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This Russian Military Base In Syria Could Very Well Be Illegal

Russia is building a military base in Syria on a designated World Heritage Site, satellite images suggest.

Posted on May 16, 2016, at 5:46 p.m. ET

ASOR / Digital Globe

Satellite views of the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria suggest that Russia is building a military base on top of a World Heritage Site, possibly breaking international law protecting antiquities.

In March, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces retook Palmyra from ISIS forces. ISIS did extensive damage to Roman era ruins and statues at the site over the last year. New satellite images of the reclaimed ruins suggest that a newly constructed Russian base is being built near the northern necropolis ruins, part of a UNESCO site designated “the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.”

The Russian base includes air defenses and armored vehicles, along with a newly constructed helicopter pad, notes a Monday report from the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiative, noting new images released by DigitalGlobe, a private firm that provides satellite imagery.

The military base sprang up between these two satellite photos being taken on March 30 and May 10th.

ASOR Digital Globe / Digital Globe
ASOR Digital Globe / Digital Globe
ASOR Digital Globe / Digital Globe

“If they are building the base within the heritage site they would be in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention,” international antiquities law expert Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University told BuzzFeed News. “To turn a cultural heritage site into a legitimate military target would put them in violation, along with any damage done to the site by construction”

Neither the Russian Embassy in the U.S. nor UNESCO responded to BuzzFeed news requests for comment on the reports.

Russia recently held a concert in Palmyra to celebrate its liberation in an ancient Roman amphitheater where ISIS had staged mass beheadings during its short-lived rule of the ancient city. “You are not supposed to use cultural heritage sites to shield military activities after they have been liberated,” said Gerstenblith.

After the start of the Iraq War in 2003, U.S. military officials faced criticism for construction of a military base near the ancient ruins of Babylon that damaged the site, and for placing snipers in the historic 9th Century minaret in Samarra, drawing fire during 2006 combat.

Hayes Brown contributed reporting to this story.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.