Caught in the crossfire: conflict in Syria and Iraq

In 2012, CWA reported on the damage inflicted on Syria’s cultural heritage since the beginning of the civil war. Now we take an updated look at heritage in conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Since 2011, Syria’s civil war has spilled over into neighbouring countries, militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, otherwise known as Islamic State or IS) have seized caliphate control of major cities, and US, UK, and allied governments have ordered airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. More than two years since our first report, the situation has worsened, and the dire warnings of possible damage to the region’s ancient monuments have been realised.

In 2014, UNESCO arranged two urgent meetings in Paris to discuss the imminent threat posed to the cultural heritage in both Syria and Iraq. In September of that year, a report published by the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) included satellite images that revealed the damage caused to Syria’s six World Heritage Sites. This is the first report to reveal the full extent of modern conflict damage inflicted on these sites using high-resolution imagery, and confirm on-the-ground accounts from news and social media.

Between 6 December 2011 (top) and 14 July 2014 (bottom), the Ministry of Justice building was heavily damaged (red arrow), as was the Khusriwiye Mosque (green arrow). The Carlton Citadel Hotel (blue arrow) was completely destroyed. By 10 August 2014, the Khusriwiye Mosque had been almost completely demolished, the Grand Serail was heavily damaged, and the dome of the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry was destroyed. Photo: DigitalGlobe.

Syrian sites

Aleppo dates to the 2nd millennium BC, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The Great Mosque of Aleppo and the Suq al-Madina have been heavily damaged. Elsewhere in the city, madinas, mosques, madrasas, and other historic buildings of the Ancient City of Aleppo have suffered severe damage. The Ancient City of Bosra has suffered mortar impacts near its Roman theatre, and new roads have been built directly through the North Roman Necropolis in Palmyra, a site famous for ruins that combine both Greco-Roman and Persian artistic influences. Jebel Barisha, one of the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, now houses three military compounds within its site boundaries. Meanwhile, at the majestic Crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers, structural damage can be seen in the towers and around its grounds. The condition of the sixth site, Damascus, remains unknown. Satellite images show no damage, but are not extensive; reports on the ground contradict them.

All six sites are now on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list, and the latest details are providing humanitarian agencies with the necessary information to design more effective interventions to protect heritage sites in future.

Between 10 October 2009 (top) and 8 March 2014 (bottom), Palmyra’s North Roman Necropolis has been disrupted by construction of roads and numerous earthen berms (pink arrows) to provide cover for military vehicles (yellow arrows). Photo: Analysis AAAS.

Iraqi occupation

Across the border in Iraq, cultural heritage has been seized by force, occupied, looted, and destroyed. After the ISIS capture of Mosul in June 2014, 2,000 of Iraq’s heritage sites became accessible to them, including Jonah’s Tomb, Assyrian palaces, churches, and many other religious and historically significant sites. ISIS militants are destroying tombs, religious houses, and archives as their strict interpretation of Islam leads them to believe all non-Islamic legacies are idolatrous.

They are also profiting from the destruction. Illegally excavated artefacts, stripped of their archaeological context, and priceless stolen objects from occupied museums are now being shipped abroad to be sold. According to UNESCO, the returns from these sales are used to finance terrorism, and it has called for the art world to be wary of all Iraqi and Syrian goods.

Philippe Lalliot, the UNESCO ambassador of France asks :‘is it right to be concerned about cultural cleansing when the dead are being counted in the tens of thousands? Yes,’ he continues, ‘absolutely… the destruction of heritage that carries with it the identity of a people and the history of a country cannot be considered as secondary damage that we can live with.’

Text: Polly Heffer.