‘And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges, defective in their natures, grow to wildness, even so our houses and ourselves and children have lost, or do not learn for want of time, the sciences that should become our country, but grow like savages – as soldiers will – that nothing do but meditate on blood – to swearing, stern looks, diffused attire, and everything that seems unnatural.’ (William Shakespeare, Henry V).
I remember the sound of Muslim prayer, chanted in the morning by the FSA fighters. in their headquarters in the town of Binnish in Idleb Province, northern Syria. Before they set out for their day of making war. AK-47s and RPG-7s stacked up against the wall. There were rumors that the army would be coming into the town any day.
Bashar Assad’s troops and armor were deployed on the main highway, and out in the surrounding countryside. The army were laying siege to Homs at the time, and a trickle of refugees had made it northwards, telling stories of massacres. It was thought that Idleb would be next.
That was in February, 2012. I had entered Syria over the mountains, with a smugglers’ convoy running weaponry and supplies for the FSA in Idleb. I spent a week in the province, interviewing fighters and activists, attending demonstrations and gatherings of FSA fighters.
As it turned out, I missed the counter-attack, when it came. It was not until early March that Bashar’s army began to re-take the rebel-held zones of Idleb. The 76th Mechanized Brigade came through in the course of the month, leaving a trail of blood and executions in its wake. By that time, I had already made the return journey across the mountains, back to Antakya, and then Ankara, and then my home in Jerusalem.
Things have changed since that February, and not to the Assad regime’s benefit. The determined and systematic counter attack launched by the dictator’s army in February and March has not produced the hoped for quiet. The army can still re-take any area it chooses. But when it moves on, the rebellion comes back to life. 40,000 men are now under arms against Bashar Assad’s regime. His own force still nominally consists of 220,000 troops. In reality, he can make practical use of probably around a third of that number.
Money for the rebellion is coming in from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The FSA no longer has to rely on small smugglers’ convoys to bring the lifeblood of arms and ammunition. The Gulf Arabs’ money, along with reported US direction, are helping to turn the rebels into a fighting force able to mount an effective challenge to Assad.
The results in the field have been plain to see. Once the rebels had only rifles and RPG 7s, grossly inadequate against the armor and artillery and attack helicopters of the dictator. No longer. They are destroying tanks and armored vehicles in Idleb now. You can see the pictures of their rusting remains on Youtube. They are taking on the army head on in Homs governate, the heartland of the rebellion. Increasing parts of Syria are no longer under the control of the regime. From the Turkish border down to Hama, north and south of Homs city, in Zabadani.
In Idleb, the army controls the main highways, but the troops now rarely venture too far away from the main road. In the open areas and in the villages, armed men wait to strike at cumbersome, unsuspecting patrols.
It is a cruel, ugly and brutal conflict. Assad, aware that the walls are closing in, is employing his sectarian thugs in what looks like a systematic attempt to clear out non-Alawis from the Latakia Governate in the north-west. He appears to be creating a stronghold of Alawi population, which will form a safe zone and baseline for his side in the sectarian civil war now under way in Syria.
His forces routinely butcher civilians. Whole families in Taftanaz, in Idleb Province. Children in Houla. These are only the examples that the news media or researchers managed to reach. This is a regime steeped in blood.
The bloodshed leaves a wake of broken lives. There are traumatized children in Binnish, instantly recognizable. Kids who will not leave their parents’ side, even for a moment. These are children who have learned too early that the world is not a safe place. That the tender stories that parents tell their young ones, with love, about the kindness and order of the world outside, are only stories.
These are children who witnessed the rampage of the Shabiha through their homes, in search of their hidden activist fathers. Who watched as the pumped-up, steroid filled giants of Alawi killers smashed their homes to pieces. They have lost their innocence, at a time before the resignation that living brings could replace it with calm and acceptance. The result is in their eyes, which are prematurely knowing.
The stony cruelty is not only on the government side, of course. There are executions of captured Shabiha and army men. And there are the explosions in populated areas, the deaths of civilians. Assad likes to broadcast non-stop close ups of the results. On live TV, after an explosion in Aleppo, I saw a regime security officer holding up a severed human foot to the camera. Just in case of any misunderstandings, the man made a shaking motion with the foot. The severed tendons coming out of it danced like disconnected telephone wires.
One may assume that if the insurgency, in the end, wins this, retribution will come. There is no reason, though, to believe that the rebels in Syria represent any kind of new dawn in the blighted politics of the Arab world.
The Sunni jihadis are now coming across the border form Iraq, smelling blood.
The US decision to back the Saudis and Qataris in financing and arming the rebellion is helping this process along.
It should surprise no-one that sponsoring Qatar and Saudi Arabia to build the rebellion in Syria will result in a Sunni Islamist-dominated insurgency. The Qataris back the Muslim Brothers, so that is who is now growing stronger. The Saudis support the Salafis, so they are growing too. It is the Sunni Islamists who have the shiny new hardware that is destroying Assad’s tanks and his helicopters.
But even the officers and men of the Free Syrian Army, most of whom oppose Islamism, appear firmly within the familiar boundaries of Arab nationalism. The distrust of non-Arab minorities, the paranoia regarding the west and Israel. All are easy to discern. Hence the almost entirely Sunni Arab complexion of the rebellion against Assad preceded the current rise of the Sunni Islamists within it.
I have seen the regime side less close up, for obvious reasons. But when imagining the convoys across the mountains bringing money to the rebels, one should also picture the Russian ships bringing gleaming new arms and machines to the regime.
The ships of the Russian state arms firm Rosoboronexport are loaded up at the Ukrainian port of Oktabyrsk. They sail from the Black Sea, through the Bosphorous, to Cyprus and then to the Russian naval stronghold at Tartous in Latakia Governate.
They bring with them the wherewithal for Assad to make his war.
Both sides still believe they can win. Both sides still have men and arms and money and motivation. Civil war.
When I returned from Syria in late February, I was possessed for a while by a sort of bone-weariness that drains things of their color. I had experienced this quiet fatigue before, after returning from the war in Lebanon, in 2006.
It is nothing like the healthy, joyous exhaustion that one feels after participating in sports or physical exercise. It combines a generalized numbness with a heightened, too-sharp focus on specific aspects recently experienced. It passed after a week or two.
But it has left a residue, which I cannot shake off, because it is rooted not in perception, but in obvious reality. This is the conviction, based on observation and commonsense, that the politics of the Arab world are not changing.
The rebellion in Syria is being fought by rival sectarian groups. The Alawi-dominated regime is implacably hostile to the west. The Saudis and Qataris are obviously less so. Hence the strategic reasons why Russia and China are backing the regime, and why the US ought to be backing the rebels.
But as far as the fabric of life in the country goes, neither side represents anything that will change much for the people of Syria. In that country, and beyond it, the political culture of authoritarianism, paranoia, politicized religion and ultra-nationalism will continue to blight lives. This is the simple and obvious truth and it will remain so whether Islamists or nationalists of this or that stripe ultimately win out.
As a result, the young men, as young men do, are joining the colors of their various armed tribes.
Whether and when this will change is impossible to predict. But it isn’t changing now and there are few signs that it will change soon. Those who truly want open, free societies in the Arab world tend to find their way, one way or another, to the west.
Those of us who live on the borders of the strife do our best to protect ourselves against it. Those who live within it do their best to make their lives and protect their children.
In the meantime, the experience of conflict shapes and warps and twists. The children of Idleb that survived the onslaught of the 76th Mechanized Brigade and the Shabiha will grow in a stifled, unfree Syria, one way or another.
When we returned over the mountains we had to cross a narrow canal on foot, water up to our chests. We went through mud up to our knees, mud that sucks your shoes off. We wouldn’t have been able to run if we had stumbled into a patrol. But the border is long and quiet, and the dictator no longer has so many soldiers to spare to guard it. So we arrived back to Antakya. In the bar of the hotel, covered in mud and water at 3 am, I experienced a kind of momentary joy of astonishing intensity.
Then, waiting for me in the hotel room, that quiet, somber, disenchanted calm that comes after war zones. The Middle East is full of people with this feeling, one way and another. It is the silent accompaniment to all the noise and din of politics and war. Smother it with alcohol. Embrace your family. It returns, nevertheless. Returns, and then fades to a low background hum.
The Syrian civil war is currently consuming around 100 lives a day. It is not near to conclusion. Acts of great cruelty are being committed. Feats of astonishing and humbling bravery and courage are also taking place daily. The end result, it may be said with certainty given the nature of the forces currently engaged, will be authoritarian government of one kind or another. This is the reality of the Middle East, of the Arabic-speaking world, summer, 2012.