Rebel factions and Syria are working together to protect rich heritage sites

Despite a raging four-year civil war, rebel factions and Syrian officials are working together to protect the country’s rich heritage sites from each other’s bombs — and the Islamic State.

Across the country, irreplaceable artifacts have been under siege since 2011, when fighting erupted between the Syrian government and rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

“Archaeologists from the two conflicting sides are calling upon fighters not to use archaeological sites as battlefields and guard them from looting and destruction,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiques and Museums, which oversees ancient sites and archaeological digs.

“We realized that only Syrians could protect their heritage,” he added. “It’s their history, and saving it is their responsibility.”

The extraordinary but indirect cooperation comes as experts around the world sound the alarm over the destruction of historical Syrian sites dating to the early chapters of human civilization.

A third of Syria’s museums and at least 16 important archaeological sites have been damaged by warfare and pillaged by looters since 2011, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Using satellite images, the University of Arkansas recently documented 4,000 illegal excavations found at the ancient site of Apamea, a capital of the successors to Alexander the Great.

“What we are witnessing now is utterly devastating to the cultural heritage of Syria,” said University of Arkansas archaeologist Jesse Casana, co-director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research.

To turn that around, archaeologists with the opposing factions are working with neutral local committees and international experts to oversee ongoing excavations.

“The goal is to save the Syrian archaeology irrespective of political orientation,” said Cheikhmous Ali, a Syrian archaeologist who founded the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, based in Stasbourg, France, to coordinate oversight of ancient sites in rebel areas.

The group counts Bosra — a former capital of the Roman province of Arabia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Syria — among its successes. The association helped coordinate a cease-fire between the rebels and the Syrian government, saving ancient ruins that included a well-preserved second-century Roman theater.

Under the deal, rebel groups withdrew from ancient parts of the city, and Syrian forces pledged not to shell the area. A month later, archaeologists were restoring parts of the damaged site, and a local militia took responsibility for protecting it from looters.

“Efforts succeeded in Bosra because of the community,” said Amr Alazm, who chairs the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force, which protects heritage sites in the areas outside the regime’s control. “Citizens of Bosra, despite their political differences, agreed with each other to try to save the city.”

Now, archaeologists on both sides of the conflict are trying to save the Idlib Museum in western Syria and the 15,000 antiquities hidden for protection in its basement. The artifacts came under threat this year when a rebel force overtook the city, and the government fought back.

Alazm said discussions to safeguard the museum’s treasures are taking place through back channels established last year.

“Archaeologists who work under the regime’s command cannot communicate directly with us. They could be arrested,” he added.

The outcome of such efforts doesn’t always yield positive results. Rebel and government archaeologists have been trying to protect an antiquities museum in Aleppo since the beginning of the conflict. But the area has seen some of the most intense fighting of the civil war and is close to a provincial government center and other buildings regularly targeted by rebel fire.

Much of Aleppo is now in ruins. The museum is mostly intact, but artillery shells have damaged its roof. Preservationists fear it’s just a matter of time before it suffers worse damage. “Fighters from both sides couldn’t leave it alone,” Alazm said.

Today, historical treasures face an even greater threat from the Islamic State, which seized the ancient site of Palmyra in central Syria in May and views ancient temples and statues as blasphemous.

“We hope that Bosra’s scenario could be applied in Palmyra now,” Abdulkarim said. “But now we’re dealing with a different type of armed troops — barbarians. The only way to stop them is to attack their bases and supply lines in Syria.”

Archaeologists are trying to save the antiquities from the militants, but it’s been an uphill battle. “Islamic State territory is a total separate world where we don’t have any access,” Alazm said.

The Islamic State pillages sites to smuggle and sell items to bankroll its military operations, according to Syrian and international archaeologists. The militants often allow others to loot the artifacts and then taxes the smugglers on their profits from selling the items.

The illicit trade in Syrian antiquities may be worth up to $1.89 billion, according to the Jamestown Foundation. The militants have likely earned $36 million from taxes alone on pillaged items, said Sam Hardy, an archaeologist at University College London.

“The Islamic State will do business through encrypted communications and with encrypted currencies, and they will make direct deals with market-end dealers and collectors,” he said.

Many of the items aren’t even going for top dollar, said Abo Adel, a rebel in Palmyra, who has worked with other locals to document the looting and the destruction there.

“Looters just take some photos with their cellphones and send them to those who are interested,” he said. “They are selling them for very cheap prices — like $200 for a piece.”