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Embattled Dystopia – Justin Marozzi sees years of sectarian strife ahead for Syria

Pity the modern dictator. Time was he could bump off a recalcitrant opposition figure, take out a dissident stronghold, massacre the entire population of a town and the world would be none the wiser. There might be a pesky reporter trying to get to the truth, but that could be taken care of, as President Assad’s security forces demonstrated earlier this year.

Yet the digital world has made it much harder to brush war crimes and atrocities under the kilim. Thanks to Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, surveillance states now find themselves under constant surveillance in turn. The spies are spied upon, lifting the lid — albeit only partially — on what is happening inside places like Syria. Factor in nosy- parkers like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, UN observer teams, ceasefire monitors and grandee envoys dropping by with television cameras, and the dictator bent on subduing a popular revolution with the gloves off has his work cut out these days.

To add to the intensifying scrutiny, four new books confront the revolution head-on, in a rush to publish that inevitably calls to mind Zhou Enlai’s possibly apocryphal remark that it was too early — in 1971 — to assess the French Revolution. They offer four distinct perspectives on contemporary Syria. Fouad Ajami is a Lebanese-born writer on the Middle East with a depth of cultural and historical knowledge that is largely missing from the western media’s coverage of a complex and little understood society. Samar Yazbek is a well-to-do Syrian novelist whose 2011 diaries plunge the reader into the dark immediacy of Assad’s Damascus. David Lesch is an American academic and Syria specialist who met Bashar al Assad frequently from 2004-2008, and Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who has lived in Damascus for several years.

The Syrian Rebellion begins by tracing the mass uprising to several instances of regime retribution, including the ghastly case of Hamza al Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of Deraa. His body was returned to his family a month later, knees and neck broken, penis cut off. Consistently illuminating in unexpected ways, Ajami reaches back to Ibn Khaldun to explain how the magisterial Arab historian of the 14th century envisaged asabiyah (solidarity or group consciousness) as integral to the rise of dynasties and the foundation of states. Alawite asabiyah, ‘the group feeling of a mountain people who had a jumbled mix of persecution and superiority hammered into them by history’, has always been the lifeblood of the Assad regime.

Ajami combines the historian’s appetite for research with journalistic reportage and an instinct for the telling phrase. Bashar is compared unfavourably with his hawk-nosed father Hafez, who would never have let Syria degenerate into a ‘satrap of the Iranian theocracy’. Assad Snr instituted the regime’s pre-eminent political creed of ‘Let them eat anti-Zionism’. The Lebanese politician General Michel Aoun is ‘an acrobat, true to the self-defeating ways of the Lebanese political class’. Ajami is essential reading to under- stand the complicated geography of the Syrian revolution, setting out the sectarian jigsaw from the majority Alawi coastal cities of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh and Tartus, to the mixed, majority Sunni cities of Homs and Hama and ‘encircled’ Damascus and Aleppo, cities too large to have their demography altered by the regime.

Of the four writers, Samar Yazbek provides the most arresting, novelistic prose. In one of the most disturbing passages in her revolutionary diaries, written in the spring of 2011, she is questioned about her opposition writing, briefly blindfolded then taken into a series of rooms where she is forced to see men hanging in various states of torture and decomposition. Bodies covered in fresh and dried blood are suspended from metal clamps, ‘deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter’. Assaulted by ‘the smell of blood and piss and shit’ and the sounds of torture and screaming, she is shoved into a room where there is an unconscious young man ‘whose spine looked like an anatomist’s sketch’, his back split open ‘as if a map had been carved into it with a knife’. ‘Humans have become pieces of flesh on display, an exhibition of the art of murder and torture that was all for show.’

In its uncompromising reportage from a doomed capital, Yazbek’s book recalls the late Iraqi artist Nuha al Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, a searing chronicle of the disintegration of Saddam’s Iraq during the embargo of the Nineties. Today Yazbek lives in exile.

Who is the man who presides over this embattled dystopia? A good deal of attention has focused on Bashar al Assad in an effort to understand how the revolution may unfold. Might he slink off into exile in Saudi Arabia, the traditional graveyard of despots, or will he end his days murdered in cold blood like Gaddafi or be tried and executed like Saddam? Much, probably too much, has been made of Assad the ophthalmologist’s stint in London and his British-Syrian wife Asma as supposedly moderating forces.

David Lesch convincingly argues there are far more formative influences. Bashar is the son of Hafez al Assad, a man not known for his squeamishness in putting down uprisings, as the city of Hama can attest (up to 30,000 were killed there in 1982); he is a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, who grew up in the Cold War and lived through the tumult in Lebanon. ‘These are the relationships and historical events that shaped his Weltanschauung, not his sojourn in England.’ Since Lesch met Assad repeatedly to research an earlier book, we can perhaps forgive the boast that ‘this unique access meant that I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West’, although quickly flicking through The New Lion of Damascus (2005), one finds Lesch describing Bashar as ‘unpretentious and extremely personable’ among other compliments.

Unlike most western reporters who have written from Syria, Stephen Starr brings to bear a great deal of personal experience of the country, having lived and worked in Damascus for four years, including a spell with the state media. He’s the sort of man who notices the price of milk going up and the increased presence of security forces on the streets as the noose tightens. With a wide network of friends and contacts, he conveys the warp and weft of daily life with an admirably nuanced understanding of the place. ‘Many Sunnis cursed the regime, most Christians cursed the protestors and secularists cursed them both,’ he writes of the early days of revolution, when popular opinion was less polarised than now. If there is a criticism of Starr’s account it is the amount of material it includes on what other journalists are getting up to. Journalists’ fascination with journalists knows no bounds.

This quartet offers little in the way of optimism for Syria. Bleakness is the order of the day. Assad will not go quietly. The minorities are right to fear for the future. The fulcrum of Arab nationalism has become the site of a proxy war for influence between Sunni and Shia Islam. However soon he departs, whatever follows minority Alawite rule, it is surely difficult to predict anything but sectarian strife for years to come.

Spectator, 11 August 2012

The Syrian Rebellion: The Fall of the House of Assad
Fouad Ajami, pp.216, £14.95, ISBN: 9780817915049

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution
Samar Yazbek, pp.258, £12.99, ISBN: 9781908323125

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
David Lesch, pp.280, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300186512

Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising
Stephen Starr, pp.214, £14.99, ISBN: 9781849041973