The importance of Syria’s civil war in international terms cannot be overstated. It has spawned the greatest mass movement of people since the end of the Second World War. It has provided thousands of terrible, heart-wrenching vignettes, from the unseeing body of a small boy washed up on a Turkish beach to the grisly output of a thousand propagandists, which fill newspapers and television screens on a daily basis. And it is unlikely to be over any time soon.
It seems the war in Syria – with all of its subtleties and complexities, many of which transcend national borders – has become the defining conflict of our age. And as is the case when considering other conflagrations which hold that title, governments, statesmen and individuals of our own time will be judged for their thoughts, their public pronouncements and, most importantly, their actions with regard to this most vital and horrific of civil wars. They will be judged by history; but that judgement is also contained within the starving bellies of those who are victims of regime-sponsored famines, and the fear-filled eyes of those who find themselves under attack by ISIS for the simple crime of being.
As such, it is vital both for governments and individuals to set about saving Syria from the theocratic fascists who now threaten the nation and its people. One thing, however, is certain: the solution to this terrible situation does not lie with Bashar al-Assad, who is – not unlike Saddam Hussein – hardly ‘secular’, but with the much-maligned ‘good guys’ in Syria; and this is true not only in the abstract, but in the personal.
When I think in personal terms about the Syrian rebellion, the man who most often springs to mind is Abdelbasset al-Sarout, whose status as a legendary figure in the early protests against the Assad regime (which broke out in 2011, nearly five years ago) has given way to a far darker reality. Though he once demonstrated non-violently, singing songs which rallied the beleaguered people of Homs, he is now accused of affiliating with ISIS, and attacked in that vein – both metaphorically and literally – by other rebel groups. The most recent of these came in late 2015, when his small band of rebels was set upon by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.
Sarout represents the Syrian revolution in miniature. In the words of Kyle Orton, a British analyst of the Syrian situation who is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and who recently wrote a compelling piece for The New York Times describing ISIS as ‘the afterlife’ of Saddam Hussein’s regime: ‘Sarout, I think, represents the great tragedy of what has happened in Syria to a population that rose only with the request for reforms – the protests initially did not call for the regime’s downfall’. Sarout’s trajectory takes him from a peaceful protester to a warrior, and from a warrior to an increasingly religious combatant, whose very songs have become darker in tone; they are now full of references to early Islamic figures and the consolations of martyrdom.
Nonetheless, it is important to profile his powerful impact on the early protests against the regime, the situation in Homs, and what could be called ‘the revolution betrayed’. Pace Orton, the moderate rebellion has been weakened as ‘its members can and have been killed and driven from the country’; but ‘[it] is not going to disappear’, and it has not been destroyed.
A little background is necessary. Sarout was not an entirely obscure figure before the first protests of 2011 brought him further fame. Associated with the Syrian national soccer team, his good looks and natural charisma made him an attractive and compelling figure within the nascent rebellion. Because of the immense power of new media, a vast library of his activities has accumulated, including footage of his speeches and songs, which transfixed vast crowds in the revolution’s earliest days. Included in this burgeoning collection is a record of the sufferings of Homs, which bore witness to much privation and tragedy while under siege by the regime. This strategy was double edged, as the desperation forced upon many Syrians led them to religion; and that only strengthened the false dichotomy Assad and his allies sought to propagate – namely, that the choice faced in Syria was a binary one. According to Assad, it was for the world to decide: either the regime or those he termed ‘terrorists’.
That Assad is a kind of secular tyrant has long been a motif oft-repeated by his supporters. This is used variously to imply that his rule of Syria was not too bad by regional standards; that he deserves to be supported in his apparent war against jihadism; and, perhaps most commonly of all, that he is better than the alternative. All of these tropes are misleading, and they are built upon cynical and deliberate fabrications.
After all, it is Assad’s shabiha, a sectarian militia that commits atrocities of a similar intent to and even greater magnitude than ISIS, which assists regime forces in massacring civilians; and it is Assad’s secret police, his Mukhabarat, which helped initially to militarise the conflict by firing upon peaceful protestors at the very beginning. And far from being the sworn enemy of Islamism in all its forms, Assad has presided over a veritable ‘Shia jihad’, in which designated terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force fight alongside the Iranian-backed Shia militias which do so much to stoke inter-religious hatred in Iraq.
In fact the military strength of the regime has all but collapsed, leading to the creation of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a paramilitary rabble which is effectively under Iranian control. As Orton has it: ‘One notices that the term “extremist” is never employed about the sectarian, Iranian-run militias or the Shi’ite jihadists that we euphemistically call “the Assad regime”’. That such an edifice can hope to offer stability or order is laughable; that it can claim to advance secularism is simply sinister.
The story of Sarout gives the lie to that particular suggestion. A documentary from 2013 – Talal Derki’s Return to Homs – provided an intense, emotionally charged insight into the lives of Syria’s rebels, and the heartfelt desire of many to return to their ordinary lives after the fall of the regime. It also showed their suffering, which were personalised in particular through evidence of the attempts on Sarout’s life and the wounds he received at the hands of government forces. It is hard to forget throughout that many rebel fighters are simply private citizens who have taken up arms against a corrupt, ossified regime. President Obama’s disparaging description of the rebels as ‘former farmers or teachers or pharmacists’ is not entirely untrue; but its acuity only strengthens their cause.
Many of the bravest activists and fighters stand as testament to this deprecating description. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group which chronicles ISIS atrocities in its self-declared capital city, also opposes the brutality of the Assad government. Before Raqqa became the centre of the ‘caliphate’, its journalists used similar methods to expose the barbarity of the regime. ISIS has murdered many of its members, in some cases tracking them across borders and posing as allies in order to murder citizen journalists it considers dangerous. It cannot be forgotten that in this tactic of silencing critical media – as in so much else – the Islamic State is only mimicking the modus operandi of the regime.
Like RBSS, Sarout’s case is both fascinating from an essentially historical perspective and from a personal one; anyone who saw Return to Homs, who saw him wounded and in pain and yet full of tragic hope, cannot fail to be moved by his struggle and his vision. As Orton surmises, ‘Sarout tracked the developments for the opposition in Syria at every stage, from the early optimism and ascendancy of the moderate insurgents, to the desperation and betrayal after the chemical weapons attack that strengthened the extremists, and then the second war with the Islamic State.’
For despite the darkness of his alleged affiliations (he is accused – though he denies it – of pledging baya to the Islamic State’s ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), Sarout is an example of what was lost in years of international inaction. He and his ilk were the very people we, and the much-vaunted international community, should have supported from the beginning.
Now this constituency is shrinking, and it is under attack from all sides – not least by a de facto alliance between the Assad regime and the Islamic State; but it can still represent that which is good and brave and noble – and its adherents may still be rescued, like the nation itself, from the jaws of tyranny and theocracy. After all, since many of these fighters began their campaign as secularists – and many of a similar inclination, particularly in organisations like Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, still campaign in that vein against the excesses of Islamist rule – there is still as rich source of such sentiment.