War and Madness: A Retrospective of Five Years of Reporting on the War in Syria

JONATHAN SPYER

The rise of extreme Salafi Islamist groups from the womb of the rebellion confirmed the trend. On January 23, 2012, the foundation of the Jabhat an-Nusra li-Ahl ash-Shām (Support Front for the People of the Levant) was announced. Usually shortened to Jabhat al-Nusra, this was the official franchise of the al-Qaida network in Syria. Led by Sheikh Muhammad al-Julani it quickly gained a reputation for military effectiveness and particular ruthlessness. Then, in May 2013, in the course of a dispute between the Nusra leadership and the leadership of the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaida, a faction began operating in Syria under the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or ISIL). Little noticed at the time, this jihadi group was set to transform the Syrian conflict, and then the region.

I entered Syria for reporting purposes on numerous occasions during that period. Amid the chaos and suffering, it was possible to discern that something extraordinary was taking place. The state structures that had existed since the early 20th century in this area – “Syria” and later “Iraq” were effectively ceasing to exist.

The old borders did not deter the military groups. Journalists crossed “illegally” with rebel assistance. Sometimes the crossings were lengthy and perilous affairs. But, more often, the border was hardly noticed, fictionalized. What had appeared at the beginning to be a war of a populace against a brutal dictatorship turned out to be something else entirely. The walls of the prison-house states of Syria and Iraq had been breached. New and unfamiliar entities were making war among the ruins.

with ypg fighter

In the Turkish border town of Kielis, in the early summer of 2014, I interviewed two ISIS members. I had just crossed back from Syria, after visiting the besieged Kurdish Kobani enclave.

At a place called Haj Ismail, a few days previously, comrades of the two men I met in Kielis had been shooting at me while I was interviewing a YPG commander at a forward position. The ISIS positions were about 200 meters away, across a flat, blank landscape. The firing began and I ran after the fighters as they raced for a machine-gun position behind some sandbags to return fire. It was a routine incident along a tense section of frontline. But it was passingly strange to be sitting in a room chatting and drinking tea with the men on the other side of the lines, just two days later.

The two men called themselves Abu Muhammad and Abu Nur. They were both Syrians. “If ISIS falls, you can forget about Sunni people in Syria,” Abu Muhammad told me, after relating the story of his own long journey to the jihadi organization. The men were animated by a strange combination of local sectarianism and vast, millennial hostility to the West. The two fitted seamlessly together and the power of their combination was evident in the rapid growth of ISIS and the bloodthirsty fanaticism of its fighters.

As for the movement’s goal, Abu Nur spoke about it with reverence. ‘We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Muhammad. The Europeans came here and created false borders. We want to break these borders.” ISIS, in other words, was emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014.

The situation, indeed, was becoming increasingly clear. As my friend Mahmoud, a onetime teacher turned political analyst and a supporter of the rebels bluntly expressed it, “In Syria, today, there are three groups worth mentioning. ISIS, the regime and the Kurds. Nothing else.”

The reality of fragmentation and sectarian war burst across the borders a few months after that interview with the astonishing advance of ISIS into Iraq. By August, the jihadis had reached the gates of Baghdad and Erbil. They were stopped only after the entry of US air power into the fray.

The advance of ISIS into Iraq brought the logic of the Syrian war into the larger neighboring country. In the dramatic and terrifying events around Sinjar Mountain that summer ‒ the harrowing attempt at the genocide of the Yazidi people ‒the sheer savagery of the Sunni jihadis was laid bare. Here was a horror that defied description. But, while the singling out of the Yazidis carried with it a special evil, the Assad regime remained responsible for, by far, the largest number of the deaths in Syria.

The situation today retains the essential contours that emerged in mid-2014. The Syrian war has metastasized across borders. As a result, neither Syria, nor Iraq, nor indeed Lebanon any longer constitute states in the usually understood sense of that word. Rather, the entire vast landscape between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea is, today, divided up between various political-military organizations and arrangements, almost exclusively organized along religious sectarian or ethnic lines.

ktaeb hizballah fighters

They vary in orientation from the radical secularism and socialist outlook of the Syrian Kurds in autonomous “Rojava” to the murderous and apocalyptic Sunni jihadism of the Islamic State.

Along the way, one may find the Iran-oriented Shi’ite Islamism of Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias of Iraq, the pro-Western, tribal conservatism of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and various types of Sunni Islamism in the poorly governed wastelands of the Syrian-Sunni rebels.

The war has, of course, also impacted far beyond the Middle East itself. The US and the West have staunchly sought to keep their involvement to a minimum. But, today, Western air power and special forces are playing a key role in the effort to reduce and destroy the Islamic State.

Further west, the Russian intervention after September 2015 almost certainly saved the Assad regime from destruction and reversed the course of the war. Currently, there are peace negotiations in Geneva and a fitfully observed cease-fire.

But the cease-fire relates only to the original war in Syria (regime vs. rebels). It doesn’t impact on the other conflicts that emerged from its womb (YPG/SDF against ISIS, rebels against Kurds, KRG and Iraq against ISIS, Turks against PKK, regime against ISIS.

The bombings in Brussels on March 22 are the latest demonstration of the far reach of the war. What began with demonstrations by schoolchildren in Dera’a has now turned into a process of flux and convulsion of historic proportion.

Read Full Coverage:  The cold numbers are the first thing that hit you. Figures telling of a human catastrophe on a scale hard to compute. Suffering on a level to which any rational response seems inadequate – 470,000 people killed, according to the latest estimates; 11.5 percent of the population injured; 45 percent of a country of 22 million made homeless; 4 million refugees and 6.36 million internally displaced persons. Life expectancy is down from 70.5 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.4 years in 2015. Welcome to the Syrian civil war. For those of us who have covered the war closely, these are not just numbers in black and white. They have behind them searing images and memories impossible to erase.

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