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"Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues." - an extract from Jonathan Littell's Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising

Jasmin Singh 3 December 2015

Image for blog post entitled "Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues." - an extract from Jonathan Littell's <i>Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising</i>

Last night, an overwhelming majority of UK parliament voted to begin military airstrikes on Syria, proving Jonathan Littell right when he wrote, "it is the fear, even the psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests – of another September 11 or July 7 – that is driving European and US decision making." Airstrikes will have devastating effects on the Syrian people and can only act as an incentive to further radicalise rebels. 

The below extract from Littell’s Syrian Notebooks traces the political climate and violence in Syria from 2012, documenting the first stirrings of IS.

(Photo: Al Jazeera)

The world is not yours alone
There is a place for all of us
You don’t have the right to own it all.

An anonymous Syrian yelling in the night at a regime sniper

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: struggle as they can, no one knows how to wake up from it. And it keeps spilling over, infecting ever wider zones, all the while seeping through our screens to come lap up against our gray mornings, tingeing them with a distant bitterness we do our best to ignore. 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 of the same nightmare: 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, opposing them when in fact they are but two sides of the same coin, one coin among many in a variety of currencies for which no exchange rate was ever set.

The notes that form this book are a record of a brief fragment of the dream: a dream that was already assailed on all sides and subjected, as we will see, to unutterable violence, but one that the dreamers still clung to, with all their heart and all their strength. Publishing them now, reopening this small window on three weeks lost in the distant past – three years ago, an eternity – may at least serve this purpose: to remind the reader that before the nightmare, a nightmare so dense and opaque it seems to have no beginning, there had been the dream. And that whereas nightmares are a roiling magma of individual pulsions, deriving their shape only from the hollow molds of ideology, and adding up to nothing but death, dreams are collective, political, spiritual, social. Perhaps then, these notes might help provide a touchstone, a reference point, to show that all this did not happen by chance; more importantly, that all this did not have to be, that there were other paths, other possibilities, other futures. That the mantra so tirelessly repeated by our solemn leaders, “There is nothing we could have done,” is simply not true. And that 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 shabbiha (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.”

I have already described, in the epilogue I wrote a few months after my stay in Homs, the events that followed: the Army’s total destruction and occupation of the “free neighborhood” of Baba ‘Amr, and the beginning of the bitter siege of the opposition neighborhoods in the center. This siege, which leveled large parts of the city, lasted over two years: finally, in May 2014, the exhausted and starved survivors brokered a deal, and were allowed to evacuate the city alive, abandoning the empty ruins to the triumphant regime. This event was hardly noticed in the West; others were captivating our attention. Just as we only woke up to the threat of Ebola when the first cases hit Texas and Madrid, shrugging helplessly and even indifferently as long as it was only killing Africans, so did we only finally react to the horror engulfing Syria and then Iraq when images of Western journalists and aid workers, kneeling in orange jumpsuits to have their heads sawed off by some masked British psychopath, were forcefully shoved down our throats, in all the perfection of their sickening mise-en- scène. A year earlier, on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government had shelled rebel Ghouta suburbs of Damascus using sarin, a lethal nerve agent, killing hundreds, perhaps even more than a thousand civilians and blatantly violating every single “red line” set by Western democracies. France (who to its credit always seems to have had a more lucid vision than its partners regarding the perils of an extension of the conflict), was prepared to join an international coalition and engage in punitive airstrikes against key regime bases and facilities, but was forced to stand down when first the UK and then the US, for mostly internal political reasons, backed off and brokered a vague chemical disarmament deal with Russia, granting the regime a new lease of life as the only power in the region technically capable of carrying out such a disarmament, and in the process permitting it to continue mass-murdering its civilians using more conventional weaponry, such as Scud rockets, artillery, and barrels crammed with explosives. Meanwhile, more and more voices were rising, in the West and elsewhere, to suggest that the real peril was not al-Assad and his oppressive regime, but the growing Islamist threat, most violently incarnated by the self-proclaimed “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” Da‘esh in its Arabic acronym.

Mani and myself happened to be in Homs, and 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. Even though the al-Assad power structure was founded not, as is often said, on an exclusively Alawite basis, but on an alliance between the Alawite ruling clique and a Sunni bourgeoisie – already established or newly promoted and granted key posts in the economy, the bureaucracy, and even the Army and security services – the regime felt it could no longer trust the Sunni, 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. Not even all the Alawites, at the beginning, fully supported the regime; the Christians, as can be seen in this book, were often neutral, as were other minorities. 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, and the downward spiral accelerated dramatically. 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 cycle of massacre and counter-massacre turned the regime’s survival 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 ar-Raqqah, 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-Qa‘ida 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. Yet no matter how cynical, none of this is very surprising. As Le Monde’s Christophe Ayad wrote in a May 2014 portrait of the leader of Da‘esh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

The Syrian secret services, who have spent most of their time since 2003 managing, infiltrating, and exfil- trating jihadists transiting to Iraq [to fight US forces], know their “clients” very well, when they are not directly manipulating them. They know that the first objective of most of them is the creation of a Caliphate strictly applying sharia law, rather than the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

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 lettresde 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 con- flict. 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 travelling 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 “shari‘a law” no one really wanted or even understood; further decapitations of Russian captives and other atrocities, conveniently filmed by their Islamist perpetrators, continued to feed Russian anti-Chechen propaganda, with compilations of these videos being distributed to all foreign embassies at the start of the 1999 reinvasion of Chechnya to help justify the inevitable excesses of the “anti-terrorist operation."

What followed is well known: the total destruction of Groznyi, 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 is no place to go into details, but a few examples might serve. Documents leaked by frustrated GRU officials to the Russian media revealed that the FSB paid Barayev 12 million dollars, out-bidding the four telecom engineers’ employers, to have them gruesomely killed in a manner maximizing the propa- ganda impact; in the spring of 2000, after the Federal Forces had occupied Chechnya, Chechen colleagues of mine saw Barayev – officially one of the most wanted men of Russia – freely driving through Russian checkpoints using an FSB accreditation; and it was only when his chief FSB protector, Rear-Admiral German Ugryumov, mysteriously died in May 2001 that the GRU was finally able to corner him, in an FSB base, and kill him. On a military level, when Groznyi finally fell in late January 2000, the Russian services manipulated or paid the Islamist rebel groups, which had been sent ahead to the mountains to prepare the withdrawal of the remaining forces from the city, to betray their comrades, leading to the nationalist forces being decimated during the retreat. The evidence is also strong for a form of direct complicity, or at least mutual manipulation, between the services and the Chechen Islamist commando that occupied a Moscow theater in October 2002, resulting in the death of over a hundred hostages and further discrediting president Maskhadov and his remaining guerilla forces. In spite of a succession of disastrous incidents, the most notorious being the hideous school massacre in Beslan in September 2003, 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. Chechen rebel activity has now been reduced to almost nothing, and Doku Umarov was killed in turn toward the end of 2013; the fact that the Islamist uprising continues unabated in neighboring regions, especially Daghestan, seems to be considered by Russia as a “manageable” problem, for now.

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. There are also some potentially direct links. The appearance in the Syrian theater of several Chechen brigades, aligned either with Jabhat al-Nusra or Da‘esh, has gained quite a bit of media attention, as has the main “Chechen” commander ‘Umar al-Shishani, now a military emir of Da‘esh, who is in fact a former Georgian special forces officer of mixed Christian-Muslim descent whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili. Less well known, however, is the fact that behind Omar al-Shishani stands a certain Isa Umarov, who left Chechnya to join him in Da‘esh territory and has given him his daughter in marriage. Umarov, one of the oldest and most influential (albeit highly discrete) Chechen Islamist leaders, whose links to the KGB go all the way back to the 1980s when he was one of the founders of the Islamic Rebirth Party, the first anti-Soviet Islamist organization, is a man who played a key role in the interaction between the Russian services and the Islamists he godfathered all through the two Chechen wars; and his role within Da‘esh certainly raises interesting questions. 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.”

Yet 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. It is no accident that the Syrian air force’s very first bombardments of Da‘esh coincided with the beginning of Coalition airstrikes (although they have now gone back to bombing moderate rebel positions, especially in Aleppo, leaving Da‘esh to the Americans); nor that the French intelligence services, as Le Monde recently revealed, have been making overtures to Damascus and the mukhabarat, requesting assistance in tracking Da‘esh and al-Nusra jihadists that might pose a direct threat to Europe – overtures that fortunately were disavowed by President François Hollande and his Foreign Ministry, but for how long? Even more than the fate of the broader Middle East, including Lebanon and Jordan, or the sickening executions of a few brave Western journalists and aid workers, and especially since the killing of four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum by Mehdi Nemmouche (a lost French banlieue delinquent who somehow ended up torturing Da‘esh’s Western hostages in their Aleppo dungeon before returning to Europe to become the new terrorist hero and martyr), it is the fear, even the psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests – of another September 11 or July 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 September 2014, the regime had killed 124,752 Syrian civilians, including 17,139 children, as opposed to 831 civilians (of which 137 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.”

All this has taken us rather far from this small book, which does little more than open a retroactive window on a long-vanished time: a time when idealistic young citizen-activists packed themselves, in cars, around foreign journalists to protect them from snipers with their bodies; a time when the Free Syrian Army struggled to restrain Bedouin revenge killings of Alawites, on the grounds that they were playing into the regime’s hands; a time when FSA soldiers could still joke about bin Laden and Zarqawi without anyone taking it too seriously; a time when, in spite of the daily death toll and the rising levels of violence, a positive outcome – one in which a state with something approaching rule of law and popular participation might be established within the Syrian borders – was still possible. When I returned from Homs, in early February 2012, I was invited to brief the then French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, together with his senior advisors. During the meeting, I outlined my most important observations: the main revolutionary forces still believed in a non-sectarian democratic Syria with equal rights for every community, including the Alawites; the regime was doing its utmost to provoke cycles of sectarian violence while the FSA was frantically trying to contain them; born out of despair, the Islamist temptation was growing, but had yet to gain any serious ground (Jabhat al-Nusra had in fact been founded just a few weeks earlier, but few people knew that yet). I also issued a warning: while the revolution was struggling to contain its negatives forces, this was a losing battle; if al-Assad was not overthrown soon – something that would only be possible with strong Western support, including the provision of sophisticated weaponry and possibly the enforcement of a partial or even total no-fly zone over Syria – the center would not hold, and worse forces would emerge, driving the revolution into the arms of criminals and Islamist radicals. To my surprise, Juppé completely shared this analysis; but alone, he added, without the participation of its American and British allies, France could do nothing. Inaction is always easy, but is rarely a wise course of action. We have seen the results.

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, together with his friend Talal Derki, had dropped in from Damascus on the afternoon of January 29, a few hours after a ten-year-old boy named Taha had been shot and killed nearby by a sniper. They had already begun making what would one day become Return to Homs, which Talal directed and ‘Orwa partly filmed, and images of Taha’s body, lying on the cold floor of Abu Brahim’s clandestine clinic, feature toward the beginning of the film; the brief conversation I had that day with ‘Orwa is recorded in this book. Months later, on August 23, ‘Orwa was arrested by the mukhabarat as he tried to fly out of Damascus airport to Egypt; most unusually, but fortunately for him, an international pressure campaign supported by the likes of Robert de Niro and Robert Redford succeeded in securing his release after a few months. ‘Orwa went on to produce Return to Homs, followed by another masterpiece of the Syrian revolution, Usama Muhammad and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, which was first shown to great acclaim at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. ‘Orwa, unlike me, had never lost touch with the Homsi activists, many of whom were his dear friends, and was thus able to fill in, for me, the blanks left in my original April 2012 epilogue.

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 ‘Uthman, aka Jeddi, is still under detention by the mukhabarat, along with Usama al-Habaly (aka Usama al-Homsi), who filmed parts of Return to Homs together with ‘Orwa and whom I certainly met, even though he is not mentioned in this book. 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, went on, after Osama’s arrest, to film the rest of Return to Homs, and is currently struggling in bitter exile in Turkey. ‘Umar Talawi, the Bab as-Saba‘a activist made famous by his raging YouTube and Al Jazeera speeches, was wounded in October 2013 while covering shelling in Homs, but is still alive, though he has dropped out of sight for the past few months. And 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 execu- tions 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.

- extract from Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell - 50% off on our website until the end of December as part of our holiday sale, with free worldwide shipping and bundled ebook.