NO TURNING BACK
Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria
By Rania Abouzeid
378 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.
In early February of this year, a Syrian rebel group with historic links to Al Qaeda shot down a Russian fighter jet near the small town of Saraqeb. A few days later, the journalist Rania Abouzeid posted a message on Twitter from someone suffering there beneath the relentless Russian and Syrian government retaliation:
“The airstrikes are beyond what u can imagine, beyond what u can believe, beyond what seems possible. Everything is gone, but we still persist & we still know how to laugh & cry. There is no one here except the men of the town. We will not leave.”
Few people in the wider world have ever heard of Saraqeb, but those who read Abouzeid’s “No Turning Back” will come to know who those men are. Year after year, Abouzeid followed one of them as he became a warrior and his children grew up under fire, then in exile and then as he made forlorn efforts to return to his home and rebuild. He and his family are part of the story Abouzeid set out to tell about “how a country unraveled one person at a time.”
Her narrative of the unending Syrian war from 2011 through 2016 and into 2017 offers page after page of extraordinary reporting and many flashes of exquisitely descriptive prose. But it is the characters around whom the story is built who make the book unforgettable, as Abouzeid threads together their stories of hope and loss in a country where “the dead are not merely nameless, reduced to figures. They are not even numbers.” Even the United Nations quit counting more than four years ago, although the death toll has been estimated at well over 500,000.
Abouzeid follows civilian activists caught up in the fervor of the ill-fated Arab Spring who were thrown into the Assad regime’s gruesome dungeons — and jihadists who were released from them as part of a cynical ploy to polarize the conflict. She introduces us to a college student who wrote poetry in Arabic (raised in Australia by Lebanese parents, Abouzeid is fluent). The poet becomes, almost by default, a commander in a storied militia, only to see his unit devastated by Syrian government attacks, then obliterated by internal divisions and competing foreign interests.
In another corner of the conflict, Abouzeid tells the story of an Alawite perfume merchant whose wife and eldest daughter are murdered, and whose other children are taken hostage by a jihadist faction. Then she interviews the unrepentant former “emir” of one of the factions involved, whom she has known for years.
There is no sympathy for the savage Syrian regime established by Hafez al-Assad in 1970, and ruled by his son, Bashar, since 2000, but there is context. The Assads’ greatest attribute was, and remains, ruthless patience. Threats, conspiracies, sanctions and wars come and go. They stay.
The long struggle between the Assads and the extremists who denounce the Assads’ Alawite sect as heretical and who claim to represent the majority Sunni population of Syria is described briefly but with balance and restraint. In 1979, Abouzeid notes, a breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked an artillery school and slaughtered 83 Alawite cadets after separating them from their Sunni comrades. About a year later, two grenades were thrown at the elder Assad. He kicked one away, a bodyguard dove on the other, and Assad survived. The next day his brother Rifaat al-Assad slaughtered hundreds of political prisoners at Tadmor prison near Palmyra. In February 1982, “somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people — perhaps more, perhaps less, nobody knows, gunmen and civilians alike — were exterminated” by Assad forces in and around the city of Hama.
The Assads created a pervasive apparatus where every ministry could be a ministry of fear, and multiple intelligence and security agencies — known generically as the mukhabarat — spied on and intimidated one another as well as the general population: “Assad’s Syria was a mukhabarat state whose intelligence agents didn’t bother with the pretense of discretion,” Abouzeid writes. “They didn’t need to.”
The blood that was shed so profusely in the early 1980s would color the conflict that erupted 30 years later. The ghosts of those massacred lived on, and some of the children and grandchildren of the slaughtered would bide their time, waiting to fight once again. But they were not the ones who started the uprising in 2011.
“Revolution is an intimate, multipart act,” Abouzeid writes. “First, you silence the policeman in your head, then you face the policemen in the streets.” In early 2011, as she tells us, “the Middle East was electrified by an indigenous democratic fervor,” and many Syrians were caught up in it.
When Bashar al-Assad’s response was mass arrests and the repeated slaughter of protesters, people felt they had to resist with weapons as well as chants and banners. Soon the Syrian landscape became a mosaic of groups that called themselves “battalions.”
Part of the Assad strategy was a calculated gamble. For years, the regime had operated on both sides of the terror chessboard, simultaneously fighting and facilitating the murderous designs of extremists. As Abouzeid mentions in passing and others have confirmed independently, the United States “rendition” program turned over several suspects to the grotesque ministrations of Syria’s interrogators. Yet at the height of the American occupation of neighboring Iraq, Assad encouraged Syrian jihadists to go martyr themselves by killing Americans.
In May 2011, as the peaceful uprising was gathering momentum, Assad declared an amnesty that released virtually all the Islamic extremists in his prisons. Now he had another use for them, which they understood perfectly well. If they took up arms, as one partisan of Al Qaeda told Abouzeid, “this would allow the regime to say to the world, ‘Look at the terrorists.’” In the years that followed, Assad got his wish. He and his Russian and Iranian backers relentlessly portrayed their fight as their own “war on terror” while setting out to slaughter any moderate forces that did not fit that description. This was a recipe for chaos, and such was the fractious, fractured nature of the conflict that over time even the hardened, disciplined fighters linked to Al Qaeda fought among themselves.
Abouzeid navigated this increasingly treacherous terrain with legendary courage as she wrote for Foreign Affairs and other publications, building the stories of the people in this book around long, repeated interviews and, often, long days and nights under fire alongside them. The result is a tremendous sense of intimacy with the victims and the violence that surrounds them.
In Saraqeb, Abouzeid focuses on Ruha, a little girl of 9 when the war begins and a woman much older than her 14 years when the book ends. “We are children of now, not children of before,” Ruha says in the closing pages.
Some readers may be surprised at the relatively brief treatment given to events that have made huge headlines around the world. In August 2013, the Assad regime used sarin gas in a Damascus suburb and President Barack Obama hesitated to enforce the red line he had declared against chemical weapons. Eventually a deal cut with the Russians led to the destruction of most of Assad’s chemical arsenal, but that was limited comfort to the people of Saraqeb, who had been hit with sarin months earlier without persuading anyone in the international community to do anything to help.
A year later, in August 2014, Obama launched limited operations against ISIS in Iraq, and in the following month, after ISIS had beheaded the American journalist James Foley, the still-limited American war expanded into Syria. Abouzeid notes, “Many Syrians wondered why the United States waited until Islamic State was at the height of its power to attack it.”
But this is not a policy book. Indeed, while the depiction of feckless American actions is clear, the alternatives at each stage in this grim history are not so obvious, nor does this book present us with a plan for the future. Many of Abouzeid’s central characters have left Syria, and are building new lives in Europe.
In Saraqeb, the bombs continue to fall. Today there is, as Abouzeid’s title tells us, no turning back, and one reads the book’s final pages with no hope of a happy ending. But one also reads them with the conviction that Abouzeid’s remarkable journalistic and literary work has given us, at last, a book worthy of the enormous tragedy that is Syria.
via New York Times https://nyti.ms/2gVZ2VB
April 11, 2018 at 08:57AM