“Death was so straightforward here, so close and intimate” wrote Yazbek of her three trips through rebel held areas in Syria in 2012 and 2013. Yazbek’s prose, whilst addressing the post-Revolutionary Syrian landscape, was elegant. She had personal access to areas that were beginning to be subsumed by Islamists and, in this regard, “The Crossing…” is an excellent artefact of this very process itself. Yazbek interviewed regional commanders of local Jihadi groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham before they had taken complete control, although the majority of her trips were mainly within areas controlled by the independent and uncoordinated battalions of the secular Free Syrian Army, who are given an honest evaluation here. Too often, journalists and writers fail to acknowledge the weaknesses of the opposition. Perhaps this part of the reason why the Revolution failed.
“I despaired that the outside world didn’t want to see the truth of what was happening. They wanted to see us as groups of savages who they could not bring themselves to describe as intelligent: they wanted to describe everything as religious extremism. And this meant that governments and people around the world could be content to let this dangerous savagery continue to play out between the rival parties”. There is probably no better summation of the Syrian civil war than this paragraph. Yet, Western “leftists” continue to smear the entire Syrian opposition as all being members of Al-Qaeda. It is vile, and it has been left to the hawkish US Senator John McCain to defend the FSA these days. Had McCain have won the 2008 election, I wonder how many lives would have been saved in Syria. I highly doubt that the world would be having to deal with the prospect of Assad remaining in power after 2017. I am not advocating McCain in a wider sense, as he has started more wars than he has stopped, but I do think that he is correct about Syria.
“The Crossing…” is an example of why it is important to read authors who have been there and have spoken to ordinary Syrians on the ground. Yazbek managed to capture the spirit of ordinary Syrian people, “They never stopped laughing these men, and it was as though they had inhaled laughter like an antidote to death”. The dignity that the Syrian people have shown, and continue to show, in the face of non-stop barbarity is humbling and admirable.
“The only victor in Syria is death: no one talks of anything else”, asserted Yazbek of the continuous and unbearable suffering on the ground. No sooner had the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or al-Nusra “liberated” an area from the regime after the Revolution, then government jets would immediately began indiscriminately bombing said areas. A vile tactic which is in contravention of International Law. When Assad’s assorted henchmen, the Shabiha, blitzed through the town of Mastuma, “they massacred entire families”. This relentless bombing and massacring of innocent families turned civilians against Assad and was also part of why we saw large busloads of people leaving Aleppo in December 2016. Ordinary inhabitants refused point blank to live under Assad. Reading Amnesty International’s report on what happened to the prisoners in Saydnaya, one can easily see why the Syrian people rejected any proposal to be ruled by him. If I had a family member tortured and killed like those in Saydnaya, or any of Assad’s prisons, I would be of the same opinion. Yazbek described how government forces would cut out people’s eyes and cut their fingers off which had the effect of forcing people to move, literally, underground and culminating in what she described as “an unparalleled vision of hell”.
Yazbek recalled an encounter with a man during a frontline battle in Marat al-Numan who had recently learnt that his three children had been killed. Lost, desolate, and howling at the insane injustice in Syria, he shouted, “That’s Bashar’s reforms for you…we just wanted a few rights”. Yazbek first noticed the increased trend of Islamisation when she discovered that the beheaded statue of the poet Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri had been chopped off by al-Nusra fighters who considered her to be an apostate and a symbol of a secular Syria. It has been well documented that Assad released thousands of Islamists and Salafists that were in Syrian prisons after the Revolution began in April and May of 2017 to create a verisimilitude that Assad was exclusively fighting against the extremists. This was absolutely not the case at the time. For example, there were peaceful marches with up to 1,000,000 people protesting. If you buy the Assad propaganda, you need to believe that millions of people were marching for a Jihadi style theocracy. Bullshit.
Yazbek interviewed one of the founders of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Ahmed, who confirmed the narrative by detailing how another Emir, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah, a founder of the group, was released after the Revolution began. Later, she interviewed Abu-Hassan of al-Nusra, whose brother was freed around the same time, “Salafists and Islamists were released by the regime during the months of April, May and June 2011… (While) peaceful activists were being tortured”. Definitive proof that the story that Assad projected, and continues to project, to the world about how the Syrian civil war was Assad’s peaceful, secular regime fighting against extremists was, and is, a gross lie. Assad’s strategy backfired to an extent, and he ended up with a civil war on his hands. Please, though, spare us the balderdash about the secular Saint Assad. You cannot release thousands of Islamists and Salafists and expect the world to believe that you are fighting them at the same time.
Yazbek also detailed her first contact with Islamic State fighters in 2013 and identified that they all seemed to be non-Syrians, coming from places as far away as Chechnya. When ISIS and al-Nusra increasingly began to control Syrian territory, Yazbek realised that she could not go out in public without a veil. In fact, men began to tell her that it was not safe to be outside at all. During her third crossing, she spoke to women who complained about how their children were only being taught the Quran in Islamist held rebel areas. Consider too the editor of the Zaytoun newspaper in Saraqib, who said that the “most dangerous thing is the way the Takfiri’s, the Islamic extremists, are edging their way in, and controlling people’s lives”. Reading it in 2017, elements within Yazbek’s book are horribly prophetic. Sadly, the Islamists and Salafists have all but taken over the last remaining strongholds such as Idlib. There are reports of Syrian citizens inside these areas fighting the Assad regime and the Salafists.
I often wonder how neutral authors are when writing about the rival factions within Syria. Thankfully, Yazbek is relatively objective and critiqued the FSA throughout, identifying their failure to coagulate into a cohesive unit as a leading factor in the local group’s being forced to go to al-Nusra to protect themselves against the regime, again underscoring how violent and illegitimate the regime was. Syrians chose Salafists, whom they did not like or agree with, as the least bad option. The tragedy is that the corruption and lack of joined up thinking in the FSA also resulted in people joining al-Nusra and other Islamist groups. Local, organic battalions of the FSA defended people against the regime in 2011 and 2012.
Yazbek documented multiple accounts of how soldiers in the Syrian army defected to the FSA, one especially brutal example chronicled here was when one soldier was told to rape a young woman in front of her family. He refused and was shot in the crotch. The commanding officer got another soldier to rape the girl in front of her family after the man had refused. He joined the ranks of the FSA the next morning. This is another crucial point. The brutality that Assad levelled at innocent people drove them to defend themselves. Similarly, Yazbek told the story of Hossam in Kafranbel who wanted to be an Arabic professor. He was shunned when the government gave it to the daughter of a friend of the regime. There were countless examples of Assad sorting out people close to him. Hossam initially joined the FSA and then returned to civil activism due to their corruption. When he was first conscripted in the Syrian Army, a senior officer told him to detonate a car bomb in the middle of a square of innocent protestors. He deliberately rigged the bomb so that it would not explode, and defected to the FSA the next day. Sadly, Yazbek recounted multiple stories of corruption within the FSA which lead to a breakdown in trust between them and the civilians. It was not just the FSA that was corrupt. During Yazbek’s second crossing in 2013, “there (were) more thieves in the Revolution now than rebels. It’s one family against another. Mercenaries against mercenaries”. The FSA was incapable of filling the gap left by the Syrian government. As the rebel held areas became increasingly Islamised in 2012 and 2013, it became difficult for Yazbek to travel freely, “whenever I travelled back to Syria, most men couldn’t resist mentioning the fact that I’m a woman”. During her second visit, they saw a house that had a “family matriarch” which sadly stood out as a beacon in an increasingly male dominated society. Sometime between 2012 and 2013, women were forced into wearing Khimars and not headscarves. Yazbek encountered some truly awful misogyny, “I told Abu Waheed about Abu Mostafa stealing his wife’s aid money. He laughed. I could not laugh”.
Things took a serious turn for the worse when ISIS began searching houses in rebel controlled areas in order to abduct foreign journalists and crack down on any women who were out by themselves. Yazbek wrote of a terrifying encounter when ISIS came to the door of a house she was residing in and nearly killed one of the men at the door. They were searching for people like Yazbek and targeted any non-Muslims. Tragically, local families were so destitute after being ravaged by the war that they were forced to sell their daughters to ISIS fighters as slaves. During her third visit, al-Nusra declared that “any interaction between the genders (is) prohibited”. The implementation of Sharia Law in certain rebel held areas was to have disastrous consequences for the women living there.
Yazbek did a tremendous job of highlighting how even a disastrous civil war could not stamp out the wonderful creativity of the Syrian people, “No sooner were towns liberated than their walls were turned into open books and transient art exhibits”. In 2013, the walls in Saraqib began to be covered with Ahrar al-Sham & al-Nusra slogans which highlighted the change in society. In FSA controlled areas, houses and buildings that were virtually destroyed were slowly rebuilt with paintings that were lying around in destroyed houses. Frequently, songs were sung by the rebels to keep their spirits up under the grimmest conditions. One thing is for certain, when Syria finally gets a chance to become a democratic and secular country, it will be beautiful. I cannot wait to visit.
“We started the revolution and it’s being transferred to them” said Ahmed, an artist in Idlib city, articulating how the Islamist militants had hijacked the Revolution since its inception in 2011. Violence had become so endemic and normalised that it numbed the Syrian people, “Nothing meant anything anymore. My head felt like a nest of scurrying ants”. Human beings existed, like animals, only to survive, “The sound of humans screaming is the same as that of animals howling”. Yazbek was correct to refer to the Syrian conflict as the “Greatest tragedy of the twenty first century”. The apathetic reaction in the rest of the world has been disappointing. Yazbek, currently residing in France, is well placed to observe why this happened. Namely that we consume Syrian news “like trash” and then continue with our lives. The failure of the FSA to unify itself and create a viable political alternative to Assad was critical to why the Revolution failed. However, be under no illusions, the Syrian civil war is the fault of Bashar Assad, one of the great monsters of the twenty first century. The entire Revolution could have been prevented if he had of agreed to loosen his grip on power and transition Syria to a democracy. Moreover, if he had of kept the thousands of Islamists and Salafists locked up, it also would have stymied the Islamisation of rebel held areas.
It is tough to read Yazbek write about the relentless and indiscriminate bombing of rebel held areas. The burden on anyone deciding to use violence is extremely high. In this case, it would have been justified. There were people in the West, Hillary Clinton for example, who called for a no fly zone. Yet, supposedly peaceful, anti-war leftists in the West branded her a “warmonger” for even suggesting this. Another hangover from her support of the Iraq war. A no fly zone would have saved thousands of lives. I am not suggesting that the US is in any way a benevolent state. They are not. Look at their record in 2017 in bombing Raqqa and Mosul. They employed virtually the same tactics as the Russians and broke International Law at every turn. The big mistake was letting the infamous “red line” to be breached in the first place. Once Obama let this go, Assad knew that he could act with impunity. It also incentivised the Russians to begin supporting Bashar Assad. This will result in another Revolution at some stage in the future. No human has the divine right to rule over the Syrian people. The only way forward is for it to be a democracy.
The Syrian civil war also highlighted the deep flaws within the UN. With Russia vetoing every anti-Assad sanction, it rendered the assembly virtually useless. Allowing Assad to run his brutal dictatorship that tortured innocent people is doomed to fail. More than likely, it will mean that a future generation of Syrians will have to recount more tales of yet another bloody Revolution. I can only hope that this does not happen.