The Art of Civil War

As the conflict rages in Syria, it's a bull market for antiquities dealers and thieves.

BEIRUT — "What period it's from is not important. I just care how much it's worth," says Abu Khader, a smuggler in Majdal Anjar, a small Lebanese town on the Lebanon-Syria border. Smuggling everything from cigarettes to arms has long been a family business. But Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters low on cash have started offering alternative payment for the guns they crave -- stolen Syrian antiquities.

Cuneiform tablets, Roman friezes and statues, and Byzantine coins are particularly popular. "They give me antiquities, and I give them guns," Abu Khader puts it simply.

An AK-47 can set you back $1,200 on the black market today, and the more desirable M4 carbine can cost around $4,500. Selling antiquities can help finance these purchases. "I have moved at least 100 objects," Abu Khader says.

In addition to the Syrian civil war's horrible human and economic costs, the conflict has also devastated Syria's cultural heritage. At a February UNESCO conference, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) called the looting more damaging than the fighting that is ravaging mosques, old houses, and Crusader castles.

Only 3 percent of Syria's heritage sites remain outside areas of conflict, according to a map released by the U.S. State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit. A 2012 Global Heritage Fund report also makes for grim reading: All UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been affected by the war, from the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus to the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers to the Roman city of Bosra.

Syria is an archaeological treasure trove, featuring antiquities from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Ottoman periods. The country hosted up to 100 foreign archeological expeditions annually before the war started. The destruction of the millennia-old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on April 24 is just the latest casualty of the violence.

Looting has become more commonplace as the conflict has dragged on. "There wasn't that much evidence of looting this time last year. Now there is," says Durham University doctoral student Emma Cunliffe, author of the Global Heritage report.

Similar pillaging followed the invasion of Iraq, the war in Libya, and even the uprising in Egypt. According to Maamoun Abdel-Karim, director of the DGAM, the antiquities directorate received at least 4,000 confiscated objects over the course of 2012, most of which were recovered on their way out of the country.

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.

Some of these instances are highly organized heists, but a lot of the smaller artifacts are simply dug up by locals. "If you are a starving farmer and you know there are objects in the site next door, you will go dig it up if you get hungry enough," says Bajjaly.

Before the war, Syria policed archaeological sites heavily, and those found illegally excavating would receive prison sentences of 10 to 15 years. Now, the regime has other priorities.

"People knew where things were before the war, but now [that] the state has disappeared, they are digging," explains a man in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria, who calls himself "the teacher." His interest in antiquities started as a hobby, but now he is making money buying up Syrian antiquities and appraising the objects that FSA fighters bring the smuggler Abu Khader. The most expensive item he has seen was a cuneiform tablet that sold for $20,000. He proudly displays a carved bust of a Roman noblewoman that was dug up just across the mountains. He expects it to fetch at least $2,000.

Such small-time smuggling is often the first step in a long process that sees items eventually end up in the hands of wealthy buyers. In a Beirut antiquities shop, Roman statues now sit beside mother-of-pearl inlaid tables and antique lamps. A stone-hewed noblewoman with a headband and a young bearded man look familiar. "These are from Tadmor," says the dealer, casually referring to one of Syria's six UNESCO World Heritage sites, known in English as Palmyra. "I am keeping these for my house, but I can get another one."

These particular offerings look too refined and new to have genuinely been looted from the ruins in the Syrian desert that were once home to Queen Zenobia. Due to high demand, fakes are taking off. "About 50 percent of what I get is fake," admits smuggler Abu Khaled. But video footage from Palmyra shows similar, genuine statues being loaded into a truck and carted off.

The price of antiquities has increased tenfold over the past decade, thus providing even more motivation for would-be looters. "Owning antiquities allows you to own a piece of history" Bajjaly says. "And they buy you something much more important: prestige, particularly if you donate a high-end piece or collection to an established institution."

The biggest demand for Syrian antiquities comes from Israel, Britain, and the United States. The Persian Gulf is also a rising market, particularly Dubai, says Julian Radcliffe, director of the Art Loss Register, the only global organization dedicated to tracking stolen art. "There is a lot less custom supervision there."

UNESCO has tried to curb art smuggling through the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The treaty gives its 123 members the right to recover stolen or illegally exported antiquities, and it has led to requests from dealers for provenance of how artifacts were acquired. But just like the Roman statues themselves, certificates of provenance are open to forgery.

Such certificates can be faked "as easily as saying hello," says Bajjaly. "I can do it in two seconds."

A popular technique is to cite the object as originating from a collection belonging to an 18th- or 19th-century collector known to have been interested in antiquities. Such references will rarely be cross-checked, and older collections often lack inventories. Thus, collections of individuals who have been dead for hundreds of years keep expanding over time.

Furthermore, even high-end auction houses don't cite the provenance of all objects in their catalogs. Christie's says it hasn't seen a rise in material from Syria, claiming strict internal policies require any item to be thoroughly researched and subject to provenance checks. In addition, catalogs are widely distributed and available online. As a result of such transparency, it is "extremely unlikely that traffickers would use international auctions to sell illicit material," says Christie's communications head Matthew Paton.

But below the elite dealers, hundreds of smaller dealers are only too happy to sell looted antiquities on the black market. Furthermore, antiques are now also readily available online through a growing number of public auction sites -- including mainstream sites such as eBay, where one can buy antiquities such as Roman coins at the click of a button. More specialized items, like cuneiform tablets, can be found on sites such as artemission.com or through auctions on icollector.com. The provenance and legality of such objects are often murky.

Abu Khader predicts lucrative times ahead. He shows off an entire CD full of pictures of loot ready to sell -- at the right price, of course. And he eagerly awaits the future. "After the war, much more will be coming out of Syria than now, because some people are not able to get the things they find across the border," he explains.

If what happened in Iraq is any barometer for Syria, he might be right. It took five years after the U.S.-led invasion for the international market to be flooded with Iraqi antiquities. But given the growing number of sites being looted throughout Syria, it's clear this process is already under way. As Durham's Cunliffe says, "It will be years before we know the full extent of the looting."



Spanish Flu

Spain's economy should be taking a turn for the better. So what's wrong?

MADRID — Spain is badly stuck. The European medicine of austerity has proved to be ineffective at kick-starting economic growth, and the country's 6.2 million unemployed constitute a social emergency for which no one has a quick fix -- least of all, it would appear, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government, which has taken virtually no steps at all to lessen the impact of public spending slashes.

Last week, two developments underlined the sterile panorama in which Spain finds itself. First, data showed that in the first three months of the year, the country entered the seventh straight quarter of a recession that began shortly before Rajoy's People's Party (PP) was voted into power in November 2011. Second, the European Commission indicated that it will allow Spain an extra two years to bring its budget deficit back within the official EU ceiling of 3 percent of GDP.

Spain's deficit targets are also likely to be eased soon, as the eurozone consensus is swinging slowly and painfully from the austerity-at-all-costs camp led by Germany's Angela Merkel to a broad recognition that this policy is causing even greater damage to contracting economies. European Commission Vice President Olli Rehn made an extraordinary appeal last week, urging struggling EU states to do "whatever it takes" to deal with the jobless crisis. Listening to the bespectacled Finnish economist, Spaniards may have felt a sudden sense of disorientation: Wasn't it Europe that said we had to trim our sails even if it brought social costs?

Rajoy's Socialist predecessor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, admitted in March 2011 that he had become obsessed by the risk premium -- the interest rate differential between Spanish 10-year bonds and the benchmark German bund. (A higher risk premium in the bond-buying market means a country will have to offer bigger interest rates when undertaking new issues of sovereign debt.) The Socialist leader spent the final reserves of boom-time public funds on municipally managed stimulus plans and kept the country's prestigious but hugely expensive high-speed train projects on track. Then, exactly three years ago, a closed-door meeting of European finance ministers forced Zapatero to change course, imposing the first of many painful cutbacks. In May 2010, the government passed a 15 billion euro austerity package, including a pay cut for public employees and a freeze on pensions. This was followed by another capitulation the following summer, when the Socialist administration hastily agreed with the conservatives to amend the Spanish Constitution to enshrine the concept of a structural deficit cap of 0.4 percent of GDP from 2020. At the end of 2008, Spain's public debt stood at 40 percent of GDP, among the lowest in Europe. It is now more than double that, and on the way to 100 percent.

After Rajoy took power, he refused to accept the idea that Spain should have to submit to the humiliation of a full-scale bailout like those in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. After the country's risk premium skyrocketed, he eventually partially relented and negotiated a limited bailout for the banking sector. But for now, it would appear, the euro has been salvaged, and unlike his counterparts in Italy, Rajoy can credibly claim that he, and not the fabled "men in black" from the IMF, is still running Spain. What he has so far been utterly incapable of is devising a plan to bring growth back to the Spanish economy.

Instead, Rajoy's economic team last month offered a bracing dose of realism. The government at last revised its forecasts, bringing them into line with the views of the European Commission and IMF, among others. The new numbers effectively put an end to the hopes that 2013 would be a turnaround year.

The government now expects the economy to shrink 1.3 percent this year, after previously forecasting a decline of 0.5 percent. Growth is expected to return in 2014, when GDP is slated to advance by a still-anemic 0.5 percent. It will only be in 2015, when activity is projected to advance 2.4 percent, that employment will be created.

When Rajoy -- in one of his extremely rare public statements -- asked for "perseverance" and "patience" just in late April, he was in effect begging Spanish voters not to cast a harsh judgment on his first term. According to the administration's own projections, unemployment (now at a record 27.2 percent) will end 2015, the next electoral year, at 25.8 percent, higher than when the conservatives took office.

Unemployment had already spiraled upward before Rajoy took the reins, however. In Spain's erratic labor market, where even before the crisis around one-third of contracts were temporary, unemployment has tended to spike rapidly at the first sign of trouble. Among under-25s, a staggering 57.2 percent are idle. With many business owners and self-employed workers eager to avoid social security costs, conservative estimates suggest that the shadow economy in Spain is worth 20 percent of GDP. In this context, the PP has tried to make a virtue out of what it portrays as a long game to hammer together a more efficient economy. This effort has included a new labor reform, approved in March 2012, that makes it much easier for companies to shed workers. Under the new law, they need only show falling income, where previously losses had to be incurred. Employers also need to pay out far less in terms of compensation when layoffs are technically justified. Crucially, pay cuts can also be imposed if justified by the same economic criteria. Figures from the end of 2012 bear out the government's plans: Severance costs for companies were down 23 percent from the final quarter of 2011, while salary costs were down 3.6 percent from the same period.

There are a few more other signs of hope: Amid the general gloom of 2012, exports rose 3.8 percent. The tourism sector is also holding its own as Spain once again becomes an affordable destination for travelers. And Spain's risk premium has returned to around 300 basis points, down from the 600-plus marks it had hit during the nervy days of last summer.

Spain also seems to be going through something of a public catharsis, with sins of the past being aired in a way that simply had not happened during the heady years of bonanza. Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, the former chief of the country's foremost business association, the CEOE, remains in prison on fraud accusations totaling tens of millions of euros, and the serving vice president of the organization is being investigated for allegedly paying his company's workers in cash. Last month, a listed seafood-processing company admitted undeclared debts of close to 4 billion euros.

Then there is the awkward business of King Juan Carlos's son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, whom an investigating judge has accused of embezzling millions of euros from regional governments through his supposedly nonprofit sporting events consultancy. Rajoy's own party has not been immune from the spotlight of a justice system that seems bent on making up for lost time after the former PP treasurer's secret ledgers were published by the newspaper El País. In these scrawled, handwritten notes, a 15-year trail of illegal, undeclared donations from companies are apparently logged, as are monthly cash payments to leading figures in the party (on top of their official salaries as ministers or officials in other state posts). Listed among those allegedly on the take are the PP's two prime ministers: José María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy.

This government, which likes to present itself as a sleeves-rolled-up managing group sent to bring order to the Neverland that was Zapatero's economic reign, has conspicuously avoided any public explanation of the corruption case. Its sole consolation is that the Socialists continue to languish in opinion polls. The big political ideas are in the streets, evidenced by the rise of civil society activists such as those from the PAH mortgage reform platform, which aims to better support homeowners in a country where in 2012 some 100 families were evicted every day. The PP used its congressional majority to squash the life out of a popular legislative proposal -- backed by 1.5 million signatures and adopted by opposition parties -- that aimed to establish a moratorium on evictions.

Desperate to gain traction with a disillusioned electorate, Socialist leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba is formally reaching out to the government with proposals for a cross-party action plan to stimulate Spain's sagging economy. No one expects Rajoy to sign up, but the opposition can hardly miss the opportunity to pit pain-easing solutions against the prime minister's "perseverance and patience" approach. Among other schemes, Rubalcaba has suggested tapping the 60 billion euros left over in an EU bank bailout fund to help families facing eviction and companies that are struggling.

In Europe, the worms are turning. France's ruling Socialists see a new left-leaning Italian government as an ally against German prescriptions for fiscal discipline. Brussels itself is busy cutting Spain some slack on deficit spending, and the markets, for the moment, are providing finance at lower costs than in previous years. As external pressure recedes, the onus is on Rajoy to provide some drive for Spain's stalled economy. Or is the problem that he too is stuck?

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