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Syria: On the Way to Genocide?

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Khattab Abdulaa/Reuters
Shelling in the village of Douri in Syria’s Latakia province, allegedly by forces loyal to ­President Bashar al-Assad, August 17, 2013

The commander is thirty-six years old. A few strands of white in his dark, curly hair make him seem older, as do his words. He points to six young men, posed like football players in a team photograph on a wall of his forward command post, and says, “Two are martyrs, two are prisoners, and two are still working.” By working, he means fighting. Those recruits under his command were friends in their twenties. Of the two who died, he explains, “He was twenty-two years old when he was killed. And this one was martyred in June this year here in Tadamon.”

Tadamon is a ragged neighborhood of Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites on the southern outskirts of Damascus, bordering the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Yarmouk and perched astride the road to Jordan (see map below). The commander’s makeshift headquarters in a battered apartment building, where he fields calls on military radios and cell phones, is less then two hundred yards from other Syrians determined to bring down the regime he is defending. Although a regular army officer with a degree from the military academy in Aleppo, he commands paramilitary brigades of half-trained young men and former army conscripts of the year-old National Defense Forces (NDF). They protect their neighborhoods and, on rare occasions, take part in offensive operations. The NDF includes former members of the unpopular shabihah, mainly Alawite gangs whom the regime recruited at the beginning of the rebellion to add depth to the overstretched regular army. The commander provides his NDF troops with basic training, uniforms, weapons, ammunition, communications, and leadership.

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Adapted by Mike King from a map by MrPenguin20

“Most of the fighting is done by NDF fighters,” he says, “because they are the inhabitants of the region and know the region well.” On the other side are troops from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its erstwhile allies the Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other extreme Salafist militias. Some rebels are as familiar with the terrain as the NDF, because they too come from Tadamon. The commander knows many of their names. “You cannot imagine that some of our neighbors from this street here are now fighting on the other side against us,” he says. “During some clashes on the front, they called us by name.” He tells me that the previous commander on the other side was Nabil al-Laqoud, who came from Dera’a. “He was killed last year in Abu Trabi Street.” The commander asks me not to publish his own name, because he is speaking to me without authorization.

The commander and his opponents hole up in shattered buildings, fire small arms at each other, and wait. What they are waiting for is unclear, but it is not a military triumph. Neither side has achieved that in almost three years of fratricidal bloodletting. Instead, daily attrition decimates Tadamon and the rest of Syria without the decisive battles that would bring the war to a conclusion. The street fighting has begun to resemble the civil war in Lebanon, where opposing forces faced each other across a Green Line for fifteen years without either defeating the other.

The house where we drink coffee and discuss the war was in rebel hands a year ago, before the government recaptured most of the area. Part of Tadamon remains under rebel control, and the commander does not expect to conquer it soon. “There are more important fronts than Tadamon,” he says, and then names three: “Jobar. Barzeh. Qaboun.” Those contested districts in the north of the capital control access to Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and the ports of Tartus and Latakia. Rebel positions in Jobar are within mortar range of the city’s largest Christian districts. The insurgents frequently hit churches, houses, and public squares in the districts of Kassa’, Bab Sharqi, and Bab Touma. One afternoon in Kassa’, the Syrian novelist Colette Khoury showed me a bullet hole in her study window as well as handfuls of cartridges and shrapnel that she clears each day from her balcony. “We will die,” she says, “but we will stay.” Rebel damage to Damascus is minor compared to the government’s heavy artillery barrages on the rebel-held suburbs.

The commander says his sector has “been secure since last year,” when a government offensive restored regime control over several outlying sections of Damascus. Areas that were inaccessible or under bombardment when I visited last year have become safer, and there are quarters where going out to restaurants for dinner is normal again. Government gains in Damascus were matched by rebel success in the north of the country, where short supply lines from Turkey helped them to hold or besiege large parts of Aleppo and to launch the ethnic cleansing of the Alawite heartland near Latakia.

A car bomb was detonated near the commander’s office forty-eight hours before we met, ripping the façades from most of the buildings. Within hours, the little shops at street level were back in business. Tadamon’s inhabitants adapt to an endless staccato of automatic rifles and mortar rounds, making their way from home to work, taking their children to school, and visiting hairdressers, bakers, and butchers. Old men sit outside, absorbed in backgammon or gossip, ready to seek shelter when a mortar falls or a sniper’s bullet comes close. A Druze friend, who lives in Tadamon with his wife and children, told me he likes the area because it has a mixture of religious groups and it feels safe.

Tadamon is nonetheless a free-fire zone of checkpoints, kidnappings, and hostage exchanges that force adversaries to negotiate. To reclaim the body of a young fighter named Ribal, who had been a third-year English literature undergraduate at Damascus University, the commander engaged a local woman to act as a messenger to his opposite number, the local leader of the rebel FSA. The commander explains:

We exchanged the body of Ribal for eight or nine prisoners. Later, what was happening, some of my men told me the wife of this same leader was outside [the rebel area]. So, I sent my men and they brought her here. I brought her very gently, for some days. She was treated well, and no one harmed her. I telephoned her husband and said, “Hello, your wife is here.” …I told him, “She is well, but we need some things from you.” “Like what?” There were five women hostages kidnapped since the invasion of Al-Yarmouk camp. There was an exchange. I sent him his wife, and I sent him some medicine, a gift from me to him. He sent me a gift, a pistol, to begin a new friendship. His wife told him she was well treated. Sometimes, I telephone him and his wife answers. She always asks, “How are you?” This war created new kinds of relations in Syria.

The commander later sent his adversary packages of cigarettes and bread, both difficult to find in rebel areas under government siege. Dialogue with the FSA is desirable, he believes, because it is for the most part secular. I ask whether it is possible that the army and the FSA might one day unite against the Sunni Muslim extremists of the Nusra Front and ISIS. “I expect that,” he answers. “Look at the paradox. Salim Idris, the commander of the FSA, was our teacher at the academy in Aleppo.” He speaks of Idris with respect and affection, praising two books he wrote on electronics.

Idris, a Syrian army general before he defected, has failed to find common ground with his Islamist allies. The FSA and the Islamists have fought one another for control of areas near the Turkish border. General Idris’s assessment of his allies is candid: “They do not want to create a unified formation because, in all honesty, they have private goals: they all just want to be leaders themselves.” In an interview with the Saudi-financed daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Idris accused the Islamists of playing the regime’s game:

The Syrian regime says [to the FSA] do not fight us, and that those fighting the regime are a set of extremist foreigners who want to slaughter minorities. But look at things objectively and honestly, when these groups, like ISIS, come and execute a child in a public square, what message does this send to the world? Exactly the message that Assad wants to send to the world.

On August 4 this year, ISIS and other Islamist militias launched an offensive against Alawite villages in the hills above Latakia. A Human Rights Watch report, “You Can Still See Their Blood,” estimated that the rebels kidnapped more than two hundred Alawite women and children as they withdrew twelve days later. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, has written in these pages that government forces have indiscriminately attacked civilians with rockets, cluster bombs, and other heavy weapons and that they also used guns and knives to execute 248 civilians in a Sunni enclave in early May.1 But he and his organization also condemned Islamists for massacres and the ethnic cleansing of civilians “on a smaller scale”:

Human Rights Watch has collected the names of 190 civilians who were killed by opposition forces in their offensive on the villages, including 57 women and at least 18 children and 14 elderly men…. The evidence collected strongly suggests they were killed on the first day of the operation, August 4….
Given that many residents remain missing, and opposition fighters buried many bodies in mass graves, the total number of dead civilians is likely higher.

The Free Syrian Army, which distinguishes itself from the Islamists by claiming to represent Syrians of all sects, disassociated itself from the killings. Nonetheless, it continues to cooperate with extreme Islamist jihadists in other operations against the government. Sectarian killings and hostage-taking—largely of Alawites and Christians—by the rebels terrify the minorities, but they do not threaten the regime. Instead, they force communities to turn to the regime for protection without bringing the war closer to a conclusion.

The UN’s Human Rights Council, while condemning all factions including the government for atrocities, concluded its latest report on Syria, “There is no military solution to this conflict.”

Though armed struggle has failed to end the war through outright victory, international diplomacy has done no better. The UN–Arab League initiative, led first by Kofi Annan and then more recently by former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, has not broken the impasse. While diplomats pursued talks about talks, more than 150,000 Syrians died. Nearly seven million lost their homes, more than two million of them fleeing across the nearest border and five million living in penury with relatives, in schools, in other public buildings, or outdoors in public parks. Nearly a third of the population of twenty-three million are refugees or displaced internally.

“Children are paying the heaviest price in this war,” says United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Syrian director Yusuf Abou Jelil. “Within Syria, four million children are directly affected. Two million are displaced in Syria. One million are on the front lines. One million are refugees.” The escalation of suffering has reduced a country that fed itself before the war to living on international charity. Its medical and educational services, once among the best in the region, have been crippled. Children are suffering from malnutrition, and those in rebel areas cannot receive vaccines for polio, mumps, measles, and rubella. At the end of October, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio among children in northeastern Syria. In a recent New York Review blog post, Dr. Annie Sparrow, a professor of public health at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, describes her conclusions from nearly two hundred interviews with Syrian medical workers and civilians in the border regions of Lebanon and Turkey:

Over the past two and a half years, doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists who provide treatment to civilians in contested areas have been arrested and detained; paramedics have been tortured and used as human shields, ambulances have been targeted by snipers and missiles; medical facilities have been destroyed…. Five public hospitals have been taken over by the military, and there are no longer any left at all in the rebel-dominated cities of Idlib and Deir Ezzor. Fewer than forty ambulances in the country still function out of the original fleet of five hundred…. Now, more than 16,000 doctors have fled, and many of those left are in hiding…. At least thirty-six paramedics, in uniform on authorized missions, have been killed by Syrian military snipers or shot dead at checkpoints.
Emergency medical squads are routinely prevented from evacuating not only wounded rebel fighters but also injured children and other civilians from rebel-held territory.
Far from limiting the effects of the conflict on civilians, Bashar al-Assad’s counterinsurgency strategy appears to be deliberately targeting the civilian population and medical facilities in rebel areas, in order to deprive the armed opposition of its support.2

Appeals to international donors are failing to find an adequate response. One UN official says, “The level of funding is not sustainable.”

The war has reached the stage at which many on both sides no longer regard the others as human, let alone as citizens of a country in which all must coexist. The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side. As Islamist rebels pursue the ethnic-sectarian cleansing of Alawite villages in the northeast, the government batters the rebel-held, mostly Sunni Muslim suburbs of Damascus and the old city of Homs. The population that survives the violence is contending with famine, disease, and exposure to the extremes of Syria’s summers and winters.

The deployment of poison gas in the eastern Ghouta on the edge of Damascus on August 21 unexpectedly led to hope for a way out. The Russians compelled President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons to the United Nations, creating a diplomatic opening to revive the Geneva conference that the US and Russia promised last May. Russia had delivered President Assad, who agreed to attend without preconditions. The US, however, was slow to persuade the militias it funds or those armed by its Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish allies to attend. When the use of chemical weapons underscored the urgency of stopping the carnage, the US persuaded a few opposition leaders to agree to negotiate at Geneva, albeit conditionally.

I spoke with the veteran Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar Lamani, who has been the UN–Arab League representative on the ground in Syria since September last year. “If there is no political solution,” he said, “I would not be surprised to see a genocide.” Lest I misunderstand him, I asked him to repeat his view. In slightly different form, he stated, “The ingredients are there for a genocide in a few months.” He did not say whether he meant a genocide by government or rebel forces or mass killing on both sides.

Lamani’s mission has taken him to rebel and government areas in all parts of the country. He is on first-name terms with Assad, Assad’s senior advisers, cabinet ministers, and defense chiefs. He has had face-to-face encounters with rebel commanders in the field. His expeditions required crossing dangerous checkpoints through uncharted and fluid terrains of government and rebel forces. He somehow achieved guarantees from all parties not to fire on his convoys or to kidnap him. After he came to know the rebels, he continued his communications with them less intimately but more safely via Skype.

Lamani shares the view, asserted by Information Handling Services Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center and other analysts, that the opposition comprises more than 1,000 groups with at least 100,000 fighters. For Geneva negotiations to succeed, representatives of at least half the rebels and the non-violent opposition—consisting of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and the Local Coordination Committees—must attend and be prepared to sign an agreement that few of them will find palatable. Lebanon’s warring militia leaders were forced into such negotiations at Taif, in Saudi Arabia, in 1989, ending fifteen years of “no victor, no vanquished” warfare. The regional powers, backed by the US, forced the Lebanese warlords to amend the constitution and, except for Hezbollah, to surrender their weapons. No one was satisfied, but the war stopped. When I asked a Western diplomat who works with the Syrian opposition for his assessment of the preparations for Geneva, he answered in one word, “chaos.” Lamani seems almost as fearful of the state of diplomacy over Syria as of the military stalemate: “It’s much better not to have a Geneva than to have a failed Geneva.”

Comparing Syria to Iraq, where he served as Arab League representative from 2000 to 2007, Lamani says, “It’s even worse here.” Syria has become the venue of what he calls “a proxy war” or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre–World War I dominance. The original demands for reform and justice of the peaceful protesters at the start of the uprising in 2011 are as forgotten as, two years and millions of deaths into the Great War, was Austria-Hungary’s July 23, 1914, ultimatum to Serbia.

While Syrians do most of the fighting and dying, both sides have welcomed foreigners into their ranks. Iranians and Lebanese Shiites reinforce the government army, while Sunni jihadists from more than forty countries have become the revolt’s shock troops. They are less concerned with majoritarian democracy than with deposing a president whose primary offenses they consider to be his membership in an Islamic sect, the Alawites, that they condemn as apostate, and his alliance with Shiite Iran. A Red Cross worker who, like Lamani, has worked on both sides of the barricades, said, “If there are secularist rebels, I haven’t met them.”

Nearly everyone wants intervention, but they disagree on its form. One view is that massive military force of the kind that the United States can provide will end the war by deposing the dictatorship. The other is that the United States must force mutually antagonistic rebel factions to meet at Geneva to discuss a transition to a freely elected government. Disbanding the army and abolishing government services, as the US occupation did in Iraq, would be anathema to most Syrians. Bashar al-Assad remains the sticking point for both sides. The opposition insists that he resign immediately, while he and his supporters claim that he is crucial to a successful transition. Yet if he runs for president when his term expires next year, he could win. The opposition would divide its votes among scores of rival candidates. Many fear that a victorious Assad would emulate his father’s revanchism following his bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising at Hama in 1982. Hafez al-Assad’s biographer, Patrick Seale, described the elder Assad’s sudden appearance in the streets of Damascus on March 7, 1982:

That day it was a new Asad, brutal and vengeful, who roared: “Brothers and sons, death to the criminal Muslim Brothers! Death to the hired Muslim Brothers who tried to play havoc with the homeland!”

A few samples from my discussions with Damascenes over the past month in Damascus give the flavor of the debate about negotiations. A former political prisoner said, “Geneva will not happen. Nothing will be fixed until an external force comes to Syria. No one has control here, not the regime, not the Free Syrian Army, not America. He [Assad] will fight to the last Syrian.” A normally conservative Sunni businessman echoes this view: “Geneva II is bullshit. There is no will to stop on either side.”

By contrast, the acclaimed novelist and peaceful oppositionist Khaled Khalifa, who has chosen to remain in Syria rather than live a safer life in Europe, said, “All of the intelligentsia has left Syria. We need Geneva.” The Greek Catholic Patriarch of Syria, Gregorios III Lahham, said, “Let’s go all together to Geneva.” For him, it is the only way to staunch the permanent flow of his congregation of 350,000 from the country. Minister of Information Omran Zoabi said, “The external opposition doesn’t want to go to Geneva, because Geneva will produce a political solution. And they choose to fight.” Yet fighting achieves only the country’s unremitting destruction.

There are limits to what a Geneva meeting can achieve. Louay Hussein, one of the internal opposition leaders who is working with the government, said, “My ambition is that shortly after Geneva there will be a possibility for a real political life inside Syria and the emergence of leaders within Syria. This is a hope, not a certainty.” For most Syrians, suffering the daily grind of this war of attrition, it is not even a hope.

As elsewhere in Syria, the war in the Tadamon quarter has reached stasis. The western front must have been like this for long periods of World War I. Instead of trenches, shelter takes the form of two- and three-story apartment buildings. All that is missing is a Christmas truce with a football match in no man’s land. World War I was confined for the most part to uniformed troops, but Tadamon’s battlefield mixes soldiers and half-trained militiamen with an estimated 80,000 civilian men, women, and children. Before the war, they lived here peacefully, and those who survive will probably do the same when the armed groups leave. No one, however, dares to predict how many more will die before that comes to pass.

—November 7, 2013

  1. 1

    Syria: What Chance to Stop the Slaughter?,” The New York Review, November 21, 2013. 

  2. 2

    Annie Sparrow, “Syria’s Assault on Doctors,” NYRblog, November 3, 2013, at nybooks.com/u/j

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