This week, ISIS released another video showcasing an atrocity. These broadcasts, which have become depressingly common of late, strive to exceed previous standards of brutality. This offering was of a different order. It was not a spectacle designed to top previous instances of barbarism, but another example of almost commonplace savagery. The men who met their ends on camera were two of Syria’s bravest: Bashir Abduladhim al-Saado and Faisal Hussain al-Habib. Associated with Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and other organisations which monitor and report upon ISIS crimes and excesses, they were accused of spying on the city’s tyrannical occupiers. Forced to confess, the two were shot through the head; the camera lingered, leering at their last moments.
This terrible act of violence differs from the thousands that have befallen Syria over the past four years in its immense, almost ironic tragedy. These men were activists, and they risked their lives in order to chronicle the horrors of theocratic rule. They were not affiliated with ISIS, or any jihadists for that matter. Instead, they were ordinary people, working against tremendous odds to do their private best. In other words, they were both ‘good guys’: decent, moderate and brave. In the parlance of those who attempt to denigrate the Syrian struggle for freedom — those who suggest that the only sides available are the tyrannical Assad regime and jihadists such as ISIS — they should not exist. Now they have been murdered, and every day those in their position are pushed further into the extreme situations that beget extremists. For many who oppose Syria’s revolution, their grim prediction has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another man whose story is steeped in similar tragedy is Abdelbasset al-Sarout: his personal history could be seen as representative of the cataclysm which has befallen Syria at large. Sarout first rose to prominence as a peaceful protester and legendary opposition figure in the halcyon days of the revolution’s beginning in 2011. With his natural good looks and seemingly effortless charisma, he transfixed restive crowds in protest. His past as a promising young goalkeeper added some sporting lustre to his magnetism, which was further enhanced by his habit of singing. In the documentary Return to Homs, which prominently features Sarout, he can be seen standing in front of thousands, arresting attention and galvanizing protest with the power of song alone.
Those days were not to last for long, however, and the documentary follows Sarout through his taking up the sword against the Assad regime’s brutal oppression. In this, he ceased to be a peaceful protestor and endorsed the use of violence to topple the regime, but he did so as a moderate and as a man whose primary concern was defending his home city, Homs, and his family from the violence visited upon them by others. Here, it seemed, there was some hope.
Yet the pity of war is its ability to crush even the hope that a besieged city can sustain through sheer force of will. Sarout embraced a seemingly Islamist ideology in the dark days of Homs’ encirclement. Surrounded and without the means of subsistence — Sarout stated inan interview that the city’s defenders “finally gave way in Homs because of the lack of food” — it is more than understandable that Sarout and those like him would be drawn to what many in the West would consider extremist ideologies. But this step, though it was an understandable one, had its own unhappy consequences. Even his songs were affected; references to the ancient Islamic empires, as well as allusions to the glories of martyrdom, featured ever more frequently.
Sarout’s political and personal fortunes could be seen as representative of the lot of many Syrians. Initially peaceful and full of hope, their optimism slowly cooled as the nation was reduced to rubble. That is not to say that their enthusiasm for freedom and democracy has entirely retreated, and it is especially erroneous to suggest that it never existed in the first place; instead, Sarout’s tale can be seen as the ontology of a collective war-weariness, and the international community, which simply sat by as Assad slaughtered the Syrian people by both chemical and conventional means, must take a great deal of blame for this terrible state of affairs.
Sarout’s supposed pledge of allegiance to ISIS could be viewed in a similar light. This could simply be the last throw of the dice of a desperate man; and it may well be representative of his desperate country, too. This development has been disputed, as well, which could demonstrate that ISIS’s own support in much of Syria stems more from circumstance than ideological fervour. In any case, the real tragedy of Sarout’s situation — and it is one facing thousands, if not millions, like him — is in his journey from peaceful protest to violence and secular revolution to jihad. Had the West listened to those who wanted to remove the regime at the very beginning, had it established no-fly zones in August 2013, potentially saving thousands of lives, the last stages of this operatic cycle could have been avoided or minimised. As it is, things on the ground have never looked worse.
There may, however, be a case for continued hope. The two activists murdered by ISIS this week were of a similar character to the Sarout of early 2011: they too wanted to use peaceful means to undermine the oppressive rule of violent men. Their efforts met with the most severe of punishments, but the fact that they were willing to act at all presents the possibility that even the direst of circumstances can be overcome. Despite his own suffering, and despite the parlous position of his city, Sarout remains — at least within the realm of possibility — to some extent free from ISIS’s poisonous ideology. Perhaps the future will see a coming together of those who rebelled against the regime and those who opposed the Islamic State. It would certainly be a future worth hoping for.
This article was originally published at NOW News.