Calculated Brutality in Syria’s Civil War

Charles Lister’s book The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, contains many calculated uses of brutality by both the Assad regime and other actors, most notably ISIS and other Salafi-jihadist organisations such as the Nusra Front. What is surprising is not the nature of the violence itself – which is to be expected in a civil war of this nature – but rather the fact of its careful cultivation. 

Ba’athist regimes are known for their brutality; and tales of the horrors inflicted on ordinary people in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq are disturbingly commonplace. In this mould, the Assad regime in Syria has adopted many of the same tactics, including the use of mass-rape and torture within regime prisons and without, as well as a campaign of violence so extreme in its savagery that it has been officially classed as ‘extermination’ by a recent UN report.

One particular snapshot from Lister’s book gives an insight into the practicalities of this campaign, orchestrated both by the regime’s military and its affiliated militias, which are largely drawn from certain ethnic and religious groups; in many ways the entire edifice of the regime’s power (what remains of it) has become nakedly sectarian in nature. Included in this equation are the shabiha, particular militias of largely Alawite composition, whose particular reputation for acts of barbarism is well established and used to deliberate effect by regime loyalists.

Lister sets the scene:

Within escalation of the conflict as a whole came reports of ‘massacres’ seemingly committed by pro-regime militias and shabiha against civilians in known Sunni neighbourhoods.

Here this calculated brutality served – and serves – to spread fear among the populace; but its cultivation and orchestration is also directed towards another purpose: ‘These also reinforced jihadists’ self-perception as being protectors of repressed people’. This is particularly important. Not only does this ferocity work as a macabre warning, but it also strengthens the resolve of – and to some extent the need for – those elements of the insurgency that Assad would prefer to oppose. If the rebellion is weakened, and its more moderate, secular elements are marginalised, the net victor will be the regime.

Assad, as has been said many times, paints himself as the saviour of Syria – and as the bulwark against the forces of jihadism and terrorism more generally. This narrative is not supported by the facts; the regime has cultivated its own ‘Shia jihad’ to act in opposition to the more prominent Sunni equivalent, as well as deliberately engaging in acts, for example releasing Islamist inmates from the infamous Sednaya prison as the revolution began in 2011, designed to stoke jihadist militancy. All of this works in tandem with the regime’s own campaign of violence, an illustration of which is provided in the early pages of Lister’s book.

One such early example came on the morning of 9 March, when regime ground forces and as many as thirty tanks broke into the Homs opposition stronghold and Sunni district of Karam Zeitoun. While tank fire was directed indiscriminately at residential apartment buildings through the day, pro-regime gunmen launched a series of raids on 10 and 11 March, stealing and looting everything in their wake. By 11 March at least forty-seven women and children had been killed, many by having their throats slit and heads imploded by blunt objects. Local activists also reported widespread stories of rape and indiscriminate murder.

The regime’s calculated brutality is often carried out in secret, and it is therefore kept away from widespread attention from the international community and the media. Unlike the regime, however, the Islamic State revels in its deliberate and propagandistic cruelty. Another aspect of Lister’s book, however, shows a side to ISIS rule which may strike many as rather odd. ISIS does not rule by fear alone – and nor could it do so successfully; but the extent to which it engages in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is somewhat remarkable – and it is more than a little jarring to read.

Like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS saw itself as an Islamic movement and, as such, civil, religious and humanitarian activities were an intrinsic part of its operating strategy.

Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, has subsidised public transport for the elderly; and some jihadist groups work very hard to maintain a reputation for stability and skill in delivering local services, such as food supplies and sanitation. This is compared unfavourably to the chaos and effective dissolution of much of the regime’s governmental machinery, and to the perceived inefficiency and corruption of other rebel factions.

The following, however, is still surprising.

Beginning on 8 July and marking the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, ISIS began holding so-called ‘fun days’ in parts of Aleppo where its influence was particularly strong. While free food was distributed, both children and adults were encouraged to take part in interactive games. Children were challenged to speedily eat ice creams and watermelon, and also quizzed on their knowledge of the Qur’an, with prizes presented to winners. Adult men, meanwhile, took part in games of musical chairs, arm wrestling and tugs-of-war, thus presenting quite bizarre scenes within what were urban war zones.

The same goes for Lister’s description of the man behind these spectacles.

Many of these ‘days’ were coordinated and led by a curiously friendly looking Tunisian known as Abu Waqqas, who even when appearing in ISIS media releases focused on military affairs always seemed to be smiling.

These two examples show two sides of a war which is in many ways as much emotional as it is martial. The Assad regime terrorises Syria’s civilians with the same deliberate zeal as the Islamic State, whereas ISIS wins the emotional support of many through seemingly uncharacteristic activities. This is a war of our times – and perceptions – as much as it is a war for our times. And it follows entirely, therefore, that tyrants and theocrats will assume the roles of friendly protectors at the same time as they perpetrate almost unimaginable terrors.