Author Archives: (They Got the Guns, but) We Got the Numbers
In “A Murderous History of Korea,” published 5-18-17 in the London Review of Books, historian Bruce Cumings asks how “a puffed-up, vainglorious narcissist, whose every other word may well be a lie (that applies to both of them, Trump and Kim Jong-un), comes not only to hold the peace of the world in his hands but perhaps the future of the planet? We have arrived at this point because of an inveterate unwillingness on the part of Americans to look history in the face and a laser-like focus on that same history by the leaders of North Korea.
North Korea celebrated the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on April 25th, amid round-the-clock television coverage of parades in Pyongyang and enormous global tension. No journalist seemed interested in asking why it was the 85th anniversary when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was only founded in 1948. What was really being celebrated was the beginning of the Korean guerrilla struggle against the Japanese in northeast China, officially dated to April 25, 1932. After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, many Koreans fled across the border, among them the parents of Kim Il-sung, but it wasn’t until Japan established its puppet state of Manchukuo in March 1932 that the independence movement turned to armed resistance. Kim and his comrades launched a campaign that lasted 13 difficult years, until Japan finally relinquished control of Korea as part of the 1945 terms of surrender. This is the source of the North Korean leadership’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people: they are revolutionary nationalists who resisted their country’s colonizer; they resisted again when a massive onslaught by the US air force during the Korean War razed all their cities, driving the population to live, work, and study in subterranean shelters; and they’ve continued to resist the US ever since.”
Cumings says North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) “is less a communist country than a garrison state, unlike any the world has seen. Drawn from a population of just 25 million, the North Korean army is the fourth largest in the world, with 1.3 million soldiers – just behind the third largest army, with 1.4 million soldiers, which happens to be the American one. Most of the adult Korean population, men and women, have spent years in this army: its reserves are limited only by the size of the population.”
US treatment of North Korea is completely “ahistorical, demonization transcending party lines and drawing on a host of subliminal racist and Orientalist imagery; no one is willing to accept that North Koreans may have valid reasons for not accepting the American definition of reality. Their rejection of the American worldview – generally perceived as indifference, even insolence in the face of overwhelming US power – makes North Korea appear irrational, impossible to control, and therefore fundamentally dangerous. But if American commentators and politicians are ignorant of Korea’s history, they ought at least to be aware of their own. US involvement in Korea began towards the end of the Second World War in 1945, when State Department planners feared that Soviet soldiers, who were entering the northern part of the peninsula, would bring with them as many as 30,000 Korean guerrillas who’d been fighting the Japanese in northeast China. They began to consider a full military occupation that would assure America had the strongest voice in postwar Korean affairs. Several of the planners were Japanophiles who’d never challenged Japan’s colonial claims in Korea and hoped to reconstruct a peaceable and amenable postwar Japan. They worried that a Soviet occupation of Korea would thwart that goal and harm the postwar security of the Pacific. Following this logic, on the day after Nagasaki was obliterated, John J. McCloy of the War Department asked Dean Rusk and a colleague to go into a spare office and think about how to divide Korea. They chose the 38th parallel, and three weeks later 25,000 American combat troops entered southern Korea to establish a military government.
To shore up their occupation, the Americans employed every hireling of the Japanese they could find, including former officers in the Japanese military like Park Chung Hee and Kim Chae-gyu, both of whom graduated from the American military academy in Seoul in 1946. (After a military takeover in 1961, Park became president of South Korea, lasting a decade and a half until his ex-classmate Kim, by then head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, shot him dead over dinner one night.) After the Americans left in 1948, the border area around the 38th parallel was under the command of Kim Sok-won, another ex-officer of the Imperial Army, and it was no surprise that after a series of South Korean incursions into the North, full-scale civil war broke out on June 25, 1950. Inside the South, whose leaders felt insecure and conscious of the threat from what they called ‘the north wind,’ there was an orgy of state violence against anyone who might somehow be associated with the left or with communism. The historian Hun Joon Kim found that at least 300,000 people were detained and executed or simply disappeared by the South Korean government in the first few months after conventional war began. My own work and that of John Merrill indicates that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces. In short, the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work – and were then put back into power by the Americans.
Americans like to see themselves as mere bystanders in postwar Korean history. It’s always described in the passive voice: ‘Korea was divided in 1945,’ with no mention of the fact that McCloy and Rusk, two of the most influential men in postwar foreign policy, drew their line without consulting anyone. There were two military coups in the South while the US had operational control of the Korean army, in 1961 and 1980, during which the Americans stood idly by lest they be accused of interfering in Korean politics. South Korea’s stable democracy and vibrant economy from 1988 onwards seem to have overridden any need to acknowledge the previous forty years of history, during which the North could reasonably claim that its own autocracy was necessary to counter military rule in Seoul. It’s only in the present context that the North looks at best like a walking anachronism, at worst like a vicious tyranny. For 25 years now the world has been treated to scaremongering about North Korean nuclear weapons, but hardly anyone points out that it was the US that introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, in 1958; hundreds were kept there until a worldwide pullback of tactical nukes occurred under George H.W. Bush. Every US administration since 1991 has also challenged North Korea with frequent flights of nuclear-capable bombers in South Korean airspace, and any day of the week an Ohio-class submarine could demolish the North in a few hours. Today there are 28,000 US troops stationed in Korea, perpetuating an unwinnable stand-off with the nuclear-capable North.
To hear Trump and his national security team tell it, the current crisis has come about because North Korea is on the verge of developing an ICBM that can hit the American heartland. North Korea tested its first long-range rocket in 1998, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the DPRK’s founding. The first medium-range missile was tested in 1992, and North Korea now has many sophisticated medium-range missiles within range of 200 million people in Korea and Japan, not to mention hundreds of millions of Chinese, and the only US Marine division permanently stationed abroad, in Okinawa. It isn’t clear that North Korea can actually fit a nuclear warhead to any of its missiles – but if it happened, and if it was fired in anger, South Korea would immediately be turned into what Colin Powell memorably called ‘a charcoal briquette.’ But then, as General Powell well knows, we’d already turned North Korea into a charcoal briquette with years of aerial bombing, much of it with huge quantities of napalm, during the Korean War.
American policy has cycled through a menu of options to try and control the DPRK: sanctions, in place since 1950, with no evidence of positive results; non-recognition, in place since 1948, again with no positive results; regime change, attempted late in 1950 when US forces invaded the North, only to end up in a war with China; and direct talks, the only method that’s ever worked, which produced an eight-year freeze – between 1994 and 2002 – on all the North’s plutonium facilities, and nearly succeeded in retiring their missiles. On May 1st, Donald Trump told Bloomberg News: ‘If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [Kim Jong-un], I would be honored to do it.’ There’s no telling whether this was serious, or just another Trump attempt to grab headlines. But whatever else he might be, he is unquestionably a maverick, the first president since 1945 not beholden to the Beltway. Maybe he can sit down with Mr. Kim and save the planet.”
This article was written before President Trump began threatening North Korea with utter destruction and personally insulting Kim Jong-un.
For more, read Cumings’s books, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, North Korea: Another Country, and The Korean War, A History.
Approximately 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since the Bashar al-Assad regime began violently repressing peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011. Assad’s repression led to activists arming in self-defense and what’s been called a civil war, now joined by Islamist fighters from other countries. (Assad is an Alawite, a cultural group originally practicing a form of Shia Isam, as are many of his supporters, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.) As of March 2017, at least 700,000 Syrians were trapped in areas besieged by the regime, including 388,575 in eastern Ghouta, 15 kilometers east of Damascus; at least 4.9 million were living in hard-to-reach areas inside the country; and at least 6.3 million were internally displaced. According to the United Nations, the number of Syrians who’ve sought refuge outside the country passed 5 million in March of this year. As of December 2016, approximately 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, according to the CIA Factbook, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The population of Syria was estimated in July 2016 to be 17,185,170, 82.5% of which was living below the poverty line in 2014.
Eastern Ghouta, the area east of Damascus, is in one of four proposed de-escalation zones designated in a deal reached by government allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey in May. The accord specified four initial areas: Idlib in the northwest, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Syria. More than 2.5 million people are believed to live in the four zones. The accord has yet to be fully implemented because of government violations of ceasefire agreements and disagreements on who will ensure security in the four areas (Turkey and Iran are hoping to increase their influence by means of this plan). A new meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana is expected during the last week of August, with rebels as well as representatives from Turkey and Iran attending, Russia has said.
Following a meeting between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg in early July, a ceasefire agreement – since violated – was also declared in southwestern Syria, affecting the provinces of Suweida, Deraa, and Quneitra.
On 4-26-17, SocialistWorker.org Ashley Smith published an interview with Anand Gopal, a journalist who’s reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle East war zones, in which he said, “The U.S. has been heavily involved in Syria for five years and has been bombing the country for three. It’s conducted nearly 8,000 air strikes against a variety of targets, from ISIS to al-Qaeda to members of the anti-Assad opposition, and many civilians have died as a result. Since the beginning, the U.S. has sought to control the Syrian revolution and civil war to ensure that there would be no outcome directly opposed to American interests. The core American interests in Syria are: one, defeating ISIS and similar groups; and two, preserving the network of dictatorships and client regimes in the region, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar. Popular revolutionary movements directly threaten this project, especially when they pose the possibility of overthrowing client regimes and replacing them with independent states. A successful revolution in Syria, especially one outside of American control, would have profound effects across the region, including in American client states. So although the U.S. doesn’t like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad’s regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below. This is why Obama both refused to strike Assad and refused to give the Syrian opposition the adequate means to defend itself from the regime. Instead, the U.S. manipulated the flow of arms, selectively cutting off aid to groups that focused solely on fighting Assad. The Assad regime is now clearly winning the war, having retaken Aleppo and repelled rebel offensives in Homs and Damascus.
Ashley Smith: “It seems like Assad and his backers are succeeding in routing the last remnants of the Syrian revolution, leaving only the jihadist opposition in control of the last redoubt of Idlib. What are conditions like in Syria now after the fall of Aleppo?”
Anand Gopal: “The Syrian battlefield is extraordinarily complex, but as a simplification, you can say that the non-regime side of the equation consists of six forces. Starting with the strongest, politically and militarily, they are:
- the YPG, a left-wing Kurdish group closely allied with the U.S.;
- Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the descendant of al-Qaeda in Syria;
- the northern Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allied groups, which are backed by and in some cases effectively proxies of Turkey;
- the Southern Front, consisting primarily of revolutionary-nationalist Free Syrian Army groups south of Damascus;
- ISIS; and
- civilian revolutionary activists.”
The first group mentioned by Gopal, the YPG (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, “People’s Protection Units”) is a mainly-Kurdish militia, the primary component of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces. It controls the area in yellow on the map above, also known as Rojava. Rojava has been praised by some on the left for having a government based on the ideas of American social anarchist Murray Bookchin and criticized by others as being authoritarian and overly influenced by Kurdish rebels in Turkey. Regarded as an effective force in fighting ISIS in Syria, the YPG receives substantial air and armament support from the United States and some support from Russia.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” in Arabic), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, is a Salafist jihadist militant group formed in January 2017, following violent clashes with Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups. It’s a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant,” formerly the al-Nusra Front) and several other Islamist groups, including foreigners and fighters from Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. Wikipedia says, “Tahrir al-Sham continues to harbor the former al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate, run by al-Qaeda.” Many of its members defected from Ahrar al-Sham, which has a Syrian leadership and “emphasizes that its campaign is for Syria, not for a global jihad.” A number of analysts and media outlets continue to refer to Tahrir al-Sham by its previous names: al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. (Al-Sham, or Greater Syria, refers to an historic area before Western colonialism, and today would include modern Syria, Lebanon, most of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and parts of southern Turkey.)
For those unfamiliar with the term “Salafism,” Wikipedia defines it as “an ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century, advocating a return to the traditions of the ‘devout ancestors’ (the salaf). The Salafist doctrine can be summed up as taking a fundamentalist approach to Islam by emulating Muhammad and his earliest followers. Salafists reject religious innovation and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). The movement is often divided into three categories: the largest group: purists or quietists, who avoid politics; the second largest group: activists who get involved in politics; and the smallest group (a tiny minority): jihadists, those willing to use violence to try to create an Islamic state or caliphate. The majority of the world’s Salafis are from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – 46.87% of Qataris, 44.8% of Emiratis are Salafis, and they are a ‘dominant minority’ (22.9%) in Saudi Arabia.”
Returning to Ashley Smith’s interview with Anand Gopal, the latter says that the current “weakness of the FSA and of what was once the mainstream democratic opposition in Syria is due to a number of factors. First and foremost is the sheer brutality of the Assad regime, which crushed any sign of democracy, freedom or dignity wherever it appeared. The U.S. and the regional powers also sought to manipulate these elements to serve their interests rather than the interests of Syrians. For example, when the regime was besieging Darayya [a suburb of Damascus], one of the iconic centers of the revolution, where ordinary people built a local council in the attempt to rule themselves democratically, FSA groups in the Southern Front wanted to save their comrades, but were blocked by Jordan, which did everything from stanching the weapons flow to closing the border to block ambulances. Today, fighters in the Southern Front are so frustrated with Jordan’s stranglehold that some talk about defecting to ISIS, which is actually fighting the regime. Similarly, in northern Syria, a longstanding FSA group lost its foreign funding when it insisted on focusing on fighting Assad. This eventually led it to join Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for access to better resources and protection.”
As a socialist, Gopal also believes that the democratic revolutionary councils of 2011 should have confronted “class divisions in Syria” directly, perhaps “confiscating the property of the wealthy and redistributing it to meet their revenue needs. Instead, the councils and their armed protection – the FSA – sought outside funding from NGOs and foreign intelligence agencies, which inevitably introduced corruption and fragmentation, creating the space for Islamic fundamentalists to challenge their authority. It’s no coincidence that the three strongest state-building movements in Syria – ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the YPG – relied very little on foreign funding. ISIS’s main source of revenue, for example, was confiscation, followed by taxation and oil.
Of course, it’s easy to make this critique in the abstract, and we should recognize the extremely difficult conditions that the rebel movement was operating under. To begin with, the sort of organized left that might have made class demands was very weak in Syria, in large part because of the legacy of Baathist rule, which co-opted or crushed any type of progressive alternative. Meanwhile, ISIS and Nusra could draw on the legacy of fundamentalist political organizing, and the YPG could draw on the longstanding organizational and ideological perspectives of its parent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey.”
Ashley Smith: “It seems likely that the U.S. and its highly contradictory alliance will defeat ISIS in the coming months. What will defeat look like, and will a military victory lead to any lasting political settlement in Iraq or Syria?”
AG: “The defeat of ISIS will look very different in Iraq and in Syria. In Iraq, the offensives will succeed in toppling ISIS, but will keep in place many of the same predatory phenomena that helped fuel ISIS’s rise in the first place. This includes a variety of [Shia-dominated government] militias that have committed grave human rights violations,” largely against Sunnis, “security forces responsible for torture and disappearance of individuals accused of ‘terrorism,’ and a wildly kleptocratic Iraqi state. We may not see an ISIS 2.0, but the country is likely to be unstable and prone to insurgency for a long time to come. In Syria, on the other hand, the main phenomenon that fueled the rise of ISIS was the brutality of the Assad regime. The YPG is the key anti-ISIS force, and in areas where it’s ejected ISIS, locals generally much prefer it to the regime, even in Arab-majority cities like Manbij. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which contains the YPG as its key component, will likely capture Raqqa by the end of this year. After that, the Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria known as Rojava, along with Arab-majority areas like Manbij and Raqqa, will probably make up a de facto independent region within the Syrian state.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. will continue to back the YPG after the fight against ISIS is over, because it’s hostile to some of the group’s left-wing ideals and because its alliances with Turkey and the Barzani government of Iraqi Kurdistan, both of whom are mortal enemies of the YPG, will come first. The U.S. is merely using the YPG for its own ends, and once it abandons them, there’s a possibility of a showdown between the regime and the YPG.
In the end, a combination of the brutality from the regime and cynical manipulation by outside powers means that the revolution is at its weakest point since it began in 2011. The revolution may be edging closer to total defeat, but among many Syrians inside the country and among the refugee diaspora, who tasted freedom and dignity for the first time in their lives, it will never be forgotten.”
An article on the World Socialist website titled “Trump Pulls Plug on CIA’s Syrian ‘Revolution’ by Bill Van Auken, 7-22-17, says that “Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian-aligned militias and, since September 2015, Russian air support, have driven the rebels out of every major urban center and into the rural areas of Idlib province, where they’ve been engaged in bitter internecine combat against each other…Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to carry out deadly airstrikes against Syrian targets, with the independent monitoring group Airwars reporting at least 415 civilians killed by US bombs and missiles last month alone. This estimate undoubtedly leaves many of the dead uncounted, and the numbers will rise dramatically with the siege of Raqqa.
According to Zvi Bar’el, in a 7-23-17 article for the main Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, “the steering of the diplomatic process has officially been transferred to Russia and Iran, while Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE are expected to keep funding their pet militias, pointlessly extending the fighting. The militias themselves have long known that Washington doesn’t see them as significant forces worth cultivating, especially after Assad took Aleppo from them last year. That conquest proved a strategic turning point both on the battlefield and in diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement ending the war. Some militias, like the Free Syrian Army units fighting in Turkey’s service in northern Syria, have lost their national mission and effectively become mercenaries tasked with securing other countries’ interests, not necessarily by fighting Assad. Others, like those operating in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, are run from an operations headquarters in Jordan that funds them and coordinates their training and military activity. But not all of these militias obey orders or stick to the missions assigned them. Some of the most powerful militias are those Washington can’t or doesn’t want to help. One is the al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front, formerly the Nusra Front. Another is Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of well-armed radical groups still fighting, but mainly among themselves.
American forces will continue fighting the Islamic State, with massive help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia comprised mainly of Kurds. But responsibility for security arrangements in Syria, stabilizing the cease-fire in southern Syria, creating other de-escalation zones, and above all steering the diplomatic process have officially been transferred to Russia and Iran. Turkey, once Assad’s bitterest opponent, made it clear months ago that it wouldn’t oppose his continued rule ‘during a transition period’ for which it specified no time limit. Aside from Saudi Arabia, no major power still backs the Syrian opposition’s demand that Assad’s removal precede any diplomatic process.
The most dangerous divergence among the major powers’ interests is the rising tension between Turkey and Washington, which hit new heights this week when the Turkish news agency Anadolu published a map of U.S. military bases in northern Syria, replete with the number of American soldiers serving on each. This infuriated not only Washington but all NATO members, because never before has one NATO country revealed another’s military secrets. The reason for Turkey’s leak was its deep unhappiness over American aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey suspects the SDF’s Kurdish fighters of cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which Ankara defines as a terror group. It also fears that some of the American weaponry the SDF is using against ISIS in Raqqa will be given to Kurdish groups fighting against Turkey. Washington’s promise that the weapons have been counted and will be collected from the Kurds when the campaign is over hasn’t assuaged Turkey’s concerns, and rightly so. A lot of American weaponry made its way to terror groups after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington sees the Kurds as an effective and essential fighting force against the Islamic State, so it has no intention, at least for now, of halting aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The distinction Washington has drawn between Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, which merit aid, and non-Kurdish militias fighting Assad, which no longer do, could increase clashes between the Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting alongside Turkey to expand the Syrian territory under Turkey’s control. Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kilic, defined the United States’ support for the Kurds as a ‘strategic mistake,’ arguing that Raqqa could be captured by Turkish and American forces. Turkish officials say Ankara offered to contribute tens of thousands of soldiers to such an effort, but Washington also wanted $80,000, which the Turks considered excessive. Moreover, they said, the United States didn’t have a serious plan of action. Now the concern is that Turkey’s expanding involvement in Idlib province and the expected clashes between its troops and local militias could force the United States, which wants to decamp once Raqqa is taken, to keep its own forces in the field to prevent a war between Turkey and the Syrian militias.
Israel must now adapt its strategic paradigm to a situation in which Russia has become a dominant player in Syria in particular and the Mideast in general, while the Americans are heading back across the ocean.”
Don’t forget to look under Realities/Syria in the top menu bar or side menu for maps, a glossary, a timeline, the historical background of the conflict, more information on the Kurdish area of Rojava, and most importantly — ways you can help. Under Books, you’ll also find a bibliography and more complete quotes from Syrians from We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled.
More Voices from We Crossed A Bridge
In the first post in this series on the Syrian revolution and civil war, I interwove quotes from Syrian refugees with history and analysis. Here are some more of these poignant and informative quotes from We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled by Wendy Pearlman (2017):
Abu Firas, a fighter from rural Idlib, told Bridge interviewers, “For every action there is a reaction. When the regime is killing in this way, people become what we call jihadists and you call terrorists. I swear to God that I have nothing but respect for you regardless of your ethnicity, religion, or nationality. But when my sister is arrested and they rape her, I have no problem entering any place in the world with a car strapped with explosives. Because no country in the world is paying attention to me. Not a single one is doing anything to protect any fraction of the rights I should have as a human being.”
Jalal, a photographer from Aleppo, had similar thoughts. “The regime has turned us into monsters so it can justify killing us. Syrian society has been shattered – bring any family together today, and you’ll find four or five empty chairs. I once photographed a barrel bomb that killed three kids as their father sobbed, ‘I left them for an hour to look for a safer place to live. I came back and they were gone.’ I have four kids, and the whole purpose of my life is to guarantee their future. So I imagine this man who loses his kids and completely understand if he turns into a monster.”
Yousef, a former student from rural Hasakh told interviewers, “I was arrested in my second year of medical school and spent five months in prison. I was home recovering when ISIS showed up. Syria’s oil is located in our eastern part of the country, and ISIS recognized how valuable it is. They took over our village and then moved to take Deir al-Zor, which has the largest oil reserves. Regime planes backed them up. They bombed the rebels and people, not ISIS. There were many men and women ready to fight ISIS, and we could have beaten them, but we didn’t have enough weapons – no one supported us. Instead, the U.S.-led coalition started bombing us. Two months ago, 27 people in my village were killed that way, waiting in line for bread. It’s airstrikes that have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and ISIS doesn’t have planes.”
Adam, age 29, a media organizer from Latakia: “We opened a Pandora’s box – we had this innocent, childlike desire to see what was inside it. We thought we’d get a present, and what we got was all the evil in the world. I completely understand why someone would join ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Assad regime or the Kurdish groups – you’re in dire need of a narrative that can justify this futility, this suffering. Otherwise, it’s too painful. I think I’m too old to dream now.”
Khalil, a defected officer from Deir ez-Zor, told interviewers he was “working with the FSA [Free Syrian Army] when the Nusra Front emerged. In June 2012, I went to talk to them. I said, ‘This is a popular revolution, why don’t you use the revolution’s flag?’ They said, ‘That’s the flag of the infidels. We’re raising the flag of the Prophet.’ I said, ‘Bashar let you go so he could say he’s fighting terrorism.’ They replied, ‘God willed that this should be done.’
We each went forward with our work separately. We in the FSA would attack a regime position, force the regime to withdraw, and move on to the next regime position. Nusra would come along behind us and take control of the point we’d just liberated. We were focused on fighting the regime while Nusra was looking to occupy territory. Most of Nusra’s fighters were foreigners – Saudis, Qataris, and Tunisians. The FSA had more men, but received little aid. We could afford to give fighters only a one-time payment. Nusra gave its fighters monthly salaries and top-quality weapons. It also distributed bread to people to try to win their support. People took it because they were hungry, but the first opportunity they had to go out and protest against Nusra, they did. Then ISIS emerged. It also paid people to join its ranks, and had plenty of weapons, and ammunition. Raqqa became the ISIS headquarters. There was no battle; the regime just handed it to them and left.
We’re against Assad because he’s a dictator, and we won’t accept another dictator in his place. What gives them the right to say something is blasphemy? ISIS killed a German doctor working in a field hospital, saying he was an infidel. This man had come from abroad to treat injured people. If that’s infidel, let’s all be infidels.”
Husayn, playwright (Aleppo): “We created the first movement against Islamization after Islamic groups killed a 14-year-old who used to sell coffee on the streets. Three Islamists – an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Syrian – wanted to take coffee and pay the boy later. He told them, ‘Even if the Prophet Mohammed came, I wouldn’t give it to him on credit.’ The Islamists considered that blasphemy and killed the boy. It was around that time that ISIS arrived in Aleppo. They started kidnapping journalists and activists. There were few of us left by then, but we organized a sit-in in front of ISIS headquarters. After an ISIS car followed us home and blocked our taxi, we began working in secret. When I could only oppose ISIS by living in a neighborhood protected by a violent warlord, I decided to leave Syria. I no longer had a purpose for staying.”
Life as a refugee
Safa, a mother from Homs, is in Lebanon, where “life is terrible – a neighborhood of shacks, lack of hygiene, germs making the kids sick. The roof leaks, and the tap water is so polluted you can’t even use it to wash vegetables.
Lebanese won’t work for less than $20 a day, so bosses fire them and hire Syrians for $10, which leads to tension between poor Syrians and poor Lebanese. The UN used to provide $30 per person. Then they announced that they ran out of funding. One woman had little children and they kept telling her to wait in line to apply for help. It was such a humiliation – they’d leave her to wait for hours in the sun, saying ‘tomorrow,’ or ‘the day after tomorrow.’ Finally, she poured fuel on herself and set herself on fire – right there, outside the UN building.
There’s nothing to protect us – no state, no government, no law, no human rights. Animals have more rights than we do.”
Bushra, a mother from al-Tel says that “kids today don’t think about going to school in order to get a job someday – they think about getting a job in the hope that someday they’ll be able to go to school. Or they think about living in a real house. One day I took my young daughter with me to a women’s center, and after living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and floors. She said, ‘Take a photo of me next to the wall!’”
Abdel-Aziz, a teacher from rural Daraa: “The Zaatari camp in Jordan is a dead area. They found a place in the desert where not even a tree or an animal can live, and they put the Syrian people there. The other day we saw a butterfly in the camp. Everyone got so excited, we were shouting at each other to come and look at it. It must have really lost its way if it wound up here.”
Disappointment and hopelessness
Sham, who was part of a Red Crescent emergency response team in Douma, says regime soldiers sometimes took injured people out of their ambulance. They also shot three friends from another team. She and her husband Munir fled the country after he was released from prison on condition of leaving immediately. “Everything we’ve experienced has killed us. We check the news every second to see who’s been killed and who’s still alive. Believe me, if the world had helped us from the beginning, we never would have reached this point. If I died this second, I wouldn’t care, because I’ve reached a point in my life where I hate everything. I’m disgusted by humanity. We’re basically the living dead. Sometimes I joke to Munir that someone should gather all of us Syrians in one place and kill us so we can be done with this thing already. Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.”
Kareem, the doctor from Homs, wonders “why the world has so little sympathy for people dying in Syria. It’s as if the blood that circulates in our veins is of lesser value. Syria is just a chessboard for great powers to settle their accounts. Our family is scattered. My parents and one of my brothers are in Qatar, another brother is in Egypt, and another is trying to get to get to Germany. My son spent the first years of his life in Homs stuck inside because of the curfew and the bombing. He had no contact with anyone but his parents and grandparents. He was two years old when he saw another child for the first time. He went up to him and touched his eyes, because he thought he was a doll.”
Imad, a former student from Salamiyah, says the media have “tied the revolution to terrorism. If a Syrian asking for asylum says he was with the revolution, European authorities ask if he interacted with terrorists. You feel like you’re being accused of something. It’s easier just to say that you’re running from war, and in this way the truth of the revolution gets buried. And that alone is a crime against everything that’s happened.”
Ghayth, a former student from Aleppo, says, “We worked so hard for the revolution, and it was so innocent. Then it turned into a war, and everyone got involved in stealing it. Good leaders were assassinated, and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] was reduced to a matter of funding. We would prefer to stay in our country. If you don’t want refugees, help us make peace in Syria.”
Husayn, a playwright from Aleppo, asks, “If everyone who participated in the dream of a free Syria leaves or gets killed, who’s going to build Syria later? I have hope that there are still people inside the country who’ll want to build it. Half of those living under regime control don’t support the regime. But the conflict doesn’t belong to us anymore. Syria has become an arena to settle scores, and there’s a lack of agreement about what we need for the future. I know some people fighting the regime want to control my life. But we can argue about that later – first we need to bring down the regime…We’ve accepted the fact that we need to make our dreams smaller if that’s what it takes to keep dreaming.”
You’ll see the final post in this series, an update on the situation in Syria, tomorrow, though I’m sure I’ll write more on this subject in the future…Remember to check out the series resources under “Realities/Syria” in the top menu bar or along the right hand side under “Pages/Realities/Syria;” there’s a timeline, a glossary, maps, and more, including more complete notes on We Crossed a Bridge.
My last two posts have covered the Syrian revolution and civil war in general, based on my notes from Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. This one, the third in a multi-post series, focuses in on the ongoing war in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. This is the area visited by exiled Syrian writer Samar Yazbek three times in 2012 and 2013 and searingly described in her book The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (2015). Yazbek spent most of her time on these visits in the town of Saraqeb, interviewing nonviolent activists and rebel fighters and commanders, and working with local women to set up workshops and projects that could support them financially.
The regime first attacked Saraqeb on March 24, 2012, as part of an attempt to suppress/control the entire region. According to a local commander Yazbek interviewed on her first visit in August of that year, “They set fire to 70 houses in Jarjanaz and 100 in Saraqeb. The tanks came in and plowed into buildings, and when they left, Saraqeb was a heap of rubble. The next day they were patrolling the streets, shooting and arresting people. A plane with machine guns circled, and an armored personnel carrier launched continuous showers of bullets in every direction.” The women of Saraqeb told Yazbek that regime troops also broke into homes and stole or destroyed people’s possessions.
Yazbek says “jihadist battalions only began appearing a few months after my arrival, but after each massacre their numbers increased. Most of the fighters were still determined to avoid the sectarian war the regime was trying to incite. They wanted a civil state in which freedom was the only sect. Funding and supplies represented a major problem, however, and the new Islamist groups, funded by certain states, were well equipped.”
By the time of Tazbek’s second visit to the area in February 2013, “many of the young people I’d met on my last visit had died. Saraqeb looked lifeless and deserted, and for the first time I saw amongst the graffiti sentences glorifying the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham [militant Islamist groups]. Ahrar al-Sham was so entrenched in the social fabric that they owned a bakery, which was a source of funding for them as well as a means of control over people. The Nusra Front held sway over the sharia court and its judges and clerics.”
Visiting the women of the town, Yazbek met the daughter of a displaced family. “She held a hand above my head, and asked, ‘Do you swear by God that you’ll tell the world what I have to say?’ I did, and she said, ‘Write about the village of Amenas, the place where I was born.’ She then read from her diary about the regime kidnapping and killing villagers there a month earlier. ‘It was the shabiha who did it, driving cars with “Free Army” written on them. Before they left, they uprooted trees, destroyed everything they could, and took pictures of the corpses and the destruction. Then they published the pictures online, saying it was the Free Army that had done it. We left a few days later after hearing that Amenas would be bombed. Every night we slept somewhere new, anyplace we could escape the shells and the missiles. We reached Saraqeb on the 15th of February…
What hurts the most is the broken look in my dad’s eyes, the look of humiliation, and the expressions of gratitude he repeats to everyone who offers us food. We used to live comfortably and had everything we needed, and now we’re living on charity and handouts. My older brothers have gone, and my younger brothers and sisters are frightened. I should have been in university today.’ She stopped reading, grabbing my hand. ‘If we die now, the world will know our story, won’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I answered. If I were writing a novel, this girl would be one of my heroines. I’d describe her flame-colored hair, the look in her eyes, and the way her little brothers and sisters tried to hug her and lure her away from me. She wrapped her arms around them, holding them as lovingly as the adopted baby sparrows tucked inside her cardigan.”
Another day, Yazbek was driven around by Abu Waheed, one of the rebel commanders, who told her, “‘Ma’am, we want justice for our people, but we don’t want other countries interfering in our affairs. We’d be better off if they left us to face Bashar alone. Their interference only works in his favor. So many of our fighters and peaceful activists have been killed or arrested.’ I nodded, my eyes fixed on the road and my ears full of the sound of bursting shells. ‘But we’ll keep fighting. We have no choice – we either fight or die…I hear what they talk about in their planes. They want to kill every single one of us! Can you believe that a government and a state could bomb its own people? I’ll never understand this as long as I live!’”
In July 2013, Yazbek crossed the border for the third time at the Atma refugee camp. She “saw long columns of women and children coming the other way, some of them wounded. In the camp I saw deep poverty: emaciated bodies, threadbare clothing, and children playing barefoot under the blazing sun. All the women were veiled. I asked one woman if it was true that young girls were being married off to old men, and she confirmed that it happened all the time.
In Saraqeb Ahrar al-Sham, which had become the de facto judicial authority, had begun forcing women to wear face veils. They planned to establish an Islamic caliphate, bringing over foreign clerics to act as advisers and ministers. One of the women complained that her children weren’t getting a proper education with only a Saudi mujahid [Islamist fighter] coming around to help kids memorize the Quran.
On July 20th, regime planes dropped seventeen barrel bombs on Saraqeb, killing and injuring many people, since all of the barrels landed on civilian homes and the marketplace. At the edge of town, I spoke with Ahmed, a 29-year-old fighter. ‘I’ll never stop fighting Bashar al-Assad,’ he said, ‘for the sake of friends killed in front of my eyes. The revolution has been infiltrated, and we’re surrounded by enemies. This is madness and we’re marked for death, but should we die without defending ourselves?’”
A few days later, masked armed intruders – not Syrian – invaded the media center and kidnapped Polish journalist Martin Soder. “It was clear that the operation was intended to intimidate secular, civilian activists, since many similar incidents followed. Abductions of foreign journalists were also increasing, either for ransom or to prevent them from publishing the truth about what was going on. A member of the town’s sharia court who was with the Nusra Front said he intended to uproot all the secularists in the country.”
Yazbek interviewed the wives of some rebel fighters living with their children in an abandoned poultry barn to be near their husbands. One said, “‘We’re dying slowly here, like animals that have been tied to a tree and left to starve to death. Our relatives who stayed behind have died in the bombing. I’m going to get pregnant every nine months, so we don’t become extinct. Our children will regain our rights. We want them to be educated and to fight so we can return to our homes. We won’t ever kneel to Bashar al-Assad.’ The tears fell silently down my face as she looked at me. As we left, I asked one of my companions, fighter Abu Khaled, if they were safe there on their own. ‘Allah is our protector,’ he replied.”
Next, Yazbek spoke with some fighters on the front line near the completely destroyed and abandoned town of Haish, which had once a population of 25,000. One of them told her, “‘Everyone you see now is from Haish; we haven’t left our town…I see this as a Sunni-Shite war now. It wasn’t like that at the start, but the Iranian Shiites started interfering and fighting against us – them and Hezbollah. We can hear them speaking Farsi on the radio.’
Anas, age 25, said, ‘We started going out on peaceful protests in Haish, never broaching the subject of religion, but the regime are infidels the way they treat us.”
Abu Khaled intervened, saying, ‘These young men are all from poor working families. The regime destroyed their homes, killed their families, and made the survivors homeless. As you can see, they have some feelings of sectarian persecution.’
Abu Waheed wanted to leave, but the Haish Commandos were wound up, feeling completely deserted and keen to tell me their problems. The town did seem to have been forgotten, as if it existed outside space and time, and they, with their young, angry faces, seeming like the living dead. They told me how their friends were dying, one by one. ‘Tell the world, ma’am,’ one of them said, ‘that we’re dying alone and that the Alawites killed us, and that the day will come when they’ll be killed. We’ll return the harm in kind.’
‘My family are Alawites,’ I said quickly as I got into the car, and they followed, apologizing. Anas leaned into the car, his eyes glistening with tears. ‘I swear, ma’am, we’d protect you with our souls. You’re a daughter of this country.’”
Yazbek also interviewed Abu Ahmed, a leader in the Ahrar al-Sham movement. “Blond, with a long bushy beard, he was 38 years old, came originally from a village near Maarat al-Numan, and had never been interested in the civil society movement. He said he joined the military effort ‘to bring down the infidel regime of Bashar al-Assad and to replace it with God’s law in this country. ‘I was one of the founders of this group, and now I’m the Emir of Maarat al-Numan with a battalion of a thousand jihadist brothers.’ Abu Ahmed explained that an emir has a political as well as a military role, but that the latter is more important. He added, ‘We have non-Syrian jihadis who are loyal to us. We also have many Syrians from the Muslim Brotherhood who emigrated and whose children grew up in exile. Overall, 98% of us are Syrians.’ Politically, Abu Ahmed wanted an Islamic emirate ruled by an unelected shura council, ‘with laws to protect the sects and non-Muslims. It will be unlawful for women to go out unveiled, and Alawites and Kurds will have to leave.’ As for ISIS, ‘the brothers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are here in Maarat. They’ve joined us in the fighting and a large proportion of them are immigrants who wish to fight the Alawites.’
‘How do you imagine the situation after Bashar falls?’
‘There will be major conflicts – wars between factions. With God Almighty’s permission, I will be a martyr.’
‘Do you want an Islamic state, meaning a complete collapse for Syria?’
‘No, we’re just raising the banner of Islam. Syria will stay as it is, but Islamic. The Alawites will leave.’
‘They number more than two million people. And what about the Christians and the other sects?’
‘They can leave Syria, convert to Islam, or pay jizya, the tax for non-Muslims.’
‘And anyone who doesn’t leave?’
‘They’ll meet their fate.’
‘That’s their just reward.’
‘And the Druze and the Ismailites?’
‘If they return to Islam, they’re welcome, and if they don’t, they’ll be judged as infidels.’
‘But this doesn’t differ from the evil of Assad.’
‘Leave matters of war to the men, sister.’”
Yazbek next interviewed Abu Hassan, an emir of the Nusra Front, who said, “Compared to the others, I’m a moderate, miss! The takfiris who slaughter and whip people have infiltrated some of our groups. I want an Islamic religion that embraces the world through missionary work.’ Abu Hassan agreed with Abu Ahmed about having a shura council instead of a parliament, about non-Muslims paying the jizya tax, and about Alawites ‘not having a place with us. This is a Sunni-Alawite war, and it will last at least a decade. I’m against killing. Islam is a religion of tolerance and there is no compulsion in religion, but moderate voices like mine won’t be heeded if the situation carries on like this – and I think it will.’”
Yazbek concludes her book this way: “Our dreams of revolution had been hijacked. The powerful countries of the world now battled in our space. Who was financing ISIS and the Nusra Front? Who was assassinating the commanders of the Free Army? Who was killing the journalists and the nonviolent activists? What was causing this abduction of the revolution, this transformation of it into a religious war?”
In an epilogue, she writes, “A year has passed since my final exit from Syria, where surely the sheer scale of the mass exodus of my people will go down in history. Saraqeb has been bombed with barrel and cluster bombs every single day since I left it, while the world watches. What’s happening is nothing new in the history of humanity, but now it’s unfurling in public view, the blood spilling before our eyes and onto our hands. In four years a peaceful popular revolution against a murderous dictator, turned armed mutiny against army and state, has been hijacked by Islamists, making Syrians puppets in a proxy war. The world is obsessed with the ‘Islamic State,’ while Assad’s planes continue to hurl bombs down on civilians in the provinces of Idlib, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
Most of the men I know from Idlib have refused to leave, all repeating the same mantra: ‘We’ll never leave; we’ll die here. This is our land.’ These are some of the protagonists in one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century. They went to their revolution full of dreams of freedom and justice, and paid heavily in blood.”
This post completes my notes from the book Burning Country (see part one for full title and authors), but stay tuned. I’ll be posting more key information every day for the next few days. Want to help Syrians involved in this struggle before reading more about it? Scroll down for a list of websites.
The tilt toward jihad
BC quotes Syrian activist Aziz Asaad as saying that the Syrian revolution “‘gradually became sectarian because support was offered to revolutionary brigades that raised Islamic banners and slogans.’ Monzer al-Sallal adds, ‘We used to laugh at regime propaganda about Salafist gangs and Islamic emirates. Then the regime created the conditions to make it happen.’
Tormented, bereaved, and dispossessed, the Syrian people took refuge in religion. They didn’t become advocates of compulsory veiling and public beheadings – almost all were horrified by the appearance of these phenomena, and most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than an Islamic state. But Islamism in both moderate and extreme forms flourished, especially among fighters. This inevitably sharpened divisions between the Sunni Arab majority and everyone else, especially the Alawis, 90% of whom still supported the regime.
The persistence of sectarian resentments in secular, even unbelieving countries demonstrates that they involve group fears and tensions and their exploitation by power rather than theology. The sectarian breakdown in Syria was deliberately provoked and manipulated by the regime in order to frighten secularists, religious minorities, and the West into tolerance of the dictatorship’s violence. Writer Samar Yazbek says that in August 2013, Assad’s forces shelled Kafranbel exactly at the moment when people were about to break the Ramadan fast. ‘This is where extremism comes from – from violence and brutality.’ Similarly, the Zahra neighborhood of Homs, had a ‘Sunni market’ selling cheap furniture, clothes, and electronics looted from opposition homes. Alawi women were encouraged to go into Sunni homes and take money and mobile phones. Using locally recruited sectarian gangs as death squads also transformed neighboring communities into bitter enemies.
The entry of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias into the conflict gave it conflict a Sunni-Shia flavor, too, fitting it into a regional struggle that had flared since the American occupation of Iraq. The Shia were by no means a natural target for Syrian Sunni enmity – they constituted only 1% of the population and before the revolution weren’t particularly associated with the regime. When Hezbollah was perceived as an anti-Zionist resistance force, it was wildly popular among Syrians, Sunnis included. The alliance between Assadist Syria and Shia-theocratic Iran is political, not religious, but that’s not the way it felt on the ground.
By 2011, Sunnis and Alawis were used to working together in mixed urban areas, sometimes even intermarrying. Yet almost every Alawi family has a son, cousin, or uncle in the army or security services, and those living in the Alawi enclaves built by the regime on strategic approaches to the main cities are overwhelmingly employed by the military or security services. The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces, and the security agencies are almost exclusively Alawi. Once despised, Alawis are now feared and resented, even though – because of regime pressure over the years – most of them aren’t religious and know little about their own tradition. Alawi group identification today isn’t primarily religious; they see themselves as a historically oppressed community whose fortunes are now inextricably tied up with the repressive mechanisms of the state, and with the Assad family.
During the 1960s much of the Arab world was on a secular trajectory similar to Europe’s. Political discourse referenced socialism and nationalism more than religion, and such visible signs of piety as the headscarf were diminishing. Then came the catastrophic defeat by Israel in 1967 and the collapse of nationalist dreams. By the time of the 1979 revolution in Iran, Islam was at the top of the political agenda, and in the following decades there was a region-wide religious revival. Religion was both exploited by power and served as a site of resistance to it. The return to religion came in the age of security states, and was in large part a consequence of them: the corruption of education systems, the clampdown on free expression, and the general pollution of public space gave the mosque an importance it had been losing. The elimination or cooptation of the left also removed one of religion’s natural competitors. Religion responded to popular dissatisfaction with an economic, cultural, and social reality wrongly perceived as secular, and filled welfare gaps for those abandoned by neoliberal regimes.
Atheism was forbidden in the Assadist ‘secular’ state, and the constitution mandated that the president be Muslim. There was no civil code for personal law – marriage, divorce, and inheritance were governed by sharia for Muslims and church law for Christians. The regime frequently conceded to the conservative social demands of the Sunni clergy (the ulema), as long as it failed to call for, or openly opposed, democratic reform. The Sunni religio-political alternative to the ulema is Islamism in its various forms. [For more on Islamism, see the Glossary under Realities/Syria.] In Syria Islamists demanded free elections and an end to the single-party system and respected human rights. (Though Islamism generally tends to the right, it can support liberation theology, bourgeois democracy, dictatorship, or apocalyptic nihilism.)
Unlike the tame shaikhs of the big cities, the provincial ulema stood firmly with the revolution. The failure of nonviolent Islam in the face of savage regime repression greatly benefited political Islam in general, however, and in the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist [Islamic fundamentalist] trend in particular. [More on Salafism in the Glossary.] In Syria Salafism had been both savagely repressed and cleverly exploited. The regime allowed Salafist networks sending fighters to Iraq against the Americans and the Shia government to operate unimpeded, then arrested and imprisoned them when they returned. By 2013, activist Salafism was in the air, providing a ready vocabulary for previously apolitical men suddenly finding themselves having to fight, alienated by the weakness of traditional religious discourse, and searching for an ideology to frame their experience. Yassin Swehat describes many revolutionary fighters as needing ‘discipline and a strong ideology to be able to live in post-apocalyptic conditions.’ Conspiracies aren’t needed to explain the phenomenon, but once again the regime did its utmost to encourage it. From March to October 2011, at the same time that it was targeting thousands of nonviolent, non-sectarian revolutionaries for death-by-torture, the regime released from its prisons up to 1,500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists and helped them create armed brigades. It wanted to tell the world it was fighting al-Qaeda, but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning, so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. Many leaders of key Islamist militias were beneficiaries of Assad’s ‘amnesty.’
Even in circumstances of war, most Syrians aren’t Islamists. In a 2014 opinion poll conducted among refugees, only 30% expressed the desire for a religious-based state – a remarkably low proportion, considering that in the ears of many Syrians the phrase ‘Islamic state doesn’t connote corporal punishment or enforced gender segregation, but rather ‘just government’ or ‘a clean social space.’ Fighters, however, were finding that the most easily tapped sources of funds were Salafist businessmen from the Gulf. State donors like Saudi Arabia funded militias led by men with tribal or personal connections to the Kingdom, some of whom were Islamist. Qatar armed Muslim Brotherhood-linked and Salafist groups. Another factor was the air of corruption and disorganization hanging over the FSA and the Islamists’ contrasting reputation for order. Because of their enthusiasm and willingness to die, and sometimes because of their previous experience in Iraq, Islamists proved the most effective on the battlefield and in providing services to civilians. A final factor in the military Islamization of the revolution was the lack of an international response to Assad’s massacres, particularly the August 2013 sarin attacks in Damascus, when the opposition’s hopes of significant Western support were finally buried.
On November 22, 2013, the Syrian Islamic Front declared its existence. Five of the seven brigades contained in the alliance – Jaysh al-Islam (prominent in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus), Liwa al-Tawheed (Aleppo’s most important formation), Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Kurdish Islamic Front – had previously fought for the FSA and would still fight alongside it, but were now emphasizing their independence and Islamic identity. Some Syrians saw the Islamic Front’s formation as a necessary move to deny the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS a monopoly over armed Islam. Others worried over the Front’s position on democracy. Its spokesmen called for a sharia state, rejecting the concept of popular sovereignty as expressed through democratic elections, while at the same time promising not to impose its program on the Syrian people and saying that its role was just to bring down the regime. Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush promised protection for minorities (which implies no equality of citizenship), while vowing to ‘cleanse Syria of Shia filth.’ In May 2014, after revolutionary criticism, the Islamic Front, alongside other ‘moderate Islamist’ brigades, signed a Code of Honor rejecting ‘extremism’ and stating that ‘the Syrian revolution is one of morals and values, aiming to achieve freedom, justice, and security for Syrian society and its diverse social fabric.’ The idea of a sharia state was dropped.
The nature of Islamic Front rule is best judged by examining Douma and the rest of eastern Ghouta, where Jaysh al-Islam is the dominant armed force. Jaysh al-Islam enjoys a degree of genuine popularity among the Ghouta’s hungry residents, primarily because of its courage and military prowess. Ziad Homsi explains, ‘By the summer of 2012 all of Douma was liberated, but sometimes Assad’s army reentered town and then the Free Army brigades fled while Alloush’s men stayed.’ Neither did they persecute the few Alawis still in the Ghouta, who were supporters of the revolution. Secularists and minorities were nevertheless compelled to live according to Alloush’s social standards (Lubna al-Kanawati, for instance, was told to wear the hijab in public). Jaysh al-Islam won plaudits for pushing ISIS out of the area in 2014, but by then residents were accusing the militia of stockpiling food. Lubna: ‘The people know they’re pursuing their own interests, not religion. In the Ghouta, people still want freedom and human rights, but increasingly they’re too scared to speak. It’s a new form of dictatorship.’
The most blatant sign of the new dictatorship was the militia’s likely abduction and perhaps murder of the Douma Four on December 9, 2013. Three of these revolutionaries – Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi – were part of the founding core of the LCCs. The fourth was Samira Khalil, wife of prominent leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who’d stayed in Douma to set up women’s centers. Asaad al-Achi says, ‘Razan, Wael, and Nazem were the backbone of the LCCs. Razan was documenting the violations committed by Alloush’s Army of Islam, and the LCCs were competing with his Mujahideen Consultative Council. Beyond that, he was offended by Razan, a woman who will never veil and who won’t allow anyone to dictate to her. For a Salafist, such a free spirit is dangerous.’ In Aleppo, too, new forms of authoritarianism were constricting revolutionary space. Zaid Muhammad was detained for three days by the sharia court there for expressing secularist ideas.
The first major jihadist organization to arrive on the battlefield was Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, whose core members fought with al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Its arsenal, acquired from Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf, and its cadres’ fearless fighting skills allowed it to capture a string of military installations in the east, and to procure weaponry, including heavy guns. In Aleppo, regime bombing of bakeries, poor supply lines, and the looting and indiscipline of the FSA militias, sparked a bread crisis in the winter of 2012/13. Jabhat al-Nusra stepped into the breach, setting up the Islamic Services Committee to provide bread and water, and winning plaudits from locals as it safeguarded and fairly distributed grain supplies. Basel al-Junaidi says, ‘They were respected as strong, well-trained soldiers, so people – including secularists like us – decided to tolerate them until the regime had gone. We had faith that Syrian society would never accept their rule. Now we can see this was a mistake.’ Al-Nusra’s large popular base consists mainly of Syrians who joined for pragmatic reasons and, at least at first, didn’t necessarily support its Salafist state-building project. Research conducted by the Voices of Syria project in early 2012 showed that the Islamist fighters interviewed were surprisingly supportive of democracy: 60% of the fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra agreed that democracy is preferable to any other form of governance. Seventy percent also strongly agreed that ‘it’s essential for Syria to remain a unified state.’ Though the terrors of the intervening years have likely hardened attitudes, it’s probable that many of these men will leave the jihadist ranks once Assad falls.
The foreign fighters are a different matter. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed that al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) had birthed Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the two organizations would now be merging under his leadership as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham – ISIS, or Daesh according to its Arabic acronym. Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, backed up by al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, refused the merger. ISIS fighters arrived in Syria as they’d once arrived in Iraq, gently at first, exploiting the people’s torments. But in the town of Saraqueb in Idlib province in May 2013, they whipped two men in the public square for an infringement of Islamic law. In June they took absolute control, forbidding drinking and smoking, making public prayer compulsory, and closing the printing press used by local revolutionaries. In July they attacked Saraqueb’s media center and abducted Polish journalist Martin Soder.
In March 2013, revolutionaries took control of Raqqa, a city between Aleppo and the Iraqi border, the first provincial capital to be entirely liberated. Jabhat al-Nusra was there in force, setting up a sharia court. Like-minded jihadists, more interested in establishing their own power base than in toppling the regime, flooded to the city from Idlib and Aleppo. From April, ISIS increasingly dominated Raqqa, attacking shrines and churches and causing the city’s substantial Christian population to flee. Like the regime, ISIS specialized in exemplary barbarity. Its territories witnessed not only public floggings, but stonings, crucifixions, and the hurling of gay men from towers. Its rule presaged a totalitarian year zero: libraries and shrines were destroyed, schools were turned into propaganda and recruitment centers, and a reign of terror targeted FSA, Islamic Front, and Nusra fighters; civil activists and media workers; and foreign journalists and aid workers. Syrians who were in any way ‘different’ – those who’d lived abroad, even those with light features – risked death at ISIS checkpoints. From southern Turkey, Bashar Abu Hadi, says, ‘We are all wanted by both the regime and Daesh. Daesh killed the elite of the revolution.’
The regime pursued an undeclared nonaggression pact with ISIS for months, bombing Raqqa’s schools, hospitals, and marketplaces, but not its large and obvious headquarters. It also bought oil from the jihadists. This strategy aimed to achieve the usual twin goals – to scare minorities, secularists, and the religious but non-extremist population into loyalty, and to convince Western powers that the dictatorship was the lesser threat. Depressingly, many Western columnists and government officials took the bait, calling for cooperation with Assad against ISIS, and ignoring the context – Assad’s even worse atrocities – which created the chaos in which ISIS thrived. [Note: 97% of civilian casualties in the Syrian civil war have been caused by the Assad regime, and in recent years Russian bombs and rebel fighters have come second and third, with ISIS a 2% fourth.]
The people in liberated areas proved they could take on ISIS without seeking the aid of their chief tormentor. During the winter of 2013/14, popular protests against both Assad and ISIS spread across the north. The FSA, the Islamic Front, and Nusra all responded, driving ISIS from its border strongholds in Idlib and Aleppo, where it had controlled the passage of men, goods, and weapons. ISIS was also pushed out of Aleppo city and greatly weakened in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. A few weeks of rebel operations backed by popular support had done what Assad had refused to do, but the turnaround was lightly covered by the Western media.
Then in June 2014, events in Iraq brought ISIS back from the brink in Syria. Iraq had also been touched by the Arab Spring, though protests there, coming in a post-Saddam, post-civil war context, had a sectarian flavor from the start. A ‘Day of Anger’ across the country’s Sunni Arab area on February 25, 2011 had developed into weekly protests by tens of thousands, protesting the sectarian oppression of the Shia-led post-occupation Iraqi state. Repressed, these protests erupted again even more strongly in 2013. In December, in response to the kidnapping of a Sunni member of parliament, tribal forces joined by defected Sunni policemen took over the major towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. Sensing an opportunity even as it reeled from its defeats in Syria, ISIS increased its presence in Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas through the spring of 2014. By June, though it fielded a minority of fighters, it was leading a Sunni coalition. Iraqi Shia, Christian, and Yazidi civilians in ISIS-controlled areas were forced to flee or suffer mass execution, enslavement, or forced conversion to Islam. Many Iraqi Sunnis were prepared to tolerate the jihadists at first, alienated as they were from the Iraqi government, but hundreds have since fled their rule.
In June 2014, ISIS led an offensive which took huge swathes of northern and western Iraq out of government hands. Most significantly, Mosul, the country’s second largest city, fell on June 10th after only four days of battle. Shia General Mahdi al-Gharawi – a proven torturer who’d run secret prisons but was nevertheless appointed governor of Nineveh province by Maliki – fled, and his troops, who greatly outnumbered the ISIS attackers, deserted or, if Sunni, defected. ISIS collected the arms left behind, much of it high-quality American weaponry, and cleaned out Mosul’s banks. Then it returned to Syria in force, beat back the starved FSA, and bought new loyalties.
The FSA and Islamic Front in Deir al-Zor, besieged by both ISIS and Assad for months, begged the United States for ammunition, warning the city was about to fall. Their plea ignored, they pulled out in July, leaving the province’s oil fields and the Iraqi border area to ISIS. ISIS reinforced itself in Raqqa and surged back into the Aleppo countryside and the central desert. Dominating a third of Iraq and a third of Syria, it declared itself a caliphate at the end of June 2014. ISIS’s precipitous expansion ended its undeclared nonaggression pact with Assad. In August it took on regime forces in the east, most dramatically at the Tabqa airbase, where its execution of 220 surrendered conscripts shocked Syrians on both sides. Assad’s opposition was limited to areas of regime influence, and when the FSA and ISIS fought, his planes bombed the FSA.
For some, the very extremity of its rule makes ISIS attractive; its violence seems to herald a completely new start, and its repression removes crime and dissension from the public space. Some support it, therefore, for the sake of stability, and because it appears to be the strongest, most credible available option to Assad. As it parodies nationalism and Islamic history, so its nihilism parodies the anarchist
ideal; in its territories the rich, the notable families, and all political parties are rendered irrelevant, and peasant boys and Bedouin can rise to command. Because its militants aren’t numerous enough to govern the vast areas it controls, ISIS sometimes relies on local leadership, co-opting sections of tribes or villages against others with divide-and-rule strategies as coldly intelligent as Assad’s. Many young people have joined up in order to fight the regime that bombs them and been shocked to find themselves fighting Kurds or the FSA instead.
On September 22, 2014, America and its allies finally intervened openly in Syria – not in support of the popular revolution or against Assad, but to attack ISIS. On the first day, they hit Jabhat al-Nusra, killing dozens of men and women and children. Later they struck at Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group at war with ISIS. More to the point, both were on the front lines against Assad, and both might have contained a majority of foot soldiers in favor of democracy. Syrians in the liberated areas were astounded that the US, which had declined to bomb Assad when he slaughtered them with barrel bombs and sarin gas, was now bombing fighters defending them against the dictator. Indeed, American and regime planes shared the sky, and it was often difficult to tell whose plane had caused the slaughter on the ground. The Americans were also bombing oil fields and grain silos, which funded ISIS, but also provided civilian communities with fuel and food. Monzer al-Sallal, a Free Army commander from Manbij, expresses the popular disgust: ‘They bomb far from the front lines where the Free Army could take advantage, and they bomb at night when Daesh have left their positions and are sleeping in people’s houses.’ In Kobani, at least, American bombs provided support for PYD fighters on the ground. The American raids provoked a series of protests across the north. And when ISIS took Palmyra from Assad on May 20th, Syrian-American activist Mohammed Ghanem commented, ‘We are mystified as to how ISIS columns with hundreds of fighters were able to traverse the Syrian desert and reach Palmyra without suffering a single air raid.’
In late March 2015, al-Nusra, the FSA, and the Islamic Front liberated Idlib city, the second provincial capital to escape Assad’s control. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia had set aside their differences and coordinated an improved supply of anti-tank weapons. While Assad was crumbling in Idlib, the Southern Front, a unified body of 57 FSA groups, was punishing him around Deraa. (The Southern Front has refused to enter into coalition with Jabhat al-Nusra, its symbology and rhetoric continuing to echo the revolution’s national and democratic aims.)
By February 2015 more than 220,000 Syrians had lost their lives, and four times that number had been wounded – 6% or more of the Syrian population. More than 150,000 have also been incarcerated in Assad’s dungeons, many of whom will never come out. Photos released by a defected military police photographer in January 2014 provide evidence of the murder of 11,000 detainees, tortured or starved to death in only one region of the country. With the collapse of the economy and the destruction of infrastructure, three million had lost their jobs, pushing unemployment to 57.7%. Four in five Syrians were living in poverty, and extreme poverty rose to 64.7%. 12.2 million people needed humanitarian aid to survive, 4.8 million of them in difficult to reach areas. More than 640,200 were besieged, facing starvation. Protestors calling for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from regime bombardment went unanswered.
A quarter of the country’s schools are inoperable – destroyed, damaged, or providing shelter for the displaced, and over half of Syria’s children aren’t going to school. More than half of the country’s hospitals are no longer functioning, and diseases like polio, hepatitis, and typhoid are spreading with the collapse of water, sanitation, and health systems. By January 2013, revolutionaries were struggling to respond to basic needs, as the regime (and sometimes other armed groups) restricted access to international humanitarian organizations. It took the UN until mid-2014 to authorize cross-border and cross-battle line aid without the consent of the state, finally allowing agencies to reach areas like Aleppo, Idlib, and rural Damascus.
By July 2015 half the population had been displaced, four million having fled the country and 7.6 million being internally displaced, often multiple times as the violence spread. Unplanned camps cluster in border regions not served by the UN or any organization other than those run by expatriate or local Syrians. At Atmeh on the Turkish border, 30,000 people living in tents endure an enervating, dust-laden wind in summer and bone-deep, biting cold in winter, children’s feet protected from the snow only by flip flops. Some have frozen to death; others have burned in tent fires. Battles between smugglers and Turkish police, ISIS and opposition militias, or Arab forces and the PYD have encroached on the camp’s borders, while other camps have been raked by machine gun fire from regime helicopters.
Abo Hajar, who crossed to Jordan and eventually made his way to Europe, says, ‘To flee the country you need $1,000 to $2,000 just to pay a smuggler.’ Of the four million who’ve managed to get beyond the border as of early 2015, 35.1% were in Turkey, 34.5% in Lebanon, 18.7% in Jordan, and 6.9% in Iraq. Only 6% have made it to Europe, the majority to Germany and Sweden.
Sprawled across two and a half miles, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, less than ten miles from the Syrian border, was at one point home to more than 150,000, now 81,000, refugees. Zaatari is a hostile environment, with temperatures plummeting below freezing in winter and above 100 degrees in summer. Residents can’t easily leave the camp, whose perimeter is patrolled by Jordanian police. Most of the 629,000 Syrians in Jordan don’t live in camps, however, but in towns and cities, often in squalid conditions. Syrians aren’t permitted to work in the country, but unscrupulous bosses give them jobs for long hours on very low wages. The 1,172,753 Syrian refugees in Lebanon as of July 2015 constitute well over a quarter of the country’s population, upsetting its precarious economic and sectarian balance. The government refuses to set up formal camps, so refugees move into already impoverished communities. Perhaps the most welcoming are the long-suffering Palestinian camps; refugees from Yarmouk go there to stay with relatives, sometimes accompanied by their former Syrian neighbors.
In July 2015, there were almost 2 million Syrians in Turkey, a wealthier and more populous country than either Jordan or Lebanon. Some are housed in formal camps of a comparatively high standard, but many more live in border towns in rented apartments and sometimes in the streets. Most of the two to three thousand Syrian refugees in Iraq are Kurds living in the territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Forty percent are housed in nine camps set up after 2013, when a large influx followed fighting between ISIS and the PYD. The KRG has warmly welcomed Syrian Kurds and allowed them to work, despite the worsening humanitarian disaster caused by ISIS’s rampage against Iraqi Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. Syrians are less welcome in Arab Iraq. A few have sheltered with relatives in Sunni-majority Anbar province, but under ISIS rule and subject to assault by the Iraqi army, Anbar is little safer than Syria.
In March 2015, 132,375 Syrians were living in Egypt, having been welcomed during the country’s revolutionary phase. Now, however, General Sisi’s propaganda machine paints Syrians and Palestinians as agents of disorder linked to Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism, and they suffer discrimination and harassment. Thousands, including children, have been detained without charge, and hundreds have been deported, some back to Syria, where they risk being arrested as soon as they step off the plane.
Thousands of Syrian refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe, where countries have put up roadblocks to immigration and migration. In Calais, France, refugees try to reach the UK, alongside migrants from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. Many try to cross the English Channel by strapping themselves to the undercarriages of trucks, and some have been killed in the attempt.”
The authors of Burning Country suggest that “the Obama administration’s obsession with reaching a nuclear deal with Iran meant appeasing Iran in Syria, while the killing went on. The American public and elite also had no appetite for intervention after the failure in Iraq, particularly with a fragile economy after 2008. Unfortunately, the Americans also prevented other powers from giving Syrian revolutionaries the anti-aircraft and other heavy weapons necessary to defend liberated areas from Assad’s bombs and shells. American diplomatic policy was to encourage Assad to stand down while keeping the regime – expanded to include a few safe oppositional faces – in place. This policy, which fundamentally misunderstood the nature of both the regime and the revolution, was reflected in the on and off flow of arms. When the FSA won a victory, the weapons dried up; when Assad surged back, it resumed. The Americans always insisted that the FSA had first to attack jihadists before it would send weapons. But as the secular Kurd Serdar Ahmed says, ‘Daesh’s worst crime in Syria was the massacre at the Taqba airbase where they killed 220. Assad has killed at least 200,000. When the people saw the American coalition leaving Assad alone and attacking Daesh instead, some started saying, “We are all Daesh.” Every bomb the coalition drops, the more popular Daesh becomes.’
Russia has preserved a web of business and military relationships with Syria since the Soviet era. The Syrian port at Tartous houses Russia’s only naval base outside of Russia and the Ukraine, but a greater motivation seems to be Putin’s desire to project Russian influence and prestige. So, barrel bombs are dropped on residential tenements from Russian-supplied helicopters, Russian military advisers train regime soldiers, and Russian fuel shipments arrive at Tartous. Russian military intelligence also helps coordinate regime actions.
Zaid Muhammad writes that ‘there are still many young people in Syria – whether secularists or Islamists – who believe in the freedom of the other, but they’re dying, they’re being murdered. The West knows this. I believe if Russia hadn’t vetoed action against Assad in the UN Security Council, America would have.’ Yara Nseir says ‘the international community is responsible for the desperation that leads people to Daesh.’ The Syrian revolution didn’t receive the international support and recognition it deserved, and not for want of information. Syria’s citizen journalists, as well as foreign reporters, struggled and even died while trying to communicate Syrian terrors and hopes to the world. Others have done the Syrian people great service in activism, in collecting and delivering aid, by volunteering in refugee camps, or advocating for refugees in Europe. Sadly, however, these were a small minority, and they frequently found themselves swimming against the tide. The dominant narrative on Syria was terribly flawed, beset by false assumptions, red herrings, and sensationalism. It was an unwitting carrier of Assadist propaganda, contributing to the manufacture of the popular assumption that in Syria a secular regime stands on one side and fanatical Islamist extremists on the other, with nothing in between. All Western readers knew of Arab Aleppo was that it was ruled by ‘Islamists’ of some stripe or other; they knew nothing of the grassroots activists, the committees and councils, or the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ men fighting to defend their communities. ISIS’s theater of atrocity also demonstrates an accurate understanding of Western media prejudices. The beheading of one American is headline news, while the tens or hundreds killed daily by Assad go unreported. The start of solidarity is to correct the narrative.
Had Assad not received such solid military and economic support from abroad, had the Free Army and the grassroots organizers not been in various ways abandoned and betrayed, the regime might have fallen in 2013. It would have been difficult to establish a more democratic and socially just society at that point, but the country would have been spared the rule of ISIS and the ongoing destruction of its cities. Many decent, forward-thinking Syrians still have stomach for the fight, even if many of them are in exile. There’s reason to hope that when the bombs finally stop falling, when ISIS and regime checkpoints no longer threaten death, these people will return and raise their voices for a better future. At the time of this writing, however, more Syrians flee the country every day, and more Sunni and Shia foreign fighters rush in.
We hope this book has shown that there are Syrians inside and in exile who are more than worthy of support. We ask the reader to engage with them, with media and creative workers, with the committees and councils, by working with refugees and in the camps. We ask the reader, rather than applying the usual grand narratives, to listen to voices from the ground.
On September 30, 2015, Russia declared active war on the Syrian revolution. Though its public rhetoric was stopping ISIS, it hit nowhere near ISIS positions, but rather struck the communities that had driven ISIS out. The bombing killed at least two dozen civilians, including many children, and destroyed such targets as a building used by a revolutionary council and Byzantine ruins near Kafranbel. Further bombing raids did target ISIS, but the vast majority of bombs continued to fall on those who opposed both Assad and ISIS. The liberated Rastan pocket in northern Homs, controlled by the FSA, and targets in Hama, Idlib, and Lattakia controlled by Jaysh al-Fatah were particularly hard hit.
The LCCs responded: ‘Russian troops are now openly fighting alongside the army of the dictator. Despite international consensus that the attacks haven’t targeted ISIS positions, we have yet to see any forceful condemnation regarding the killing of civilians, and this leads us to believe that the international community tacitly approves of these attacks.’
Today Assad, Russia, and America share the skies, occasionally bombing ISIS, but more usually the struggling Syrian people and their resistance militias. Russian intervention is a grievous setback for the rebels, but Assad will eventually have to face the demographic reality that he’s running out of fighting men; foreign troops, however many arrive, can extend but not win his war. And not only the opposition militias, but the majority of the Syrian people will refuse to cooperate with any plan envisaging regime survival. Assad is still likely to fall, perhaps suddenly, perhaps after several more years of struggle. Building a free and socially just society out of Syria’s wreckage, however, will be an almost impossible task.”
Hand in Hand for Syria: www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk
Karam Foundation: http://karamfoundation.org
Soriyat for Development: www.soriyat.org
Syria Relief: www.syriarelief.org.uk
The White Helmets: www.whitehelmets.org
The Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution on Facebook
Humans of Syria: www.facebook.com/HumanOSyria
Local Coordination Committees: @LccSy and http://www.lccsyria.org/en
Planet Syria: www.planetsyria.org/en
The Syria Campaign on Facebook and at https://thesyriacampaign.org
The Syria Solidarity Movement: on Facebook
The Syrian Nonviolence Movement: www.facebook.com/SyrainNonviolence
Syria Direct: http://syriadirect.org
Syrian Revolutionary Blogs and Websites in English
Darth Nader: http://darthnader.net
Leila al-Shami: https://leilashami.wordpress.com
Robin Yassin-Kassab: http://qunfuz.com
Syria Freedom Forever: https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com
Syria Untold: www.syriauntold.com
Yassin al-Haj Saleh: http://www.yassinhs.com