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Will “protected cultural zones” save heritage sites in Syria?

December 15, 2014

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.[1]

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.”


[1] Anthony Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (New York: Penguin, 2001), 170.

37 Comments leave one →
  1. Leighton Paige permalink
    December 31, 2014 4:13 PM

    I definitely think that in areas where wars of any kind are raging you need to have limits. There are some things that absolutely cannot be ruined, can’t be taken away, because it’d be a loss of your past. It’d be like if somebody decided to wipe out the Georgia Guidestones, that’s a part of Georgia’s, as well as America’s, past. To lose cultural or social symbols of past life would make it hard for the younger generations to not relive the past. And the point of life is to shape your future by the mistakes or experiences of your past.

    • January 2, 2015 5:25 AM

      It would be nice to have limits on all wars, but that is unlikely and altruistic. Peace can only happen when one side prevails or both sides come to an agreement.

      But such agreements are rare.

      The conduct of many participants engaged in combat in Syria, where I spent a year till April 2011, and Iraq is unlikely to be modified to protect cultural sites and zones.

      Look what the Taliban did to those non-Christian, non-Jewish sites in Afghanistan.

      • Leighton Paige permalink
        January 2, 2015 9:24 AM

        That breaks my heart, I don’t understand how people can kill each other. I guess it’s because I view mankind as equals and think they each deserve a chance. But mindsets vary I guess.

      • January 3, 2015 3:21 PM

        It’s just part of human nature, the thirst for blood to be spilled is too strong and once everyone realizes this. The WHO will attempt to suppress it using chemical compounds. They may fail, it might succeed. I don’t know, if it does will it bring everlasting peace? That isn’t much to ask for. If not then an apocalypse could become a reality, a world which is war-torn, starved and impoverished. Solution: Disband councils like the UN where the US has most influence, and attempts to stop conflicts that should be solved between the countries not UN.

  2. December 31, 2014 4:55 PM

    Reblogged this on jonjominns's Blog and commented:
    War is so detrimental to archeology as has been demonstrated in countless conflicts in recent years and Syria is no exception. Thanks for posting and bringing this important issue to our attention.

  3. December 31, 2014 7:26 PM

    Reblogged this on russianmiddleastcorner.

  4. masumamim permalink
    December 31, 2014 8:22 PM

    Reblogged this on masumamim.

  5. December 31, 2014 9:30 PM

    Reblogged this on Global Network.

  6. adasi008 permalink
    January 1, 2015 2:40 AM

    Reblogged this on Adasi008’s Weblog.

  7. January 1, 2015 3:39 AM

    Reblogged this on Homie Williams & The Bored American Gospel.

  8. January 1, 2015 10:29 AM

    It seems ludicrous to say “these objects are off limits and need to be protected” while people are busy killing each other. That would seem to imply that the objects are more important and have more worth than a human life.

  9. Devin permalink
    January 1, 2015 10:35 AM

    Reblogged this on Wednesday White Shirts Campaign and commented:
    Something to look at about our history and the civil war.

  10. January 1, 2015 1:06 PM

    You bring up a good subject. War can be so bad in all angles, especially in saving history and heritage sites. I hope that this makes people aware and that these historical places are saved. Maybe there is a chance, I hope so!

  11. January 1, 2015 3:46 PM

    Reblogged this on Stk2010.

  12. baronvonrenteln permalink
    January 1, 2015 8:12 PM

    Reblogged this on Baron von Renteln and commented:
    Diese Art von Zerstörung zu unterbinden sind:
    1. Das US-Amerikanische Versprechen der Sicherheitsgarantie Saudi Arabiens nicht mehr einzuhalten, gemäß des Versprechens Deutschlands Außenminister Genscher’s unzuverlässiger Versicherung gegenüber Herrn Gorbatschow einer Nicht-Osterweiterung.
    Sind Deutschland und die Schweiz das Trojanische Pferd der USA, vertretend im Europarat, dessen Mitgliedschaft nicht einer Mitläuferanwesenheit, sondern eine Verpflichtung und Durchführung der Konvention von Helsinki 1975, den heutigen ratifizierten Europäischen Menschen Rechten (EMRK), ein wesentlicher Bestandteil der Mitgliedsländer-Gesetzgebung ist, gleichzeitig die Existenzgrundlage des Europarates und des Straßburger Europäischen Gerichtshofes für Menschenrechte bildet?
    Bereiten sich das nicht Souveräne Deutschland und die Eidgenössische Schweiz auf einen Austritt aus dem Europarat, mit entsprechenden Organen , vor?
    Oder handelt sich um einen Personenkreis zu dem das im Dezember 2013 im Eilverfahren von Bundespräsident Gauck das inhaltlich wiederbelebte Hitler-Gesetz zur Medizinisch-Psychiatrischen-Zwangsbehandlung, Paragraph 1409, unterzeichnete Gesetz seine praktische Anwendung findet?

    2. Soldaten-Abwerbung der US-Amerikaner in Saudi Arabien zu unterbinden, die auf Umwegen arbeitsloser “Freiheitskämpfer” die heutige ISIS bildet.

    3. Deutsche-Zeitsoldaten-Abwerbung bzw. Neueinstellung Schweizer Unternehmen zur Ausbildung von Terroristen in Somalia zu unterbinden.

    4. Regierungen nicht weiter zu unterstützen kriminelle nach Europa zu senden, in Verminderung der Verpflegungs- Unterhaltungskosten der eigenen Gefängnisse.

    5. Mit gutem Beispiel vorangehend Keine Waffenlieferungen aus Deutschland von einem kriegerisch gesinnten Deutschem Bundestag
    an Saudi Arabien, wobei als Kriegsmaterial auch Spezialöle der Firma ARAL z. B. Lieferung zum USA-Wunsch-Krieg Irak-Iran-Kuwait, gelten.

    6. Hauptstadtverlegung Israels von Tel Aviv nach München gemäß den Rom-Gesprächen Ben Gurion’s (geboren David Grün).
    Deutschland benötigt Geld zur verschuldeten EIRO-Krise mit Befruchtung 2001/2002 und dessen Geburt2008Reparatur, infolge falscher Selbsteinschätzung zum Einem und zum Anderen Wissensimport aus Israel, dem Pensionsgefüge

  13. January 2, 2015 5:16 AM

    Reblogged this on Rashid's Blog.

  14. January 2, 2015 12:44 PM

    Reblogged this on Milieu de la Moda.

  15. January 2, 2015 7:14 PM

    I sure hope so, a lot of great treasures for all.

  16. January 2, 2015 10:02 PM

    Reblogged this on bdchittagong.

  17. January 2, 2015 11:34 PM

    Reblogged this on lawjnm.

  18. January 3, 2015 3:11 AM

    Reblogged this on pamelaness.

  19. January 3, 2015 8:06 AM

    Reblogged this on nuruliswani20.

  20. johnberk permalink
    January 3, 2015 1:17 PM

    It is a pity that such things are happening right now. I will play a Devil’s advocate and say that I believe that we should care more about the people than about the cultural zones. But back to the topic.

    How to protect cultural sites if we decide to do so? I believe that the new drone technology can serve in this matter quite well. What is important is to get the information asap and send it to whoever is able to protect the site, be it UNESCO or maybe the Syrian government.

  21. January 3, 2015 2:49 PM

    Eloquently written and full of faith. I especially adore the phrase “collective identity” I first heard used in ’78 at a Passover – phrased by Rabbi Plummer. As a Hebrew-Israelite, having the Syrian-Laban’s daughters, Leah & Rachel as matriarchs, I humbly comply with the collectivism. There is no more bitter hate, as hatred among brethren. Causes of such have fueled bitter feuds beginning With Cain and Able and has filtered down through the 12 Tribes of Israel to the Syrian brotherhood. Notwithstanding, the only healing in fraticide is deep abiding love, and healing forgiveness. Yet, for there is only one just Creator and Maker of us all.

  22. January 3, 2015 6:29 PM

    Relax because nothing in this Universe is permanent. There is an interesting general archeological and mathematical issue to ponder about! Search for Easter’s End and marvel at what you will find!

  23. GenerationUp permalink
    January 3, 2015 6:31 PM

    Reblogged this on GenerationUP.

  24. January 3, 2015 10:54 PM

    Reblogged this on bigfootlovesapples.

  25. Technocrats permalink
    January 4, 2015 1:29 AM

    Reblogged this on Technocrats and commented:
    Civil war

  26. January 4, 2015 10:07 AM

    World heritage is just that: everyone’s heritage. It can never be replaced. Art, architecture and archeological sites should always be protected.

  27. January 4, 2015 6:42 PM

    It would be good but what about the very deliberate destruction of the Bamian Buddha by the Taliban when in power and probably very much against the local Muslims desires to keep that amazing heritage.

  28. Elena Falletti permalink
    January 6, 2015 3:26 AM

    Reblogged this on Elena Falletti.

  29. January 6, 2015 12:52 PM

    This conflict and its broad and far-reaching impacts are simply mind-boggling. I just wish more people understood its seriousness.

  30. January 9, 2015 12:59 PM

    Reblogged this on Ann'sRazzJazz.

  31. January 11, 2015 1:54 AM

    Reblogged this on environments – built and unbuilt.

  32. January 26, 2015 1:43 AM

    Reblogged this on Timeoutistanbul's Blog.

  33. February 1, 2015 7:17 PM

    Really enjoyed reading this. Opened my eyes to the cultural damage in war. Thank you

  34. February 26, 2015 5:13 PM

    Reblogged this on kietdo38's Blog.

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