Because the Iran Iraq war was followed by an endless succession of conflicts, we forget its foundational horror. Killing at least a million, burning entire cities, and propelling identity politics towards its current fascistic heights, it was the region’s equivalent of World War One.
Iraq started the war. Exploiting Iran’s mid-revolution weakness, Iraqi forces invaded, seeking to annex Khuzestan province. Had Saddam Hussein been a leader interested in safeguarding civil and national rights, Iranian oppression of Khuzestan’s Ahwazi Arabs might have provided justication. But Saddam was a tyrant who oppressed Iraq’s Arabs just as much, and his prime concern was the province’s oil wealth. His brutal aggression included raining poisonous gas on Iranian cities.
No-one can fault the Iranians for the passion of their response. Gulf, Western and Soviet support for Iraq’s war understandably exacerbated the Iranian sense of victimhood which persists, and clouds so many minds, until today. After a certain point, however, the Iranian war lost its defensive character. Khomeini rejected a 1982 truce offer from a chastened Saddam, determined to fight on until Iran occupied the Shia holy cities of southern Iraq. This never happened, but war conditions helped Khomeini neutralise Iran’s revolutionary energies and firmly establish his own rule. The war dragged on for another six years.
Trench warfare followed the same grim routine as it had at Flanders and the Somme. Every day hundreds of boys surged from their defenses and were cut down by enemy fire. Some accuse the Iranian regime of distributing plastic ‘keys to paradise’ for the conscripts to wear around their necks. It seems more likely that a prayer book entitled “Keys to Paradise” was handed out. Whatever the truth, the Iranian leadership’s attitude to these men’s lives was as callous as that of the aristocratic British officers who sent wave after wave of working class men ‘over the top’ to their deaths.
I recently gave a talk in a radical bookshop in Scotland. The talk was about my and Leila al-Shami’s “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, a book which aims to amplify grassroots Syrian revolutionary voices and perspectives. My talk was of course critical of the Iranian and Russian interventions to rescue the Assad regime.
During the question and answer session afterwards, a young man declared: “You’ve spoken against Iran. You’ve made a good case. But the fact remains, Iran is the protector of Shia Muslims throughout the region.”
In reply I asked him to consider the Syrian town of al-Qusayr at two different moments: summer 2006 and summer 2013.
During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled south Lebanon and south Beirut – the Hizbullah heartlands where Israeli strikes were fiercest – and sought refuge inside Syria. Syrians welcomed them into their homes, schools and mosques. Several thousand were sheltered in Qusayr, a Sunni agricultural town between Homs and the Lebanese border.
It made no difference that most of these refugees were Shia Muslims. They were just Muslims, and Arabs, and they were paying the price of a resistance war against Israeli occupation and assault. That’s how they were seen.
The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.
I’m very happy to be published at al-Araby al-Jadeed, or the New Arab, which has attracted some very on-point political and cultural voices, in both languages.
Syria is entering its darkest stage yet. Intense Russian bombardment and Iranian-backed militias have almost encircled rebel-held Aleppo. The city’s last hospital has been hit by a Russian airstrike. In the liberated south too – where provincial elections were recently held – the revolution is being driven back. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees are fleeing, seeking shelter in caves or under trees. Several refugee camps have also been bombed.
Russia is winning the country back for Assad, supposedly for the sake of stability. But the notion that the revolutionary areas of the Arab world can return to stability under the old security states is every bit as a-historically nostalgic and supernatural as the Islamist idea that the Muslims can return to peace and justice under a medieval caliphate.
The Arab revolutions erupted for a reason – because, over decades, the regimes had failed their people economically, politically, socially and culturally. The regimes collapsed inevitably – are still collapsing – under the the weight of this historical failure.
Faced with a democratic uprising and incapable of genuine reform, Syria’s Assad regime provoked a civil war. Five years later it has lost four-fifths of the country, a reality which massive imperialist intervention – the Iranian-organised trans-national Shia jihadists on the frontlines and the Russian bombers overhead – is only now changing.
Even within regime-held territory, the old ‘national’ regime has already fallen, replaced by a condominium of foreign states and local warlords. The army, bled by casualties, desertions and defections, is a shell of its former self.
As I write, state representatives are attending the theatre in Geneva. (The talks were stopped on February 3rd). In Syria, meanwhile, reality prevails: in one day a tented camp of the displaced in the Lattakia hills is bombed, barrel bombs rain on the south and the Damascus suburbs, Russia’s cluster bombs crumple over the north, and up to a hundred people are asphyxiated by chlorine gas in Moadamiyah. Let’s hope the seats in the theatre are nice and comfy.
Russia, the prime mover of the process, is inviting its own ‘opposition’ delegates. It complains (with Assad and Iran) that the actual opposition delegation contains ‘terrorists’. The thousands of Iranian-backed transnational Shia jihadists in Syria are not considered terrorists and should not be discussed at this stage.
The United States accepts these terms, and instead of the ‘transitional government’ agreed upon as the ultimate goal in previous Geneva talks, it speaks now of a ‘national government’. In other words Assad – responsible for the overwhelming number of civilian casualities and displacements – can stay, so that all may confront the ‘greater evil’ of jihadism.
Yet 80% of Russian bombs are falling not on ISIS but on the opposition to both ISIS and Assad, that is, on the communities which previously drove ISIS from their areas. A quarter of a million more have been displaced as a result of the Russian assault, which hits courthouses, schools, hospitals and aid convoys.
In the last week of its Syrian rampage, ISIS bulldozed the 1500-year-old monastery of Mar Elian in al-Qaryatain and blew up the 2000-year-old temples of Baalshamin and Bel in Palmyra.
Syria’s heritage illustrates civilisational history from the Sumerians to the Ottomans. Its universal significance provoked French archeologist Andre Parrot’s comment, “Every person has two homelands… His own and Syria.” For Syrians themselves, these sites provided a palpable link to the past and, it seemed, to the future too, for they once assumed their distant descendants would also marvel at them. Such monuments were references held in common regardless of sect or politics. Like Stonehenge or Westminster Abbey, they provided a focus for nationalist pride and belonging. Naturally, they would have been central to any future tourism industry. Now they are vanishing.
Very recently the potential future looked very different. The popular revolution of 2011 announced a new age of civic activism and fearless creativity, but the regime’s savage repression led inevitably to the revolution’s militarisation, and then war.
An edited version of this piece was published at the National.
Zabadani, a mountain town northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border, was one of the first Syrian towns to be liberated from the Assad regime (in January 2012) and one of the first to establish a revolutionary council. (The martyred anarchist revolutionary Omar Aziz was involved in setting up this council, as well as the council in Barzeh). Zabadani has been besieged and intermittently shelled since its liberation. And since July 3rd this year it has been subjected to a a full-scale assault by (the Iranian-backed) Lebanese Hizbullah, alongside continuous barrel bombing. Apparently the town’s 800-year-old al-Jisr mosque has been pulverised. Human losses are in the hundreds, and beyond the numbers, incalculable.
In other news, Daesh (or ISIS) has bulldozed the 1500-year-old monastery of Mar Elian in al-Qaryatain and blown up the beautiful 2000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. The temple once mixed Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian styles. Today its rubble is further evidence that there will be no resumption of Syrian normality. The people, monuments, even landscapes that Syrians once took for granted, that they assumed their grandchildren would enjoy, are disappearing for ever.
Palmyra – Queen Zenobia’s desert city – is a world heritage site and perhaps Syria’s most precious cultural jewel. Remarkably intact until recently, it provided a tangible link to antiquity and a breathtaking proof of the region’s civilisational wealth. Nationalist Syrians, whether secular or Islamist, feel the importance of such sites for communal pride and identity. Rational Syrians can at least understand their utilitarian benefit to any future tourism industry.
Neither Bashaar al-Assad nor (Daesh ‘caliph’) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are nationalists. Al-Baghdadi is explicit about it: “Syria is not for the Syrians,” he says, “and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.” Al-Assad’s rhetoric is still nationalist (and sectarian), but his war effort is managed by a foreign power now pushing towards the nation’s partition. Though not nationalists, both are certainly fascists obsessed with reinforcing their respective totalitarian states and eliminating any independent intellectual influence. Thus, in a flesh-and-blood echo of its slaughter of Palmyran history, Daesh tortured and publically beheaded Palmyra’s head of antiquities, 81-year-old Khaled al-Assa‘ad, perhaps because he’d refused to reveal the location of hidden treasures.