The Syrian government has been advertising its victories of late. A vast international fair in Damascus, the reconstruction of the old city of Homs – though it has a long, long way to go – and a spankingly restored Sheraton Hotel next to the still sepulchral ruins of eastern Aleppo. But you cannot wash away either the darkness or the ghosts. For in the past few weeks, security officers, police officials and other servants of the Syrian state have suddenly – shockingly for the regime – become victims of assassins, from Aleppo in the north to Damascus.
The latest murder, just a week ago, cost the life of a Syrian police major in Aleppo, a man who (so Aleppo friends tell me) was widely respected, one of the more moderate figures in the security state who refused to take bribes from both businessmen and local tribes. Refusing “baksheesh” on a grand scale in a Middle East long suffering from the cancer of corruption is almost worthy of a medal of valour. Or death. Major Ali Ibrahim was in fact trying to arrest a man for alleged corruption – a member of the Al-Bagaran tribe which had, on and off, fought the Syrian army during the war. He was met by a fusillade of gunfire and killed instantly.
The alleged murderer was captured and will probably be sent to the gallows. His imprisonment was followed by the usual inspired rumours of his depravity. He was wanted for the rape of a 14-year-old girl, so they said. Rare are the enemies of the state in the Middle East who are not also accused of such crimes. But other officials – one of them in Damascus – have also been gunned down in the past month.
Perhaps the most astonishing was that of Major Somar Zeidan, one of the most interesting figures in the Syrian security services in the north of the country whom – quite by chance – I knew. We met all of six years ago when I was in the already bullet-scarred ancient soukh of Aleppo. A tall army officer in combat fatigues and wearing a steel helmet, Zeidan looked at my companion and I with something between vexation and humour. He had just recaptured a small street of shops from the rebels, and bread was being distributed to civilians who were standing alongside walls newly graffitied with the slogans of Islamist militias. “We are the brigades of 1980,” the slogans said – that was the year the first Muslim Brotherhood uprising threatened the empire of Hafez al-Assad, whose son now rules Syria. These newly invigorated “brigades” now held this corner of the soukh but Zeidan and his soldiers had just driven them out. The road was covered in spent cartridge cases, a sniper still fired from 150 yards away.
So in a makeshift command headquarters – someone’s bedroom, alas, the carpet and bed already covered in phone cables and radios – we sat and talked to Somar Zeidan about the war, about its suddenness, its fearful arrival in the suburbs and then the centre of Aleppo, a year after the revolt elsewhere in the country. He said his men had just found a foreign fighter who claimed to his captors he never realised that Palestine was so beautiful. “He thought he was in Palestine to fight the Israelis,” Major Somar said. Up to 15 of the Islamist fighters had surrendered. We did not find out what quality of mercy was visited upon them.
The major spoke excellent English – he used Dan Brown books to teach himself, he said, and there were indeed some volumes of that great literary figure on the floor, but Somar Zeidan was also a political man. “Our borders with Turkey are a big problem,” he admitted. “The border needs to be closed. The closure of the frontier must be coordinated by the two governments. But the Turkish government is on the enemy side. Erdogan is against Syria.” Five and a half years before his death, the major got that one right.
But there was something else about him. He had been a member of Syrian state security but when the war came, he preferred to fight in the army, to defend what he regarded as his people rather than the state. It was an intriguing decision. A symbol of the “New Syria”, perhaps? When I asked him his religion, a question that is all innocence and all poison in Syria, the major — whose father was a general, his mother a teacher — was as quick as a cat. “It’s not where you are born or what is your religion,” he said. “It’s what’s in your mind. Islam comes from this land, Christians come from this land, Jews come from this land. That is why it is our duty to protect this land.”
Hearing that my colleague had never seen the citadel of Aleppo, he led us on a fearful run amid gunfire below the glacis of the ancient fortress and up to the shattered medieval gate. “Now you have seen it!” he shouted. Months later, we came across a rather plumper, gloomier Somar Zeidan, still grinning but agreeing that he had to retreat from his original position in the soukh, that he no longer had sufficient soldiers to hold his part of the line. After the recapture of eastern Aleppo, I met him once more, in a Republican Guard office where intelligence officers were monitoring the communications of the Islamist militias in Idlib province – yes, the same Idlib whose downfall is today threatened by Major Somar Zeidan’s surviving comrades-in-arms.
The system he had adopted was simple and fully supported by the regime: to reconcile with the armed Syrian groups and their families, and encourage them to return to government-controlled regions of the country. The major was now almost skeletal, he rarely slept, I thought, and I wondered if he had become a smoker. He had at least two offices in Aleppo and one of his juniors, in military uniform, was a former Islamist who had returned to the ranks after abandoning his previous life of armed Muslim revolution in return for official forgiveness. Or so Somar Zeidan thought.
I could gather only fragmentary details of the major’s end. The forgiven junior officer, it appears, turned up at Zeidan’s city office several weeks ago and pulled out his new army pistol. Somar Zeidan, the trusting general, was quick enough to jump at him, but too late. The man fired one bullet into his stomach, another into his chest. Zeidan died at once. The killer was apprehended – again, his fate might be predictable – and he was presumably acting on the orders of Nusrah or some other Islamist group.
Which means that Isis and Nusrah and the others – whatever the fate of Mosul or Raqqa or the future of Idlib – are still at war, just when the “war” is supposed be about to end.
Some in Aleppo suspect they may be deliberately picking on the more enlightened elements of the regime, and provoking the government to strike back. And certainly, there is now talk of a fierce new law which threatens any kind of anti-government violence with immediate retaliation. And this, you might say, is where we came in. It will need a subtle hand to avoid a return to this kind of past, war or no war.