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Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Little known and little recognised, groups of Syrians inside Syria are working together to try to save the destruction of their country’s cultural identity. Confronted with the inertia of the international community, the occasional statement and handwringing from UNESCO and the Syrian government’s own narrative presenting itself as the custodian of the country’s rich treasures, these groups are taking matters into their own hands. A mix of academics, archaeologists, students and ordinary citizens with a deep love for their country, they have almost no funding and most are volunteers.

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

A recent study (by Heritage for Peace see link below) has shown that 38 organisations are involved worldwide in efforts to highlight the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, including the big names like UNESCO, Blue Shield, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, ICCROM and ICOMOS. The overwhelming majority are talking shops, gathering data and posting it online. They are largely based outside Syria and function only through the official channel of the Syrian Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) which in turn only functions in the regime-held areas of the country. Of these 38 organisations, 14 have been formed since 2011 specifically in response to the Syrian crisis, mainly from volunteer groups. Only six of the organisations are Syrian, working on the ground inside the country, and of these only three that we are aware of are taking pro-active, pre-emptive measures to protect ancient buildings. It is a chronic state of affairs, but such is their commitment to doing whatever they can that they are prepared sometimes even to risk their lives in order to protect and save their cultural identity.

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and richest city, is where such actions have been most prevalent. The Division of Antiquities of the Free Council of Aleppo was founded in 2013 and has sandbagged and walled up the precious sundial in the Aleppo Great Umayyad Mosque, and bricked up its shrine of the Prophet Zachariah. With the help of the Tawhid Brigade from the Free Syrian Army, they have dismantled its 12th century wooden mihrab for safe-keeping away from the front line.

The Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was founded in Aleppo in 2013. Its members, many of them archaeology students from Aleppo University, at considerable risk to themselves, saved the stones from the fallen minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque and have put them safely elsewhere awaiting reconstruction after the war. They also helped the Free Council of Aleppo with protecting the sundial and removing the mihrab.

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) was founded in 2012 in Strasbourg by a group of Syrian archaeologists and journalists. Together with collaborators on the ground they have compiled an extensive website cataloguing the damage (www.apsa2011.com) and have also held short workshops in Turkey’s Gaziantep to train Syrians in techniques of how to record damage and how to carry out simple protection measures.

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge rebels from the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, Idlib Province

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge refugees sheltering in the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, near Al-Bara, Idlib Province

A team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, Idlib Province

An APSA team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, near Al-Bara and Kafaranbel, Idlib Province

All of this work goes unrewarded financially and unrecognised internationally. Syria’s concentration and range of cultural heritage sites far exceed that of neighbouring Iraq. Yet while Iraq benefited from a UN resolution in 2003 after the US invasion banning trade in its antiquities, the Syrian case has been largely ignored, complicated by politics. Stepping up to the challenge, the Global Heritage Fund UK has recently agreed to help by acting as a channel for funds for anyone who would like to help support this work. The sums involved are small by the standards of international organisations. But international organisations like UNESCO cannot operate inside Syria without the permission of the Syrian government – a permission which has not been forthcoming.

APSA is looking to raise £32,000. So far they have raised £6,400. If each of the 624,000 people who clicked to view the recent BBC feature highlighting the problem (see below) had been able to contribute just £1, the target could have been met 20 times over.

Anyone who would like to do something tangible to help can contact cgiangrande@globalheritage fund.org, or use the donation form below. Even small amounts will make a huge difference. Handwringing and nostalgia, alas, do not.

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

http://www.heritageforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Towards-a-protection-of-the-Syrian-cultural-heritage.pdf

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28191181

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria's Cultural Heritage

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria’s Cultural Heritage

 

#Syria’s opposition groups – do their ever-changing dynamics matter?

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Arguments will rage about numbers of fighters belonging to this or that group in Syria’s opposition rebels and about who is allied to whom. But does it really matter?

Western analysts are obsessed with putting rebel groups into boxes and labelling them. Are they linked to Al Qa’ida is always the first question? Are they jihadis?  What is their ideology? How Islamist are they? But it has become increasingly difficult to determine accurate numbers, as allegiances are shifting all the time,  new groups are emerging or blending with others. The IHS Jane’s analyst Charles Lister thinks there are up to a thousand rebel groups who together make up a body of some 100,000 opposition fighters. He categorises only 30-40,000 of them as moderates. Other sources put the figures higher, at 120-150,000 opposition fighters, with around 50,000 of them categorised as Free Syrian Army fighters. By these sorts of reckonings something between a third and a half of the fighters are moderates, which means that something between two thirds and a half are labelled extremists.

But how meaningful are these distinctions? As more and more stories come out via journalists who spend time embedded with various rebel groups, a common thread is emerging. Many moderate fighters in the so-called extremist groups like Jabhat An-Nusra are fighting to free Syria from the Assad regime. They will join whichever group is the most effective and best-funded to achieve that end. If that means growing a beard and adopting Islamist names and slogans, so be it. There is also the important fact that these extremists groups in the north have seized much of the country’s oil, gas and grain supplies in Syria’s northeast  Jezira region and can therefore distribute them to ‘loyal subjects.’ But such allegiances are temporary and are based on the economics of war. Very few such fighters and local residents are likely to remain ‘extreme Islamists’ after the objective has been achieved. The vast majority will revert to their previous moderate positions once a charade of extremism is no longer necessary.

The most interesting development of recent days has been the increasingly vocal rejection by the Syrian Coalition and by other opposition fighters inside Syria of the behaviour and ideology of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam, the new extremist group which emerged in spring this year. Its summary executions, seizing of churches as military headquarters and random slaughter of anyone who is not like them are drawing more and more criticism, not just from international commentators abroad, but also from Syrian opposition figures inside and outside the country.

All these developments lead me to hope that, in some future democratic system of free elections inside Syria, Syrians will finally be free to speak out against Islamic extremism and expel it from their country. By having a taste of the reality of an ISIS-led Islamic state in areas around Aleppo and Raqqa, Syrian citizens have seen for themselves how it works on the ground.

As for the recent announcement by the 11/13 rebel groups rejecting the leadership of the Syrian Coalition in exile, that too may be less significant than it first seems. The ever-shifting dynamics among rebel groups on the ground are clearly impossible for outside powers to control, but by the same token are equally difficult for the Assad regime to control, forcing it to realise it cannot win this fight. And that makes the chances of a UN-sponsored peace agreement infinitely more hopeful than before.

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Media’s unhelpful role in Syria

English: South facade of Church of Saint Simeo...

English: South facade of Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, Syria Français : Façade Sud de l’église de Saint-Siméon le Stylite. Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jon Snow at the BAFTA's

Jon Snow at the BAFTA’s (Photo credit: damo1977)

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text ...

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: View of the main (and oldest) buildin...

English: View of the main (and oldest) building of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi or Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, Syria Français : Vue du bâtiment principal (et le plus ancien) du monastère de Mar Mousa, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Columns in Palmyra, Syria, 2009.

English: Columns in Palmyra, Syria, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the notable exception of today’s Guardian focus on Syria and its refugee crisis, the UK media’s role in covering the Syrian crisis has been largely unhelpful, seeking out sensationalist but essentially peripheral aspects of the ongoing civil war. Their goal is evidently to sell more newspapers/get higher viewer/listener figures than their rivals, treating the war as a commodity for sale.

Particularly disturbing on this front was the recent coverage by Channel 4 News of British jihadi women in Syria. By showing these women, fully veiled in black except for eye slits, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, going to support the war against the Assad regime by marrying and looking after extremist foreign rebels, and then focusing on them as the first item in their hour-long news programme, Channel 4 gave prominence to a small group of women who are entirely insignificant on the ground in Syria. The main effect of this news item will have been to make most British people feel even more anti-Muslim than they already are, subconsciously or consciously associating veiled women on the streets of London with terrorism. Inside Syria these women are an irrelevance.

Another example is the ‘heart-eating cannibal’ story, pure sensationalism which has done great damage to the cause of the Free Syrian Army because of the way it has been covered. The BBC was culpable on this story, by giving prominence to such a one-off event, again irrelevant on the ground inside Syria. They even allowed it to run and run, with their further feature entitled ‘Meeting the heart-eating cannibal’ by Paul Wood.

Its main effect has been worldwide outside Syria to give the public an entirely misleading picture that all Syrian rebels must be barbaric savages, encouraging people like Boris Johnson to dismiss the idea of arming the rebels as tantamount to arming a bunch of lunatics and cannibals. On the strength of damaging labels such as these, the Free Syrian Army is in despair, feeling the world is against them, and that they are losing the PR war.

Sadly in today’s media dominated world, only perception matters, not reality. Meanwhile, while we enjoy our sensationalist stories and allow ourselves to be entertained by them, a country is being destroyed and thousands of lives are being lost. Is this entertainment?

Syria

Syria (Photo credit: Zachary Baumgartner)

English: Protests in Damascus by women demonst...

English: Protests in Damascus by women demonstrators against Turkeys annexation of the Sanjak of Alexanderetta in 1939. One of the signs reads: “Our blood is sacrificed for the Syrian Arab Sanjak.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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