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Localized Capacity Building for Protecting Syrian Cultural Heritage

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) reported last month that 290 Syrian cultural heritage sites have been damaged since fighting broke out in the country in 2011. International organizations can do little in response to this large-scale destruction of cultural heritage aside from remotely monitoring and documenting incidents of damage in anticipation of the end of the conflict. However, numerous initiatives to regularly document incidents of damage leave many wondering if varying reports will make streamlining the recovery process difficult. To mitigate this concern, two organizations hosted training courses in November 2014 for audiences of Syrian professionals, preparing them for immediate efforts and decisive post-conflict work.

On November 10, as part of its three-year Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage project, UNESCO hosted a five-day training course in Beirut, Lebanon, for police and customs officers from Syria and neighboring countries. The program taught strategies and tools that could be implemented immediately to reduce illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural properties. Workshops offered background on international and national legislation and restitution processes. The program devoted a day to teaching operational and investigative tools that police and customs officers can implement and a series of exercises designed to reinforce these strategies. At a planning meeting held prior to the course, program representatives from INTERPOL, the Syrian police, and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM), among others, planned for the implementation of an updated database of looted objects to be used by participants on an ongoing basis. Representatives expressed their intentions to meet again to train police and customs officials to use the database.

Another initiative, held during November 23-26 in Gaziantep, Turkey, was funded by the Dutch government and hosted by Heritage for Peace, in collaboration with the Syrian Interim Ministry of Cultural and Family Affairs. This workshop was designed to train ministry employees in damage assessment. Participants responded positively to the program, requesting an additional day of training. Participants were encouraged to pass their training on to their colleagues.

Later in the month, UNESCO collaborated with the ICCROM-ATHAR Regional Conservation Centre and the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage for “First Aid to Cultural Built Heritage in Syria,” a three-week training program designed to enhance internal technical capacities. The program ran from November 25 to December 11 and drew an audience of 22 conservation architects, engineers, archaeologists, and specialists from across Syria to the UNESCO office in Beirut. DGAM collaborated closely on the development of the program’s curriculum, specifying the most urgent needs for recovery at a national level. The first week of the program focused on providing context for first aid and emergency documentation, with the second moving on to project management and risk mitigation, preparedness, and outreach. The curriculum covered the concept of first aid to cultural heritage, processes for emergency documentation and damage assessment, and plans for temporary storage. Participants responded favorably to the program’s emphasis on team-building and management, which encouraged effective distribution of responsibilities. A representative from DGAM reported that creating local emergency response teams within Syrian cities is a more tangible goal with these strategies. An important outcome from the program was the development of a first-response team that will move on to train others in the field. Given the success of the course, additional programming has been scheduled for early 2015.

While the calendar year concluded with UNITAR’s grim and disheartening report, it also saw a wave of efforts to provide internal framework for Syrian agencies to operate efficiently when post-conflict work begins. Hopefully, capacity-building initiatives will continue in 2015 as Syrian professionals continue to report the positive effects these programs have had on their organizations in preparing for the future.