TURKEY-SYRIA BORDER—In a hotel basement on the Turkish side of this combat-scarred frontier, a group of unlikely warriors is training to fight on a little-known front of Syria’s civil war: the battle for the country’s cultural heritage.
The recruits aren’t grizzled fighters but graying academics, more at home on an archaeological dig than a battlefield. For months, they have journeyed across war-torn regions of Syria, braving shelling, smugglers and the jihadists of Islamic State. Their mission: to save ancient artifacts and imperiled archaeological sites from profiteers, desperate civilians and fundamentalists who have plundered Syria’s rich artistic heritage to fund their war effort.
Art historians and intelligence officials say that antiquities smuggling by Islamic State has exploded in recent months, aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions. Looting, often with bulldozers, is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finance after oil, Western intelligence officials say.
“What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organized transnational business that is helping fund terror,” said Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who is advising the U.S. State Department on how to tackle the problem. “It’s the gravest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”
In sessions at this secret location, the loose-knit band of academics is being trained how to fight back. They are instructed on how to get to key sites and document both what is there and what is already missing. Another skill: how to hide precious objects that may be at risk of looting and record the GPS locations so they can be retrieved at a later date. The group also uses disguises: posing as antiques dealers to take photographs of looted artifacts.
The group is led by a portly, middle-aged archaeologist trained at Damascus University, who with his colleagues operates in secrecy because of the dangerous nature of the work. He likens his group to World War II’s “Monuments Men”: a small group of academics that helped save Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazis and became the subject of a 2014 Hollywood film starring George Clooney.
“It’s dangerous work. We have to get in and out of a site very quickly,” he said, speaking in a dimly lighted basement room used for the training. “The looting has become systematic, and we can’t keep up.”
The war in Syria has taken an epic toll, with more than 200,000 people killed since the uprising began in 2011.
Alongside the human cost, the cultural damage has mounted. Ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo have been reduced to rubble. Roman, Greek, Babylonian and Assyrian sites have been destroyed by fighting and looting, and five of the six Unesco World Heritage sites in Syria have been seriously damaged.