National Museum of Syria, Aleppo
Iconoclasm, the deliberate systematic attacking or destroying of religious images as religiously heretical is clearly a crime against humanity everywhere it occurs. Today in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere iconoclasm is spreading outrageously. It continues to irreparably destroy our shared global heritage. Our past and identity are in the crosshairs of religiously and socially misguided iconoclasts who are bent on erasing our history.
Yet some are asking why we should care all that much right now given all the other societal problems internationally. Isn't the seemingly cliquish-chic handwringing over archeological sites and old stone fragments, carvings, pots and writings just another form of cultural colonialism? Seemingly to placate old people who may have been raised near these sites and appear obsessed with them?
Visitors sometimes hear this point of view and they are reminded, as this observer was recently, surprisingly by a Syrian university professor in Aleppo, "Sir, what matters most now is the condition of people not old stuff!" Before our meeting ended the professor did qualify her comment a bit and explained that her loved ones and her friends including many university students and faculty, had suffered such devastation, lost homes and jobs including lack of water and electricity, and many don't have much food. Such that foreigners should know these days that archeology is down the list of many war victims concerns.
One of her students, during a stroll across campus explained that what Daesh is doing to Syria can be compared to an act of nature like a grass fire rolling across the landscape. Pining over the loss of a museum here or there is pretty minor compared to the death and destruction they are inflicting upon people who do not share their views. According to another graduate student enacting legislation against destroying cultural sites is probably a waste of time because all sides in a conflict ransack valued historical sites of their enemies as a way of punishing the other side. And as a form of psychological warfare to humiliate enemies, like abusing family members. "You know something about conditions now for average people in Syria. We are so tired and beaten down. Just trying to survive should be everyone's priority don't you think?"
As one spends time in Syria these days with the honor of meeting many decent, smart and caring people, some of whom become cherished friends, it is normal to keep track of and assess the many horrifying impacts of the continuing armed-conflict on their lives. From the beginning of the conflict many visitors, certainly this one, thought that the suffering among Syrian inside and refugees outside their beloved country would wind down and rebuilding of lives and infrastructures was not far off. Unfortunately, events have proven otherwise with few signs and little hope of peace coming soon as the latest social-economic indicators document the bleak prospects.
A just released UN study on the impact of the Syrian crisis makes plain that the condition of people in Syria has never been worse in modern times. Violence has intensified with the expansion of black markets, the erosion of sovereignty and rule of law, increasing dependence upon external support, deepening economic exposure and loss of economic security. Conflict-related transnational networks and criminal gangs are engaging in human trafficking and abuse, pillage, smuggling, kidnapping and extortion, recruiting combatants while at the same time they loot and sell Syria's national and historical heritage.
Current life quality indexes resulting from the destruction of Syria's economic foundations and citizen well-being document what we have already witnessed in Syria and among her refugees in four neighboring countries. Total economic loss since the start of the conflict until early 2015 is estimated at USD 202.6 billion, with damage to capital stock accounting for 35.5 per cent of this loss. Total economic loss is equivalent to 383 percent of the GDP of 2010 in constant prices. The UN estimates that the total volume of GDP loss is estimated at USD 119.7 billion, of which USD 46.1 billion was generated in 2014. GDP contracted by 9.9 per cent in 2014 compared to the previous year.
The country continues to be plagued by lack of jobs and the unemployment rate surged from 14.9 per cent in 2011 to 57.7 per cent or numbering 3.72 million by the beginning of 2015. This has been one factor leading to a hollowing population as it fell from 20.87 million persons in 2010 to only17.65 million people by the beginning of 2015 After the unresolved Palestine refugee issue, refugees from Syria now constitute the second largest refugee population in the world with an estimated 3.33 million refugees fleeing Syria as of early of 2015. According to recent UN studies, over half the population (52.8 per cent) has been dislodged as people left their homes looking for safer places to live. The decent into poverty in Syria continues in early 2015 as just over 80% Syrians lives in poverty. 2014 was the deadliest year of the conflict in Syria, with more than 76,000 Syrians killed. Aid access has not improved: 4.8m people in need reside in areas defined by the UN as "hard to reach", one million more than in 2013. Needs have increased: 5.6m children are in need of aid, a 31% increase since 2013. At the same time, the humanitarian response has decreased compared to needs: In 2013, 71% of the funds needed to support civilians inside Syria and refugees in neighboring countries were provided. In 2014, this had declined to 57%.
So what can we do now that the continuing destruction of our cultural heritage has sparked a fresh round of global outrage? How can we hope to save other heritage sites under IS and other extremists and looters control short of defeating the entrenched jihadists militarily which appears highly unlikely anytime soon.