Trial-by-Fire in Syria

Recently published by Verso Press, Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” is welcome both as an important document of Syria’s trial by fire as well as an indication of this august publisher’s willingness to break with the pro-Assad consensus that prevails on the left. Although Littell’s chronicle is hardly the work of an FSA partisan, he at least puts a human face on a movement that so many were willing to reduce to one fighter’s shocking act–eating the heart of a fallen Baathist soldier.

Written between January 16 and February 2, 2012, Littell’s notebooks are literally that, a day by day diary of what he saw and what he did in Homs, a city that was a citadel of resistance to Bashar al-Assad, particularly in the working-class neighborhood of Baba ‘Amr, where Littell spent most of his time.

Littell came to Syria in order to gather material for articles in Le Monde. In effect, the book is the rough cut for the finished articles. In his preface, Littell states that the book is a document and not a “work of literature”. While this is obviously true, there is a literary command of the material that one might expect from a novelist who won the Goncourt Prize for his second novel “The Kindly Ones”, a 992-page work about the horrors of WWII written from the point of view of its main character, a Nazi SS officer.

Before he began writing fiction, Littell worked in the Congo, Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan on behalf of Action against Hunger, a humanitarian aid project. So in effect the notebook, the novel and that job are united by a commitment to both understanding and acting on the horrors of modern warfare, so often suffered disproportionately by civilians. This was an everyday occurrence in Homs, where Baathist snipers fired on people shopping for groceries or watering an olive tree in the streets of Baba ‘Amr as if they were terrorists. Indeed, the primary feeling you are left with after reading over two hundred pages of such wanton and senseless slaughter is that Homs was not much different than Gaza, where the distinction between “terrorist” and ordinary citizen was vanishingly thin. Even less so, as this case illustrates:

The child’s name was Muhammad N. and he was thirteen, not twelve. It’s the father who tells us the story. He was breaking wood for the sobia [a wooden pyramid-shaped device that butchers use to clean and cut meat] in front of the house, last night around 11:00 PM. He had a little light and the sniper shot him. I ask if we can publish his name: “We’ve lost the dearest thing we had, it doesn’t matter now.” The child didn’t die right away, they tried to bring him to the clinic, he bled to death.

The father, surrounded by friends, dignified, is keeping everything in. Only his eyes, humid and swollen.

Their house is shot at all the time. Riddled with holes. The sniper also killed a mentally handicapped person, another child of fifteen, ten days ago. On the phone of one of the people around us, video of the washing of the corpse of an older man, killed by a bullet to the head by another sniper. He was the brother of the man showing me the video. His eleven-year-old son, on a bike, got hit in the shoulder, he rushed to save him and the sniper shot him. Probably a shabbiha, the shooting came from the Alawite neighborhood of Nezha, from a checkpoint.

Understandably many leftists were horrified by the worshipful treatment of American Sniper Chris Kyle in the mainstream media, and the arguably much less so portrait of Clint Eastwood’s film, but what does one make of a trained Baathist combatant taking potshots at a kid on a bike? Is such behavior more elevated than taking the bite of a dead enemy’s heart, especially when it is planned out and sanctioned by the officer corps?littel1

In early 2012, the Syrian civil war had not yet turned into a sectarian war. But this was certainly in the offing as Littell reports on debates between various FSA fighters who were by no means ideologically unified. Some growing increasingly angry over Alawite attacks were ready to declare jihad and appeal for foreign fighters. Since many of the working-class residents of Homs who had recently arrived from the countryside due to the economic collapse of the agricultural sector were socially conservative, it was not surprising that they were susceptible to Sunni particularism.

In a valuable introduction to the notebooks, Littell reveals how Bashar al-Assad accelerated the sectarian tendencies by playing the “Chechen card”. In 1998, after Chechnya had settled into a state of relative independence after defeating Yeltsin’s invasion, the Russian secret police funded an Islamist militant named Arbi Barayev who had adopted the horrific tactics we now associate with ISIS: beheading “un-Islamic” civilians, kidnapping journalists and aid workers, etc. Barayev was able to drive through Russian checkpoints and generally had carte blanche.

With his close ties to Putin, the leading light of the “axis of resistance” according to some on the left, al-Assad must have decided that what worked in Chechnya would also work in Syria. By giving surreptitious aid to the most bloodthirsty Islamists, he was able to represent himself as defending civilized values against the barbarian, even if that included killing thirteen-year-old boys chopping wood. Littell reports:

The appearance in the Syrian theater of several Chechen brigades, aligned either with Jabhat al-Nusra or Da`esh, has gained quite a bit of media attention, as has the main “Chechen” commander `Umar al-Shishani, now a military emir of Da`esh, who is in fact a former Georgian special forces officer of mixed Christian-Muslim descent whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili. Less well known, however, is the fact that behind Omar al-Shishani stands a certain Isa Umarov, who left Chechnya to join him in Da`esh territory and has given him his daughter in marriage. Umarov, one of the oldest and most influential (albeit highly discrete) Chechen Islamist leaders, whose links to the KGB go all the way back to the 1980s when he was one of the founders of the Islamic Rebirth Party, the first anti-Soviet Islamist organization, is a man who played a key role in the interaction between the Russian services and the Islamists he godfathered all through the two Chechen wars; and his role within Da`esh certainly raises interesting questions. But as a Syrian friend pointed out to me, the mukhabarat [military intelligence] too are old hands at these games, and have no need of lessons from their Russian patrons. Their strategic philosophy is explicitly stated in graffiti now very common around Damascus: “Assad or we burn the country.”

“Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” was written at the very time when the filmmakers behind “Return to Homs” were making a documentary covering the same desperate struggle. The film can now be seen on Vimeo for only $3.99 and is well worth the price for those who are trying to understand events in Syria. Even if you continue to believe that Bashar al-Assad is the best hope for the country, you owe it to yourself to get an alternative view, either from the very fine Verso book or this powerful documentary.

In the opening scenes of “Return to Homs”, we meet the two young principals, star soccer goalkeeper Abdul Basset Saroot and media activist Ossama al Homsi. Both are paradigmatic figures. Basset leads mass rallies in the spring of 2011 in the streets of Homs using the distinctive Syrian call-and-response style. Meanwhile, Ossama is everywhere with his Sony video camera capturing the people as they dodge the snipers’ bullets while protesting peacefully. One might easily surmise that Ossama was a member of a Local Coordinating Committee, a grass roots network of young activists who used Youtube and social media to get the word out.

After Baathist killers cut down one too many peaceful protesters, the young men in Basset and Ossama’s circle decide to arm themselves and defend the movement. Ossama, however, feels that this is a mistake. Peaceful protest must prevail against all difficulties. Basset makes the case that most Syrians made, however. Even though taking up arms created its own risks, it was being forced upon them. They had no choice.

Once that decision was made, Homs became a living hell. Armed with nothing more powerful than AK-47’s and RPG’s, Basset and his comrades stood off tanks, jets, and heavy artillery. In excruciating detail, we see entire blocks of apartment houses turned into rubble, including those of Basset and Ossama. We see them in their former living rooms and kitchens, gazing at the wreckage. Ossama looks in vain for a filter for his Sony and only manages to retrieve a coffee mug. Both young men find themselves on the run as the siege of Homs tightens it grip. A sense of desperation develops even though Basset and the other young fighters vow to fight on despite all odds. In thinking about an analogy for their situation, cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad during WWII, when Hitler’s forces killed both by bullet and by starvation, came to mind.

Eventually Homs fell because of overwhelming Baathist firepower and because a state of siege had left its residents without food, water or medical help. Today Homs remains under Syrian military control, a city that along with Damascus is seen as of key strategic value along the more heavily populated west coast of the country.

In a war that sometimes feels like it has gone on for decades, the momentum has begun to shift away from the Baathists. A coalition of mostly Islamist brigades has taken control of Idlib province and attempts to drive the rebels from Aleppo have failed.

A number of reports have described the Syrian army as groaning under the strains of a war of attrition that has bled the country dry economically and cost the lives of over 200,000 of its citizens. In the U.S. such losses would be equivalent to 3 million souls.

It is difficult to imagine anything coming out of the struggle that will correspond to one’s utopian ideals. Since Bashar al-Assad was spectacularly successful at turning what was once a hopeful struggle for freedom and equality into a horrific sectarian slaughter, the expectations for a post-Assad Syria are guarded at best particularly in light of the failed state that exists in Libya.

Perhaps the best possible outcome would be one in which differences are settled by arguments rather than bullets and that the arguments would be of a political and economic nature rather than which sect is the legitimate heir of Muhammad’s teachings. In trying to understand the future of Syria, it is mandatory to start with its past. As documents of the recent past, when things began to go off the rails, Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” and “Return to Homs” are very good places to start.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.