Syria's human losses and London's replica of Palmyra's arch

Syria's human losses and London's replica of Palmyra's arch
Comment: Unveiling the replica of Palmyra's Arch was an opportunity to raise awareness of the devastation in the region, instead it served as a PR stunt, writes Joseph Willits.
8 min read
23 Apr, 2016
It is telling that this is not a UNESCO backed project [Getty]

Few would suggest that the digitally created replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph did not look glorious in the London sunshine when it was erected on 19 April. It would also be churlish to deny the significant achievement and skill that it took to replicate such a magnificent and symbolic piece of Syria’s heritage. However, I cannot help feeling that this project plays a role in cementing the idea that Syria’s monuments and heritage are far more important than its people.

There is a sense that the cries of outrage over Palmyra's partial destruction and potential total destruction were much stronger than the cries for the countless numbers of deaths, injuries, tortures and people made refugees. It is almost as if a taboo exists about criticising the focus on monuments in a space where the cries about Syrian deaths are increasingly more silent – because such monuments are globally shared, they are said to belong to all of us, unlike the bloodshed in Syria and resulting refugee crisis.

Yet, we should all take some ownership of our inability to end this crisis, and for the ways that a Syrian life is all too often considered the most worthless and is increasingly dehumanised. It's true, however, that there are people who mourn the loss of heritage across the Middle East, who would much prefer the arches and columns of Palmyra and other sites to be dotted across Europe, rather than the region’s displaced.

Sadly, shows of solidarity with a glorious heritage in defiance of a brutal group such as ISIS, often come at the expense of those people affected by ISIS and Assad. It bears resemblance to an architect’s model with a few oddly placed plastic people, only there for a bit of perspective, but in reality removed from it. An opportunity arose from the unveiling of this replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph to raise awareness and condemn the cultural devastation that is taking place across Syria and Iraq, carried out by ISIS (but not them solely), but also to pause for a moment of reflection and anger that 11.5% of a people are believed to have been killed or wounded.

The Arch rose in Trafalgar Square, the same place where many stood #WithSyria on the third anniversary of the conflict in 2014. The atrocities of the regime were shouted about, the air strikes, the barrel bombs, the brutal crackdown, the refugees made homeless because of Assad. A regime which has exploited copious amounts of political capital from its ‘liberation’ of Palmyra from ISIS in March 2016. An opportunity was given for such a regime to demonstrate it values Syria’s heritage, it has always fought terrorism – both cultural and otherwise, and remains the lesser of two evils. Assad did not need a PR company as the Arch was unveiled, because it appeared to many to be another example of the refashioning of the ‘not so bad’ and ‘not as evil as ISIS’ Syrian regime, with Assad and the Russians increasingly being seen as the solution to ISIS.

Shows of solidarity with a glorious heritage in defiance of a brutal group such as ISIS, often come at the expense of those people affected by ISIS and Assad

The director of technology at Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archaeology, Alexy Karenowska - who is behind this project, said that the Syrian government had “no involvement whatsoever”. Of course, this was planned ahead of the regime’s recapture of Palmyra from ISIS (which the regime lost in the first place), but even then there were concerns that international publicity would guarantee its destruction. Surely it is telling that this is not a UNESCO backed project. Karenowska also said: "We do not take a political position of any kind nor is it our place to comment on political issues."

It is difficult to remove the politics from Palmyra, and other sites across Syria which have been sites of combat, destroyed, or have become homes for the displaced. You also cannot remove the politics when the director general of Syria's antiquities and Museums was also there. He may be a highly regarded apparatchik, but he still enforces the regime narrative. There was no mention that Palmyra had not been safe under the regime, and had been looted before and after the recapture, as have other historical sites across Syria.

We must not forget that Palmyra is not just a museum, it isn’t just monuments in Syria’s desert. It is a city that not only functions and has been the site of recent conflict, but a place that has long been synonymous of the brutality of both Bashar al-Assad and Hafez al-Assad’s regimes. ISIS’ capture of Palmyra in many ways became more infamous than the Tadmur prison at Palmyra. Thousands of political dissidents have been tortured and summarily executed inside these prison walls. In 1980, a bloody massacre took place inside Tadmur prison, with reports of 500-1000 people gunned down in a few minutes. No replica of the prison (also destroyed by ISIS) will be erected in Trafalgar Square, but replicas of the atrocities being carried out by the regime are still happening on a daily basis. One only has to look at one of the 53,275 photographs smuggled out by 'Caesar' to see the extensive evidence of the atrocities of this regime.

Listening to London Mayor’s Boris Johnson unveiling the Arch in Trafalgar Square was jarring. He said that this act was “in solidarity with the people of defiance of the barbarians who destroyed the original.” Jarring because only months before, after the Assad regime had recaptured Palmyra from ISIS, this potential future British Prime Minister had screamed 'bravo for Assad' after the 'liberation' of Palmyra from ISIS in a way that bore resemblance to George Galloway saluting Saddam Hussein. He also praised Putin’s "ruthless clarity". "Two digits to Daesh", he shouted as the replica arch was unveiled, with no mention of any regime involvement in a staggering death toll and swathes of displacement in Syria. In his Telegraph column, Johnson had also said that Assad was a “vile tyrant” who “barrel bombs his own people”, but still it is part of this framing of a conflict that is gradually allowing this regime to be let off the hook.

Assad did not need a PR company as the Arch was unveiled, because it appeared to many to be another example of the refashioning of the ‘not so bad’ and ‘not as evil as ISIS’ Syrian regime

The unveiling of the Arch of Triumph by Boris Johnson felt as much an attempt to display his Prime Ministerial credentials, as it was an act of “solidarity.” In a political climate in the UK which has become far more hostile towards refugees, foreign aid, and getting involved in foreign conflicts, it felt that Johnson was trying to gauge a public mood with his gesticulations towards 'barbarians' and crusade to defend Syria's culture and heritage, rather than its people. Like his position on the EU referendum, Palmyra has also become a piece of political theatre for Boris Johnson. Although Johnson has said before that we should welcome Syrian refugees, what has he done for Syrians as people? Did he welcome them as Londoners? For all of this, where are the resources given to the police tracking down looted artefacts from Syria and Iraq, which are actually sold to fund ISIS? Currently only three police officers in London are dedicated to tracking stolen antiquities. London being the second largest antiquities market in the world.

Criticising this focus on monuments over people is not a suggestion that those involved do not care about the suffering in Syria. Syria’s heritage is its past, present and most importantly its future. We have seen the destruction at Palmyra, the souks of Aleppo and Homs, Cracs des Chevalliers, and many more sites. The destruction of the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque would be akin to the dome of St Pauls Cathedral being blown off. In attempts to think globally about shared heritage, there is a risk that we condemn Syrians to an inevitability of suffering whilst we mourn their culture, without their presence. Worse than the destruction of Syria’s monuments, is that they will not be part of it. Palmyra’s destruction is our struggle in the way that barrel bomb devastation is not.  

Before the ISIS beheadings and executions at Palmyra, there were those Syrians who endured the atrocities of the regime there and are having to endure them again. I can't help but think this is a PR victory for this regime, who many are trying to refashion as the best option and lesser evil.

I wonder whether this is for Palmyra and for Syria, or something that in reality neglects all of that and quietly forgets the brutal realities of an atrocious regime that has so much blood and displacement on its hands; one which is surely basking in this display. An opportunity was there to both highlight the destruction and importance of Syria's heritage and the suffering of so many Syrians, yet it may just be seen as propagandistic grandstanding and a huge vanity project.

Joseph Willits works at Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding). In his role there he has led cross-party parliamentary delegations to Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine and has spoken in schools about Islamophobia, Arab and Muslim stereotypes, multiculturalism and the situation in Syria, as part of Caabu's education programme. Follow him on Twitter: @josephwillits

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.