Trafficking out of Syria

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.

The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting [1]. The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.

There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed [2]. Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.

Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy

Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.

Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.

The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.

Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.


  1. Casana, Jesse, 2015. Satellite imagery-based analysis of archaeological looting in Syria, Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-52.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2015. Syria and its regional neighbors: A case of cultural property protection policy failure? International Journal of Cultural Property 22: 317-35.


Interesting times

In the UK, the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill, which aims to ratify and implement the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols, is working its way through Parliament. Already, one shortcoming of the Convention reproduced in the new Bill has become apparent. The preventive measures regarding illegal trade of cultural objects from occupied territories do not apply to territories occupied by non-state actors. So although recent government support for the Bill was prompted by the illegal trade funding Daesh and other insurgency groups, the Bill offers nothing in response. That is surprising and disappointing, particularly when it is remembered that the 1999 Second Protocol was drafted with the post-WWII experience of civil wars very much in mind. Looking back to a much earlier time, the new Bill derives its meaning of the term ‘occupation’ from the 1907 Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land.

Another problem with the Bill, again reflecting a shortcoming of the Convention, is that it takes no account of the increasing prevalence of aerial bombardment as an instrument of war, particularly by the US and its various allies, including the UK. Since the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, there have been several bombing campaigns, aimed ostensibly at degrading economic infrastructure, eliminating weapons manufacturing capabilities and destroying defence installations, but perhaps too with the covert intention of fomenting civil unrest and anger against incumbent enemy regimes. Iraq, Serbia and most recently Syria have all been targeted. There has been widespread civilian suffering and deprivation, and it is not surprising in such circumstances when impoverished people turn to looting cultural sites as part of a coping response. And yet the Hague Convention does nothing to discourage it. Thus the economic sanctions and episodic bombing inflicted upon Iraq through the 1990s and early 2000s must take some responsibility for the widespread looting of cultural sites and museums around the country, which looks to have already peaked before the March 2003 Coalition ground invasion. The subsequent occupation lasted until the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004. Iraq had been party to the Hague Convention and its First Protocol since 1967, but the preventive measures available in the new Bill would apply only to material illegally traded out of Iraq during the relatively limited occupation window of March 2003 to June 2004. They would not apply to material exported illegally before (or after) that time. In practical terms, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to discriminate on the market between objects exported illegally during the bombing and those exported illegally during occupation.

In view of these two identified deficiencies of the Hague Convention and its two Protocols, both caused by the changing character of modern warfare, perhaps it is time for the international community to consider a Third Protocol, with more explicit attention paid to the twenty-first century realities of looting and illegal trade in times of civil and proxy conflict and aerial bombardment.

The Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill might not be the only piece of new legislation needed in UK. On 23 June, in a referendum held to decide future membership of the European Union (EU), the UK electorate voted narrowly in favour of leaving. The campaign leading up to the vote was characterized by dishonesty, denial and deception on both sides, and it left the government in disarray, riven through with recrimination and dissension and engaged in brutal combat over leadership. The constitutional implications of the referendum decision have still to be decided, but if the UK does leave the EU, there are two important pieces of EU legislation concerning the illegal trade in cultural objects that will need to be replaced by UK equivalents.

Council Regulation (EC) No 116/2009 of 18 December 2008 on the export of cultural goods provides licensing control at all EU borders for the export of cultural objects. This control needs to be maintained in some form, or else the UK will become a marketplace for objects illegally exported out of the EU. It might be a good opportunity to review export control more generally in the context of global trade, particularly given the shortcomings noted above of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill.

Council Directive 2014/60/EU of 15 May 2014 on the return of cultural goods makes provision between EU member states for the recovery and return of illegally traded cultural objects. It was enacted in UK law as SI 1926/2015 the Return of Cultural Objects (Amendment) Regulations 2015. If the Directive is about to disappear from the UK statute book, perhaps the time is ripe for another look at the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. The Unidroit Convention complements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (accepted by the UK in 2002) by introducing rules and procedures for the return of stolen and illegally traded cultural objects.