Antiquities Smuggling: New Source of Funding for Syrian Militias

SOHR Director to Majalla: “Militias Trafficking in Antiquities is an Important Source of Funding But not Major”
A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in March. Many Syrian antiquities have been looted and smuggled out of the country during the past three years of civil war/ Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Qamishli- Iran’s military influence in Syria has moved through different forms and levels since the beginning of Tehran’s intervention in the Syrian crisis years ago to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in their fight against armed factions and opposition groups.

These groups were formed following the outbreak of popular protests in various Syrian areas in March 2011 demanding the overthrow of Assad’s regime.

Therefore, Iran established armed militias that it backed militarily and logistically to prevent Assad’s defeat and ensure he tightened his grip over the land. However, these armed groups currently need a huge financial budget, especially since their numbers are estimated at tens of thousands.

These militias mainly control Syrian border areas with Iraq, as is the case in the countryside of Deir Ezzor governorate, especially in the al-Mayadin and Boukamal areas. They are also deployed in the countryside of the capital, Damascus, and in various areas in Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Daraa, and As-Suwayda and have a symbolic presence in the Hasaka, Raqqa, and Quneitra provinces. This indicates that they are distributed throughout Syria.

The excavation and trafficking in antiquities and smuggling of them outside Syria have become an important source for securing the necessary funding, in light of the increase in the number of units of these militias, as shown in the latest report by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

“These militias are highly dependent on smuggling antiquities as one of their sources of funding, yet trafficking contraband, such as narcotics, is actually their major funding source,” SOHR director Rami Abdul Rahman told Majalla in a phone interview.

“Pro-Iranian militias did not spare many of the antiquities from important Syrian archaeological sites that survived the excavations carried out by ISIS years ago, particularly those scattered in Deir Ezzor. They looted objects from ancient heritage sites in Syria and sold them, considering this trade a significant source of financing for their elements,” he added.

There are archaeological sites on the banks of the Khabur and Euphrates rivers that are among hundreds of locations, such as cities, caves, hills, and tombs from the Aramaic, Roman, Islamic, and other civilizations, Abdul Rahman noted.

Although they fell under the grip of ISIS, which looted most of them, they were also neglected and systematically destroyed by the regime forces and Iranian militias, which have recently deliberately robbed many archaeological sites to earn money, he added.

The SOHR director the names of the most famous Syrian archaeological sites that were looted by the Tehran-backed militias.

These comprise the antiquities of Buqurs, which are located in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor about 40 kilometers from the city center, including Mourabit hill in the ancient Buqurs, which dates back to the time before the founding of the world’s great empires. Ashara hill antiquities dating to the first Babylonian period and located in the eastern countryside have also been excavated by workshops working for Iranian-backed militias.

Antiquities of Salihiya hill in Boukamal in the Der Ezzor countryside that date back to the first Babylonian era were also robbed, along with Taboos hill near Shumaytiyah village in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor, that dates back to the first Persian era, as well as the basement market in Deir Ezzor and other archeological sites.

Abdul Rahman warned of the consequences of the continued theft of antiquities and the tampering of what he called “Syria’s cultural heritage.”

He pointed out that the SOHR tackled this issue to warn against the ongoing looting of antiquities and blighting of Syria’s historic legacy by all of the forces controlling Syrian territories such as the regime, armed factions, Iranian-backed militias, Turkish- backed factions, and others.

They are repeating what ISIS barbarians did in several Syrian regions when they vandalized and looted Syrian archaeological and historical sites. All the forces controlling Syrian lands have committed acts of theft, looting, and vandalism of Syria’s legacy without any deterrent, he stressed.

Tehran-backed militias currently rely on antiquities as a primary source of funding, especially after recruiting a large number of fighters, other sources told Majalla.

“They excavate the antiquities and smuggle them to neighboring Iraq to sell them there but sometimes sell them within Syrian territory.”

The sources suggested that recruiting thousands of new members forced these militias to search for new sources of funding, including excavation and trade in looted antiquities.

Iranian-backed militias comprise at least 65,500 Syrian and non-Syrian fighters and are deployed in all areas controlled by the Syrian regime, according to SOHR statistics published in early 2022.

There are at least 29,000 fighters, among which are 11,000 Syrian fighters and nearly 18,000 Arab and Asian fighters deployed in Deir Ezzor, west of the Euphrates.

There are nearly 11,500 fighters in south Syria. They were recruited by pro-Iranian spiritual figures in “Saraya al-Areen” of the 313th Brigade in northern Daraa, al-Lajat in the Daraa countryside, al-Baath city, and Khan Arnabah in the al-Quneitra countryside, areas near the border with the occupied Syrian Golan and in As-Suwayda countryside.

 

 

Antiquities in Palmyra, Syria. Photo: courtesy UNESCO.

The number of Syrian and foreign members and recruits within the pro-Iranian militias in the capital, Damascus, and its countryside is estimated at more than 10,200 fighters. They are deployed in several cities, towns, and villages and dominate the entire area from Damascus to the Syria-Lebanon border.

There are nearly 8,350 fighters who are deployed in Aleppo city, Nebl, al-Zahraa, and its surrounding areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo, al-Eis, al-Hader in Aleppo’s southern countryside, Maskanah, Deir Hafer, and al-Sfirah in east Aleppo countryside.

In Homs and the deserts of Hama and al-Raqqah, there are nearly 4,800 Syrian, Arab and Asian fighters, the SOHR reported.

Although the largest part of Idlib province falls under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), previously known as al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, members of the Iranian-backed militias are also present. There are nearly 900 Syrian and non-Syrian fighters stationed in the areas that were recaptured by regime forces in 2020 and 2021.

Members of these militias are also present in al-Hasaka province although there are US bases there. Tehran recruited 800 fighters, of which there are 390 fighters and commanders of the regime-backed National Defense Forces, while 410 are civilians and members of Arab tribes. Tehran recruits them by offering to pay huge monthly salaries, given the current economic conditions in the war-torn country.

Training of the new recruits is carried out in camps within the Turtub regiment, south of Qamishli, and then they are transferred to other areas, mainly west of the Euphrates.

A local source in Deir Ezzor countryside told Majalla that the process of excavating antiquities is carried out using primitive tools and traditional methods.

 

The militiamen use tools that are mainly used in agriculture and in bulldozing agricultural lands and other ground, the source affirmed.

He stressed their lack of access to “any modern device to carry out the process, which takes place randomly in all the small hills and areas where antiquities are expected to be found.”

The source pointed out that “all those who lead the excavation processes are directly affiliated with the Iranian militias that control the countryside of Deir Ezzor governorate.

“Following the excavation process, the antiquities are transferred to points where there are brokers who trade in them backed by figures close to the regime and the Iranian militias,” he explained.

“They take care of the transfer or sale to other traders in return for a percentage of the sales price.”

The Ain al-Furat Network had reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had dug out large quantities of antiquities from the city of Palmyra, located in the countryside of Homs Governorate, where Iranian militias are carrying out excavations.

The Iranian militias that support the Syrian regime depend on three Iraqi archaeologists and local excavation workers, according to Syrian opposition media outlets.

Experts receive an estimated 10% of the selling price while workers are paid a daily wage estimated at 8,000 Syrian pounds, the Network revealed.

It further confirmed that the Iranian militias have archaeological artifacts, statues, golden figures, stone tablets bearing cuneiform inscriptions, and other antiquities important to Iraq.

Last year, the Syrian regime ignored the pillaging by Tehran-backed militias after accusing the Turkish army, which controls several Syrian cities, of conducting archaeological excavations and then transporting artifacts to Turkish territory.

The Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus called on international organizations and bodies interested in heritage to put an end to what it called “the Turkish aggression against ancient heritage sites in Syria” after documenting the destruction of 710 archaeological sites and buildings.

In early 2021, the Iranian militias began excavation work in two caves in Palmyra city’s western region.

Syria is distinguished for having more than 4,500 archaeological sites from different civilizations such as Ebla, Ugarit, and Mari, passing through the Aramaic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Chaldean, Byzantine, and Roman civilizations.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had earlier included six Syrian archaeological sites on the World Heritage List, namely, Damascus’ ancient neighborhood, ancient Aleppo, Qalaat al-Madiq, Qalaat al-Hosn, the ancient city of Bosra, Tal Tamr city, and some archaeological villages in the north and northwestern Syria.

 

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