Barring Medicines in Syria"
US-led Sanctions Contribute to the Destruction of Syria's Millenary History
by FRANKLIN LAMB
What a difference a week can make. The heaviest snow in Syria in a quarter-century, some claimed, last week's storm closed for a time even the main highway from Damascus to Beirut.
But that was then and now its spring in Damascus, or so it feels to those of us used to New England Januarys. It's nearly downright balmy here. Spring flowers are bursting out all over and the city parks are crowded with mothers pushing baby carriages, kids playing and young lovers cooing softly on the park benches. Park workers are raking the dead leaves and others trimming the palm trees and piling the branches neatly on flatbed trucks.
What "civil war"? What "crisis"? One is tempted to ask himself even though there continues to be intermittent "thuds" and a jet streaking overhead now and then en route apparently to one of the suburbs where clashes erupt intermittently.
It's been a rough winter and perhaps we are just experiencing here a false spring. Yet one senses a palpable sigh of relief and even some optimism while talking to citizens, NGO staffers and some officials. It could be partly the wonderful weather but perhaps also a realization that a corner may have been turned, peace and security will be restored and the killing ended. Some refugees are to be seen returning to Damascus. Syrians and Palestinians from Lebanon -- yet there are still traffic backups with cars piled high with personal belongings crossing over to Lebanon at the Masnaa border checkpoint. Meanwhile the Ministry of Interior in Damascus has pledged various forms of help to those who heed the governments call to "come back home to your people."
Energized by the exhilarating park ambiance this observer decided to walk to UNESCO headquarters for an appointment. Plus it can be kind of tough at times to find a taxi these days.
Perhaps I should have remained in the park. Lord knows that this observer has experienced his share of irate women shouting at him over the years. Being raised by three older sisters and a no-nonsense German/Italian mother- all of them unmercifully wanting to correct my behavior was a mere harbinger of things to come. But, even with this "training", I was ill prepared for what the lady at the UNESCO office here in central Damascus unleashed on me.
And I had not done the lady wrong.
Except, perhaps, that I happen to be an American and there is plenty of anger here among the Syrian public, the NGO's, and increasingly the international legal community among others -- not toward the American people but toward the US government -- over the effects of its sanctions which are severely and illegally targeting the civilian population. At the same time they are directly contributing to prospects of irreparably damaging many of this millenary country's historic sites.
According to archeological experts here, Syria, with its six UNESCO world heritage sites testifying to its deserved reputation as being one of the most archeologically well-preserved cradles of civilization, may soon to be the most wantonly destroyed in modern times (Iraq being the other). This frequently-predicted catastrophe is a result, not only of war in the usual sense, but war in its more subtle form of US-led sanctions aimed at political regime change.
Of particular concern to UNESCO, whose UN mandate includes registering and protecting World historical sites, is the preservation of the Ancient Cities of Damascus, Bosra, Palmyra, Aleppo, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal' at Salah El-Din, as well as the ancient villages of Northern Syria.
This week, the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums has released its detailed report of acts of vandalism and illegal excavations by armed groups and foreign thieves across Syria. The Directorate has documented violations against archeological sites and Syrian museums, as well the emerging phenomenon of artifact forgery. In Aleppo, the Antiquities division reported that al-Diriya caves in Samaan Mountain suffered from acts of sabotage, adding that "terrorists have looted the equipment of excavations, wooden columns and timbers."
Also, this week, Human Rights Watch issued a report that Saudi-Qatar-US backed militants destroyed religious locations following a four-day investigation in the provinces of Latakia and Idlib. According to HRW, a Husseiniyah (a congregation hall for Shia commemoration ceremonies) was destroyed by the militants in Idlib, while two Christian churches were looted in Latakia. The Middle East director at the Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson claimed that Syria "will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship."
Against this backdrop, it is not totally surprising that my UNESCO hostess, less than half a minute after I entered her office, literally threw at me a statement in French from Director Irina Bokova of the UNESCO HQ in Paris. It read: