Will “protected cultural zones” save heritage sites in Syria?
Earlier this month UNESCO held a major conference in Paris on cultural heritage destruction in Iraq and Syria. Headlining remarks by UNESCO director Irina Bokova emphasized that there is “no purely military solution” to the conflict and that bringing about peace will involve promoting ideological change. “To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”
To accomplish these ends, four ideas seem to have received prominent discussion:
1) Again emphasize the need to implement the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict, which has been raised by UNESCO before. The trouble is, there is pretty much zero motivation for any of the major actors on the ground in Syria to observe its stipulations.
2) Collect evidence for possible prosecution of people who intentionally destroy heritage sites as war criminals. This should be relatively straightforward in some cases, since ISIS has even released videos where its fighters talk about why they are destroying sites before they show footage of them being destroyed. Although any sort of international tribunal for war crimes committed in Iraq and Syria is a long way off, but the possibility of a trial for heritage destruction crimes is something that should be planned for.
3) An international ban on trading antiquities from Syria. This was imposed for Iraq back in 2003 and a similar ban might help in suppressing what statistical information tells us is a likely a booming trade in illegally excavated Syrian antiquities with claimed legal status. There has been some movement in this direction by the U.S. Congress. At the same time, many artifacts are smuggled into Turkey or Lebanon before export and documentation likely states they originated in those countries.
4) Bokova called for the creation of “protected cultural zones” around heritage sites in Syria, suggesting the Aleppo Citadel as a possible test case. UN Special Envoy to Syria Steffan di Mistura joined her, arguing such zones could be built through a “bottom up plan of action.”
This is itself a derivative of Mistura’s plan to promote local truces or “freeze zones” to gradually end the fighting in Syria. In an interview with the BBC, Mistura argued that ISIS has changed the balance of power in the Syrian conflict and the the stalemate between the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s forces has made both sides amenable to at least a local cease-fire and de-escalation in Aleppo which would allow them to focus on fighting ISIS.
I believe Mistura is somewhat misreading the strategic situation, as it seems that the Free Syrian Army is in trouble due to fighting a two-front war against both ISIS and Assad. ISIS and the SAA are currently not in contact on most fronts, and it would make the most strategic sense for the SAA to defeat the FSA first and ISIS later. This would also forestall any potential American-led intervention to topple Assad, since such an intervention would lead to ISIS taking control of all of Syria.
But back to heritage preservation, Mistura and Bokova’s proposals are certainly innovative and recognize the extremely localized nature of the ground-level conflict. As I have discussed previously, the war in Syria is now popularized. It is no longer a matter of Assad vs. The People but of Alawites, Syriacs, Shia and Armenians vs. Sunnis vs. Kurds, with each side represented by dozens of localized militias.
The popularization of an irregular civil war has been the subject of some of my previous academic work, albeit focused on the American Civil War in northeastern North Carolina. The model, I believe, is applicable to many conflicts:
At the beginning of the conflict, the region in question has committed partisans for both sides, but the majority of the people do not want to join either side and are just looking to survive the war with their lives and property intact. The people of the reticent middle become the arena where the ideological battle is fought. By joining a militia they can protect their homes, plunder their enemies, and avoid leaving their home regions. If they don’t join, they become targets for both sides while being protected by no one.
The effect is a process of double radicalization, as people are forced to pick a side to survive and attacks by one group provoke retaliation which forces more people seek protection from the militias. In North Carolina the divide was between secessionists and unionists. Both sides formed militias initially without the support of the Union or Confederate governments. Men who could command a following stepped up to take advantage of the situation and expand their own power. Leaders who could deliver on their promises and provide for their men became powerful, leaders who could not were deposed or their commands dissolved.
A corollary effect of this process is that it does not favor peaceful-minded, non fanatical people. To quote another author from another conflict:
He was not a fascist, though some of the more stupid of his men believed in a pure-race Bosnian Croat state. Darko was one of many in Bosnia who had tapped into their own darkness and found there bountiful power. The meek and humane were the war’s losers. The vanguard of those quick or bad enough to get with the new agenda reaped immense profits in terms of personal power and prestige. For certain, the driving forces behind the war were geared to nationalism. But many of the individuals prepared to serve these causes were simply murderous opportunists. On each side there were gangs of men whose ability and appetite for killing was used by the authorities regardless of their religious denomination.
The environment in Syria today favors this kind of leader, the kind who is able to assert his power by publicly eating the heart of an enemy soldier, beheading prisoners on videotape or riding around in a truck adorned with the body parts of dead enemies. In peacetime such violent men are useless, except maybe to the mafia. In the marketplace of violence in a chaos war like Syria they can wield tremendous power.
Now of course there are exceptions, such as the YPG and KRG forces who so far do not seem to be implicated in any heritage destruction (although they are attempting to secede from Syria, not drive others out of it). But overall, despite the fact that civilians are indubitably tired of the war, in many places actual power on the ground is in the hands of persons not likely to be disposed to exerting any effort to save cultural heritage.
I seriously doubt any side will voluntarily give up the Aleppo Citadel, which is both strategic high ground and a vital piece of territory for anyone seeking to control Aleppo, no matter its importance to their own or anyone else’s history.
Add to all this the issue of subsistence digging. People don’t loot only from avarice or destructive impulse. As Sam Hardy has pointed out, they loot when they have no other options and they need money in order to put food on the table. The UN declaring a space to be a protected cultural zone means little when you have nothing to eat. Without solving the humanitarian crisis, there is little hope for solving the archaeological crisis.
But wars end, and wars of the type found in Syria and Bosnia end sooner than others as all sides cannot sustain massive expense and heavy losses forever. The war in Bosnia ended when foreign intervention coupled with exhaustion drove all sides to the negotiating table. What emerged was a deeply divided nation with complex power-sharing arrangements. A similar result will be harder to attain in Syria as many of the factions involved are both far more nihilistic in their outlook and far more universalist in their goals than any faction in Bosnia. Mayhaps Syria’s best hope is for ISIS, al-Nusrah and other universalist Caliphate-seeking Sunni rebels to be overthrown and replaced by a less ambitious Sunni opposition that is not seeking a global struggle and is therefore willing to negotiate an end to the fighting. This seems like it will take several years at the earliest.
When it does happen reconstruction will be a long and arduous journey, of which cultural heritage and history education and international organizations will all undoubtedly be called upon to play a major part in building and rebuilding national identities.
However, these will not be the same identities as before. Pan-Arabism is gone and colonial-era borders may follow it to oblivion. The idea of using archaeology to reinforce a unified Syrian identity may be seen as an artifact of the Baathist regime. Heritage will not go back to functioning the way it did in Syria before the war. Nothing will.
What will replace it remains to be seen, but for now I will simply say this: archaeology is not dead. It will return. But it may return in a form not so easily controlled by Western interests, in ways UNESCO is not currently prepared to work with. International organizations dedicated to heritage preservation will hopefully take this into account in postwar planning. While I doubt UNESCO’s plan for protected cultural zones will bear any fruit in the short term, its emphasis on the local rather than the national may be a step in the right direction.
Postscript: Since I published this post, David Kenner at Foreign Policy has written an excellent article on attempts at negotiating local cease-fires in Syria. One study examined 26 local truces and found that such cease-fires were usually concluded when Assad forces had the upper hand, and the agreements were subsequently used to control the amount of humanitarian aid allowed to reach besieged areas. In other cases, as one UN official put it, “To be honest with you I personally don’t know if I agree to call them local cease-fires, or just local surrenders.”
 Anthony Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (New York: Penguin, 2001), 170.