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Former Al Nusra Front Ransack New Archaeological Sites in Syria

New evidence of yet more ransacking and looting at archeological sites in Syria is emerging, this time perpetrated by the al-Nusra Front near the city of Saraqeb.

Reports from Syria indicate that surviving elements of the former the al-Nusra Front excavated the Al-Sheikh Mansour site near Saraqeb in a semi-professional manner, using imported foreign experts and specialist equipment to oversee the operation, the looting being coupled with a mercenary assault on the village of Qunya in western Idleb where archaeological relics were also stolen.

Members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014. Picture: Hosam Katan.

Formed in 2012, the al-Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or al-Qaeda in the Levant, was a former Salafist organisation fighting the Basher al-Asad government in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, its stated aim was the establishment of an Islamic State in the levant region of the Middle East. Once described as the most successful of the rebel forces in Syria, the group was designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. State Department in 2012 and after violent clashes with other groups in 2017 it was merged with other groups to form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Local sources in the area say that groups including al-Nusra and Islamic State have looted hundreds of sites in Idleb province, home to up to 400 sites of archaeological interest. The looted antiquities are then either directly smuggled abroad to Turkey or sold in the city of Sarmada, located near the border. Sarmada is said to have become a centre for the sale of illegally acquired antiquities and weapons, with dealers using social media to advertise their wares.

The danger to Syria’s archaeological treasures is widespread with many of the country’s most notable possessions already destroyed in shelling and crossfire between government forces and varying rebel groups throughout Syria. Others, such as the famed ruins at Palmyra, have undergone widespread looting and destruction. Speaking in 2015, UNESCO director Irina Bokova described the looting and destruction to be on “an industrial scale,” with The Smithsonian claiming that many archaeological sites are said to be so pockmarked by holes, the result of thousands of illicit excavations,  that they resemble the surface of the moon.

While there has been widespread independent evidence of looting throughout Syria and nothing to question the validity of the latest reports, it should be noted that original details of the latest incidents do come from the Syrian Arab News Agency and Sputnik, the former a Syrian state media organization linked to the Ministry of Information and the latter established by the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya.

Destroyed Archaeological Sites in Syria. Source: DGAM.gov.sy

An interactive map produced in 2016 by the National Museum Directorate showed that 758 archaeological sites in Syria had already suffered from some form destruction. The destruction and damage included hundreds of buildings with thousands of artefacts having been looted and considered missing. Sites that have been damaged to varying degrees include neighborhoods of Old Damascus, Old Aleppo, the ancient city of Bosra, and krak des Chevaliers and Saladin Citadel.

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Michael East View All

Michael East is a writer with a wide variety of eclectic tastes including politics, history, archaeology, professional wrestling and British science-fiction. A former Students' Union President and newspaper editor, he has studied at a variety of institutions and graduated in both history and politics.

He is interested in truth, justice and the unAmerican way. Named as TIME Person of the Year in 2006 and 2011, he is known variously as a rake, a libertine and as the King in the North... if to nobody else but himself.

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