Books

Inside the Civil War in Syria: 'Even First Graders Were Politically Motivated'

Author Reese Erlich's new book looks at the country’s tumultuous history.

The following is an excerpt from Reese Erlich's new book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect(Prometheus Books, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.

About seven months into the Syrian uprising, I arranged to meet with opposition activists in Damascus. It wasn’t easy. We had made a rendezvous at a large traffic circle where cars careened about, competing with motorcycles for space on the small streets. Many dozens of people were hanging out. Some looked like secret intelligence officers, wearing leather jackets and aviator sunglasses—even at night.

Finally I met my contact, and we made our way to Old Damascus. We walked through the narrow, cobblestone streets where no cars would fit and anyone tailing us could be spotted.

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I was meeting with leaders of the Local Coordinating Committees, the loose-knit group then spearheading the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The activists I met represented one sector of the protestors: mostly young, secular, and middle-income.

Demonstrators wanted to establish a genuine parliamentary system and hold free elections. An activist leader named Ahmad Bakdouness said that at first the demonstrators called for reforms when they came out into the streets in March 2011. They wanted free elections, a parliamentary government, release of political prisoners, and the right to organize peaceful protests. The government rejected these demands and responded with violent attacks. Within weeks, protestors were demanding the government’s overthrow. “When they [the government] started killing people,” Bakdouness said, “people increased their demands. No one accepted how they killed us and arrested us for nothing.”

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Assad bragged that his country would never see a popular uprising because of his nationalist credentials. History has rarely delivered a more stunning and immediate rebuttal. Over 150,000 Syrians have died in the civil war since the beginning of the uprising, with thousands more dying every month. Several thousand army and police personnel have been killed. Over nine million Syrians have fled the country or been internally displaced.

Another activist, who used the name “Leen,” said everyone is taking sides. She said her country had become much more dangerous than Tunisia or Egypt at the height of their revolutions. “In Egypt and Tunisia they can demonstrate showing their faces, take photos, and put them on Facebook,” she said. “We can’t do that.” Leen said demonstrators faced the possibility of death at each confrontation. “When we ask someone to come to the streets, they say, ‘you are asking us to commit suicide.’”

Gradually, the liberation movement shifted from demonstrations to armed attacks. But unlike movements in Latin America or Africa in earlier decades, the Syrian uprising lacked cohesive political or military leadership. Young men from the same village or town grouped together to form ad hoc local militias. They armed themselves with homemade rifles or supplies captured from the Syrian military.

By the beginning of 2012, foreign powers were arming the rebels, each seeking groups that would carry out its political goals in post-Assad Syria. Adventurers, journalists, and spies prowled the Syrian–Turkish border, seeking contact with militias. I visited one such hotbed of international intrigue—Antakya, Turkey, close to the northwestern border with Syria.

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During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in August, Syrian Muslim insurgents in Antakya weren’t supposed to eat or even drink water during the day. Instead, they stayed up all night so they could eat—and even drink alcohol. That pretty much describes the role of religion for some armed groups participating in the Syrian uprising. Some of the insurgents are ultraconservative Islamists. But many of the Free Syrian Army guerrillas grow beards, pray five times a day, and observe Ramadan—not out of religious conviction, but in order to appear pious. To get funding from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, groups must appeal to religious sensibilities.

To the pious go the guns.

While the United States claimed to be promoting moderate, secular rebels, in fact the strongest groups held rightist, Islamic views. In part that’s because Saudi Arabia had been supplying arms to both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and rebel groups that follow an ultraright, Islamist ideology. Groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) wanted religion to play the leading role in government, claimed their holy book should be the basis of the legal system, held other religions in contempt, and opposed women’s rights. In short, their ideology was similar to ultraright groups in the United States and Europe, except they carry out activities in the name of Islam, not Christianity.

Meanwhile, the CIA had posted agents along the Turkish–Syrian border to check on which militias would receive arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The CIA later poured more resources into training selected guerrillas in Jordan. The FSA rebels have to appear superpious to the Saudis but as moderate Islamists to the CIA. It’s not easy being a Syrian insurgent these days.

I met one such chameleon group. This FSA brigade of 150 men is called Ahrar Syria (Free People of Syria). It is only one of many dozens of groups loosely affiliated with the FSA. When I interviewed them at two in the morning, eight men crowded into a sparsely furnished living room, tapping on laptops and answering e-mails on smartphones. Ahrar Syria even has its own Facebook page.

As brigade leader, Abdul Salman nervously pulled on newly minted facial hair; he told me they grew beards in order to look more religious. Members of Ahrar and other armed opposition groups are angry at the United States for not giving them enough backing. “We haven’t gotten any arms from the United States,” Salman complained. “If we had arms, Assad would have fallen by now.” He also favored establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria as the United States and NATO did in Libya.

At the same time, Ahrar and other opposition groups strongly oppose US policy in the region. They want the return of Syria’s Golan, seized by Israel in the 1967 war. They support Palestinian rights and oppose US aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Syria’s uprising will impact the entire Middle East. But the United States faces a major contradiction. Many Syrians in the opposition want Washington to offer stronger support for their cause, yet their plans for Syria’s future diverge significantly from US strategic goals.

The Washington debate about Syria is strangely detached from the reality on the ground. Doves favor tough economic sanctions and arming “moderate” insurgents. Hawks advocate sending even more arms to guerrillas accompanied by US military bombing. Syrian opposition leaders I met said those differences are only tactical. Both hawks and doves want to replace Bashar al-Assad with a pro-US strongman. “The Americans haven’t supported the revolution strongly enough because they are still looking for someone who can ensure their interests in the future,” Omar Mushaweh told me.

He was a leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood living in Istanbul.

While US officials helped create opposition coalitions, ordinary people didn’t accept US goals, he said. Mushaweh pointed to Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of US military intervention that produced political disasters. He doesn’t want Syria to follow that path. That could be one reason the United States cooled on the Muslim Brotherhood and sought to back other armed groups that it trained in Jordan.

The Obama administration and major US media portray Syria as a quagmire of religious groups fighting centuries-old battles. The reality is quite different. For many years, Syrians lived peacefully with one another. Syria was a secular dictatorship where dissidents faced torture and jail for criticizing Assad, but people largely ignored religious differences. Once the fighting began, however, leaders on both sides used religion to rally their troops. Rebels relied on the Sunni Muslim majority. Assad appealed to minority groups such as Alawites, Christians, and Shia Muslims.

When the US government and media start to bewail the quagmire of centuries-old disputes, it means the United States hasn’t figured out how to win the war or its plans have gone askew. And so it is with Syria.

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Oddly enough, we can learn a lot about US and Syrian politics by looking at the country’s seat belt laws. Wearing a seat belt is mandatory in Syria. But a taxi driver, when approaching a traffic policeman, drapes the seat belt over his chest without buckling. It looks like it’s on, but he has no need to actually benefit from the belt’s safety. This practice continues even now, when military checkpoints are common in Damascus.

Seat belts are so seldom worn that people actually look strangely at you when you put them on. One day I found out why. I was given a ride back to my hotel in the personal car of a very high-ranking government official. This guy had a car and driver at his disposal anytime. I got in the front passenger seat and reflexively strapped up. The driver looked strangely at me but said nothing. Even if he had said something, it would have been in Arabic. I interpreted his look to mean, “What? You don’t trust my driving?”

We made the uneventful drive back to my hotel. Then, I went to my room on the eighth floor and passed a mirror. The dirty seat belt had made a perfect black sash across my chest and shoulder. Having never been used, the belt had simply been collecting dust and dirt for the past four years.

The civil war stalemate in Syria is a lot like my seat belt experience. Syria’s government pretends to provide security for its people, but the seat belt is dirty, dusty, and seldom used. Extremist rebels offer security through the piety of Islam, but in reality pursue dictatorial power. Meanwhile, the United States pretends to uphold the rules but can’t figure out why the seat belts don’t work.

I had another seat belt experience in Damascus when an official car and driver picked me up. This time the seat belt was scrupulously clean. I was about to meet President Bashar al-Assad.

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Strange as it may sound, I first met Assad as part of a delegation of visiting Americans from South Dakota in 2006. Former US Senator Jim Abourezk had organized people from his home state to tour Syria. His wife is Syrian, and the Abourezks periodically visited relatives in the western part of the country. Because of his long history as a progressive politician and leader in the Arab-American movement, Abourezk had won Assad’s respect. In fact, every time Abourezk came to Syria to visit his in-laws, the president invited him over for a chat.

We filed into a huge meeting hall and sat on the ubiquitous overstuffed chairs popular throughout the Middle East. Assad is tall and thin with an angular face. He sports the mandatory mustache and short haircut of the model Arab leader. He was charming, personable, and fluent in English. He won over many in the group as being a reasonable leader seeking normal relations with the United States.

After the meeting, I approached him to ask if I could get a one-on-one interview for public radio. He immediately agreed and said Bouthaina Shaban, a presidential advisor and spokesperson, would make the arrangements.

Shaban is one of the few women in high government positions and always objected to the rampant corruption in Syria. At the time, she appeared to be a moderate in the country’s ruling elite. Once the uprising began, however, she remained a public spokesperson, staunchly defending Assad’s repression.

Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in a military coup d’état in 1970 and ruled with an iron fist. Bashar was not supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps. That role was set aside for Basil al-Assad, Hafez’s eldest son. Bashar had become an ophthalmologist and was doing advanced studies in London when his brother died in a car crash. Bashar was called home in 1994 and groomed for the presidency.

Bashar’s familiarity with the West, high level of education, and natural charm convinced many that he would be a reformer. Western leaders also praised Assad’s neoliberal economic policies. He sold off state-run enterprises and encouraged private sector, capitalist development. But none of these changes resulted in significant reform, let alone an end to Syria’s highly centralized, authoritarian system.

A few days after my initial meeting with Assad, that government car with the clean seatbelt showed up at my hotel. I was driven up a long, winding road to the presidential palace. Assad normally works out of his downtown office and uses the palace only for formal events. I must have been considered a formal event. I walked through enormous red-carpeted rooms to a set of eight-foot-high double doors. The doors parted, and there stood the president.

I unpacked my radio recorder and short, shotgun microphone. It’s shaped like a very short, single-barreled shotgun barrel with a foam covering, a standard mic for radio and TV. For some reason, Assad was intimidated by it. He fidgeted uncomfortably and kept looking nervously at the mic. Perhaps it looked too much like a real shotgun.

I had asked opposition activists all over Damascus what questions I should ask their president. So I came not just with the usual list of questions about US-Syrian relations but also with many questions about domestic issues. When would Syria have free elections for a parliament? When would opposition parties be allowed? Why hadn’t 300,000 Syrian Kurds been allowed citizenship? When would Syria end the state of emergency in effect since 1963?

Assad bobbed and weaved around these and other questions. He claimed calls for democratic change were really efforts by the United States to weaken his government. He claimed to be creating a dialogue with Syrian intellectuals to discuss domestic reform.

“It takes about a year of dialogue to define the frame” for negotiations, he told me. That was in 2006. Five years later, no meaningful dialogue had taken place, let alone reform.

In March 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria, and people raised many of the issues I had asked about in the interview. It’s not because I had a crystal ball; large numbers of Syrians had been raising those issues for decades. In a panic, Assad implemented some reforms. He lifted the state of emergency, gave citizenship to most of the disenfranchised Kurds, and opened a dialogue with moderate opposition leaders. Had he made such reforms in 2006, Assad would have been hailed as a farsighted leader.

By 2011, it was too late. The uprising against Assad and his entire regime had begun, and there was no turning back. Syria’s ruling elite became increasingly isolated, internationally and domestically. The Arab League—composed of twenty-two states from the Middle East and North Africa—voted unprecedented sanctions against Syria and later voted to recognize the Syrian opposition and eject Assad’s government. The United Nations sent several observer missions and tried to broker a peace agreement. All the efforts failed.

The regime has suffered a number of high-level defections, including the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, a Republican Guard brigadier general, and the prime minister. Every week saw desertions by lower-level military. Syria faced serious economic problems as well. But as ultra-right-wing rebels gained strength within the opposition, Assad rallied some Syrians to his side, arguing that a secular strongman is better than Islamic rule.

A big question remained: Will the Syrian people blame the country’s crisis on the Assad government or the rebels?

I received a partial answer during a very unusual trip. Syrian authorities organized a media visit to an elementary school in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began. Government officials wanted to show that life had returned to normal. All was going according to plan when the children came out for morning recess.

Then, spotting the TV cameras, the children suddenly began chanting, “Freedom, freedom,” one of the main antigovernment slogans. Then others chanted “Syria” and similar pro-government slogans. Government officials leading the delegation went pale. Here, in front of the whole world, stood the divided Syria.

“The political chasm has reached the schools,” said my translator, who was assigned by the government to accompany me on this visit. “First graders are now politically motivated.”

The fact that students dared to chant antigovernment slogans during an official visit did not bode well for Assad and the future of the Syrian government.

Uprisings aren’t new in Syria. To fully understand the revolt that began in 2011, we need to look at the country’s tumultuous history.