Nobody in Syria expects a quick solution to the crisis in which a mosaic of different interests and factions are battling to control the country. “My picture of Syrian society is that 30 per cent of people are militantly against the government, 30 per cent are for them, and 40 per cent don’t like anybody very much,” says a Christian in Damascus. A diplomat believes people are much more polarised than six months ago into pro-government, anti-government and “what I term the anti-anti-government, the people who dislike the regime, but equally fear the opposition.” The government has been exploiting this by targeting its non-violent opponents “so they can say it is a choice between us and guys with long beards. People want change, but they are frightened it might be for the worse.” Conversations with liberally minded critics of the regime in Damascus reflect these differences. “If I made even the most peaceful protest I would be immediately arrested,” says one woman in frustration. “The exiled opposition leaders have not developed a serious plan to reassure the minorities [Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds], though they are the main supporters of the government,” adds a businessman whose business is collapsing, forcing him to live off his savings.
30 December, 2012
“Shame on you! Shame on The Independent!” boomed the voice of a Syrian intellectual in my phone half an hour after I had returned from Damascus to Beirut. He was so incoherent in his rage that it was difficult to know his precise objections, but my sin seemed to be that I had been in Damascus, talked to members of the Syrian government and concluded that it was not going to collapse anytime soon. Our conversation was not very sophisticated. After an acerbic exchange, I asked why, if he felt so strongly, did he “not stop being rude to people like me, go to Aleppo and fight beside the rebels instead of spending all your time in the cafés of Beirut?” Shortly afterwards, there was a mutual clicking-off of mobiles.
Driving the short distance between Damascus and Beirut is like shifting from one planet to another. What seems obvious and commonsensical in the Syrian capital becomes controversial and a minority viewpoint over the border in Lebanon. The difference in perceptions is explained partly by the way the international and regional media describe the war. There are few foreign journalists in the Syrian capital because it is difficult to get visas. By way of contrast, the rebels have a highly sophisticated media operation—often foreign-based—proffering immediate details of every incident, often backed up by compelling, if selective, YouTube footage.
Understandably, the rebel version of events is heavily biased towards their own side and demonises the Syrian government. More surprising is the willingness of the international media, based often in Beirut but also in London and New York, to regurgitate with so little scepticism what is essentially good-quality propaganda. It is as if, prior to the US presidential election in November, foreign journalists had been unable to obtain visas to enter the US and had instead decided to rely on Republican Party militants for their information on the campaign — moreover, Republican activists based in Mexico and Canada.
2 June 2013
The best hope for an end to the killing in Syria is for the US and Russia to push both sides in the conflict to agree a ceasefire in which each holds the territory it currently controls. In a civil war of such savagery, diplomacy with any ambition to determine who holds power in future will founder because both sides believe they can still win. Mutual hatred is too great for any long term deal on sharing power. A ceasefire would not stop all the shooting but many Syrians would live who would otherwise die. The White House has said in the past few days that its top priority in Syria is to impose regime change, but this is a recipe for a very long conflict. Why should Assad and his government surrender when they are more than holding their own on the battlefield? Moreover, Washington appears to have shut the door on the idea of Iran, a main player, attending the peace conference in Geneva. This again is unrealistic if the aim of negotiations is to end the fighting. There may be a more sinister reason why the US has started setting the bar so high for talks. Washington’s involvement is greater than appears because so much of it goes through Qatar, with the CIA determining who gets arms and money sent via Turkey.
28 June, 2013
Khalid is too frightened of travelling the 100 miles from Homs to Damascus to ask officials if they know what happened to his three sons, who disappeared 16 months ago as government troops over-ran the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr. He has not heard anything from them since and does not know if they are alive or dead, though he has repeatedly asked the authorities in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, about them.
Khalid, a thick-set man of 60 with grizzled white hair, who used to be a construction worker until he injured his back, says he dare not make the journey to Damascus because “as soon as the soldiers at the checkpoints on the road see I come from a place like Baba Amr, with a reputation for supporting the rebels, they are likely to arrest me.” He explains that he cannot risk being detained because he has a wife and four daughters who rely on him. He is the last man left in his family since his sons went missing.
Syria is full of parents trying to keep their children alive or simply seeking to find out if they are already dead. It is as if both sides in the civil war are in a competition to see who can commit the worst atrocities. A few days before speaking to Khalid I saw a picture on the internet of a freshfaced 23-year-old soldier called Youssef Kais Abdin from near the port city of Latakia. He had been kidnapped a week earlier by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra while serving in the north-east of Syria, close to the Iraqi border. The next his parents heard of Youssef was a call from their son’s mobile at 4am from al-Nusra telling them to look for a picture of their son online. When they did so, they saw his decapitated body in a pool of blood with his severed head placed on top of it.
9 February 2014
It is a terrible story but it throws a grim light on the terrors of the Syrian war. It is told at first in a calm, precise voice by Nusair Mahla, a middle-aged government employee, until he finally has to choke back tears as he speaks of the last moments of his sister Maysoun Hala and her husband Nizar along with their two children, Karim and Bishr. He says that many other Syrians have suffered similar tragedies, but in few cases is it known so precisely what the victims themselves thought about their fate.
Nusair, a neatly dressed man in a brown suit, says the first he knew about his sister’s family being in danger was an early morning phone call. He recalls it came after 6:30am. and was from neighbours who said that insurgents, whom he invariably calls “terrorists,” had entered the industrial town of Adra 12 miles north of Damascus and were taking hostages. This happened on 11 December when fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, another jihadi group, captured the main employees’ residential complex at Adra using an old sewer to outflank government forces.
Nusair recalls: “I immediately called my sister and told her to get out and come to my house in Mezze.” Nizar worked as a public relations specialist for the state oil company while Maysoun had qualified as an engineer at Damascus University and was a housing manager at Adra. As state employees they were at risk of being killed by jihadi rebels, but what made their execution certain was that, though very secular in lifestyle, they belonged to the Alawite sect.
In the event, the jihadis who had taken Adra believed that state employment or membership of any religious minority — Alawite, Christian, Druze — was enough to merit death. Maysoun told her brother that she did not dare follow his advice to leave her apartment building because the rebels were “in front of the door of the building and they are also on the rooftops.” Even so Nusair suggested she go with the two children, Karim, 16, and Bishr, five, and maybe the jihadis would let them pass.
She answered that “they look so terrifying and I am afraid. I was looking out the window and I saw the terrorists killed one of the National Defence Force with a big knife.” Maysoun explained to Nusair that she and Nizar planned to try to wedge the door of their apartment shut. But if this failed and the jihadis broke in, then the whole family had taken a momentous resolution: rather than face torture and inevitable death at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, they would die as a family by detonating grenades that Nizar had somehow acquired (he does not seem to have had a gun).
The rest of the day was chaos, according to Nusair. All the relatives of the trapped family were calling them on landlines and mobiles to try to comfort them. At about midnight, Nusair’s 25- year-old son William, who lives in Aleppo, called his aunt and asked about the situation. Maysoun replied: “They are trying to get into the house.” William heard two gunshots. Maysoun repeated that if the rebels got in the family would blow themselves up. Then she cried out: “They are inside the house, William, they are inside the house! We should say goodbye. Please forgive us.” Then he heard an explosion.
Nusair breaks off telling the story and puts his hands over his eyes as he tries to suppress his sobs. After a few moments he goes on to say that William phoned him and said: “They are now in the hands of God.” Nusair called the landline and mobiles of the family in the apartment in Adra and there was no reply. He stayed at home with his own family in Damascus and told them: “We can’t do anything. They are now martyrs.”
Nusair gives some background about Nizar and Maysoun: “They were a wonderful family. They were like a small democracy. Anything they wanted to do they discussed and, even if five-year-old Bishr was against doing something, they didn’t do it.” Nizar was very secular —“I used to call him a secular extremist”— and pictures of the family together show Karim with long hair and his mother with her hair dyed blond and without a headscarf. She had been working hard trying to get ready housing for refugees from Douma, a rebel stronghold not far from Adra. Much of this emergency accommodation was in a half-built residential complex with no glass in the windows and no furniture. Nusair, evidently very close to his sister, says: “I used to call her every night and she would say, ‘I am so tired preparing these houses that aren’t ready for people to live in.’”
The story does not end with the explosion and the apparent death of the family. At 3am the next day, Nusair got a call from Nizar’s brother who said: “Nizar just called me but the line was cut.” Nusair immediately called the Adra apartment on the landline and it was answered. He asked: “What happened, Nizar?” Nizar replied in a slurred voice as if in pain: “Bishr died and Maysoun and Karim are badly injured and bleeding. They are not moving. It is too late for me but please try to do something for them.” Nusair talked and tried to say encouraging things but, he says, “finally the phone must have fallen from his hand. Those were the last words I heard him say.”
This is an extract from ‘Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East’ by Patrick Cockburn, published by OR Books, price £18. The discount code readers can use for 15% off ‘Chaos and Caliphate’ is: INDEPENDENT