A comparison of features in before and after photos of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor (analysis by the author for Hyperallergic)

Using satellite imagery from 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014, the Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) has mapped the intensity of cultural damage to cities across Syria. The exact numbers still need to be validated on the ground, but the maps confirm the impression of devastation. Its analyses have “revealed a total of 13,778 affected structures in Homs, 8,510 in Aleppo, 5,233 in Hama, 3,112 in Deir Ez Zor, 467 in Ar Raqqa, and 351 in Daraa.”

UNOSAT, 2014, syria deir ezzor cultural heritage political violence 141118 140513

Satellite map of intensity of destruction in Deir Ezzor, Syria, as of 13th May 2014 (image via DigitalGlobe/UNOSAT, UNITAR, November 18, 2014)

As well as the precise numbers of damaged and destroyed properties, responsibility for such material harm needs to be established. Reckless destruction of civilian property constitutes a war crime. Targeted destruction of cultural and community property constitutes a crime against humanity. Whether by investigators or their sources, responsible reporting is key to management of conflict and prosecution of crimes. Some reports appear to have misattributed responsibility for genocidal destruction.

For example, a month ago, Hyperallergic questioned Robert Fisk’s claim that Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN/JN) rebels, rather than the Islamic State (IS), had destroyed the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir el-Zour, Syria. Fisk’s report was ‘riddled with peculiarities, mistakes, contradictions and historical inconsistencies‘ and appeared ignorant of public evidence. Conflict Antiquities had published open-source analyses a month-and-a-half before Fisk’s article went to press. Yet the Independent has not even corrected the date of Armenian Genocide memorial day — which is on the 24th of April, not the 25th — let alone addressed any of the other concerns.

As it stands, the evidence points towards Islamic State responsibility. And, since Hyperallergic’s report, observers have affirmed its interpretation. Syria-focused conflict journalist Aris Roussinos observed: “Fresh from confusing JN/Junud ash-Sham in Idlib with IS, Fisk now confuses IS in DEZ [Deir el-Zour] with JN.” Iraq/Syria-focused political scientist Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi assessed: “Fisk gets basics wrong in accusing Nusra of destroying Armenian church in Deir az-Zor … no Nusra presence there anymore.” Intensional suggested: “Most noteworthy here is how neither Fisk [nor] the Independent seem to give a shit they were obviously wrong.”

Sam Hardy is an archaeologist who researches the illicit trade in antiquities, the destruction of cultural property, and cultural heritage labour at times of crisis and conflict. He teaches in Rome and...

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