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How USA can Preserve Syrian Cultural Heritage

How Americans Can Help Help Preserve our Shared Cultural Heritage in Syria

Franklin Lamb
Aleppo, Syria

These days there are unfortunately few discernible positive signs of putting an end to the ongoing destruction and theft of our global heritage in Syria and even those one must search to uncover. But there are some.

To date, it has been primarily the Syrian people themselves, without much international and practically no American help, taking the lead to protect and preserve this cradle of civilization which has hosted nearly a dozen empires over ten thousand years. Among the Syrian guardians of our shared archeological past are the rural and urban elders, scores of whom this observer has visited over the past few years, whose revealed lives, identities, birth and death places, even their weather-beaten wrinkled facial skin inform foreigners that they are genetically melded with this great country’s past and are nearly unanimous in their commitment to protect and preserve it. They can often be seen, and yet more others invisibly felt, watching and guarding our shared archeological sites.

Many local residents are sometimes risking their lives by shielding their localities from looters and perverted religious fanatics and fools who, often with little knowledge of their own heritage, feel threatened by it and seek to erase our species identity. Destruction of international cultural sites in Syria has mushroomed in recent years where the civil war has led to the shelling of medieval cities, damage to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the theft of countless thousands of historical objects dating back more than 6,000 years which include some of the earliest forms of writing.

Frequently encouraged by their elders, young Syrian activists such as the dazzlingly energetic and optimistic local NGO, Fingerprints for Syria with more than 30,000 members across their country, and who this month celebrated their founding across Syria, are helping ameliorate many effects of the current crisis among the most vulnerable. In addition, they and students, academics, civic minded business people, village leaders, military personalities and government officials on the scene, are taking the lead to educate the public to protect, preserve, and sometimes even recover from looters, our shared global heritage.

Another promising reaction to the countless assaults on mankind’s history and identify in Syria is the growing international awareness of the plethora of cultural identity problems resulting from the current military and sectarian maelstrom. Some perceive a nascent but jelling groundswell of global concern by many who want to stop the carnage increasingly directed at Syria’s society and her custody of our civilization. Among these is a growing community of international responses from new NGO’s and old committed archeology focused organizations who are endeavoring to achieve a comprehensive protection of cultural heritage in Syria.

With respect to the American public, as with every country, more can and needs to be done to help. The American people are known general around this part for often wanting to help others. These days in this region, their focus is often to undo or ameliorate some aspects of the criminally destructive wars in their names by their own government. Wars for reasons that history and much of the American public have and will continue to condemn.

But Americans must do more to direct our politicians to focus and act on this crisis including the return of the incalculable number of looted antiquities flooding the countries bordering Syria. At New Year’s this observer was invited to celebrate with a lovely family south of Beirut in the mountains of the Chouf above Damor on the sea. The company was pleasant, the food delicious and the children precious and lovely. I was surprised, but not completely shocked, when another guest nonchalantly pulled from his jacket pocket maybe twenty or so stapled photo-copied pages with photos of artifacts from Syria. He offered the guests “very cheap prices” for the objects. The gentleman was ignorant, as were the rest of us present, about the period of history, location and surrounding identity the stolen Syria antiquities came from. What was also surprising is that none of us spoke out and objected to this increasingly common practice in Beirut of flogging looted Syrian antiquities. The dealer in looted antiquities did admit, “I don’t know the value in the market of these treasures. But buy one for your wife or children’s education and sell it later in the west. Each of these objects I am offering may be worth millions! Who knows! So take the gamble.” And most of the two dozen people present laughed, some raising their glasses of holiday cheer. And three gave deposits.
Some American political leaders are beginning to focus on this problem but they need more encouragement from those of us who elect them. To his credit, given all his other work these days, Secretary of State John Kerry and even President Obama have spoken out. Last month at New York’s Natural History Museum Kerry made an impassioned plea for his countrymen and all people of good will to help protect Syria’s shared cultural heritage.
The White House should support, indeed it should get strongly behind the bipartisan bill introduced this month in Congress, H. R. 5703, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act which aims to generate a robust United States’ response to looting in Syria. One of its declared rasion d’etre is “Protecting international cultural property is a vital part of United States cultural diplomacy, showing the respect of the American people for other cultures and the common heritage of humanity.

The White House and Congress must be pushed by public opinion to take immediate measures to stop the flow of stolen artifact into our country. Obama administration officials should meet with the proposed legislation sponsors and get behind the draft bills objective which is to “deny terrorists and criminals the ability to profit from instability by looting the world of its greatest treasures.”

If passed, the White House will appoint a Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection to oversee such efforts. It will require that the Secretary of State, the Administrator of USAID, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney to all submit reports on their department’s efforts to protect international cultural property to the new Coordinator. While many countries have offices and agencies dedicated to protecting their own cultural heritage, the establishment of an official post to safeguard foreign cultural heritage is unprecedented and could have a significant impact.
The bill also allows for any international agency involved in the protection of cultural heritage overseas to enter into agreements with the American Smithsonian Institution to use their personnel for assistance — even on military, diplomatic, and law enforcement missions — and pay their salaries. Additionally, the Secretary of State will be able to make grants to private individuals and organizations that are protecting cultural heritage where political instability or natural disasters threaten it.

The proposed legislation, which can easily pass with White House and Congressional cooperation, would also mandate emergency protection for Syrian cultural property, imports of which rose 145% in the United States between 2011 and 2013, according to cultural heritage experts at Harvard University and UNESCO with whom this observer has consulted.

In addition, the US President will be authorized by Congress to apply restrictions on importing items of “archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance unlawfully removed from Syria on or after August 18, 2011. Some who have been in Syria over the past few years surveying the damage to archeological sites have reported that the greatest consistent source of income for Da’ish (ISIS), after oil, derives from looted goods. Part of cash in from “taxes” which is collected from jihadist brigades of female and male looters, or all ages currently being assigned to more than 5000 archaeological located in areas controlled by Da’ish (ISIS). These areas are expanding inexorably as thousands of jihadists arrive every month and are assigned to what are considered “useful tasks for the Caliphate.”

These days, when many Americans are questioning the evident defects in our democracy, an excellent way to improve it for us and our children would be for us to insist on our government following our wishes and taking a lead in preserving and protecting our cultural heritage in Syria.


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