Forgiving Syria

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On March 15, the war in Syria passed another unhappy milestone, raging for two long years. As the conflict continues, the truth of what is happening on the ground is hard to find. Journalists cannot move freely, and even humanitarian aid agencies struggle to operate. The positions of both sides are so polarized and, in the case of the rebels, it is often unclear who speaks for or who commands the men with guns. Whether it will become easier when there is peace will define whether Syria can rise again as a nation, whether the people can live together after so much conflict. When it ends—if it ends—Syrians will have a long journey to find the truth about what happened and to forgive their fellow countrymen.

The line between the two sides waging war in Syria is especially blurry, as the long conflict has turned neighbors against each other, split towns and cities, and fractured what seemed for so long one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. What started as a peaceful uprising against the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad rapidly turned violent, as the Assad regime used lethal force to subdue the tens of thousands who protested. The uprising is now heavily militarized, as ordinary citizens have taken up weapons and groups of citizens, army defectors, roaming militias, and foreign fighters have banded together under the mantle of the Free Syrian Army, fighting the Syrian military, which remains under the command of the Assad government.

The United Nations says Syria is in the midst of a full-scale civil war. From a population of just 22 million, 70,000 have been killed and more than 1 million have fled the country, straining neighbors, especially Lebanon, almost to the breaking point. Then there are the “hidden” refugees, the internally displaced, those who have left their homes for other parts of the country. The U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that around 2.5 million people, or more than 10 percent of the country, are internally displaced.

Syrians disagree with the designation of a civil war. Those who still support the Assad government, clinging ferociously to smaller and smaller parts of the country, raining fire and death on the rest, call it a rebellion, a term meant to convey that the Free Syrian Army has little domestic support and consists of terrorists with flags. Assad has called the uprising “an internal matter” and argues that mainly foreign—and foreign-sponsored—terrorists are carrying out the fighting.

Those who back the uprising prefer that term, putting it in the context of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen that toppled long-standing authoritarian rulers. Yet if Syrians believed that a wave of popular protest would unseat Bashar al-Assad in the way that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were ousted, they were cruelly mistaken. Back in 2011, after Mubarak had been overthrown, Assad said that what happened in Egypt would never happen in Syria. He has since tried to make his prediction a reality. Yet no part of Syria is quiet today; in no city does the Assad government hold complete control. The “rebellion” has reached every major city and town, including the capital, Damascus, the stronghold of the regime.

Both rebels and soldiers loyal to Assad have committed terrible crimes. Those of the regime stand out in scale: the 300 corpses discovered in Daraya on the outskirts of Damascus last August after the Syrian army retook the town, many showing signs of execution. The 79 bodies of men and boys, each executed with a single bullet to the head, pulled out of a river in Aleppo in January. But the rebels are implicated as well: Online videos appear to show executions of captured soldiers. While an equivalence cannot be drawn—the rebels took up arms in defense—individuals on both sides have killed in the cruelest manner. Rage and revenge course through these videos: It is not enough merely to kill; the victims must be humiliated, stripped of their beliefs and humanity. Every day, hundreds more of these videos are uploaded; they go viral and shape the reality of events on the ground.

This cyber war has been carried out in tandem with the real one. Some of the worst torture and murder committed by the shabiha, the armed militias loyal to Assad, have been uploaded to intimidate anyone who might even think of aiding the uprising. The regime has proved especially adept at deploying its “electronic army”; it, after all, controls the main telecommunications company, owned by Assad’s cousin, and all the ISPs in and out of the country. The rebels, by contrast, are amateurs, uploading videos when they can to bolster support: By providing proof of attacks on the regime, they can show their financial backers outside the country that they are making progress. The videos also offer psychological support: Seeing who is winning can tip the balance of the undecided.

Often, though, the videos are full of false information and manipulation. It can be impossible to ascertain who is who in the videos. The regime has been accused of carrying out horrific crimes in the name of the Free Syrian Army, as black propaganda. These videos and photographs, although they present a digital version of actual events, are nothing like the truth. They are devoid of context and give only the bare facts, showing a brutal but partial reality. Those who are filmed in the moments after an attack rarely know with certainty who is firing at them. They rarely know whether the people in uniform are the Syrian military or only pretending to be so; whether the fighters in mismatched civilian clothes are the rebels or the shabiha. Saying the wrong words into the dark lens of the camera could mean death.

While it can be difficult to verify the perpetrators in the videos, the acts of violence are clear. In one recording, a man, half-naked and tied up, is dragged through the streets by a group of militia. “Let me just say goodbye to my children,” he begs. The answer comes: “If you let me rape your wife, I'll let you see your children.” “My wife,” says the man, “is my soul and the crown on my head,” using the Syrian expression taj rassi. He is shot dead. That expression, though well known before, has now acquired a particular resonance on social-networking sites.

In another video, which received wide coverage in the international media, men in army fatigues bury another man alive. Blindfolded, buried up to the neck, the man pleads for his life. The other men taunt him, making him say words that he must believe could yet save him. Shovels appear and a couple of scoops of earth stop the words.

I've lost count of the number of these videos I have seen, but the shock never fades. As I watch, I know what is coming. I hear the low moaning of these men, the wild cries. At that moment, facing nothingness, men will call for anything to help them, their mothers, their gods. After the videos end, I'm catapulted back to the real world, jolted back to the calm of an office, the safety of a city. My heart pounds, the amygdala reacting to the horror. Sometimes, I have to take a walk. Once or twice I've called my family, just to hear their voices.

During the Iraq War, I watched similar videos of executions and murders. Their resonance eventually faded, drowned out by the voices of Iraqis living normal lives, or trying to. Syria, though, feels more like a total war, a descent into Hobbes. In the first instance, I watch the videos as a journalist, to see what others are seeing, to judge the evidence for myself. But the war also feels close. Having spent two years living in the country as a journalist, the Syria that is being bled dry is a Syria I know well. The people in the videos speak in the same language and the same accents that provided the background noise to my life in the country: Even in their tears and in their defiance, I hear the voices of people I've known. How, after having seen so much, can they forgive?

Forgiveness is a question other Arab Spring countries have faced. Of the four whose leaders were toppled—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—officials who were believed to have ordered attacks on civilians were tried, or are pending trial, and are facing long prison sentences and punitive fines. In Tunisia, former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was sentenced to jail in absentia (he fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remains). In Libya, the son and heir apparent of Moammar Gadhafi appeared before a court in January on charges of threatening national security. In Egypt, this process has gone furthest, with a whole procession of Mubarak-era officials in court: not merely the toppled president and his sons but senior government and party officials as well as business tycoons have been tried and sentenced to years in prison.

Such trials ought to be cathartic for the society and bring some sense of justice and closure. As David Tolbert of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice writes, “Uncovering the truth regarding the disappeared is critical—families must be able to know what happened to their loved ones if they are ever to be able to genuinely participate in the national reconciliation.” But the trials must be conducted carefully, especially in countries with fragile mixtures of ethnicities and religious groups. The public perception of justice matters greatly; anything that seems like retribution or skewed justice can inflame the situation further. The trial and execution of Saddam Hussein was a case in point: What ought to have been a moment for Iraq as a whole instead created more sectarian division.

A similar danger exists in Syria. The Assad regime, father and son, enriched a small clique of people, both Muslims and Christians. But because the apparatus of power remains vested in the Assad family and its extended clan, which comes from the minority Alawite sect, the perception is that the Alawite sect has benefited from the years of repression. In addition, because the shabiha, the armed militias that have carried out some of the worst rape, torture, and murder during the uprising, are predominantly Alawite, it is likely that once the Assad regime goes, retributive attacks by the majority Sunni denomination in Syria will be carried out. It is partly in fear of this that the Alawites have clung to the Assad regime.

In order to prevent widespread retribution that can lead to an endless cycle of violence, several forms of restorative, rather than retributive, justice will be needed in Syria. There will have to be trials, as in other Arab Spring countries, to publicly punish those who profited from the corruption of the regime and those who ordered the violence. But there will also have to be something approaching the truth and reconciliation commissions of South Africa, a forum for understanding what happened to those who vanished, where the dead are buried, and, maybe, why they died. The secrets of the dungeons of the Baath Party will have to be revealed.

There will also need to be reparations to those who were hurt. Some reparations will be compensatory—medical costs, repairs for homes, counseling for victims—but others might include a recognition of past wrongs, apologies that are ultimately symbolic. And there will almost certainly have to be amnesties for those who fought and supported the regime. This may well be the hardest part for many Syrians; to see those who fought against them walking the streets freely. But the sheer scale of the war requires it; without pardoning some of those who committed crimes, in return for understanding why and how they did it, the whole country could easily descend into blood and revenge.

Forgiving Syria will be a national project, a process of restoring unity. Not every crime that has taken place in the last two years—or in the decades of Baathism before—will be punished. Not every killer will be found, not every body buried. But when the killing finally stops in Syria, forgiveness, however painful, will have to be practiced. Forgiving Syria will mean restoring Syria. It will mean accepting that Syrians, even after so much division can still live together, somehow, in peace.

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