The Siege Diaries: Samar Yazbek’s Syria

So much of the information I have about that family and other families seems like the stuff of novels and fictional stories; it was all so strange and scandalously mired in injustice.

– Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

This is perhaps the first book published about the Syrian revolution. Samar Yazbek was a Syrian novelist living in Damascus at the time the uprising began. She became involved in the demonstrations, organised anti-regime groups and records the stories of protestors and defectors during the revolution’s first hundred days. It got noticed. She was followed, and picked up. In July she made the decision to run, and you can’t really blame her.

Imagine the worst thing a government can do to its people, and you will find that Bashar al-Assad has got there first. His regime puts entire cities under siege, fires live rounds into peaceful demonstrations, and bombs pharmacies so that protestors cannot treat their wounded. He has soldiers fire into funeral cortages to pick off friends and relatives, and snipers target people who speak from the podium. There is incarceration, there are beheadings, and the use of rape as a weapon of repression. There is murder and torture, including the murder and torture of children. People are taken to the prisons, and come out mutilated, or not at all. Yazbek claims that the bodies of some activists were returned with their stomachs stitched up, as if they had undergone a kind of slapdash surgery. A Midan activist told Syrian specialist Michael Weiss that Assad’s men are asset-stripping banks and museums at gunpoint to sustain the money flow. Could it be that the regime is harvesting the organs of its citizens on the black market to maintain liquidity? Crazy and impossible… but in Syria, nothing is impossible.

Bashar al-Assad was a dictator by default. Since 1970 Syria had been ruled by Hafiz al-Assad of the Ba’ath Party, the same aggressive pan-Arab clique that brought us Saddam Hussein. While Hafiz’s elder son Bassel was prepped for the succession, Bashar was sent to London to become an ophthalmologist. The younger brother comes off as a sidelined nonentity. Then Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, and in 2000 the old man checked out as well. As Yazbek’s  translator Max Weiss tells it, Bashar al-Assad ‘somewhat awkwardly and hesitantly inherited the reins of power.’ The awkwardness and hesitation wouldn’t last. After a brief reformist softening in the early 2000s, Bashar’s Syria reverted to the standard Ba’athist secret police and Soprano state. He’s in blood, and doesn’t give a fuck. Returning is as tedious as go o’er.

Assad is maybe the most technologically savvy of modern tyrants. He hired Bell Pottinger and Brown Lloyd James – top reality-handlers, that had previously worked with Thatcher and Bush – to portray an image of sophisticated Arab pragmatism. It wasn’t as difficult as you’d think. Assad studied in London, his wife grew up there. The Guardian noted that Assad ‘appears to have grown increasingly reliant on media advice from a group of young, westernised Syrian expats’ – beautiful women with US educations and experience at America’s best PR firms. Their offensive worked. Western media found the Assads quite delightful company. ‘He speaks English,’ a Washington Syria specialist explained, ‘and his wife is hot.’ The success of Assad spin culminated in a 3,000 word Vogue profile of the First Lady, now considered so embarrassing that the magazine wiped it from its digital archive (it can still be found on a Ba’athist fan site). It’s probably worth quoting from this:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.’ She is the first lady of Syria.

The first lady works out of a small white building in a hilly, modern residential neighborhood called Muhajireen, where houses and apartments are crammed together and neighbors peer and wave from balconies. The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement – a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: ‘I was, like. . . .’

The positive coverage faded around the time the serious killing started. In March this year, towards the anniversary of the uprising, the Guardian published something startling: a cache of Assad’s emails. These were messages sent between the first family and their intimates, and  hacked by Syrian activists. The correspondence didn’t touch on the bloodshed, except in fleeting and dismissive mentions. Instead the Assads focused on personal and cultural enthusiasms. And when I say ‘culture’, I’m talking America’s Got Talent.

We think of evil as bound up with intellectualism: Hannibal Lecter enjoying his Chateau Y’quem, or SS officers who kick back with Goethe and Rilke after a long day at the ovens. What a humiliation for the credulous Western interviewers to find that Assad spends his leisure hours giggling at YouTube, or chillaxing to Right Said Fred, while his wife blows tens of thousands on Christian Loboutin pumps and chocolate fondue sets! Far from the moderating influence portrayed by Vogue – a cool hand on the fevered Assad brow – Asma al-Assad comes off as a materialistic shrew, haggling over Chelsea cabinets while Rome burns. From the Guardian: ‘While the country was rocked by Assad’s crackdown on dissent, his inner circle was concerned about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.’ The cache reads like Marie Antoinette’s diaries, rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis.

What is all this like on the ground? Samar Yazbek gives us an idea. The prose is fast, almost rushed, the writing of someone who knows every word could be her last. Yazbek misses fiction. She writes: ‘I want to reclaim my ability to obliterate real circumstances… I want the luxury of choosing the faces I will lavishly bestow upon my intimate life.’ That luxury’s gone, at least for a while, but the novelist’s talent captures the thud and roar of a world under siege. Here are lines that jump.

A taxi pulled up and as I got in I thought about how many people were fated to die between morning and afternoon in this land.

Sadness and death and prison have all become a part of our diaries, like water and the air we breathe.

On the way home I felt like my skin was grimy, that a layer of the blazing sun had settled on top of my pores.

Fear is a human condition that humanity has never given its due, a mysterious commentary on meaning or love. Fear means you are still human amidst the rubble.

Now that I have crossed paths with death, I am prepared to see more of it.

Yazbek retains the imaginative empathy every fiction writer must cultivate, even for Assad’s goons: ‘I wonder what murderers think about during the moment in which they shoot unarmed young men in the chest.’ A page later, she discovers new depths in herself; after a regime officer makes threatening innuendos about the fate of her daughter, Yazbek writes that: ‘If time allowed me to see that man again, I wouldn’t think twice about killing him. That’s another thing I’ll never forgive them for. They made me know what it feels like to think about ending someone else’s life.’

Yazbek was in a difficult position even for an oppositionist Syrian. As an Alawite she was a member of Assad’s favoured sect. A Syrian-Mancunian told me (I paraphrase, we were drinking, but this is the gist of it): ‘Assad is smarter than Gaddafi. He creates financial interests among pockets of the population so they have something to lose if he goes.’ Assad promoted Alawites to elite positions and, when the revolution came, armed their villages. Yazbek: ‘The murderers and I are from the same city. Some of their blood flows in mine.’ When she made her stand, her family and hometown disowned her, and she became a target for the shabbiha, Assad’s mercenary ghost squads.

Yazbek did the best she could to break the sectarian deadlock. And many Alawites seemed to resent their assigned role as Assad’s human shield. Alawites demonstrated alongside Sunnis in Latakia. A man stood up in the crowd and said: ‘I’m an Alawite and I’m participating in the demonstrations. I’m against the regime; they forced me from my home for many years. We are a single nation.’ The Assad line is that this uprising is Islamist, and this feeds into the line of the foreign policy ‘realists’, who say: Look at Egypt. Look at Tunisia. Where’s your Arab Spring now? But the rebels didn’t act like they wanted a Syrian Caliphate. It was easier to demonstrate through mosques as even the regime is reluctant to bomb places of worship, but the protestors Yazbek met there were secular leftists. An early conference of the Syrian National Council affirmed pluralism, secularism and liberal freedoms. Its chair, Dr Burhan Ghalioun, said that:

There is a kind of undeclared, practical alliance between the political dictatorship and the dictatorship of religious authority from all groups, who do the impossible in order to remove all the people who hold different views – politicians, thinkers, and intellectuals – whether by accusing them of secularism, which means heresy, or by accusing them of modernism, of having ties with the West, or of collaborating with colonialism.

As Michael Weiss commented: ‘If this was some kind of clever taqqiya manoeuvre to trick a complacent West into supporting the Syrian people, then all credit to these Machiavellian revolutionaries who found the time to collectively dissemble as they and their families were being shot, electrocuted, tear gassed, dismembered, disappeared, raped and pounded with tank artillery shells.’

How will it end? Is it going to end? The exhausted West can’t summon either the cash or the public support for another foreign war (according to Weiss, after the latest defence cuts our armed forces will be smaller than the Free Syria Army). Russia and China can veto any action by the useless UN, which anyway continues to pursue a strategy of ‘engagement’ even though practically everyone in Syria war correspondents talk to says that there is no point in ‘engagement’ with a regime that tortures thirteen-year-old boys into pieces. Meanwhile Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide moral and military support.

Coming from my layman’s perspective and reading what I have read, the only hope that I can see is the regime itself, which is rotting from the inside out. Yazbek’s diary just manages to catch the first wave of military defections, which have increased in seniority and volume. People generally join the army to fight for their country, not to repress their own people. Many soldiers walked out because they were sick of the innocent blood on their hands. Those that have stayed are heavily monitored, and some have a sideline in selling arms to the rebels. It’s been estimated that a staggering 40 percent of Free Syrian Army weapons come from regime sources. There’s also a rumour that Assad’s inner circle no longer issues written orders. This is the endgame and they know it.

Yazbek writes that ‘intellectuals live in a frozen environment, the world has passed them by. And the mobilisation that has taken place in Syria, what spurred people into the street, was not the writers or the poets or the intellectuals.’ But they can still bear witness, and Samar Yazbek’s document does that with courage, lyricism and mordant wit.

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