Will the world do nothing to stop extremist groups from destroying some of civilization’s most treasured monuments?
The question has confronted Western governments with stark urgency in the weeks since the Islamic State released a video of militants smashing ancient sculptures at the Mosul Museum. In early March, following reports that extremists attacked the ancient Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Hatra, Iraqi officials pleaded for American airstrikes to stop them. But so far the United States and its allies have wrung their hands.
Secretary of State John Kerry described the devastation as “one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime.” Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, said: “This is not just a cultural tragedy. It’s also a security issue, with terrorists using the destruction of heritage as a weapon of war.” The United Nations Security Council condemned the “targeted destruction of religious sites and objects” by the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
But the United Nations says it is largely powerless to deal with the threat, and Western governments claim they have more urgent military objectives.
This is dangerously wrong. By loudly deploring this “war crime” and doing nothing, the world may be playing into the extremists’ hands. “ISIS is doing it because they can,” Amr Al-Azm, an Ohio-based Syrian anthropologist, told me. “They are striking at things the international community holds dear, but is impotent to do anything about.”
Since 2011, five of the six Unesco World Heritage sites in Syria have suffered significant damage; four have been requisitioned for military purposes by different groups, in direct violation of international protocols. Tunnel bombs have devastated Aleppo’s old city; thousand-year-old minarets have been detonated; medieval forts have been shelled; Parthian and Hellenistic sites have been pillaged.
Then came the Islamic State, which turned such attacks into an explicit strategy. Taking over archaeological sites near its stronghold, the northern city of Raqqa, the group turned local looting brigades into large-scale businesses. And it has used social media to broadcast the carefully choreographed destruction of mosques, cemeteries, libraries and other monuments belonging to any groups or sects it regards as deviant.