The humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in Syria also has a deep cultural dimension. From the beginning of the conflict, rebels have taken refuge in strategic places, including ancient hilltop citadels, and the Syrian army has not hesitated to fire on them. World famous sites including the Roman city of Apamea, the medieval town of Shayzar, and the fortified castle of Crac de Chevalier have all sustained damage from military action. The historic center of Aleppo has been heavily shelled and bombed, and the medieval iron doors of the Aleppo Citadel were blown away by tank fire so that the army could occupy this valuable strategic objective.
In times of conflict, traditional ways of protecting cultural sites and resources break down. Cultural authorities have no access to the museums and monuments they are responsible for, and armed forces rarely attempt to protect or even respect cultural sites. Even the signs posted to identify and shield cultural sites from conflict have been known to transform them into flashpoints of culturally motivated violence.
The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict was developed in the aftermath of the massive destruction of World War II to prevent future losses of cultural heritage in wartime situations. It calls on all nations to designate and protect heritage properties from conflict. But in the Cold War era, when the risk of nuclear conflict often seemed imminent, military officials in Western countries were skeptical about whether they could do much to uphold the Hague Convention standards. The U.S. ratified the convention only in 2009. There have been few instances where the Hague Convention has been evoked successfully to protect cultural heritage. Rather, examples of intentional or gratuitous damage have been far more numerous -- from the bombing of the Mostar Bridge and destruction of Vukovar in the Balkan war of the 90s, to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.
In recent decades, Syria has been the site of vigorous internationally sponsored preservation efforts. In 1972, the Newark Museum set a world precedent by returning to Syria a mosaic that was discovered to have been stolen from Apamea. Shayzar Castle and Aleppo Citadel have been the beneficiaries of a long-term joint preservation partnership among the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the World Monuments Fund, and the Syrian government. Coinciding with this work was the exciting discovery in the late 1990s, by a German-Syrian archaeological team, of the 5,000-year-old Temple of the Storm God, containing a magnificent monumental frieze from the time of the Hittites, within the Aleppo Citadel. Conservation of this temple was well underway when work was forced to stop last year. The site was covered hastily with sandbags, but damage to the temple, should it occur, would be irreversible. As things stand today, anything could happen.
The international community must do more to address the issue of protecting cultural patrimony during conflicts. Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate. The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army's famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II.
Although Syria ratified the Hague Convention in 1958, there are no procedures in place to protect its heritage. The survival or loss of key monuments remains a matter of chance.
With the escalating human toll, the survival of monuments may seem to be an extraneous issue. Yet cultural heritage is a mainstay of life, a spiritual and an economic asset now and in the future. Every country needs such touchstones; yet no country seems to be prepared or able to protect them in times of conflict. When the dust settles, we need to focus on how such losses could be prevented in the future.