1 JULY 2013


If your car is stolen in Aleppo, Syria, you can buy it back at the nearby village of Azaz. If you need a Mercedes, you could buy it -- for $5,000, at the same place. Like in Bosnia decades earlier, where smugglers turned into rebels or government supporters, certain parts of Syria are by now known for contraband smuggling from drugs to liquor to vehicles to prostitution to -- of course -- people. Human trafficking is the most notorious. Yet the most lucrative is the organized smuggle of antique treasures.

Like Iraq, Syria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited countries in the world. Its religious icons and old artifacts are spread all over the country and are worth millions. By now, foreign "experts" have been flown in to certify and authenticate valuable antique pieces. Much of the action revolves around the reconstructed old town of Aphamea, perhaps one of the oldest towns in history. The market of Aleppo, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also being pillared -- and, of course, destroyed. Old Damascus, behind the (Islamic) Omayyad Mosque and the Bab Tuma (Christian) heritage neighbourhoods, is also being robbed with impunity by armed gangs who work in tandem with international organized crime. Looters roam under one guise or another, supporting rebels or defending the regime, while foreign correspondents mainly report about "liberated" areas or government bombardment of others; very little attention is paid to the tragic cultural destruction. While the regime's forces indiscriminately shell even populated areas, a predominant part of those destroying their own people's homes, many of the rebel forces are foreigners subsidized by oil-rich Gulf countries. For those brought from Libya, Tunisia, even Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, such valuable historic sites are of no meaning to them either. In fact, some are already part of the ongoing looting of Syria. It happened in Iraq a decade ago. All parties took part in destroying the country in order to save it!

The so-called Arab Spring is turning into the looting of the Arab Fertile Crescent.