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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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