Destruction, looting, and theft has been occurring at historical sites in Afrin, Syria, at an alarming rate. Mafia-style criminal enterprises, run by Turkish-backed militias have been engaging in the excavation of sites, selling antiquities of the region to fund their activities. It is reported that more than a thousand sites have been damaged.

Construction vehicles, designed for heavy earthworks, not delicate archaeological sites, have been in use by Turkish-backed organizations at the site of “Nabi Hori,” about 23 km from Afrin. The site has witnessed large-scale excavation efforts by Turkish-backed organizations in full view of Turkish forces. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the militias use various heavy vehicles for digging and excavating around the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre near Nabi Hori, searching for ancient artifacts.

Syria is home to some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities and regions in the world, and as such has an estimated eight to ten thousand archaeological and ancient sites. At least one thousand have been targeted and exploited by armed groups. In the Afrin region in particular, the militias that are supported by Turkey under the umbrella of the “Syrian National Army” have largely been allowed to operate unhindered ever since the region was occupied by these factions in March 2018. This has led to mafia-style rule in which criminal enterprises fund these different groups. Illegal excavation is one of these enterprises.

Turkish tanks deploying to Afrin during the Turkish invasion

Furthermore, the Commission of Antiquities in the region of Afrin has documented a series of violations, including the destruction of 35 out of the 92 documented archaeological hills in the region. The Marmaron Church, in the ancient village of Brad, which was placed on the antiquities protection list of the region in 2011, is one of the specific sites that were targeted. The founder of the Maronite Christian community, Saint Maron, is said to have been buried in a special wing of the church that serves as a tomb. The Church has been vandalized and destroyed by the Turkish-backed forces according to the Commission. 

UNESCO Heritage Site Near Brad, 15 km outside of Afrin

The Director-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, Mahmoud Hammoud, has stated that Turkey has stolen 16,000 pieces of antiquities from Syria since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, most recently from Afrin, and placed them in Turkish museums. 

By exploiting and destroying these historical sites, armed militias have been able to raise funds through the illegal sale of artifacts, while also adhering to the often strict ideologies that the groups follow, which tend to be religiously and ethnically sectarian in nature.