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The Future of War in the Middle East and the Future of Archaeology

October 17, 2014

At the beginning of 2013, the Syrian Civil War was not going well for Bashar Assad.

He responded to the protests of 2011 in the same way his father had crushed the 1982 revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood: with massive firepower designed to slaughter all opposition. But he failed. His savage military response only drove more recruits to the rebels and attracted foreign support to their cause.

By December 2012, rebels at seized control of almost all of northern and western Syria. Major military bases began to fall. Rebel forces had surrounded Aleppo and were making a strong push to take Damascus. In March Raqqa fell, the first provincial capital lost to the rebels. Casualties among the troops of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) ran into the tens of thousands. Thousands more had defected to the rebels. The SAA lost hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles.

Enter Major General Qassem Suleimani.

The commander of Quds Force, the covert action and special operations division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, traveled to Syria in early 2013 to take personal command of Assad’s military effort. He had spent most of the previous decade directing Iran’s covert war against the United States in Iraq. There, he had played all sides, providing arms to both Shia and Sunni rebel groups while manipulating politicians at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. In Syria, his task was much different. There was no foreign army to fight, only a country tearing itself apart.

Iranian advisers fanned out across Syria to re-train government troops into a competent fighting force. Regular supply flights brought in tons of weapons and ammunition from Iran to replenish the SAA’s depleted stocks. No longer would the SAA expend thousands of men and armored vehicles in frontal assaults to retake rebel-held territory. Suleimani’s new strategy was to identify and attack strategic points and highways which controlled movement throughout the region.

The first test came in April, when Hezbollah and SAA troops successfully recaptured the town of Qusayr, between Homs and the Lebanese border. Further successes in this region led to the recapture of Homs itself a year later. In the summer, counterattacks cut off and surrounded the rebels in Damascus’ suburbs with the help of massive chemical weapons attacks. In the fall, a further offensive along the roads to Aleppo lifted the siege of that city.

Key to this success was a new force founded in January 2013: The National Defense Force (NDF). The NDF is a local paramilitary militia, its members are recruited to defend their communities and cannot be forced to deploy elsewhere. In addition to being paid they are also allowed to keep loot captured from the enemy. Crucially, unlike Syria’s cosmopolitan army the NDF is recruited primarily from among the minority communities in western Syria who stand a substantial risk of being massacred in the event of a rebel victory: The Alawites, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Druze and Armenians.

By creating and training the NDF, Suleimani recast the war as an ethnic struggle for survival. Minorities could no longer remain neutral: either they joined the NDF or became targets for both sides. What was once a war to preserve the power of a dictatorship became a war for community survival against Syria’s Sunnis. If Assad fell or the SAA collapsed, the NDF would still exist, fighting against Sunni dominance and in support of Iranian interests in Syria.

The addition of 60,000 NDF troops in a defensive role allowed the armored formations and elite units of the SAA to go on the offensive in April 2013. It also changed the face of Middle Eastern war.

Iran had used the strategy before on a smaller scale. Suleimani based the NDF off the Basij, the Iranian militia set up in 1979 to protect the Iranian regime. A similar model was used in Lebanon in the 1980’s to establish Hezbollah. In the 2000’s, Suleimani oversaw the creation of a variety of Shia militias in Iraq known as the “Special Groups.”

After ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, Suleimani traveled to Baghdad. The Iraqi Army had suffered heavy losses. Since the beginning of the year estimates for losses from death and desertion run as high as 75%. Like the SAA, the Iraqi Army has suffered from sectarian defections as its Kurdish members have joined the Peshmerga and its Sunni members have sometimes joined ISIS.

Hundreds of Quds Force advisers were again deployed to Iraq as the Special Groups revived and over fifty Shia militias began recruiting and parading through the streets of Iraqi cities. In July and August ISIS besieged the town of Amirli in Salah-ad-Din Province. Suleimani took command and coordinated a counterattack by the Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias which lifted the siege of the town.

The militias mean that any significant ISIS advance into Shia territory in Iraq will result in a well-armed popular insurgency, as will any ISIS or FSA advance into western Syria. The only way to prevent this is through genocide, a strategy ISIS has already pursued against the Yezidis in Sinjar. The same is true for any advance by the Iraqi Army or the SAA into Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.

Therefore, by implementing a strategy which prevented the collapse of the Assad regime and the Iraqi government, Suleimani seems to have put both of them in a situation where they are also unable to win.

What does this stalemate mean for archaeology?

First, it means things could get a whole lot worse before they get better. Massacres and genocide are usually accompanied by attempts to erase the heritage of those people being driven out in hopes that they will never return.

Second, archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.

Archaeology was well supported by twentieth century nationalists as a source of pride and a potential unifying force. National museums and antiquities authorities supported excavations and research. Sites were protected both as economic tourist magnets and national symbols. But since 2011 this system is collapsing. The idea that the Arabic-speaking world has one unified identity from Morocco to the Persian Gulf was shattered into pieces as country after country tore itself apart. As the ideology which held post-colonial states in one piece vanished, people fell back on identities that pre-date the formation of the modern Middle East.

Suleimani did not invent the sectarian militia, he just turned into a vital instrument of military strategy. Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are all failed states degenerating into a patchwork of para-states ruled by ethnic or religiously based warlord armies. All have their own bases of support and interests they seek to protect. They are the real powers ruling the ground in much of the Middle East.

Working with the Iraqi government to protect archaeological sites can only go so far if the real power on the ground is in the hands of a Kurdish politician or a Shia militia commander. Last month, Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund spoke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and proposed working with some Syrian rebel groups:

But as the conflict escalates, we are increasingly aware that these documentation and goodwill efforts cannot have any immediate impact, and that the destruction is also escalating. This calls for involvement on another level. As I read that U.S. military advisers will begin to train moderate insurgents in Syria to better defend themselves against the tide of fundamentalist terrorism, one immediate thought would be to encourage the U.S. military to incorporate heritage protection into the training that is being offered to these groups and to the Iraqi army. The example of the famed Monuments Men has not been seen on any scale in military and peacekeeping operations since World War II . It should be reinstated as part of the training that our own troops receive, as well as part of our assistance offering in the region.

This approach is daring but also fraught with great risks.  The environment that leads to the rise of warlords favors the rise of a type of leader who is able to command followers and control territory through a combination of patronage and violence. Archaeologists who work with such groups run the risk of being associated with questionable characters, or even have their work harnessed to promote sectarian causes. Financial pressures may make it irresistibly tempting for local strongmen to sell antiquities rather than preserve them. Finally, a close association with a para-state group may come at the cost of being blacklisted from working in certain countries or even run afoul of anti-terrorism laws.

But this is the world we live in, and any attempt to save antiquities on the ground will have to take into account who controls that ground. Obviously, archaeologists cannot work with groups like ISIS. But could other groups be more amenable to saving the region’s antiquities? Such a group would have to place a high value on their own historical heritage and have a general unity of purpose in seeking to create a functional political entity.

A possibility, therefore, could exist for archaeologists to liaison with the Kurdish YPG in archaeologically rich eastern Syria. Of course there are delicate risks here too. The YPG is on less than friendly terms with Turkey and has a close relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who has waged a thirty year war for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO, Australia and the EU.

Such work should proceed only with extreme caution and with limited objectives. Perhaps in the future as the front lines harden into states in everything but name more work will be possible. But with the changing nature of warfare in the Middle East new paradigms of archaeological engagement will be needed. And if we are going to use archaeology to help with postwar reconstruction, as Burnham and others at the Metropolitan Museum event suggested it can, we need to wrestle with how the Middle East is changing. I welcome a vigorous discussion on these topics.

P.S. – I realize this is a somewhat unusual post for this blog, and makes it seem that Gates of Nineveh is about to turn into Stratfor. But the changing political landscape of the modern Middle East affects the work scholars of the ancient Near East do in the present. Also, I even have some non-ISIS related posts in the pipeline for the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2014 5:10 AM

    Thanks for this excellent post. Recently returned from Iran and found the similarities between the Iranian and Syrian regimes striking. May quote bits of your post, if you don’t mind, in my next post on this subject.

  2. October 18, 2014 4:58 PM

    I don’t mind at all, please feel free!

  3. Ivo Martins permalink
    October 20, 2014 6:46 AM

    Very interesting post. As you said the political ambiance of the area is of paramount importance both for archaeology and the maintenance of the cultural heritage and history of more than half of the world societies.
    I would like very much to read post like this, making a overview of the political evolution of this matter. Tank you.

  4. Laguerre permalink
    November 27, 2014 4:17 PM

    “Last month, Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund spoke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and proposed working with some Syrian rebel groups:”

    That is nuts. The rebels have destroyed a good number of monuments themselves, in order to blame Asad, and they’re the main ones responsible for site looting.

  5. December 14, 2016 10:22 PM

    For all your concern over destruction of biblical and historical sites, why do you leave out the important context of U.S. actions to start an illegal and wholly criminal U.S. occupation of Iraq ? It was through invented intelligence propped by a public relations campaign that planted seeds for the wholesale destruction of the birthplace of civilization . Give credit where it is due and be sure to assign blame primarily to leadership of U.S. forces , beginning with Operation Desert Storm.
    the Americans were warned by the British to increase security of Banks, Museums, and important government buildings in the event of collapsing authority. Rumsfeld ignored everything they said and preceded to introduce a reign of well -intended misery , confusion, mass human and child tragedy and suffering, as well as displacing several million people in every direction. These refugees truly became the symbol of American failures , soon to stack one upon the other, up to this very day .
    –Twenty six years later, no one ever talks about the
    13 million people we have displaced and the burden it has caused to all neighboring states.
    We stick to a self-righteous narrative we have been spoon-fed since day one. It is disappointing and tragic to hear people coming out of programs today that fail to grasp
    that much of this disappearing archaeology is due to our actions then–and now.


  1. Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #7 | Doug's Archaeology
  2. Islamic State has destroyed yet another Yezidi shrine (Sinjar, Iraq, by 29th October 2014) | conflict antiquities
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