An Account Syncopated by Death: Littell’s Syrian Notebooks
This review was published at the National.
“The Kindly Ones”, one of the 21st Century’s great novels, is an epic inquiry into the intersection of state power and human evil. Its narrator is supremely civilised but also – and somehow without contradiction – an SS officer engaged in industrial-scale murder. The novel is set in the battlefields and death camps of World War Two.
The author, Jonathan Littell, previously worked for humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim in various war zones including Chechnya, in whose fate he sees Syrian parallels. In 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence. Then collusion between Russian security services and Islamist extremists weakened Chechen nationalists, made the country too dangerous for journalists, and drained international support. This facilitated Russia’s 1999 reinvasion and the total destruction of the capital, Grozny. The Russian strategy is echoed today in what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describes as the “objective complicity” between Assad and ISIS.
There are World War Two parallels too. Aleppo is the most bombed city since that conflict. Syria’s refugee crisis is the greatest since 1945. And the Assad regime, like Hitler’s, produces “thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration.”
Perhaps these commonalities explain why Littell chose to bring his clear sight to bear on Syria’s war. He went in, for 17 days in January 2012, with renowned French photographer Mani. The experience led to a series of reports in Le Monde in February, and now to a book: “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.”
Reporting from Syria has been cursed by journalists who embed with the regime’s army or fall prey to regime-planted conspiracy theories. Littell mentions an article penned by Georges Malbrunot for Le Figaro blaming the Free Army for journalist Gilles Jacquier’s death “on the basis of an anonymous source in Paris citing an anonymous source in Homs.” Similar blame-the-victims hoaxes were retailed by Assad’s useful idiots after the Houleh and Ghouta massacres.
Littell’s account is unembedded, and his narrative – pared down to the physical, psychological and political details – is never gullible. He records an informational chaos in which contradictory versions swirl, and remarks, for example, on revolutionaries feeding al-Jazeera a false report of captured Iranian officers – they turned out to be engineers working at a power plant. The civilian Media Office, then still clinging to the revolution’s non-violent image, persistently obstructs Littell’s investigations. The armed resistance is more helpful, though it too betrays anger that foreign coverage doesn’t translate into solidarity. “The period when we showed things is over,” complains one officer. “If your peoples haven’t understood for eleven months, there’s no point.”
Littell travels not by permission of the regime’s security grid, but via the “counter-grid” which circumvents it, a network including revolutionary Christians, an Alawi resistance fighter, and a woman who, having lost three sons to Assad, has vowed to cook for the fighters daily. He drinks syrupy whisky with a man who “believes in Karl Marx the way others believe in Jesus or Muhammad,” and affectionately finds the Free Army to be “novice guerillas; novices in PR, above all.”
Littell crosses from Lebanon’s Tripoli with a driver called Fury, a former carpenter, who keeps a grenade beside the steering wheel. His first stop is Qusayr, the liberated border town which the regime would eventually claw back in May 2013. Assad’s forces in that battle were led by Lebanon’s Shia militia Hizbullah, making it a key stage in the conflict’s sectarianisation.
From Qusayr to Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Formerly known to Syrians as a nondescript sprawl beside an oil refinery, and the butt of a thousand jokes, in 2011 Homs was rethought as the capital of the revolution. Goalkeeper Abdel Baset al-Sarout and (Alawi) actress Fadwa Suleiman sometimes led its large and carnivalesque protests. On April 18th 2011, a huge crowd occupied the central Clock Square, which briefly became Syria’s Tahrir. The resulting regime massacre tolled an early bell for the death of peaceful protest as a realistic strategy. Homs was where the conflict first militarised.
By Littell’s visit, the citadel and university are regime fortifications; revolutionaries must move through a maze of basements, gardens, and abandoned apartments. Holes are punched through walls, large ones for the passage of men, smaller ones for the snouts of guns. Cars speed across avenues, lights out, to confuse the snipers who aim at vehicles, adults, children, cats. Skirmishes alternate with singing and boredom. There’s “a curiously unreal feeling to it all.” The surrealism intensifies under bombardment: “We hear a loud impact … Everyone laughs.” This during the bitter cold of the Levantine winter, a pale sun shining through fog. Death syncopates the account.
A hospital in Bab al-Sba‘a is regularly raided, its doctors systematically targetted for arrest. It only accepts emergency cases because it can offer no protection from the regime’s constant gunfire. The walls and windows are pocked with bullet holes; if they stack sand bags they’re accused of sheltering activists. The makeshift hospitals in private homes are still more perilous. The regime has no sense whatsoever of medical neutrality; by illustration, a Red Crescent nurse is told angrily at a checkpoint: “We shoot at them, and you save them.” Worse still, and a sign of the regime’s inconceivable cruelty, hospital wards are sometimes used as torture chambers, state doctors and nurses implicated in the crimes.
Littell criss-crosses the city, from besieged, working-class Baba Amr to Insha‘at, which seems “a thousand miles” away – there are people in the streets here, traffic, open shops, and no piles of festering rubbish, though still there are snipers and competing checkpoints. In less-conservative Khalidiyeh, where women mingle with men, the Free Army guards access to the main square, renamed The Square of Free Men. Here there’s a wooden copy of the old Clock Tower plastered with photos of the martyrs. It prompts Littell to reflect on the function of the protests:
“It’s a collective, popular jubilation, a jubilation of resistance. And they don’t just serve as an outlet, as a moment of collective release for all the tension accumulated day after day for eleven months; they also give energy back to the participants, they fill them every day with vigour and courage to continue to bear the murders, the injuries, the grief.” And the chants, “like the Sufi dhikr whose form they take – generators and captivators of force.”
Sectarian hatred is the grim counter-force. Littell witnesses the aftermath of a whole family’s slaughter – Sunnis on an Alawi street – children with throats cut or shot at point-blank range. Such killings are premonitions of the string of sectarian massacres through the summer of 2012. “It’s a form of ethnic cleansing,” one Homsi says, and after its victory at Qusayr the regime would indeed burn the Homs Land Registry and hand Sunni property to Alawi loyalists. Littell hears of Sunnis killing Alawis too – people whose relatives have been raped or murdered, who think they therefore have the right. The book gives the sense of a situation hurtling into the abyss.
Littell meets Abd ar-Razzaq Tlass, who claims to head the Baba Amr military council – though this is disputed. Tlass originates from Rastan in the Homs countryside, a rural Sunni constituency and traditional military recruiting ground. His family includes Hafez al-Assad’s co-conspirator General Mustafa Tlass, and his sons Firas, a tycoon, and Manaf, a general in the Republican Guard. All three had left Syria by 2012, the latter making a public defection. Abd ar-Razaq is Manaf’s cousin, and an important resistance commander until his implication in a sex scandal (the regime bugged his Skype calls). The Tlass defections demonstrate the extent to which the Baath’s old cross-sect peasant alliance had collapsed.
Only 26 when interviewed, Tlass seems immature on several counts, not least his threat to call for jihad if the world failed to help. The civil activists disagree vehemently: “Our revolution is not a religious revolution, it’s a revolution for freedom.” Another predicts that ‘jihad’ would “internationalise it, bring in Saudi Arabia, Iran … Lots of foreign groups would like to come fight here, the revolution would get out of the hands of the Syrian people.” This speaker wants NATO intervention and a No Fly Zone. The protestors call for that too.
Baba Amr fell on March 2nd 2012, the rest of Homs by May 2014. International intervention never arrived. The revolutionaries’ “joyful despair” lost its joy entirely. Jihad won out. Littell’s burning anger at this outcome animates his book.