Turkey major conduit for Syrian ‘blood antiquities’
As I sat down to have a drink in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a tall man in his early 20s came in. He approached a nearby table, and in broken Arabic, introduced himself as Ahmad to the head of the family seated there. He then asked if they might be interested in seeing some of Syria’s ancient history. The conversation ended promptly, as the family left the coffee shop. Ahmad then approached me, saying, “Americans are the best customers for art, would you like to look at some photos?” I asked where the antiquities were from and where they were being stored. He said he did not know. He would take my phone number, and his friends could help me.
Ahmad, an ethnic Kurd from Iran, said that this was the only type of job he could find. A credible phone number would earn him $200. When I asked if he was afraid that I might report him, he replied, “I am undocumented.” Then, pointing to his head, he continued, “I am also not well up here, and no one will bother questioning me. All I have are photos. Plus, I am not selling drugs. If [the objects] are not sold, the Islamic State will destroy them.” Rattled by my questions, Ahmad left in a jiffy.
As the Syrian civil war drags on, the Islamic State (IS) and other parties to the conflict are looking for ways to increase their cash flow. With the ongoing bombing by the US-led coalition, revenue from oil sales is declining. Kidnapping, taxation and extortion provide only limited income unless IS can sustain its territorial expansion. The sale of looted antiquities has therefore became lucrative. Indeed, expert testimony before the US Congress suggests that trade in illicit antiquities is the second largest source of income for IS. Syria’s cultural heritage has become “blood antiquities,” used to fund violence against the Syrian people.
Professor Andrew Terrill of the US Army War College has been studying IS’ funding. He told Al-Monitor, “In many wars, including the Syrian civil war, cultural sites are destroyed as part of the collateral damage of war or because one or both sides use cultural sites for military purposes. IS deliberately authorizes the destruction of archaeological sites in order to gain loot that can be sold to the black market of antiquities collectors. The head of UNESCO states that this is occurring on an industrial scale.”
The process has been well documented. Once a looter gains possession of valuable items, he gives them to a smuggler, who, working through cross-border mafia networks and bribery, travels with the goods to transit countries to hand them over to a dealer. Many Syrian antiquities have reportedly ended up in the West. Despite harsh laws designed to curtail the demand side of the antiquities trade, satellite imagery of looted historic sites point to the difficulty of safeguarding moveable art. Once an item has been laundered into the world antiquities market, it is almost impossible to trace it back to its origin, unless it is a well-documented object.
In antiquities smuggling, as with any organized transnational criminal activity, it is a challenge to pinpoint the precise role that different actors play. Since acquiring looted antiquities is a white-collar crime necessitating some education, at least in art history, a few journalists and government officials in Turkey have been adamant in telling Al-Monitor that the “antiquities trade is not funding IS.” That said, the precious spoils found during US commando raids against senior IS officials prove that their cultural involvement extends well beyond making slick videos.