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.”