The US Senate voted on Wednesday to ban the import of virtually all ancient art and artifacts from Syria to discourage the looting and trafficking of illicit objects by the Islamic State and other armed groups.
The Senate voted by unanimous consent, reflecting broad bipartisan support, but it did so after months of delay and debate over the legislation, which the House of Representatives passed last year. The bill’s provisions would fulfill commitments the United States supported at the United Nations Security Council more than a year ago to try to choke off the trade of so-called blood antiquities that the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda and other groups use to help finance their military operations in Syria and Iraq.
The Senate’s action, which closed a loophole in American law, came on the day that a task force of prominent advocacy organizations, museums and universities called on the Obama administration to take far more aggressive steps — including military operations — to halt the destruction and looting of cultural sites in Iraq and Syria.
In addition to calling on Congress to pass the legislation the Senate voted on, the task force’s report, titled “#CultureUnderThreat,” urged the White House to appoint a senior director to coordinate the government’s actions against blood antiquities and to increase resources for stricter enforcements by customs officials, the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service.
“The U.S. response to cultural racketeering is currently decentralized and implemented on an ad hoc basis, with several agencies involved but no single agency coordinating the efforts,” the report said.
It went on to lament the slowness of enacting provisions that the United Nations Security Council had called for in February 2015. “The lack of action has kept the United States market open to the import of Syrian antiquities, making it a potential source of funding for extremist organizations,” the report said.
The report was coordinated by the Antiquities Coalition, the Asia Society and the Middle East Institute and it reflected broad frustration at the inability of the United States and other governments around the world to stanch the rapacious looting that has occurred since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
The rise of the Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq has exposed dozens of ancient sites to destruction and looting. Although only some looted objects have surfaced so far — most have been seized by customs officials — experts say they believe that many have already made their way to markets in Europe and beyond using well-established criminal trafficking routes.
Russia’s representative at the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, last month singled out the trafficking of objects through Turkey, whose relations with Moscow have been badly strained by Russia’s intervention in Syria. In a letter to the Security Council, Mr. Churkin cited specific companies, shops and websites in Turkey used by smugglers to get items from Syria’s war zones onto the world’s markets.