Artifacts looted from Syrian national museums seen in the office of a Lebanese official

Looted Syrian artifacts displayed in the background of Lebanese PM, Nohad Machnouk during a remote interview with Al-Jadeed TV (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Looted Syrian artifacts displayed in the background of Lebanese PM, Nohad Machnouk during a remote interview with Al-Jadeed TV (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

Antiquities thieves usually hide their stolen artifacts; looted and trafficked objects, which remained for thousands of years at archaeological sites, typically enter the black market shrouded in secrecy. Antiquities thieves avoid putting them on display to the public, especially on TV screens, for fear of legal reprisal. However, this is not the case for one of the Lebanese officials, who appeared recently in a televised interview with a background containing a number of genuine statues looted from the Syrian city of Palmyra.

In a remote interview with al-Jadeed TV on 11 October, Lebanese MP Nohad Machnouk seemed boastful with the background that contained antiquities from the Syrian city of Palmyra.

Following the interview, which has gone viral on social media, many Syrian and Lebanese people expressed their anger over the presence of illicit antiquities in the office of Machnouk. 

Machnouk’s media office commented that the archeological objects were at the media office of Machnouk, not his home. “They have been there for more than ten years, and they are registered at the Culture Ministry according to the standard laws, some of which ban their transport out of Lebanon, in order to protect them from trade.”

What pieces appeared behind Machnouk?

Saad Fansa, co-founder and governing board member of El-Adiyat Association for the Protection of Antiquities in Damascus, said that the pieces displayed behind Machnouk are looted from the city of Palmyra. These pieces are heads of Palmyra statues, such as the head of a small statue representing theatrical masks.  

Fansa told Enab Baladi that these statues were stolen from the Palmyra Museum during 2014 and 2015, that is when Nohad Machnouk held the position of Lebanese Minister of Interior twice. This contradicts Machnouk’s story that the statues he had ten years ago and “are registered at the Culture Ministry according to the standard laws, some of which ban their transport out of Lebanon.”

Nohad Machnouk was appointed Lebanese Minister of Interior for the first time in Tammam Salam’s government in 2014, and for the second time in Saad Hariri’s government in 2016, and remained in his position until 2019.

Fansa believes that Syria has been plundered by many countries, including Russia, Iran, and Turkey, via their members on the ground. The so-called Islamist factions, the Syrian regime forces, and their allies on the ground, including sectarian-based groups such as the Syrian National Defense Forces, contributed significantly to the antiquities trafficking.

No documentation or accountability

Syrian journalist and defender of Syrian antiquities, Omar al-Buniya, told Enab Baladi that the International Criminal Police (INTERPOL) requested Syria’s Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (SDGAM) to provide it with numbers and descriptions of looted artifacts. However, the SDGAM said that it does not have antiquities archives, and it will address the foreign missions that worked in Syria to secure archives for the artifacts. 

Al-Buniya pointed out that the SDGAM is to blame for the losses of many historical artifacts in the country, not to mention the fact that the Syrian government itself used to smuggle archaeological artifacts. Moreover, it did not archive them on purpose so that they could be easily smuggled, according to al-Buniya.

The presence of artifacts looted from Syria in Lebanon is contrary to international law. However, the relevant authorities in the Syrian government are supposed to take a vital role in requesting the restitution of artworks and cultural objects pilfered over the past years by providing Interpol with archives filled with necessary documents describing the looted artifacts. 

Al-Buniya believes that the Syrian government cannot demand the return of the artifacts that appeared in Machnouk’s office due to the absence of antiquities archives in Syria. In addition, there are no official committees to demand the return of looted artifacts.

According to journalist Omar al-Buniya, the Lebanese government and parliament are to blame for facilitating the acquisition of looted relics. Furthermore, the Lebanese government should investigate Machnouk to reveal the origins of the pieces.

An international committee should be formed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to hold officials in Lebanon accountable, especially Machnouk.

Indeed, Lebanon has become a major market for antiquities trafficked from Syria. The Lebanese Hezbollah contributes to the looting and trade of illegal antiquities from Syria, especially with the proliferation of the party’s militias in Maaloula, Palmyra, and other ancient Syrian cities, which are publicly excavating cultural artifacts in Syria. 

An investigation by the Lebanese online newspaper al-Modon reported that antiquities stolen from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are displayed in the Nabu Museum, run by businessman Jawad Adra.

The ancient Syrian cities such as Damascus, Palmyra, ancient Aleppo, Apamea, Bosra, and other historical cities, which are on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, are under international protection. According to the United Nations resolutions, it is not allowed to encroach upon the vast archaeological sites or monuments in Syria.

The crimes that occurred confirm that all UN resolutions remained ink on paper and had no value at all. Even in the years of peace, the capitals of columns were carried by cranes and transported to Lebanon.

Syrian expert Saad Fansa

Who facilitates the entry of looted antiquities to Lebanon?

Director of Idlib City Museum, Ayman al-Nabo, told Enab Baladi that the Palmyra sculptures were stolen by many countries. Idlib’s Antiquities Directorate managed to salvage only seven Palmyra sculptures, And now they are preserved in the museum in Idlib.

According to al-Nabo, the illegal antiquities trade did not stop even in times of peace in Syria, but it was carried out by legal and influential figures in the Syrian regime, such as Brigadier General Dhul-Himma Shalish and Wafiq Nasser and personalities from the Military and Political Security branches. It was not allowed to circulate or report these thefts because they were carried out by people with prominent status in the regime. 

Al-Nabo pointed out that Hezbollah takes control over the crossings between Lebanon and Syria, facilitating access to many illegal smugglings in various fields, including Syrian antiquities.

Iranian militias collude with the Syrian regime in the looting and trafficking of antiquities.

Journalist Omar al-Buniyah previously told Enab Baladi that the Military Intelligence manages the smuggling operations. The Iranian militias are a vital partner of Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian regime’s president, and officers from the “presidential palace” with anything underground in Syria.

In an investigation conducted by Enab Baladi into the theft and looting of antiquities in Daraa on 3 June, accusations were leveled against some officers in the Syrian regime for getting involved in illegal excavations and trade of cultural objects of Syrian archeological sites. 

Members in the Air Force Intelligence and Hezbollah are conducting archeological excavations in the areas of al-Jaidour (the northwest countryside of Daraa), the western countryside of Daraa, Yarmouk Basin, which are known for being rich with historical relics. 

Since the revolt against al-Assad began in 2011, numerous archaeological sites have suffered extensive damage because of bombing by the Syrian regime and its main ally Russia, or due to the battles between the various parties, or for military and ideological reasons. 

Several antiquities were looted to support fighting groups, such as militias allied to the Syrian regime and the Islamic State (IS)group. Thus, illicit antiquities trade has flourished recently.  

Therefore, UNESCO, funded by the European Union, has launched many projects to protect the Syrian heritage, which is constantly being destroyed and stolen. 

The most important project requires urgent action to protect Syrian antiquities by putting in place several practical mechanisms to preserve what remains of antiquities. It aims to uncover what was stolen or destroyed and to prosecute antiquities traffickers by holding them accountable to international law.

Prosecuting violators of these laws remains difficult given the mass corruption and suspicious deals at the expense of this heritage. Moreover, accessing these places is a challenge due to the complex security situation. There is also a scarcity of information about how local lawyers and activists in Syria will apply the international legal mechanisms in question.

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