‘Burning Country’, written by Robin Yassin – Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, explores the horrific and complicated reality of life in present-day Syria with unprecedented detail and sophistication, drawing on new first-hand testimonies from opposition fighters, exiles lost in an archipelago of refugee camps, and courageous human rights activists among many others. These stories are expertly interwoven with a trenchant analysis of the brutalisation of the conflict and the militarisation of the uprising, of the rise of the Islamists and sectarian warfare, and the role of governments in Syria and elsewhere in exacerbating those violent processes.
In this extract taken from the book, Robin Yassin – Kassab and Leila Al-Shami dissect the 2014 seizure of Mosul and impact it had in Iraq and Syria and on international opinion.
In June 2014, ISIS led an offensive which took huge swathes of northern and western Iraq out of government hands. Most significantly, the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, fell to ISIS on 10 June after only four days of battle. General Mahdi al-Gharawi – a proven torturer who had run secret prisons but was nevertheless appointed by Prime Minister Maliki as governor of Nineveh province – fled, and his troops, who greatly outnumbered the ISIS attackers, deserted. This meant that the US-allied Iraqi army, on which the US had spent billions of dollars, was less able to take on ISIS than Syria’s ‘farmers and dentists’. Many Syrians saw a conspiracy in the Iraqi collapse, a play by Malki to win still more weapons from America, and by Iran to increase its regional importance as a counterbalance to Sunni jihadism. It’s more likely that the fall of Mosul was an inevitable result of the Iraqi state’s sectarian dysfunction. Shia soldiers felt themselves to be in foreign territory, and weren’t prepared to die in other people’s disputes. Many Sunni soldiers defected to ISIS.
ISIS’s control of the Iraq–Syria border, and especially of Mosul, was a game changer. The organisation collected the arms left behind by the Iraqi army, much of it high-quality weaponry inherited from the American occupation. Perhaps more importantly, it cleaned out Mosul’s banks. Then it returned to Syria in force, using the new weapons to beat back the starved FSA and the new money to buy loyalties.
The FSA and Islamic Front in Deir al-Zor, besieged by both Assad and ISIS for months, begged the United States for ammunition, warning the city was about to fall. Their plea was ignored, and the revolutionary forces (plus Jabhat al-Nusra) pulled out in July, leaving the province’s oil fields, and the Iraqi border area, in ISIS’s hands. ISIS reinforced itself in Raqqa and surged back into the Aleppo countryside and the central desert. Suddenly it dominated a third of Iraq and a third of Syria. In a tragic parody of the old Arab nationalist dream, it made good propaganda of erasing the Sykes–Picot border; in a tragic parody of Islamic history, it declared itself a Caliphate at the end of June.
Immediately it met a new form of resistance. In the absence of the FSA, locals self-organised, took up what weapons they could find, and managed to liberate a number of villages. The mysterious ‘White Shroud’ group emerged, launching small-scale guerrilla attacks and assassinations of ISIS militants. Rattled, ISIS took savage reprisals against the Shaitat tribe which formed the backbone of Deir al-Zor’s fightback. Over 900 of the tribe’s members – mostly civilians – were murdered. Thousands more fled to Turkey.
ISIS’s precipitous expansion meant that the undeclared non- ag
gression pact with Assad was finally at an end. It now took on regime forces in the east, most dramatically at the Tabqa airbase in August, where its execution of 220 surrendered conscripts shocked revolutionary as well as pro-regime constituencies. And Assad responded, for two reasons – ISIS was now a real threat to his regime, no longer simply a burden on the revolution; and now that the inattentive West was suddenly watching more closely, he had to demonstrate himself as a useful ally. Still, however, his war with ISIS was limited to areas of regime influence. When the FSA and ISIS fought, Assad’s planes bombed the FSA.
Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami also write of how the capturing of Mosul, coinciding with ISIS violence, effected a turning point in the West’s attitude towards Syria.
As Sarah Palin declared ‘Let Allah sort it out’, and Obama referred to the tragedy as ‘somebody else’s civil war’, thousands more fled the country every day. In 1948, three-quarters of a million refugees were driven from Palestine; the result was decades of wars and destabilisations. Ten times this amount of dispossessed wouldn’t remain ‘somebody else’s’ business for long.
In June 2014, ISIS conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul, captured the Iraqi army’s American weapons, and returned in force to Syria. On 19 August it beheaded James Foley. Revelling in its cruelty, it filmed the murder and incorporated it into a propaganda piece. Those in the West who hadn’t cared or noticed suddenly paid attention to Syria.Enter the supposed ‘realists’. Calls were now raised for tolerance and even cooperation with Assad against the ISIS threat. Leslie Gelb and Frank Wisner, for example, argued that ‘Washington must pressure moderate rebels and Assad (with Russian help) to set aside their mutual hatreds and focus on what they both see as the much larger long-term danger to them both – the jihadis’.20 But this isn’t realism at all; it’s unadulterated fantasy. Assad plainly doesn’t consider ISIS a greater threat than the FSA – if he did he wouldn’t have pursued his undeclared non-aggression pact with ISIS for so long; nor would his air force bomb the FSA while it was fighting ISIS. And the revolutionary militias, much as they hated ISIS, hated Assad much more. Assad, after all, had murdered a hundred times more Syrians than ISIS had. The overwhelming majority of bombings, rapes and tortures had been perpetrated by Assadist forces.
In the name of realism, America refused to arm the democratic opposition properly. The result was unhindered scorched earth and the rise of jihadism. In the name of disengagement, America ended up bombing both Iraq and Syria, and reverting to the neoconservative discourse of decades-long war.
As already established, America didn’t just bomb ISIS; it also struck at the jihadist groups which were actually defending people from Assad, groups which – up till that point – claimed not to have a global agenda. Worse, American fighter planes shared the sky with Assad’s, and hit infrastructure as well. Syrians soon heard of Obama’s letter to Iran’s Khamenei, assuring him that Assad wouldn’t be targeted.21 To many this looked like a Western–Shia–Assadist alliance. No jihadist could have cooked up more effective anti-Western propaganda.
‘The religious think it’s a war on Islam’, says the secular Kurd Serdar Ahmed:
The secularists think it’s a war on the Syrian people. We hate Daesh, but you must compare them to Assad. Daesh’s worst crime in Syria was the massacre at the Tabqa airbase where they killed 220. Assad has killed at least 200,000. He’s committed thousands of massacres. When the people saw the coalition leaving Assad alone and attacking Daesh instead, some started saying, ‘we are all Daesh’. Every bomb the coalition drops, the more popular Daesh becomes.
The common thread between neoconservatism and ‘realism’ is an abiding refusal to work with the people on the ground directly concerned by the outcome. In 2003, neoconservatives backed Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile organisation with even less relevance than the Coalition in Syria today (Chalabi was later revealed to be spying for Iran). And nowObama’s realists undermine the Coalition with tepid rhetorical support, pay no attention to the grassroots committees and councils, and mock the resistance militias. ‘When you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before,’ breezed Obama, ‘going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.’23 But it’s Obama who was fantasising, not only because a high proportion of FSA fighters were in fact defected soldiers, nor because every man in Syria has undergone compulsory military training. Compare the FSA’s victories over ISIS in northern Syria in January 2014 to the US-armed, US-trained Iraqi army’s defeat by ISIS in Mosul in June.
Kafranbel, the small town in Idlib province known internationally for the intelligence of its weekly protest slogans, gave the best response.
That Friday’s banner read: ‘Yes! Mr. President Obama, Dentists, Farmers and Students Are the On Dignity Revolutions; Criminals Kill While Idiots Talk’.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a regular media commentator on Syria and the Middle East. He is the author of the novel The Road from Damascus (Hamish Hamilton, 2008) and a contributor to Syria Speaks (Saqi, 2014).
Leila Al-Shami has worked with the human rights movement in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. She was a founding member of Tahrir-ICN, a network that aimed to connect anti-authoritarian struggles across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War is available to buy from Pluto here.