Looting and destruction of antiquities as a calculated strategy

Journalists and advocates often frame the destruction and looting of archaeological sites in Syria as “wanton,” “senseless,” and “barbaric.” Jason Lyall, an associate professor of political science at Yale, argues that those adjectives miss the point.
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Yale political scientist Jason Lyall says that the destruction of cultural heritage sites is a calculated political move by militants. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Journalists and advocates often frame the destruction and looting of archaeological sites in Syria as “wanton,” “senseless,” and “barbaric.”

Jason Lyall, an associate professor of political science at Yale, argues that those adjectives miss the point.

“The role of antiquities in this conflict is actually part of a broader war fighting strategy by insurgents and by states,” Lyall said during a talk on April 12 at Yale’s Horchow Hall. “This is not irrational. It’s not driven by hatred. It’s actually calculated. It’s political. It’s rational.” The professor’s talk, which was sponsored by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was presented in conjunction with the U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents, being hosted by Yale through April 16.

Read about more events at the U.N. Global Colloquim of University Presidents.

Lyall, who directs the Political Violence FieldLab at Yale University, said viewing all instances of looting and destruction of cultural heritage sites as the senseless acts of barbarians implies that all rebel groups will always seek opportunities to wantonly destroy and loot archaeological sites.

“That’s not true,” he said. “One of the most interesting questions concerns the variation in the extent to which rebel groups loot; the extent to which they preserve the sites; and the extent to which states are doing the same as well.”

He began his presentation with two videos featuring drone footage of destruction in Syria. The first video documented war damage to Krak des Chevaliers, or Crusader castle, a medieval fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site, located east of Tartus in Syria.  The camera focused tightly on castle walls riddled by bullets and pockmarked by shelling.

The second video showed a large section of Damascus with a high concentration of antiquities that has been devastated by the fighting. It depicted a sprawling landscape of bombed-out buildings and smoking rubble. The fighting has flattened homes, businesses, mosques, as well as antiquities.

Lyall said the second video places the destruction of cultural heritage into the violent context of the wider war and shows that the Syrian government, as well as the Islamic State and other rebel groups, is responsible for destroying cultural heritage sites.

“This level of devastation is not achieved by rebels,” he said. “This level of devastation is achieved by the state.”

The targeting of cultural heritage sites is a calculated strategy in pursuit of broader political and territorial ambitions, Lyall asserted, offering several strategic reasons why militants occupy and damage the sites. He said it provides a means to demonstrate territorial dominance.

“You show that the former regime, the former occupants, cannot protect their sites,” he said. “You shatter them,and you demonstrate in one quick blow that you are there; you mean business; and you dominate.”

He said often the destruction of cultural heritage sites is a means to force “undesirable” populations from them in order to create a homogenous population and to target refugee flows into enemy-controlled areas.

The destruction of sites also carries a psychological shock value and can demonstrate momentum on the battlefield, Lyall said. Occupying sites creates sanctuaries certain adversaries, such as the United States, might be unwilling to bomb, he said, adding that the Assad regime has bombed culturally significant areas in Syria.

Lyall said that ISIS has repurposed cultural heritage sites as an engine for state-making, pointing to the militant group’s occupation of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which the Assad regime recently recaptured.

“Palmyra is in the news a lot because it was destroyed — that’s the language that is used in the media,” he said. “It’s actually not true. About 80% of Palmyra remains undamaged.”

Lyall said ISIS has appropriated sites in the city for its own purposes. For example, it held show trials and executions at an ancient amphitheater, incorporating the site into its court system.

“It wasn’t destroyed, it was repurposed,” he said. “As an instrument of war; as an instrument of state-making.”

Lyall said looting antiquities provides ISIS a crucial revenue stream. According to the RAND Corporation, the group made $100 million in 2014 from the trade of looted antiquities. At the time, looting was its third-largest source of revenue. It has since become an even larger component of ISIS’s finances as the United States has attacked the group’s oil and natural gas operations and destroyed its cash reserves, Lyall said.

He said the windfall from looting allows ISIS to pay its soldiers, which in turn helps the group recruit foreign fighters, who are more expensive than local fighters. The ability to pay militants reduces defection and desertion.

“You create these incentives, and you continue looting so you can keep paying your soldiers,” he said. 

Lyall said that fighters driven by spoils instead of ideology tend to be much more violent toward civilians.

“Those soldiers are more and more likely to victimize civilians, particularly if they don’t get paid,” he said. “It creates this steady stream and need for antiquities.”

Killing ISIS leaders actually promotes looting, he said, because the new leaders need to demonstrate an ability to control their fighters and the best way to do that is by paying them, which requires revenue from antiquities.

Lyall asserted that the international community should move away from viewing the damage to cultural heritage site in isolation to a framework that considers the overall wartime dynamics.

He said that current U.S. strategies of decapitating ISIS leadership and striking its economy might be increasing danger to cultural heritage sites.

“Are there strategies we can use, now that we’re engaged in all of these conflicts, that actually reduce the likelihood of looting?” he said. 

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548