Syria’s ongoing autopsy

Print edition : July 10, 2015

Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, By Reese Erlich, Prometheus Books, New York, 2014.

Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring, By Charles Glass, O/R Books, New York, 2015.

Syrian refugees burst into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province in south-eastern Turkey on June 14. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Fighters belonging to Ansar al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) at the front line that divides rebel and regime-controlled areas in the Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus on June 15. Photo: RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP

The two books reveal a great deal more about the prevailing mood among Syrians than the news reports that track the minutiae of this battle and that battle in the country.

Four years into the conflict, Syria remains a bare shadow of itself. Morticians have stopped counting the dead, and the United Nations only has estimates of the displaced (about half the population). Life expectancy is said to have dropped by 20 years to a meagre 58. The suffering is acute. It cannot be captured in numbers. One gauge of it is the extreme step taken by Syrian refugees to flee the area, even to risk going to chaotic Libya from which they chance the Mediterranean moat. Walking through Syrian refugee camps provides both a sense of the desolation and the pure relief at human resilience; even the most scarred people try to plant flowers outside their tents.

The war itself is relatively dull, battles here and there threaten human lives and seem to make little progress in the civil war. Over four years none of the players have been overly threatened. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which the West thought would fall on several occasions over this period, remains intact. It continues to control the major population centres. Despite their antipathy to his government, Western journalists and diplomats feel safest in his realm. Areas of the rebels sow fear, whether the slowly depleting zones of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the various Islamist extremist groups (from the Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to Al Qaeda, to the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam). Kidnappings for ransom and for spectacular killing are the threat. There are no longer any reliable forces that carry the “moderate” banner for the West. The rebels lean largely towards extremism of one shape or form. In his elegy for the civil war, the journalist Charles Glass notes, “No one, apart from the undertaker, is winning.”

The entrails of this war suggest little hope. No sign of peace is visible. Even exhaustion—which is the mood amongst many fighters—is not a guarantee of a ceasefire. The combatants resemble boxers in the final rounds of their championship bout, blinded by pain and fatigue, groping for a target on the body of the other; except that in this case, there are no rounds, no bells, no going the distance, since the war seems to stretch to infinity. The journalist Reese Erlich’s book does not even bother with an assessment of the way ahead. He closes his learned book with pen portraits of those who prolong the conflict: the United States, Russia, the Gulf Arabs and Iran. Halfway through his book, Erlich writes, “The struggle for a peaceful, secular Syria has been diminished, but not crushed.” Here is hope. It dies on page 121. A hundred pages remain of the book.

The Rebellion

Was Syria fated to join the Arab Spring? Assad did not think so. He was confident that the wave would wash across North Africa and settle before it entered the Arab east. The southern city of Daraa was the epicentre of small-scale protests, a vicious retaliation from the local governor and then escalation outwards across Syria. What provoked the multitudinous uprisings? Erlich and Glass share a narrative here. Both go backwards to the colonial past to suggest that what emerged out of it—the one-state Arab regime—could not be sustained. Too many complex desires and aspirations had been suppressed by these regimes, whether in Egypt or Syria or Iraq. Popular discontent is legion. Each of these regimes had a basic contract with the population—we will provide for your economic, social and cultural needs as long as you leave the politics to us. By the 1990s, the contract frayed. These regimes turned to neoliberal policy frameworks that whittled at welfare schemes and encouraged corruption. The beneficiaries of the new reforms, Glass writes, “were newly privatised bankers, Bashar’s cousins who obtained licences to sell mobile phones, middlemen and brokers with urban educations and customs, not the newly landless trying without money or education to adapt to metropolitan life”.

The frustrations of the newly landless were compounded by the drought that hit the area around the Euphrates river (in September 2010, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, said that as many as three million Syrians had been thrown into extreme poverty by the extreme weather). Dr Bassam Barakat, an adviser to the Assad government, told Erlich of the neoliberal reforms, “The Syrian regime made a big mistake. We had an army of unemployed young people.” These would be the ones who would rise against Assad in 2011.

If the contract to provide the basic needs was withdrawn, the other side of it—political suffocation —was not changed. The vocabulary of violence in the dungeons of Syria is highly developed, from the dulab (to be hung from a suspended tyre and beaten) to the bisat al-rih (the flying carpet, namely to hang the prisoner on a piece of wood and then beat him or apply electric shock treatment). Promises of a political opening came as early as the Damascus Spring of 2001, but Assad dithered. Opponents went to prison or exile. At several points Erlich suggests that Assad should have conducted reforms “in response to popular opinion”. Why Assad did not is clear. Crony capitalism, a condition familiar around the world, prefers less accountability and so less democracy. Those prisons came into use during the West’s War on Terror, when the U.S. government outsourced incarceration and torture to Damascus. In February 2011, a month before the rising, the Syrian Association for Human Rights and the Arab Organisation for Penal Reform published a report on prison overcrowding. Who was in prison? People like the former judge Haitham al-Maleh (age 80), who was convicted by the Emergency laws for “weakening national sentiment”. His crime: calling for civil liberties.


Revolutions, Glass writes, “produce surprising outcomes, and those who start them must be prepared for the unintended consequences of success as much as for failure”. It is the latter that stalks Syria. Both Erlich and Glass show that the early phase of the uprising that began in March 2011 had an ecumenical character, which was evident in the Local Coordinating Committees. Armed by Syria’s geopolitical rivals, extremist groups supplanted these committees by November 2011. “The uprising,” Erlich writes, “was becoming a civil war.”

Both Erlich and Glass detail the tentacles of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as well as the West in the hapless opposition groups that had their headquarters in Istanbul. On the ground meanwhile, the FSA led by Salim Idris faced blow upon blow not only from the Syrian Army but also from the extremist outfits. Al Qaeda affiliates emerged, as did Saudi-backed extremists. The character of the rebellion changed dramatically into sectarianism. Syria, which has a long history of relative tolerance, heard chilling slogans of extreme violence:

Massihiyeh ala Beirut. Alawiyeh ala Taboot.(Christians to Beirut; Alawis to the coffin.)

Zahran Alloush, backed by Saudi Arabia and considered by the West to be a “moderate”, told his followers near Damascus, “The jehadists will wash the filth of the rafida [an anti-Shia slur] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it.” This is the character of the rebellion. Glass’ assessment of the current impasse is bleak: “The war has reached the stage at which many on both sides no longer regard the others as humans let alone as citizens of a country in which all must coexist.”

Old-style journalists, Erlich and Glass know Syria well. They have spent long periods drifting about, making friends, and enjoying the social worlds that they encounter. Neither feel the lash of a corporate media industry, pushing them to file breaking news and ignoring the density of social life and the passions of the people.

Glass wrote a lyrical book about his journey through Syria in 1987, Tribes With Flags (1990), in which he introduces us to his friends, the Aleppo hotelier Krikor Mazloumian, the people of Yusuf Basha, the Damascenes such as Sehem Turjuman and Hani al Raheb. There is deep love here for the people he encounters and writes about. Glass returns to Syria throughout the civil war, meeting his old contacts and friends. They remain committed to the complexity of Syria, many of them from minority groups who did not always see themselves as minorities but as a part of Syrian culture.

Glass sits with Khalid Khalifa, the Aleppo-born novelist who wrote In Praise of Hatred (Madih al-karahiya, 2006), a novel that considers the conflict between the Syrian state and the Muslim Brotherhood. His most recent novel, No Knives in This City’s Kitchens (La Sakakin fi matabikh hadhini al-madina), is an indictment of the Baath rule.

Khalifa tells Glass, “Stop the war. Stop the blood. The Syrian people are tired now. You can play revolution for some time. But not for a long time.” This is the attitude captured by Erlich and Glass. It reveals a great deal more than the reports that track the minutiae of this battle and that battle.

Neither Erlich nor Glass sees an easy way out. Both are gloomy. The geopolitics does not allow it. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the West remain obdurate with their slogan, “Assad must go”, a recipe for the prolongation of the war. Iran and Russia will not allow the Syrian regime to collapse. No one can win this war.

Syria is ground down beneath these determinations. Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, a wise and distinguished architect from Aleppo, runs the Syrian Initiative, a group that seeks to build grass-roots linkages inside Syria. He maintains hope.

“Peace in Syria,” he recently wrote, “will need sustainable roots. It must be built from the bottom up; the top down process advocated in the Geneva Communique, can work only if it is supported by transforming the dynamic of the conflict on the ground.”

He is hard at work building trust through local ceasefires. People who live cheek by jowl will have to learn again to rely on each other. It takes people like Hallaj to create the basis for this, although even he is pessimistic. “The longer the war is prolonged,” he writes, “the smaller the window of opportunity may become.”

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