Argument

Stolen History

Why should we care about saving Syria's antiquities?

Art is often a forgotten victim of wars. As the toll of human suffering builds, worrying about the fate of paintings, sculptures, and antiquities might seem frivolous, even callous. But there is good reason to care about preserving culture both in conflict and after -- and there are plenty of proponents of this view, including among governments. For instance, the upcoming movie Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, tells the true story of the group of individuals tasked by the U.S. government during World War II with finding art stolen by the Nazis and returning it to the rightful owners.

Today, a new conversation about how to protect the priceless when people are trying to survive is playing out, this time with regard to war-torn Syria. At a gathering this fall in New York, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. Department of State, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced the publication of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects, which aims to prevent the transport and trade of Syria's invaluable cultural goods.

Syria is rich with ancient and medieval treasures: Greek and Roman cities, Byzantine villages, Bronze and Iron Age sites, centuries-old castles, and ornate Islamic art and structures. But the State Department says that nearly 90 percent of these invaluable historical sites and objects are within areas of conflict.

Much like the Nazis, looters have taken note and ruthlessly pillaged Syrian cultural sites, seeking to sell treasures on the black market. Just last spring, a cobble-stone, columned street built by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the city of Apamea was plundered and damaged. Architectural gems have also fallen prey to armed conflict. In April 2013, the nearly 1,000-year-old minaret of Aleppo's Umayyad mosque collapsed during an intense battle.

With these problems becoming more serious, the Red List is an initiative that notifies law-enforcement personnel, customs inspectors, art dealers, auction houses, and museums around the world of the types of pilfered objects that may be on the market and moving through legitimate shipping channels. Speaking at one of America's premier sanctuaries for cultural heritage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard explained that the Red List includes nearly every object imaginable, such as ancient writings, vessels, coins, stamps, sculptures, and accessories. Giving notice helps prevent stolen objects from becoming ill-gotten spoils of war.

Red Lists have been created before for other countries. In the past five years, lists have helped French officials identify and recover cultural goods from Iraq and Togo. In 2007, Switzerland stopped the illegal online sale of a cuneiform tablet, one of the earliest examples of written language, thought to have been smuggled out of Iraq. More recently, U.S. customs inspectors recovered and returned stolen Afghan items, including a Roman wine pitcher, taken by looters. ICOM envisions the Red List for Syria will lead to similar success stories.

The rationale behind the Red List, however, extends beyond a desire to keep things where they belong. Indeed, there are other important reasons to protect Syria's historical gems.

The preservation of Syria's cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects "are a part of Syrian life -- a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future," she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country's GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

The Red List is also part of a larger project to combat corruption and poor governance that benefits from illicit commerce, which the World Economic Forum estimates might include up to 15 to 20 percent of annual global trade. Illicit trade networks, which facilitate the exchange of trafficked persons and wildlife, ill-gotten funds, and cultural objects, also allow corrupt leaders and officials to retain and grow their power. And the need for international cooperation to combat regional and global illicit trade is paramount.

This is the reason that, halfway around the world from New York, political leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Pathfinder Dialogue in Bangkok met almost simultaneously to the Red List gathering. On the APEC agenda was a discussion of the global fight against illicit trade and corruption. Dialogue participants shared their best practices and agreed to support the drafting of new international documents and investigations to combat illegal commerce.

Together, the Pathfinder Dialogue and the Red List demonstrate the importance that the international community places on preserving art and artifacts. And as Monuments Men shows, this support is nothing new.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then supreme allied commander in Europe, took a particular personal interest in protecting, preserving, and repatriating cultural property in World War II. Led by American and British soldiers, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the Allied military effort included a collection of 345 men and women from 13 countries who recovered thousands of stolen artworks between 1943 and 1951, including works by Johannes Vermeer, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.

Their efforts to protect and preserve Europe's cultural history -- now on display in the great museums of Europe -- are a living legacy to those striving to protect Syria's cultural relics. Much like our collective efforts in the 1940s helped preserve the foundation of European cultural identity, preventing looters and illicit markets from robbing Syria of its past will protect an important component of the country's future, peaceful identity.

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

Our Red Lines and Theirs

New information reveals why Saddam Hussein never used chemical weapons in the Gulf War.

If the Syrian civil war and, in particular, the horrific Ghouta attack this August have reminded the world of the persistent danger of chemical weapons, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time the United States has confronted a Middle Eastern dictator armed with weapons of mass destruction. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein possessed large stockpiles of chemical weapons, which he had used frequently in his 8-year war with Iran during the 1980s. And yet Iraq did not use these weapons against the U.S.-led coalition forces, even as they soundly defeated the Iraqi army, pushing it from Kuwait. For two decades, the question has been, why not?

Some American officials have argued that Saddam was deterred from using chemical weapons by ambiguous U.S. threats of nuclear retaliation and explicit threats of regime change. But information Saddam provided interrogators after his capture -- 10 years ago today -- along with newly released recordings of Saddam's meetings with his advisors, suggest otherwise. Saddam viewed chemical weapons as a final trump card, to be held in reserve to deter American or Israeli use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons and to prevent coalition forces from marching on Baghdad. And Saddam later concluded that his deterrent strategy had worked, telling his advisors that Iraq had won the war because the United States stopped combat operations after the Iraqi army retreated from Kuwait.

As the international community works to disarm Bashar al-Assad of his chemical arsenal, the United States should reconsider the true lessons of the Gulf War. Because if Syria's disarmament does not proceed as smoothly as planned, effective deterrence and smart diplomacy will be essential to prevent future uses of chemical weapons.

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As war loomed between the United States and Iraq in January 1991, President George H.W. Bush sent Secretary of State James Baker to Geneva to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. His mission was to deliver both a verbal threat to Aziz and a carefully worded presidential letter for Saddam Hussein.

Bush's letter said that the "United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons or the destruction of Kuwait's oil fields.... You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort." Baker issued a stronger and more explicit verbal warning, telling Aziz that if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons, "The American people will demand vengeance. And we have the means to exact it.... [T]his is not a threat, it is a promise." He then warned that if such weapons were used, the American "objective would not be the liberation of Kuwait, but the elimination of the current Iraqi regime."

Tariq Aziz, however, refused to deliver Bush's letter to Saddam, and it is unclear whether Saddam ever read it. In his post-capture interrogation, the Iraqi leader claimed not to know that Baker's threats were even connected with the use of chemical weapons.

Even if the messages did make it through, the nature of the American threats made it unlikely that they were an effective deterrent. Baker had earlier threatened regime change if Saddam was unwilling to withdraw from Kuwait. If the United States threatened to pursue regime change whether or not Saddam used chemical weapons, then that threat could not have been an effective deterrent. Moreover, Saddam ordered the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields and did not withdraw from Kuwait, further evidence that he was not deterred by U.S. threats.

The newly released Saddam tapes also provide little support for the idea that Baker's threats significantly impacted Iraqi decision-making. Just days after Baker warned Aziz not to use chemical or biological weapons, Saddam was preparing his forces to do just that. In a mid-January meeting with his Air Force commander and son-in-law, he said: "I want to make sure -- close the door [sound of door slamming] -- the germ and chemical warheads, as well as the chemical and germ bombs are available to the 'concerned people,' so that in case we ordered an attack, they can do it without missing any of their targets." Saddam also laid out the targets: "Riyadh and Jeddah, which are the biggest Saudi cities with all the decision makers, and the Saudi rulers.... Also, all the Israeli cities, all of them." When asked when the chemical and biological weapons would be used, he answered, "Only in the case we are obliged and there is a great necessity to put them into action."

A month before he invaded Kuwait, Saddam said, "According to our technical, scientific, and military calculations, [Iraq's chemical and biological weapons are] a sufficient deterrent to confront the Israeli nuclear weapon." He also, however, told military advisors to prepare options for WMD retaliation, as a revenge strike, if necessary: "I know if the going gets hard, then the Americans or the British will use the atomic weapons against me, and so will Israel. The only things I have are chemical and biological weapons, and I shall have to use them. I have no alternative."

Saddam's confidence in his chemical weapons as a strategic deterrent was in part based on a belief that his weapons were far more powerful than they actually were. Saddam incorrectly asserted to his advisors that the Iraqi chemical weapons arsenal was "200 times" more powerful than it had been in the Iran-Iraq war.

Saddam also expressed a willingness to use chemical and biological weapons if the United States attempted to march on Baghdad. In an interrogation after his capture, Saddam claimed that "WMD was for the defense of Iraq's sovereignty" and that "Iraq did not use WMD during the 1991 Gulf War as its sovereignty was not threatened." He added that he "would have been called stupid" had he used chemical or biological weapons outside of these conditions.

There is also strong evidence that Saddam pre-delegated authority to use chemical and biological weapons in the event of a decapitation strike on Baghdad. In the same January 1991 conversation with his advisors on the use of chemical and biological weapons, he stated, "I will give them an order stating that at 'one moment,' if I'm not there and you don't hear my voice, you will hear somebody else's voice, so you can receive the order from him, and then you can go attack your targets."

Given that American forces didn't pursue regime change, even after Iraq crossed an American "red line" by torching Kuwaiti oil fields, the Iraqi leadership concluded that chemical and biological weapons had successfully deterred the United States. In his official CIA report on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons program, Charles Duelfer notes, "Iraqis believed that their possession and willingness to use WMD (CW and BW) contributed substantially to deterring the United States from going to Baghdad in 1991."

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As American leaders confront another Middle Eastern dictator armed with chemical weapons, there are four lessons that they should draw from the Iraqi case.

First, in dealing with authoritarian governments, deterrence may not work. Underlings are often hesitant to communicate threats, and dictators may have highly inflated estimates of their own military capabilities as the "yes men" beneath them say what they think the leader wants to hear. Authoritarian regimes also often rely on poor intelligence analysis of U.S. objectives and decision-making. Disarming dictators, if possible, is preferable to trying to deter them.

Second, although the Syrian government is clearly trying to gain favor in the international community by cooperating with the U.N. disarmament plan, Bashar al-Assad may view chemical weapons as a strategic deterrent in the same way that Saddam did. This is especially likely because one lesson demonstrated by the Iraq War (and, more recently, by Libya) is that the United States may successfully pursue regime change even after a nation has given up its WMD. Assad thus may be reluctant to give up his final cache of chemical weapons, keeping some as an insurance policy against future attack. In fact, recent press reports suggest that U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned that Assad may be holding back some of his weapons.

Third, there is a tension between U.S. desires to see Syria completely disarmed of chemical weapons and the Obama administration's stated goal that Assad's regime must go. Is the United States' priority to overthrow the Syrian regime or to reduce the risk of future chemical weapons use? If the latter, the United States may need to issue more explicit security assurances, or at least suggest that full Syrian disarmament will bring rewards to the government.

Finally, if there are setbacks in the disarmament process, the administration should use the agreed-upon U.N. inspection procedures first and be exceedingly careful not to issue threats that it doesn't fully intend to execute. Having our bluff called weakens the strength of future deterrent threats and increases the likelihood that we will be challenged. In the words of Brent Scowcroft, reflecting on the 1991 Gulf War, "It is bad practice to threaten something you have no intention of carrying out."

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images