6-17-15 – “Cultural Cleansing” in Iraq and Syria

by John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS—Facing the onslaught of wanton destruction, cultural pillage, and a growing black market for stolen antiquities, both Iraq and Syria are feeling the brunt not only of the ideological violence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but the barbaric “cultural cleansing” of antiques dating back millennia. As the Mid-East confronts the expansion of the ISIL 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 ISIL assault and pillage.

At a UN 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 and terrorist attacks on the cultural heritage of countries affected by armed conflict. This is together with the unprecedented scale of organized looting and illicit trafficking in cultural objects.”

Amb. Cardi 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 ISIL uses such looting of archaeological sites as a “funding source.”

Thus the shocking media images created by ISIL looting and smashing or cultural artifices such as in Mosul Museum and at storied historic sites, creates a huge demand for the antiquities which 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 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. Colonel Antonio Cappola of the Italian Carabinieri, told attendees that organized crime is involved in the trafficking. The Italians have a special unit in Iraq, to monitor places “suffering the pillage of cultural patrimony.”

Deborah Lehr, Chair of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University warned of the widespread “cultural racketeering,” where ISIL 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, Ms. 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.

Amb. 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 UN Security Council and General Assembly have passed resolutions prohibiting the cross border traffic and trade in these cultural antiquities.

UNESCO’s Director Irina Bokova, in a Cairo speech 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 recommends a number of steps to stem the trade; to protect cultural zones, to integrate heritage into UN peacekeeping, monitor “cultural cleansing,” having UN Blue Helmets for heritage sites, and crowd sourcing and reconnaissance drones to get images of the looters.

Finding and focusing military power to stop ISIL, beyond the rhetoric, is difficult at best. President Barack Obama appears clueless at what to do or not to do. Just 18 months ago, the President was brushing off ISIL 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, Barack 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 which 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

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