AMMAN: In the days when the Islamic State ruled Syria’s vast central desert, Jalal’s job was simpler—or as simple as it could be for an antiquities smuggler tip-toeing quietly amidst the shadows of war.
For years, Jalal and his men ferried cultural relics of their nation, plucked from the ground by treasure hunters in southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces, on an arduous journey to the Turkish border. After passing through the hills of Suweida province, they navigated a treacherous patchwork of shifting battle lines and armed factions in the Damascus countryside before finally reaching the wind-swept outpost of Bir a-Qasab on the edge of Syria’s eastern Badia desert.
There, men with hardened faces would sit in a car, awaiting the smugglers. This was the entry point into the vast territory then controlled by the Islamic State (IS), and these men worked with the armed group to see their precious cargo safely across the barren expanse and onward to Turkey.
For a cut of the loot, IS officials happily worked with men like Jalal. The period between 2014 to 2017 was a golden era for smuggling, he tells Syria Direct, due to the ease of moving across IS territory and a prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness.
Despite the virtual collapse of IS over the past two years though, Jalal says the enterprise is still going strong—and adapting to new conditions on the ground.
“Today, after the shift in control of the Syrian Badia, the [old] route [to Turkey] has been completely cancelled,” he says. Now, smugglers “coordinate with a number of regime officers, who we bribe to deliver artifacts to the opposition areas in the Hama countryside” before reaching Turkey.
The ancient city of Palmyra, once controlled by the Islamic State, in October 2015. Photo courtesy of Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.
Although a battered IS has now relinquished control over most of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the smugglers who worked with the group to loot Syria’s cultural heritage continue to flourish under the eyes of armed factions and corrupt government officers, experts told Syria Direct this month. While routes have changed and the insiders who collaborate with smugglers wear different insignias, the opportunists who got into the act under IS are seemingly here to stay.
Jalal, who preferred to give only his first name, continues to net around $2,000 per journey with the lucrative business he still runs out of Daraa.
"The smuggling route to Turkey is difficult and risky, but there is a high [reward] for delivering antiquities to Turkish territory,” Jalal says.
Daraa province, the ancient heartland of southern Syria, is home to dozens of archaeological sites and digs. It is there that Jalal began working in the emerging antiquities smuggling trade years ago after losing his job as a merchant in Daraa city.
The source of that trade are men like Ali Abu Hussein, an antiquities prospector in the Daraa countryside. Since his work as a local trader dried up three years ago, he says he has been digging for artifacts and selling his finds to smugglers.
Next to Abu Hussein’s house on the outskirts of the Daraa town of Naba a-Sakhr, a Syrian government archaeological team had been working for years before the war to excavate the remains of an ancient Roman hill settlement. Shortly before opposition forces seized the town in late 2014, the team pulled out, leaving an unguarded treasure trove just meters from Hussein’s front door.
“I decided to prospect on that hill, hoping to find something to sell,” he says.
In his first three months of digging immediately after the team left, Abu Hussein amassed a sizeable collection of coins and pottery jars. A cousin then connected him with a local smuggler, who, upon inspecting the goods, offered 350,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $2,000 USD) for his loot.
“That was as much money as I made working for two years at the market,” says Abu Hussein. “It was an indescribable feeling.”
Abu Hussein knows little about the fate of antiquities he has found and sold to smugglers over the past three years, though his cousin recently told him that one of the finds was purchased in Turkey for $5,000.
The financial draw of working in antiquities smuggling is undeniable in the context of war-torn Syria. In opposition-held territories, monthly salaries rarely exceed $75 a month, just half the monthly pre-war GDP per capita of $142.
IS puts smuggling ‘on steroids’
Economic ruin, a breakdown in law and order and the rise of IS created a perfect storm for an explosion of antiquities smuggling in early 2014, according to archaeologist Amr al-Azm.
Originally from Damascus, al-Azm is an associate professor of archaeology at Shawnee State University in Ohio who has conducted extensive research on antiquities smuggling in Syria.
Before 2012, smuggling was the exclusive preserve of government insiders and a small circle of politically well-connected individuals, says al-Azm. When protests broke out and the country slipped into civil war, violence largely disrupted these older, exclusive smuggling rings.
What rose in their place, al-Azm says, was a disorganized free-for-all, as people began digging for treasure around ancient sites, and smugglers began closing in almost immediately to fill the gaps in the market.
An exposed mosaic in Wadi Barada, Damascus province in July 2017. Courtesy of Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.
The rise of IS, however, heralded a new dawn in the industry, as the armed group realized the financial potential of Syria’s historic artifacts. Opening their vast territory to prospectors and smugglers, IS encouraged cultural looting on a scale never before seen in Syria and kick-started the trade into a radical new phase of expansion.
“IS appears in 2013 and after a brief period turns this into an institutionalized process,” says al-Azm. “They accelerated it. They basically put it on steroids.”
The jihadist group founded an entire bureaucracy around the exploitation of cultural heritage. A hastily established IS ‘Department of Antiquities’ was, tellingly, placed under the jurisdiction of the Office of Resources.
IS established a permit system in 2015 to facilitate the excavation and smuggling of ancient relics across the vast territory they controlled. The prices were fluid—after discovering artifacts, prospectors had five weeks to find a buyer before IS seized their loot. Built into the agreement was a stipulation that IS collected 60 percent of any proceeds from the sale.
The result was a momentous cash windfall for the group. While figures vary widely due to a lack of reliable data, some government analysts estimated that as of 2016, IS coffers took in some $100 million annually from the trade in antiquities.
Smuggling spreads beyond the caliphate
The successful IS financial model was not lost on other armed groups. As the hardline group has withered in recent months under assault from the US-led coalition and the Syrian government, al-Azm contends that other groups began to step into the void, continuing the trade and keeping smugglers in business.
“[IS] institutionalized this process, but we are seeing this modus operandi moving to other areas as these guys scatter and IS is broken up,” he says. “Today, you’ll see cultural heritage being exploited by regime people, by opposition, by locals. You see everybody involved in it.”
While hard data on smuggling is maddeningly scarce, a late 2015 study by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) used satellite images of Syrian archaeological sites to determine the extent of looting across the country. Researchers found that the volume of cultural theft taking place at these sites between the war years of 2011 and 2015 alone was roughly equivalent to all recorded instances of looting in Syria’s modern history.
In total, at least 202 locations surveyed by the researchers displayed visible signs of looting during the war. The most severe damage was found in IS-held territories, where an astounding 42 percent of ransacked ancient sites suffered moderate to severe looting, as opposed to 23 percent in government areas and 14 percent in opposition areas.
However, while the satellite images showed that IS intensively targeted certain sites, the total number of sites impacted by some form of looting was greater in opposition-held areas where IS did not hold territory. There, 27 percent of all ancient sites suffered looting, compared with 21 percent in IS territory.
Satellite image shows looting at ancient site in Hama on April 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.
One Daraa-based smuggler, who asked to remain anonymous, concurred with the study’s conclusions that opposition factions were now heavily involved in the illicit trade, based on his own experiences with looters in rebel-held areas.
Running another well-trodden smuggling circuit through Daraa and Quneitra into Lebanon, he never operated in IS territory himself. However, he says that their attitude toward cultural heritage as a profitable resource has spread and become an entrenched activity among local armed groups in the south.
“During my work in the past years, I have never been subjected to any harassment by the opposition factions,” he says. “[These groups] are now prospecting antiquities [themselves] for a source of funding.” Syria Direct could not independently confirm the smuggler’s claim.
While a majority of looting took place in opposition areas, the ASOR study provided evidence that the Syrian government was also not above the fray.
The ancient Roman city of Apamea in central Syria, which has remained under government control since the war began, displayed evidence of systematic excavation with heavy equipment, such as tractors. Authors noted that the use of such methods would be nearly impossible to hide from SAA troops stationed there, and found that looting concentrated almost exclusively on the government-administered ‘heritage’ portion of the ruins, while leaving privately owned parcels of Apamea virtually untouched.
“Even if these looting episodes are not formally sanctioned by the Syrian regime, they continue to occur at an alarming rate throughout this region in particular,” concluded the report, “suggesting that at best, officials turn a blind eye to the illicit looting undertaken by field commanders.”
‘All is permissible’
Ahmad al-Adawi, the director of the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated Department of Antiquities in Daraa, says the opposition body can do little to prevent the looting of the southern province’s ancient heritage sites at the hands of prospectors and those affiliated with local militias. Facing major funding shortfalls and a lack of resources, the department’s staff has been mostly relegated to recording ongoing cultural loss.
“We have worked to document all of the city’s damaged or destroyed archaeological sites,” al-Adawi says. “We also hold seminars and lectures for the residents of the city, particularly children and young people, so that they can learn about the importance of these sites in human history.”
The Department of Antiquities organizes occasional night patrols of heritage sites in coordination with local civilian police, says al-Adawi, but looting and smuggling persist.
Al-Adawi’s sentiments were echoed by a local council member in Naba a-Sakhr, the hometown of Hussein, the antiquities prospector. Requesting anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity, the councilman said local authorities were painfully aware of the looting afoot there.
He added with resignation that local factions, who were in a position to apprehend groups involved in the trade, had permissively turned a blind-eye. The local Free Police, a nascent security force ostensibly under civilian control, was not yet fully formed or equipped to intervene either.
“There is no power to prevent excavations,” he says. “Many archaeological sites in the southern region have been destroyed.”
“All is permissible in the absence of authority and law.”