Syria says must be part of fight against antiquities theft

A damaged ceiling is pictured in Bab Antakya district in Old Aleppo October 2, 2012. REUTERS/Zain Karam
By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry

By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The world will have to cooperate with Syria to halt the trade in looted antiquities that helps fund jihadist groups, Syria's culture minister said, putting the onus on Turkey to stop the smuggling across their shared frontier. Culture minister Issam Khalil said a U.N. Security Council resolution that aims to stop groups including Islamic State from benefiting from the illicit antiquities trade would not be effective without the help of Damascus, a pariah to many Arab and Western states since Syria's war erupted in 2011. "We have the conclusive documents and evidence to prove our ownership of these antiquities and we also have the will and readiness to cooperate with any serious effort to prevent smuggling of Syrian antiquities abroad," Khalil said in a recent interview at his office in Damascus. The Security Council resolution passed on Feb. 12 maintains that groups such as Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in the Syrian war, are generating income by selling antiquities looted in the conflict. Syria is a cultural treasure trove that includes six sites on the World Heritage list compiled by the United Nations' cultural arm, UNESCO. In the course of the war, four of those sites, including Palmyra and the Crac des Chevaliers, have been used for military purposes, the United Nations says. In a recent example of the damage being done, the Necropolis at Palmyra, where the ruins of one of the most important cities of the ancient world still stand, was looted in November, according to the UNESCO website. Adherents of a puritanical school of Islam, the jihadists groups have blown up many shrines and tombs in areas of Syria under their control. Khalil said the Syrian government was going to great lengths to protect antiquities: UNESCO awarded the head of Syria's antiquities and museums directorate a prize for his commitment to safeguarding Syria's cultural heritage last October. BLAMING TURKEY Khalil criticized Turkey for "facilitating" smuggling across the 910-km (560-mile) border which he said was the main route for antiquities leaving Syria illegally. Damascus and Ankara have been at odds since the eruption of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, with Turkey supporting groups fighting the government. Damascus says Ankara has extended support to jihadist groups including Islamic State, which has seized wide areas of northern Syria at the border with Turkey. Ankara denies that charge and says sealing the frontier completely is impossible. "The United Nations knows for certain that the Turkish government is facilitating the smuggling of antiquities to the black market," said Khalil. Tension between Damascus and Ankara flared anew on Sunday when Turkish forces crossed into northern Syria to evacuate around 40 Turkish soldiers who were guarding the mausoleum of a figure revered in Turkey as the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. In a move described by Damascus as a "flagrant aggression", the Turkish forces relocated the tomb of Suleyman Shah to a more secure area. Khalil said the operation showed the Turkish government's links to Islamic State, which controls the area surrounding the site. "The tomb that was used as an excuse for this Turkish aggression ... was under the protection of the terrorists who destroyed (other) tombs, shrines, churches and mosques, but did not go anywhere near the Turkish tomb," he told Reuters by telephone on Monday. Khalil said in the interview, which took place on Saturday before the incursion, that the only way to check the provenance of looted antiquities would be in consultation with the authorities in Syria. "If there is not cooperation with the (Syrian government) in the required way, then Syrian antiquities cannot be protected," Khalil said. (Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)