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Geopolitics

Snapshot Of A Syrian Smuggler: Arms, Antiquities And Jihad Along Turkey's Border

As war has made regular work scarce, Ayham has trafficked in anything that has a buyer. But lately he says the face of the black market has started to change.

Earlier this year, near the Qah refugee camp in Syria, four miles from the Turkish border
Earlier this year, near the Qah refugee camp in Syria, four miles from the Turkish border
Boris Mabillard

On his cell phone, Ayham shows pictures of the archaeological treasures: a gold Byzantine cross, a statue of Alexander the Great, and another one of the Virgin Mary. Are these objects really priceless wonders, dug up by Syrian tomb raiders to be sold on the black market in Turkey?

“These are pale copies,” declares a rich merchant from Istanbul who’d come to the Syrian border to do business.

With a trace of anger, Ayham snaps back: “I know the man who found these objects, and I trust him.” But the antique dealer remains unconvinced, and leaves.

Ayham has plenty of experience in trafficking along the Turkish-Syrian border. Before smuggling archaeological objects, he was involved in the traffic of guns, oil, cigarettes and even flour. He also smuggled people, helping refugees to cross the border into Turkey, and foreign jihadists into Syria.

He had formed a crew with two associates, but it all ended when his friend Ahmed took off with their money. “We had managed to gather $15,000, but we got robbed by armed bandits,” Ayham explains, recalling how Ahmed then ran off with the rest of the savings, returning to his home in the Syrian port city of Latakia.

And now it is impossible for Ayham to return to Latakia, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime still holds absolute control. “They have been looking for me since the beginning of the revolt,” he says, gazing off at the sky. “If I try to cross a checkpoint, I’ll get arrested.”

Arms and cigarette trafficking brought Ayham much of his money. “Most of the weapons were sold by corrupt army officers,” he says. “I used to carry them wherever there were people who would buy them. But for the past six months, the jihadists took control of the traffic and imposed their laws. Small traffickers aren’t safe anymore.”

Blind eyes

Ayham doesn’t feel bad about looting archaeological sites. “Everybody does it. The basement of every katiba (military camp) is searched. Plus, a lot of sites have not yet been dug up. You just need to search in the right place, and you can find statues, pots and coins.” He notes that Turkish customs officials are very strict if antiquities are carried out of Turkey, but they turn a blind eye on Syrian objects smuggled into their country.

Indeed, word has spread that smuggling antiquities is the route to easy money these days. But Ayham is not a professional in the field, and is ready to believe that every old and shiny object is made of gold. So as potential buyers and sellers pass, he keeps throwing out different numbers. He asks a thousand dollars for the statues, and millions for the cross.

“What can I do to survive? It has become impossible to do legal business in Syria if you are not part of an armed group,” he explains. “In Turkey, the big dealers are making money, but they also leave some for small traffickers like me.”

Ayham’s real passion in life, it turns out, is women’s clothing. He studied fashion design, and holds on to his lifelong dream of designing a line of dresses.

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Ideas

Joshimath, The Sinking Indian City Has Also Become A Hotbed Of Government Censorship

The Indian authorities' decision to hide factual reports on the land subsidence in Joshimath only furthers a sense of paranoia.

Photo of people standing next to a cracked road in Joshimath, India

Cracked road in Joshimath

@IndianCongressO via Twitter
Rohan Banerjee*

MUMBAI — Midway through the movie Don’t Look Up (2021), the outspoken PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is bundled into a car, a bag over her head. The White House, we are told, wants her “off the grid”. She is taken to a warehouse – the sort of place where CIA and FBI agents seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in Hollywood movies – and charged with violating national security secrets.

The Hobson’s choice offered to her is to either face prosecution or suspend “all public media appearances and incendiary language relating to Comet Dibiasky”, an interstellar object on a collision course with earth. Exasperated, she acquiesces to the gag order.

Don’t Look Upis a satirical take on the collective apathy towards climate change; only, the slow burn of fossil fuel is replaced by the more imminent threat of a comet crashing into our planet. As a couple of scientists try to warn humanity about its potential extinction, they discover a media, an administration, and indeed, a society that is not just unwilling to face the truth but would even deny it.

This premise and the caricatured characters border on the farcical, with plot devices designed to produce absurd scenarios that would be inconceivable in the real world we inhabit. After all, would any government dealing with a natural disaster, issue an edict prohibiting researchers and scientists from talking about the event? Surely not. Right?

On January 11, the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), one of the centers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), issued a preliminary report on the land subsidence issue occurring in Joshimath, the mountainside city in the Himalayas.

The word ‘subsidence’ entered the public lexicon at the turn of the year as disturbing images of cracked roads and tilted buildings began to emanate from Joshimath.

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