Tim Eaton
Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Benjamin IsakhanSenior Lecturer, Politics and Policy Studies; Convenor, Middle East Studies Forum, Deakin University Australia
Syria’s past, and the shared history it reveals, is under attack.
A destroyed section of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on 16 April 2013. Photo by Getty Images.A destroyed section of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on 16 April 2013. Photo by Getty Images.

The Islamic State assault on the Assyrian city of Nimrud caught the attention of the world last week. Reports that bulldozers were used to level ancient structures and artefacts prompted Unesco to call the act a war crime. Such events have highlighted the damage that has been done to cultural heritage since the onset of the conflict in Syria four years ago. While the high profile episodes of destruction and vandalism in Nimrud and Mosul – where the tomb of Jonah was detonated last year – have taken place across Syria’s porous border in Iraq, the toll on Syria’s heritage has been catastrophic.

A report released by the UN in December 2014 found that 290 of Syria’s cultural heritage sites have been affected by the conflict, with 24 of those destroyed, and 104 severely damaged. In a conflict in which Syrian identity has become increasingly fragmented, this cultural loss threatens to expunge some of the lasting reminders of what binds together Syrians of all faiths, ethnicities and political persuasions.

Four drivers

There are four major causes of this destruction. The first is opportunistic looting. During the very earliest days of the conflict an unprecedented degree of looting and arson attacks occurred at various important state cultural institutions, including the museums at Hama, Homs and Raqqa, as well as at hundreds of archaeological sites across Syria.   

The second is collateral damage from military/militant shelling or the use of heritage sites as military bases or militia strongholds. This has included six sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list: the Roman-era provincial capital of Bosra, the Byzantine-era ‘dead cities’ of northern Syria, the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers and the adjacent Qal’at Salah El-Din, the Islamic citadel at Palmyra and the old medieval cities of both Damascus and Aleppo. The latter heritage site includes the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo which has fallen under rebel control several times and as such suffered a great deal of damage since the fighting began.

The third driver is ethno-religious sectarianism in which sites are targeted because of their cultural or religious significance to a particular community. Politico-religious militant groups espousing narrow and hostile ideologies, such as Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra have sought to impose their strict and austere visions on the large swathes of territory they have seized.  There has been widespread looting, desecration and destruction of hundreds of heritage sites belonging to Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Kurdish, Shiite and other ethno-religious communities in Syria. Only days before the attack on Nimrud, on 26 February, as Islamic State militants laid siege to the Assyrian villages of north eastern Syria, their comrades in Mosul, northern Iraq, took sledgehammers to ancient Assyrian statues housed in Mosul museum. Such actions of course reflect the message that minority groups and their ethnic and cultural heritage have no place in the so-called ‘Caliphate’, which is for adherents of IS’ doctrine alone.

The destruction of such heritage has great symbolic and propaganda value. These considerations prompted the Turkish government to take the extraordinary decision to send 39 tanks, 57 armoured vehicles and 572 troops into an IS-controlled area of Syria to liberate Turkish soldiers protecting the tomb of Suleyman Shah – the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire – on 21 February. The Turkish troops repatriated Suleyman’s remains and even took the step of destroying the site so as not to leave it intact for IS to wreck. On Twitter, Jabhat al-Nusra supporters have ridiculed IS for missing the PR opportunity.

The fourth driver is the iconoclasm of Islamic fundamentalism in which a site is destroyed not so much because of its sectarian value but because it is thought to be blasphemous. Among the many examples in this category is the January 2014 destruction of a rare 6th century Byzantine mosaic in Raqqa for its portrayal of the human form by Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Restoring history

So what will the true cost of this destruction be? Only when the conflict comes to an end will this become apparent. There is no doubt that the losses will be viewed as a catastrophe for long to come, not just in Syria, but around the world.  

But recovering the cultural artefacts and sites that can be saved will be important, representing a way for the binding cultural aspects of Syria’s history to be restored. This would also provide a strong indication of what kind of state post-war Syria will seek to be. For, if the destruction of heritage is the rejection of its creators and the communities that it represents, then its restoration presents the opportunity to once again place value in pluralistic pasts, and shared futures. In a conflict so brutal and where the social fabric of the state has been so severely damaged, any such opportunity should be seized.

This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback