Syria: Rendered by Caesar

Suddenly, it seems, the world’s cultural heritage is plagued by coronavirus. It is everywhere. I am asked weekly about how the virus will exacerbate archaeological looting. (How should I know? There is nothing evident in my home office where I am quarantined and writing incisive blog commentary). IGOs and NGOs are hosting seminars and lectures about the virus. Funding agencies are announcing emergency grants and interventions. Meanwhile, what are perhaps more serious threats to cultural heritage are being ignored.

The Syrian economy is in meltdown. The brutal civil war which has now been dragging on for nearly ten years has taken its economic toll and the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Lebanon has made things worse. Syria’s tottering and fragmenting economy is due to receive another blow today (17 June 2020) when the United States imposes sanctions under its Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. This act is ostensibly aimed at protecting Syrian civilians by destabilising the Assad regime and halting its violent attacks on human lives and human rights. The sanctions target Assad’s financial supporters outside Syria with a view to weakening his military and economic infrastructure. But as is usual with sanctions of this sort, ordinary people will suffer. The value of the Syrian pound has collapsed by 70 per cent since April, inflation is rampant, and the prices of food and other essentials are skyrocketing. Unprecedented protests have been reported in towns that up until now have been strongly supportive of Assad. It is a humanitarian disaster, but one that is unfolding behind the obscuring media veil of coronavirus.

As poverty deepens in Syria, the consequences for cultural heritage are all too predictable – more looting and theft. Despite decades of crisis-led policy interventions, with coronavirus being only the latest of a long line, the international community has failed to control and reduce market demand for antiquities and other cultural objects. Yet market demand is the ultimate driver of looting and theft wherever, whenever and however it happens. Instead of reducing demand, myopic policy initiatives continually aim at diminishing market supply (by trying unsuccessfully to protect cultural heritage on-the-ground) and jump from one “emergency” to the next. In fact, policy-makers seem to like “emergencies”. Probably because it easier to grab political attention and secure funding for short-term “emergency” actions than it is for long, drawn-out (though eventually effective) measures aimed at reducing market demand. Policy is failing because it is reactive, not proactive, and is tackling symptoms, not causes. While policy-makers (and funders) are looking the other way at coronavirus, Syrian heritage looks set to suffer further because of this failure.