The strain shows in Abdel-Karim's voice as he discusses Syria's efforts to minimize the damage to its 35 museums and 10,000 archeological sites. "We are working with the local population to preserve Syrian archeology and to avoid a repeat of Iraq's experience in 2003," he says.
The museums, Abdel-Karim says, are in good shape and the collections have been moved to secure places. The National Museum of Damascus is the most famous of the museums under his control; it has now closed its doors to the public, and its 77,000 artifacts have largely been packed away. He says the exteriors of the museums in Hama, Aleppo, and Homs have been damaged in the fighting.
Lebanese archeologist Joanne Bajjaly, who previously documented the effects of war on the cultural heritage of Lebanon and Iraq, thinks Syria's official antiquities agency may be underestimating the extent of the looting. "As nobody saw this war coming, nobody in the country's regional museums was trained to secure their collection," she explains.
Only after the war had raged for some time did Syrian officials begin to contemplate how to safeguard their country's cultural heritage. The staff of the Damascus museum only received e-training in disaster risk management and damage assessment this January.
But many regional museums were too late. "We don't know what happened in places like Hama and Homs," says Bajjaly. She adds that artifacts with numbers identifying them as belonging to Syrian museums have appeared on the international market.
But it's the archeological sites that are the real problem. "It's impossible to preserve 10,000 archeological sites in Syria," says Abdel-Karim. Unlike stolen museum artifacts, there is no database that can determine whether an item dug up from the ground originates from Syria.
The Syrian regime launched a television and radio campaign, "Syria My Homeland," to encourage local populations to protect archaeological sites. But such efforts are failing: Abdel-Karim says "armed archeological mafia gangs" orchestrate most of the looting.
"There are armed groups from Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq who threaten the population of neighboring villages, so they don't interfere, and then they loot the sites," he says.
Such plunder is not new. Mosaics from the ancient Seleucid city of Apamea were stolen last year, almost certainly on the demand of an end buyer rather than a middleman, according to sources familiar with operations of this magnitude; the mosaics were carefully dug out with specialized tools, even bulldozers. In February, another 18 mosaics, this time portraying Homer's Odyssey, were dug up in Syria' north.