Dimitar Mihaylov, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2017.
A quarter of a century ago, in a widely read political travelogue entitled Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan admitted that twentieth-century history had its origins in the Balkans, an area isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, mired in age-old hatreds. A quarter of a century later, we are compelled to confront another area of rivalry and hatred, which is chronicled in Dr. Jonathan Spyer’ Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.
Kaplan tackles the end of the twentieth century and the Balkans, an area which by that time was on the threshold of enormous and radical changes; Spyer explores what is probably the most sensitive and complicated spot in the world, at least in the first two decades of the new century, namely, Syria and Iraq, both of which are engulfed in continuous turmoil and irreconcilable conflicts—an endless vertigo, if you will.
Whereas Kaplan looks at the world with curiosity and a profound understanding of how history reverberates in present-day realities, Spyer, through his candid narratives, provides something more insightful: a deep sense of empathy for ordinary people, caught “between a rock and a hard place” in several malignant and merciless conflicts. His journeys to the front lines—as an observer in these terrible wars—reflect his profoundly humane attitude to suffering and pain.
While following his tavels, we gradually enhance our understanding of the internal dynamic of the conflicts, both in Syria and in Iraq, and their atavistic burden deeply rooted in history. We are inevitably faced with the same question as with the Balkans: Are the people of the Middle East also “doomed to hate?”
“Tragically for the people of this area,” Spyer writes at the end of his book, “the conclusion remains to be written” (p. 216). This is because “the ideas, structures, energies and interests that produced the Syrian war [and to a greater extent the turmoil in Iraq] appear to still possess vitality and wide support” (p. 215). Although it seems that the conflicts have begun to wane, though by no means have disappeared, the root causes are still present.
Spyer’s humanistic attitude is coupled with his readiness to sensitively portray the suffering of the people encountered on his trips—not dispassionately or coldheartedly observing them from a safe distance. When the Syrian minister of information, Mohammed Torjman, tells a group of pro-regime foreign guests that the Syrian army never uses barrel bombs against the civilian population, Spyer immediately remembers how he stood with Syrians “in the basement at Dar al Shifa hospital” (p. 45) in Aleppo while a regime jet released a deadly barrel bomb. He was there not only as a witness to their pain and agony, but also to tell the world about “the street outside after the bomb had landed: the dead and the wounded” (p. 207).
In his journeys to the front lines, Spyer also proves to be an adroit observer. His multifaceted and versatile approach covers the two conflicts from a variety of angles. He meets and talks with people from all sides: “the Syrian rebels, the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, the regular Iraqi army, and the Shia militias” (p. 188). He even interviews notorious ISIS members (who appear to be not so monstrous when faced with honest questions), and two ministers of the Assad regime in Damascus. It is as if he is rotating a kaleidoscope in order to see all the different shades and colors of life he encounters.
Spyer’s book is of particular importance because of its panoramic coverage of the Kurdish political-military formations, both in Syria and Iraq. He meets with the legendary Peshmerga general Maghdid Haraki of Iraqi Kurdistan, who was later killed in a firefight with ISIS, and talks to ordinary functionaries from the Kurdish Partiya Yekĩtiya Demokrat (PYD) [Democratic Union Party] in Rojava (the Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone), young female fighters, and seasoned Kurdish political leaders. His book is a unique snapshot of the current Kurdish political-military topography.
Not only did Spyer seek to include the various walks of life that represent movements, parties, and interests in Kurdish territories, but also to convey the fact that developments in the Middle East are subtle and elusive, and people have a certain propensity to exaggerate and twist reality to reflect their own take on events. He concludes the book with the acute observation that “as always in Syria, the harmony was deceptive, and concealed something quite different” (p. 67).
However, one of Spyer’s character traits stands out: his brave heartedness. His courage is neither forced nor foisted upon us; rather, it comes to the fore naturally. There are moments when his inner voice tells him that he may find himself in deep trouble in rough-and-tumble situations. In western Iraq he says, “If I get killed here, it occurred to me, my true identity and connections will become apparent, and they’ll bury me somewhere in the dirt in western Anbar” (p. 138). When preparing to fly from London to Beirut, he pauses and contemplates whether his choice is prudent (Hizbullah controls the airport completely, he anticipates): “One direction leads to Heathrow Airport. The other goes to Uxbridge, where my family were living at the time” (p. 191). After only the briefest hesitation, he chooses to proceed to the airport.
Spyer, however, was not playing “Russian roulette.” He calmly calculated every risk. Unlike the late Steven Satloff, who was brutally executed after recklessly heading toward Aleppo via the town of Azaz in the summer of 2013 when ISIS and the Nusra Front were already present in the northern countryside, Spyer never acted foolishly or took risks beyond what was necessary. He always remained completely aware of his Israeli identity and his public activities. Throughout the book, he displays many qualities required for such dangerous missions; for example, he writes,: “The ability to prevaricate convincingly is a grubby and ambiguous talent. But I am generally quite good at this kind of work, and it has its applications” (p. 189).
While reading this important book and reflecting on its insights, I was struck by the similarities between my own thoughts and conclusions and those of the author’s. From April 2011 until June 2012, I was the head of the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Damascus and observed events from that vantage point. I vividly remember, for instance, the strange death of The New York Times correspondent Antony Shadid. His demise was also noted by Spyer, who, like Shadid, was present incognito in the Syrian rebel zone.
Several of the observations in Spyer’s book coincide with those I reported to my ministry. I anticipated some of the others, but Spyer relates to them in a far more comprehensive manner.
The first such observation is how several internal events that grew from protest to a limited rebellion with local characteristics were “magnified into a regional contest, and drew in global powers” (p. 213). Like the Lebanese Civil War (1974–89), and unlike conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian conflict was unique in that it gradually entangled regional and global powers into a quagmire with no permanent solution.
The sectarian character of the conflict, “the process in which the war in Syria metamorphosed from an uprising against a brutal dictatorship into a many-sided sectarian conflict” (p. 2), must also be highlighted. Iraq is not much different, so the sectarian nature of the two conflicts “led to the effective demise of the Syrian and to a lesser extent the Iraqi state” (p. 2). Whereas the sectarian and international dimensions of these conflicts are intertwined, they also foretell the future of the Middle East: “The war became a front in a larger geostrategic conflict pitting Shi’a Iran against its Sunni opponents, and drawing in Russia and the US. This was a war for the future of the Middle East, with implications of global importance” (p. 2).
Spyer exposes the false mantra espoused by the so-called Syrian political opposition. For a long time, it played a coquettish game with the West, claiming that it had influence on the ground. The fact of the matter, as he clearly explains, is that:
The Syrian opposition, of course, were dependent on the willingness of large numbers of young men to go up against the butchery of the Assad regime. Islamism produced young men willing to fight. Arab liberalism did not. The result: any notion of the rebellion representing the doorway to some better or more representative future for Syria or the region had long since departed (p. 166).
Spyer outlines and underscores the vitality of political Islam—not liberal Jeffersonian democracy—as a popular factor opposing the brutality of the regimes in the Middle East: “The strength of political Islam remains the language of popular politics among the Arabs of this area. More broadly the dominance of a political culture at odds with modernity, and ruled by conspiracy theories, grudges, magical thinking and the furious desire to revenge past humiliations is likely to ensure energies for continued warfare” (p. 214).
In this crucial time of division and disintegration, Arab nationalism and liberal ideas imported from the West proved to be a mirage:
The old and spent secular ideologies could offer nothing by way of comparison, of course. But it seemed that the west and its lifestyle and ways also had but little purchase. Primordial loyalties and communities were the thing to which people returned. Sectarian and ethnic markers were ascending to prominence as the state began to recede (p. 45).
The author’s analysis of how Iran is penetrating the Middle East, especially those areas with Arab Shi’a majorities or minorities, is ingenious. Spyer points to the model of the Iraqi Shi’a militias, which he calls “a virulent strain,” and wittily outlines the model: “[T]hey translated political power into military strength and reversed the process back again, operating deftly in the shadows, in the murky area between legal authority and murderous criminality” (p. 139). The model of Tehran leads to “effective dominance of Lebanon and a good part of Syria” (p. 185). As for Iraq, where Spyer penetrated the Shi’a militias, he observes a work in progress: “This strategy was now under way in Iraq, forged by capable cadres such as Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Badr’s Hader Al-Ameri, with Qassem Suleimani of the IRGC above them. This was taking place under the noses of the US and its allies, who had broken and remade Iraq in 2003, but who had yet to understand these dynamics” (p. 185). Such a conclusion may come as an inconvenient truth for some Western decision makers, but Spyer hits the nail on the head and brings to light the technology of Iranian interventionism in the Middle East.
Spyer writes of “a Pyrrhic victory,” and depicts the current positions of the regime in Damascus in the aftermath of the massive Russian military intervention in the fall of 2015. The author describes this trend in the following way: “By mid-2016, it was obvious that victory in the sense that the rebels had originally understood it was no longer a possibility. There would be no triumphant march on Damascus” (p. 168). On the other hand, the regime in Damascus, completely depleted and already dependent on foreign assistance and military support, was celebrating a Pyrrhic victory and “the militias were feasting over the ruins” (p. 123). In another part of his book, Spyer portrays a vivid portent of this idea: “Bashar Assad was wearing a hollow crown, presiding over rubble” (p. 212).
His then turns to ISIS, viewed in the Western media in 2014 and 2015 as “a mighty, unstoppable force” (p. 150). Spyer divulges the true picture of a chaotic and declining organization: “[S]een from close-up, the Islamic State was a ramshackle, squalid, if psychotically violent affair” (p. 150). However, he hears voices from the Sunni community explaining why the organization is much appreciated and needed: “[I]f ISIS falls, you can forget about Sunni people in Iraq and in Syria” (p. 82). Spyer demystifies the ominous aura of this terror group and objectively views it as “emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014” (p. 83). He is very astute in concluding, “It was utterly brutal, dysfunctional and sectarian. But it was speaking a language that was able to mobilize the Sunni Arabs of the country in a way that nothing else apparently could” (p. 83).
Spyer takes pains to explore the tragic fate of the minorities. At the request of a friend, Spyer searches for the traces of the Iraqi Jewish community and visits the district in which Jews had once lived in Baghdad—Taht al Takiya. Beyond that, he outlines a process of a Middle East in transformation, becoming more monolithic and dull, stressing that “[t]he Jews were the first minority to be ripped from the fabric of Iraqi society” (p. 144). The fact of the matter is that “the Baghdad Jews had escaped a worse fate because of the presence of Israel and its structures of rescue and defense” (p. 144), but other minority communities in Iraq and in Syria were far less fortunate. “The fundamental, unsettled dynamic” of gradually annihilating all minorities in the Middle East even to this moment “appeared unchanged, unresolved” (p. 144).
Spyer provides in-depth descriptions of the nature of both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. Their political genesis is the Ba‘ath party (representing a concept that originated in the 1940s under the influence of European totalitarian movements). The author, though, is interested in something deeper—the psychology of tyranny and its effect on the human psyche, a subject dealt with by Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1854–1902) in his magisterial and pioneering book in Arabic The Nature of Despotism.
Spyer vividly recounts “the scenes where Saddam Hussein is greeted by soldiers who dance and proclaim their love for him and kiss his hand” (p. 204). His analysis of despotism is surprisingly precise, down to the most minute details, which are quite telling, “It consists of an interaction where one person who has power behind him watches with amusement as another performs in ridiculous and humiliating ways, abasing and infantilizing himself and going through gestures of submission, in order to avoid harm” (p. 204).
Finally, at the core of this extraordinary book is the uncertain future of all those ordinary Syrians and Iraqis who, for several years now, have been yearning for the dawn of a new day that will bring a world with less tyranny and oppression and more dignity and prosperity. One of his interlocutors, a rebel named Ahmed al-Imam, shrugs and says to Spyer, ‘‘To be or not to be. No choice but to continue” (p. 173).
Spyer, however, foresees a gloomier future. “Both [sides] were disparate collections of sectarian gunmen, loosely organized in the case of the regime, and unorganized in the case of the rebellion. Destined to fight one another to the end” (p. 174). This destiny is defined as “the fall,” with all Syrians and Iraqis who appear in his narratives witnessing “the crumbling of the countries in which they thought they lived” (p. 4). But there is another “fall,” more ominous and eerie: “an abyss of violence and cruelty that lurks always not far beneath the surfaces of everyday life” (p. 4). In other words, it is the unremitting vertigo of irreconcilable conflicts.
Days of the Fall is not to be missed. Just as Kaplan opined that twentieth-century history originated in the Balkans, Spyer’s opus raises a similar question: Does twenty first-century history emanate from the Middle East? After reading this book, one cannot but conclude that the answer is a resounding “yes.”