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The Agony of Syria

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Laurent Van der Stockt/Reportage by Getty Images
Residents of Tall Rifat, a small town north of Aleppo, after a Syrian army helicopter launched rockets at a local school, July 12, 2012

Postcolonial governments have often seemed condemned to repeat the sins of the imperialists they replaced, a sad irony that has been especially pronounced in the Middle East. The British in 1920, for instance, pioneered the use of poison gas against civilians in order to subdue a tribal revolt in Iraq. The last known deployment of chemical weapons for mass murder was again in Iraq, in 1988, when Saddam Hussein gassed his fellow citizens during the notorious Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

Syria, too, has experienced sinister symmetries. Soon after France grabbed the territory as a share of its spoils from World War I, an insurrection among the proud Druze of the Houran region in the south quickly spread elsewhere. The colonial government countered this challenge with a mix of sweet propaganda and extreme violence. Depicting their foes as sectarian fanatics, the French posed as patrons of progress and as the noble guarantors of peace between Syria’s diverse sects. Yet they also worked hard to sharpen the schism they warned of. Arming and empowering favored groups, they brutalized others with summary executions, the burning of crops, and the razing of villages.

The counterinsurgency culminated with a brazen demonstration of destructive power that effectively terrorized Syria’s propertied class into submission. In October 1925 French artillery and aircraft bombarded Damascus for two days, leaving 1,500 dead and much of the Syrian capital in ruins; the large, incongruously grid-patterned section of the Old City known simply as al-Hariqa—The Fire—today serves as a memorial to that conflagration. In May 1945, French forces again shelled Damascus indiscriminately, killing more than six hundred people in what proved a vain attempt to reassert control following the end of World War II.

The regime built under the Assad clan, whose godfather, Hafez Assad, Syria’s then minister of defense, seized power in 1970 and held it for three decades until his son Bashar’s succession, has followed these unfortunate examples. Like France’s colonial governors the Assads have posed as defenders of a modern secular state. They have called their opponents sectarian extremists, even as their favoritism toward some parts of Syria’s complex ethnic and religious mosaic—particularly their own minority Alawite sect—and punishment of others, such as the 10 percent Kurdish minority, have enflamed communal resentment. The striking viciousness and scale of state repression, enforced by seventeen competing intelligence agencies whose upper ranks are dominated by Alawites, have been excused as a necessary bulwark against threats to national unity.

Just like the French, too, the Assads have made a practice of training heavy artillery on densely populated areas. In 1982, responding to a budding Sunni Muslim insurgency that included terror attacks against Alawite soldiers, an army brigade commanded by Hafez Assad’s brother sealed off Syria’s then fourth-largest city, Hama. The two-week barrage of mortar and rocket fire that followed killed tens of thousands, erasing Hama’s large and well-preserved historic center.

In the face of the current uprising, now in its eighteenth bloody month, Bashar Assad has ordered a sustained use of heavy weaponry against his own people that may be unmatched by any state in modern times. The gory internecine wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka saw governments behave with similar savagery, but against what they claimed were separatist revolts. In trying to crush an inclusive, nationwide, and initially peaceful pro-democracy movement that from its inception was unquestionably backed by the vast majority of Syrians, the Assads’ army has wreaked devastation akin to that in Grozny or Jaffna or Sarajevo, only across swathes of a country with a far larger population, devastating scores of villages, dozens of towns, and all three of Syria’s biggest cities.

Aleppo and Homs have been worse hit, but Damascus itself has hardly been spared. Perhaps nothing better expresses the wantonly destructive nonchalance of Syria’s government than its stationing of big guns atop Mount Qasyoun, the barren, 3,700-foot-high ridge that looms above the Syrian capital, and where Cain is said to have slain Abel. Regularly in the past two months, these cannons have sent shells soaring high over the city center to crash into its mostly Sunni-populated suburbs.

Statistics have consistently failed to capture the scale of Syria’s tragedy. The widely cited current death toll of around 20,000 may not seem large by the standards of modern conflict. Yet this is a conservative estimate of numbers that are accelerating very fast, with more people killed in July alone than in all of 2011. Tens of thousands more Syrians have been injured, while even larger numbers have suffered while under arrest. For many if not most, this has meant often shockingly extreme forms of torture in a detention system whose systematic cruelty has been extensively documented.

The conflict has so far displaced at least 1.5 million Syrians internally, aid workers privately estimate. Many have been uprooted more than once, fleeing to sanctuaries that have then also come under government attack. Some can be seen trudging by roadsides, or sleeping in parks in the safer parts of Damascus or Aleppo. Most remain invisible, housed by relatives or helped by the numerous local charities that have proliferated in wartime. But thousands of Syrians have also fled abroad. The UN’s current figure of 150,000 counts only those who have officially applied for refugee status, but with just one of Syria’s neighbors, Jordan, claiming to host that number alone, the actual total of Syrian refugees is likely to be closer to half a million.

The scale of suffering reflects the fact that the Syrian government, uniquely among countries swept up by the Arab Spring, represents not merely a corrupt and oppressive ruling clique. It baldly represents the interests of a small, fearful, well-armed, and organized sectarian minority, set against the wishes of a majority that has remained inchoate, politically divided, and powerless. The fact of this polarization, long elaborately disguised by hollow pageantries, has only become clear to many Syrians now that the underlying nature of the state has been exposed and the violence implicit in the country’s neocolonial power structure has been made dramatically explicit.

The stark estrangement between rulers and ruled struck me during a visit last winter to Douma, a largely Sunni Muslim suburb of Damascus. It is one of a ring of overgrown villages, divided from one another and from the old city center by empty spaces that have now revealed their utility as potential security cordons. Taken together these villages house most of the capital’s four million people. At the time Douma was just emerging from the trauma of a three-week government siege designed to flush out what state television insists on calling “terrorists.” The campaign worked, for a while: the then barely armed local self-defense groups loosely known as the Free Syrian Army briefly pulled out of Douma to spare it further punishment. (As has happened nearly everywhere the government then claimed victory; the rebels simply waited, then filtered back.)

As a proud group of local youths showed me holes blasted by tank fire as a show of force, a mosque donations box pilfered by soldiers, and a cemetery with many fresh graves and more gaping open, ready for urgent use, the thought kept nagging that I had seen this all before. It was when they pointed out that every one of Douma’s rooftop water tanks had been punctured by government gunfire that I realized what seemed familiar. The Israeli army had done the same thing during the first Palestinian intifada. In fact, the entire catalog of collective punishments meted out in Douma suggested the handbook of an army of occupation: cutting power and phone links for days on end, enforcing curfews with snipers, forcing children at gunpoint to paint over graffiti, breaking down doors instead of knocking, administering public beatings, arresting male youths en masse, using masked informants to finger suspects.

Already in February, however, Syria’s revolution had taken far more disturbing turns than either the first, rock-throwing Palestinian intifada or even the second, far more violent one between 2000 and 2005. The gaping graves in Douma’s cemetery, for example, had been dug in advance not merely because they were likely to be filled soon. Fallen martyrs needed to be buried in haste because Assad’s men held corpses as macabre hostages: only families who agreed to attest in writing that their kin had died at the hands of “terrorists” would be allowed to retrieve their bodies.

Already in February, government shelling had destroyed large parts of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, rendering a quarter of its 1.2 million inhabitants homeless. The shelling was smashing smaller towns to bits, too, such as Zabadani near the Lebanese border in the west, Idlib in the far north, and Deir Ezzor, far to the east in the valley of the Euphrates. The widespread assumption was that Bashar Assad meant to make examples of such places, just as his father had done with Hama. This, in fact, had been his government’s response to every new challenge since the start of the uprising: to commit an act of violence so extreme that its enemies would be cowed, and fence-sitters would think twice.

The early, entirely peaceful protest marches that broke out across the country in March 2011 were met not with truncheons and water cannon, as in most countries, but with lethal hails of gunfire. Those arrested were not booked and released, but disappeared for weeks on end before being dumped as human messages, either alive bearing obvious signs of torture or as hideously mangled cadavers. When protesters eventually began to procure weapons with the idea of fighting back, the government response was to blow up any building from which a gun was fired, often on top of its inhabitants. When entire rural districts and urban neighborhoods rose up, the response was to destroy them, first by showering them with mortars and shells, then by sending in the notorious shabbeeha—armed thugs—to selectively murder, pillage, and uproot what were, in nearly all cases, their Sunni Muslim inhabitants. In recent weeks the government has escalated its tactics once again, resorting to helicopter-borne rockets and bombs delivered by supersonic jets.

Such “examples” have failed to work. The uprising’s transformation from a determinedly peaceful campaign into a bitter and bloody fight to the death has come about almost entirely in reaction to the state’s brutality. A resident of Midan, an older district of Damascus that has been a hotbed of opposition sentiment, recalls with wonder that his first protest march passed right by the local police station, with no thought that a confrontation might occur. The marchers’ demands were for free speech and fair elections, not the overthrow of the regime. But in Midan as in hundreds of locales across Syria, the drumbeat of martyrdom soon amplified ambitions into a steely determination to sweep away the regime in its hated entirety. “Each time they kill someone, we recruit three members of their family,” an activist in one of the revolution’s local coordinating committees in Damascus told me during a return visit in July.

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Majid Almustafa/Demotix/Corbis
Protesters against the Assad regime with a placard showing the world supporting Assad, Kafr Nabl, Syria, February 2012

When I interviewed a group of destitute refugees from Homs last month, seated on the floor of a house in a poor quarter of Damascus whose owner provided refuge, it took little prompting to provoke first tears, then rage.

“I’d be happy to live in a Bedouin tent,” said a mother who claimed her four-year-old had lost his mind after three months of constant shelling, before stabbing the air with a finger. “But Bashar must die.”

“They should torture him first,” said Umm Sara, who had watched helplessly when shabbeehas burned her next-door neighbors alive.

“Make his kids die in front of him first,” suggested another lady, a mother of five.

“Slaughter him like a donkey—saw him up with a meat slicer.”

“No, a grinder.”

“Throw his body to the dogs.”

“Dogs wouldn’t eat his disgusting flesh.” This last, final comment, drawing bitter laughter, came from an older woman who said she had been in Lebanon when “the Jews” invaded, swearing that they had been nicer than Bashar’s men.

Less than a week after this grim conversational bidding war, the district of the capital where these women and their children had been taken in was shelled, then raided by government forces.

Not surprisingly, the regime’s iron-fisted approach has made real what had merely been a nightmarish fantasy. From the start it portrayed the revolutionaries as bands of heavily armed Sunni Muslim fanatics, funded and directed by Syria’s enemies. The charge was laughable a year ago, when by all accounts there were simply no guns in opposition hands at all. Even by February, after eleven months of unrest, a trophy table of captured “terrorist” weapons displayed for journalists at an army club in Deraa, the battered city near the Jordanian border where protests first began, proved embarrassingly puny. Amid rusted pistols and primitive pipe bombs, the only serious weapon was a Stalingrad-vintage Bulgarian-made sniper rifle.

Only recently has the Free Syrian Army, the loose coalition of local fighting groups that emerged last fall, begun to wield much firepower. Despite talk of large-scale aid from sympathetic Sunni Muslims in the Persian Gulf, and in particular the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the flow of money did not pick up until this spring, while the flow of weapons from outside Syria even now remains a trickle. Most funding to date has come, in fact, from the rebels’ own meager resources or from wealthy Syrians living abroad. Most of their weapons have been bought from smugglers or purloined from the Syrian army itself. In heavily guarded Damascus, which is especially difficult to supply via smuggling routes, bullets for the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs now cost upward of $2 apiece. I was told in July by an FSA fighter in the capital that they share one assault rifle between every three volunteers.

The government’s early charges that rebels were Sunni Muslim fanatics or al-Qaeda agents were equally spurious, but they have become similarly self- fulfilling. Syria’s intelligence services had a firm hold on the jihadist subculture before the uprising, having themselves sponsored jihadist radicals in Iraq, then later unleashed them to stir trouble in neighboring Lebanon. In the cynical world of the regime, the bearded radicals were simply another card for Syria to play, and so it has during the uprising. The state has worked overtime to sustain the notion that it faces an Islamist sectarian threat. Damascenes have often noted with wonder, for instance, that whereas ordinary antigovernment protests tend to be quickly and ruthlessly dispersed, demonstrators chanting such baldly sectarian slogans as “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the tabout”—meaning “to the grave”—march unmolested. Opposition activists suspect that at least some bomb blasts attributed to jihadist cells have been instigated by the intelligence services themselves.

Curious about an incident over Christmas that had reinforced loyalty to the regime among Christians, I drove in February to Our Lady of Sednaya, a Greek Orthodox convent dating from the sixth century that stands like a fortress atop a crag in the mountains north of Damascus. Having repeatedly blessed President Assad and described the numerous miraculous cures bestowed on Muslim supplicants at the Virgin’s incense-clouded shrine, the mother superior told me that divine intervention had saved her sisters when a terrorist bomb struck during Sunday mass. I asked to see the site of the impact. A young nun led me by a series of outside staircases through driving snow to the uppermost floor. I was surprised to find little damage aside from a basketball-sized hole in the wall of an empty storage room, and some cracked floor tiles inside.

Explaining that soldiers had arrived speedily to remove the dangerous “bomb,” the nun showed me a cell phone photo she had taken of it before they came. The object was a large artillery shell, and it had not exploded for a very good reason. The detonator cap had clearly been unscrewed before it was fired. The type of ordnance, accuracy, timing, and trajectory of the shot all made plain that only the Syrian army itself could have targeted the convent.

Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer and filmmaker, documents far more disturbing examples of the regime’s fear-mongering in her impassioned and harrowing memoir of the early revolt, A Woman in the Crossfire. Herself an Alawite and now shunned by pro-regime coreligionists as a traitor, she is particularly outraged by the government’s manipulation of the minority, which makes up some 12 percent of the population. Playing upon terrors that Alawites may again be persecuted as heretics as they often were in the past, the Assad regime has encouraged a sort of Masada complex, goading loyalists toward extreme violence as if the sole alternative were annihilation. The effect of this, perhaps intended, has been to implicate Alawites as a whole in the regime’s crimes. In Yazbek’s words, they are being used as human shields.

Sadly, every day that passes brings Syria’s sectarian fears closer to fruition. This is not due to the arrival of hordes of al-Qaeda-minded jihadists, as some Western commentaries have implied. By no current estimate does the number of foreign fighters in Syria—young men who mostly see themselves as part of a Spanish Civil War–style international brigade rather than as terrorist ninjas—surpass a thousand, out of at least 50,000 armed men on the rebel side. Nor is the demon of sectarianism a product of indoctrination by more mainstream Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime’s persecution of the Brotherhood has been so extreme—membership became punishable by death in the 1970s—that the Syrian branch lacks organizational depth.

Communal feeling among Syria’s 70 percent Sunni Arab majority (that is, excluding Kurds, who are also mostly Sunni) had been growing in recent years very much in line with regional trends toward greater religious conservatism, and toward increased tension between Sunnis and Shias. But it is the passions aroused by Syria’s extreme violence, which has very largely come from the government side, that has begun to generate a real and disturbing Sunni chauvinism.

In the face of the grisly horrors Syrians endure daily, a resort to the vocabulary of religion is scarcely surprising. Most of the dozens of local branches of the Free Syrian Army have adopted names redolent of Sunni triumphalism and have consciously cultivated the mujahideen style, replete with beards, bandanas, and chants of Allahu Akbar punctuating their propaganda videos. And given that many of the worst massacres to date have been committed by armed Alawite thugs against unarmed or captive Sunnis, a sectarian backlash is to be expected. As in other civil wars, the words “they” and “them’’ have taken on ominous meanings. It does not help either that the regime’s only ally happens to be Shia Iran, a generous supplier of arms, cash, and, according to some reports, Revolutionary Guards to suppress the revolt.

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Mike King

The increasingly exclusive Sunni tone of the revolution worries not just non-Muslims, but also much of the urban Sunni middle class, which in Syria has traditionally taken its faith lightly. Yet Syria’s opposition remains multisectarian. Prominent Alawites such as Yazbek have joined the revolt, as have a larger number of Christians. Salamiya, a town in central Syria that is a center for the Ismaili faith, a branch of Shia Islam, was one of the earliest to declare itself liberated from the Assad regime. Syria’s Kurdish and Druze minorities, as well as its 500,000 Palestinians, whose refugee camps have suffered indiscriminate shelling too, also tend to sympathize with the rebels. Their leaders have simply calculated that it has been better to hold back for the time being.

The main reason that Syria’s agony has gone on so long is not because large numbers actively or enthusiastically back the government. The Assads do have supporters beyond their Alawite core, but such outsiders are mostly seekers after spoils, such as Bedouin tribes that have gained some special favor, or business clans that won lucrative concessions from the Assads. Their numbers have dwindled rapidly in recent months, ironically, again, largely because the government’s own brutality has made it increasingly clear that the regime is untenable as is, and incapable of reform.

Abu Tony, a Christian activist in Damascus, says with a shrug that the influx since the spring of thousands of desperate refugees into the capital has made it plain, even to the well-insulated wealthy or to those who took comfort in blocking their ears to anything but state propaganda, that this is a criminal regime. The increased pace of defections does not surprise him. “The inner circle think they have a Samson option, to threaten to destroy the whole country,” he says. “But they will find there is nobody left to carry it out.”

What has so far made many Syrians reluctant to sacrifice for the revolution is not loyalty to the state but fear of chaos. They have seen neighboring Iraq and Lebanon descend into years of sectarian warfare. They know that forty years of the Assads’ ostensible secularism have not succeeded in burying Syria’s own confessional resentments. Quite realistically, they expect that even after the regime falls, there may be worse to come.

Just what that might be, no one can predict with confidence. Even more than in other dictatorships, Syria’s long years of tyranny have left a lingering pathology of mistrust. Much of Syria’s elite is tainted by association with the regime. The organized opposition is fragmented. Its meetings have the tenor of an Afghan Loya Jirga, where impressive-looking people turn out to represent themselves and a few cousins, and most energy is exerted undermining other factions.

Recent writing on Syria does not provide much in the way of clues for the future, either. David Lesch, a professor at Trinity University, usefully subtitles his new book The Fall of the House of Assad. But most of its text is a bloodless, workmanlike account of recent Syrian history, spiced with mea culpas regarding his previous book on Syria, which, embarrassingly, enthused about Bashar Assad’s reformist tendencies. A broader view might have been expected from Fouad Ajami, a distinguished Lebanese-American academic best known for his brilliant analysis of the failure of Arab states, The Arab Predicament. But his new book, The Syrian Rebellion, is essentially an erudite trawl through press clippings and blog posts, with occasional anecdotes and profiles of prominent Syrians.

Ajami does, at least, provide a relatively cheerful if brief prognosis. He does not share the fears, most often expressed by Western commentators unfamiliar with the subject, that Syria is destined to become an Islamist dystopia. “I never doubted the ability of the Syrian people to create a more humane order than this dreaded regime,” he writes. That hopeful judgment seems sound. If the Syrians win their freedom, it will have been won at a higher price than that paid by any other Arab nation. It will have been won by Syrians themselves, with little help from anyone else. After such sacrifice, there would be no shortage of Syrians determined to safeguard it.

—August 29, 2012

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