It starts, as always, with a dream, a dream of youth, liberty, and collective joy; and it ends, as all too often, in a nightmare. The nightmare still goes on and will last much longer than the dream: a vague and remote nightmare, highly cinematographic, a kaleidoscope of mass executions, orange jumpsuits, and severed heads, triumphant columns of looted American armor, beards and black masks, and a black banner all-too-reminiscent of the pirate flags of our childhoods.
Spectacular images that have served to mask, even erase, those forming the undertow: thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration, barrels of explosives tossed at random on neighborhoods full of women and children, toxic gasses sending hundreds into foaming convulsions, flags, parades, posters, a tall smiling ophthalmologist and his triumphant “re-election.” The medieval barbarians on one side, the pitiless dictator on the other, the only two images we retain of a reality far more complex.
But all this did not happen by chance; more importantly, all this did not have to be, that there were other paths, other possibilities, other futures. The mantra so tirelessly repeated by our solemn leaders, “There is nothing we could have done,” is simply not true. Without our callous indifference, cowardice, and short-sightedness, things might have been different.
When the photographer Mani and I arrived in Homs, in mid-January 2012, the Syrian revolution was reaching the end of its first year. In the city and the surrounding towns, the people were still gathering daily to demonstrate—calling for the fall of the regime, loudly asserting their belief in democracy, in justice, and in a tolerant, open, multi-confessional society, and clamoring for help from outside, for a NATO intervention, for a no-fly zone to stop the aerial bombardments. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up mostly of army and secret services deserters disgusted by the repression, still believed its primary mission was defensive, to protect the opposition neighborhoods and the demonstrations from the regime snipers and the feared shabiha (mafia thugs, mainly Alawite in Homs, formed into militias at the service of the al-Assad family).
The Syrian citizen-journalists, like those that helped, guided, and protected us during our stay, still believed that the constant flow of atrocity videos they risked their lives every day to film and upload on YouTube would change the course of things, would shock Western consciousnesses and precipitate strong action against the regime. The people still believed that song, dance, slogans, and prayer were stronger than fear and bullets. They were wrong, of course, and their illusions would soon drown in a river of blood.
America, traumatized by two useless and disastrous wars to the point of forgetting its own founding myth—that of a people rising against tyranny with their hunting guns, helped only by indomitable spirit and idealism—stood back and watched, petrified. Europe, weakened by economic crisis and self-doubt, followed suit, while the regime’s friends, Russia and Iran, occupied every inch of the political space thus made available. And geopolitics is always written with the blood of the people. The day after I left Homs, on February 3, a series of mortar shells targeted the neighborhood of al-Khalidiya, where I had spent so much time, killing over 140 civilians. As Talal Derki, the Syrian director and narrator of the magnificent documentary Return to Homs, comments at that point in his film, this mass murder was the turn of the revolution: “The dream of a revolution with songs and peaceful protests ended.”
Mani and I were able to document what seems to have been the first deliberate sectarian massacre of the conflict, the murder with guns and knives of an entire Sunni family in the Nasihin neighborhood on the afternoon of January 26, 2012. Many more would follow, first of other families, then of entire Sunni communities in the village belt surrounding Homs to the West, in the foothills of the Jabal an-Nusayriyah, the so-called “Alawite mountain” from which the regime continues to draw its main support. Up to that point, as all our interlocutors kept repeating to us and as we witnessed in the demonstrations, the revolutionaries were doing everything in their power to prevent the descent into sectarian warfare; the FSA response to this massacre was not to slaughter an Alawite family, but to attack the army checkpoints from which the murderers had come.
Yet provoking widespread ethnic and sectarian conflict was clearly becoming one of the main regime strategies. It made a perverse kind of sense. The regime felt it could no longer trust the Sunnis, and banked its survival on the mass mobilization, in its favor, of the country’s numerous small minorities: not just the Alawites but also the Ismaelites and the Christians, as well as the Druze and the Kurds if possible. And after being forced to purge most of its unreliable Sunni troops, to the point of disarming entire divisions, the army desperately needed fresh recruits. The opposition sought to resist these sordid provocations as best it could, but in vain. By mid-2012, uncontrolled FSA elements were also carrying out sectarian massacres in Alawite villages, while most minorities, whether they wanted to or not, found themselves taken hostage by the regime: the Kurds brokered their tacit support in exchange for near-total political autonomy; as for the Alawites, hesitant or not, the regime’s survival was turned into an existential question for them, making the entire community into accomplices.
But transforming a popular, broad-based, proletarian and peasant uprising into a sectarian civil war was not the regime’s only card. From the very beginning, the Damascus propaganda machine had sought to paint the revolutionaries as terrorists and Islamist fanatics. What was missing were the real ones; but the regime would do everything in its power to draw them into the game. As soon as the uprising gained momentum, in the spring of 2011, the mukhabarat, Syria’s feared secret services, released scores of jihadist cadres detained in their jails. And there is much anecdotal evidence that they favored the rise, throughout 2012, of the radical Islamist armed groups that would soon enter into conflict with the more secular FSA. When Da‘esh first began conquering territory in Syria, in January 2013, “they never fought the Damascus regime and only sought to extend their power over the territory freed by our units,” as an FSA fighter, the son of a landowner from the powerful Syrian al-Jabour tribe, explained in September 2014 to a journalist from Le Monde. “Before their arrival, we were bombed each day by the Syrian air force. After they took control of the region, the bombing immediately stopped.”
Little wonder that in spite of their very un-Islamic reign of terror, many civilians living under Da‘esh control, in towns such as Raqqa, now feel “safer” there than in other parts of Syria. And when in December 2013 the FSA, newly allied with other Islamist rebel groups such as the al-Qaeda spin-off Jabhat al-Nusra, finally launched an offensive against Da‘esh, triggering a new and ultra-violent “war within the war,” the regime artillery and air force continued bombing only the anti-Da‘esh forces, sparing once again the troops of the “Islamic State.” It is facts such as these that finally led French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to publicly denounce, in the summer of 2014, the “objective complicity” between Damascus and Da‘esh.
Playing the extremists against the moderates—the basic idea being that, having little or no social base, radical forces will be easy to eliminate once they have helped with the far harder job of crushing a main opponent deeply rooted in society—is a strategy that certainly has its lettres de noblesse. Practiced ineptly, as it usually is, it has an unfortunate tendency to turn against its initiators, as in the case of Israel when it quietly fostered the rise of Hamas in the hope of bringing down Arafat’s PLO, or the United States when it armed the more radical jihadists against the Soviets in Afghanistan, sealing the doom of the moderate mujahideen factions and unleashing forces still not contained to this day. But on occasions it can bring a measure of success, at least in the short term.
Chechnya is a case in point. After Russia’s humiliating defeat there, in August 1996, at the hands of a few thousand rebels armed only with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, the Russian special services, FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) and GRU (military intelligence), immediately began preparing the grounds for the next conflict. The three years during which a de facto independent Chechnya managed its own affairs rapidly turned into a disaster: the systematic kidnappings of foreign journalists and aid workers, culminating in the spectacular decapitation of four British and New Zealander telecom engineers in December 1998 by the well-known Islamist commander Arbi Barayev, ruined any good will abroad for Chechnya and generated an effective media blockade as journalists ceased traveling there; rising political and even military pressure by rogue Islamist rebel groups on the freely elected nationalist president Aslan Maskhadov forced him to radicalize his position, eventually declaring a “sharia law” no one really wanted or even understood; further decapitations of Russian captives and other atrocities, conveniently filmed by their Islamist perpetrators, helped justify the inevitable excesses of the “anti-terrorist operation.”
What followed is well known: the total destruction of Grozny, the mass killings and disappearances, the waves of refugees. What is less so, though it has been extensively documented by a handful of courageous Russian journalists, is the sinister pas-de-deux played by the special services and the Islamists throughout the years. This insidious strategy would bear fruit: After Maskhadov was finally killed, during a Russian operation in 2005, his successor Doku Umarov renounced the drive for national independence in favor of the creation of a pan-Caucasian Islamic Caliphate—a move that drove virtually all the remaining nationalist commanders into the arms of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet in Chechnya, thus bringing to an effective and squalid end the long-held Chechen dream of independence.
It would be tempting, given this history, to see the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s Russian advisors in the shop-worn idea of allowing radicalized Islamist factions totally to discredit the popular revolt, all the more so as the wave of kidnappings and murders of foreign observers that accompanied the rise of the Islamists closely resembles the Chechnya model. But as a Syrian friend pointed out to me, the mukhabarat too are old hands at these games, and have no need of lessons from their Russian patrons. Their strategic philosophy is explicitly stated in graffiti now very common around Damascus: “Assad or we burn the country.”
Ever since the beheading of the journalist James Foley, Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues. The regime and its Russian friends can be proud: their goal of, if not quite rehabilitating, at least bringing al-Assad back into the game as a key player, is now within reach. Even more than the fate of the broader Middle East, it is the fear, even to the point of psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests—of another September 11 or July 7 or January 7—that is driving European and US decision making. From there to working with al-Assad is only a step, no matter how much our leaders deny it. Sadly, this won’t benefit the Syrian people much.
A recent set of statistics published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, usually considered one of the most reliable independent observer of the conflict, might serve as a useful reminder even if the figures are probably underestimated: as of March 2015, the regime had killed 176,678 Syrian civilians, including 18,242 children, as opposed to 1,054 civilians (of which 145 were children) killed by Da‘esh. Our new enemy should not make us forget who is at the root of the disaster; the Syrians certainly haven’t. The French journalist Sofia Amara cites, in her recent book, the new slogan chanted, with their eternal dark humor, by Syrian activists seen in a video marching through devastated streets: “What is left of the Syrian people wants the fall of the regime.”
Nothing could be more emblematic of the descent into hell of the Syrian revolution than the fates of our Homsi activist friends. The dream had been dreamed by many; but what happened to them when it turned into a nightmare? I only received news of them quite recently, from Orwa Nyrabia, a Syrian filmmaker and producer now living in exile in Berlin, whom I first met in the al-Bayada neighborhood of Homs at the home of the Sufi shaykh Abu Brahim, a highly respected local activist. Orwa, unlike me, had never lost touch with the Homsi activists, many of whom were his dear friends.
Many, of course, are dead. Abu Hanin, the Media Center activist from Baba Amr with whom Mani and I had so many problems, was killed together with his closest friend and rival Abu Sham in one of the battles for al-Khalidiya, some time in 2013. Bilal, the medical activist who greeted us in al-Khalidiya together with his friend Zayn, was killed in June 2013 trying to smuggle medical supplies into besieged Homs. And Shaykh Abu Brahim, after having survived the terrible siege and evacuation of Homs, was killed in June 2014, in an ordinary car crash somewhere north of the city: maktub, as he might have said himself.
The others have fared little better. Ali Othman, aka Jeddi, is still under detention by the mukhabarat, along with Osama al-Habaly (aka Osama al-Homsi), who filmed parts of Return to Homs together with Orwa. Neither one of them, though they never wielded a weapon more dangerous than a camera, seem to have benefited from the amnesty declared by Bashar al-Assad upon his June 2014 “re-election” for all prisoners “without blood on their hands.” Abu Adnan, the al-Khalidiya activist who drove us around the city’s besieged central neighborhoods, and whose real name is Kahtan Hassoun, is currently struggling in bitter exile in Turkey. Omar Telawi, the Bab as-Saba‘a activist made famous by his raging YouTube and Al Jazeera speeches, was wounded in October 2013 and has dropped out of sight for the past few months.
Some, finally, have been overwhelmed by the nightmare and now feed it. Abu Bakr—the red-bearded activist who reminded me of a cheerful Chechen, and who was considered around Khalidiya as the harmless neighborhood fool–has joined Jabhat al-Nusra, where he has carved out a sinister reputation for himself through executions and beheadings. Most tragic of all, to me, is the destiny of Abu Bilal, ‘Umar Talawi’s enthusiastic young friend who so passionately wielded his camera for freedom and democracy in Syria. By the end of the siege of Homs, he had joined the most radical jihadist groups and was couching all his statements in Islamist terminology; after the evacuation, he officially declared his allegiance to Da‘esh, and has become one of their chief spokesmen in the Idlib region.
His, of course, is but one case, and there are hundreds of activists, in Aleppo and elsewhere, who still maintain their faith in the original ideals of the revolution—indeed, many of them survived the mukhabarat, the snipers, and the regime bombings only to be murdered by Abu Bilal’s new friends. Given what he has lived through, one could perhaps understand his choice, or his despair at least, just as one can understand when someone goes insane. But that doesn’t make it any less sad.
Adapted from Jonathan Littell’s introduction to the English language edition of his Syrian Notebooks, translated by Charlotte Mandell, which will be published by Verso on April 21.