Syrian minister blames Turkey for looted antiquities
DAMASCUS – Reuters
AA PhotoThe world will have to cooperate with Syria to halt the trade in looted antiquities that helps fund jihadist groups, Syria’s culture minister has said, putting the onus on Turkey to stop the smuggling across their shared frontier.
Syrian Culture Minister Issam Khalil said a U.N. Security Council resolution aiming to stop groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), from benefiting from the illicit antiquities trade would not be effective without the help of Damascus, a pariah to many Arab and Western states since Syria’s war erupted in 2011.
“We have the conclusive documents and evidence to prove our ownership of these antiquities and we also have the will and readiness to cooperate with any serious effort to prevent smuggling of Syrian antiquities abroad,” Khalil said in Damascus.
Khalil also criticized Turkey for “facilitating” smuggling across the 910 km border, which he said was the main route for antiquities leaving Syria illegally.
“The United Nations knows for certain that the Turkish government is facilitating the smuggling of antiquities to the black market,” said Khalil.
Damascus and Ankara have been at odds since the eruption of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, with Turkey supporting groups fighting the government.
Damascus says Ankara has extended support to jihadist groups including ISIL, which has seized wide areas of northern Syria at the border with Turkey. Ankara denies that charge and says sealing the frontier completely is impossible.
The U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Feb. 12 maintains that groups such as ISIL and al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Syrian war, are generating income by selling antiquities looted in the conflict.
Syria is a cultural treasure trove that includes six sites on the World Heritage list compiled by the United Nations’ cultural arm, UNESCO. In the course of the war, four of those sites, including Palmyra and the Crac des Chevaliers, have been used for military purposes, the United Nations says.
In a recent example of the damage being done, the Necropolis at Palmyra, where the ruins of one of the most important cities of the ancient world still stand, was looted in November, according to the UNESCO website.
Khalil said the Syrian government was going to great lengths to protect antiquities: UNESCO awarded the head of Syria’s antiquities and museums directorate a prize for his commitment to safeguarding Syria’s cultural heritage last October.
Historical Ottoman tomb new source of tension between Syria and Turkey
Tension between Damascus and Ankara flared anew on Feb. 22 when Turkish forces crossed into northern Syria to evacuate around 40 Turkish soldiers who were guarding the historical Ottoman tomb of Süleyman Şah.
In a move described by Damascus as “flagrant aggression,” the Turkish forces relocated the tomb to a more secure area. Khalil said the operation showed the Turkish government’s links to ISIL, which controls the area surrounding the site.
“The tomb that was used as an excuse for this Turkish aggression ... was under the protection of the terrorists who destroyed [other] tombs, shrines, churches and mosques, but did not go anywhere near the Turkish tomb,” he said on Feb. 23.