On Friday night, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom launched strikes against military targets in Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for a suspected chemical attack near Damascus last weekend. The United States and its allies have been bombing Syria since 2014 as part of a military campaign against the Islamic State, but Friday’s attack marked only the second instance since 2011 when the United States directly targeted the Syrian government. President Donald Trump ordered both U.S. strikes against Assad without congressional authorization. Two books on Syria, based on years of in-country reporting, capture a key period in modern Syrian history, beginning with the 2011 revolution that morphed into a complex, multi-pronged, international war.
As a wave of protests swept the Middle East and North Africa in the winter of 2011 — taking down Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and threatening the 40-year rule of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi – Rania Abouzeid was in Damascus, Syria, waiting to see how the regime of Bashar al-Assad would weather the spring.
On February 23, 2011, Abouzeid, a veteran Middle East reporter, watched as about 200 women and men gathered outside the Libyan Embassy in the Syrian capital to hold a vigil in solidarity with protesters in Libya. That evening, the crowd of Syrians was greeted — and outnumbered — by anti-riot police and the mukhabarat, Syria’s infamous secret police. Fourteen men were arrested that evening and detained for a few hours before being released with a warning — or a thinly veiled threat — to not do something like that again.
One of the men detained that evening had gone to the embassy “to test the boundaries of what the Syrian state would tolerate,” Abouzeid writes. “He went because he wanted freedom of the press and a law to allow political parties other than the Baath. He went because he didn’t think it right that his personal ambitions—a job and a home—seemed unattainable. He left the mukhabarat branch that night emboldened.”
Abouzeid, a native Arabic speaker, tells her story through the eyes of a handful of characters, some of whose stories intersect — at times directly and at other times without their knowledge. There’s Suleiman, who hails from a wealthy family from the town of Rastan and quickly joins the revolution as a civilian activist. There’s Mohammad, a political-prisoner-turned-Islamist who was released from Damascus’s Palestine Branch — one of Syria’s most notorious prisons — in March 2011, and eventually joined Jabhat al-Nusra. Abu Azzam was a college student in Homs when the protests erupted; he decided within a couple of months that armed resistance was the only way to counter the Assad regime’s brutality. Then there’s Ruha, who was 11 years old when Abouzeid first met her in 2011. Her innocence and increasing maturity are a reminder that millions of Syrian children have been forced to grow up far too fast.
Suleiman was moved to join the protests as a media activist because he dared to dream of a Syria that belonged to all its citizens.
Through their stories, Abouzeid reveals some of the very personal reasons that Syrians joined the revolt. Mohammad, for example, was a child in 1986 when he watched the mukhabarat physically and verbally abuse his neighbors during a crackdown against Islamists by the regime of Hafez al-Assad; as an adult, he spent several stints in Assad’s dungeons as a political prisoner, eventually turning to the teachings of Al Qaeda. Suleiman, despite coming from a staunchly pro-regime town, was moved to join the protests as a media activist because he dared to dream of a Syria that belonged to all its citizens, a Syria that was not “Assad’s Syria.” But unbeknownst to him, as he disseminated videos of protests to a network of citizen journalists called the Sham News Network, Saudi Arabia was pulling strings from the outside, funding SNN as early as August 2011 through a proxy named Okab Sakr, a young Lebanese Shiite politician, Abouzeid reports. The SNN founders would later take up arms, and Saudi Arabia, through Sakr, would continue to fund and work with them in one of the first attempts to organize the armed opposition.
That foreign funding and dependency contributed to the militarization of the revolution is an inescapable conclusion of Abouzeid’s reporting. So is the notion that the Syrian people lost territorial and political control over their own revolution. But for freedom-seeking Syrians watching their compatriots gunned down in the streets, the pro-democracy discourse of the so-called friends of Syria was understandably tempting. By the time it became clear that statements made by the Arab states and the West were nothing more than rhetorical posturing, the momentum was already building toward a disastrous war.
The stories Abouzeid relays through her characters don’t fit neatly into any single framing of the conflict. Supporters of the revolution may struggle with uncomfortable details about the very early intervention by foreign states, or the admission of exaggeration by some elements of the opposition who were trying to garner sympathy for their cause, or the atrocities committed by some who fall under the very broad umbrella of “anti-regime” groups. The most heinous example of the latter was a massacre of Alawite civilians in the coastal town of Salma; the attack was led by the Islamic State, but some opposition fighters participated as well.
But the book also undercuts the regime’s version of events — which has been propagated by voices across the political spectrum — that the protests were a CIA-led regime change plot, as opposed to a native Syrian movement for freedom. The United States did indeed support the opposition rhetorically, logistically, and militarily, but it never went far enough to bring about actual regime change. Its actions, in fact, effectively allowed Al Qaeda and ISIS to grow and undermined grassroots Syrian opposition and Western-friendly fighters, playing directly into Assad’s hands. As Abouzeid reports, even as the United States armed some opposition groups, it failed to act on intelligence about the whereabouts of foreign fighters who belonged to ISIS and fought alongside Nusra in early 2014; those groups not only crushed Western-friendly rebel groups, but also cracked down on anti-Assad activists, suppressing their civil society activities. By June 2014, when ISIS officially declared its caliphate, the group had gained valuable ground and become much harder to defeat.
The so-called friends of the Syrian people proved to be no friends at all.
Indeed, as the Syrian regime enjoyed unwavering support from its allies in Tehran and Moscow, the so-called friends of the Syrian people proved to be no friends at all. “Some states back plans to support factions that are in its interests and its worldview, not the revolution,” Abu Hashem, the leader of a U.S.-backed rebel faction called Hazm, told Abouzeid. “We, the Syrians, are still a playground for everyone.”
Abouzeid’s choice to tell the story through a few carefully chosen characters leads to an intimate view of the conflict, in which Syrians control their own narratives. But what she chose to leave out is perhaps as telling as what she included, and the book is by no means a comprehensive account of the Syrian uprising, or even of its militarization. This makes sense. The Syrian story spans decades, and it is foolish to expect any single book to tell it in its entirety. Abouzeid focuses on civilian activists who were pushed to take up arms, but countless Syrians maintained their commitment to nonviolence, and there was and continues to be a broad ideological spectrum among those who chose to militarize. And though she reported extensively from opposition-held territories in Syria’s north, she was unable to report from areas like Damascus, largely because she was blacklisted by the regime in the summer of 2011.
It was often said that the fate of Damascus would be the fate of the revolution, that the regime’s stability depended on whether it could maintain control of the capital. (Just how much control the Assad regime actually has, given its absolute reliance on Iran-backed militias on the ground and Russian fighter jets in the skies, is an open question.) Alia Malek offers a window into life in Syria’s second largest city in her book, “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria.” Malek’s combination of memoir and reportage, published in 2017 and released in paperback last month, adds great historical depth to the conversation about Syria. Using the life of her grandmother, Salma, as a focal point, Malek traces her family’s roots back to the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. She follows the stories of some of Salma’s neighbors in her Damascus apartment building, known as the Tahaan, in Syria and in the ever-growing diaspora.
She senses the regime’s watchful eye wherever she looks.
The tensions in Damascus are palpable as soon as Malek arrives. She senses the regime’s watchful eye wherever she looks, and she recalls the internet being cut off on Thursday nights in a poorly disguised attempt to interfere with the online organizing of weekly Friday protests. She describes a city in which people’s choice of which TV channel to watch had become emblematic of their political affiliations. (Supporters of the regime would only watch the once-derided state TV, while Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, once popular, had become alleged tools of Gulf propaganda). Those with no previous affiliation to the ruling Baath Party had started to publicly express their devotion to it. Even those who questioned the government’s repression asked, “Shoo al-badeel?” (“What’s the alternative?”)
Malek grew up in Baltimore, but she frequently visited Syria with her family, and she spent some time in the region as a lawyer. In her writing, she frequently looks to history to make sense of the present, and her understanding of Syrian wariness about Western meddling is evident throughout the book. Confronted with people who parroted regime talking points about protests — that they were part of a Western/Zionist/Gulf-funded plot to destabilize Syria — Malek realizes that “there seemed to be little room for parallel truths: that the United States had lied to invade Iraq and that Assad did not legitimately hold power; that the United States had supported Israel’s brutalization of Arabs and that Syria needed reform; that Islamophobia informed to some degree US foreign policy and that the Assad regime had tortured children from Dara’a who had scribbled political graffiti.”
The book is full of Malek’s insights as a journalist discovering what was going on around her, and as a Syrian trying to make sense of what was happening to the country of her parents’ birth. Her process of discovery is engaging, and she often makes prescient observations, clearly aware that, in the fog of war, there are no absolutes. Nevertheless, she also knows that the regime is ultimately responsible for the violence in Syria. Reflecting on a conversation with her father in November 2011, Malek writes, “I was still optimistic—then—that the status quo was untenable, that something would have to give. Was the regime really going to double down and just kill many of its own citizens? Displace them? Bring to fruition the nihilistic jihadist alternative (badeel) they had been threatening/promising? Would the world really let that happen?” In retrospect, she acknowledges her early naiveté. “This was before I fully understood the lengths to which the regime and its primary backers, Iran and Russia, would go to maintain power. Or how unconstructive the international community would be.”
In her two years in Damascus, Malek also comes across “activists, lawyers, advocates, and regular people just trying to stop their country from falling apart.” They host secret discussions about the future of their country and participate in an underground railway of aid deliveries — “crimes” punishable by imprisonment. “Of course, these activists and initiatives were not funded by the would-be saviors of Syria in the Gulf countries, Turkey, or the West; at the same time, they were aggressively hunted by the regime,” Malek writes. Indeed, she notes that the regime relentlessly persecuted secular activists and men and boys from towns the government had besieged or retaken from the armed opposition – but not the actual fighters themselves.
After the rise of ISIS, the global conversation on Syria ceased to be about the popular uprising and became about the so-called war on terror.
Malek left Damascus in May 2013. The work on Salma’s house was done, and her presence as an American had aroused too much suspicion, putting her relatives at risk. In the five years since, the conflict has only grown more complicated. After the rise of ISIS, the global conversation on Syria ceased to be about the popular uprising and became about the so-called war on terror. Now, foreign states – Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the U.S. – are increasingly using Syrian territory to fight among themselves. The Assad regime remains determined to maintain control over Damascus; a five-year siege of eastern Ghouta, the last opposition-held enclave outside the capital, culminated last month in an unrelenting bombing campaign, and ultimately the forced displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, who were collectively punished for the presence of armed groups among them. Last weekend, amid stalled negotiations about the exit of fighters and their families from the town of Douma to northern Syria, the regime is suspected to have launched a chemical attack, killing dozens of civilians. (The next day, the fighters, from the Saudi Arabia-aligned group Jaish al-Islam, agreed to leave Douma.)
Because the Assad regime has all but closed Syria to foreign reporters, much of the journalism of the last seven years has been done by observers on the outside. These books are an answer to those who say that no one truly knows what happened in Syria. Abouzeid and Malek take starkly different approaches, but together, their books reflect the magnitude of what was lost in the country, and perhaps most importantly, that what happened didn’t have to happen. It was Assad’s initial response to protesters that laid the foundation for foreign states to intervene and created the conditions that allowed groups like ISIS to thrive.
“If only the president hadn’t chuckled as he spoke while blood spilled in the streets,” Abouzeid writes, relaying the sentiments of Suleiman’s mother. “If only he’d apologized for the killings and for detaining and harming the Daraa youths blamed for the graffiti. If only he’d addressed the real reason people were in the streets, instead of stoking sectarian fears and talking about sabotage, sedition, foreign and local conspiracies.”