‘Cul­tural cleans­ing’ in Iraq and Syria is his­tory’s de­struc­tion


Fac­ing the on­slaught of wan­ton de­struc­tion, cul­tural pil­lage and a grow­ing back mar­ket for stolen an­tiq­ui­ties, both Iraq and Syria are feel­ing the brunt not only of the ide­o­log­i­cal vi­o­lence of the Is­lamic State ( IS), but the bar­baric “cul­tural cleans­ing” of an­tiques dat­ing back mil­len­nia. As the Mid­dle East con­fronts the ex­pan­sion of the IS ter­ror­ist state we also face the un­in­tended con­se­quences of both his­toric de­struc­tion and equally the at­tacks on re­li­gious mi­nori­ties such as the Chris­tians and Yazidis.

“Present day Iraq, known in clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity as Me­sopotamia, was home to the old­est civ­i­liza­tions in the world,” ac­cord­ing to UNESCO, “the Cra­dle of Civ­i­liza­tion, Me­sopotamia, as part of the Fer­tile Cres­cent, was a sig­nif­i­cant part of the an­cient Near East. De­struc­tion of this his­tory rep­re­sents an attack to the ideals of hu­man­ism.”

An­cient and sto­ried Iraqi cities of the Assyr­ian king­dom such as Ninevah, Nim­rud and Ha­tra have come un­der IS as­sault and pil­lage.

At a U.N. round­table on Coun­ter­ing De­struc­tion and Traf­fick­ing in Cul­tural Prop­erty, Ital­ian Am­bas­sador Se­bas­tiano Cardi stated “there has been a re­cent spike in the bar­baric de­struc­tion of ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the cul­tural her­itage of coun­tries af­fected by armed con­flict. This, to­gether with the un­prece­dented scale of or­ga­nized loot­ing and il­licit traf­fick­ing in cul­tural ob­jects.”

C a r d i stressed, “Such crimes seek to erode our col­lec­tive cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal her­itage and are be­ing used to in­tim­i­date pop­u­la­tions.” He added the ac­tions “gen­er­ate in­come for ter­ror­ist groups, to sup­port their re­cruit­ment ef­forts and to strengthen their op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity to or­ga­nize and carry out ter­ror­ist at­tacks.”

An Interpol of­fi­cial openly ad­mit­ted that IS uses such loot­ing of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites as a “fund­ing source.”

Thus the shock­ing me­dia images cre­ated by IS loot­ing and smash­ing cul­tural ar­ti­fices such as in Mo­sul Mu­seum and at sto­ried his­toric sites, cre­ates a huge de­mand and in­deed black mar­ket for the an­tiq­ui­ties that are be­ing si­phoned off for il­licit in­ter­na­tional art mar­kets and col­lec­tors.

As with Kh­mer Rouge com­mu­nist loot­ing of Cam­bo­dia’s cul­tural le­gacy af­ter 1975, much of the art then slips into the nether­world of lu­cra­tive il­licit art mar­kets.

In 1969, Italy be­came the first coun­try to cre­ate a spe­cial po­lice di­vi­sion for cul­tural her­itage and to fight il­le­gal traf­fick­ing in stolen art. Lt. Col. An­to­nio Cap­pola of the Ital­ian Cara­binieri, told at­ten­dees that or­ga­nized crime is in­volved in the traf­fick­ing. The Ital­ians have a spe­cial unit in Kosovo as well as in Iraq, places which are “suf­fer­ing the pil­lage of cul­tural pat­ri­mony.”

Deb­o­rah Lehr, Chair of the Capitol Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity de­cried the wide­spread “cul­tural rack­e­teer­ing,” where IS knows “huge prof­its are to be made.” She stressed that sav­ing Mid­dle Eastern art “needs “po­lit­i­cal will and cham­pi­ons.”

As na­tional leg­is­la­tion is usu­ally too slow in most coun­tries, Lehr sug­gested cul­tural Mem­o­ran­dums of Un­der­stand­ing ( MOU) be­tween gov­ern­ments to stem the tide, as well as work­ing with auc­tion houses to check on the provence of pieces in in­ven­tory.

Am­bas­sador Dina Kawar of the King­dom of Jor­dan de­cried the spread of Is­lamic State into Syria’s fa­bled Palmyra and added that the ter­ror­ists were mix­ing “ide­o­log­i­cal vi­o­lence with cul­tural cleans­ing.”

So what can be done? Both the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and Gen­eral As­sem­bly have passed res­o­lu­tions pro­hibit­ing the cross bor­der trade in th­ese cul­tural an­tiq­ui­ties.

UNESCO’s Direc­tor Irina Bokova, in a speech in Cairo, as­serted, “The de­struc­tion of cul­tural her­itage used as a tac­tic of war, to in­tim­i­date pop­u­la­tions, to fi­nance crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties, to spread ha­tred ... the pro­tec­tion of her­itage is far more than a cul­tural is­sue; it has be­come a se­cu­rity im­per­a­tive.”

UNESCO has put forth a num­ber of steps to stem the trade; to pro­tect cul­tural zones, to in­te­grate her­itage into U.N. peace­keep­ing, monit or “cul­tural cleans­ing” to have U.N. Blue Hel­mets for her­itage sites, and crowd sourc­ing and re­con­nais­sance drones to get images of the in­di­vid­ual loot­ers. Find­ing and fo­cus­ing mil­i­tary power to stop IS, be­yond the rhetoric, is dif­fi­cult at best. U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ap­pears clue­less at what to do or not to do. Just 18 months ago, the pres­i­dent was brush­ing off IS as a “ju­nior var­sity” ter­ror­ist group. Later af­ter stunning IS mil­i­tary suc­cesses through­out Iraq, the pres­i­dent was still pon­der­ing a lethal Amer­i­can re­sponse but con­ceded “we don’t have a strat­egy.” Just last week when asked about a counter of­fen­sive, Obama con­ceded “we don’t yet have a com­plete strat­egy.” The pres­i­dent’s hon­esty or sim­ple in­dif­fer­ence was stunning.

The power vac­uum cre­ated by a vac­il­lat­ing Amer­i­can lead­er­ship, com­bined with a largely in­com­pe­tent Iraqi mil­i­tary, cou­pled with Iraq’s deep sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions in Is­lam, have cre­ated a self- per­pet­u­at­ing cri­sis that threat­ens the cul­tural her­itage, the an­cient Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties un­der attack as well as the ma­jor­ity Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions in Iraq and Syria.

The peo­ple are suf­fer­ing and the an­cient pat­ri­mony is at the whim of bar­bar­ians in­side the gates. John J. Met­zler is a United Na­tions cor­re­spon­dent cov­er­ing diplo­matic and de­fense is­sues. He is the au­thor of “Di­vided Dy­namism: The Diplo­macy of Sep­a­rated Na­tions: Ger­many, Korea, China” (2014). Con­tact jjm­col­umn@earth­link.net

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