The National Museum, Damascus
President Obama's Syria legacy is already being widely debated. In 2009 the former Southside Chicago community organizer and Law Professor entered the White House promising a new direction and vision in the Middle East from that of his predecessor and pledging "a new way forward." "A New Beginning" is the name of the speech he delivered on 4 June 2009, at Cairo University.
Surely things seemed much simpler at the time when millions across the Middle East praised his words. But alas, Obama soon stumbled into a raging turbulent of complicated problems from the "Arab Spring" and the arrival of ISIS and the Islamic State, to a massive proxy war in Syria, with the involvement of proxy backed sectarian militia from half a dozen countries and as many as 1000 other militia/gangs of "jihadists" from another forty or more.
Plus the resurgence of Russia as a regional power along with Iran's ascendance. These apparently unforeseen geostrategic developments happened fast as America appeared to become relegated to being a vexed and sidelined onlooker. Obama is accused of not responding early enough to the ISIS threat or protecting the civilian population under attack and the President himself repeated last week that Syria was his most difficult foreign policy issue that he had to face during his eight years in office.
Some are arguing that Obama is responsible for unintended consequence and creating new challenges to US and Middle East regional security. As Obama ends his Presidency he leaves behind doubts from most of America's allies in the region and certainly sharp disappointments and criticism from some of the displaced Syrian population that this observer has crossed paths with. "What happened to your country's claimed humanitarian values" is a question I have been repeatedly asked by ordinary citizens over the past several years across Syria.
But the Obama legacy jury is still deliberating.
A just released study from the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation (1/10/2017) found that only one in five Americans thinks that under the Obama administration the U.S. has been too engaged in the Middle East, while one in three think it has not been engaged enough. The most common view, held by 46 percent of those surveyed is that the level of engagement has been about right under President Obama. And 57 per cent of Americans told interviewers last weekend that they view Obama favorably, putting him way ahead of his predecessor, George W. Bush who only 40 per cent viewed favorably as he left office.
Time will tell how Obama's Middle East legacy is judged and no doubt the verdict will be affected by what President-elect Trump will do in the Middle East, which as of today, has many of us scratching our heads.
But there is one major, if not widely heralded, Obama Administration achievement which relates to Syria and the Middle East that has not gained much public recognition but for which the Obama Administration deserves great credit. That subject is Obama's leadership and achievements, working with a divided Congress, in taking new and concrete measures with respect to Protecting and Preserving Syria's Endangered Heritage which we all share as our common cradle of Civilization.
The Obama Administration has been the most focused on preserving archeology in Syria and elsewhere than any of his predecessors. His administration, like many of us, realized as we witnessed the destruction of our shared cultural heritage, that despite good intensions relevant international law so far is largely ineffective in preserving and protecting our heritage from ISIS and other thieves.. The absence of adequate enforcement mechanisms are evident from the continuing daily destruction, looting, smuggling, and black market trading and sales of Syrian cultural property, every day around the Middle East and around the world.
Today there are reports that ISIS is now back in complete control of Palmyra due to errors by some who were guarding the priceless ruins while ignoring for months reports from locals that Daesh jihadists were back in the adjacent to the ruins town of Palmyra and gaining recruits. There are additional reports today (1/12/2016) that ISIS has begun its looting and destruction of "The Pearl of the Desert."
As the actions of ISIS and others demonstrate, treaty-based International Humanitarian Law, which focuses on the actions and responsibilities of states, and even customary IHL, which applies more broadly to state and non-state actors alike, are frankly not effective in the current crisis to protect our heritage in Syria or elsewhere.
And National laws have also long been shown to be ineffective even through that fact may be changing as countries, including the USA, the center of illegal artifact purchases, has begun to enact laws to control and hopefully eliminate the plundering of our global heritage. The US, UK, Germany, France and several of the 28 European Union countries (27 post-Brexit) have been working domestically on various legal frameworks to confront the illegal trade of archaeological artifacts.
Last year Germany enacted for the first time a Federal law which they claim is an efficient implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Importantly the new German law provides for increased due diligence an emphasis many countries are legislating for their police agencies. Specifically, Germany now requires an export license from the country of origin and requires that the supplier in Germany conduct provenance (origin) research. What is decisive is how the law will be implemented and how German officials will be positioned to ensure due diligence.