ISIS and the Assad dynasty – by Lydia Wilson
Well into its fifth year, the conflict in Syria only seems to worsen every day, the news impossible to foresee from one month to the next, with warnings from the UN, NGOs and charities growing ever more desperate. And all the while the feelings of helplessness grow. What can we do? Or, increasingly, what should we have done? Would early intervention have been the better option, stopping, or at least slowing, the carnage, the rise of sectarianism and extreme Islamism? Should the West have dug out those moderate opposition fighters and armed the right ones? And if so, is it now too late to do so?
The al-Kalaseh neighbourhood of Aleppo, November 17, 2014 Photograph: ©Hosam Katan/Reuters
Meanwhile, the civilians pay the price. Syria, a country with a population of under 23 million, now has the highest number of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) in the world: around 7.6 million. One in every four refugees (almost 4 million) in the world is Syrian: 43 per cent of the entire population is displaced. Deaths resulting from the conflict are hard to verify: the UN, well known for being conservative, says that the toll has surpassed 220,000; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number at 320,000. UN humanitarian missions are being blocked or ignored by the regime, despite the soaring poverty levels – three out of four citizens were living in poverty by the end of 2013.
Samar Yazbek brings these horrifying statistics to life in her powerful and deeply painful The Crossing: My journey to the shattered heart of Syria, beautifully translated by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. After fleeing to France in 2011, Yazbek made three trips to Idlib province in northern Syria, illegally crossing the Turkish border – all too easy, then and now – thus charting the changing fortunes and attitudes of the opposition forces and giving a rich portrait of this province, “liberated” from the regime early in the civil war and relentlessly bombarded by air and land in return. She charts with grief the rise of the Islamists and their claim to the revolution, which the secular idealists could only stand and witness given their critical lack of weapons to counter the foreign-funded jihadists.
A fine novelist, Yazbek makes her experiences palpable; visceral fear and anger – and pride in her compatriots – thread through the account. Her deep commitment to understanding her interviewees, along with the virtuosic prose, make her characters and their stories indelible: there is the regime soldier refusing to rape a Sunni girl and so shot in the back by his officer, a friend defecting the same night to live and tell the tale; the seven-year-old girl nightly recounting stories of injury and death in the cellar during bombing raids – “my little Scheherazade”, Yazbek calls her; the two old women who refuse to seek shelter or flee with their family, reminiscent of characters in a novel by Gabriel García Márquez; the foreign jihadists manning checkpoints and the spurt of anger from Syrians at this new form of occupation.
One in every four refugees – almost 4 million – in the world is Syrian: 43 per cent of the entire population is displaced
By contrast, Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs uprising by the Franco-American novelist and journalist Jonathan Littell (translated by Charlotte Mandell), is a bare record of notes the author made during two weeks in Homs in 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his book is sketchy, and this can be frustrating. So many questions remain. Why was Littell’s interpreter and photographer, Ra’id, so quick to get into arguments? Why were there sometimes other translators involved? What was Ra’id’s background, given that he had good contacts and spoke Arabic but came from outside Syria? These details matter: they would explain the reactions of the fighters and others to Littell, but the reader is left wondering at the gulf between his experience with the rebels, seemingly antagonistic at every stage, and that of Yazbek, who was welcomed and appreciated for her help, despite their common aim in documenting the revolution. Is it because she is Syrian, he European? She female, he male? Is it a question of the difference between towns in Idlib province and the major city of Homs? Littell’s epilogue shows one possible benefit of his approach: with hindsight, he is ashamed of some of the episodes that may well have been deleted in a sanitized, revised version, episodes that do indeed strike a jarring note (including his unexplained anger with the people who are daily risking their lives to defend their country), but perhaps give a truer version of what it is to be a European war correspondent in Syria, with all the confusion and fear and bad behaviour that can occur.
In the heat of disgust at the behaviour of ISIS, it is sobering to find evidence in both of these books of identical behaviour by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and long before ISIS broke out into the open. Burning people alive, taking women as spoils of war (especially if they were deemed heretical by the Alawite shabiha militias), widespread looting and the destruction of culture were all happening from the beginning of the revolution, and the abuses reported here are every bit as bad as those of ISIS: Littell describes in stomach-turning detail the experience of a doctor formerly in the service of the regime employed to keep people alive after horrific and repeated torture. So why does the West only respond militarily to ISIS and not to Assad’s forces? The reality is that Assad beats even ISIS at propaganda, to such an extent that many don’t even recognize him for what he is: an opportunist ruthlessly taking advantage of whatever group is expedient to his purpose only to turn on them when necessary, in this case using the jihadists both to fight his war against the rebels, and at the same time using their presence in the country to defend his actions to the international community, claiming his tactics are necessary for the global war on terror, an excuse used by Russia and China to block international action against his regime and more recently by Russia to build up troops inside the country. This is where Jean-Pierre Filiu’s work is valuable, showing the long-established techniques of Syrian leaders which led directly – inexorably – to the formation of ISIS.
From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab counter-revolution and its jihadi legacy is somewhat misnamed, being mostly structured around an analogy between four current regimes and the medieval Mamluk rulers of the Islamic world, barely mentioning, let alone explaining, the “Deep State” of Turkey (which, in Filiu’s version, seems to refer to an unofficial power structure, parallel to and secret from the elected government, capable of meting out “justice” and guiding, even controlling, the legitimate leaders for the perceived welfare of the country); and on top of this there is a crucial flaw to the Mamluk analogy, but nevertheless this book is forceful and illuminating. The flaw is that the Mamluks, even in Filiu’s own description, were outsiders, remaining so through strict rules concerning marriage and lifestyle. In fact, Filiu goes a little too far in stressing their foreignness to Arab culture, claiming that in over two centuries they never really learned Arabic properly, something hard to imagine. In contrast, the twentieth-century despots in the region were locally born, compatriots of the people they brutally suppressed and continue to suppress. (The fact that they are sometimes minorities of the countries – Alawite in Syria, Sunni in Iraq – has contributed to the descent into sectarian violence we have so often seen.) But, despite flaws and a certain patchiness of evidence, Filiu has produced a refreshingly nuanced analysis of the region’s totalitarian regimes, distinguishing between those of his “Modern Mamluks” (in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Algeria) and other styles of suppressive dictatorships (in Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and the Gulf States): the dictators that held on to power in these four countries, he shows in great detail, “hijacked their independence from the hands of the actual, mostly civilian, freedom fighters”, and held on to it at all costs. The intricate story of Tahrir Square leading to the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls before power reverted to the “modern Mamluks” of the army is particularly revealing, though of less relevance to the Syrian civil war than the acid portrait of Bashar al-Assad, who “follow[ed] in his father’s footsteps, compensating for his minor talent through his tenacious greed”.
Filiu shows that Assad was caught off guard by the demonstrations but quickly regained lost ground through the use of the Islamists he had previously imprisoned and tortured: the regime’s “dramatic recovery owed a lot to the viciousness of [its] jihadi gamble that literally caught the popular uprising in a crossfire”. Yazbek, observing this “double occupation” of the regime and the Islamists, delicately explores the complicity of Assad’s government: why were notorious Islamist prisoners released in May of 2011, she asks many of the fighters she meets, just when the demonstrations began to get violent? The questions are rebuffed by the interviewees, but, perhaps because of this, they echo throughout the text, unanswered. The link between Assad and ISIS is laid out directly by Littell in his introduction when he draws comparisons between modern-day Syria and the Chechen revolution – with Chechnya’s democratically elected government overwhelmed by Russian government-backed Islamists – as well as with the jihadists once supported in Afghanistan by the CIA. When charged with the evidence from Syria, the then French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, agreed with Littell (to his surprise), but said that “alone . . . without the participation of its American and British allies, France could do nothing”. The alliance is also contextualized historically by Filiu, who shows that it was no surprise, given the previous tactics of the Syrian regime of drawing cynically on what he calls the “jihadi joker”. And so when Charles Glass, in Syria Burning, says that the West is now effectively supporting Assad by bombing his enemies, he only has half the picture: Assad avoided bombing the Islamists himself while they were battling the more moderate opposition (for example, waiting for rebels to kick ISIS out of districts of Aleppo and Idlib provinces, at some cost, before sending in his warplanes: around 2,000 people died in the subsequent bombing of the ISIS-free area while ISIS had already turned its attention to expanding in Iraq), gambling on the fact that the international community would react to such an enemy. The gamble paid off. Coalition’s air strikes against ISIS positions started after the declaration of the Caliphate in 2014, which, as Glass points out, sought to remove one enemy facing Assad, but only once it had helped decimate another.
Glass’s book is an extended form of an article written for the New York Review of Books, the argument resting largely on the colonial period, in particular blaming Britain and France for the current debacle. “Think back”, Glass tells the reader, confident that there can be no disagreement, “to when this mess began which was a long time before young Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in Tunisia. It was about the time the British and the French decided to save the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire’s oppression.” This wishful picture of peaceful coexistence before the Europeans arrived is common enough among journalists and academics, but there are limitations to the narrative. It robs the people of the Middle East of their history and the historical fractures the European powers exploited, and it fails to account for the rampant nationalism seen within these artificial borders made very clear by the Arab Spring. To blame the colonialists is ultimately to deny responsibility to the people of the Middle East for their own affairs. It is old-fashioned orientalism dressed up in mea culpa garb. Filiu shows that there was indeed self-determination, but it was all in terms of the self-interest of a few, never for the general good – or, rather, what was for the general good never managed to gain or hold on to power. In this context the crushing of the Arab Spring was just the latest in a series of moves against a popular opposition to the status quo, and the covert support of Islamists just another tool in the kit.
To blame the colonialists is to dress up old-fashioned orientalism in mea culpa garb
Christian Sahner’s Among the Ruins: Syria past and present is another form of witness, often expressing the same affection and grief as Yazbek, but from the perspective of an outsider, as are Littell and Glass. But instead of concentrating on the conflict itself, Sahner bears witness to the country as it was before the demonstrations, including factors that led to, and somewhat explain, the current tragedy. In his beautiful patchwork of recent experience and academic history, he gives a truly original portrait of contemporary Syria without shirking the social problems, physical ugliness or political realities many Westerners often want to deny. “I suspect some readers will disagree with my assessments of the importance of religious identity in Syrian history”, he rather humbly and bravely says in his introduction, pointing out how many commentators blame the regime or foreign powers for stoking a sectarianism that simply didn’t exist before the war, a stance his book gently demolishes. “True”, he says later, “the destructive sectarianism the world has witnessed in Syria recently is something new, but it seems clear that . . . sectarianism is appealing precisely because it builds on pressures that have existed in Syria for a long time.”
Sahner gives a long historical arc, going back to pre-Islamic, Byzantine Syria, before going on to produce a moving and highly readable account of the country today. His close attention to the buildings and geography of Syria, together with accounts of his many friendships, bring the country into sharper focus than textual sources alone can do. In one scene he walks through the Christian area of Bab Touma in Damascus, describing the churches he passes. As he goes, he explains their presence and position in the Old City: the first Caliphs to make Damascus their capital, the Umayyads, decided to demolish the big basilica in the centre of the city. The Christians negotiated with their new rulers, and were compensated with land granted in perpetuity in another part of the city – land where four churches still stand (though they are not the original buildings). This was canny of the Caliphs: Christian worship and hence much of its culture was pushed from the middle to the edges of Damascus in a move construed as gracious and generous to the conquered population. Sahner uses this background to explain various conversations he has had with contemporary Damascene Christians, digging beneath the “rosy picture” of Muslim–Christian co-existence to find that “much was left unsaid”; in particular, he writes, the construction of the old city now gives the impression of a “very gentle siege”. His affection for the city never blinds him: “In 2008, Damascus seemed less like paradise than urban purgatory: from high above, she was a mash of satellite dishes and grey tenements, an expanse of concrete slowly consuming all trace of green on the desert fringe”.
History is not only practised by scholars seeking to understand the present, but also by politicians wishing to shape it; we see the effects in Shakespeare’s history plays, or Israel’s politicization of archaeological sites, or in ISIS’s expositions of Islam in the time of Muhammad. As Sahner says: “Ancient history can be a hobby of . . . the kinds of people who profit from tracing the political present to a distant, unknowable past . . . . It’s also a way of excluding those deemed not to belong”. His account brings us up to the present, complementing Filiu’s more broad-brush picture of the Assad regime with descriptions of the social effects of the security state created by Hafez Assad and now maintained by his son. A conversation with a friend sheds light on “the most tragic side-effect of Syria’s security state: the decay of civil society, of the invisible bonds that create an esprit de corps among a people”. This is just one factor in the descent into a multifaceted civil war that Christian Sahner explores in his subtle book.
Nothing about the twentieth-century history of the Middle East was inevitable, although historical retellings often make it seem so. As Jean-Pierre Filiu says in his conclusion: “The unfolding of such disasters in the Arab world was both predictable and avoidable”. Read together, these books complement and contradict each other not only to give a composite picture of the conflict, but also to show the numerous ways in which this region is (and has been) interpreted, for good and for ill, and of the ideologies that continue to dog the Middle East, from within and without.
Lydia Wilson is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, a Research Fellow and Field Director at Artis International, and visiting scholar at the Ralph Bunche Institute, Graduate Center, the City University of New York. She edits the Cambridge Literary Review.
date : 23/08/2015
My journey to the shattered heart of Syria
Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
288pp. Rider. £20.
978 1 84604 486 1
Inside the Homs uprising
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
192pp. Verso. Paperback, £12.99 (US $24.95).
978 1 78168 824 3
FROM DEEP STATE TO ISLAMIC STATE
The Arab counter-revolution and its jihadi legacy
328pp. Hurst. £15.99.
978 1 84604 486 1
US: Oxford University Press. $24.95.
978 0 19 026406 2
ISIS and the death of the Arab Spring
156pp. OR Books. Paperback, £11.
978 1 939293 88 6
Christian C. Sahner
AMONG THE RUINS
Syria past and present
240pp. Hurst. £20.
978 1 84904 400 4
US: Oxford University Press. $27.95.
978 0 19 939670 2