I like to refer to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as the intrepid Ghaith Abdul-Ahad — he goes places few other reporters would dare tread. But his courage is really just an ancillary to his greater quality as a journalist: his truthfulness. Add to that his fine prose and the result is a George Orwell of Middle East reporting.
In the cramped living room of a run-down flat near the Aleppo frontline, two Syrian rebels sat opposite each other. The one on the left was stout, broad-shouldered, with a neat beard that looked as though it had been outlined in sharp pencil around his throat and cheeks. His shirt and trousers were immaculately pressed and he wore brand-new military webbing – the expensive Turkish kind, not the Syrian knock-off. The rebel sitting opposite him was younger, gaunt and tired-looking. His hands were filthy and his trousers caked in mud and diesel.
The flat had once belonged to an old lady. Traces of a domestic life that had long ceased to exist were scattered around the room and mingled with the possessions of the new occupiers. A mother of pearl ashtray sat next to a pile of walkie-talkies. Small china figurines stood on top of the TV next to a box of cartridges. Guns and ammunition lay on the rickety wooden chairs and a calendar showing faded landscapes hung on the wall. In the bedroom next door clothes were piled on the bed next to crates of ammunition. The stout rebel was shifty, on edge and keen to finish what he came to say and leave quickly. The other looked like a man waiting for a disaster to unfold.
But like a couple trying to conduct the business of their divorce with civility they spent a long time on pleasantries: each asked the other about his village and praised the courage and strength of his people. Outside a machine gun fired relentlessly down the street, interrupted only by the occasional thud of a mortar shell.
‘I am taking my cousins away from the front,’ the stout man finally said.
‘Why?’ the young rebel whined, as if one of the mortar shells had smacked him in the head. ‘Did we do anything wrong? Didn’t we feed them properly? Didn’t they get their daily rations? Whatever ammunition we get we divide equally: tell me what we did wrong.’
‘No, no, nothing wrong – but you seem not to have any work here.’
‘But this is an important defensive position,’ the young rebel pleaded. ‘All of Aleppo depends on this hill. If you go, two frontline posts will be left empty. They’ll be able to skirt around us.’
‘I’m sure you’ll take care of it. Allah bless your men, they’re very good.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘A very good man, a seeker of good deeds – he is from our town but he lives in the Gulf – told me he would fund my new battalion. He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting. We just have to supply him with videos.’
‘But why would he do that? What’s he getting in return?’
‘He wants to appease God, and he wants us to give him videos of all our operations. That’s all – just YouTube videos.’
‘So he can get more money.’
‘Well, that’s up to him.’
They spent some more time on pleasantries but the divorce was done. The stout man walked out. Waiting for him in the cold were half a dozen men, young, earnest, country boys with four guns between them. Their cigarettes glowed in the dark as they walked behind their cousin, their new commander, in his pressed trousers and shirt, who promised them better food, plentiful ammunition and victory. So a new battalion is formed, one more among the many hundreds of other battalions fighting a war of insurgency and revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
We in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism. Some attribute it to individualism, others blame the nature of our political development or our tribalism. Some even blame the weather. We call it tasharthum and we loathe it: we hold it as the main reason for all our losses and defeats, from al-Andalus to Palestine. Yet we love it and bask in it and excel at it, and if there is one thing we appreciate it is a faction that splinters into smaller factions. Yet even by the measure of previous civil wars in the Middle East, the Syrians seem to have reached new heights. After all, the Palestinians in their heyday had only a dozen or so factions, and the Lebanese, God bless them, pretending it was ideology that divided them, never exceeded thirty different factions.
In Istanbul I asked a Syrian journalist and activist why there were so many battalions. He laughed and said, ‘Because we are Syrians,’ and went on to tell me a story I have heard many times before. ‘When the Syrian president, head of the military junta at the time, signed the unification agreement with Nasser, basically handing the country to the Egyptians and stripping himself of his presidential title, he passed the document to Nasser and said I give up my role as president but I hand you a country of four million presidents.’
For decades, the dictatorship in Syria worked to stamp the people into submission: every pulpit, every media outlet, every schoolbook sent out the same message, that people should be subservient to the ruler. In Syria (as in a different way in Iraq, Egypt and the rest), those in authority – from the president to the policeman, from the top party apparatchik to the lowliest government functionary – exercised power over every aspect of people’s lives. You spent your life trying to avoid being humiliated – let alone detained and tortured or disappeared – by those in authority while somehow also sucking up to them, bribing them, begging them to give you what you needed: a telephone line, a passport, a university place for your son. So when these systems of control collapsed, something exploded inside people, a sense of individualism long suppressed. Why would I succumb to your authority as a commander when I can be my own commander and fight my own insurgency? Many of the battalions dotted across the Syrian countryside consist only of a man with a connection to a financier, along with a few of his cousins and clansmen. They become itinerant fighting groups, moving from one battle to another, desperate for more funds and a fight and all the spoils that follow. [Continue reading…]