Arab Spring or Syrian Winter? 200,000 Estimated Dead, 8 Million Have Fled, and Exhausted Activists Have Given Up

The following is an excerpt from the new book Syria Burning by Charles Glass (Verso, 2016): 

A dog in Lebanon, an old joke goes, was so hungry, mangy and tired of civil war that he escaped to Syria. To the surprise of the other dogs, he returned a few months later. Seeing him better groomed and fatter than before, they asked whether the Syrians had been good to him. “Very good.” “Did they feed and wash you?” “Yes.” “Then why did you come back?” “I want to bark.”

It is impossible not to sympathize with Syrians’ desire to be treated like adults. The Syrian regime is not alone, of course, among Middle East dictatorships in regarding its people as subjects rather than citizens. Under the portrait of the great dictator, petty tyrants grant some supplicants permits, demand bribes from others and abuse the rest. Syrians can identify with what Italians under Mussolini used to say: “The problem is not the big dictator. It is all the little dictators.” Little dictators, though, thrive under the big dictator.

But all dictators are at risk from changed international circumstances, a spark (like a self-immolation in Tunisia) or the sudden realization that the regime is vulnerable. People in Syria have reasons to demand change, as they have in the past. But history has not been kind to Syria’s desire for reform. During World War I, Arab nationalists in Damascus wanted to rid themselves of Ottoman rule. Ottoman officials could be corrupt and arbitrary, but they kept the peace, allowed the Syrians representation in the Istanbul parliament and put no restrictions on travel within the empire. The nationalists collaborated with Britain and France. They ended up with British and French colonialism, contrived borders, the expulsion of three-quarters of Palestine’s population, insurrections and wars. 

At independence in 1946, Syria had a parliamentary system, even if landlords, urban merchants, beys and pashas dominated it. Into the mix came the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), which had announced plans in 1945 to construct the Tapline oil conduit from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. Three countries on the route—Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon—granted immediate permission. Syria’s parliament, seeking better terms, delayed. The project stalled further when the Arab governments launched a war for which their colonially created armies (with the exception of Transjordan’s) were unprepared. When they lost, demonstrations condemned the corruption that had deprived soldiers of adequate resources. In Damascus, the protesters forced the government to resign.

The United States embassy in Damascus seized the opportunity to win Syrian approval for Tapline. The Central Intelligence Agency’s man, Stephen Meade, approached the army chief of staff, Colonel Husni Za’im, to arrange a coup. The Kurdish former Ottoman soldier took embassy money to foment an insurrection that justified his seizure of power in 1949. The embassy reported to Washington that “over 400 Commies [in] all parts of Syria have been arrested.” Syria signed an agreement with Aramco in May and an armistice with Israel in July. Colonel Za’im antagonized sectors of society by raising taxes and attempting to give women the vote. Although he did not kill anyone, another colonel overthrew and executed him a month later. That colonel was himself eliminated by a third colonel. Thus began Syria’s instability, with military coups as regular as changes of season.

In the meantime, Colonel Za’im’s suppression of the Communist Party produced, in the last free vote held in Syria, the election of the Arab world’s first Communist member of parliament. The United States made two more major attempts in the 1950s to decide Syria’s future—with Operation Straggle and Operation Wappen. Both failed. The era of chronic coups ended with the last one, Hafez al-Assad’s, in November 1970. Syria enjoyed continuity, if not freedom, until the latest uprising was launched in 2011.

Revolutions elsewhere in the Middle East have also gone wrong, among them the Lebanese, Palestinian and Iranian. In 1975 young Lebanese, every bit as idealistic as their Syrian counterparts in 2011, began a revolution against corruption and pseudo-democracy. It produced a 15-year war, foreign occupation and devastation. The Palestinian revolution sold out, making the lives of the people it claimed to represent more wretched in the Israeli-occupied territories and in exile (most obviously, in Lebanon and Kuwait). The Iranian revolution, begun as a coalition of hope in 1978, led to a regime more brutal and corrupt than the one it replaced. Revolutions produce surprising outcomes, and those who start them must be prepared for the unintended consequences of success as much as for failure.

In 1987, I traveled by land through what geographers called Greater Syria to write a book. I began in Alexandretta, the seaside northern province that France ceded to Turkey in 1939, on my way south through modern Syria to Lebanon. From there, my intended route went through Israel and Jordan. My destination was Aqaba, the first Turkish citadel of Greater Syria to surrender to the Arab revolt and Lawrence of Arabia in 1917. For various reasons, my journey was curtailed in Beirut in June 1987. (I returned to complete the trip and a second book in 2002.)

The ramble on foot and by bus and taxi gave me time to savor Syria in a way I couldn’t as a journalist confronting daily deadlines. People loved to talk, linger over coffee and tea, play cards, and complain. One of the more interesting critics of President Hafez al-Assad’s then 17-year-old Baathist regime was Hafiz Jemalli. Dr. Jemalli, a distinguished statesman and diplomat then in his 80s, had been a founder of the Baath Party. By 1987, he belonged to Syria’s silent opposition.

“Everyone is afraid,” he told me then. “I accepted to be a minister. Why? Because, if not, they put me in prison. Nobody has the courage to tell our president there is something wrong. Our president believes he is an inspired person, with some special relationship with God. If he is inspired, nothing is wrong. If there is some crisis, it is a plot, of Israel or America, but nothing to do with him, because he is inspired.”

Many of the civilian members of the Baath Party, whose founders claimed to believe in secularism and democracy, deserted its ranks when the party took power in 1963. They rejected the militarization of the party, which kept power not through elections but by force of the arms of its members within the army. Among them was the father of Roulla Rouqbi, whom I met in 2012 at the hotel she manages in Damascus. Faissal Rouqbi had died a month earlier, which explained why the attractive 54-year-old was dressed in black. A vigorous supporter of the revolution that began in Syria the previous year, she believed it represented the same struggle her father waged against one-party military rule.

“I was questioned twice by the security forces,” she told me in the hotel’s coffee shop, which looks onto a busy downtown street. “They did it just to show me they know what I am doing and that they are here.” She said that, because young dissidents gathered in her coffee shop with their computers, the police cut the hotel’s Wi-Fi connection. Nonetheless, several young people were there discussing the rebellion, much as their forefathers did in the old cafés of the souqs that the French destroyed to put down their revolts, over strong Turkish coffee or, now, newly fashionable espresso.

Ms. Rouqbi detected a generational split in the conflict: “A lot of people here, nationalists of the old generation, are with the regime because they think it’s against imperialism and the Zionist project.” There was also an economic divide: “In Damascus, only the poor class is taking part. In Homs, all classes, all sects. It’s really a revolution.”

That was before the Arab Spring became the Syrian winter; before an uprising against dictatorship sparked by demonstrations against torture in the desert border town of Dera’a in 2011 degenerated into civil war. Syria had narrowly avoided civil conflict in 1982 and 1983. In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad was caught unawares by a Sunni Muslim uprising in the north. His younger brother, Rifaat, crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the rebel movement’s last stronghold in Hama, his special forces sparing no lives.

Faced with an uprising of democrats in 2011, joined later by Sunni fundamentalists, Hafez’s son and successor as president, Bashar, moved to crush unarmed demonstrators with the same ferocity. The violent suppression of peaceful dissent led some opponents to take up arms in defense of the right to protest and demand change. The armed men were a minority among dissidents who recoiled from the despoliation of their country that would necessarily accompany a violent uprising, yet they gained the ascendancy by the force of their actions and the international support they gained for their choice of the rifle e over the banner.

As casualties mounted, advocates of a military solution dominated both the regime and the opposition camps. The center, inevitably, could not hold. Battles that had been limited to border zones, where rebels were easily supplied from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, spread to the rest of the country. Damascus and Aleppo, whose populations had for the most part either supported the regime or opposed it without resort to weapons, became theaters of bloody confrontation. The rebels, advised by intelligence officers from western countries working in Turkey and Lebanon, took outlying neighborhoods of Damascus. The regime, inevitably, used all the means at its disposal to drive them out and retake those areas. The next target of the rebels’ strategy was Aleppo, where the pattern repeated itself: the rebels established themselves in the suburbs, residents fled and the regime returned with infantry, armor and airpower to “restore” order.

Many of the country’s approximately 22 million people had a vested interest in the continuation of the Assad regime, even as others demand change. On Assad’s side were the minorities who have done well under his and his father’s rule since 1970, his own Alawite community, other quasi-Shiite groups, most of the Christians and parts of the Sunni merchant class. Against them stood fundamentalists, Syrians from every community whose families had felt the rough heel of injustice, and the young who were sickened by ways of governing that did not permit peaceful power transfers. But after living through two and a half years of violent war, many of the young idealists I met gathered in the café of Rulla Rouqbi’s hotel when I returned in September 2013 were exhausted and discouraged, and the café itself nearly empty. “Stop the war. Stop the blood. The Syrian people are tired now,” said Khaled Khalifa, author of the acclaimed Syrian novel In Praise of Hatred. He was fed up with the revolution he once longed for. “You can play revolution for some time,” he said. “But not for a long time.”

Many of the activists have been arrested. They include Professor Zaidoun al-Zoabi of the Arab European University and film festival director Orwa Nyarabia. Zoabi and Nyarabia were not tortured, although Zoabi says he heard the screams of torture victims in nearby cells. Interrogators may have spared them such abuse because they belonged to what Graham Greene in Our Man in Havana called the “non-torturable classes.” From prominent families, they were released and went into exile. Others were not so fortunate.

One former protester told me, “I spent three days in jail, three days of hell. I’ve gone back to my job and stay out of politics.” He fears the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State (IS) more than the security forces who arrested him, and he tries to avoid them both. “The demonstrations are finished,” said a young woman whose activism has given way to resignation. “That was the good time.” The good time ended almost as soon as it began.

If the revolutionaries are exhausted, so is the government; more tired still are the country’s civilians, who have borne the brunt of the suffering. According to the UN nearly 200,000 people had been killed as of April 2014, probably an underestimate, while hundreds of thousands more have been injured and maimed. Atrocities by both sides have become routine. On August 4, 2013, ISIS and other Islamist militias launched an offensive against Alawite villages in the hills above Latakia. A Human Rights Watch report, You Can Still See Their Blood, estimated that the rebels kidnapped more than 200 Alawite women and children before they withdrew 12 days later. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, described how government forces indiscriminately attacked civilians with rockets, cluster bombs and other heavy weapons and used guns and knives to execute 248 civilians in a Sunni enclave that May. But he and his organization also condemned Islamists in the opposition for massacres and the ethnic cleansing of civilians “on a smaller scale”:

"Human Rights Watch has collected the names of 190 civilians who were killed by opposition forces in their offensive on the villages, including 57 women and at least 18 children and 14 elderly men. . . . The evidence collected strongly suggests they were killed on the first day of the operation, August 4."

The Free Syrian Army, which distinguishes itself from the Islamists by claiming to represent Syrians of all sects, disassociated itself from the killings. Nonetheless, it has continued to cooperate with extreme Islamist jihadists in other operations against the government. Sectarian killings and hostage-taking — largely of Alawites and Christians—by the rebels terrify the minorities, but they do not threaten the regime. Instead, they force communities to turn to the regime for protection without bringing the war closer to a conclusion.

The UN’s Human Rights Council, while condemning all factions, including the government, for atrocities, concluded a report on Syria, “There is no military solution to this conflict.”

While armed struggle has indeed failed to end the war through outright victory, international diplomacy has done no better. The UN–Arab League initiative, led first by Kofi Annan, then by former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi and most recently by Staffan de Mistura, failed to break the impasse. While diplomats pursued talks about talks, Syrians died in the tens of thousands. “Children are paying the heaviest price in this war,” reported United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Syrian Director Yusuf Abou Jelil in 2013. “Within Syria, four million children are directly affected. Two million are displaced in Syria. One million are on the front lines. One million are refugees.” The escalation of suffering has reduced a country that fed itself before the war to living on international charity. Its medical and educational services, once among the best in the region, have been crippled. Children are suffering from malnutrition, and those in rebel areas have had difficulties receiving vaccines for polio, mumps, measles and rubella. At the end of October 2013, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio among children in northeastern Syria. Dr. Annie Sparrow, a professor of public health at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, described her conclusions from nearly 200 interviews with Syrian medical workers and civilians in the border regions of Lebanon and Turkey as follows:

"Over the past two and a half years, doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists who provide treatment to civilians in contested areas have been arrested and detained; paramedics have been tortured and used as human shields, ambulances have been targeted by snipers and missiles; medical facilities have been destroyed. . . . Five public hospitals have been taken over by the military, and there are no longer any left at all in the rebel-dominated cities of Idlib and Deir Ezzor. Fewer than forty ambulances in the country still function out of the original fleet of five hundred… Now, more than 16,000 doctors have fled, and many of those left are in hiding ... At least thirty-six paramedics, in uniform on authorized missions, have been killed by Syrian military snipers or shot dead at checkpoints."

Emergency medical squads have been routinely prevented from evacuating not only wounded rebel fighters but also injured children and other civilians from rebel-held territory. Far from limiting the effects of the conflict on civilians, President Assad’s counter-insurgency strategy has appeared to involve targeting the civilian population and medical facilities in rebel areas, in order to deprive the armed opposition of its support.

As of February 2014, more than 2.4 million Syrians were registered as refugees abroad, while Refugees International estimated that approximately 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Together, that’s more than 40 percent of Syria’s population. For many refugees, the rallying cries of the regime and of the armed opposition ring equally hollow. Some have been sheltered in tented camps in Turkey and Jordan, while others have found lodging within Lebanon with friends or relations or in disused buildings. Syrians, who earned an average of $300 a month when they had jobs, are paying rents of $100 a month or more to sleep in Bekaa Valley car parks or $500 for space above a garage. Others sleep rough and beg for sustenance in the streets of Lebanese cities. The exiled Syrians are learning what Palestinians have known since 1948: refugee existence is demeaning, cruel and crippling. Palestinian refugees themselves, 486,000 of whom are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in nine camps in Syria, are suffering more now than at any time in their 64 stateless years.

A Syrian friend of mine had a summer villa perched in a hillside village between Damascus and the Lebanese border. Armed militants broke in and red, from the roof, at an army post. Soldiers responded with mortars and machine-gun fire. The rebels ran away. No one won, and the house was wrecked. If a single image sums up the war in Syria, my friend’s house does the job. Neither the troops nor the insurgents gave a damn about him or his house, and it’s not clear how much either cares about the country.

Syria has marked the fifth anniversary of a war that began with peaceful demonstrations. In mid-March 2011, the people of Dera’a protested against the torture of children arrested for writing anti-government graffiti. Their demands were not revolutionary: dismissal of Dera’a’s governor and the trial of those responsible for torture. But for the people to demand, rather than beg, for anything from their government had violent consequences. The children’s courage emboldened their elders to march through the streets of Damascus, Homs, Idlib and other cities to voice discontent, as they never had before. This was not a violent insurrection by religious obscurantists as in 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms in Hama and Aleppo without consulting their inhabitants. Rather, this was a popular movement that was finding its way, learning from its mistakes and winning support.

As the protests spread, the regime responded, predictably, with gunfire, arrests and torture. But many of the demonstrators sought to continue peaceful opposition that would garner more and more public support, even at the risk of their lives. Other oppositionists believed that only weapons would bring change; they found outsiders willing to subsidize their methods. Regimes that were anything but models of democracy, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, poured in weapons and money. Turkey opened its border to arms, rebels and refugees. Clandestine training and logistical help came from the US, Britain and France. Protests turned to civil war. As in post- 2003 Iraq, whose monuments and museums were ravaged, Syria had historic souqs and castles burned. Alawites and Sunnis, whose villages had coexisted through ages, turned on one another with Balkan ferocity. Christians were caught in the middle. Those who could do so fled.

The mosaic of cultures that made for Syria’s richness is being lost.

The rebels calculated that, as in Libya, NATO would ensure their swift victory. The US decided that the regime was so unpopular that the rebels would overthrow it without NATO help. Both were wrong. Yet neither is taking the obvious alternative to the failed policy of violence: a negotiated settlement. Hillary Clinton, when she was US secretary of state, repeatedly said, as she did when Kofi Annan urged discussions between President Assad and his armed opponents, “Assad will still have to go.” Her successor, John Kerry, took a more nuanced stance but did nothing to bring it about, while Britain and France devoted their energies to promoting arms transfers to the rebels. Russia and Iran have contributed primarily by sending weapons to the regime, and at least a half-dozen countries are meddling on the other side. Does anyone have the Syrians’ well-being in mind?

Adapted from Syria Burning: A Short History of Catastrophe (Verso Books, $16.99., 2016)

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.