Qunfuz is the Arabic word for ‘hedgehog’ or ‘porcupine’. I am Robin Yassin-Kassab, born in west London in 1969. Except for six months in Beirut, I grew up in England and Scotland. I have lived and worked in London, France, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Now I live in Scotland. In this space, i share my comments on Middle Eastern issues and politics.
“The Parisian”, Isabella Hammad’s remarkably accomplished debut novel, very quickly binds the reader’s attention. Ranging from Nablus in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire via Istanbul and Cairo to Montpellier and Paris, and always connecting the personal and the political, our hero Midhat Kamal’s journey makes delightful reading.
The sensation of reality is intense, at various levels. Time and place are fully imagined, with constant attention to the details of dress, furniture, architecture, and attitude. With Midhat enrolled in medicine at Montpellier and the World War One dead stacking up, the ideas and prejudices of the French historical moment are rendered most successfully in extended party scenes – Midhat speaking “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.”
Relationships between characters are very precisely noticed, and the characters themselves are brought to life by a fierce interiority. Midhat’s sense of himself, through his different ages and states of consciousness, is a sustained theme, from his discovery at Istanbul’s Lycée Impérial of “the electric feeling of aloneness, victorious and agonising, unearthly.” The physical correlative is consciousness of “the hard outline of his body”, which transforms when he falls in love: “the awareness of his limbs was an agony, he wanted to get out of them, to be elsewhere.”
As confidence deepens between Midhat and his host Dr Molineu’s daughter Jeanette, Midhat attempts to learn more about Jeanette’s mother, a suicide. He studies her diagnosis of “hystero-neurasthenia”, and the influence upon her of the mysterious Sylvain Leclair. But the pleasures of investigation are superseded by a crisis when Midhat learns he himself has been an object of study for Doctor Molineu, part of a project “linking philology and development”, to analyse “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression”.
Midhat breaks with Jeanette, flees to tumultuous Paris, studies history at the Sorbonne and enjoys soirées with pan-Syrian nationalist intellectuals – including the law student Hani Murad, an associate of Emir (soon to be king) Faisal, who believes that “to unify a country is the supreme goal of mankind”.
After the war Midhat returns to a British-occupied Palestine at once parochial and cosmopolitan. There are set pieces here to rival the French parties – at the market, in the women’s hammam, at a popular festival turned riot. Despite familial and financial constraints, Midhat settles into Nablus “with its webs of subtle comfort, of knowing and being known”, and engages in indirect courtship with Fatima, who climbs on a cupboard to avoid him on their wedding night.
The passing years bring a transition from Syrian to Palestinian nationalism, amid accumulating political disasters, the Arabs squabbling while (in Hani Murad’s words) “the land is taken from under our feet.” Hani’s young wife Sahar organises demonstrations and women’s committees. There are signs, meanwhile, of incipient class conflict. Sahar and her bourgeois circle oppose the veil in the name of modernity, while the peasant fighters promote it through “forced rebel lore” for the sake of communal identity.
By the eruption of the 1936 uprising, “to be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times.” The boutique shop Midhat owns with a Samaritan partner burns in obscure circumstances. For this as well as more intimate reasons, he must undergo a painful ripening, a final reckoning with the past. This section is as beautifully told as it is surprising, and is in some way echoed by the development of the French scholar and priest Antoine (whose treatment contains a hint of Graham Greene), another (Jerusalem-based) student of Arab “essences” who, observing the unexpected social transformations brought about by anti-colonial resistance, marvels “how fast custom could degrade from its pure form”.
The dialogue flows easily throughout but is sometimes marred by an unnecessarily liberal scattering of unexplained French or Arabic phrases. This perhaps adds flavour, and reaches towards Midhat’s bilingualism, but such sentences as “Only a Parisian could be tellement fier du Languedoc”, in a supposedly French conversation, or “Lazim, kulluna, rise up,” in Arabic, will surely be disruptive for the reader not proficient in these languages.
Excepting that editorial quibble, Hammad sounds like a natural storyteller. She sustains tension and suspends revelation beautifully, and interweaves character and theme, the global and the local, with the assurance of a much more experienced writer. The writing is deeply humane, its wide vision matched by its poised restraint.
Zadie Smith’s glowing endorsement compares Hammad to Flaubert and Stendhal, and the social tapestry she creates certainly has a sense of those worlds, but we could also reference the realism of Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, or set her against a contemporary historical novelist like Jennifer Egan (in her inter-war “Manhattan Beach”). A story of cultures in simultaneous conflict and concord, “The Parisian” teems with riches – love, war, betrayal and madness – and marks the arrival of a bright new talent.
Aden Grace Sawyer, eighteen years old, is “a serious girl, an asker of questions.” Alienated from her comfortable Californian suburban surroundings by family breakdown – her father has left home following an affair, and her mother has slipped into alcoholism – she turns to Islam for consolation.
Her choice appears guided in equal measure by a genuinely spiritual urge for submission to the transcendent, and a more prosaically youthful defiance. Still in the Bay Area, she dons Afghan-style shalwar kameez, and crops her hair rather than wear a hijab. Next she plans to migrate to a godly country. Because Decker, her blustering boyfriend and travelling companion, has Afghan roots and cousins in Karachi, they head for Pakistan.
Aden’s father – significantly, a professor of Islamic studies at Berkeley – has warned her of the limited “possibilities for a woman in that part of the world”. Aden has too much attitude to accept any sort of limitation and so reinvents herself, improbably but credibly, as a boy. With bandaged breasts, and “hidden by her clear and perfect strangeness”, she is restyled as Suleyman, Quranic student and potential holy warrior. Soon she’s attending an all-male madrasa in the tribal areas of the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. “So far away,” she whispers triumphantly. Too far for unlucky Decker, who only planned an adventure holiday. To sustain her role, Aden refuses to continue sleeping with him.
The War on Terror theme can quickly reduce even great writers to cliche and worse. (John Updike’s lamentable “Terrorist” may be the worst of the genre.) “Godsend”, however – John Wray’s fifth novel – is entirely convincing, in part, no doubt, because Wray has done his research.
As a journalist Wray travelled to Afghanistan in 2001 to study the case of ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh. While there he heard a rumour concerning a young Western woman fighting in man’s disguise. The plot also makes use of an Afghan antecedent – the bacha posh tradition, whereby a daughter in a home with no sons may take on the role of a boy.
Beyond its solid grounding in Afghan and Islamic knowledge, this unlikely tale is rendered plausible by Wray’s consummate writerly skills. The various Muslim characters – cynics and fanatics, manipulative adults and lost children – each clearly distinct from the other, are treated seriously and empathetically. “Godsend” is certainly not another tired ‘radicalisation’ narrative. Aden brings her naivety and arrogance with her, lamenting “how far from the true faith the country had fallen”, and most of the madrasa officials aim to challenge it. “There is no humility in the righteous self-love of the mujahid,” says one. “There is no modesty in it, no denial of desire, no restraint.”
Very unusually, the novel engages deeply with the purist attractions of a religious life. There is as much delight as horror in the world Aden leaps into, in “the beauty of austerity”, the morning prayer which “calls the whole world into being”, and the spiritual-poetic rhythms of Quranic recitation: “In the very best moments her own sight seemed to dim and she could feel the verses buzzing as they passed between her teeth, and that was all she wanted or could ever want.” The reader lives enough within Aden’s perspective to believe in the end her claim that “the love she harboured for the world was free of sin.”
Aden’s relationship with her father, whom she wishes to “erase”, though carefully understated, is central to the psycho-drama. The Teacher, as she scornfully calls him, studies Islam but laughs at the Muslims. The charismatic Ziar, who persuades her to cross the border to fight, is by contrast deadly serious, and the love she develops for him – beautifully complexified by her gender deception – veers between romantic and filial. Once in the war zone, she soon commits irreversible acts in bad as well as good faith. Thereafter “there was no way out for her but straight ahead”. A furious narrative momentum carries the story to its devastating conclusion.
Along the way Wray includes a masterful 9/11 scene. “Some sort of conflagration” in Manhattan is reported on a field radio, though its significance for Afghanistan is not immediately recognised. “It wasn’t Pashtuns that did it,” mutter the Pashtun fighters. Aden too would like to escape the consequences. She has migrated, in her dangerous innocence, not to strike the West but to aid the Taliban, “the devout … a learned coalition”, against their local opponents, “the animals of the north”. “This war has nothing to do with America,” she announces, but reads the terror attacks, nevertheless, egotistically, as an assault on her attempt to disappear: “She saw herself in faded video, her image degrading, her outline blurred with violence. In spite of all her subterfuge America had found her.”
The book’s precise descriptions of the external world – squalid cities studded with ornate mosques, soaring mountains and icy rivers, mud-and-wattle villages inhabited by ambiguously sullen villagers – are as rich as its interiority is profound.
Rawly unsentimental but illumined throughout by a subtle compassion, “Godsend” is a novel of enormous emotional intelligence which makes for compelling and consistently unpredictable reading.
(A slightly edited version of this article – which reviews books by Alia Malek, Rania Abouzeid, Kassem Eid, and Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple – was first published at Prospect Magazine.)
“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were twenty-three million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?” – Marwan Hisham
Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, the Assad regime has returned in recent months to key parts of the Syrian heartland. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death notices for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. President Putin calls for the regime’s ‘normalisation’ against this backdrop, and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, it seems he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.
The democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the dual price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. From the originary counter-revolutionary violence, secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom – Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian – while refugee flows and terror scares have infected our politics here. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.
Of the expanding shelf of Syria books, the most explanatory (or least ideological) tend to start from the diverse experiences of Syrians themselves. Four recently published books do just that, in very different ways.
Both chronologically and socially, “The Home that was Our Country”, by Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek, has the widest focus. It begins at World War One, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and Armenian genocide-survivors arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowning ‘notable’ and entrepreneur, shelters one refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French – whose mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an Alawi-dominated army. By turns generous host and manipulative patriarch, equally attached to tradition and modernity, Abdeljawwad is a Christian, school founder, and womaniser.
Every character in these densely populated pages is as complex. After grandmother Salma – a heavy smoker called ‘sister of men’ – moves to multicultural Damascus, the fates and interactions of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society-at-large, as the imperfect post-colonial democracy is succeeded by coups and counter-coups, then the Baath’s one-party state, and finally Hafez al-Assad’s one-man party. Now people (including Salma’s brother) disappear for the slightest dissidence. Their relatives fear asking too many questions. Religious coexistence, once a given, strains under the mutual fear and suspicion built into the new dispensation. Infrastructural stagnation accompanies seeping moral corruption: “If people disregarded anyone’s welfare but their own, it was in part because the state made Syrians feel that everyone was on his or her own; people were being pitted against one another.”
The conditions at home decide her parents on permanent American residence, but Malek lives in Damascus for long stretches as an adult, reporting clandestinely on Bashar al-Assad’s disastrous neoliberal (or crony-capitalist) reforms while reclaiming Salma’s house from an immoveable lodger. When the revolution erupts, some around her participate, openly or covertly, while others sink into “Stockholm Syndrome”. Initially Malek ascribes this to an inferiority complex – the idea that Syrians are incapable of democracy. Later she understands that willed belief in propaganda may serve as an escape strategy from “the simultaneous shame of living under such a regime and of looking away – of being both a victim and a bystander,” and realises that “many already understood – consciously or subconsciously – that the regime would work to unleash [violent] forces without a second thought.” Soon, sure enough, to preserve the “architecture that made children out of adults … the regime began to make corpses out of children.”
In this nuanced, intelligent account of Syria’s intricate social fabric and its slow unravelling, micro and macrocosm, family and state events, can illumine each other with a subtly metaphorical force. So post-stroke Salma, “alive in a dead body, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen,” suggests the whole country before 2011, as well as the hundreds of thousands languishing between the dead walls of Assad’s prisons afterwards.
Rania Abouzeid’s “No Turning Back” contains a long, painfully gripping description of a two-year passage through these death camps. The victim is Suleiman, a businessman from Rastan. This town near Homs, once a source of army officers, was called ‘the second Qardaha’, a Sunni version of the Assads’ (Alawi) village. But in 2011, signalling the collapse of the cross-sect Baathist alliance, it became an early base for the fledgling Free Syrian Army.
Suleiman never holds a weapon, but joins, records and uploads protests. He also works with the coordination committees – anonymous activist cells – to shelter defected soldiers. As “the seeds of a grassroots civil society”, the committees are Assad’s primary target, and the apparent reason for Suleiman’s arrest.
Thereafter he suffers hunger, extreme temperatures and an unrelenting litany of physical and psychological tortures. Eventually released (when his father pays a bribe), he is immediately rearrested – “a body cycled in perpetuity through a labyrinth of suffering.” Very many die in prison, but with (relative) luck and further bribes, Suleiman survives to finally recount his story from German exile.
Vowing “not to talk over people who can speak for themselves”, Abouzeid closely follows, and contextualises, her informants. A seasoned war-correspondent, she is naturally strongest on the armed resistance, and more specifically its degeneration. At the start, the FSA militias were “just local men banding together” by family or neighbourhood. These “men of words and weapons” concentrated on defending the communities to which necessity and solidarity bound them. By September 2012, however, swathes of northern Syria were defacto ‘liberated’. A hoped-for No-Fly Zone never materialised, military stalemate set in, and rebels squabbled over inconsistent and insufficient supplies. Worse, “political money and foreign agendas split rebel ranks, even as those [donor] states urged the men on the ground to unite.”
Abouzeid correctly states that “classism, rather than sectarianism, was a stronger revolutionary driver for many opponents.” But Assad’s scorched-earth-from-the-sky, as well as generalised lawlessness, presented enormous opportunities for tightly-disciplined Sunni extremists. Men like Mohamad, who grew up in Jisr al-Shughour, an Idlib town punished through the 1980s for its Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. Bad blood long preceded the revolution here – Mohamad’s childhood memories include soldiers murdering the neighbours and stripping old ladies naked in the street – and in June 2011, after months of repression, Jisr al-Shughour saw the country’s first serious outbreak of retaliatory violence. The first mass displacement followed, as thousands – Abouzeid accompanying them – fled the helicopter-borne vengeance.
In the previous decade the regime had funnelled Salafi-jihadists to American-occupied Iraq. Those who returned were imprisoned. Mohamed, arrested in his teens for reading al-Qaida texts, soon joined them. Early in 2011, as protests swelled, he and hundreds of other jihadists were released. Assad was deliberately helping create an opposition which would terrify key Syrian constituencies into loyalty while ensuring international appeasement of his crimes. Once back home, Mohamad didn’t bother protesting but immediately prepared for war. Abouzeid’s reportage – tracing Mohamad’s career with (the al-Qaida-linked) Nusra, and Nusra’s conflict with ISIS – usefully humanises this deeply-compromised character by placing him in a family, a community, and a long-term cycle of violence and vengeance.
Abouzeid admits telling – inevitably – only “a fraction of the story”. Yet her focus on fighters at the expense of the civilian revolution occasionally weakens an otherwise excellent account. When protestors drive Nusra from Saraqeb in July 2017, for instance, their resistance appears to arrive out of the blue. But the town, long a stronghold of civic activism, elected a local council in the same month. Today 118 councils survive in Idlib province, and hundreds more throughout the surviving liberated pockets.
So not only are Syrians capable of democracy, they are actually practising it, despite the war. When this rarely-mentioned information enters the frame, the endless rhythm of violence no longer seems inevitable. Nor do the strong-man ‘solutions’ of western ‘realists’ seem relevant.
The first strong-man Marwan Hisham escapes is his father. His “Brothers of the Gun” stresses the revolution’s generational aspect, the youthful rejection of a society in which “it was forbidden to aspire.” Sent from a severe upbringing in Raqqa – “a poor uneducated city, lagging behind” – to an Islamic boarding school, Hisham is subjected to interchangeable religious and nationalist rhetorics involving “chest-puffing, militaristic cultishness, saccharine exaltation of sacrifice” and “pseudo-scientific pomp.”
His irreverent tone swoops from anger at the superstitious passivity of people who “lacked all desire to change”, through euphoric appreciation of the “generosity and participatory ethos” of Raqqa’s liberation, to a bitter cynicism when liberation turns sour.
Punctuated by air-raids, Raqqa’s interval between tyrannies witnesses an unequal civil struggle between democrats and Islamist-authoritarians, alongside continuous battles between the latter, until the fiercest, most counter-revolutionary win. “Our people used religiosity as a tranquilizer,” Hisham complains. As the anxiety increases, so does the dose. And after the ISIS takeover, American then Russian bombers pummel the city.
Hisham buys a satellite dish and opens a cybercafé which attracts Raqqa’s multinational jihad-tourists. Their snooty stupidity is recounted with desperate black humour. By this telling, ignorance and trauma are the twin bases of their intolerance.
By now Hisham is tweeting on life under ISIS, and soon starts working with American artist Molly Crabapple. She draws his photographs, he provides words. Several Vanity Fair articles and this distinctively beautiful book arise from their collaboration.
It makes great reading, at once raw and stylish. Yet the exuberant scorn which animates it can sometimes oversimplify. “I had counted on the majority to defy [jihadist] aggression,” Hisham writes, “but instead they remained silent at best and complicit at worst.” This is inaccurate. Having defeated Raqqa’s rebel militias, ISIS faced the ‘White Shroud’ tribal resistance and a host of activist and media groups.
Further afield, non-authoritarian Islamist brands also flourished. In the Damascene suburb Daraya, for instance, influenced by ‘liberal Islamist’ Jawdat Said, activists like Ghayth Matar promoted self-organisation and non-violence. The regime in return (even as it released the Salafi-jihadists) killed Matar under torture.
Daraya’s neighbouring community, Moadamiya, “surrounded by fields of flowers and olive groves”, and populated by “simple, loving people” is the setting of Kassem Eid’s powerful memoir “My Country”. This most tightly-focused of the books, and an accessible explanation of the human basics, is a grassroots, first-person, eyewitness account written with alternating love and fury.
Eid is a working-class Palestinian-Syrian, one of eleven children. Consciousness of the regime’s sectarian misrule is implanted early, when his mother warns him not to play “beyond the railway” where Alawi military families live. Settled in strategically-valuable areas, on their sons’ behalf exam results are rigged and legal process is suspended. Nevertheless Eid forms a friendship with one boy, Majed, who later becomes a fighter pilot.
One of Eid’s brothers disappears (note the repetition – most Syrian families guard a similar story). Eid himself is attacked at seeming random. Harassment, intimidation and impoverishment are the everyday indignities of a “country of no opportunity.”
When the 2011 protests break out, they call for nothing more than “a Syria where human life and dignity are respected.” Soon soldiers are deploying roadblocks and raping the women they drag from taxis. Cars explode; snipers pick off pall-bearers. Those who can, leave. Others sell their jewellery (life savings in a country which mistrusts banks) to buy Kalashnikovs. Eid bribes military contacts to smuggle in medicine and food.
Relentlessly escalating, the army commits several large-scale massacres before enforcing the regime’s ‘Kneel or Starve’ absolute siege. With characteristic insistence on setting the terms, Eid chooses to go on hunger strike. By now – when he can access the internet (the generators are fuelled on nail polish remover) – he’s a media activist. He doesn’t hold a weapon until the aftermath of the August 2013 sarin attacks when, surrounded by choking, vomiting, foaming victims, and between bouts of unconsciousness, he suddenly does.
A brief ceasefire is brokered, and Eid escapes to Lebanon, then America. Impressed by the Syrian-American lobby, he’s otherwise depressed. He’d assumed “the murder of civilians agitating for democracy” would spur a serious political response, but realises “when confronted with obvious and unspeakable evil, the world will do everything in its power to look away.”
This lack of international engagement more than any inherent backwardness condemns Syrians to Abouzeid’s dictator-terrorist binary, and everyone to further war. When Moadamiya finally succumbed (in October 2016), thousands of residents were deported to camps in overcrowded northern Syria. Millions more populate camps across the borders. The Palestinians have been dreaming of (and fighting for) return for seven decades. How long will it take today’s Syrians?
Iraqi Shia militiamen pray in defeated and depopulated Daraya.
Today the New Arab publishes Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s latest appeal for greater regional cooperation, specifically to build a collective “security net” which would establish “prosperity, peace, and security for our children.”
This certainly sounds wonderful. Most people in our region share these noble aims. But when they are expressed by an Iranian minister (or by any servant of any state), we owe it to ourselves (and indeed to our children, whose future appears thoroughly insecure) to separate misleading rhetoric from actual facts on the ground. Surely Zarif wouldn’t disagree with this. His own article emphasises the need for “a sound understanding of the current reality.”
Let’s examine the context of this Iranian overture. It doesn’t contain any concessionary policy shift, and is therefore an appeal to the Arab public rather than to state leaderships. Zarif wishes to recreate the pre-2011 atmosphere, those halcyon days when Iran enjoyed enormous soft power across the Arab world. Back then (Iranian president) Ahmadinejad, (Hizbullah chief) Nasrallah and even Bashaar al-Assad topped Arab polls for ‘most admired leader’. Iran was widely considered a proud, rapidly developing Muslim nation and a principled opponent of American and Israeli expansion. Its popularity peaked during the 2006 Israeli-Hizbullah confrontation. People appreciated its aid to the Lebanese militia fighting what they thought was a common cause. When hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shia fled Israeli bombs for Syria, Syrian Sunnis put any sectarian prejudice aside and welcomed them in their homes. Al-Qusayr, for instance, a town near Homs, welcomed several thousand.
How things have changed. Today many Arabs fear Iran’s expansion just as much as Israel’s. Iran’s rulers, meanwhile, openly boast their imperialism. Here for example is Ali Reza Zakani, an MP close to Supreme Leader Khamenei: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian Revolution.” He referred to Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, and went on to add that Sanaa would soon follow.
A (British) historian once opined that Britain built its empire in a ‘fit of absence of mind’. The same can be said for Iran’s regional empire which, at least at first, owed more to its neighbours’ failures than its own machinations. Iran was greatly strengthened by American action to remove its enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq and Syria, Baathist misrule was primarily responsible for state collapse and foreign intervention. But since 2011 – when the Arab Spring revealed the emptiness of Iran’s liberation rhetoric – Iran has capitalised on Arab weakness by exacerbating pre-existing problems and crushing potential solutions.
Like all contemporary imperialisms, Iran justifies its acts by setting them in a ‘War on Terror’ framework. The “humiliating defeat of the Daesh group,” writes Zarif (and we know Iran claims primary credit for this), has “decisively aborted on the ground the trend of extremism and violence.”
Really? Just in the last few weeks, Syria has been wracked by some of the war’s greatest escalations. Americans bombing Russian mercenaries, Turks occupying Afrin, Israelis fighting Iranians, the ongoing incineration of the eastern Ghouta’s civilians – this doesn’t look like a trend towards peace. And to which “humiliating defeat” does Zarif refer? As Iran assists the destruction of rebel communities in the Ghouta, ISIS is returning to neighbourhoods in Deir ez-Zor and even south Damascus. True ISIS no longer possesses its ‘state’, but that’s down to American and Russian air power, not Iran. What’s amazing is that such an unpopular group, with so many enemies, was able to establish territorial control in the first place.
How did that happen? ISIS was incubated in Iraq by the brutality and (towards the end) sectarianism of the Iraqi Baath, and the American occupation, as well as pre-existent extremist strains in Sunni Islamism. It exploited Sunni resentment of the post-invasion Shiisation of the Iraqi state, and the rise of parties and militias formed by Iraqi exiles in Iran. This was in part an inevitable reaction to Saddam’s suppression of Shia identity, but of course Iran exploited the opportunity to cement its influence. Its dominance was one factor fomenting the sectarian civil war.
For a while Iraq appeared to stabilise. In the 2010 elections, Iyad Allawi’s nationalist, non-sectarian block won two more seats than Prime Minister Malki’s Iran-backed Shia block. Iraqis hoped for unity and a new start. But President Obama, aiming for a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, sent Ambassador Chris Hill to convince Allawi to concede defeat.
So Iran’s man won. And when protests erupted in Sunni areas in 2011, Iran’s man responded with deadly violence. The situation escalated until the ISIS takeover of a third of the country in 2014. In other words, Iran helped provoke the ISIS takeover in the first place.
What about Syria? For the first two years of the Syrian Revolution, Sunni extremists were largely irrelevant. The first sure sign of the conflict’s simultaneous regionalisation and sectarianisation was at al-Qusayr in April 2013 – the town which had welcomed Hizbullah’s civilian base in 2006. On Iranian orders, Hizbullah now restored al-Qusayr to the Assad dictatorship, conquering its local defenders and driving away their families.
ISIS declared its presence in the same month. Since then the appeal of transnational Sunni jihadism has thrived in symbiotic relation to the presence of Iran’s foreign Shia jihadists.
Alongside its own officers, Iran funds, trains, organises and deploys Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias in Syria. Estimates of the total size of this transnational Shia army reach beyond 100,000 men. They composed 80% of the ground forces invading Aleppo in December 2016. The defeat of the rebels there – and the democratic local councils and activist organisations – shifted the rebellion’s focus to Idlib. This strengthened Jabhat al-Nusra, another Sunni extremist outfit.
Iran is also absolutely complicit in Assad’s policy of sectarian-political cleansing, repeatedly displacing disloyal (and overwhelmingly Sunni) communities from strategic areas between Damascus and the Lebanese border, then bringing in Alawi and (often foreign) Shia families to replace them. By feeding the fire of sectarian hatred, these crimes radically destabilise not only the region but the wider Muslim world. They promote rather than suppress terror.
Iran (and Russia, and others) saved Assad’s throne by destroying the Syrian state. The country today is partitioned under various foreign occupations – none more grievous than the Iranian – its people traumatised, millions of them homeless, and its economy and infrastructure comprehensively ruined.
Iran’s stranglehold (using Hizbullah hands) on Lebanon, meanwhile, continues to undermine that state’s sovereignty as well as its hopes of overcoming sectarianism. The ugliness of Iran’s meddling in Yemen – backing the unrepresentative Houthi militia’s take-over – is not in any way mitigated by Saudi Arabia’s even uglier bombing campaign.
All this – state dismantlement, mass exile, sectarian cleansing, escalating war – constitutes the new order Zarif wants the Arabs to accept. His op-ed attempts to wrap it up in War on Terror packaging, remains recipe for endless state and non-state terror.
Displaying a chutzpah to shame the smoothest of Israeli spokesmen, Zarif also invokes such principles as “resolving differences through peaceful methods, respecting territorial integrity, non-interference in the affairs of other states, and respecting states’ right to self-determination.”
Iranian acts on the ground prove the emptiness of these phrases. Propaganda won’t convince the Arabs – nor for that matter the Iranians, who continue to strike and hold anti-regime protests. Because while the Islamic Republic squandered vital wealth on foreign wars (to adapt a phrase from Zarif), it neglected to invest in the Iranian economy. That’s why unpaid workers and desperate farmers chant “Leave Syria, Look after us instead.” And that’s why before too long Khamenei’s regime may find itself unable to secure its own security, let alone anyone else’s.
Long-term regional security will depend on progress towards greater social justice and democratic participation. In the short term, meanwhile, Arabs need to roll back Iran and deter further aggression.
Current responses – like the Saudi bombing of Yemen – are unintelligent, ineffective, and hurt Arabs more than anyone else. It is to be hoped that these policies will be reviewed, and that Arabs will consider these words from Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan: “The only effective way to put an end to Iran’s expansionism is through real pressure, countering its patient strategy with a long-term and consistent plan to prevent further encroachment, and concurrently to strengthen its rivals. The perfect place to do so is in Syria, which Iran is still seeking to fully swallow.”
A new edition of our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War will be released on February 20th. It contains a new long chapter called Syria Dismantled, which attempts to update the situation from the summer of 2015 to the present. It covers the stages of defeat through Daraya to Aleppo, the Russian assault and Iran’s militia surge, and the sectarian cleansing, and the PYD’s expansion, and Turkey’s intervention… Of course it’s already out of date.
But buy it, do, and ask your library to stock it. In order to understand the current situation (globally, not just in Syria), it’s necessary to understand how the democratic revolution started – and how the counter-revolution’s response sparked an endless series of wars. More importantly, our book does its best to give voice to Syrians themselves, those who dared to create new possibilities, and who paid an unfathomable price.
Published by Pluto in the UK, distributed by Chicago University Press in the US.