103, and twelve Tower Tombs have all been damaged or destroyed. Undoubtedly more damage will be uncovered as preservation experts assess the site in the future.
The Ancient Site
Russian TV channel Russia 24 has obtained footage from a UAV flying over the ruins of Palmyra:
Analysis of the footage by ASOR showed that many major structures such as the theater, tetrapylon, agora and temple of Nabu are still standing. Despite being hit by airstrikes several times, the medieval fortress of Qalaat Shirkuh on the hill overlooking Palmyra seems to have only sustained light damage.
Further analysis of satellite photographs by ASOR shows that a funerary temple situated near the tower tombs was demolished. This was not previously reported.
Journalist Maher al-Mounes from the AFP gained access to the ruins on March 27. He posted the following short video of the Triumphal Arch, which was reported to have been destroyed last September but had never been confirmed:
Al-Mounes’s photographs were also hosted on the website of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). These images show that the arch was destroyed by dropping its middle span, leaving the columns along the sides still standing.
Al-Mounes’ photos appear to show that the theater and the colonnaded streets are largely undamaged. Reports that ISIS tied prisoners to columns and blew them up remain unconfirmed and will require a thorough on-site or satellite survey of all the remaining standing columns.
Al-Mounes’ photos also show the Temple of Bel, which was blown up by ISIS in September 2015. The doorway has survived, as was previously seen in satellite photographs.
Footage from the Russia 24 drone shows the Temple of Nabu seemingly undamaged. The Temple of Nabu can also be seen in the above picture of the triumphal arch, behind the four columns standing to the left of the photo.
The Temple of Nabu was likely left alone due to its low state of preservation compared to the temples of Bel and Baalshamin. Ironically the temple of Bel was preserved so well because it was converted into a mosque in 1132 or 1133.
There is currently no reliable information about the status of the Temple of Allat, built within the Camp of Diocletian. A picture hosted by Russia Today claimed to show that the area known as the Camp of Diocletian had been razed, but a careful examination of surrounding landmarks in the photo with maps and Google Earth imagery shows that the picture cannot show the Camp of Diocletian and must have been taken from a point along the north wall.
Update 4/5/2016: According to satellite imagery included in the latest ASOR special report, the Temple of Allat and Diocletian’s Camp have survived without visible damage.
The temple of Baalshamin is not seen in any of the new footage, but was previously confirmed to have been destroyed through satellite imagery.
There is of yet no information on the status of the Temple of Belhammon.