ISTANBUL — A new Senate bill that aims to stop looted Syrian antiquities from being sold in the U.S. is also intended to telegraph a warning to American buyers.
Sen. Bob Casey, one of the bill’s three sponsors, said he hoped the new legislation would instill some fear in would-be buyers of the illicit artifacts helping to fund ISIS and other armed groups in the civil war. “Part of the underlying message I want to deliver is that if you’re involved in this in any way, you’re helping a terrorist organization,” he said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “You’re not neutral.”
Some experts tracking the trade say there is little hard evidence that looted Syrian antiquities are being bought in the West on a significant scale. But others say that’s because middlemen on the black market keep the illegal origins of the looted items obscured, often using forged paperwork. Critics contend that some Western buyers either turn a blind eye to looted Syrian artifacts or don’t do enough to investigate their histories.
A recent BuzzFeed News investigation featured interviews with more than a dozen people working on the black market in Syria and across the border in Turkey who said they believed that many of the objects they sold would ultimately end up in the hands of buyers in the West.
“You have a significant market in the United States,” Casey said. “What we’re trying to do is cut that off.”
The bill would expand the Obama administration's authority to impose import restrictions on Syrian antiquities, lifting limitations on the president's power to issue emergency declarations passed under previous laws on protecting artifacts. A companion bill in the House of Representatives passed in June.
The looting and selling of antiquities in Syria helps to fund all sides of the conflict, from ISIS to Western-backed rebels and the Bashar al-Assad regime. For ISIS, it is one of many revenue sources of note, which also include activities such as oil sales, local extortion, and ransom kidnappings. “You can’t achieve the goal [of defeating ISIS] unless you’re cutting out their financing,” Casey said.
If Western buyers purchase illicit Syrian artifacts, then they help to fund the conflict, knowingly or not, said Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on terrorism finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. “They’re not only supporting ISIS [and other groups], they’re eroding history,” he said.
Cracking down on illicit antiquities is famously difficult for law enforcement. The items often pass through many hands and via many countries, making their origins difficult to trace.
But Casey hopes the new bill will help to create a chilling effect. “If we can intimidate people at all to stay away from this,” he said, “we will have achieved a measure of success.”