horrya

Understanding the Syrian Revolution Under 4 Minutes

Published on Mar 6, 2012

In which John Green provides some historical context to the current civil war in Syria, discussing Syrian independence, the rise of the Ba’ath Party, Syria’s relationship with the rest of the Arab world (and Russia), the Presidencies of Hafez al Assad and Bashar al Assad, the Arab Spring protests in Syria, and the many flags of the Syrian nation.

syria tornado

Welcome to Free Syria

by Anand Gopal

Abu Malek was pacing back and forth in the hospital parking lot, muttering to himself and firing off phone calls. “Don’t say ‘How are you’ to me,” he told one caller, “because I am not fine, I am very, very, very, very bad.” The hospital was in the Turkish town of Antakya, and the staff was treating several rebels who had been wounded in the fighting across the border in Syria, about ten miles away. The Syrian army was in the midst of a major offensive, sweeping through one northern town after another with tanks and heavy artillery, trying to kill as many rebel fighters as possible before April 12, when a ceasefire brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan would go into effect. The revolution had been grinding on for more than a year, and as many as 10,000 people had died already.

From Turkey, Malek had followed events closely and stayed in contact with his family in the northern town of Taftanaz. (Malek’s name and those of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed.) Soon after he learned that the army had surrounded Taftanaz, phone lines were cut, so he sent a friend to retrieve his family. The friend returned with the news that Malek’s mother was missing, his cousins were missing, and his house had been razed.

The government had lost control of Taftanaz near the start of the revolution, and an intricate system of popularly elected councils called tansiqiyyat had been created over the past year—“like miniparliaments, a government for us,” as Malek put it. He had been chosen to represent Taftanaz in Turkey, where he raised funds and cultivated contacts with the international community. He was proud of the rebel councils—they were proof that Syria did not need President Bashar al-Assad—but he worried that the other council members had been captured or killed.

Malek agreed to help me get to Taftanaz, but he demanded information in return: “I want to know if my family survived—and I want to know if my revolution survived.”


Traveling with me from the Turkish border to Taftanaz was Wassim Omar, an acquaintance of Malek’s whom I would see several times during the week I spent in Syria. He had access to a network of revolutionaries along the way, almost all of them friends he had made during the uprising. Our driver avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads; with the mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.

Omar had been studying Arabic literature at Aleppo University before the revolution began. Now he traveled between Turkey and Syria often, smuggling rebel propaganda and supplies. This was his first trip back over the border since reports of the army’s campaign in Taftanaz had reached Antakya.

The roads were empty, and in the tiny mountain towns the shops stood shuttered and padlocked. The rebels once maintained checkpoints openly in daylight, but now they confined their activity to the nighttime. “If you could have seen this place before the fighting,” Omar told me. “It was alive.”

We had yet to come across any villages touched by violence. But then, as we pulled into the town of Killi, about ten miles south of the border, we saw a multistory granite house with a collapsed roof, yawning holes in its façade, and rubble everywhere. Omar gasped.

According to locals, Syrian aircraft had circled overhead for days, taking reconnaissance photos as almost all civilians and rebels fled the village. Then, on April 6—four days before we arrived—tanks came and fired from close range at this house and more than a dozen others. Soldiers had a list of those who had gone to protests or were involved in the rebel movement, and they went from house to house hunting them. Because most of the townspeople had left, however, there were very few arrests or casualties.

On the outskirts of Killi, I found one of those who had stayed behind. Nizar Abdo lived in a housing complex built around a central courtyard. When the soldiers arrived, Abdo hid in a neighbor’s house. He watched through the shutters as a tank wheeled in front of his property, took aim, and fired. Afterward soldiers bulldozed the remains.

Standing where his house had once been, Abdo admitted that he had attended a few protests during the start of the revolution. He said he had never been political; more basic frustrations drove him: “You have to pay money to get a job, otherwise the government won’t help. . . . You have to pay bribes.”

Now homeless, he was unsure where he would go. But, embittered as he was, he still tried to see an upside. “At least,” he said, “we aren’t Taftanaz.”


The 15,000 residents of Taftanaz are mostly farmers and traders: rows of olive trees stretch outward in every direction, although in recent years drought has browned patches of them. The town is typical of northern Syria; there are dozens like it nearby, an archipelago of villages known for their Babylonian cuneiform tablets and preserved sections of Roman road. Life there is slow, conservative, and pious.

Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria has been ruled by an alliance between Assad’s mainly Alawite military and wealthy Sunni businessmen from the cities. The government provides food subsidies, jobs programs, and funds for rural development for the people of places like Taftanaz, but in return demands absolute fealty. Businesses favored by the regime win no-bid and below-market contracts, creating what Syria scholar Bassam Haddad called “a crony capitalist state par excellence.”

When Bashar al-Assad became president after his father’s death in 2000, he tried to liberalize the country’s economy. The government eased price controls on basic goods like fertilizer and animal feed. It reduced subsidies to the oil sector, leading to a 42 percent jump in the price of fuel. Meanwhile, a vicious drought dried up the countryside, prompting thousands to flee to provincial towns like Homs and Idlib, or to smaller communities like Taftanaz, which did not have the capacity to absorb the influx.

“There were no jobs, and if you found one, you had to see the mukhabarat,” the secret police, for permission to work, Omar said. “If you wanted to buy a house or travel outside the country, you needed to see them.” Office workers moonlighted as cab drivers. Farmers doubled as scrap dealers. In every corner of society, but especially in the countryside, the social contract holding the Assad regime together was failing.


On March 6, 2011, a group of adolescent boys, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, painted antigovernment graffiti on walls in the desert town of Daraa. After word spread that the boys had been arrested, Daraa’s streets filled with protesters. In Binnish, a few miles down the highway from Taftanaz, Omar and his friends watched the news in amazement. Later that week, fifteen of them gathered late at night at a mosque to plan a protest, making signs with anti-regime slogans.

The following day, they stepped into the town’s main square for the first protest of their lives. Omar was terrified: he knew the price of his actions would be imprisonment, and that the regime could target his family. But, to his surprise, the people of Binnish joined in. They came from all over town, shouting, “Daraa, we are with you! We in Binnish are with you!”

By April 2011, demonstrations were popping up all across the country. The Syrian army tried to cut them down, firing on and killing scores of civilians, only to inspire further protests. The mukhabarat, meanwhile, targeted the core activists in each town. One afternoon, agents showed up at Omar’s door. “They treated me like a toy, throwing me here and there,” he recalled. He said he was kept in captivity for two months, frequently strapped to a gurney, electrocuted, and beaten. A general finally released Omar after he promised to stay away from politics. When he left prison, he went straight to a demonstration.


Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian elite remained glued together in the face of the protests. But the conscript army started to buckle, and some soldiers found they could not fire on their countrymen. I had met one of them in Turkey, a twenty-seven-year-old named Abdullah Awdeh. He was serving in the elite 11th Armored Division, which put down protests around the country, when one day he was directed to confront demonstrators near Homs. Their commander said that the protesters were armed terrorists, but when Awdeh arrived he saw only men and women with their families: boys perched atop their fathers’ shoulders, girls with their faces painted in the colors of the Syrian flag, mothers waving banners. He decided to desert.

By June 2011, there were hundreds like him; nearly every day, another uniformed soldier faced a camera, held up his military identity card, and professed support for the revolution for the entire world to see on YouTube. These deserters joined what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army. (When I met some of them just after I crossed the border, they told me, “Welcome to Free Syria.”) Awdeh, with his aviator sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana jeans, assumed command of a group of nearly a hundred fighters.

Many activists worried about the militarization of the conflict, which pulled peaceful protesters into a confrontation with a powerful army that they could not defeat. But in small towns like Taftanaz, where government soldiers had repeatedly put down demonstrations with gunfire and thrown activists in prison, desperation trumped long-term strategy. Abu Malek likened the actions of the rebels to those of a mother: “She may seem innocent, but try to take away her children and how will she act? Like a criminal animal. That’s what we are being reduced to, in order to defend our families and our villages.”

In Taftanaz, fighters from the FSA started protecting demonstrations, quietly standing in the back and watching for mukhabarat. For the first time, the balance of power shifted in favor of the revolution, so much so that government forces could no longer operate openly. Party officials and secret agents vanished, leaving the town to govern itself.

This created new problems: courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home. To fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.

Syrian authorities repeatedly sent tanks in to Taftanaz and neighboring villages, targeting the new council members. After every intrusion, the rebels would reassemble. But on April 3, the Syrian forces returned to Taftanaz, this time to end the insurgency there once and for all.


When I reached Taftanaz on April 9, the air in the town stank of manure, hay, and gunpowder. The smell of smoke grew more powerful near houses, and once inside you found your eyes watering and your throat burning. Many of the locals who were left had taken to wearing surgical masks.

Every fourth or fifth house was completely destroyed; many of those still standing had black streaks climbing outward from the window frames. Boys were scrubbing graffiti off the walls: ASSAD, OR THE COUNTRY BURNS, signed by THE ASSAD DEATH BRIGADE 76.

For three days I explored the gutted town, speaking to everyone I could about the battle. I spent my nights in a neighboring village—government soldiers conducted raids in the evening—but each day I returned to learn more.

On the first day, I sought out Abu Malek’s relatives—almost everyone knew him—and found Abdullah Rami, a young man with sunken cheeks and a hard stare. He had been a university student, but “the revolution makes choices for you,” he said, and now he was a rebel sniper. He described for me what had happened on April 3.

It began early in the morning, when helicopters appeared above Taftanaz and fired into the town center. Then, around 7:00 A.M., the mortars started. (A farmer named Muhammad Abdul Haseeb was at home at the time. “I got all the children and women together and ran out,” he told me later. “One of the shells dropped really close by, but I couldn’t see where it hit. Later I learned that it killed my brother.”)

Most of the residents escaped. By around 9:00 A.M., tanks had arrived at the outskirts of town, and they shot at anything that moved. A plump forty-six-year-old man named Massous had loaded dozens of relatives into his truck and was about to turn onto the main highway when he saw a tank about a thousand feet away. It fired and hit his truck, killing his father and mother and injuring his ten-year-old daughter.

Around the same time, nearly a hundred men gathered inside a house near the town’s center to decide whether to retreat, as rebels elsewhere had done, or stay and fight. A few dozen chose the former, but most stayed. “We didn’t want to end up like other cities, crawling back after the army leaves,” Rami said. “Our neighbors needed something to believe in.”

As the army shelled the town, the men spread throughout the warren of low-slung concrete buildings, onto rooftops, into homes, and through alleyways. Rami went to the main road through town and helped bury I.E.D.’s, most of them assembled in Turkey and smuggled into the country, and rebels hid nearby with the detonators.

Around noon, a tank approached the building where Rami was hiding. A second pulled up alongside it and swung its turret slowly around. Then Rami heard a deafening boom and saw the tank pop up in the air—an I.E.D. explosion, which he had captured on video and later showed off proudly. After a few minutes, the second tank was also struck as it tried to retreat.

Across town, another rebel group was in a firefight, and Rami could hear the reports from their Kalashnikovs. The rebels used civilian houses as cover and, at one point, trapped soldiers in an alleyway and shot them all.

By late afternoon, though, the advantage had shifted to the army. Soldiers left their tanks to circumvent the I.E.D.’s and fought their way to the center of town. They surrounded a house full of rebels, a few of whom climbed to the roof to signal surrender. The troops responded with heavy fire, killing almost everyone inside and out.

By sunset, soldiers returned to their tanks or were billeted in homes (both sides, lacking night-vision goggles, avoided fighting after dark). The rebels regrouped in a house on the town’s edge. There Rami learned that his brother had been killed.

A short while later, his mother sent word to him that soldiers had found the shelter where Taftanaz’s women were hiding. They threatened to take revenge on the women if the fight continued. Dejected and cornered, the men voted to retreat. By sunrise, there were no rebels left.


Saleh Ghazal, a member of Taftanaz’s large Ghazal clan, was a stubborn man. After a sniper’s bullet struck his grandson Muhammad, a medical volunteer who had tended to wounded fighters, his family decided to flee. But the old man insisted on staying behind. He would mourn in his own way, he said, in the home he had grown old in, in the town his grandson had died for. And besides, he figured, the army would have no interest in an eighty-two-year-old.

On the morning of April 4, soldiers from the 76th Armored Brigade returned to town. They came with officials from the Military Intelligence Directorate and armed Alawite civilians referred to as shabeeha. When soldiers burst through Saleh Ghazal’s front door, he hid upstairs in his bedroom. They raced from room to room, shouting out the names of his family members, loudly enough for neighbors to hear. When they found Ghazal, they shot him, then lit his corpse on fire. As it burned, they went downstairs and wrote a message on the wall in silver paint: NOBODY CONTROLS SYRIA EXCEPT BASHAR. Then they doused the floors with gasoline and set the place ablaze.

The soldiers visited every house in the neighborhood. As they neared Mustafa Ahmed Ahad’s place, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Soldiers ransacked the house and set it on fire. A few days later, Mustafa’s eighty-seven-year-old father, Ahmed, returned to find his house a pile of blackened rubble and his son missing. Eventually he found Mustafa’s charred remains buried under slabs of fallen concrete. “He was poor, he was a worker,” the elder Ahad said. “He was a grandfather, he didn’t go to demonstrations.”

A large number of women, the elderly, and aid workers had taken refuge in the basement of Rahim Ghazal’s centrally located home. “They broke into the house and found the door to the basement,” one of the women told me. “The gunmen ordered everyone upstairs and took the men with them for questioning. They ordered us to go back downstairs, and then we heard gunfire.”

Government forces dragged nine men and boys outside, lined them up against a wall, and executed them. The soldiers came back to the basement and selected five additional men, then took them to a nearby shop, where they were lined up and executed. Two volunteers for the Red Crescent were shot in the yard outside Ghazal’s house. By the time Syrian troops left that evening, there was not much left of Taftanaz. In each house, the story was the same: any male who was found was summarily executed, and his house was burned.

At least forty-nine civilians were killed in the massacre, and nearly 500 houses were destroyed. On my second day in town, I saw a crowd of wailing women surrounding a pickup truck. In the back, flies swarmed around a tar-black decomposing body. The missing flesh above the mandibles exposed what looked to be a set of gold teeth. A group of men pushed a teenage girl toward the truck; upon seeing the teeth, she crumpled with a shriek of recognition. It was Jamil Setoot, an office worker who had been heading to his job in Aleppo on the morning of April 3. As he waited by the highway for a taxi, soldiers were moving into Taftanaz. They shot him and tossed him into a field, then killed the cows and sheep in the area for good measure. When the property’s owner returned days later he found Setoot’s body lying among the animal carcasses.

I went to Abu Malek’s home and found that it, too, had been burned to the ground. After relatives cleared the rubble, they found a body too badly disfigured to identify. They added it and about thirty others to a mass grave on the town’s edge. Many of the tombstones there mark the remains of Malek’s relatives. At some point during the killing, locals watched as a Syrian soldier refused to carry out an order and was executed. They retrieved his body later and interred him in the mass grave, marking his tombstone simply as SOLDIER.

A second mass grave sat on the opposite side of town, where more corpses are buried, rebels alongside civilians. Next to it, a large hole had been dug. A little boy was playing nearby, and when he saw me peering into the hole, he pointed to it and said, “For when they come back.”


Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”

During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”

Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”

All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria. The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)

Most opposition towns elect a delegate to one of the fifty or so district-wide councils across the country. At the next level up is the Syrian Revolution General Command, the closest thing to a nationwide revolutionary institution. It claims to represent 70 percent of the district-wide councils. The SRGC coordinates protests and occasionally gives the movement political direction: activists in Taftanaz told me that they sometimes followed its suggestions concerning their publications.

The SRGC sends representatives to the Syrian National Council, the expatriate body based in Turkey that has been Washington’s main interlocutor, but the relationship between the two organizations is complicated, and many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. “Who are they?” Omar asked me. “What have they done? They are busy talking to foreigners but they don’t know the situation inside Syria.”

I asked Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst who studies the Syrian opposition at the Institute for the Study of War, about the U.S. approach to these two different rebel organizations. She said she doubted the usefulness of “supporting a group like the SNC, which on paper pays tribute to all the Western ideals we hold dear but has absolutely no legitimacy on the ground.”

Washington officials, however, have said they prefer to deal with known quantities like the SNC rather than the grassroots opposition, which operates deep inside the country and whose leaders usually stay anonymous to stay alive. To complicate matters, some towns have competing councils. The various bodies have only recently begun to formalize their vision of a post-Assad society, even if their constituent elements are already carrying this vision out in practice.


The village of al-Fua runs right up against Binnish. The two look almost indistinguishable—the same shabby buildings, the same patches of drying olive groves. But whereas Binnish is a town mobilized from top to bottom in support of the revolution, al-Fua is a Shia village, a rarity in the swath of Sunni countryside around Taftanaz, and its residents support Assad’s government.

Many Sunnis see the Shia and Shia Alawites as inseparable from the regime; the Shia and Alawites, for their part, fear Sunni reprisals. Revolutionaries in Binnish told me that their town had escaped the army’s northern offensive because they promised to massacre al-Fua if they were touched. Even Matar, with his talk of the French Revolution and equality, told me, “I have relations with everyone, with Christians, with Druze, with all kinds of people—but not with Shia.”

Liberal activists from Syria’s cities are dismayed at this divide, but theirs is a revolt so different from that of the conservative countryside that they seem, at times, like two different uprisings stitched together. The revolutionaries have failed to make significant headway in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, where, despite a few recent bombings, the alliance of the industrialist aristocracy and the Assad security apparatus remains firmly in place, and where the well-heeled see the countryside awash in chaos (a Bloomberg headline from April read: “Syria Elite Dance to Dawn as Risk of Assad Collapse Fades”).

Rebels in rural communities have been pulled deep into asymmetric warfare, which has opened the uprising to more radical influences. Omar told me that Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who have operated underground for years, have openly joined the revolt in Binnish, although “they keep to themselves.”

On the way back to the border, our driver celebrated the Sunni fighters and sang songs poking fun at the Shia, Iran, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Omar had arranged for his comrades to take me back to Turkey while he stayed on in Binnish to prepare the next issue of Revolutionary Words. Darkness had fallen, the army offensive had given way to a shaky ceasefire, and rebels thought they had the roads to themselves. But when we approached a checkpoint, it wasn’t clear whether it was controlled by rebels, by the army, or by the Alawite shabeeha. The driver swerved abruptly onto the shoulder and sent one of the passengers into a nearby village to fetch another vehicle, which carried me onward via side roads while the first car headed through the checkpoint as a decoy.

We reached the border just after dawn. I ran across a field with a Syrian refugee family at my side, heading toward a barbed-wire fence. We found a gap and crawled through to Turkey.


When I handed Abu Malek my notebook filled with the names of the Taftanaz dead, he fell silent. After a while, he said, “I feel like I am about to burst.” He pointed to the names: “He was just a teacher; he had a small piece of land, that’s all; I had spoken to him just last week.” Nineteen members of Malek’s family had been killed.

Later that day, another relative from Taftanaz made it across the border to report that seven more bodies had been found, some of them apparently executed in a lineup. “Before, I just wanted to kill Bashar al-Assad,” Malek said. “But now I must kill all of his family.”

Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. “I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?’ ” Malek recalled. “ ‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We’re inside, we aren’t cowards like you.’ ”

Malek called the Free Syrian Army a “fiction” meant to give Western governments an impression of unity. When I asked Ibrahim Matar’s commander in Taftanaz about the FSA leadership, he answered, “If I ever see those dogs here I’ll shoot them myself.” The Turkey-based commanders exert no control over armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, although they often coordinate their activities.

The ceasefire barely held up for a day, and in June a U.N. official described the conflict as a civil war. In Turkey, Malek continued to raise funds and buy weapons for the Taftanaz rebels. Once, I went with him to a tiny office in a working-class section of Antakya, where he haggled with a man over the price of roadside-bomb detonators, the use of which Malek said he had learned from “a friend in another country.”

Some of the rebel groups had contacts with the United States, which was helping to coordinate the flow of money from the governments of the Gulf states. Others were developing their own patrons, a sort of privatization of the armed movement similar to what took place in Libya. Malek received a steady stream of visitors, mostly wealthy businessmen, from the Gulf. He knew that such pacts were dangerous, but he believed the exigencies of war demanded them.

Still, in Taftanaz the revolt felt intensely local. On my last afternoon there, as the muezzin’s noon call to prayer sounded, I walked through the town’s central square. It was Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Muslim world. You could feel everywhere the heavy atmosphere of defeat: the town had been reduced to heaps of rotting trash and broken concrete, and not much else. And yet after the prayers were over, men and boys left the mosques and headed toward the square. Waving the old pre-Assad Syrian flag, they chanted, “God loves the martyr! God is the greatest!”

The Syrian army’s helicopters buzzed overhead, watching. Protesters climbed atop the ruined buildings surrounding the square and waved their banners. This was the first demonstration since the massacre. Here and there in the melee men burst into tears as they saw friends and relatives for the first time. The protest was a ritual of survival, part of a revolution that seemingly can’t be won yet somehow refuses to be extinguished. On a mound of twisted metal and concrete shards that had once been a house, a group unfurled a banner that read, EVEN FROM THE RUBBLE, WE WILL FIGHT THE REGIME.

 

anti-Assad-demonstration--007

Decoding the Syrian Propaganda War

by Anand Gopal

(originally published in Harper’s)

Last month, video emerged from the Syrian town of Tremseh showing scores of blood-sodden bodies of children and adults, some with cracked skulls and slit throats, all of them purported victims of the Syrian army. As the camera panned across the grisly tableau, an anguished commentator read out the names of the dead and cried, “God is greater!” The Syrian National Council, an umbrella rebel group, announced that 305 people had been killed, making Tremseh the gravest massacre of the fifteen-month-long uprising. Hillary Clinton decried this “indisputable evidence that the regime murdered innocent civilians,” and the United Nations issued its strongest condemnation of Syria to date.

Anand Gopal writes frequently about the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of “Welcome to Free Syria,” in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His book about the war in Afghanistan is forthcoming from Henry Holt.

But there was a problem—no one had actually visited the town. The New York Times,for instance, reported the story from Beirut and New York, relying solely on statements and video from anti-Assad activists and the testimony of a man from “a nearby village” who visited the scene afterward. When the first U.N. investigators arrived two days later, they uncovered a very different story. Instead of an unprovoked massacre of civilians, the evidence pointed to a pitched battle between resistance forces and the Syrian army. Despite rebel claims that there had been no opposition fighters in Tremseh, it turned out that guerrillas had bivouacked in the town, and that most of the dead were in fact rebels. Observers also downgraded the death toll to anywhere from forty to a hundred.

The battles of the Syrian revolution are, among other things, battles of narrative. As I recount in “Welcome to Free Syria,” the regime has indeed committed grievous massacres, including one I saw evidence of in the northern town of Taftanaz. The Assad government also puts forth a narrative—the country is under siege from an alliance of criminal gangs, Al Qaeda, and the CIA—that is quite removed from reality. Yet there is also a powerful pull in the West to order a messy reality into a simple and self-serving narrative. The media, which largely favors the revolution, has at times uncritically accepted rebel statements and videos—which themselves often originate from groups based outside the country—as the whole story. This in turn provides an incentive for revolutionaries to exaggerate. A Damascus-based activist told me that he had inflated casualty numbers to foreign media during the initial protests last year in Daraa, because “otherwise, no one would care about us.”

Some in the West are equally uncritical in their skepticism toward the revolutionaries. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recently declared that as many as a quarter of Syrian rebel groups may be inspired by Al Qaeda—which, according to those who have been inside and met the resistance, is simply not the case. Al Qaeda–style groups can be found among the revolutionaries, but they remain rare. Moreover, radical Islam is far more complex than Washington tends to appreciate. I’ve met beer-guzzling Syrian rebels who carried the black Al Qaeda flag, but for whom this was no contradiction: Islamist stylings in Syria are typically part performance vocabulary, part unifying norm in a riven society, part symbolic invocation of guerrilla struggle in a post–Iraq War world, and part expression of pure faith.

How do we pick through the signaling? There’s still no substitute for on-the-ground reporting (another recent New York Times article that was reported entirely outside Syria sounded alarm at Al Qaeda taking “a deadly new role in the conflict”). But we also need to examine our epistemic framework for the revolution. Syrians are fighting for complex reasons that often do not conform to the way Western leaders have ordered their knowledge of the world: “moderate” versus “extremist” or Western-style democracy versus dictatorship. As my feature illustrates, some of the revolutionaries have established councils that look unlike our institutions, but that are deeply democratic in their own way. Others adore Western-style social liberalism but scoff at the West’s free-market ethos. Others seek some variety of religious law. And most probably don’t know yet what they want, except to live in dignity, free from political and economic repression.

But the complexity doesn’t end there, because, as I realized during my visit, the revolutionaries themselves face a powerful need to order facts in certain ways. The rebels I met in Idlib Governorate spoke of every defeat they suffered as a tactical retreat. Or they insisted that their uprising was supported by all minorities, even as it was becoming unmistakably sectarian. Such claims are designed in part, to be sure, for foreign consumption, but they also serve the rebels themselves. They create value and meaning in what might otherwise be a state of anomie, cohering people around a just and fruitful cause even as families are slaughtered and the regime stands unbroken. Following a devastating series of defeats in northern Syria this spring, I asked a rebel commander there whether he thought Assad would ever fall. “Of course,” he replied. “I know we will win—otherwise, why would we still fight?”

eL seed

Iran, Women’s Rights and the Arab Spring

For each woman that is imprisoned, another will take her place and swell the ranks of the women’s movement. -Shrine Ebadi, Iranian Noble Peace Prize winner, 2004.

The stories of sweeping reform across the Middle East has captured the attention of many of us. In this week’s Weekly Rights Podcast, Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, talks to the Campaign about the effect that Arab Spring has had, and will have, on women. She talks about her new book, The Unfinished Revolution, which is a collection of women’s stories of struggle and defiance from around the world. Her book includes essays from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and women’s rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign Sussan Tahmasebi, who discuss the status of women in Iran. Minky also discusses the role of women in the protests and uprisings in Iran, and how they have affected women in the Arab Spring.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran – Podcast 49: Women in Iran with Minky Worden.

Islamic School for Girls

An Islamic School for Girls

 

by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix

In 1982, when she was just 17 years old, Houda al-Habash opened the doors to her Qur’an

school for women and girls at the Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Houda is representative of a pioneering generation of women in the Middle East who have begun to study Islam within the mosque like their fathers, uncles and brothers — a trend that is reshaping the region. We made the film because despite the influence of schools like Houda’s, stories about them are still rare.

In the film, inside her organized and lively school, Houda teaches her students about women’s rights within Islam and encourages them to take their secular education seriously. She and her students are engaged in a debate about women’s roles in the modern world, similar to the debates we find in our own culture. In the end, we were more compelled by the similarities than the differences in that debate.

The Syria we left when we finished shooting in November 2010 has drastically changed because of the popular uprising against PresidentBashar al-Assad’s regime. Houda is no longer teaching at her school; like many Syrians with the financial means, she and her family left the country to live in the Arabian Peninsula. Houda’s daughter, Enas, has said, “A light has gone out in our community,” because it is no longer safe to go to the mosque. It is impossible to know what will happen in Syria, but Houda certainly gave her students a foundation of faith and discipline to face the challenges before them.

This Op-Doc is adapted from “The Light in Her Eyes,” a feature-length documentary about Houda al-Habash.

Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix are the directors and producers of “The Light in Her Eyes,” which will be broadcast on the PBS series “POV.” Ms. Meltzer’s work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and the Sharjah Biennial. Ms. Nix’s work includes directing the feature documentary “Whether You Like It or Not” and producing “The Yes Men Fix the World.”

 

Assad Wake Up Your Time is Up

Lebanon, the Sectarianization of Politics, & Genderalizing the Arab Uprisings

The following interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Maya Mikdashi was conducted by Eugenio Dacrema for the Istituto per gli studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI)

Eugenio Dacrema (ED): A Few days ago a new session of the National Dialogue council started in Beirut, hosted by the president Souliman. The list of issue which will be discussed is officially very long, but obviously the main issues are related to the recent events occurred especially in Tripoli, but also in Beirut. Why is Syria so important for the political stability of Lebanon? Can you draw for us a picture of what is happening? 

Maya Mikdashi (MM): I think we are seeing several things happening. First we are seeing the reality that everybody has arms and they are not afraid to use them. We are also seeing that the Lebanese army is not confident enough to take a strong stance in the North for several reasons, one of which is that as a national institution has always been rather weak and has always been afraid of interfering with the Lebanese factions. The fear is that the army itself would begin to divide into different factions.

But definitely the longer that Syria continues to be in this violent uprising, Lebanon will become more destabilized, and every single group in Lebanon may get involved in what is happening in Syria.

The question about potential “winners” or “losers” (although these words are clearly insufficient) resulting from regime change in Syria must take into account the fact that the entire Lebanese political class has at one point or the other been allied to the Asad regime, either the son or the father. Beyond Hizbollah and a focus on assumed sectarian affinities to Syrian communities fuelling the conflict in Lebanon today, all political groups and political parties would lose either a past, current or potential political ally in the Asad regime. The Lebanese business class would lose its alliance with the Syrian business class; alliances across these different kinds of actors deserve more attention.

In the press we often read about Lebanese Sunni allied with the Syrian Sunnis against the Asad regime, and Shi‘a Lebanese allied to ‘Alawis in Syria who are allied to Asad regime.

This is an extremely disingenuous and insufficient reading of what is happening. I think it is much more of a political dispute that is increasingly becoming sectarian as the uprising in Syria itself becomes more sectarian and is packaged in a way such that “sect” is the political marker that matters the most. I think that we need to be critical of this packaging. It is almost as if Arabs are not allowed to have ideological, ethical, political, economic, or social stances on current (and even historical) events. We (Arabs) have sects, not politics.

This is a part of a larger phenomenon we see across the Middle East where politics are always represented in sectarian terms. This happens for many reasons, one of which is a proxy war against Iran that is being fought, in concert with American and Israeli interests, by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Also we cannot really underestimate the effects of the American occupation of Iraq and the sectarianization of that state. I think the effects of that (ongoing) occupation have yet to be understood fully in terms of the sectarianization of the discourse about politics in the Middle East. History will show that the United State’s restructuring of the Iraqi state along sectarian lines (modelled in part on Lebanon) was informed by colonial discourses of indirect rule. By contributing to the hardening and the ethnicization of these identities, the United States is directly implicated in the increasing sectarianism across the region.

When people talk about what is happening in Lebanon today, they just say for example the Sunnis and the Shi‘ites are fighting a “mirror battle” of the one in Syria. However, like I said, people in Lebanon have been allied to the Syrian regime for many reasons, economically, politically, and also in terms of sectarian affiliation or sectarian concern (such as Christian leaders in Lebanon expressing concern for Syrian Christians in a post-Asad era).

We also have to understand that Tripoli and the North of Lebanon are intimately connected to Syria, economically, historically, and culturally. Trade, familial, and social ties make this a very intimate relationship. It is almost to be expected that that border, which has always been porous (and not only in terms of arms or illegal smugglings, but also in terms of marriage, familial unifications, food and supply smuggling, that occur across that border), has became the main point of connection between Lebanon and the events in Syria.

ED: The first doubts are coming out when we see different Sunni factions divided about Asad.

MM: Right, that’s the thing. In Beirut, for example, the fights around the Arab university were actually between two Sunni factions, over a political debate, which was whether or not to support Hizbollah and to a lesser extent, the Asad regime in Syria. The other thing is that when we say “the Sunni community,” I do not think it is very obvious what we are talking about, right? One (albeit small) faction is geopolitically allied to Hizbollah, and the other isn’t. And obviously the one which is allied to Hizbollah is pro Syrian regime. In addition, many people from all sects support Hizbollah as a resistance group. The assumption that March 14 or anyone else “speaks for Sunnis” is itself sectarian, and to be honest, infantalizing. It’s a continuation of the idea that Arabs follow their patriarchal “strongmen” blindly, which itself is an Orientalist discourse that weaves together ideas about tribalism, sectarianism, and patriarchy.

But I want to make this very clear: the alliance between Hizbollah and the Syrian regime is not a sectarian alliance. It is a political alliance that centres around Hizbollah’s continued ability to militarily resist Israeli colonization and occupation. And when it comes to the resistance to Israel, this is really a political issue that transcends sectarian lines in both Lebanon and in Syria. A large portion of the Lebanese population, regardless of class, sect, age or gender agree on this cause-even if they do not agree with Hizbollah’s economic or political platforms. How could they not, given that Israel’s viscous and multiple occupations and invasions of Lebanon? How could they not, when over 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, a constant reminder of the nakba and its ongoing tragedies? After all, Lebanese and Lebanese-Palestinian resistance to Israel is much older than Hizbollah.

ED: In your post on Jadaliyya “2011, a memory from Lebanon,” you explain a very interesting thing: “Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future.” Explain to us this affirmation, is the sectarian state the dictator to topple in Lebanon?

MM: What I try to explain in this article, is why we are not going to see the same kind of uprising in Lebanon that we have seen in Egypt and Tunis, and than in Libya, Syria, Bahrain in all their different articulations.

The reason is that there is no centralized authoritarian leader in Lebanon, that is the basic answer, but there are other reasons for this as well. Lebanese history itself is a battleground and the effects these different histories have on public consciousness (or consciousnesses) in Lebanon must be thought about when discussing the political climate.

For example, people “remember” the reasons for the 1975-1990 civil war in different ways. There is no national narrative that is acceptable to everyone, and there is no public debate that hashes out these different perspectives. So, for example, some people use the narrative that the 1975-1990 war was a war of outsiders in Lebanon; they blame Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis, the US and the USSR. Others believe that this war that aimed to cripple Palestinian resistance. And of course there was an ideological debate between factions that supported a more conservative, Maronite dominated, free market oriented sort of government, or those who supported a more radical and reformist government in addition to power restructuring and redistribution. And then there was also the sectarian factor, in addition to the burdens of radically changing economic realities and stagnation. The point is that depending on who you are in Lebanon, what space you occupy, you will focus on a different narrative of that war, and as long as people focus on this different narratives and there is no national resolution, or even a debate on it, it is impossible to imagine one common political future. Mahmood Mamdani argues that a historical community is one that is oriented towards a common past, and a political community is one that is oriented towards a common future. Unfortunately, in Lebanon we cannot imagine a common future as long as these separate and contesting pasts continue to unfold into the present.

Another example is the 2006 war with Israel. It underlined a very different set of socio-political memories that were then lived in the present. In the 2006 war one million people were displaced from their homes by the Israeli war machine, and as they moved into other parts of Lebanon, they were welcomed by many of their co-citizens. The Lebanese state was revealed, again, to be a shell hollowed out by corruption and ineptitude, and civil society actors and independent citizens stepped in to fill the gap. But there is also another memory of similar refugee population during the civil war that completely changed the demographic of the rest of the country. So you started to see two different discourses one which was “we have been displaced, we are bearing the cost of this national struggle,” and these were the people from the South of Lebanon, while people from Beirut, for example, say “well, this is scary, because the last time that this happened during the civil war the demographics of the city changed irrevocably, in terms of sects but also in terms of classes.” People lost homes and property because refugees from South Lebanon needed somewhere to go, and the state was completely negligent and deficient. Thus the state’s inability and to some extent its refusal to deal with massive population displacement due to war has pitted Lebanese citizens against each other, rather than coming together and demanding that the state take care and protect the rights of all its citizens.

Now obviously people focus on this as a sectarian issue: A majority Shi‘ite population coming to areas that were not majority Shi`ite. But what was not discussed was that the massive population displacement in 2006 was one in a series of many displacements. The anxieties, emotions, and memories it brought up need to be understood as having been part of the political discourses proliferating among different Lebanese factions at that time. When thinking about politics, we tend to only focus on rational, conscious thought. But political emotions and memories also play a big role in the political choices and actions of people. Politics is not always a rational process.

ED: You wrote much about the phenomenon of “genderalization” in the Middle East. How is the gender issue treated in the Arab spring and its different contexts? Why, in your opinion, are very similar behaviours and traditions in many other parts of the world not seen in the same critical way when they do not come from a “Islamic environment”? 

MM: Genderalization in the Arab uprising – in the sense of how the discourse about gender has been generalized – I think can be exemplified in three ways, one being the continuation of this sort of common equation of gender with women and sexual minorities, as if men are not gendered. This can be because people understand gender as being about oppression, something that is only about how it affects you, rather than how it produces you and the way you interact with the world in different ways. Gender analysis is like class analysis, it is not something one can be outside of, rather it structures the possibilities of your life. Understanding gender as synonymous with women and LGBTQ peoples is like talking about class but only in relation to the working class or the one percent without taking into account the economic system in both its structural and informal aspects. That is what a gender analysis that only takes into account women and LGBTQ people is like. When we continue excluding men from our gender analysis we are furthering patriarchy by positing heterosexual men (or anyone who does not explicitly identify as non-heterosexual) as the normative and “empty centre” according to which everyone else is gendered.

The second point, when talking about the Arab uprisings, is an emphasis on what is going to happen to women and the LGBTQ people or sexual minorities in general. Of course, the concern is about what will happen to them as women or LGBTQ peoples, that is, as a separate and separable concern. This is usually directly linked to the fear of Islamism as it is coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt and perhaps Syria. Of course this an important concern, and women’s and LGBTQ rights are not a political bargaining chip (which in fact they are being used as today in the US presidential election). But they are also not a fad or a passing concern, and so we should be weary when there is a sudden worry about what may happen to women rights if Islamists come to power. A feminist is someone who struggles for gender justice no matter who is in power, whether it is a secular or an Islamist government. Secular states are just as good at engaging in gender oppression and discrimination as any religious government. Patriarchy is in fact something that unites both secular and religious powers because it is a hegemonic system, it is not something that is owned by one group or the other. Patriarchy is like capitalism: it is a hegemonic system, which is articulated in different ways. You can see this for example in Italy, right? The Vatican and the secular government are both patriarchal in different ways, and in fact patriarchy is something that brings them together, just as in Lebanon where patriarchy and neoliberalism are shared by both the March 8th coalition, and the March 14th coalition, even if they are officially political adversaries. They share a larger context of capitalist economic practices, in addition to patriarchal practices such as sexism and gender discrimination. I think patriarchy is something that has to be understood in this sense. It is not something that somebody has, and somebody does not have, it is a hegemonic discourse that brings different factions together in different ways.

I think that if we start to understand patriarchy like we understand capitalism then the mistake of understanding gender only in terms of women and/or sexual minorities would become exposed

The third point about how gender is spoken of when discussing the uprisings is the tendency of many people to judge the merits of the uprisings as linked to the progress on women and sexual minorities’ rights. Thus the legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it (always posited as the ungendered male) treats “their women” and “their gays.” This is really a continuation of understanding gender as something that only marks people who are not heterosexual men. And the localization of these concerns to the Middle East and to the Arab / Islamic world I think is an evidence of the fact that this concern has more to do with “Islamophobia” and “Arabophobia” than it has to do with feminism.

And it is very interesting how different parts of the world have been described in similar terms at different historical moments—always linked to the question of women’s rights. The Middle East, Africa, and South Asia (and increasingly, China) have been racialized around this question in similar ways. In the Arab world the causative factor linked to gender oppression is Islam and Arab “culture,” in Africa it is about tribalism, naturalized violence and irrationality, while in India we have discourses about gender oppression that contribute to racialization in different ways. Racialization is a process of explaining actions and practices such as sexism, sexual harassment or abuse as due to “natural” or “immutable” causes. “Culture” in this sense becomes causative for certain peoples and not others. So in Europe and in the United States sexism is explained as always an isolated incident that has nothing to do with “culture” or something immutably sexist in Christianity or in the white Euro-American male’s natural predilection towards violence. I recently saw a chart that aggregated the number of women killed in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends since September 11, 2011. The chart shows that more women have been killed in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends than Americans who were killed on September 11 in Iraq and in Afghanistan combined. And yet violence against women is not considered a public concern and is not understood as systematic. Instead, each of these deaths is explained as an isolated incident. But at some point, all of these isolated incidents come together and paint a picture of systemic violence and systemic normalization of this violence. What I am saying is not cultural relativism. It is a recognition that ifthere is a “war against women” being waged today, it is being waged internationally and in ways that are not always obviously discernible. We, as feminists, must struggle to understand the ways that patriarchy licenses gender injustice internationally and the ways it is wedded to racialized discourses in order to maintain and produce particular geopolitical and economic interests, alliances, and concerns.

When it comes to the Middle East, gender oppression is not understood in terms of isolated incidents. Instead, people attribute it to religion and Arab culture. Even self-proclaimed feminists (male and female) do so! I think in those moments we are seeing feminism being harnessed to Islamophobia. I think that if you look at the ways in which similar incidents are explained in radical different ways depending on the region or the country that they occur in, than you can start to see how the study of gender is being either misunderstood, or cynically used to promote other interests. After all, if the United States is so concerned about the rights of women in the Arab world where is the outrage over the egregious state of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia? Similarly, in Israel in the past several months there has been more media coverage on gender violence and gender discrimination among the ultra-orthodox in that country. And when you read about this in Israel, these episodes are described as practices of very small groups of people, who are on the “fringes” of Israeli society, but if the same things happen in Jordan, or in Syria, this must have something to do with Islam and the threat that Islam poses to women and LGBT minorities. When you read about similar incidents described in radically different ways depending on the place this incident occurs or depending on who the perpetrator is, you understand that this is not about a sustained struggle against patriarchy and the gender discriminations that it licenses, but rather it is operating as a vehicle for Arabophobia, Islamophobia, and the foreign policies of various nation states.

SyrianAngerRevolution

‘We live in fear of a massacre.’

Editor’s Note: Marie Colvin was a reporter with the Sunday Times and died of wounds sustained from an IED less than 48 hours after authoring this article. She had defied the Syrian government’s prohibition against international journalists coving the protests in Homs, Syria – and ultimately that protest would cost her life. The following is her final transmission. 

by: Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy 

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.

In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.

About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.

“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”

On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.

Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.”

The journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.

These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.

Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.

So a drive to Homs is a bone-rattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.

Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.

I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.

The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.

A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.

He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.

“My three friends died immediately.” The two men they had helped were also killed.

Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.

“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of home-made pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.

The clinic is merely a first-floor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-of-place domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.

The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.

Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.

Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brother-in-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.

There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.

Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.

Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”

Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?”

There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.

He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!”

If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.

Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.

Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.

“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”

Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.

If the Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.

The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.

Abu Sayeed, 46, a major- general who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.

The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.

The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren.

The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.

The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.

Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.

For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.

The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.

Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.

As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.

“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”

Asma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and the Syrian army’s brutal response.

Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.

Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.

She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”.

In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view.