Where culture meets terrorism: art and the ongoing fight to save history

In July 2015, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh) released a video of 25 Syrian soldiers being executed by children at Palmyra's amphitheater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its black flag - now synonymous with death and destruction - was visibly prominent in the macabre scene. Daesh then turned their sites to the person who had done the most to honor Palmyra - Khaled al-Asaad - its leading archaeologist. After torturing him for a month, reportedly so he might divulge the location of hidden cultural treasures, he was decapitated and strung upside down as a warning to others. And last week, the world's cameras returned to Palmyra, for yet another show. Now secured by armed men from a different military force, the same ancient stage was the scene of a majestic performance by some of Russia's finest musicians. World-renowned music conductor Valery Gergiev said that the artists were protesting against Daesh's barbarism and violence. Syrian archaeologist al-Asaad's picture was prominently featured in the background. The same site that - until a few months ago - was whirling in screams, blood and horror, was filled with exquisite notes and kaleidoscopic colours of Palmyra's beautiful grounds. The music shared was heard by children dressed in traditional costumes, military servicemen/women, religious representatives of different faiths, and locals. For anyone listening to the concert, it was hard not to feel sadness at the great suffering of the Syrian people and pride for the service of the men and women battling Daesh. Yet Russia is a stanch ally of the Assad regime; that same regime that has used historical sites for military purposes, damaging or completely destroying them in the course of the conflict. The Syrian military has repeatedly use barrel bombs in Syria, causing untold damage to civilians and our collective cultural heritage, including the ancient city of Aleppo. But the Assad regime is not just destroying cultural heritage. Like Daesh, the Al-Nusrah Front and others, it is reportedly involved in the trafficking and/or looting of antiquities from Syria. So while Daesh may be the most notorious actor in destroying and looting antiquities, it is not alone.

The damage done to Syria's historical heritage is staggering. The US government assesses that Daesh alone has "probably earned several million dollars from antiquities sales since mid-2014." More recently, the Russian Ambassador to the UN stated that "[t]he profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US $150-200 million per year." And while Russia orchestrated an elegant exhibition of its military and artistic might, it is hard not to think of the propaganda value at home and abroad. Ironically, the Mariinsky symphony orchestra performed music from one of Russia's most renowned composers, Sergei Prokofiev, who died the same day as Stalin. Prokofiev's death went almost unnoticed, due to the attention given to Stalin's passing. Yet Prokofiev's art is still highly revered and played in the world's most prestigious music halls, while many of Stalin's statues have been left to the "dustbin of history." Art is a tribute to humanity's power to create wonders, which transcend time, gender, race, religion, nationality, and age. Art and beauty are also private and powerful, under the most macabre circumstances. Russia's Tolstoy highlighted this in his masterpiece, War and Peace. Describing a gory battle scene against the French, Tolstoy contrasts it with the observation of a young handsome Russian prince who falls wounded on the ground and says: "Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw today?" The power of art is invisible and held even under the most oppressive circumstances. It is for this reason that extremists so often seek to destroy it. Those collectors and dealers who are buying looted antiquities from Syria and Iraq - and the middlemen who aid and abet the illicit trade (via transportation, insurance, freeports, etc.) - should think of the irreparable damage they are doing to history and to humanity at large. These purchases are not victimless crimes, but help finance the bloodbath in this war zone and beyond. Law enforcement alone cannot stop the antiquities trafficking, as it is a complex/multifaceted process. Applying due diligence to recent acquisitions is not as simple as checking off an item on a list, but there needs to be scrutiny and critical observation of the likelihood that an object is associated with doubtful provenance. The private sector - in support of the Sustainable Development Goals - is in a unique position to adhere to improved international standards and codes of ethics when trading antiquities. Perhaps a global stakeholder engagement group should come together, at Davos, or via the OECD, to agree to a voluntary common sourcing and sales standard, which would facilitate transparency and avoid the unknowing (or knowing) trade in "blood antiquities" from conflict zones. In a world facing such evil - and the black flags of Daesh - industry actors should overcome evil with good.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science and Global Security and its Institute of International Economic Law, served on Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Army officer, he served as the first head of operations of the joint World Bank-United Nations Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, and now leads the international practice at Madison Law and Strategy Group.

Dr. Helga Turku, who previously worked for the International Organization for Migration and San Francisco State University is a legal consultant for USAID-funded rule of law projects in Haiti and Cote d'Ivoire.