Last week’s stunning video of the destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is likely to renew calls for drastic action to save Iraq’s antiquities before they are lost forever.
That debate has been picking up speed over the past month as ISIS destroyed the Mosul Museum and reports swirled that several major archaeological sites have been destroyed. Many people have asked if there is not something — anything — that can be done to put a stop to the erasure of history.
Earlier this month Hugh Eakin, senior editor at The New York Review of Books, called for military intervention to protect archaeological sites. Eakin argues that UNESCO, limited by treaty to only working with internationally recognized sovereign governments, is unprepared to counter modern threats to cultural heritage, and that the organization’s repeated condemnations only serve to encourage militants to strike at objects the world holds dear but is unable to protect.
The solution, Eakin suggests, is to extend the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” usually used to justify military intervention to stop genocide and wholesale massacre, to the protection of inanimate cultural heritage as well. A few well-placed airstrikes on an ISIS convoy headed to loot an archaeological site could dissuade ISIS from gathering at such sites.
A similar course of action was advocated a month ago by Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Minister Adel Shirshab. “I am calling on the international community and coalition to activate its air strikes and target terrorism wherever it exists,” he told a group of reporters. “It was possible to carry out surveillance. Why didn’t this happen?”
And yet another similar proposal was advanced by Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who called for the creation of an “international rapid response force to defend monuments and archaeological sites in conflict zones.” It may be possible to read Franceschini’s comments in light of a proposed Italian military intervention in Libya, but he clearly sees his proposal as extending throughout the world in a manner similar to UN peacekeeping mandates, saying “A sort of ‘blue helmets of culture’ are needed, as there are blue helmets that intervene to protect in situations of war.”
There is nevertheless something deeply unsettling about calls to kill to protect cultural heritage, especially when tens of thousands of human beings have been massacred, tortured, raped, and enslaved by ISIS and millions more are refugees. What does it say about our values when the destruction of priceless yet nevertheless inanimate objects takes urgency over protecting the lives of human beings? Are ancient artifacts, no matter how valuable, ever worth taking a human life for, even if that human being is a member of ISIS? And is there anything more reminiscent of 19th-century colonialism than Western intervention in a country to secure its ancient artifacts while ignoring the suffering of its living population?
The international focus on saving antiquities can play into ISIS’s hands as it wages its propaganda war. According to professor Michael Danti at Boston University, “They use it to tell the local population, ‘Well, they’re reacting to the destruction of these ancient idols, but do they really care about you, or your local mosque or these other issues that are affecting your life right now?”
Further complicating matters is the fact that while ISIS’s videos of intentional destruction gain the most publicity, much of the destruction of Syria and Iraq’s cultural heritage comes from people who loot because they have to in order to survive. If people have no other way of feeding their families, can we harshly condemn them for selling looted antiquities rather than starving?
On the other hand, ISIS’s fighters are combatants in a war zone and therefore legitimate military targets wherever they are found, even if that happens to be near an archaeological site they plan to loot. Indeed, this may already have happened. Daily reports from United States Central Command on airstrikes carried out in Syria and Iraq contain numerous mentions of earthmoving equipment being bombed.
Based on these daily reports, from December 1 to April 9, the coalition claimed to have destroyed 83 earthmovers in Iraq and Syria. The timing is more interesting, with eighteen in December, five in January, and six in February suddenly spiking to 38 in March after reports of archaeological destruction became widespread and sixteen in the first nine days of April.
Of course, earthmovers can also be used to dig trenches as well as to destroy heritage sites, and many of the destroyed vehicles were in places where heritage destruction has not been taking place. Despite the fifteen earthmovers destroyed in and around Mosul in the month of March, ISIS still used one on April 2 to destroy relief sculptures in the palace at Nimrud before blowing up the entire structure.
The ISIS groups that carry out site destructions seem to be very small and travel lightly, the chances of spotting them from the air at precisely the time they are on their way to destroy ancient sites would be almost impossible. The risk of mistakes that cause serious civilian casualties when attacking such targets is great, and as a general rule the coalition has implemented very strict rules of engagement in order to avoid them. Pilots are not allowed to attack targets of opportunity without authorization from a general officer. As one American pilot reports, “I’ve spent hours watching a screen in my cockpit as ISIS commits atrocities, but I cannot do anything.”
Yet, loosening the rules and creating free-fire zones would almost certainly lead to an increase in civilian deaths from coalition bombing, which in turn could cause more people to side with ISIS, especially if the strikes were perceived as protecting antiquities rather than Iraq’s civilian population.
General Martin Dempsey addressed the issue directly at a press conference last month, stating that the coalition did not have sufficient intelligence to target militants destroying antiquities but it would consider shifting resources to such a mission “as priorities shift.”
Nevertheless, antiquities destruction is a potent propaganda weapon, dominating the news cycle and making ISIS’s many enemies seem helpless even as ISIS suffers major battlefield losses in Tikrit and Kobanê.
Where then should our priorities lie? With limited resources and restrictive rules of engagement, the coalition could pour every asset into a likely fruitless hunt across deserts and mountains for a dozen or so ISIS fighters searching for heritage sites to destroy, or it could focus on stopping genocidal ISIS offensives against the Yezidis of Sinjar and the Assyrians of the Habur, as well as on providing close air support for Iraqi forces as they drive to re-take ISIS-held areas.
Ultimately the only way to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage is to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria. In the meantime, sometimes the harsh truth is that when people do terrible things there is nothing that can be immediately done to stop them.