Afrin – Turkish-backed groups undertake live ammunition exercises in Iron Age temple
originally published by Syrians for Truth and Justice
On 20 September 2019, opposition news outlet “Nedaa’ Syria” published a video highlighting a live-fire training exercise undertaken by a special force’s unit of the National Front for Liberation (NLF). At just under three minutes long, the video shows fighters using small arms, including hand and rocket-propelled grenades, in their mock assault on a hilltop position. This hilltop happens to be the location of the ‘Ain Dara archaeological site in Afrin, containing a Syro-Hittite temple believed to date as far back as 1300 B.C.
The ‘Ain Dara site is located approximately five kilometers south of Afrin city, just east of the Afrin river. Excavated throughout the mid-to-late 20th century, the site is most notable for the well-preserved Iron Age temple that sits atop its 30m tall hill (known as ‘Tel ‘Ain Dara’).
This temple “is decorated with a series of basalt reliefs…carved in the highly distinctive Syro-Hittite style.” The rest of the hill includes other sites of excavation as well as a large basalt sculpture of a lion, discovered in 1955.
The temple itself appears to have been the mock objective in this NLF live-fire exercise. Beginning at 0:37 one can observe fighters located at a checkpoint to the northeast of the ‘Ain Dara temple, firing up at the hilltop.
From this angle both the safety railing encircling the archaeological site and a recently dug dirt road leading to the summit are visible. At 1:34, a group of fighters approach and scale the hill from the northwest. Between 2:12 and 2:36, NFL members can be seen approaching the back of the temple, both firing rounds and throwing grenades in the structure itself.
This is not the first time the ‘Ain Dara site has been damaged during the war. The temple, located over a kilometer away from the nearest settlement, was hit by an airstrike in January of 2018 during the first three days of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch.
An investigation conducted by ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives found that “explosions [had] heavily damaged the central and southeastern portions of the temple,” including some of its famed sculptures and reliefs. The same report implicated the Turkish Air Force in the attack and found that GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) were likely used, indicating “that the area of the temple was targeted directly.”
Tel ‘Ain Dara has also been the site of some recent construction activity. Since December of 2018, the archaeological excavation sites that covered the hilltop south of the temple appear to have been buried with a freshly moved layer of dirt.
Tracks from construction vehicles can be seen in satellite imagery throughout this time period, including on the aforementioned road carved into the hill’s northeastern face, dug between May 22 – 24 2019. On July 10th 2019, the Syrian Ministry of Culture accused Turkey of both stealing cultural artifacts from and using bulldozers to destroy archaeological sites in Afrin. This accusation was published along with three photos from ‘Ain Dara, allegedly showing such activity.
Two of these images show lion sculptures being measured; one of which, at over 330 centimeters long, is clearly the famous basalt lion statue once located on the hill’s southwestern side. While the sculpture had previously been standing upright on gravel, it can be seen here partially submerged in newly moved dirt.
Another picture, with an unidentified statue lying on its side in the foreground, shows a bulldozer moving earth on the hilltop. What has happened to these sculptures since the photos were taken is unknown.
The National Front for Liberation, formed May of 2018, is a Turkish-backed opposition coalition largely active in Idlib and consisting of multiple Islamist and FSA groups, including Faylaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Free Idlib Army. With its media almost entirely focused on fighting against the regime, the NFL does not advertise its presence in Afrin. However, Faylaq al-Sham was one of the most prominent factions involved in 2018’s Operation Olive Branch, primarily operating along the Afrin-Idlib border not far from ‘Ain Dara. Since this incident occurred, it was announced that the NLF would be merged into the ‘Syrian National Army,’ implying that these groups will be drawn under even closer Turkish supervision.
This incident is yet another example of wanton disregard Turkey and its allies have displayed towards local cultural heritage in Afrin, a pattern unlikely to cease with the ongoing Operation Peace Spring east of the Euphrates. Destruction of such heritage sites is considered a war crime by the International Criminal Court, and such acts have been condemned by the UN Security Council as recently as 2017. While it’s unclear what the aim of the ongoing construction project on Tel ‘Ain Dara is, the fact that Turkish-backed militant groups are using the Iron Age temple as training grounds is a worrying sign.
 “Live ammunition exercises for newly graduated FNL Special Forces fighters”, Nedaa’ Syria, September 20, 2019 (Last visit: November 11, 2019) https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=jKfmMgJg6cU.
 “Iconic Ancient Temple Is Latest Victim in Civil War”, National Geographic, January 30, 2018 (last visit: November 11, 2019) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/01/syria-temple-ain-dara-destroyed-archaeology/.
 “Special Report: Current Status of the Tell Ain Dara Temple ”, ASOR, March 7, 2018 (last visit: November 11, 2019) http://www.asor.org/chi/reports/special-reports/tell-ain-dara-temple.
“Special Report: Current Status of the Tell Ain Dara Temple ”, ASOR, March 7, 2018 (last visit: November 11, 2019) http://www.asor.org/chi/reports/special-reports/tell-ain-dara-temple.
 “Turkish Occupation Forces Use Heavy Bulldozers to Steal and Destroy Archaeological Sites In Afrin”, the Syrian Ministry of Culture, July 11, 2019 (last visit: November 11, 2019) http://moc.gov.sy/2019/07/11/%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%AF%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA/..
 “11 Groups Forming the National Liberation Front in Idlib”, Enab Baladi, May 5, 2018 (last visit: November 11, 2019) https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/231479.
 Syrian rebel groups merge as Turkish offensive looms”, Middle East Eye, October 4, 2019 (last visit: November 11, 2019) https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syria-opposition..
 Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi Case Information Sheet, the International Criminal Court, January 12, 2016 (last visit: November 11, 2019) https://www.icc-cpi.int/mali/al-mahdi.
 “Security Council Condemns Destruction, Smuggling of Cultural Heritage by Terrorist Groups, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2347 (2017)”, UN, March 24, 2017 (last visit: November 11, 2019) https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12764.doc.htm..