Christian Caryl writes: Earlier this week, when the latest ceasefire in Syria’s long-running civil war took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized the opportunity to embark on a triumphant tour of a place that has long defied him. He paid a visit to the city of Daraya, a Damascus suburb where rebels managed to resist his forces for four long years until they finally agreed to give up control in the last week of August.
For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya. The troops surrounding it tried to starve it out, refusing to let aid convoys bring food to residents. Syrian helicopters pounded the city with barrel bombs, weapons of indiscriminate terror that have little or no military utility. In August, the Syrian air force used rockets and napalm to obliterate the city’s last surviving hospital. Some observers believe this was part of a calculated effort to make the place completely uninhabitable.
We’ve seen the same brutality in far too many places in this war. But there was something different about Daraya — something that helps to explain why Assad was so keen to celebrate its fall.
If you only follow the headlines, you can be forgiven for seeing this war primarily as a fight between two equally nasty alternatives: the totalitarian Baath Party regime of Assad or the totalitarian theocracy of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. But this is a drastic simplification — one that both Assad and the terrorists want their own supporters, and the world, to believe. But it is certainly truer today than it was back at the beginning of the conflict. By their very nature, civil wars have a tendency to foster extremes. The ruthless are rewarded, while the moderates and the evolutionary reformers tend to get culled out.
That’s exactly what has happened in Syria. Today, five years later, it’s easy to forget that Syria’s revolution started off amid the optimism of the Arab Spring. The first protests against Assad’s dictatorship were peaceful: Demonstrators were demanding democracy, not rule by Al Qaeda.
And Daraya was one of the birthplaces of this movement. In the revolution’s early stages it was the home of the activist Ghiyath Matar, known as “Little Gandhi” for his quixotic embrace of non-violence. When Assad’s soldiers arrived to crush local protests, he greeted them with flowers and water. They responded by torturing him to death. His corpse was later returned to his family with its throat torn out. The country’s downward spiral began.
In The Morning They Came for Us, her bloodcurdling account of the early stages of the war, journalist Janine di Giovanni explains what happened next. When she visited Daraya in 2012, locals gave her detailed accounts of a massacre conducted by government troops who had briefly managed to wrest the town away from the rebels. “It was punished,” she told me, “because it was a symbol of peaceful resistance.”
Yet even amid the descending darkness, the people of the city tried to hold on to their ideals. When Assad’s generals realized they couldn’t take the place back, they placed it under siege. Hunger became the government’s most potent weapon. “‘What did you eat today?’ I’d ask them,” di Giovanni recalls. “‘Grape leaves, some salt.’ They took leaves from the trees and made soup out of them.” Much of the population left, but several thousand locals, many of them activists, remained. In October 2012 they set up a council to govern themselves, and in the years that followed, even as life became nearly impossible, they persisted in holding regular elections — “every six months, inside every single office and department of the local government,” says Hussam Ayash, a spokesperson for the local council.
Most importantly of all, he told me, the local government persisted in maintaining its independence from the city’s militia, a non-jihadist unit of the rebel Free Syrian Army. In many other rebel-controlled parts of Syria, Ayash explained, local governments have frequently fallen under the sway of fighters, many of them Islamist extremists. By contrast, Al Qaeda and its ilk never managed to get a foothold in Daraya. “We had no services,” says Ayash. “We had no communications. We had no water. But also nobody could get in or get out. The only fighters in Daraya were the local people. So we had no jihadists.”
Ayash spoke to me on Skype from northern Syria, where he is now living after being “evacuated” from Daraya by government forces in the days following the city’s surrender on August 25. When the Syrian army managed to capture a key position on the outskirts of the city, Daraya’s leaders saw the writing on the wall, and accepted a government offer of safe passage to the north in return for their surrender of control over the community. This uncharacteristically lenient gesture by Assad was a shrewd move, one that enabled him to finally seize control of a key rebel stronghold at relatively low cost to his own troops. It was also calculated to undermine the resolve of rebel holdouts in other hard-pressed areas, who may now see a deal with the government as a more palatable option than continued resistance.
It’s hard to overestimate the psychological impact of the city’s fall. [Continue reading…]