A few weeks ago, I met with a family of Syrian refugees at their temporary home in Anaheim, California. Sixteen members of the extended family had fled the country together, and now were living under a single roof. One couple slept on the floor of a tiny bedroom, next to their four children, who shared a bed. The grandparents slept in the hallway. The grandfather told me their living conditions were worse than at a refugee camp.
The family came from Homs, an industrial city whose residents were among the first to join the peaceful protest movement that eventually became the Syrian Revolution. The grandfather, who was a member of the city’s Local Coordination Committee, the civilian administrative apparatus of the revolution, told me he was present for the very first hour of the first protest in Homs. His son was arrested by the regime and tortured for five months before they fled. While he was in prison, their home was bombarded. The family was driven underground, and then into exile, first to Egypt, then to the United States.
The family’s story tracked the history of Syria’s path from protest to revolution. That history has been told many times. But given the level of confusion and indifference in the West to the nearly incomprehensible catastrophe that has unfolded over the last five years, it’s worth retelling it many, many more times.
The uprising is usually traced back to the moment in 2011 when a group of mischievous teenagers in Daraa spray painted an anti-regime slogan on the wall of a school. “Your turn, Doctor,” the graffiti read. The “doctor” in question was Dr. Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president, or more accurately, its tyrant and dynastic leader. “Your turn” was a reference to the revolutions overturning dictatorships all over the Middle East at that time, at the height of the Arab Spring.
The regime arrested 15 schoolboys for the crime and tortured them mercilessly, beating them, burning them, and ripping out their fingernails. When the boys’ parents demanded their release, they were told to forget about them. “Sleep with your wives and make more children,” the fathers were told. “Or send them to me and I’ll do it for you.”
A country whose people had been terrorized by their government for generations was set aflame by the news. People gathered in the streets to protest the regime. They were unarmed, carrying only banners. That didn’t stop the military from firing on them with live ammunition, killing dozens. Nor did the regime’s murderous response stop the protests from swelling, not just in Daraa, but in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Douma, Hama, and in other cities and throughout the countryside. The demonstrations began each week after Friday prayers in the mosques, not for any religious reason but simply because that’s when and where people routinely gathered. The demands of the protesters were liberal and secular: more political freedom, and more economic equality in a country in which half of the nation’s wealth was in the hands of five percent of the population, and in which wealth and opportunity were distributed to Baath Party loyalists by the President’s patronage machine.
The impetus for the protest movement was the arrest and torture of the boys in Daraa, but of course the seeds of revolution were much older. They began with Bashar al-Assad’s neoliberal “reforms” of the economy. Bashar inherited his rule over the country after the death in 2000 of his father, Hafez, who was also a tyrant. As a soft-spoken, Western-educated opthamologist, Syrians hoped that Bashar would bring compassion and political liberalization to their country. But beginning that year, Assad privatized farm lands, which led to peasant evictions, cut subsidies to food and fuel and dismantled the social safety net, which further immiserated the poor, and liberalized real estate, which shifted ordinary Syrians out of decent housing and into slums that were emerging around the cities like mushrooms after rain. What Syrians experienced as economic dislocation the regime celebrated as “modernization.” But throughout this “modernizing” process, the old, crude, feudal political structure of state repression overseen by Hafez persisted unchanged: the kind of apparatus that was capable of torturing schoolboys and gloating about it to their families.
The uprising was violent from the very beginning, but the violence was in one direction only: the state inflicting it upon unarmed protesters. That changed when soldiers in the Syrian army began to defect. Unwillling to bend their consciences to fear or loyalty, a growing number of SAA troops abandoned their posts and took their weapons with them. Knowing that the consequence of their arrest would be death, they turned their guns against the regime as much for personal self-preservation as for defense of the civilian communities they had re-joined. With guns pointed now in both directions, and with the Assad regime completely unwilling to entertain any of the protest movement’s demands, the uprising entered a new phase. It had become a revolution.
Assad knew that a secular revolution against his tyrannical rule was an existential threat, since such a vision was capable of uniting Syrians across sectarian lines, and of galvanizing a consensus of world opinion against his rule. Thus, from the start, it was his imperative to jihadize the opposition. He began this process in 2011, by releasing 1,500 Salafists from his prisons. Among those released were founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra — Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — and two future key leaders of ISIS. As Assad unleashed the full force of his military on the secular Free Syrian Army militias that had mobilized out of the protest movement and his own army’s defectors, he steered his battalions away from the jihadists, allowing their networks to metastasize. In theory, the jihadists were committed to the fall of the regime; in practice, their first priority was to clear the field of competition and commandeer the popular revolution. Soon, the FSA found itself fighting on two fronts: against the regime on the one hand, and against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra on the other.
The FSA was composed, in the main, of “soldiers” who had been school teachers, farmers, electricians, pharmacists, janitors, and bus drivers before the revolution, along with a small contingent of SAA defectors. Syrian society had always been largely secular; religious extremism was a fringe movement there, never a broad mobilizing force. The FSA, with its secularism and roots in the early uprising, had a monopoly on credibility with ordinary Syrians who opposed the regime. But as the war dragged on, it became increasingly obvious that the jihadists — in particular Jabhat al-Nusra (ISIS was too far beyond the pale) — with their funding from the Gulf states and their inflow of war-hardened foreign fighters from Iraq and Chechnya and Afghanistan, were capable, unlike many FSA contingents, of actually defending their cities and villages from the professional armies of Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah.
In their desperation, it became possible for Syrians to entertain the possibility of making common cause with the jihadists, for the time being, as a matter of survival, and rid themselves of the extremists later. That distasteful wager became inescapable after Obama allowed Assad to cross his “red line” and use chemical weapons against civilians with impunity. Obama’s retreat was the moment that convinced Syrians once and for all that the international community — aside from meager and intermittent arms supplies to the FSA orchestrated by the CIA, usually upon the condition that they train their sights on ISIS instead of Assad — would never ride in to their rescue. They were on their own, and could either tentatively ally themselves with Al Qaeda terrorists or be annihilated. It was a Devil’s Bargain; there was no way around it. It was a question of life or death.
That decision, if you can call it that, proved to vindicate Assad’s cynical gambit. The “marbling” of the FSA with al-Nusra and other jihadist contingents muddied the morality of the entire revolution to observers in the West — observers, it should be noted, whose governments had done nothing to help the opposition when it faced the prospect of extermination, and whose inaction created the vacuum that Al Qaeda eagerly stepped into. For every call for solidarity with the revolution, questions were now raised about who the opposition really was, whose geopolitical interests it really stood for, whether we were being told the whole truth about them. The left-wing media, at outlets like Salon, Alternet, and Electronic Intifada, have played an especially nefarious role in this respect. Over time, doubts about the righteousness of the revolution became wholesale conspiracy theories on these websites of a Western-backed “regime change” plot against Assad, complete with staged rescue operations and faked reports of atrocities by covert shills pretending to be civilians under bombardment. This counterrevolutionary narrative reached its crescendo even as Russia entered the war and began dropping incendiary bombs on neighborhoods and targeting schools and hospitals, bringing the level of suffering and death to world historical proportions.
This week, after four years under opposition control, the east side of what was once Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, finally fell to the regime. As reports of atrocities crowded the headlines of the “mainstream” media, the conspiracy theories of the “alternative” media flooded the internet in tandem, both echoing and echoed by Russian state-owned propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik, impugning every eyewitness, adding a touch of murkiness to the sudden clarity with which millions of people around the world finally beheld the scale of Assad’s monstrousness.
Aleppo was exceptional in Syria in that it was where the opposition was the freest of jihadist control and perversion. That did little to stop Assad’s apologists on the left from portraying it as a terrorist stronghold, even as its population was massacred. These apologists have small platforms, but their voices are intensified by the ignorance and indifference of much of the world to what’s happening in Syria. When you know next to nothing about a subject, it doesn’t take much to confuse you. And all these concocted counternarratives really need to do is to confuse, not necessarily to persuade. Confusion is enough to impede solidarity and derail the consensus necessary for concerted action. With all of Aleppo now under regime control, Assad’s war machine will move on to Idlib. Surely its demented apologists will follow it there.
I haven’t spoken to the family in Anaheim since eastern Aleppo surrendered to Assad. I’m not sure what I’d ask them if I did. From a world away, they’ve watched Aleppo fall, and with it, the revolution that started for them with a demonstration in Homs and ended with a sad and transitory existence in a strange land in Southern California. I wonder if they believe they’ll ever return to their ravaged home in Syria. I wonder if they’ll ever want to.