VICE Syria correspondent and veteran conflict photographer Robert King will be on Reddit tomorrow at 10:30 AM to answer your questions about what he’s witnessed in his coverage of Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Gaza, Mexico, Iraq, and now the year-long bloody civil war in Syria.
A high school friend of mine used to live in the Syrian Jewish neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, down near Coney Island. He described it as an insular, conservative, and somewhat bizarre ethnic enclave that included many opulent houses.
As we were putting together this issue, we realized that coordinating a fashion shoot inside Syria would void our insurance. So I got back in touch with my old friend and asked whether he knew of any families who might be willing to be photographed and possibly interviewed. I stressed that it would be a respectful, straightforward fashion spread, and he was kind enough to put out some feelers.
Here’s one of the responses sent to my friend from the father of a Syrian Jewish family (extended ellipses have been left intact): “Definitely not interested….. We do not like articles written about our community…… It is bad press, which causes unwanted attention…. Please discourage your friend from writing this piece….”
All the replies were in the same vein. Luckily, we tracked down a Syrian Jewish family living in nearby Sheepshead Bay who were willing to participate. The kids—Jack, Linda, and Etsik—were born in the US and said they feel no strong connection to Syria. Linda added that living near many other Syrian Jews can be good sometimes because “everyone you know is around you,” but it can also be really annoying because, again, “everyone you know is around you.”
“I don’t like Syrian cooking,” Jack said. “I hate it. It’s all greasy, oily, fat. Ugh.” When asked about his love life, Jack said that his past two girlfriends weren’t Jewish, but he does plan to someday marry a nice Jewish girl.
Their mother, Mari, who was born in Syria, doesn’t miss it. No surprise there: Like much of the Middle East and everywhere else on earth, Syria has historically acted like a nasty little fucker to its Jewish population, at times instituting bans on Jews leaving the country and other extreme restrictions. In the 1950s, Jewish cemeteries were seized and plowed over by the Syrian government. There were around 30,000 Jews in Syria in 1943; by 1968, only 4,000 remained. These days, all but an estimated 16 Jews have left the country, with many families relocating to Brooklyn over the years. I look at these photos and wonder what it would be like for them if their brethren had stayed any longer, and how wonderful life can be in a country where people don’t try to kill you because your ancestors might’ve believed in some bullshit or other.
Members of the Free Syrian Army’s mughaweer (commandos) and Ah al-Rassi (Freedom for the Assi River) brigades return to al-Qusayr after a battle near the Lebanese border in Homs. (The photos contained within this piece were taken by an independent photographer before the author visited the region. The Lebanese rebel-supporters and Hezbollah members interviewed throughout the piece refused to be photographed for obvious reasons.)
ON THE LAM IN LEBANON -
SYRIA’S VIOLENCE BLEEDS OVER THE BORDER
It’s dusk when the rebels move into position within a cluster of lemon and olive groves about 300 feet from the Syrian border post north of the bleak and dusty Lebanese farming village of al-Qaa. I’m watching the operation from behind the troops with their commander, a Lebanese man I’ll call “Hussein” who oversees 200 rebel fighters in the area.
“We’re moving some guys into [the nearby Syrian town of] al-Qusayr and need to distract Assad’s troops,” Hussein tells me. His brigade is tasked with keeping the guns, money, and fighters flowing between Lebanon and Syria. He interrupts our conversation to bark out an order on his walkie-talkie, keeping it short and sweet so his signal has less of a chance of being intercepted.
“OK,” Hussein orders. “Move in.”
His soldiers fan out across the olive orchard, preparing to attack the concrete buildings, ringed by sandbags, distracting the border guards while another unit of fighters seven miles away slips across the border undetected. A classic diversion.
The idyllic orchard explodes into war. Three rocket-propelled grenades fly toward the border post. A dozen automatic rifles and machine guns release a rain of ammunition; muzzle flashes light up the darkening sky.
“We do this every few days,” Hussein laughs. “But so do they,” he adds while pointing toward Assad’s troops.
The Syrian Army returns fire with machine guns and AK-47s of their own, sending bullets whipping through the grove at the rebels in front of us. Hussein and I are standing a few rows back, but we are still somewhat in the line of fire. I realize I’m uncomfortably close to the front line, even if I’m not right up on it. The bullets that hit the nearby trees aren’t aimed at us, but marksmanship is a moot point after you’re dead.
A moment later, Hussein’s troops pull back. They’ve distracted Assad’s border guys long enough for the other unit to cross into al-Qusayr undetected.
“Let’s go,” orders Hussein. “The [Syrian] helicopter will be here soon.” We retreat as bullets continue to fly our way. The trees in the orchard are our only cover, and they don’t offer much protection.
The skirmish is part of a nearly nightly series of clashes along the Syria-Lebanon border that seems to indicate the civil war is morphing into a regional conflagration. A week after my visit with Hussein, a car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing an important pro-rebel Lebanese intelligence officer and sparking battles in the streets of the capital and Tripoli that resulted in at least seven deaths. Neighboring Jordan and Iraq are accepting refugees in an attempt to contain the spread of civil strife while simultaneously avoiding direct involvement.
In Lebanon, staying neutral isn’t so easy. The nation’s deeply divided population and weak central government have left it vulnerable to spillover from nearby conflicts. While most of the world is focused on the slaughter in Aleppo and rising tensions between Syria and Turkey, another, potentially devastating conflict is breaking out right next door.
A photo of a fat, furry hamster sitting on a bed of pillows chowing down on some grain with a hookah in the background may seem like an inappropriate usage of one of the last remaining pages of an issue dedicated to Syria. But we want to make it clear that this ancient culture isn’t all guns and explosions and death and crackdowns by the secret police—there’s cute to be found, if you look hard enough. Syrian hamsters, also known as golden hamsters, are native to Syria (duh) and were first discovered in 1830 by British zoologist George Robert Waterhouse. These furry bags of joy love desert climates and stuffing as much food into their cheek pouches as possible—in fact, their Arabic name roughly translates as “Mr. Saddlebags.” Not joking. But don’t let their overwhelming cuteness fool you: These guys are extremely territorial and frequently get into scraps with neighboring hamsters or even other family members. And if baby hammies happen to come into contact with humans, their mother will kill and eat them since any unfamiliar scent is considered a threat. Even the smallest of creatures DO NOT fuck around over there. Damn, and this was supposed to be the cute part of the issue.
Considering the current hostile environment, we thought it best not to travel to the Syrian desert to find a hamster to rub against our faces, but you can buy them at basically any pet store. To see some other cute animals we were actually able to hang with, check out episodes of The Cute Show!
WHILE HIS WIFE PRETENDS TO CARE ABOUT SYRIA’S DISABLED
Chavia Ali is the 32-year-old chairwoman of the Cultural Forum for People with Special Needs in Syria and the most prominent activist fighting for the rights of the disabled in the Middle East. Attempting to uphold a semblance of basic humanitarian rights under Assad’s rule is risky business. On top of that, to start a civil rights NGO under Assad as a woman of Kurdish descent (which Chavia is) is basically to beg for a life sentence in prison.
Chavia has been wheelchair-bound ever since she suffered from paralytic polio as a baby, but this hasn’t stopped her from bulldozing her way through the impediments presented by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and constant threats from the secret police as she strives to make life more bearable for Syria’s disabled. She’s received national and international recognition for her work, and after years of thwarting her efforts, Assad’s regime realized a few years ago that it was in their own self-interest to use her good name to improve its image.
In 2010, Chavia’s organization received funding through a trust fronted by Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, with whom Chavia had discussed her plight on several occasions. The novelty of the regime’s slightly more open approach toward civil rights stirred the interest of international media, including the New York Times, who interviewed Chavia about the improbable collaboration. But within a year it became painfully obvious that the entire ordeal had been a dog-and-pony show of empty promises and unfulfilled assurances.
Before April 2011, when Assad’s army opened fire on peaceful protesters and civilians, Syria was home to approximately 2 million people with disabilities. When we spoke to Chavia in October, a few months after she had fled Aleppo for Sweden, she estimated that number could have steadily grown over the course of the civil war.
VICE: How difficult is it for disabled people to live in Syria? Chavia Ali: People with disabilities are being left behind when buildings are evacuated; those who depend on iron lungs, for example, must rely on spare batteries during frequent power outages. Medicine is hard to come by, and soldiers have no regard for whether or not a person is disabled. My friend Adul is almost completely paralyzed and can only move his head. He wanted to participate in the demonstrations in Aleppo, so he went out onto the street in his electric wheelchair. A policeman hit him in the face, and he fell to the ground. When two women came to help him up, they took Adul and the women to prison and locked them up for a month. They don’t care whether you’re a woman, a child, or in a wheelchair. They’ll kill you if you’re against them.
Even before the conflict, I felt Syria was one of the worst countries to be disabled in. The government knows nothing about accessibility, and disabled people are treated as lesser beings. Instead of working toward including us in society and helping us get an education, we have been made dependent on charity. There are 514 organizations for the disabled in Syria, but none of them deal with disabled people’s rights. They give people bread and sometimes money, but they have no strategies for rights and development. Many people with disabilities in Syria cannot get an education because the government never made schools disability friendly.
Was there a particular incident that drove you to become an activist for the disabled? I chose to study law at a university in Aleppo that had an elevator, which would enable me to attend lectures and classes. I had such high expectations, but on my first day, when I pressed the elevator button, I realized it was broken. A passerby told me it had been broken for at least ten years. The university staff kept giving me vague excuses [about fixing it], and months passed and nothing happened. Finally, I went to the office of a local politician, a man with enough power to fix my problem in the bat of an eye, and do you know what he told me? He said, “Why do you want to study and have a career in law when you can’t even move around?” I became so depressed I stayed in bed for two months, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Finally, I decided to stop focusing on my problem with this elevator and instead work to confront the problems in this society for people with disabilities. If we achieve democracy, we will finally be able to give more power to people with disabilities, like the right to vote. In the old Syria, we never had any of that.
And this was the impetus for you to establish the first organization in Syria that focuses on the rights of the disabled? Yes. Unfortunately, to this day I’m still the only person in Syria fighting for disabled people’s rights. For years, my father and the families of people with disabilities—those who believed in our work and wanted to help—funded everything. We’ve tried to change people’s prejudice against the disabled and teach people with disabilities to read and write and use the internet. There’s a law that says more than 4 percent of public jobs should go to people with disabilities, but it’s never been implemented. My dream was to make this law a reality.
You may be asking yourself, “Hey, where are VICE’s usual pissy yet strangely on-point reviews? I was looking forward to reading about the latest release from my favorite _____-wave band!” Well, this month we decided to do things a little differently, apropos of our Syria Issue. Below, you’ll find reviews of (mostly) Syrian music, written by Syrian Americans, or in the case of Shalib Danyals, a person who has spent a shitload of time in the country. So far, Middle Eastern music hasn’t really had a ton of crossover appeal—unlike J-pop, K-pop, or Yanni, for instance. That said, you’ve probably been exposed to small doses of Middle Eastern music at some point, maybe without even knowing it.
The thing about a country at war is that what you hear on the news revolves almost exclusively around violence, suffering, and destruction. Hence we felt it relevant to offer insight into the listening habits of Syrians. Of course, the volatile political situation does change things and offers worrisome inspiration. Some Syrian artists have reflected on the turmoil of recent months via their songs, while others avoid the situation entirely—probably because weighing in on the conversation can easily get a musician thrown in prison or even killed.
As far as the “scene” goes over there, trends in music aren’t all that much different from their Western counterparts. Saccharine, hook-heavy pop reigns supreme. A couple of singers made popular by the Arabic version of the Idol franchise (Arab Idol, naturally) have risen up the pop charts. Hip-hop in Syria and other Arab states is slowly but surely developing into a legit genre. Since the beginning of the uprising that began about a year and a half ago, protest songs have steadily increased in popularity. And, of course, music that incorporates traditional sounds and instruments always has a strong following. Most Arabic music tends to rely on this sort of sonic commingling, and that’s what makes it unique. Even the catchiest pop song might include a customary dabke rhythm, or the twang of an oud (a traditional stringed instrument) among a plethora of synths and Auto-Tuned vocals.
Of course, because of the ongoing political tumult, there’s just not a ton of stuff being released at the moment. And as far as the standard music industry goes… Well, let’s just say it wasn’t super-easy to confine this reviews section to recent releases. Still, what we did find runs the gamut from slick pop to raucous techno-dance to heart-wrenching folk.
So read on, and give some of these albums a listen. Keep an open mind. Who knows? Maybe you’ll love it. And even if it’s not your thing, maybe when the next hot Jay-Z song drops, you’ll be able to say you know where a certain sample originated. And, if you’re into bragging, that you knew all about it before it was popular. Enjoy.
ASSAD REGIME BOOSTERS SHOW THEIR TRUE COLORS IN PARIS
On Saturday, October 20, in the Gardens of the Trocadéro in Paris, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, around 40 protestors with signs and whistles gathered around an enormous Syrian flag to show their support for the country’s president. In the photographs affixed to the signs, Bashar al-Assad wears a gray suit and a shit-eating grin.
As I approached the group, wading through two other protests taking place in the same square—one for Southern Moroccan independence, the other somehow affiliated with the Ivory Coast—I was overwhelmed with images of Assad, who most of the world holds responsible for 20,000 deaths over the past 20 months of civil war in Syria. The folks who had assembled here are some of his biggest fans.
Saïd, a 30-something French Syrian who refused to give me his last name, said that he admires Assad’s fashion sense, along with everything else about him: “Just have a look at the suit. He’s stylish.” Saïd told me that he and his family have been Assad supporters since the beginning of the uprising. His mother is a Sunni Muslim and his father is a Christian, and he’s convinced that only Assad can maintain the secular Syrian state. “With Bashar, the different religions can coexist. If the United States helps depose him, it’ll be over. Salafis will take over and kill everyone.”
It’s true that these protestors have a lot to lose if religious factions manage to take commandeer the country. Many of them are related to families of regime officials, Syrian Christians, and members of the Alawite sect that also includes golden-boy Bashar. Any and all of these groups could be persecuted if Islamic law is instated in the country.
Three Syrian women who live in Paris smile for their favorite dictator.
Nordine, a French fighter pilot of Syrian origin, attended the rally in his military uniform and wore a cap decorated with a Syrian flag. “I studied and learned my job in the United States, to protect and serve my country,” he said. “As a Syrian Alawite, I do my best to protect my people against barbarians.” When I asked him whom he considers to be the most barbarous group in his homeland, his answer was immediate: “Those who kill women and children. Salafis, Saudis, Qataris.” He paused. “And Jews.”
Today we are proud to present the first bits of The Syria Issue, an entire magazine dedicated to one of the oldest and most important cradles of civilization in the world. It is also a place that has been decimated by brutal internal strife for the past year and a half, following the widespread unrest of the Arab Spring. Just like in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, etc, the revolt in Syria was sparked by decades of authoritarian rule by a megalomaniac—namely President Bashar al-Assad.
Unlike other revolutions in the region, however, Syria has reached a boiling point that could result in the total collapse of the geopolitical stability of the region. The organized opposition known as the Free Syrian Army—an amalgam of defected Syrian Army soldiers, jihadists, and average citizens who are fed up with oppression—have clashed with Assad’s forces, resulting in an ongoing civil bloodbath inside the capital of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and other cities throughout the nation. Following a failed UN-organized peace effort that was deemed a complete failure and dissolved in late August, the situation has only gotten worse.
What’s happening in Syria right now is perhaps one of the most confusing and complex conflicts of our time. So we have created what amounts to a reference book on the subject that attempts to view the strife from a myriad perspectives, and we believe we have succeeded in this regard.
Check back throughout the month of November as we post stories from the new issue every day, and head to one of the locations listed here to obtain a hardcopy of what is undoubtedly one of the most important issues we have ever published. It will begin hitting the streets this week, so you may want to call ahead.
For now we encourage you to gain some historical and cultural perspective on the war and the country where it is taking place by reading our “Road to Ruin" historical timeline illustrated by Jim Krewson, our comprehensive "VICE Guide to Syria,” and a piece about graffiti writing in Syria, which has played an important role in fueling the opposition following the arrest and torture of a group of boys who spray painted anti-regime slogans in Daraa.
You should also watch our ongoing Ground Zero: Syria series shot by photographer and videographer Robert King (who contributed 22 pages to this issue). The first installment, which you can watch below, is very graphic and documents victims of war crimes (including many children) being treated by valiant doctors in a field hospital in al-Qusayr over the summer. Part 2 documents the destruction and burning of an ancient souk (marketplace) in the Old City of Aleppo.
We have put together this guide in an attempt to condense the facts gleaned from thousands of pages of reference books, biographies, religious texts, firsthand accounts, reports, and other information that have informed this issue. We could’ve included dozens of additional entries, but in our opinion the topics below are the most important for you to begin to understand the complexities of the conflict. We also recommend that you read our illustrated timeline of Syria’s tumultuous history, “The Road to Ruin,” to provide some context before digging into the guide.
HAFEZ AL-ASSAD Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is the most important figure in Syria’s short history as an independent nation. Nearly every aspect of modern Syrian life was shaped by Hafez, which isn’t surprising given that he ruled the country with an iron first for decades—from 1970 until his death in 2000.
Hafez came from a long lineage of powerful men. His grandfather Sulayman was respected by his fellow villagers for his strength, courage, and marksmanship. They nicknamed him “al-Wahhish” (“The Wild Man”), which was apparently so fitting he adopted it as his surname. His son Ali Sulayman inherited many of his father’s fierce characteristics, cementing his kin’s reputation among the Alawite mountain tribes. In 1927, at the recommendation of some village elders, their last name was upgraded to the more distinguished al-Assad, meaning “The lion.”
According to Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography, Asad: Struggle for the Middle East, Hafez was born in Qardaha, when the northwestern village “consisted of a hundred or so mud or rough stone houses at the end of a dirt track. There was no mosque or church, no shop, no café, no paved road.” Few people in the region could read, but Hafez got lucky and snagged a spot in the nearby French colonial primary school. At 16, he joined the secular Pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party and quickly made himself into an invaluable asset by distributing Ba’athist literature, holding secret meetings at his house, and fighting rival groups and the police.
By 1963, Hafez played a major role in executing a coup that put the Ba’athists in charge. Three years later, he helped to engineer an even bloodier takeover that resulted in his appointment as minister of defense. Four years later, he staged another coup, clawing his way to the top and into the presidency—an office he would hold for the rest of his life.
A slick but uncompromising leader, Hafez managed to avoid the fate of previous Syrian overlords by undercutting his competition and brutalizing the opposition. He centralized the country’s political system, changed its constitution, and allied with the Soviet Union. Leveraging propaganda to present himself as a man of the people, he pushed Syria’s infrastructure toward modernization while suppressing dissent of any kind. In the process, he expanded the reach of Syria’s security forces and created a Soviet-style cult of personality for himself, commissioning thousands of statues, portraits, and posters to be displayed across the country. In 1982, he ordered the massacre of thousands of Sunnis in the country’s fourth-largest city, Hama, and a year later quashed a coup attempt by his younger brother Rifaat.
In a just world, Hafez would have been punished long before he died for his decades of iron-fisted rule. Instead, he passed away relatively peacefully, in 2000, from a heart attack.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus in 1965, five years before his father finished his ascent to the top of the Ba’athist Party. The third of five children, Bashar had a “normal” childhood that included frequent soccer games and ping-pong matches with his father. Few expectations were placed on Bashar, mostly because it was understood that his older brother, Bassel, would inherit his father’s presidency when the time came. Bassel—charismatic, confident, and good at sports—was the natural choice for a successor; Bashar was shy and uninterested in government. He graduated high school in 1982 and went on to become an army physician, then went to London’s Western Eye Hospital to study ophthalmology.
In 1994, Bashar’s life was forever changed when Bassel died in a car accident. Immediately after the funeral, Bashar was deemed the heir apparent, and his preparation for the presidency began: He joined the military academy and began working out of his deceased brother’s office.
Hafez died on June 10, 2000, and Bashar assumed the presidency at the tender age of 34, so young that parliament had to lower the minimum age so he could “run” for office. A sham election was held, followed by another in 2007 that “reelected” him.
If the lesser-son-unexpectedly-takes-over-the-empire narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the plot of The Godfather. Except Bashar is more like Fredo than Michael. Regime insiders told the Financial Timesthat Bashar is insecure and prone to mood swings. His uncle Rifaat, who fled the country after trying to take it over in 1983, told CNN that Bashar “follows what the regime decides on his behalf.” Bashar might have been a decent doctor, but as a dictator he was both brutal and prone to waffling, a deadly combination. “You discuss an issue with him in the morning and another person comes along and changes his mind,” said former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Whatever combination of poor choices and bad luck led him here, Bashar is quickly painting himself into a corner with a whole lot of blood. Some accounts attest that he refuses to step down because he fears his Alawite clan will be massacred by the rebels. “Syria’s Assad Has Embraced Pariah Status,” read aWashington Post headline over the summer. That seems like a fitting epitaph for a man who didn’t ask for a regime or revolution to fall on his head but seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
Looking back on his early life, it seems crazy that this nerdy goofball—who, by the way, took the Hippocratic oath—would end up being mentioned in the same breath as Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-Il. From time to time he probably asks himself: “For fuck’s sake… what am I doing? I wanted to be an eye doctor and bang English broads.”
CIVIL LIBERTIES AND THE EMERGENCY LAW As you might’ve guessed by now, Syria’s never exactly been a bastion of freedom or human rights. In the colonial era, the French government routinely executed villagers without fair trial and displayed the corpses of “bandits” in Damascus’s central square. After WWII, Adib Shishakli, a military commander who ran the country, dissolved all opposition political parties, banned newspapers, and persecuted ethnic minorities. In 1963, the Ba’ath Party took power and declared a state of emergency that gave the country’s security forces wide-ranging powers; the “emergency law” was finally revoked in April 2011, ironically, just as the real crisis began.
Syria’s emergency law dictated that citizens can be arrested, detained, tried, and sentenced without due process or access to an attorney. All this continues today. Elections are held, but only as a formality.
Freedom of assembly is written into the constitution, but the Ministry of Interior has to approve any gathering of more than five people. Before the revolution, protests against Israel were usually approved, while their pro-Islam, pro-Kurdish, and antigovernment counterparts were quickly broken up. Last year, as demonstrations spread, security forces were given the green light by the regime to disperse protests by shooting civilians and leaving them to die in the street.
THE DAMASCUS SPRING It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 2000, when Bashar took over, Syrians were hopeful that the new Western-educated president would begin dismantling the security state. Proud citizens met in private homes to discuss reforms in a movement that was called the Damascus Spring. Intellectuals signed the “Statement of the 99,” a manifesto demanding an end to martial law and the freeing of political prisoners. Bashar even gave them a reason for hope when he shut down Mezzeh Prison, long reviled for its brutal treatment of inmates. But this hope did not last long.
In August 2001, the regime cracked down on would-be reformers, arresting prominent members of the discussion groups that it had been tolerating, charging people with “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife.”
The hope in the West is, of course, that once Assad is toppled, the rebels will institute a free and democratic society and everyone will live happily ever after; however, the presence of jihadists fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army indicates that the country could potentially replace secular authoritarianism with theocratic oppression if religious extremism is left unchecked.