by Charles Davis
When the Arab Spring came to Syria and people rose up to protest the rule of hereditary dictator Bashar al-Assad, their calls for reform were met with bullets. Liberal activists disappeared in regime prisons, their absence later cynically lamented by a state that claimed all along that its only opponents were reactionary jihadists.
In Daraa, a hotbed of anti-regime sentiment, enflamed by years of eroding living standards that forced hundreds of thousands to leave their rural homes for the city, more than a dozen children were taken from their school and tortured for allegedly painting anti-regime graffiti. Across the country, more than 880 civilians were killed in the first 10 weeks after protests began on March 18, 2011. More than 220,000 people have been killed since, most by a state that claimed it was protecting them from terror.
In the face of state violence, many felt they had no choice but to take up arms, their peaceful protests having been met with a hail of bullets. By January 2012, those protests turned to armed resistance, initially led by the Free Syrian Army. This was a hodgepodge of battalions officially committed to a secular and democratic Syria and which contained many defectors from the Syrian armed forces. In the four years since, one out of every 100 Syrians living at the start of the uprising has been killed. Life expectancy has dropped by 20 years, and 80 percent of those who aren’t dead are living in abject poverty. If the decision to take up arms was a mistake, as some outsiders maintain, many Syrians would argue they had no choice.
Not that we hear from too many Syrians these days. Assad has been granting interviews left and right, from the BBC to CBS, buoyed by the perception voiced by the head of the Council on Foreign Relations to The New York Times editorial board that he could be a useful ally in a war on terrorism. In 2003, the Syrian leader suggested al-Qaeda wasn’t even real. It later became useful as Assad adopted the language and concepts of the war on terrorism from the likes of George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu. The “average Syrian,” however, remains elusive. Indeed, we hear precious little about the country outside of the crimes advertised on YouTube by the media-savvy Islamic State (ISIS or IS). This pseudo-religious terrorist organization, born in the extreme violence of the U.S. occupation in neighboring Iraq, is composed of many former members of the deposed regime there and has been given a new lease on life by the extreme violence wrought by the regime in Syria.
The crimes of the Syrian state are generally left to activists on the ground to document. Western journalists have either lost interest—old news is boring news—or are too afraid to report from a country where reporters too frequently die horrible deaths. Since the conflict began, at least 81 journalists have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the last quarter century, only the most recent war in Iraq killed more members of the press. The Syrian regime is totally fine with that. The absence of foreign journalists allows the government to better maintain control of the media narrative, painting the options for the West as “Assad or Islamic State-style jihad.”
“Many journalists have been killed, unfortunately,” Bashar al-Ja’afari, the Syrian regime’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a January 2015 interview with Al-Akbhar, a sympathetic news outlet in Lebanon. But what did they expect, Ja’afari continued, trying to do reporting without the regime’s approval? “It is unfortunate, but they are responsible for their own fate,” he told Al-Akbhar’s uncritical journalist. “They didn’t enter Syria via the Syrian government. We would have protected them. We would have shown them where to go and where not to go.” Although it was deplorable what happened to these men and women, the ambassador added, “they had bad intentions.”
Jonathan Littell, a correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, was one of those journalists with “bad intentions.” In January 2012, with the help of the Free Syrian Army, he snuck across Lebanon’s border with Syria and spent two weeks dodging snipers and regime checkpoints on the outskirts of Homs. The city had been “liberated” by rebels months before and was, at the time, on the verge of being retaken by the state. Syrian Notebooks is Littell’s raw, day-by-day account of his time shuttling between houses and conversing with members of the opposition deemed to be “terrorists” by the government and rarely given a voice in the West. Published by Verso in April 2015, the book is quite literally a diary. It is “a record of a brief fragment of a dream,” in the words of the author, when those he was among were still hopeful for a quick, decisive victory—a dream “assailed on all sides and subject . . . to unutterable violence,” from the regime to the counter-revolutionary Islamic State, leading to the nightmare that is Syria today.
Notebooks benefits from its lightly edited nature. There’s a sense of immediacy throughout from not knowing what might happen next. A man introduced on one page could very well be dead the next. The inclusion of little details also provides a sense of intimacy. We hear internal debates among rebels and witness the indignity of a father being forced to declare his son a “terrorist” in order to retrieve his corpse from the hospital. Such details would not be found in the typical 400-word report on a wire service. But the book, of course, is not a “story”: its characters are real. One of the work’s achievements is that these characters are given a voice that is too often stifled in vulgar analyses that reduce the conflict to geopolitics and discount actual Syrians who oppose their dictator as the unwilling pawns of outside agitators (if actual Syrians are considered at all).
“We’ve lived under oppression for a long time,” says a man who hosted Littell during his stay. “It’s a police system where no one trusts anyone . . . . There’s no justice, you can’t demand fair treatment. Arrested people disappear, no one has access to them, there is no news of them.”
“I want a civil state,” says another man in Al-Quasar, a city on the outskirts of Homs. “A state where the Army and the security services can’t interfere in people’s lives. Here, even to get married you need permission from the mukhabarat (intelligence service). A state where everyone has freedom of religion, as he likes. Look at me, I let my beard grow, I’ve had trouble because of that. If more than five people gather, it’s forbidden, you can be arrested. It’s the same for Christians, they can be arrested too if more than five of them meet.”
Many started out going to anti-regime protests wanting reform, not a revolution. “I belong to the people who had no political consciousness,” said an electrical engineer from Damascus:
When I took to the streets, I didn’t want to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. We just wanted a dignified life, to eat and be respected. But even practicing my religion is a problem. . . . All the institutions are politicized by the Ba’athists: schools, universities. The Syrian people is raised like chickens in a hen house: you have the right to eat, to sleep, to lay eggs, that’s it. There’s no room for thought. You live under the regime of the Ba’ath and Bashar al-Assad is our president for eternity. You can’t imagine any alternative.
The Complexity of the Struggle
The book is not a sugar-coated portrayal of the alternative offered by those leading the armed rebellion. Although he is certainly sympathetic, Littell does not suffer from Stockholm syndrome, nor does he simply romanticize men with guns, as was common among those who embedded with US troops in Iraq. He’s open about his frustrations, particularly when it came to attempts to stop him from doing his job as a journalist. Although many in the opposition were eager to have a foreign reporter among them, believing that telling their version of the truth to the world would spur it to action—assuming the problem was ignorance, not indifference—others weren’t so sure that Littell would end up telling their preferred narrative. A Syrian activist told Littell that the Free Syrian Army wouldn’t even let him publish photos he’d taken of a regime tank in flames, fearing it would be used to tar the opposition as terrorists.
But Littell and his helpers usually overcame the efforts to control the narrative with some yelling and highlighting of hypocrisy. They pointed out that the insurgents’ attempts to censor and control the media were amateurish compared to that of a nation-state. “A feeling of novice guerillas,” Littell noted. “[N]ovices in PR, above all.” Littell, as a result, heard things his more controlling hosts would certainly prefer he hadn’t. “If the world abandons us, and supports al-Assad, we will attack Israel and other countries, internationalize the conflict, to force the international community to intervene,” said one rebel. “We’ll declare jihad.” That was a debate that would come up repeatedly: whether or not to call foreigners to the fight—and what they were even fighting for.
“Our revolution is not a religious revolution, it’s a revolution for freedom,” said one rebel who Littell described as “violently against the declaration of jihad.” Another man, an activist and lawyer, asked his foreign guests whether they “believed” in Karl Marx. “He believes in Karl Marx the way others believe in Jesus or Mohammed,” Littell wrote, “at least that’s what he says.” The same man would later strike up a chat with the author using a laptop and Google to translate from Arabic to English. “Please tell the world we are not Islamists,” he typed. “I am a communist and I hate Islamists.”
Today, although the armed opposition is still largely Syrian, many of those who were part of more moderate factions like the FSA at the start of the uprising have since joined more reactionary but better equipped Islamist groups, if often out of convenience rather than ideological affinity. Thousands of jihadists have come to Syria from abroad, fighting both for and against what’s left of the state. The conflict has been internationalized, to be sure. But when the “world” put its planes in Syria’s skies, it was not to impose the no-fly zone that Littell heard demonstrators in rebel-held cities call for every Friday, but to bomb the Islamic State. Such attacks have come with the tacit approval of the Assad government, whose barrel bombs have proved no more a moderating force in Syria than U.S. cruise missiles were in Iraq, the country where IS was born.
Not even the most extreme partisan would deny that mistakes were made, though the obstacles to a quick and successful overthrow of the Ba’athist state may have been insurmountable from the start. Still, for many Syrians who took part in the peaceful protests of 2011, there’s no chance of reconciliation with a regime that has lost half the country and killed over 175,000 people. “We broke down the wall of fear,” one activist told Littell. “Either we will win,” he said, “or we will die.”
Like most of the people the author met, that man is now missing and presumed dead.
Charles Davis is a writer and producer based in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The New Republic, and Salon.