Protestors in Cairo, one of the places featured in Asaad al-Saleh's book. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
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In the Arab Spring, revolution was made by everyday people

Sophie McBain reviews Jonathan Littell's Syrian Notebooks and Voices of the Arab Spring by Asaad al-Saleh.

Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising
Jonathan Littell
Verso, 247pp, £12.99

Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions
Asaad al-Saleh
Columbia University Press, 272pp, £15.95

In March 2015, four years on from the start of the Syrian uprising, researchers at Wuhan University in China published night-time satellite images of Syria taken from 500 miles above earth. In 2011 an arch-shaped constellation of lights connected the cities of Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa and followed the line of the Euphrates River into Iraq. One by one, these were extinguished. Today, 83 per cent of Syria’s lights have gone out. Viewed from the sky, the once-great cities are pinpricks of brightness in a pitch-black land.

It is estimated that over 220,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war and 11 million have fled their homes. Syria is now beyond the reach of most western journalists or outside observers; much of its citizens’ suffering will go undocumented. The story that used to be told about Syria – of how a people rose up against a dictatorship and was crushed – has been obscured by the rise of Islamic State (IS), a group that thrives on lawlessness and glorifies brutality.

IS had not yet formed when Jonathan Littell, a novelist and former aid worker, wrote his Syrian Notebooks. They cover a three-week period from 16 January 2012, when he was smuggled in to Homs, once considered the “capital of the revolution”, by members of the anti-government Free Syrian Army. In the narrative of this war, events of three years ago can seem like ancient history, but Littell wants to “remind the reader that before the nightmare, a nightmare so intense and opaque that it seems to have no beginning, there had been the dream”.

His writings capture a beleaguered but defiant resistance movement that would be crushed within weeks. A few days after Littell left, the Syrian government launched a heavy-weapons attack on the working-class suburb of Baba Amr, on the south-western edge of Homs. It killed roughly 700 Syrian civilians, as well as the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, who died when their makeshift media centre was hit. After one month of bombardment, the Free Syrian Army announced its “tactical retreat” from the district, now reduced to ruins.

It is hard to imagine that the fighters, activists and desperate civilians Littell meets would soon be in some deeper hell. Already, the city of Homs is traversed by shuwar’a el-mout (“streets of death”), in which the Assad regime’s snipers target unarmed adults, children and even unlucky neighbourhood pets. He visits underequipped underground clinics where doctors risk their lives in an often futile attempt to treat the injured, and joins demonstrations and martyrs’ funeral processions populated by “dead men on probation”. The mobile phones of activists are “museums of horrors”, displaying footage of the dead and dying, torture victims and decapitations.

Yet many of the Syrians Littell meets are still motivated by “the dream” – of a country released from dictatorship and free from state brutality. “The political movements are running to catch up and climb on the people’s shoulders,” he notes. He witnesses the first stirrings of the movements that would overpower the people’s revolution: rising sectarian tensions that he believes were stoked by the Assad regime, and a growing jihadist grouping.

His Syrian Notebooks are immediate and vivid, intended as “a document, not a work of literature”. As in any battle, there are lulls – in which Littell describes his dreams or discussions with fighters about the existence of God – followed by bursts of terrifying violence. He has an eye for small, heartbreaking details: the ultrasound scan still in its envelope on the floor of an abandoned flat, the “infinite tenderness” with which a boy strokes his dead brother’s face.

Like the many activists who whip out their smartphones to record each gruesome killing and who risk their lives accompanying him, Littell hopes that documenting the war can serve some greater political purpose. He wants to demonstrate that “all this did not have to be . . . without our callous indifference, cowardice, short-sightedness, things might have been different”. But to what use can we put that knowledge now?

A similar instinct underpins Voices of the Arab Spring, a collection of personal stories from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen gathered by Asaad al-Saleh, an assistant professor at the Middle East Centre at the University of Utah. Al-Saleh grew up in a small town in eastern Syria and left his home country in 2000 after the secret police began harassing him for not having sufficient “security clearance” to teach English literature at the University of Damascus. He hopes that individual, first-person narratives “might force us to rethink certain of our ideas about social, political and cultural change in the Arab world”.

The writers recount their experiences of the first anti-government uprisings in 2011. Al-Saleh wants to show why and how so many individuals, from diverse backgrounds and in various countries, engaged in collective rebellion. Many are motivated by abstract ideals – freedom, dignity, social justice – but are not affiliated with any group or ideology. The political movements are still “running to catch up”. Perhaps, like Littell, al-Saleh wants readers to understand that “things might have been different”. Maybe he wants those who lazily conclude that the Middle East is inherently unsuited to democracy to consider how basic the demand for protection from state brutality and for individual freedom is. In any case, his impulse to focus on human stories is understandable: it is easier to write off a nation as a political basket case than it is the people who compose that nation.

The collection suffers from a few weaknesses that al-Saleh acknowledges in his introduction. He struggled to find writers who had opposed the Arab spring uprisings, as they often feared that their views would be too unpopular. Now that Libya, Syria and Yemen are at war, and a new authoritarian regime is entrenching itself in Egypt, I suspect that al-Saleh would have less trouble finding outspoken reactionaries.

“Revolutions are not hatched in smoke-filled rooms or by activists armed with Twitter and Facebook accounts: rather revolutions are made by everyday people who are no longer afraid,” writes Adel Abdel Ghafar, a 32-year-old activist from Cairo. The moment people overcome this fear is so astonishing, it feels magical; at least that is how it seemed to me, observing the demonstrations in Libya in 2011. How else can I describe the realisation that close friends – who had never discussed politics, who had been raised on government propaganda, whom I still mostly remember with a shisha pipe or a cup of moonshine in their hands – would spontaneously throw themselves in front of gunfire to defend some vague ideal?

Small wonder that many of the writers feel their participation in the uprisings, as protesters, doctors, citizen journalists, has changed them irreversibly. “Today is the reason for my existence,” one of them writes. “It activated a part of me that had been dormant for the 37 years I have been Egyptian,” says another. Can this part of a person ever be “deactivated”? In Cairo, where I live, so many people are tired of revolution; so many activists are in jail. On the edges of Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising, barbed-wire barricades stand ready, in case the army needs to block access. In the centre is the square’s newest public monument: a multi-storey car park.

“I am liberated, I am no longer just a single number in the population of Syria,” writes Odai Alzoubi, a 34-year-old philosophy student at the University of East Anglia. It is almost too sad to read the sentence, because in Syria many of the dead will never even become numbers. Their lives, dreams and deaths will disappear in the darkness. Littell and al-Saleh don’t offer any solutions to the crisis, but their humane and sensitive storytelling can at least start to convey just how much has been lost.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.