Molhem Barakat / Reuters / Landov

Saving Syria’s antiquities the first step to peace, UNESCO hopes

A new proposal floated this week by the UN’s culture body hopes Syria’s symbolic heritage sites can inspire cease-fires

The United Nation’s chief cultural body says the urgent cease-fires needed to safeguard what’s left of Aleppo's great mosques, medieval ruins and once-spectacular bazaar could provide the unlikely framework for a peace process and curb the trafficking of Syrian antiquities, a major source of financing to extremists.

Under a proposal discussed at a Paris conference this week, UNESCO hopes that factions on all sides of Syria’s intractable divide might be pressured to respect “no-strike zones” aimed specifically at protecting their country’s famed cultural heritage, much of which has been razed or plundered over the past three years.

“These places are iconic for all Syrians. So we think if we can stop the fighting there, maybe we can stop it all,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of museums and antiquities, in a phone call from Paris. "But I am a professor, not a politician," he said.

The UNESCO plan appeared to be in line with the U.N.’s latest political strategy to stem the bloodshed in Syria, a proposal that calls for localized “freezes” in fighting – beginning with the symbolic city of Aleppo – that would ultimately be replicated across the country. Eventually, only isolated pockets of fighting would remain and national peace talks could begin.

“If we start by identifying cultural landmarks and places universally recognized as having cultural significance, we have an entry point to negotiate freezes,” said Giovanni Boccardi, head of UNESCO’s emergency preparedness unit, which is helping Syria protect its antiquities.

U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura, who spoke at the UNESCO meeting, first floated the incremental “freeze zone” plan back in October to lukewarm reception. Analysts – along with Syria's myriad rebel factions – dismissed the plan as a rehashing of past cease-fire attempts. Those were stymied by a lack of enforceability and accusations that the regime exploited the deals to redouble its efforts elsewhere. Most say the viability of a cease-fire ultimately hinges on the balance of power, which in Aleppo’s case currently favors the regime.

But UNESCO hopes that overwhelming popular support to save Syria’s heritage from further destruction could make it politically costly for any group to rebuff these symbolic freezes. According to officials who attended the Paris meeting, “unofficial” representatives from both the rebel and pro-regime camps indicated they were enthusiastic about any measure to protect their country's threatened treasures. They were shown slides of the destruction in the old cities of Homs and Aleppo, UNESCO World Heritage sites that have partially been reduced to rubble.

For his part, President Bashar al-Assad said he would “study” the proposal, though many doubt that. What is clear is that Assad wants to paint himself as receptive to keeping the country intact, said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, in an interview last month. Rebels who refuse to do the same could be making a "fundamental error,” he added.

A view of Aleppo's historic Great Bazaar as of October 2014, after shelling during the Syrian civil war.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

UNESCO's other, perhaps more convincing argument, is that setting up protection zones could be a counter-extremism measure. The organization estimates that trafficking from unmonitored, rebel-held sites in Syria and Iraq is providing $7-15 billion in financing for militant groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has seized huge swathes of the two countries in the past year.

According to Edouard Planche, who heads UNESCO’s efforts to fight antiquity trafficking, the pillaging of Syrian antiquities has been “catastrophic." Satellite imagery of the ancient ruins at Palmyra and Ma’arat Na’aman, for instance, reveals a large number of holes that suggest illicit excavation. Looters have even been spotted using bulldozers, residents say.

Aleppo's Great Bazaar, as it stood before the war. The labyrinthine market was covered by stone archways for 20 miles, making it the largest in the Middle East
Julian Kaesler / Getty Images

From the perspective of regional powers that pull the strings in Syria's conflict by arming and funding the various factions, that could be a compelling reason to take the archeologists and art historians of UNESCO seriously. The United States is currently leading an airstrike campaign against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, but cutting off the group’s funding is essential to stopping further advances.

"If the international community and the Security Council want to stop the financing of the terrorists, they need to look also at the trafficking of objects of art," UNESCO chief Irina Bokova told The Associated Press this week.

The Syrian conflict's track record of failed peace efforts will temper expectations for the UNESCO plan. The organization's officials who spoke to Al Jazeera said they knew their proposal was "ambitious." As far as they were aware, there is no historical precedent for freezing fighting around cultural heritage sites in the midst of a chaotic civil war like Syria’s.

“Mostly what we try to do is intervene after a conflict has ended, to promote reconciliation through reconstruction,” said Boccardi, who gave the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina, following its bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Abdulkarim, the Syrian antiquities director, expressed frustration that without major international assistance, his hands would remain tied.

Apart from a couple thousand objects of art lost at the museum in Raqqa, ISIL's de facto Syrian capital, he believes his staff have safely relocated the majority of Syria's most valuable antiquities from danger zones. But he said he couldn’t know for sure. In a situation that underscores Syria's impossible climate of distrust, he is forbidden from directly communicating with rebel forces who control Syrian sites – such as Maarat Na'aman, in rebel-held Idlib province – even if only to ask what's left.

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