UNESCO World Heritage: Shortcomings and Limitations in Iraq and Syria


Destruction of Christian heritage in Iraq and Syria, along with ancient antiquities.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was created in 1945 to establish a lasting peace on the “basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity”. A central role of UNESCO since then has been fostering “intercultural understanding” through the idea of “world heritage”, which would “protect sites of outstanding universal value”. UNESCO is committed to sustainable development and has made a sincere effort to grant sites of cultural importance protective status. Nowhere is the preservation of world heritage more necessary now than in Syria and Iraq, where conflict has taken on a totality that leaves nothing outside the reach of destructive forces. The ongoing war in Syria and Iraq has put world heritage in these nations at risk of erasure. US Secretary of State John Kerry remarked in September 2014 in a speech at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that “Our heritage is literally in peril in this moment…” (Graham Bowley, “Antiquities Lost, Casualties of War,” New York Times, October 3, 2014). If no corrective action is taken the destruction, both deliberate and consequential, will continue.

UNESCO has partnered with government agencies, NGOs, private citizens, journalists, and modern-day “monuments men” to investigate and document the ongoing destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq. Documentation alone can only enlighten audiences to the practices (particularly the performative and deliberative) being employed to reduce cultural heritage in these countries. Only global action can prevent that outcome from reaching its ultimate conclusion, which affects not only historical artifacts and priceless items, but the people who live in the lands that are being reduced, and whose ancestors had a hand in creating that heritage. Before exploring the UN response to the ongoing destruction, it’s critical to lay out why and what sites and antiquities are being targeted for trafficking and eradication and what groups play a role.

Safeguard Cultural Heritage in Syria and Iraq from ISIS attacks

ISIS waves its flag in occupied lands

UNESCO has labeled 4 sites in northern Iraq (Erbil Citadel, Hatra, Ashur, and Samarra) world heritage and six across Syria (ancient city of Damascus, ancient city of Aleppo, ancient villages of Northern Syria, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, ancient city of Bosra, and the ancient site of Palmyra), with emergency project funding dedicated to safeguarding cultural heritage, rallying the international community to the cause, and restoring damaged sites. Some of these sites are at imminent risk of harm, others have already been harmed, but they are not the only heritage sites that are at risk. Antiquities exist across both countries ranging from the earliest agricultural and urban civilizations. Small-scale or less prestigious heritage cannot be forgotten, but at issue is whether the United Nations or any agency or body has the capacity to safeguard every piece of heritage within these active war zones. When a nation is active in an ongoing conflict, the protection of antiquities and heritage becomes the responsibility of national governments.

Some antiquities have gone completely out of reach of governments, international bodies, and NGOs, because they are now under the occupation of forces that would destroy them. Even the documentation in these cases is difficult to obtain because information is tightly regulated in occupied areas. Michael Danti, a key figure at the ASOR Cultural Heritage initiative (a partner of UNESCO) documents that “…the territorial gains of radical extremist groups such as ISIL and JAN…correlate with markedly reduced accessibility to heritage places” for “in-country networks engaged in heritage monitoring and reporting” (Danti, p. 141). Social media has played an important role in documenting performative acts of deliberate destruction. The so-called Islamic State, abbreviated to ISIS or ISIL and recognized in Arabic as Daesh, has used social media to record and broadcast their performances live, citing verses from the Quran as they blow up monuments or crush artifacts. They have gained approval from their followers for this savvy use of media. The antiquities at risk are labeled heretical or idolatrous by the Islamic State, making it tolerable to destroy them. The violence against antiquities at the National Museum of Mosul in northern Iraq is comdemnable.

Militants in the footage are shown pushing statues to the floor and smashing others with hammers. The Guardian reports that a man speaking to the camera then aims to justify the acts, citing how they didn’t exist in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and were worshipped by irreligious people. Even the global art community condemned the destruction of artifacts at Mosul Museum by ISIS (Rhodan, Maya, Time.com, 2/27/2015).

Ansar Dine, Islamic insurgents hailing from a similar hardline form of political Islam to that of Jahbat al Nusra and ISIS, remarked at the destruction of heritage. “God is unique…all of this is haram (or forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?” (Lynn Meskel, p. 226). Indeed UNESCO has no armed force capable of deploying for the protection of heritage sites. It would also be irresponsible of them to deploy civilians and experts on the ground to maintain sites that are caught up in an active war zone.

Islamic terrorists Defenders of the Faith mock UNESCO

Islamic terrorists Defenders of the Faith mock UNESCO

It has become the responsibility then of local citizens in Syria and Iraq as well as government agencies such as the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) to inform the international community of crimes being committed against local heritage. “…regular web updates and quarterly reports” from “The Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and the reports of the ASOR affiliated Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA)…form a major source of data” in “official reports of heritage incidents…” in Syria (Danti, p. 135-6).

A memorable case that reached the international press was that of Khaled Asaad, the head of antiquities at the world heritage site of Palmyra. He was beheaded months after Daesh occupied the city in May 2015 (BBC, August 15). His sacrifice to the maintenance of Palmyra was not political, but the act of a citizen, like many others, who work on the ground in their local communities to notify international agency’s like UNESCO of cultural atrocities

ISIS destroys heritage in Syria's Palmyra

After ISIS captures Palmyra they destroy it’s ancient heritage as a performance art.

being committed. Engaged locals operating on the ground and “an analyst of high-resolution satellite imagery confirm the ubiquity of war-related looting in Syria” (Danti, p. 139). The temple of Bel was a casualty of the war, one of many UNESCO sites the Syrian government safeguarded before a retreat. It was then blown up by ISIS and confirmed through satellite imagery, according to Public Radio International (PRI). What isn’t destroyed, is being bought by the wealthy!

It is not only ancient cultures antiquities that are being destroyed, but the heritage ISIS has gone after most aggressively is religious places of other Muslims (Danti, p. 139). This is in line with their hardline interpretation of the religion, and vitriol towards other sects, especially Shia and Sufi.

ISIS and Jahbat al Nusra have played a role in the destruction of heritage, but they are not the only actors caught up in the conflict. “Combat damage and looting are widespread in Syria, and all major combatants (state, quasi-state, and non-state) are responsible for acts of theft and destruction to varying degrees.” (P. 137). It is likely that almost all have mistakenly or deliberately performed some cultural destruction or trafficking. US-Backed “Moderate Rebels” Behead a CHILD in Syria

In ASORs reporting period it was discovered that Aleppo (45%), Hasakah (29%), and Daraa (24%) Governorates exhibit the highest incidence of reported damage since July 2014 in Syria and that the primary forms of destruction were “…looting (25%) followed by illegal digging (17%), which includes military, agricultural, and other modifications of archaeological sites… Combat damage (13%), illegal construction (11%), and deliberate destructions (9%)…and far less frequently: Tunnel bombs (3%, direct attack on heritage). Barrel bombs included in combat damage.” (Danti, p. 140).

Tunnel bombs by the armed opposition have been used with devastating results in Aleppo, where the citadel of Aleppo has been reduced considerably by rebel bombing. This can be seen both as having a strategic military motive and as an act of retaliation against Aleppo, for having stayed neutral in the early days of the revolution, which rebels “regard this support for the government to be an act of betrayal” (CBS, Oct 2012). Illegal looting and trafficking have become a steady supply of revenue for armed groups. A solid portfolio of evidence describing the black market antiquities trade IS takes part in has been building this year, mapping out the terrorist organizations strategies for profiteering off the goods by trafficking them outside the conflict zone (May Abboud Abi Akl, July 2015. Al Monitor). There is both a monetary and ideological motive for hardline groups to smuggle or destroy cultural heritage. Hardline groups make up the primary agents of this brand of conflict, and the damage they have done thus far has been widespread across both theatres of conflict, but primarily in Northern Syria and Northern Iraq where Daesh has been able to destroy at will Muslim holy sites, ancient artifacts, and ethnic and religious minorities places of heritage. Read about the Liberation of Aleppo

Aleppo, Syria before and after war

Aleppo, Syria before and after terrorism infiltrates the city

The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has not been inattentive to the serious situation unfolding in the Middle East in regards to world heritage destruction. She has argued that the underlying rational of hardline organizations for this destruction is a need to “create deep divisions, they want to create an atmosphere of fear, an atmosphere where you cannot even think of reconciling cultures and to stir sectarianism in the country.”(Bochove, Danielle, CBC Radio, Feb 27, 2015.”UNESCO Wants Emergency Meeting to Talk about ISIS.”) She has brought up the tragic events at the UN Security Council, but is the UNSC capable of action? The DG of UNESCO can bring attention and awareness to what’s going on in Iraq and Syria, can raise funds for restoration projects, and can even label some countries priorities, giving a new sense of urgency.

The DG of UNESCO does not however have the power to prevent these cultural atrocities aimed at wiping out past civilizational contributions and alternative interpretations of Islam from occurring. The geopolitical motivations of regional players and great powers cannot be overridden to satisfy antiquities experts. Even if few people or nations want to see the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s heritage, little has been done to combat it because the basic geopolitical calculation regarding the Middle East has not changed. The demands of opposing sides are intractable, the United States, the Gulf, and Turkey will continue to support various armed rebel factions, and Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah will continue to support the government in Damascus. Cultural heritage, antiquities, and all the relics, artifacts, and architecture that underpin the development of civilization will be quickly erased. What took millennia’s to develop is disappearing over the course of a few years. The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura attempted to broker a localized ceasefire in Aleppo, which would have been a blueprint to freeze conflicts so humanitarian aid could enter cities and the destruction could at least temporarily abate, but even that low hanging fruit has not been able to be implemented because the actors involved in the conflict continue to believe only a military solution can guarantee their longevity and that the other side is inherently untrustworthy.

It is not that the United Nations has done nothing on the issue of cultural heritage, it is that their goals have been in alignment with their capabilities, which only go so far as documentation. UNESCO does not have the capability to broker any agreements, and so long as groups like Daesh remain occupying forces, there can be no expectations that heritage will be protected in those areas. Conservation in active war zones has become the responsibility of strained states, with UNESCO turning towards global branding, instead using partnerships with NGOs and government agency’s to focus on the conservation aspects.

Syria monuments and beauty

Cultural heritage and beauty in Syria

A civilization develops over millennia’s, intermingling aesthetic styles in architecture across historical periods, cross-fertilizing various ethnic backgrounds, and comingling the religions of the peoples who settle on and become ingrained in the fabric of a civilization. In Syria and Iraq many waves of new people and ideas have come and remained. From the onset of monotheism to the spread of Arabism, a heritage developed that maintained minority religions and ethnicities alongside the new Arab-Islamic majority that has within it many interpretations of scripture. Cultural heritage is at risk of destruction by forces that have arisen to destroy it. Not only are minority Christians such as Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Greek, and Armenian communities at risk of disappearing in the area, but Yazidis, Sabea-Mandeans, Turkmen, and many other minorities as well. The antiquities, such as statues and temples will be destroyed along with the languages and the religions of the communities that created them. It will prove not only a great loss to Syria and Iraq but the global community if this conclusion is reached.

5 thoughts on “UNESCO World Heritage: Shortcomings and Limitations in Iraq and Syria

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