Agence France Presse recently reported that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants have ravaged the Tal Ajaja archaeological site in Syria. Located in the Hasakah province in northeastern Syria, the Tal Ajaja settlement dated back to the Assyrian Empire and had been the subject of archaeological excavations since the 19th century. Ancient statues, columns, and tablets were among the looted and destroyed artifacts. Although much of the Hasakah Governate is under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or the Syrian government, ISIL’s attack on the Tal Ajaja site followed continuing clashes among the various factions fighting in the Syrian Civil War.
The destruction of cultural heritage is a prominent feature of ISIL’s ideology and campaign to establish a caliphate in the Middle East. Inspired by the Salafi movement’s interpretation of monotheism, “tawheed,” ISIL has carried out attacks against the remains of ancient polytheist cultures that inhabited the Levant millennia ago. Tracing its roots to the Athari school of Islamic interpretation, Salafism rejects images and physical interpretations of deities as idolatry. ISIL, which has adopted this extreme interpretation of Islam, strives to achieve monotheism not only through the destruction of polytheist artifacts, but also through the persecution and forced conversion of minority religious groups. Just as the world witnessed the genocide of the Yazidi people at the hands of ISIL, the militant group continues to purge what it perceives to be contrary to Islam.
ISIL’s looting of cultural heritage in Syria extends beyond its religious ideology. As a terrorist organization that relies heavily upon funding from illicit trade networks, ISIL views looted artifacts as a financial opportunity. According to intelligence estimates, ISIL nets $2 billion annually from illegal human trafficking, oil sales, and antiquities trading. It is likely that many of the artifacts looted from the Tal Ajaja settlement will reach the global antiquities black market. In its fight against ISIL, the United States-led coalition has placed the disruption of its illegal revenue stream as one of its highest priorities. Restricting ISIL’s access to Syria’s numerous historical sites is an important part of this strategy.
The destruction of Tal Ajaja may also bear implications for the power dynamics of the Syrian Civil War. As a part of his claim to power in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has used the recapture of ancient sites as a propaganda tool to counter extremist organizations. With the aid of Russian forces, the Syrian Army reclaimed the ancient city of Palmyra in March 2016 and subsequently held a concert at the site to celebrate its liberation. The symbolism of the Tal Ajaja attack may have other repercussions on certain factions fighting in the war. Largely considered to be the ethno-religious heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, Syriac Christians in Syria may be emboldened to protect their cultural heritage. The Syriac Military Council is one such Christian militia fighting alongside the YPG in northeastern Syria that might advance operations in defense of Syria’s ancient sites.
It is unclear how the international community will respond to ISIL’s campaign against cultural heritage sites in Syria. Despite the rising death toll in the civil war, the U.S.-led coalition remains reluctant to increase its involvement beyond airstrikes targeting ISIL-held territory. However, just as the destruction of Palmyra spurred outrage across the globe, attention toward the vulnerability of Syria’s ancient sites after the ravaging of Tal Ajaja might pressure the international community to take action. Although the protection of world heritage sites is addressed in conventions such as the Declaration Concerning the International Destruction of Cultural Heritage and the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, there is no historical precedent for any kind of international action or intervention on the basis of cultural heritage protection.
(1) "How ISIS Terror Group Amassed $2B in Assets." CNBC. N.p., 16 June 2014. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.
(2) Tharoor, Ishaan. "ISIS Destroyed Almost Half of an Ancient City in Syria." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 9 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.
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Matt Hinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University studying International History with a focus on religion & violence in the modern Middle East. His research interests include civil wars, terrorism, and national security.