What Past Civil Wars Tell Us About the Future of Syria

Photograph Source: Mahmoud Bali (VOA) – Public Domain

When Syrian government soldiers first recaptured the small village of Deir Hafar from Isis in 2017, they found the black-painted but hurriedly abandoned Islamic “court” strewn with piles of documents. These hundreds of pages contained terrible proof of how the Syrian civilians there had behaved under at least three years of Isis occupation.

I arrived in the village along with the Syrian army after Russian aircraft had bombed Isis out of the streets – the Islamists were still firing shells as they retreated, killing a senior Syrian commander – and reached the local sharia court building, a concrete blockhouse beside three equally black-painted but iron crucifixion bars on a platform above the road.

But the papers on the floor of the court were the real story of Deir Hafar.

The judges had been Egyptian and their jurisdiction stretched all the way back to the then Isis “capital” of Syria in the town of Raqqa.

The documents revealed that the people of the village had used Islamist “justice” to betray their neighbours – in one case to name family cousins as potential spies, in another to accuse a young man of secretly meeting his girlfriend when he was supposed to attend evening prayers. Other neighbours accused each other of theft. A man supposedly collecting money for an electrical generator had pocketed the cash for himself. One potential agent – possibly for the Syrian government – was handed on for “justice” by the “Revolutionary Islamic Police Court”.

The prosecution witnesses, the defendants, sometimes their “Islamist” guards were precisely named in these archives.

And it came as no surprise when, an hour after I had come across these hundreds of documents on the floor of the “court”, a large group of grimly smiling citizens from 27 villages around Deir Hafar arrived in the main highway through the village, dressed in long, grubby brown robes, to seek out the Syrian army’s officers. They brought with them a joint petition signed by their mukhtars and village leaders seeking “reconciliation” with the Syrian government. The soldiers were not interested. They accepted the petition indifferently and briskly told the sorrowful men, heads bowed in submission, to get in touch with the authorities in Aleppo and Damascus if they wished to seek forgiveness.

Both sides understood the reality. When your home is occupied by another army – when your village is occupied by a rival force – you must collaborate in order to survive. Or, at the least, cooperate. Because the moment of occupation becomes the moment of collaboration.

The Syrian regime, now that it has effectively won its war, is awash with “reconciliation committees” – to whose mercies the villagers around Deir Hafar no doubt appealed. But ending wars is one thing; ending civil wars in which a nation’s own people oppose their government as well as each other is a different matter. And if there is no reconciliation – or resolution – then we had better stand by for part two of the same conflict.

Take Yugoslavia. We all know that the civil war we witnessed there in the 1990s had historical antecedents. For proof, read the country’s Nobel prize-winning Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina. But the real and vicious civil massacres in Yugoslavia which proved the foundational rock for the ethnic conflict that began in 1991 took place in the Second World War, when Germany’s 1941 invasion produced the fascist state of Croatia whose extermination camps – for Yugoslav Serbs, Jews and Muslims – were sometimes even more obscene than the Nazi variety. Jasenovac camp had a gas chamber. But it also had squads of Ustashe forces trained to execute their victims, Isis-style, with knives and saws.

The anti-German resistance split into mutually antagonistic Serbian-Royalist Chetniks and Communist Partisans, the first soon collaborating with the German and Italian occupiers against the communists, the second – with Allied and Russian support – against the Nazis, Italians and the Chetniks. In the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, war criminals were largely imprisoned on eye-witness evidence, rarely on archive proof. But the original Yugoslav civil war was littered with written orders and accounts of atrocities, signed off by the perpetrators. Tito’s Partisans showed no mercy to their internal Serb, Croatian or Muslim enemies after liberation. And so when they put the Serb Chetnik leader Dragoljub-Draza Mihailovic on trial for his life in Belgade 1946, the Communists produced his own military records of the war in order to condemn him.

There were several intriguing accounts of initial British collaboration with Mihailovic – Churchill later realised that Tito was more efficient at killing Germans – but the official court proceedings were published internationally since they included so much documentary material; I have an original copy in English, published by the communist authorities in Belgrade in 1946. And here, for example, is document 370, a report from the Drina river in Bosnia to Mihailovic from one of his lieutenants called Pavle Djurisic:

“Our detachments reached the Drina during the night…and then the mopping up of the liberated territory began … All Moslem [sic] villages have been completely burned, so that there is not one of their houses left … During the operations we carried out the complete annihilation of the Moslem inhabitants, without regard to their sex and age … We lost a total of 22 … Among the Moslems there were 1,200 combatants, and nearly 8,000 other victims – women, old men and children … The morale of our units was very high. Certain units, with their leaders showed outstanding valour in every situation, and merit every praise.”

This might have been a Serbian report from Bosnia in 1992. Unsurprisingly, Mihailovic replied that he “never thought” Pavle Djurisic “would clear it up in this way”. This, of course, was a trial of the losers by the victors and Nuremberg laws scarcely operated in post-war communist Belgrade, but Mihailovic – a Milosevic of his time – was doomed by the paper trail his forces left behind. As an enemy of Tito – which was his real sin – he was executed on 17 July 1946. But all Tito did to smother these war crimes – and those of his Partisans who threw Croatian men, women and children into death pits after they were handed over (by the British) at the end of the war – was to cloak Yugoslavia in the refrigerator of communist dictatorship.

The fires were not put out. The ashes were merely smothered for less than half a century. Then once more we found the Serbian Chetniks advancing into the Drina valley to destroy the Muslims, in the very same villages where Mihailovic’s men had “annihilated” them with such “valour” during the Second World War.

So killing the leaders of the losing side in a civil war marks a ceasefire in an ethnic conflict, rather than a definitive end. You can put the anguish into an ice box, but the moment the owner of the fridge expires, the current is switched off and the creatures of the past come struggling back to life. Just before the 1991 wars began, the Serbs and Croats had begun to open Second World War mass graves. “Why are they doing this?” my elderly Serb lady translator would rhetorically ask me. “To pour more blood into them.”

The Lebanese have struggled with the same ghosts ever since their own 15-year ethnic civil war – helped on by a host of western nations, Israel and Syria – ended in 1990. Post-war legislation in 1991 effectively amnestied every Lebanese political leader and their murderers for the tens of thousands of war crimes they had committed against men, women and children, including even those Christian militiamen who in 1982 slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Chatila under the eyes of Israeli troops.

But there are still around 18,000 Lebanese who just “disappeared” – into mass graves dug by both Christians and Muslims, or into Syrian prisons. And tens of thousands of Lebanese families still, today, keep their loved ones “alive” by demanding evidence of what happened to them – and the location of their remains. The French-language Christian newspaper L’Orient Le Jour bravely continues to remember these lost and obviously dead souls by allowing them, in imaginative form, to speak for themselves in a regular series called “Keeping Hope”. Here thus “speaks” Raya Daouri, a 30-year old widow and mother of two daughters, six-year old Abir and five-year old Nisrine, in the paper’s edition of 22 March 2017, published almost forty years after she “disappeared”:

“I was on my way towards Souk el-Gharb, to register Abir and Nisrine for their schooling, when I was kidnapped with four other passengers at a checkpoint below the Beirut [antiquities] museum. Samia, Mona, Hanane and Younes were young students returning to Syria … We all disappeared. Only our driver was released. Besides, it was he who took the awful news to our families … Don’t let my story end here.”

The words are fiction, of course. But surely they are what Raya might have said if she could speak to us.

Being a very introspective as well as intelligent people, the Lebanese have questioned their emotions many times, asking themselves how such gifted, talented – in the most literal sense of the word – and educated communities could produce atrocities on such a scale.

The Lebanese academic and historian Fawwaz Traboulsi has explored civil conflict in both literature and art – in the work of the late Syrian poet Mohamed Marghout, who raged against injustice and dictators; in Picasso and Caravaggio; and the Bosnian filmmaker Ademir Kenovic (his The Perfect Circle was set in the 1990s siege of Sarajevo). Traboulsi was to discover a constant intermingling of the figures of executioners and victims, and quoted Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader – and the only great intellectual politician in Lebanon – who said during the civil war in 1986 that “the enemy is now inside each one of us”.

In Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, Traboulsi said in an interview two years ago, the painter gave his own physical features to the decapitated head of Goliath. And in Guernica, the writer claimed, Picasso’s reflection on the German bombing of the Basque city in 1937 recognised the killer in the body of the victim. Traboulsi believes that painting, theatre and cinema are better able to express “the essence of civil conflict” than political or historical analysis.

He began his study of the Lebanese war by researching the Spanish Civil War – unaware at the time of the ignoble arguments to keep dictator Franco in the gruesome Valley of the Fallen – and noted how many artists have been inspired by the painting of Guernica to represent the horrors of violence in Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

“But I have equally asked myself,” Traboulsi said, “if Guernica is still able to express the abomination of 21st century wars.” Although few seem to appreciate the fact, this was one of the first art works to depict the result of aerial bombing.


So who will prosecute the killers of the Syrian war, either the regime or its enemies?

Syrian refugees, it has been widely proclaimed, plan to seek war crimes charges against Bashar al-Assad, using a precedent through which Muslim Rohingya refugees are trying to use the International Criminal Court to charge Myanmar’s leaders with persecution.

But the US administration has already announced that it will refuse visas to ICC lawyers investigating American war crimes in Afghanistan or Iraq – and that this will include attempts to charge or investigate Israelis. If this demonstrates how closely Washington allies itself to the defence of Israel’s massacres in Gaza, it probably also proves just how many Israelis hold American citizenship. But how can the ICC prosecute Arab war crimes yet fail to investigate those allegedly committed by western military forces?

The Hague war crimes tribunal sought and provided justice for the victims of the 1990s Yugoslav wars of succession. War criminals were imprisoned – and, rather too often, killed themselves in jail. Yet the hatred and corruption – how often they go together – in present-day Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo do not suggest that international “justice” ends wars.

And for those who believe that individual states should prosecute their own monsters – as Yugoslavia did in 1946 – look what happened when a group of independent Lebanese activists in 2011 demanded the abolition of the 1991 Amnesty law and called for “the prosecution of Lebanese war criminals” – even if this meant bringing them to justice in European courts. Their Facebook page immediately received threats from the leaders of almost every political party in Lebanon – demonstrating just who the alleged “criminals” were – but received support from Human Rights Watch, which spoke of the “culture of impunity” which the original Lebanese amnesty law had produced, and its failure to heal the wounds of the civil war.

Some suggested that those responsible for crimes against humanity in Lebanon should be “isolated” from their communities – an unlikely step since they would more likely be lionised – and made to pay financial restitution to their victims.

After every occupation, “justice” becomes a necessity and a nuisance and an impossibility.

De Gaulle gave the French a brief respite from judicial law for their own post-liberation “epuration” – in which thousands of Petainist “Milice” killers and thousands of comparatively innocent collaborators and quite a lot of altogether innocent individuals targeted by their antagonists for personal reasons – were executed, shot, knifed or thrown into mass graves. De Gaulle has described his anguish when, each night, he had to read through judicial accusations of collaboration and war crimes supposedly committed by French citizens – and decide who should face the firing squad and who should merely lose their civic rights. He allowed Laval to be executed, but spared the elderly Petain, after whom he had named his own son.

But it’s when we stand closely beside the killers and the victims that we are faced with other emotions: the need for revenge, the desire for reconciliation, the abject assumption that only decades can resolve acts of cruelty and sadism. Civil conflict, like all fraternal disputes, seems to contain a special savagery in which the victims – if their last words can be discovered – sometimes forgive those about to destroy their lives.

By chance, in these centenary years in Ireland – of the 1916 rising, the treaty negotiations with Britain and then civil war – the Irish authorities have released thousands of military service pension claims from 1916 to 1923; from the rising to the civil war fought out between those Irishmen who accepted a treaty of semi-freedom which still forced 26 counties of Ireland to remain within the British empire and those who regarded the oath of allegiance to the crown as political treachery.

Among the newly released files at the Military Archives in Dublin, we can find some of the saddest and bravest laments of the civil war, the last letter to his family written by fishery inspector James Kane – a former sergeant in the British-led Royal Irish Constabulary – who was condemned to death by fellow Irishmen for “espionage” in 1921. “My dear children,” Kane wrote, “I am condemned to die. I had the priest today thank God. I give you all my blessing and pray God may protect you all. Pray for me and get some Masses said for me.”

And then Kane, with infinite care, lists all those expenses which his family can acquire from neighbours who owe them money — for furniture, a wardrobe, cushions – and suggests they sell their home and buy “a good cottage”. Then – here the reader might shed a tear — Kane finishes with these words: “Don’t go to much expense of funeral and have no drink or public wake. I am told my body will be got near home. I got the greatest kindness from men who were in charge of me. Good by [sic] now and God bless you and God bless Ireland. Pray for me constantly and give my love to all my friends and neighbours and thank them for all their kindness to me. Good by from loving father. All my dear children. James Kane. Bury me near my loving wife if possible.” Here was a man who thought only well of his killers-to-be, those who had shown him ‘the greatest kindness’. He was shot on 16 June 1921 at Shanacool in County Waterford.

Then there is a civil war letter from a former Irish army major general on the pro-treaty side, seeking a pension in 1929 for the penniless mother of Brigadier George Adamson, a medical officer and dentist, who in 1922 tried to prevent his soldiers from mutinying against the Irish government. “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor that he let them down…” The general wrote. “He was later murdered in the streets of Athlone.” Then there is James Marron who joined a reprisal raid on the Protestant B Specials in Newry in 1920:

“Our orders were to burn every house and shoot dead every male we could get. We burned 12 houses to the ground and shot dead eight of the B men. But the unfortunate part of it all was, we shot dead one woman (accidentally) the head of a large family. This got on my nerves and preyed on my mind … for a long time I could not sleep thinking of the woman and the others we shot.” Marron’s health never recovered. Indeed, many of the Irishmen who fought in the independence war and the subsequent civil conflict reappear in the pensions documents as sick, confined to institutions or emigrants to the United States – a sad reflection on the economic distress of post-independence Ireland.

I can remember well, in my first years as a reporter in Ireland, meeting some of the Old IRA who had fought the British and then fought each other. They always spoke with pride of their battle against the crown and with deep distress of the war which followed. Families might forgive their former British occupiers. It was more difficult to reconcile the death of a man shot dead by his neighbours. Even in the early 1970s – half a century after the Irish civil war – I found Irish families who knew the names of those Irishmen who had killed their fathers or brothers. The winning side, those who had accepted a continued oath of allegiance to the British monarch, murdered some of their Irish prisoners – on one terrible occasion, “irregulars” were tied together and blown up with a mine.

It would be satisfying to say that this war has truly ended – unless Brexit and the outrageous and criminal remarks of Tory politicians towards Ireland can still tear open these wounds – and perhaps it takes a hundred years for civil wars to be concluded. By then, the guilty are dead and the victims have passed the age at which they would have died of natural causes. If one side wins, then for decades we find that the “princes of war” – to quote a Lebanese NGO – remain in government and are thus protected. The 1991 Lebanese amnesty law does not pardon those who have assassinated or tried to murder “religious personalities, political leaders, Arab and foreign diplomats”. And just in case we Brits disdain the very thought of an amnesty, just remember that the 17th century English ended their own civil war after the Restoration with the 1660 “Indemnity and Oblivion Act’.

The state is sacrosanct. As it is in Algeria where another amnesty law was produced after the 1992-98 bloodbath – and its 250,000 dead – which pardoned members of armed groups who had not committed massacres, rape or insurrection – but which totally amnestied every torture and war crime committed by the savage government militias and army groups which fought the Islamists in the conflict. Further still, it forbade any discussion about the terrible crimes and abuses committed in this Golgotha of blood!

It will come as no surprise to know that this disgraceful legislation was drawn up – in his saner and less comatose days – by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the zombie president who even now is trying to cling to power in Algeria against the wishes of millions of his protesting people. Does freedom bring forgiveness, then? And how long must we wait? Just after the Lebanese war ended, I was present at a morning coffee party in Beirut at which a prominent sectarian leader was present. In one corner of the room was a middle-aged woman whose son had been kidnapped – and “disappeared” on the front line – by the militia of the sectarian leader.

She stood for some time, muttering her fury against him. And then, as we watched aghast, she confronted the man, demanding to know what he had done with her boy, screaming and shouting and shrieking her mother’s love for her undoubtedly dead son. The man tried to reason with her, he would try to find out – of course he would – and he was sorry for her; but she was gently and firmly led from the room. It was the mother of the victim who must leave, not the killer.

In 2017, the Syrian governor of Homs was trying to persuade Sunni citizens to stay in their homes and not to leave on the rebel buses for Idlib province. I was standing beside him as he climbed on the buses and pleaded with them – in vain. “There are many people here who want their loved ones back,” he told me later. “There were many kidnappings at the beginning of the war and they do not believe that I cannot bring them back. It is too long ago. We do not know which side is responsible.”

But we can guess. And we as reporters usually know – as the victims’ families know – who probably killed who at which Lebanese or Syrian or Bosnian checkpoint. After all, we knew who killed 8,373 human beings at Srebrenica. We had seen General Ratko Mladic on the videotapes. But is this about individuals? Or about those who obeyed – however unenthusiastically – their orders? Or who, like the villagers around Deir Hafar, cooperated and then collaborated and then found themselves, after three years, on the wrong side of the war?

Those who thought they were on the “right” side – in Tunisia, for example, until the revolution against Ben Ali proved they were wrong – have been left with their own nightmares, a phenomenon that is worth exploring. In Tunis, at least, there were “Truth and Dignity” hearings after the dictator’s fall, and that feisty little French magazine Jeune Afrique persuaded a 68-year old ex-cop and torturer to admit to his crimes under the regime. “Ridha” (the name, of course, was changed) described how he and two comrades worked. Their first job was to humiliate Islamist prisoners, strip them, and beat them with iron pipes and whips. “Then there were more sophisticated techniques,” Ridha said. “Like the ‘roast chicken’, suspended from an iron pole, feet and wrists tied together, the prisoner was given electric shocks on the most sensitive parts of his body – or the bath, where the victim was pushed into water with chemicals and faeces…This was not our responsibility, but we were caught up in the system.”

Asked why he continued to be a torturer, Ridha explained that “my life was comfortable, I was building my house, I was receiving police training in France and the United Kingdom and in north African countries, and working in anti-terrorist intelligence.” But he realised, he said, that he was obeying orders not through respect for his superiors but through fear. Although he swore he had never touched any women prisoners, he could hear their screams. And when he had the opportunity to resign, he left “with feelings of shame about a system that devoured its own children. When afterwards I happened to come across a former prisoner, I would pretend I did not recognise him. He would do the same.”

Here, perhaps, was Traboulsi’s image of the torturer and victim who had become one. “But all the regrets I can express will not wipe out anything that happened,” Ridha concluded. “I turned towards God, but his forgiveness was easier to obtain that that of men … My shame wears me down and follows me … I don’t think I have been betrayed, but I’m afraid of being picked up and thrown into prison to endure what I’ve done to other people. I may be a coward, but I’m not a monster.”

Oh, but he was. Civil wars – and that is the state of society within dictatorships – make monsters of us all. Al-Qaeda was half born in the torture chambers of the Egyptian secret police. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s top spy and policeman – in charge of Egyptian-Israeli relations and the man who arranged US renditions to Cairo’s torturers – personally travelled to Tunis to advise Ridha’s superiors in 2006. In 2017, Suleiman’s successors, now working for Field Marshal-President el-Sisi, paid an official trip to Damascus to brief the Syrian government. How do the victims disentangle themselves from this world? How do you close the door on suffering?

Reconciliation is an easy word. Truth, too. How do we switch off the civil war machine? With excuses? With confessions? Or must we wait until all who have sinned – and been sinned against – have passed their natural lifetime on earth? Even if they died in agony years earlier.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.