ISIL may be dominating headlines about the destruction of heritage sites in Syria, but it is far from being the only culprit, new US research warned on Wednesday. The Syrian regime, Kurdish and other opposition forces are also major players in the destruction, according to the study led by a specialist in Middle East archaeology at Dartmouth University.
The findings, published in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology, are based on analysis of satellite imagery from nearly 1,300 out of Syria’s estimated 8,000 archaeological sites. Media attention “has led to a widespread misunderstanding that ISIL is the main culprit when it comes to looting”, said Jesse Casana, associate professor at Dartmouth.
“Using satellite imagery, our research is able to demonstrate that looting is actually very common across all parts of Syria.” The research found that more than 26 per cent of sites were looted in regions held by Kurdish or other opposition groups. Around 21.4 per cent of sites were looted in ISIL-controlled areas and 16.5 per cent in Syrian regime areas.
But while minor looting was most common in Kurdish and opposition-held areas, ISIL dominated when it came to heavy destruction, the study found. The study classified 42.7 per cent of looting in ISIL-held areas as heavy, 22.9 per cent in Syrian regime areas, 14.3 per cent in opposition force-held areas, and 9.4 per cent Kurdish areas.
“ISIL is terrible, awful,” Mr Casana said. “On the other hand, looting on an equally large scale is taking place at a large number of sites all across Syria.” ISIL has carried out a sustained campaign of destruction of heritage sites in Syria and Iraq, most notoriously dismantling the ancient ruins of Palmyra since capturing the area in May.
In September, CBS News reported on smugglers selling looted artefacts to help fund ISIL, including a mosaic purportedly dug up in the Roman city of Apamea in western Syria. But Mr Casana said Apamea was first looted by the regime military.
Satellite images indicate that the looting began in 2012 after Syrian forces moved in, and that the most extreme phase took place in the government-administered portion of the site. “The US military could wipe all of ISIL off of the map, but it will not stop looting,” Mr Casana said. “It’s a war problem, not an ISIL-specific problem.”
Casana said he worked in Syria on excavations before the war, and embarked on the research just over a year ago using a US state department grant. He now plans to widen the focus of his research to other sites in Syria and extend it to northern Iraq.