In the Syria We Don’t Know

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Supporters of Bashar al-Assad at a demonstration in Homs, May 2012

A young woman in Damascus produced a smart phone from her handbag and asked, “May I show you something?” The phone’s screen displayed a sequence of images. The first was a family photograph of a sparsely bearded young man in his twenties. Beside him were two boys, who appeared to be five and six, in T-shirts. The young man and his sons were smiling. Pointing at the father, the woman said, “This is my cousin.” The next picture, unlike the first, came from the Internet. It was the same young man, but his head was severed. Beside him lay five other men in their twenties whose bloody heads were similarly stacked on their chests. I looked away.

Her finger skimmed the screen, revealing another photo of her cousin that she insisted I see. His once happy face had been impaled on a metal spike. The spike was one of many in a fence enclosing a public park in Raqqa, a remote provincial capital on the Euphrates River in central Syria. Along the fence were other decapitated heads that children had to pass on their way to the playground.

The woman’s cousin and his five comrades were soldiers in the Syrian army’s 17th Reserve Division. The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) had captured them when it overran the Tabqa military airfield, about twenty-five miles from ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, on August 24. The family’s sole hope was that the young man was already dead when they cut off his head. There was no question of returning the body or holding a funeral. Only a few weeks later ISIS savagery touched the United States and Britain, as it already had Syria and Iraq, with the beheadings of the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

The woman explained that her cousin had recently turned down a chance to leave his unit for a safer post near his home. It would not be right, he reasoned, for him, as a member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect, to desert his Sunni comrades. He stayed with them, and he died with them.

The Syrian government does not publish casualty figures by sect, but martyrs’ notices pasted on the walls in Jabal Alawia, the Alawite heartland in the hills east of the port of Latakia, indicate that the Alawites have suffered a disproportionate share of deaths in the war to preserve the Alawite president. A myth promulgated by the Sunni Islamist opposition is that the Alawites have been the main beneficiaries of forty-four years of Assad family rule over Syria, but evidence of Alawite wealth outside the presidential clan and entourage is hard to find. The meager peasant landholdings that marked the pre-Assad era are still the rule in Jabal Alawia, where most families live on the fruits of a few acres. Some Alawite merchants have done better in the seaside cities of Latakia and Tartous, but so have Sunni, Druze, and Christian businessmen. This may explain in part why, from my own observations, a considerable proportion of Syrian Sunnis, who comprise about 75 percent of the population, have not taken up arms against the regime. If they had, the regime would not have survived.

The rising number of Alawite young men killed or severely wounded while serving in the army and in regime-backed militias has led to resentment among people who have no choice other than to fight for President Assad and to keep their state’s institutions intact. Their survival, as long as Sunni jihadists kill them wherever they find them, requires them to support a regime that many of them oppose and blame for forcing them into this predicament.

After my friend’s cousin and his comrades were decapitated at Tabqa and their corpses left on the streets of Raqqa, ISIS publicly executed another two hundred captured soldiers. It was then that someone, said to be an Alawite dissident, declared on Facebook, “Assad is in his palace and our sons are in their graves.”

Alawite frustration is matched by that of the now-marginalized nonviolent opponents of Assad’s rule. The Damascus cafés where I met young anti-Assad activists early in the uprising are now mostly empty, and their original enthusiasm has dissipated. Some organizers are in prison, others have gone into exile, and the rest have given up, as disillusioned with the rebellion as many Alawites are with the regime. But like the Alawites who grumble off the record, they are powerless. One former protester told me, “I spent three days in jail, three days of hell. I’ve gone back to my job and stay out of politics.” He fears ISIS more than the security forces who arrested him, and he tries to avoid them both.

It took less than a year for the armed militias that coalesced into the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic Front to displace the pro-democracy demonstrators. The FSA predicated the success of its rebellion on a repetition of the Western air campaign that deposed Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. “When that failed to materialize,” Patrick Cockburn writes in his enlightening The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, “they had no plan B.”* Without the air support they demanded, the FSA–Islamic Front offensive ground to a stalemate.

ISIS came along to supersede the FSA, as the FSA had replaced the protesters. ISIS was more combative, more ruthless, better financed, and more effective, using mobility across the desert in Syria and Iraq to launch surprise attacks. It used suicide teams in bomb-laden trucks to open the way into regime strongholds that its rebel adversaries had merely besieged. Moreover, it has achieved the one objective that eluded the FSA: it brought American airpower into the war, but not in the way the FSA wanted. Instead, the Syria war has produced an opposition to Assad so repellent and so antagonistic to Western allies in the region that when the air intervention came, it arrived in the guise of the regime’s ally in all but name.

The prospect of America reversing its policy from threatening to bomb the regime in August 2013 to actually bombing the regime’s enemies this year gave the regime hope. It saw that not only would it survive, but that it would become, however covertly, a partner of the nations that had worked most assiduously to remove it. Although I left Syria just before the United States bombed ISIS-held towns, with the predictable civilian casualties and targets that turned out to be grain silos and private houses, Syrian officials were anticipating American involvement with satisfaction.

Contacts with the US had been underway at least since June 20, when Syrian presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban met former US President Jimmy Carter and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman in Oslo. Feltman was attending a conference as a newly appointed UN official, but he still had his State Department connections. Officials present at his meeting with Dr. Shaaban recounted a conversation in which Feltman told her, “We know President Assad is going to stay, but you know what President Obama said. So, how can we solve the problem?” Having said for three years that Assad must go, Obama has yet to explain why Assad can, for the time being, stay. This change would not be unusual for an American president, since the recurring theme in US–Syria relations throughout the Assad era has been one of hostility followed by cooperation—that is, cooperation when both sides needed it.

During the early years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule, which began in 1970, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger refused all dealings with the ostensibly pro-Soviet ruler. The October 1973 war, launched by Egypt and Syria to regain territories Israel occupied in 1967, put an end to that. Kissinger flew to Damascus in December 1973 and wrote later:

Withal, I developed a high regard for Assad. In the Syrian context he was moderate indeed. He leaned toward the Soviets as the source of his military equipment. But he was far from being a Soviet stooge. He had a first-class mind allied to a wicked sense of humor.

The US opened an embassy in Damascus in 1974 and enjoyed a brief honeymoon with Assad père, until his meddling in Lebanon made him persona non grata again in Washington. A near victory by Palestinian commandos in Lebanon’s civil war in 1976 prompted Kissinger to ask Assad to send his army into Lebanon to control the Palestine Liberation Organization and save Lebanon’s Christians.

By 1982, the US was again fed up with Assad for giving aid to Yasser Arafat. That turned out to be disastrous for Arafat. Syrian tolerance of his actions only worsened his situation and that of his people as Palestinian commandos had a part in dividing and ruining Lebanon. Ronald Reagan let the Israelis drive Assad’s army out of most of Lebanon. A few years later, when Hezbollah was making life unbearable in West Beirut and Westerners were easy pickings for kidnappers, the first Bush administration invited Syria back into the region that its army had evacuated in 1982. This was followed by another freeze in relations that ended when Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, asked Syria to take part in the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Assad obliged, making him a temporary hero at the White House if something of a pariah to those of his citizens who were Arab nationalists.

After September 11, the US rendered terrorism suspects to Syria for torture. That relationship ended with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 and Syria’s humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon after it was accused of conspiring against Hariri. If his father survived the ups and downs of that seesaw, young Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has a good chance of riding out a rebellion that has become, as he had prematurely claimed at its inception, an uprising of fanatics and terrorists who want to take Syria into a dark age.

As Bashar’s prospects improve with each American sortie against his enemies in the east of the country, Damascus and the populous towns to the north have been enjoying a respite of sorts from war. The Syrian Ministry of Education reported that, of the 22,000 schools in the country, more than 17,000 of them reopened on time in the middle of September. Needless to say, almost all of the functioning schools are in government-held areas. The souks in the old city of Damascus, unlike their more extensive and now destroyed counterparts in Aleppo, are open. Shops selling meat, vegetables, spices, and other basic items to the local population are doing well, although the tourist boutiques in and around the famous Souk Hamadieh have no customers apart from UN workers and a few remaining diplomats. At night, restaurants in most neighborhoods are, if not full, nearly so. Everything from wine to grilled chicken is plentiful, albeit at prices higher than before the war. Traffic remains heavy, although somewhat less obstructed since June when the government felt confident enough to remove many of its checkpoints. Electricity is intermittent, and those who can afford private generators use them in the off-hours.

Mike King

In the old city of Damascus, where I stayed in an Ottoman palace converted into a hotel, I heard each morning at eight the roar of Syrian warplanes. They ran bombing missions on the suburb of Jobar, not more than a few hundred yards from the old city’s walls. Most of Jobar’s inhabitants fled long ago, and its buildings have dissolved to rubble under relentless shelling. The rebels are said to be safe underground in tunnels that they or their prisoners have dug over the past two years. They fire the occasional mortar, which the Damascenes ignore.

People in the city refuse to see and hear the violence in their suburbs, much as Beverly Hills ignored riots in Watts in 1965 and 1992. It becomes easy to pretend there is no war, unless a bomb falls too close or kills someone you know. One morning as I was driving through the upscale Abu Rummaneh quarter, a rebel mortar shell whistled overhead, hit a fuel storage tank, and sent black smoke soaring into the sky. Yet the shoppers around the corner went on as if nothing happened.

Jobar is not the only outlying area of the capital in rebel hands, but the government has dealt more successfully with the others. It has recaptured some, like Mleiha on August 14. In others, a UN official said, the strategy has been subtler. Commanders from the warring sides make local agreements not to fight one another. “Local agreements for them are just stages of their military strategy,” said a United Nations official involved in talks between the two sides. “Fragment areas. Isolate them. Besiege them, until the people understand that they are not going to win the war and are going to negotiate. The opposition calls this a policy of kneel or starve…. The government uses the term ‘reconciliation.’ We call it ‘surrender.’”

A young Druze friend, who like the rest of his community has struggled not to take sides, said, “People are exhausted. Even those who fought the regime are moving toward reconciliation.” It is hard to blame them, when 200,000 Syrians have died and another nine million have become refugees inside and outside their country in a war that has, to date, achieved nothing except death and destruction.

“It’s a lot quieter in Damascus,” admitted a UN aid worker, “but there are other places that are on fire.” Yet the fire is burning far to the north and east of Damascus, many miles from the heartland of populated Syria. The roads west to Lebanon and north from Damascus to Homs look as if central Damascus has become contiguous with the regions the regime considers vital to its survival. The first sight as I drove on the highway north out of the capital was the district of Harasta, destroyed and mostly deserted. Then came Adra, an industrial town that was brutally captured last year by Islamists who massacred its Alawite inhabitants. Shortly after I drove past, the government took it back and invited its industrial workers to return.

Further north, the highway crosses open land of farms and peasant hamlets. A year ago, the route there was not safe. Bandits and rebels alike set up flying checkpoints to demand money or cars and to kidnap those who looked prosperous enough to afford ransom. It was a no-go zone for minority sects like the Alawites, Ismailis, and Christians, as well as for visiting Westerners. A year later, the atmosphere has changed.

The rebels in Homs, said in 2011 to be the cradle of the revolution, surrendered their positions to the government and left with their light weapons last May. Only the district of Al Wa’er, about a mile from the old city, remains in rebel hands and under regime siege. There is a tense and regularly violated truce, but the city is mostly quiet. Some civilians are returning home, even to houses that must be rebuilt after three years of fighting. Christians fleeing from areas taken by ISIS and the Islamic Front groups have found temporary refuge in an Armenian church in the city, and the local aid organizations help people of all sects.

From Homs, the road north to Aleppo remains as precarious as the road west to the sea is secure. Aleppo, which like Damascus claims to be the biggest city in Syria, is the major zone of battle between the regime and the rival opposition forces, who fight one another as much as they do the army. A Human Rights Watch report this summer identified hundreds of sites in Aleppo that had been attacked, often with “barrel bombs” by government forces.

The road west toward the sea, however, is safe for anyone not allied to the rebels. The famed Krak des Chevaliers Crusader fortress, from which rebels were able to shell the highway and nearby villages, is again in government hands. So are the towns of Qosair and Qalamoun, which the rebels had used to keep their lines of supply open to Lebanon. The road runs through fields where the apple harvest has begun and the olives will soon be collected. The coastal city of Tartous is buzzing with life, as if there had never been a war. The ferry to Arwad Island, where families go for lunch, runs every twenty minutes.

Further north, the port of Latakia has suffered shelling only on the rare occasions that rebels took positions in the Alawite hills above it until the army quickly pushed them back. It may sound odd to anyone outside Syria who has followed the conflict, but the beach in front of my hotel in Latakia was filled with families swimming and not a few women in bikinis.

There is fear, however, that a major onslaught by ISIS and similar jihadist groups would put an end to these pockets of ordinary life. It is hard for Syrians to accept that the countries in the Gulf and elsewhere that supported ISIS with arms, financing, and fighters are now signing up to an American coalition to bring it down. Yet ISIS may have gone too far, even for its backers. The caliphate that it declared in parts of Syria and Iraq struck a strong chord with Islamist fanatics in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and other states that had facilitated the group’s rapid and rabid expansion. These states must fear that the movement they brought to Syria will come to haunt them. “It’s like the lion tamer,” an Arab diplomat in Damascus told me. “He feeds and trains the lion, but the lion might kill him at the right moment.”

—Damascus, October 8, 2014

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    OR Books, 2014.