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…


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