The collapse of Syria
The story of a nation’s unravelling, one neighbourhood at a time
There is an online map I use to track the Syrian war. It’s one of a handful of such tools, and it would have been unheard of even a decade ago. With this map, anyone around the world with an internet connection can watch the war play out in near real time. You can track attacks as quickly as they are reported on Twitter, which is, in most cases these days, within minutes. You can follow the sources reporting the attacks to assess their credibility, cross reference different sources, determine what kind of attacks they were and who perpetrated them. The map provides colour-coded zones of control, a who-is-where guide to what can often be a dizzyingly fluid war zone.
The service I use doesn’t only cover Syria. I also used it when I was reporting on the Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS in 2016 and 2017. It was accurate. ISIS zones of control were colour-coded grey, an apt choice, while the Iraqi army and its allies were red. Using the map’s “time” option, I could track the shifting frontlines, also in real time, which proved an invaluable resource not only in terms of assessing the battle’s day-by-day developments and adjusting my focus accordingly, but also in assessing how the geography of the war was evolving over time. It was informative, for instance, to watch the red zones to the east of Mosul expand rapidly over a three-week span in late October and early November and then shrink slightly. It was telling when, over the next two months, the red grew at a snail’s pace and then, beginning in early January 2017, suddenly swept over ISIS grey. Something had changed in the war’s dynamic. Those early months had been devastating for the Iraqi army; it was losing the battle and sacrificing its elite soldiers at an alarming rate. Then came the airstrikes, and everything changed.
Syria is much more complicated. Its colour codes include ISIS grey and red, the regime’s colour, but also extend into the blue, yellow, and green spectrums, representing the vast array of forces, from Islamists to Iranian militias to Kurds, operating there. Because the Syrian map went live in 2015, it misses the early years of the civil war, when the opposition was more united and less dominated by radical groups, but it still captures, in vivid colour, the gradual fracturing of a nation. In the first entry, March 2, 2015, there is only one colour—green—representing rebel forces in control of a band of territory in eastern Syria stretching north to south, primarily centred around Idlib province. A year later, ISIS grey has spread through the nation like a cancer; the regime’s red has retaken most of its territory in the east, minus Idlib and parts of Aleppo; blue represents coalition forces led by NATO, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (and in some cases, Turkey), which have entered the scene and control small pockets in the north near Hama and south near the Jordanian border, while the Kurds, yellow, dominate their historical homeland in the far north along the Turkish border. A year after that, in March 2017, the grey has metastasized into a giant blob covering nearly half of Syria. A new colour has also been added, mint green, representing rebel forces backed by Turkey, which have taken territory away from the Kurds along the Turkish border. The regime’s red now covers all of Aleppo city while the coalition presence has been reduced to a narrow island protecting Israel in the southwest.
Each colour, and each permutation of the space it occupies, tells a story. But it also misses something. The visual narrative of Syria from 2015 to 2017, rendered by the online map, is one of physical disintegration. But the geography of war is a fickle beast. Frontlines can shift suddenly, in ways that even a near real-time map cannot capture; order and chaos can coexist, separated by a mere sliver of no-man’s land—a road, a canal, a farm field. A neighbourhood can lie in ruins, emptied and desolate, while just next door, people go about their daily routines, sip tea in their living rooms and watch destruction rain down on their televisions, as if it is a world away, the dull thud of bombs and rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire melting into background noise.
The map glosses over all of this. It charts the fracturing of a nation and the forces vying for supremacy but misses the more visceral fracturing of the human condition, the cleavages of mind that transform individuals and societies. This is the most enduring legacy of civil war: as a nation collapses, its communities disintegrate. When the rubble is cleared, what’s left behind is more rubble, but of a less tangible sort. I’ve seen it in Afghanistan and Iraq, in cities like Kabul and Baghdad: entire neighbourhoods defined by a new kind of cartography where the defining structures are not roads or parks or cafes but languages and the markers of ethnicity and religion.
In a scene in Rania Abouzeid’s new book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, a family is hiding in the cellar of their home in Saraqeb, a small city in the north of Idlib province. It’s the summer of 2012 and the makeshift bunker is packed with women and children taking shelter from the regime’s shelling. The place is dark and dank and, as one of the mothers admits, more likely to bury them alive than protect them if the house above is hit by a shell. Still, the illusion of shelter is better than the suffocating fear aboveground. And at least it helps the children feel safe. Abouzeid, who has been with the family through much of their ordeal, describes a game one girl has devised out of conversations the adults have about who has died in the war. The girl explains the rules of the game: “I hear what they’re saying about who died,” she says. “I memorize it as if I’m recording it on paper. I record it in my mind. I count who died, who has lived, who is left.” When Abouzeid asks the girl why she is doing this, she just shrugs and says: “It’s normal.”
It is as chilling a moment as it is heart-wrenching. No Turning Back, as the title suggests, is a story about the relentless momentum of war and the irrevocable transformations it produces. To my knowledge, it is the first book that takes a deep dive into the Syrian conflict by zeroing in on the people behind the colours on a map and painting an intimate portrait of, as she puts it, “how a country unravelled one person at a time.”
What is remarkable is how Abouzeid was able to access virtually all sides of the conflict, repeatedly crossing illegally into Syria from Turkey and embedding with a variety of opposition groups and civilians, from moderates to what we might call al-Qaeda-linked extremists, who open up to her in ways most journalists can only dream of. Perhaps part of her success lies in the fact that she refuses to use reductive terms like “extremist” and “moderate.” For her, the people of Syria are complex, multifaceted human beings, constantly in flux and re-evaluating their beliefs in an environment that demands that they look, again and again, into the heart and mind of darkness.
There are Islamists who start off supporting al-Qaeda and ISIS but, as the war drags on and atrocities mount, end up condemning both; there are secularists who, after witnessing the corruption and in-fighting between moderate groups, decide that the rallying cry of Islam is the one binding force that can bring the opposition together. And there are children like that little girl, who turn war into a game. The secularists grow beards, and learn to respect the Islamists; the Islamists shave them off, and learn the value of secularism. No category is neat and tidy; in a war like Syria’s everything has been turned on its head.
The country, Abouzeid says, “has ceased to exist as a unified state except in memories and on maps. In its place are many Syrias.” I would take that observation one step further: a unified Syria has never existed except in the imagination of its regime. Its ideological categories have always been fluid: secular Baathists and religious conservatives were entangled for decades in an intricate dance of power and money, each embracing and rejecting the other in turns. But that is not the Syria its regime or the international community seem to wish to discuss.
The Syria that Abouzeid accesses and lays bare, helped along by a combination of her Arab roots, her unwavering objectivity, and the contacts she has amassed after more than six gruelling years covering the Syrian war for publications such as Time, The New Yorker, and Foreign Affairs, undermines the distilled narratives of both the regime and the international community. And she has paid a price for it. The Syrian regime blacklisted her in 2011 and, as she explains, she was branded “a spy for several foreign states, placed on the wanted list of three of the four main intelligence directorates in Damascus, and banned from entering the country.”
The result is an utter disconnect from the official narrative. This is not an account that tries to balance the story told by the regime with the ones told by the opposition and their myriad foreign backers. There is an absence of reporting from the regime side for which, Abouzeid points out, no one but the regime itself is responsible. Instead, No Turning Back focuses on rebel-held territory, places most foreign journalists were unable to go, including areas controlled by al-Qaeda-linked militants. Abouzeid manages it, in part by condemning no one and in part by doggedly tracking the fragmentation of the opposition, from its early days as a youth-led call for reform to the tangled mass of contradictory threads it is today.
In the process, she uncovers layers of meaning behind the fragmentation. She notes how, for instance, the young activists who led the early days of the protests refused to work with a burgeoning group of ageing exiles and regime defectors congregating in Turkey. “We felt very strongly that we didn’t want to work with anybody over the age of forty,” one activist told Abouzeid. “They had their turn in the last era. They failed. We wanted to be different.” These young upstarts begged the international community for help; the world ignored them, fretting over phantom Islamists in their midst, a narrative concocted by the regime and injected with reality after Bashar al-Assad ordered the release of hundreds of jailed Islamists in May and June of 2011. Even as the regime’s security apparatus began to kill protesters, and hundreds disappeared into Syria’s dungeons, never to be seen or heard from again, world leaders offered little more than platitudes. “We are behind you,” they said, like cheering spectators.
There were exceptions. One former Canadian diplomat I interviewed in 2016 tried to do more. While he was stationed in Ankara, the Turkish capital, he met secretly with Syria’s youth movement and, against the orders of his superiors, helped them strategize and offered whatever material support he could. He traveled to Syria illegally to see firsthand the suffering of the displaced, and smuggled a computer program into the country to help activists communicate without being found out by the regime. That action alone, one activist told me, likely saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives. As a reward from Canada, he was transferred to a desk job in Africa, and was ultimately forced to retire.
The diplomat warned repeatedly that Western nations ignored the youth movement at its peril, and in the end he was vindicated. In the absence of support from the international community, other nations, with their own agendas, filled the void. Turkey and Qatar began arming Muslim Brotherhood militants, among them the Ahrar al-Sham, which by 2014 had grown into the most powerful force in the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia chose its own proxies. Western nations put their weight behind the group of exiles and deserters based in Turkey, who began calling themselves the Syrian National Council (SNC) and commanded remotely the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria.
But by then, the lines between groups had become so blurred, and Syria’s ideological categories so mixed up, that it was impossible to tell where humanitarian and military support were going. The SNC, as youth leaders had predicted, spiralled into factional infighting. The FSA, most Syrian observers agreed, was a fiction, a fluid alliance of armed fighters—in some cases comprised of a few men from one family, who adopted the FSA name but fought wherever there was a need, even if it meant fighting alongside hardcore jihadists. The Ahrar al-Sham, when I visited them in northern Syria in 2014, tolerated the more radical jihadists in Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, but despised the FSA, branding them opportunists who were out to profit from whatever supplies they could get their hands on.
Those Ahrar al-Sham commanders were not entirely wrong. As Abouzeid outlines in painstaking detail, the FSA suffered from a severe identity crisis. “Political money and foreign agendas split rebel ranks,” she writes. “Some private sponsors, including ones in exile, tried to dictate operations down to which checkpoints to hit.”
The Islamists, bound together by a common motivating factor—Islam—were less susceptible to the corruption of purpose. But as Syria fractured, as more colours appeared on the map, moderate opposition forces, including those same youth who had led the protests, disintegrated.
War exposes existing fault lines in individuals and in communities; it deepens them and gives them a sense of purpose, arms them and sets them loose on each other. Those fault lines are not greater or more numerous in Syria than anywhere else. Singular national identities simply don’t exist, the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen writes in his 2006 book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. They are a false construct built from a fear of the unknown, a fear of the Other. The environment of war, Sen argues, forces that fictional narrative, distilling identity to a symbol and using it for a multitude of violent and divisive ends. “The imposition of an allegedly unique identity,” he writes, “is often a crucial component of the ‘martial art’ of fomenting sectarian confrontation.”
In Syria, identity and its symbols have become weapons in themselves: the flag of the Islamists, inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith; the image of the martyr, baby-faced and glowing on posters lining the streets of both regime- and rebel-held territory. These are the symbols that animate Syria’s various warring factions inside the country.
For the rest of the world, perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Syrian war, so far, has been the photograph of two-year old Alan Kurdi lying face down, dead, on a lonely stretch of beach in southern Turkey. That single image, from the summer of 2015, brought the reality of the Syrian war, and the horrors from which its people were running, into stark focus.
It was the other side of Abouzeid’s tragic narrative; the same world that failed to understand the complexities of the Syrian uprising now reduced millions of its people to facile categories: refugee, illegal migrant. The images of men, women, and children, desperately mounting flimsy rafts on the Mediterranean Sea, scaling fences in Hungary, and marching by the thousands through Serbia toward western Europe, were reduced to a few menacing symbols: here hid terrorists bent on wreaking havoc in European cities, and people who would change the shape of our societies if they were allowed inside.
The image of Alan Kurdi was supposed to shock the world into action, into seeing the atrocities being committed in Syria for what they were and finding a way to end them, or at least it was to ignite compassion and open doors to refugees.
It did none of this. Refugees are still streaming out of the country or trying to escape even as the world’s richest nations close their doors to them. At last count, according to UNHCR figures, 5.6 million people have fled Syria. Another 6.1 million are internally displaced. In Germany, officials from the ultra-nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which just became the biggest opposition party, met recently with Assad regime officials in Damascus, to discuss ways to start returning refugees to Syria, as if the ongoing war is somehow irrelevant, and its wounds, both physical and psychological, can be easily patched up.
Tima Kurdi’s forthcoming memoir, The Boy on the Beach: My Family’s Escape from Syria and Our Hope for a New Home, is a powerful rebuttal to these naive notions. It is, like No Turning Back, a story of disintegration and transformation—a eulogy to a lost nation—but Kurdi’s book also lets us see what has been lost: the details of life in Syria before the war, the edifice of family, of community, steadily demolished brick by brick as Syria’s towns and cities, some of the most beautiful in the world, were leveled, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
Kurdi, who left Syria for Canada years before the start of the civil war, shows us Damascus, the “City of Jasmine,” as she remembers it, from the perspective of her family’s home atop Mount Qasioun, the highest of the hills that surround the Syrian capital. She remembers the city’s transformation in the early 2000s as it became “a little more Western, a little more modern. Amusement parks and internet cafes opened up,” she writes, “sushi restaurants became popular, and many people started carrying cellphones.” She recalls her family’s ancestral lands in Kobani, a Kurdish enclave near the Turkish border that was decimated during battles between ISIS and the Kurdish YPG forces between 2014 and 2015.
“It was an idyllic place,” she reminisces, “where we could roam the countryside with my uncle Khalid’s sheep; feed the chickens; milk the goats; make feta cheese from scratch—eating it while it was still warm—and pick ripe olives from the region’s orchards.”
That world is gone, perhaps forever. As Kurdi’s narrative shifts gears and turns to the war years, we are introduced to the Kurdi family’s new world. We can already, most of us, imagine the desperation that led Abdullah Kurdi, his brother, his sisters, and countless other parents, to risk the lives of their children for a chance at a better life. But it is something different to see Tima Kurdi travel to Turkey from Vancouver to visit her family in exile, to bear witness to the crumbling hope that they will ever have a home to return to. “I began to see the world through a refugee’s eyes,” she writes of her own transformation. “You are there, wherever you happen to be, but you can’t shake the feeling that life is going on without you. That you are a ghost among the living.”
The Boy on the Beach reminds us on a visceral level that what has happened in Syria is not simply a war in all its ugliness but a fundamental reconfiguring of millions of human lives. This is perhaps one of few universal truths in the country; it goes for the impoverished and utterly destitute millions who take to makeshift boats, and for an entire generation of Syrian youth, the educated class of young people who led the protests in 2011 and would have been the Syrians of tomorrow. They are dead, disappeared (and likely dead), or, like the Kurdi family, scattered around the globe. The parallel with Afghan refugees who fled their country during the 1980s and 1990s is remarkable: even those who have managed to escape have been reshaped by the new world they now occupy, in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere. Even if the Syrian and Afghan wars end tomorrow, or a year from now, what kind of a life would they return to?
That question hangs over both books, obscuring the one word each contains in its subtitle: hope. It’s not a question that any map, physical or digital, no matter how detailed and precise, can answer. The map I use, for instance, is simplifying. As of the beginning of March 2018, the ISIS grey has all but disappeared and the regime red has spread to most of the country, except Idlib, where the green of the opposition still marks the territory rebels have held since the beginning of the war. Only now, that region is dominated by Salafi jihadists. Compared to last year, Syria looks less fractured. There are only two major pockets of fighting left, for now: in Afrin near Turkey’s border, where the Turkish army and Turkish-backed rebel forces have engaged the Kurdish YPG militia (which Turkey considers a terrorist organization linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party); and in the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, where a brutal Russian-backed bombing campaign is, at the time of writing, still ongoing.
But the map’s colours gloss over the finer details, the intangibles that have come to define this war. While the world’s powers squabble over who gets to decide the shape of a future Syria, the psychological landscape, the geography of memory, continues to fragment. Those maps have been irrevocably altered and what comes next will no doubt be as complicated and heterogeneous as what preceded it.
Both Abouzeid and Kurdi’s books are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand these complexities, the cadences of a nation in the process of disintegration and with a too-distant hope of remaking itself. For all intents and purposes Syria, as it was, has collapsed, its people altered forever. Even if it emerges from the rubble retaining its borders, even if its buildings and monuments are rebuilt exactly as they were, at its heart it will never be the same again.