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Two holes in the Rafiqah Wall: Examining the effects of combat on a heritage site through the prisms

By Edward Salo, PhD


While recent conflicts in the Middle East have renewed focus on the protection of the cultural heritage during combat, heritage sites and artifacts cannot always be protected as we wish. Sometimes the opposing forces do not respect the value of a heritage site and either damages them, or uses the sites for military purposes such as part of a defensive fortification. If we cannot protect the heritage site as dictated in our doctrine or international treaties, what can we do?


The liberation of Raqqa, Syria, by Coalition forces in 2017 provides an excellent example of that situation. During the operation to liberate the city, ISIL’s defense strategy resulted in the use and damage of the Rafiqah Wall, a seventh-century wall designed to protect the garrison of the al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, who helped found Baghdad. The garrison site sat on the road between Damascus and Baghdad. Rafiqah Wall was an important site for the heritage of the nation. Amr Al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquity official, stated that, “The wall and the gate are major surviving monuments dating back to [Raqqa's] great's Islamic past.”[1]


This article will examine the issues related to the Rafiqah Wall in Raqqa through the prisms of irregular warfare, urban warfare, and civil affairs, and post-conflict stabilization. Even though the wall had known heritage value, ISIL did not protect the wall during the initial invasion. In fact, soon after their occupation started, the group threatened the wall with destruction if the town was attacked thus using it as a shield. During 2017 military operations, US-led Coalition forces had to decide the proper way to handle the ISIL defensive positions within the wall, and if the Coalition forces had to damage the wall. Finally, after the liberation of the city, local groups began to repair and restore the wall, illustrating the opportunities for Civil Affairs units to assist in stabilization activities through restoration of a heritage site.


In January 2014, ISIL forces captured the city of Raqqa, Syria, after the city was first taken by Anti-Assad forces in March 2013. During the initial conquest of Raqqa in March 2013, the Rafiqah Wall was bombed and the American Society of Overseas Research (APSA) reported that “locals picked through the earthen rampart looking for artifacts.” [2] It is not certain what happened to those artifacts, but the APSA report indicated during the initial combat operations, neither side appeared to consider the effects of their military operations on the heritage site. Furthermore, we know that many of the looted artifacts in Syria did make it to the Black Market and were sold to support ISIL activities. It can be assumed that might have been the fate of some of these artifacts.


A review of later satellite images indicated that there was damage along the eastern part of Rafiqah Wall that occurred between April and October 2013 in response to continued fighting in the city. Furthermore, by September 2015 and ISIL’s complete occupation of the city, the portion of the Rafiqah Wall “located directly across the street from the Bab Harran was completely destroyed.”[3] These reports show that the Assad forces, ISIL, nor other Anti-Assad forces seemed to abide by the international treaties on the protection of cultural heritage in time of war, even though the government of Syria was a signature of the Hague Convention of 1950. Mubaraz Ahmed contends that ISIL destroyed heritage sites not as part of its religious ideology, but “Revered historic buildings and monuments that point to the glories of past civilizations are an ideological threat to the caliphate that ISIS believes surpasses them all.”[4] Furthermore, the destruction of the sites caused media coverage, and of course ISIL could make money off the artifacts. Using the definition of Irregular Warfare as “violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s).”[5] Not protecting the Wall during the initial invasion fit into ISIL’s mission of winning influence and legitimacy over the population by not protecting the ancient artifact, thus indicating that it was not as important as previously thought.


In addition to actual damage to the site during military operations, ISIL used threats of additional damage as part of their irregular warfare campaign. ISIL photographed the Rafiqah Wall and other historic monuments and sites in Raqqa and posted them to social media on March 22, 2015, in what appeared to be a threat to these sites.[6] The next month, APSA indicated that ISIL had demolished sections of the wall to widen the Muzaffar Ali street to allow more and larger vehicles “loaded with weapons coming and going from Iraq” to enter the city.[7]


In 2014, to monitor the destruction of the Rafiqah Wall and other heritage sites in ISIL controlled areas, the US Department of State negotiated an agreement with the American Society Of Overseas Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR-CHI) to document, protect, and preserve the cultural heritage of war-torn Syria, northern Iraq, and Libya. The ASOR-CHI project produced reports to help identify, and document cultural heritage that had been damaged in the conflict, and to help ensure that future operations conducted minimal harm to them.[8] This teaming with an already established network of experts provided critical intelligence on what were the heritage sites on the battlefield, and just as important, what had already occurred to the sites so that experts would have an understanding of what they were facing in managing the resources once they were liberated.


While ISIL did not protect the wall from damage, they did use it for its historic purpose, as a defensive fortification to slow Coalition advances. During 2017 military operations to liberate Raqqa, the US Army Central Command (CENTCOM) described in a briefing that the Rafiqah Wall was an ISIL combat position and ISIL had planted mines and improvised explosive devices in the wall to slow any Coalition advance. During its period of occupation of Raqqa, ISIL had vandalized and targeted the Rafiqah Wall and other heritage sites as ways of attacking the morale of the citizens and to impose their twisted view of Islam on the populace.[9]


While the Rafiqah Wall was a heritage site, Coalition planners knew it was used as a defensive post, and the planners had to decide the best way to address the wall while planning operations. In June 2017, American-led forces decided the best way to handle fortification of the Rafiqah Wall was to conduct airstrikes to open two 25-meter corridors through the wall which would be wide enough to allow Coalition forces to enter the inner-city of Raqqa and continue the assault. US military spokesman stated that, “Unlike ISIS who deliberately destroyed the ruins of Palmyra and the Al-Nuri mosque and uses sites such as the Rafiqah Wall, hospitals, schools and mosques as weapons storage facilities and fighting positions, Coalition forces are making a great effort to protect civilians and preserve these sites for future generations.”[10]


ISIL’s use of the Rafiqah Wall, a protected heritage site, as a defensive position and the Coalition’s decision to attack the Wall as part of larger combat operations, highlight one of the major dilemmas in modern urban warfare in ancient cities. While Coalition forces attempt to follow the many international treaties that protect cultural heritage in times of conflict, they were fighting a group that were not party to those agreements. ISIL and other non-governmental groups are not parties to these treaties and do not follow the rules for protecting heritage agreed on by the rest of the world. Coalition planners attempted to create the smallest breaches in the wall that would still serve the tactical needs of the military. Furthermore, going through the wall allowed the Coalition forces to avoid mine fields set up in other avenues of approach, as well as making “coalition forces less vulnerable to vehicle suicide bombs and sniper fire than at other locations.”[11]


Moreover, while ISIL’s decision to use the historic wall as part of their defensive network might have been tactically sound, that decision did not fit the norms of modern warfare. The dilemma faced by the Coalition forces was the question of whether or not the destruction of parts of the walls would speed up the military campaign and lessen causalities, which was the same type of question asked by American forces during several campaigns during World War II. Still, destruction of the Rafiqah Wall by Coalition forces would feed ISIL’s narrative that Western forces were destroying Islamic heritage and culture, even though it was really ISIL’s doing. Allied forces decided the destruction of two small portions of the wall to aid in their campaign was “The most humane way to save the people of Raqqah is to swiftly and decisively defeat ISIS.” [12]


Soon after the end of combat operations in Raqqa, private groups began to clean up the area around the wall. The first Syria group was Oxygen Shabab, focused on the restoration of educational and health services, but also worked on repairing holes in the wall. One of the Raqqa residents working on the wall was Bashar al-Naif, who described the wall as “vital to the city’s collective memory and identity,” because “The wall was a special place, a space for families.”[13] Another group, Vision for Humanitarian Action, that also worked to restore the heritage sites of Raqqa, as well as its infrastructure, described the importance of the heritage sites to the city: “These monuments are more than just stone,” the VHA member told Syria Direct. “They are the history of Raqqa, the simplicity and beauty of its past. Its present ruin is a challenge, and this reconstruction is [part of] building a new future.”[14]


For post-conflict stabilization and Civil Affairs missions, the restoration of the Rafiqah Wall could be used for several purposes. First, it is a perfect project to provide jobs for unemployed citizens who need a job to provide for their families. Second, restoration of the wall needs to be accomplished with the supervision of experts on ancient construction to ensure that the Rafiqah Wall is restored properly. This will be an opportunity to engage local nationals who are experts in the archaeology and the building techniques of the area, again providing employment for them. Likewise, the people working on the project will learn local or ancient building techniques that will make them skilled for future restoration projects or archaeological digs in the area.


Finally, the project will bring pride to the citizens of the area as they will have restored an important heritage monument that had been damaged. The civic pride will be from the citizens doing the majority of the work. In addition to being an important civic structure, the restored heritage monument may also serve as a beacon for heritage tourism to the city thus bringing in commerce from outside the city limits.


In a perfect world, the Rafiqah Wall would not have been damaged by ISIL in 2013 during the initial conquest of Raqqa. ISIL would not have carved up to enlarge a road by ISIL or placed mines and IEDs to slow the advance of Coalition forces. But they did, and in a perfect world, Coalition forces would not have had to breach the wall as part of the urban assault on Raqqa to liberate the city. But it is not a perfect world. For this example we can learn several lessons:


  • Groups (governmental or non-governmental) may not care about damaging cultural heritage during military operations. We need to know that not everyone will play by the rules.

  • The US military and government agencies need to work with outside experts to identify cultural heritage in potential battlefields and to work with them to gain intelligence on the level of damage to that cultural heritage from previous combat.

  • When the military leadership decides that military operations have to damage cultural heritage, then it should be minimal, and that decision should be disseminated to the public and any interested parties so they understand the decision-making process.

  • Finally, the US Army should utilize Civil Affairs units and experts, and relevant civilian NGOs to turn the restoration of damaged cultural heritage sites into work projects that can provide jobs to unemployed citizens, as well as bring back sites of civic pride to the community.


About the Author


Edward Salo, PhD is an associate professor of history, and the associate director of the Heritage Studies PhD Program at Arkansas State University. He serves as the instructor for the Military History class for the university’s ROTC program. Before coming to A-State, Dr. Salo served as a consulting historian for cultural resources management firms for 14 years where he worked on over 250 projects across the world including an administrative history of the Corps of Engineers efforts to dispose of Iraqi munitions after the 2003 invasion, the preparation of histories of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine installations across the globe including Japan, Cuba, and Guam, and the preparation of a document to support JPAC operations in the Hurtgen Forest to identify the location of the remains of MIA soldiers from the 28th Infantry Division.





End Notes

[1] “In Syria's Raqqa, Old City Wall A Testament To Glorious Days.” 2017. Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/world/in-syrias-raqqa-old-city-wall-a-testament-to-glorious-days. [2] “CHI - Weekly Report Report 38 — April 27, 2015 - American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR).” 2021. American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR). https://www.asor.org/chi/reports/weekly-monthly/2015/38. [3] “CHI - Weekly Report 59–60 — September 16–29, 2015 - American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR).” 2021. American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR). https://www.asor.org/chi/reports/weekly-monthly/2015/59-60. [4] Mubaraz Ahmed, “Why Does ISIS Destroy Historic Sites?.” 2015. Tony Blair Faith Foundation. https://web.archive.org/web/20151006100612/http://tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/religion-geopolitics/commentaries/opinion/why-does-isis-destroy-historic-sites. [5] Joint Publication 1 (JP 1) Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States. (Department of Defense, The Pentagon, 2013), I-6. [6] “CHI - Weekly Report Report 38 — April 27, 2015 - American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR).” 2021. American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR). https://www.asor.org/chi/reports/weekly-monthly/2015/38. [7] “CHI - Weekly Report Report 38 — April 27, 2015 - American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR).” 2021. American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR). https://www.asor.org/chi/reports/weekly-monthly/2015/38. [8] “CULTURAL HERITAGE INITIATIVES - American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR).” 2021. American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR). https://www.asor.org/chi. [9] “CHI - UPDATE - Damage To Al-Rafiqah Wall In Raqqa’s Old City By US-Led Coalition Forces - American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR).” 2021. American Society Of Overseas Research (ASOR). https://www.asor.org/chi/announcements/updates/Damage-to-al-Rafiqah-Wall-in-Raqqa%E2%80%99s-Old-City-by-US-led-Coalition-Forces/. [10] “US-Backed Forces In Syria Breach Raqqa’s Old City Wall.” 2021. Aljazeera.Com. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/7/4/us-backed-sdf-breaches-raqqas-old-city-wall. [11] “U.S.-Backed Forces In Syria Fighting ISIS Have Broken Through Into The Old City Of Raqqa.” 2017. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/isis-syria-us-backed-forces-breach-raqqa-old-city-wall-631478. [12] “US-Backed Forces In Syria Breach Raqqa’s Old City Wall.” 2021. Aljazeera.Com. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/7/4/us-backed-sdf-breaches-raqqas-old-city-wall. [13] “In A City Buried By Rubble, Raqqa Residents Work To Restore ‘Life’ To Ancient Heritage Sites - Syria Direct.” 2018. Syria Direct. https://syriadirect.org/in-a-city-buried-by-rubble-raqqa-residents-work-to-restore-life-to-ancient-heritage-sites/. [14] “In A City Buried By Rubble, Raqqa Residents Work To Restore ‘Life’ To Ancient Heritage Sites - Syria Direct.” 2018. Syria Direct. https://syriadirect.org/in-a-city-buried-by-rubble-raqqa-residents-work-to-restore-life-to-ancient-heritage-sites/.

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