Book review: War of All Against All

Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria by Nikolaos Van Dam, I.B. Tauris, 242 pp., $15.95

In Arab mythology, the al-Sada bird, or death owl, emerges from the body of a murdered man and shrieks until someone takes revenge. “Today there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of al-Sada birds crying out for revenge all over Syrian skies,” writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh in “The Destiny of the Syrian Revolution,” one of ten essays in his collection The Impossible Revolution. Extreme violence, including the incarceration and torture of teenagers, characterized the Syrian regime’s response to the street protests that erupted in 2011. As the uprising morphed into civil war, rebels also jailed their enemies, adopting methods of abuse and killing they had learned in the regime’s prisons. Malevolent spirits, or jinn, hover. Nearly half a million Syrians are believed to have lost their lives in six years of conflict.

Saleh, one of the country’s best-known dissident intellectuals, now lives in Berlin and has battled to distance himself from the ghouls who haunt Syria’s ruined cities. “Where is cool-headed, clear thinking to be found, in a world of al-Sada, jinn, and ghosts?” he asks. One might say it is to be found in the pages of his book, where he examines the origins of the violence, delves into the ideology of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled the country since 1963, methodically dissects the phases of the revolution, and charts the lurch into sectarianism. Only in the introduction does he write about his own life, which is a shame, because his experience helps us understand why the revolution in Syria failed.

Born in Syria’s sixth-largest city, Raqqa, in 1961, Saleh joined the Syrian Communist Party while studying in Aleppo. Arrested for opposing President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, he spent sixteen years in prison. Four years after his release in 1996, he met and married Samira al-Khalil, another former political prisoner. She shared his passion for political change; the revolution enabled the couple to live out their beliefs.

Saleh wrote the first of these essays in March 2011, while participating in street protests, and later ones while on the run. Saleh and al-Khalil spent several months in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, working with the human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, the founder of the Violations Documentation Center, which chronicled abuses committed by all sides. Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish money started to come in for certain rebel groups, including Salafi jihadists whose violent religiosity had previously been almost unknown in Syria. Saleh thought about a saying attributed to Ho Chi Minh: “If you want to destroy a revolution, shower it with money!” Al-Khalil got on with practical work, founding two women’s centers in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Saleh fled to Turkey in October 2013, hoping that al-Khalil would soon join him, but on December 9, 2013, she was abducted along with Zaitouneh and two male colleagues. A rebel group, Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), was accused of “disappearing” them. For those Syrians who had hoped their uprising would dislodge the government of Bashar al-Assad without delivering them into the hands of jihadists, it was a fateful moment. “It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs,” Saleh writes. “What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.”

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the regime’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all. The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story. How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless we hear the shriek of the al-Sada bird and consider in more depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

In July of this year, Saleh published the first of a series of moving letters to his missing wife on the website of the al-Jumhuriya Collective, a group of Syrian writers and researchers. If these letters had been integrated into the broader analysis of Saleh’s book, it might have had a wider appeal. It might even have been able to convince leftist thinkers in Britain and the US that the uprising was not simply a Western plot to overthrow an anti-imperialist government, as many believe. The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

“The Destiny of the Syrian Revolution” was written in Saleh’s hometown of Raqqa in September 2013, when it was held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a largely secular militia founded by soldiers who had defected from the regime. Fighters of the Islamic State, the most extreme of the 1,500 or so increasingly religious rebel groups by then operating in the country, were already circling the city. In July 2014 they took control, imposing a brutal, arbitrary form of Islamic rule and forcing citizens to watch crucifixions, lashings, and beheadings. “Militant nihilism,” says Saleh, was the logical outcome of the violence, torture, and terror used to put down the revolution.

As the country fragmented, Saleh listed his homeland’s growing number of identities: Assad’s Syria, Insurgent Syria, Salafist Syria, Kurdish Syria, each controlled by “warlords or armed feudal masters.” As the war continued, think tanks and newspapers produced maps like jigsaw puzzles—but every time you try to assemble the pieces, they change size or shape. On several visits to Syria since 2013, I have noticed what the maps don’t show: the threads that bind the country together, all of which lead back to Damascus.

The Syrian government has continued to pay salaries, even to civil servants in rebel-held territory. Until last year buses still ran between the Syrian capital and ISIS-held Raqqa; at the Damascus terminus in October 2015, I met an elderly woman with pale Bedouin tattoos on her face who told me she had come to Damascus to get her pension, evading an Islamic State edict forbidding government money as irreligious. A friendly doctor in Raqqa had given her a certificate saying she needed to travel for medical treatment. The bus drivers were heroes, calling out to passengers to tell them who controlled the next checkpoint, so that women who had left Raqqa in full burqa and gloves knew when they could relax and let their faces show and when they had to cover up on the way back.

On occasion the drivers would argue with militants threatening to drag people off the bus for having cigarettes. “Sometimes you can ask them for mercy,” said a driver who had boned up on his religious knowledge so that he could do his job better. “Once I quoted the Koran at them.” On a recent visit to Qamishli, which is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), I noticed bedraggled banners across the road advertising a Saudi bank. Its branches, I learned, closed down years ago. The only financial institution that functions is the Central Bank of Syria, based in Damascus.

In mid-October of this year, ISIS was defeated in Raqqa by a predominantly Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In September I had gone with a TV team to see what remained of the city the jihadists had declared the capital of their caliphate. Entering from the east, we passed through an avenue of trees casting shadows across the baking hot desert road, like the entrance to one of those small French towns where, according to legend, Napoleon insisted poplars should be planted so his troops could march in the shade. The men of the Islamic State did not march down the road when they seized Raqqa, but infiltrated gradually until they could oust the FSA and its councils, which many residents had complained were corrupt.

Three years on, as they fought for their lives, they descended into a network of tunnels. A Kurdish fighter took us to the Science Faculty of Raqqa University and showed us the neat, square entrance to a tunnel that the jihadists had drilled down from what had once been a classroom. The problem, he explained, was that as SDF fighters gradually advanced, building by building, ISIS militants would vanish into their netherworld and pop up behind the advancing unit. It was a low-tech, grueling guerrilla war. Young fighters lived for weeks in abandoned buildings stinking of rotten food and excrement, venturing out on patrol armed only with Kalashnikovs and improvised grenades, knowing that the jihadists could attack them at any time from any direction.

On the horizon, plumes of smoke rose from air strikes launched by American warplanes. At a villa that had been converted into a command headquarters, we caught sight of US Special Forces, who quickly disappeared around a corner when they saw the camera. Even though the American and British public fear ISIS and want it defeated, foreign intervention has a bad name these days, so the ground war is theoretically covert and has not been put to any parliamentary or congressional vote. Ask a minister in London about British Special Forces, whom we also saw in the area, and you get a standard “no comment.”

As we drove further into Raqqa, it was hard to find a building that had not been destroyed by air strikes, artillery, and close combat. Jagged pale concrete shells of what had once been apartment blocks and shops were crumbling into streets of rubble. According to the United Nations, some 20,000 people were being held as human shields by ISIS, but we saw no sign of civilians. Half a mile from the front line, we got out of the fighters’ jeep and picked our way along the street, treading carefully for fear of booby traps left by the jihadists. The only sound was our footsteps crunching through the debris. Ghosts and jinn hung silently in the air.

Not everyone fleeing the battle zone was grateful to their supposed liberators. In a village on the outskirts, we met several families who had loaded sheep into the lower deck of their trucks, piled belongings and children onto the top, and were heading out of town. One man, who didn’t want to give his name, said that living under ISIS hadn’t been too bad, but the American air strike that killed one of his four wives had been the final straw. Pressed about the restrictions imposed by the militants, he said, “They don’t hurt people. It’s just that women must wear the full veil including gloves and we have to dress the kids in traditional Arab clothes.”

One of his surviving wives, who also didn’t want to give her name, had a different point of view. “We couldn’t go outside our homes—if we did then the religious police would come,” she told me, out of earshot of her husband. “We were always afraid, and there was no let-up. If they caught you it was terrible. These were their rules.” Her face was covered by a scarf in the traditional tribal way, revealing only her eyes, but she was wearing a long purple-patterned dress that would undoubtedly have incurred the wrath of the jihadists, who insist on black. An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.

On the other side of town, a group of middle-aged men were sitting on a carpet they had laid on the pavement outside a shop, drinking tea and smoking. Initially happy to chat, once we got out the camera they demurred, presumably for fear of attracting spies who might report back to any ISIS loyalists still lurking in the neighborhood. A skinny middle-aged man in a bright blue soccer shirt and shorts stepped forward. Ibrahim Salah al-Haji didn’t care who heard his opinion. First he had lost the sight in one eye, pierced by shrapnel when an ISIS bomb factory blew up by accident behind the workshop where he mended cars. Then one of the hisba—the religious police—had caught sight of his niece in the doorway of her home. “She was wearing red, so they arrested my brother-in-law, fined him, insulted and beat him, and made him work for free at the municipality for a week,” he told me. The fine had been the equivalent of $30. “They were foreigners, but we don’t know from where,” he said. “They returned to their countries after taking our money and forcing us from our homes. There’s nothing left in Raqqa now.”

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian women and children on the western front after fleeing the center of Raqqa, October 12, 2017

Syria was not the cradle of the Islamic State, but the revolution created a vacuum into which the militants stepped to impose their experiment in living. Their propaganda films show the glory of martyrdom for Allah, set to a soundtrack of heroic Koranic chanting, but reality is more banal: last year, a few days after Syrian government forces drove ISIS out of Qaryatayn, a largely Christian village near Homs, in the ruins of a desecrated monastery I found a notebook detailing payments to fighters, including a record of who had been on leave, extra money allocated to those with disabled relatives, a log of loan repayments, and a note about a fighter who had missed his wedding because he was with the tank division at the time.

Tadmur, the modern town adjacent to the ancient site of Palmyra, which had also been occupied by ISIS, was destroyed by Syrian regime and Russian bombing. Among the black flags and religious slogans was a sign reading “Department of Human Resources.” In the rubble, I found advertisements for administrative jobs: ISIS had needed people skilled in Excel, Word, and Photoshop for their printing department. They replicated the most unlikely bureaucratic structures—in The Caliphate at War, Ahmed S. Hashim notes that an early attempt at government included the creation of a Ministry of Fisheries.

Pulling together speeches, other documents, and firsthand journalistic accounts, Hashim describes in detail the genesis of the group in Iraq, including the rift between the upstart caliphate and al-Qaeda, the first global jihadist movement. He traces much of the new, more extreme ideology back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the “sheikh of slaughterers,” who led al-Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed by a US air strike in 2006. A Sunni Arab chauvinist, Zarqawi was more interested in killing Iraqi Shias than those Osama bin Laden used to call “the far enemy,” the Americans. In the end, the split between the two groups was less about ideology and more about territory and power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, refused to obey an edict from the al-Qaeda high command demanding that he confine himself to Iraq. He claimed that, on principle, he would not recognize the Sykes-Picot line, the colonial boundary between Syria and Iraq imposed by the British and French in 1916. In fact, he accurately assessed the weakness of the forces ranged against him and realized that no one could stop him from declaring himself caliph of the entire region.

As a former “politico-military” adviser to US forces, Hashim has expertise in Iraq, not Syria, and he has little new to say about what it was like to live under ISIS in either country. He does, however, assemble interesting statistics on how they governed. In 2015, according to The Economist, the GDP of the Islamic State reached $6 billion, more than several Caribbean island states and small African countries. Income streams included kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion, taxation, confiscation of property as punishment, sales of antiquities, and sales of oil and gas. Contrary to widespread belief, donations from wealthy Gulf Arabs accounted for a very small part of ISIS financing. The move into Syria enabled it to seize oil fields around Deir Ezzor and Hasakah. Once Western governments realized that the best way to undermine ISIS was to disrupt the market for smuggled oil while launching air strikes on the oil fields it controlled, the days of jihadist government were numbered.

The Western focus on ousting ISIS rather than the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been the cause of much bitterness among Syrian activists. They understand that, unlike the Assad government, the jihadists with their anti-Western ideology are a threat to Europe and the US, but the regime and its allies have killed far more Syrians, and activists resent the way their hopes were lifted and then dashed. “The problem is not that the world did nothing,” says one of Wendy Pearlman’s sources in We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled. “It’s that they told us, ‘Rise Up! We are with you. Revolt!’… People were encouraged to stand by the revolution because they thought they had international supporters.” The book comprises interview fragments untethered to narrative, so although many of the testimonies are moving, it reads like raw material or the transcript of a podcast.

Analysis of the betrayal is left to Nikolaos Van Dam, a former Dutch special envoy to Syria and a regular visitor since 1964. When the American and French ambassadors attended an opposition rally in Hama in July 2011, “their visits…created false hopes among the opposition that essential Western support was forthcoming—and in the end it was not,” he writes in Destroying a Nation. Western policy, he believes, has been based largely on wishful thinking, the hope that the “politics of outrage and indignation” would somehow defeat a regime that believed it would be swept away by history if it caved in to any demands from the street.

The wishful thinking can be traced back to 2000, when Bashar al-Assad, then aged thirty-four, succeeded his father as president. British politicians congratulated themselves that eighteen months studying ophthalmology in London must have planted the seeds of democratic thought in his mind. (They made the same mistake with Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who convinced then prime minister Tony Blair to help him with his London School of Economics doctoral thesis, while he studied the city’s nightclubs and visited his pet white tigers in Vienna’s Schönbrunn zoo.) The new president duly opened up the Syrian economy, enriching the elite surrounding him, but he suppressed dissent after a yearlong flirtation with free speech.

When Syrians took to the streets in 2011, the tall, gawky young man with the beautiful, sophisticated wife turned out to be as ruthless as his father, unafraid to ramp up sectarian hatred to maintain the dominance of his family and their minority Alawite sect. Western governments were left with a dilemma: supporting the status quo would mean shoring up a dictatorship and endorsing brutality, but intervening militarily was unpopular with their electorates, especially after the air campaign in Libya that had overthrown Qaddafi only led to anarchy. Instead, they praised the protesters while refusing to provide military aid to the rebels, encouraging Syrians to overthrow the regime while denying them the means to make it happen. “While they may have cleared their ‘political conscience’ by expressing support for the opposition, they were, in reality, unintentionally contributing to prolonging the war and helping [Assad] move towards…victory,” writes Van Dam.

Syrians and those who have followed the doomed revolution will debate for years whether there was a moment when Western intervention could have made a decisive difference. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were inclined to attack Assad’s forces in 2013 after he crossed the “red line” and used chemical weapons against civilians, but there was little enthusiasm from voters. As a result Russia and Iran increased their support of the government while the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks increased their sponsorship of different rebel groups. The US supported a squabbling, unrepresentative civilian leadership in exile while training a few supposedly secular rebels who turned out to be incompetent or not so secular after all. It was, in short, a mess.

The battle against ISIS in Syria is nearly over—attacked by the regime and its allies on one hand and the US-backed coalition on the other, its leadership is on the run, and the territory it controls diminishes by the day. Elsewhere in Syria, a frequently violated, Russian-orchestrated “cessation of hostilities” is in place. The revolution failed, and the wars it spawned are either changing form or limping to a bitter, ragged, whimpering end. The lines on the map are still shifting, but although Syria may never be unified in the way it was before 2011, the Assad government, with Russian and Iranian help, is reconsolidating power in the main urban centers.

New conflicts are brewing. The Kurds hope to retain control over the northeast, but their unity with Arab fighters in the battle against ISIS may not survive victory: Raqqa is an Arab city, after all. Turkey, fearing a de facto Kurdish state on its border, is making threats and supporting Arab militias. The Americans, concerned about further alienating Turkey, may stop supporting the Syrian Kurds after the battle against the jihadists is won. Israel will not accept Iranian bases in southern Syria and has already launched sporadic air strikes. Saudi Arabia, fearing the rise of its regional rival, Iran, is determined to resist a “Shia crescent” extending through Syria and Iraq to Lebanon.

“What’s crucial in this whole process is that you don’t matter,” says Adam, a Syrian “media organizer” quoted by Pearlman.\

You as an individual—your aspirations, your ideas about what is right—mean absolutely nothing. And that’s when you understand why people get radicalized. I completely understand why somebody would join ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Assad regime or the Kurdish groups. You are in dire need for a narrative that can justify this futility. There has to be a point. So you become radical. This suffering has to be for a reason. Otherwise it’s too painful.

Millions of refugees have been scattered around the world; many will never return home. After all the death and misery, nothing has been resolved. Soon the regime will pretend that things are back to normal, that Syria can rebuild under the wise leadership of His Excellency President Bashar al-Assad. Tourists will once again be invited to visit the ancient city of Palmyra. They will wander around the ruins, trying to work out which monuments were destroyed in the time of the Roman Empire and which by the fanatics of the Islamic State, which occupied the site, on and off, for eighteen months between 2015 and 2017.

Government guides will probably not show tourists the ruins of Tadmur prison, just a few yards from the entrance to Palmyra, where Saleh spent one of his sixteen years of incarceration, and which—in an uncharacteristically popular act—was demolished by the jihadists. If asked, the guides will likely say there was no revolution, just a little trouble stirred up by a few religious zealots, most of them foreigners. The Syrian people love their president, they will say. The tourists may be more interested in ancient than modern history, but as the setting sun casts a golden glow over the ruins of the Temple of Bel, if they stop and listen carefully, they may hear the sound of a bird shrieking.

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