Karam al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian man carrying his daughters across rubble after a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of Kalasa in Aleppo, September 2015

Folk memories endure, mothers’ and grandmothers’ sagas trumping documents in neglected archives. What will Syria’s youth, when they are old, tell their children? All will have stories of cowering in their flimsy houses while bombs fell, of the deadening existence of refugee camps, or of escapes through treacherous seas and perilous highways to uncertain lives in strange lands. My maternal grandmother left Mount Lebanon, then part of Syria, as a child in the late nineteenth century during a confrontation between the Christians of her village and their Ottoman rulers. Although her father was killed a few months before she was born, she told me many times how he faced Turkish troops on horseback as if she had witnessed it. I don’t know what really happened; but her stories, including of a river that was so cold it could crack a watermelon in two, remain undeniable truths to her descendants.

Syrians today are enduring a brutal, unending ordeal that reenacts the drama of their ancestors during a prior war exactly one century ago that their families, novelists, and poets preserved for them. What we know as World War I was to Syrians Seferberlik, from the Arabic for “travel across the land,” when military conscription, forced labor battalions, machine-age weaponry, arbitrary punishment, pestilence, and famine undid in four years all that the Ottomans had achieved over the previous four centuries. The Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari saw that period as

four miserable years of tyranny symbolized by the military dictatorship of Ahmad Cemal [or Jemal] Pasha in Syria, seferberlik (forced conscription and exile), and the collective hanging of Arab patriots in Beirut’s Burj Square on August 15, 1916.

Turkey’s institutionalized sadism added to the woes of Syrians, who grew hungrier each year because of the Anglo-French blockade that kept out, as American and European Union sanctions do today, many of the basic staples needed for survival.

No part of what was then called Syria, which included today’s Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, avoided the cataclysm. An economics professor at Beirut’s Syrian Protestant College wrote, “You never saw a starving person, did you? May the Almighty preserve you from this sight!!!” Rafael de Nogales, a freebooting Venezuelan officer in the Ottoman army, recorded that

Aleppo kept on filling up with mendicant and pest-stricken deportees who died in the streets by the hundreds, and infected the rest of the population to such an extent that on some days the funeral carts were insufficient to carry the dead to the cemeteries.

The locust infestation of 1915 and hoarding by Beirut’s grain merchants aggravated a famine so severe that there were many tales of cannibalism. Hana Mina, a Syrian novelist born just after the war, wrote in his novel Fragments of Memory, “During the Safar Barrlik, mothers…became like cats and ate their children.” A half-million out of four million inhabitants in Greater Syria perished from starvation, disease, and violence.

The four and a half years since March 2011 are recreating the suffering of a century ago: malnutrition, starvation, epidemics, the exodus of most of the population to other parts of Syria or to foreign lands, the brutality of the combatants, the traumatization of children, and Great Power preference for victory over the inhabitants’ well-being. An anonymous Syrian poet, in words his twenty-first-century countrymen might echo, wrote:

The Drums of War are beating their sad rhythm
And the living people, wrapped in their shroud
Believing the war will not last a year….
Dear God, may this fifth year be the end of it.

That fifth year, 1918, was the end of it, but this century’s war is heading toward its sixth year with no prospect of a conclusion. Thousands of Russian military advisers are joining the fight on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, as Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, have from the beginning. The United States and its regional allies are increasing the flow of arms to the rebels. What was true in 2011 holds today: neither side has the power to defeat the other.

Returning to Damascus last month after a year’s absence, I discovered new dynamics. Last year, the regime seemed to be gaining the upper hand. The rebels had evacuated Homs, the first city they conquered. Jihadists had withdrawn from the Armenian village of Kessab near the Turkish border in the northwest, and Assad’s army was encroaching into the rebel-held Damascus suburbs. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) was causing the foreign supporters of the rebellion to recalibrate and consider making Assad an ally against the fanatics who threatened to export the war to the West itself. Popular complaints focused on electricity shortages, loss of wages, the hazards of sporadic rebel shelling, and the hardships of daily survival.


A year later, all has changed. The regime is in retreat. It lost Idlib province in the north. Jihadi forces backed by Turkey have surrounded the vital commercial entrepôt and cosmopolitan center of Aleppo. The jewel of the desert, the ancient Roman and Arab city of Palmyra, is in the hands of ISIS militants who tortured and beheaded an eighty-two-year-old antiquities scholar and are destroying one ancient monument after another. Young men are emigrating to avoid being drafted to fight for any side in what seems like an eternal and inconclusive war.

The few who remain are sons without brothers, who cannot be conscripted under Syrian law, which recognizes that the loss of an only son means the end of the family. As in World War I, this has led to a surfeit of women supporting their families by any means necessary. Inflation is around 40 percent. Estimates of territory held by regime opponents run from the United Nations’ 65 percent to the Jane’s report of 83 percent, while the UN estimates that anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of the population still within the country now live in areas held by the government. Migration from rebel-held areas into the capital has, as measured by the company that collects city waste, multiplied Damascus’s population five times, from about two million before the war to ten million today. Elizabeth Hoff, director of the World Health Organization in Syria, said, “Nine out of ten people in Damascus hospitals are not from Damascus. They come from Raqqa and elsewhere.” Raqqa is now held by ISIS.

Supporters of the original uprising of 2011 imagined a quick victory over the dictator along the lines of what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. A Syrian friend of mine, now living in exile, told me that the American ambassador, Robert Ford, just before he withdrew from Damascus in October 2011, tried to recruit him to take part in a government that he promised would shortly replace Assad’s. When the French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, left Damascus on March 6, 2012, barely one year into the war, he told friends that he would be back when a post-Assad government was installed “in two months.”

Since then, with Assad still in power, the death toll has climbed to at least 320,000. Out of a total population of 22 million before the war, more than four million Syrians have fled the country, and another 7.6 million are displaced within it. With Syria’s neighbors overwhelmed, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are now trying to seek refuge in Europe, causing one of the greatest challenges to the EU in its history. The government-in-waiting that Ford and other Western diplomats had hoped to install in Damascus has collapsed amid internal squabbling and a lack of committed fighters.

The only forces fighting with success against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim holy warriors who are destroying all that was best in Syria: its mosaic of different sects and ethnic communities—including Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Yazidis, and Kurds, along with Alawites and Sunni Arabs—its heritage of ancient monuments, its ancient manuscripts and Sumerian tablets, its industrial and social infrastructure, and its tolerance of different social customs. “The worst thing is not the violence,” the Armenian Orthodox primate of Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, told me. “It is this new hatred.”

In a war that is now in its fifth year and has left little of pre-war Syrian society intact, everyone seems to be asking, in one form or another, how did we get here and where are we going? What is the reason for the savagery from all sides in what has become an apocalyptic struggle for dominance and survival? Why, back in 2011, did the regime shoot at demonstrators who were not shooting at the government, and why did the uprising come to depend on a contest by weapons, in which the regime would hold the upper hand?

The United States encouraged the opposition from the beginning. The Guardian reported on October 24, 2011:

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, last week triggered speculation by saying that the military model used in Libya—US air power in support of rebels on the ground backed by French and British special forces—could be used elsewhere.

It did not happen, although the CIA trained rebels in Jordan and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided arms, and Turkey opened its borders to jihadis from around the world to wreak havoc in Syria. However, Western predictions of the regime’s quick demise were soon shown to be false.

A consensus among the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel held that Assad’s strategic alliance with Iran was detrimental to all of their interests. These powers perceived an expansionist Iran using to its advantage indigenous Shiites in Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon along with the Alawite minority in Syria, which has long been allied with the Shiites. They sought to eclipse the “Shiite Crescent” on the battlefields of Syria. Rather than eliminate Iranian influence in Syria, however, they have multiplied it. The Syrian military, once an independent secular force that looked to Iran and Hezbollah for men and weapons, now relies on Iran to determine strategy in a war of survival that, if the regime wins, will leave the Iranians in a stronger position than they were before the war.


Major military decisions come from the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the astute commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force, rather than from Syria’s discredited officer class. In Aleppo, residents speak of an Iranian officer called Jawal commanding Shiite militia forces from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon against the Sunni jihadists who have the city almost surrounded.

“Most people feel we are under Iranian occupation,” a Sunni businessman tells me, expressing a widespread perception in government-held areas. A Sunni shopkeeper in Damascus’s old city pointed to some bearded militiamen at a checkpoint near his front door and complained that Shiites from outside Syria were taking over his neighborhood. This disquiet is not restricted to the Sunnis. “I’m thinking of leaving,” a friend in Damascus told me. “I’m Alawite, and I’m secular, but I don’t like this Islamicization that came with Hezbollah.”

Mike King

The growth of Iranian influence on the Syrian government pits two theocratic ideologies, the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s wali al faqih, or “rule of (Islamic) jurists,” versus the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi fundamentalism of ISIS as well as the Turkish-backed, al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra. This has led many Syrians who don’t subscribe to Sunni or Shiite fundamentalist ideology to welcome Russian military engagement. In recent weeks, Russia has pledged to continue military support for Assad’s forces. Many Syrians welcome this less to confront ISIS and its like-minded jihadi rivals than to offset the Iranians and their clients from Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias, and Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazaras.

The West and its local allies are suffering the unintended consequences of their policies, as the Ottomans did when they declared war on the Allies in 1914. Turkey’s goals then were to take Egypt back from the British and expand its empire into the Turkish-speaking Muslim lands of the Russian Empire. To say that the Young Turk triumvirate guiding Sultan Mehmed V’s policies miscalculated is a historic understatement: rather than achieve either objective, they lost all of their empire outside Anatolia, disgraced themselves for all time by their genocide of the Armenian population, and suffered the indignity of Allied occupation of their capital, Istanbul.

Sultan Mehmed V proclaimed a jihad against the British that most Muslims ignored, just as calls for jihad since 2011 against the Alawite usurper, Bashar al-Assad, failed to rouse the Sunni masses of Syria’s main population centers, Damascus and Aleppo. Assad made his own error from the day when he allowed his security services to fire on unarmed demonstrators in the belief that, as in the past, fear would send them home. They did not go home. They went to war.

Elia Samman, a member of the recently legalized wing of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) that seeks to unite all the states of Greater Syria, participated in the early demonstrations against the regime in 2011. Within a month of the first rallies in the southern desert town of Dera’a, he detected a significant change: “On 18 April, at the demonstrations in Homs, the biggest banner said, ‘No to Iran. No to Hezbollah. We need a Muslim leader who feels God.’”

“A Muslim leader who feels God” was code for a Sunni Muslim to replace Assad as leader of Syria, in which 70 percent of the population are Sunni. At the time, Iran and Hezbollah did not concern most dissidents, who regarded Assad’s alliances with the two Shiite powers as less important than their demands for genuine elections, multiparty democracy, a free press, an independent judiciary, and the end of elite corruption that was crippling the economy. Samman recalled:

A couple of months later, we observed weapons [being distributed] under the guise of “protecting the demonstrators.” When the violence became predominant, we told our members not to participate.

Within the year, the government’s use of force and the rise of armed groups in the opposition made public protest both impossible and irrelevant. Jihadists took over the rhetoric of the opposition, and democrats had no place on either side of the barricades. The population of Syria hemorrhaged to the four corners of the world.

Europe’s leaders, who had resisted wave after wave of Syrian refugees until a drowned Syrian Kurdish child’s photograph embarrassed them into action in early September, are again speaking of a diplomatic solution that requires the agreement of the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. There has been much shuttling by Syrian oppositionists, Syrian intelligence chiefs, Russian and American diplomats, and Saudi princes. What is happening recalls the so-called “peace process” that has failed to break the Israeli–Palestinian impasse for the past twenty years. A senior Syrian official, who asked me not to publish his name, said, “We are at the threshold of a joint American–Russian effort with the UN to get the Syrian government and opposition into a collective effort against terrorism.”

This is optimistic fantasy, given that the US will not coordinate any of its policies with the Assad regime in order to defeat ISIS. Moreover, neither the US nor Russia has budged from its initial position about Bashar al-Assad. The Russians insist he must stay, and the Americans demand that he go. Although they speak about negotiations, which ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq have made more urgent, they are not negotiating. Instead, they support the combatants’ efforts to kill one another and turn more Syrians into refugees. A prominent Syrian oppositionist in exile told me that he explained to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that, for the opposition to fight against “terrorism” along with the Syrian army, “you would have to restructure the army.” When I said that Assad would refuse to restructure the army, the oppositionist conceded, “Okay. That’s why the war would never end.”

Turkey, which probably has the most local influence in Syria, is using its professed war against ISIS as a smokescreen to attack Kurds, the most effective fighters to date against ISIS in Syria, Iraq, or Turkey itself. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has suddenly thrown his hand in with Assad against the same sort of fundamentalists he overthrew and is imprisoning at home. He and Assad now share what Assad called “a joint vision” on security issues. The Syria war is a free-for-all in which everyone pursues his own interests to the detriment of the Syrians themselves.

At the end of Seferberlik in 1918, Britain and France occupied Syria and partitioned it into the statelets that have failed their populations ever since. No one knows where this war is leading or what today’s children will pass on to the next generation. During the conflict of a century ago, the exiled poet Khalil Gibran watched from Boston, and wrote in “Dead Are My People”:

My people and your people, my Syrian
Brother, are dead…. What can be
Done for those who are dying? Our
Lamentations will not satisfy their
Hunger, and our tears will not quench
Their thirst; what can we do to save
Them from between the iron paws of

The United Nations’ latest “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” paints a depressing portrait of the population’s unimaginable torment at the hands of government and opposition forces alike. The regime drops barrel bombs in Aleppo, and the rebels respond with gas cannisters of explosives and shrapnel. ISIS rapes and brutalizes Yazidi women whom it has declared slaves to be bought and sold. The regime’s security services practice torture on an industrial scale. Both sides besiege villages, and both sides commit massacres. The UN report’s forty-four pages of horrific war crimes should be sufficient for the outside powers to budge and call a halt to this war. What are they waiting for?

—September 24, 2015


Magnum Photos

Saria Zilan, an eighteen-year-old Kurdish soldier in the Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, Serikani, Rojava, Syria, 2015; photograph by Newsha Tavakolian.

‘It’s been one year and four months since I joined YPJ,’ Zilan told Tavakolian. ‘When I saw [a woman I knew] on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw [her] mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after.

‘In the past, women had various roles in the society, but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they’d arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights.
‘We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the earth. I fought ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman.

‘I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we’re doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why.’