In the summer of 2012, British-Israeli journalist Jonathan Spyer found himself in the basement of a hospital along with other Syrian civilians in bombed-out Aleppo City. They quickly took cover upon hearing the Assad regime’s aircraft patrolling the skies like a swarm of angry hornets. Their choice of refuge within Dar al-Shifa Hospital was a calculated move, a bet on human decency. Surely the regime wouldn’t target a hospital where the wounded and dying lay. Or would it? Assad, as many have painfully realized, isn’t too keen on clemency for either the rebels or the non-combatants in his midst.
While they wait, the electricity suddenly gives out, after a massive bomb explodes outside in the street. Spyer and those around him cower in the pitch-dark basement for what must seem an eternity. We can imagine the thoughts racing through their heads.
Would the regime spare them or strike? And what about the rolling dice of human error or indifference? As has been widely reported, the regime often resorts to barrel-bombing rebel-controlled areas. The barrels, filled with TNT, metal bolts and fragments, cause great physical damage, as one expects, but also psychological havoc. “They were using dumb bombs, not smart bombs,” Spyer says, who is also a regular Jerusalem Post columnist. Their thinking was: “Throw it down there somewhere and it will land on someone.”
Landing on the hospital, a six-story building, such a bomb would likely cause the structure to collapse, turning it into a collective tomb for those inside.
At one point amid the intense fear, a young doctor named Khaled turns on a flashlight and trains it on his face, the only thing illumined in the pitch blackness. He commences a Muslim prayer chant involving a call and response, in hope of raising the spirits of those around him. His intervention eases the uncertainty and the danger soon passes.
“So, going into the shelter was a bit of a gamble,” Spyer says. “As it turned out, it worked.” But just two months later, he quickly adds, that bomb fell and the hospital was reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble.
In his newly released book, Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars, Spyer recounts the story in detail. He sees it as the most instructive episode he has witnessed as a journalist on the ground in Syria’s ongoing civil war, a conflict pitting the government of President Bashar Assad and his allies – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – against a loose coalition of Sunni Arab rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish forces and jihadist fighters. While the numbers remain murky, some observers believe the conflict’s death toll is fast approaching half a million.
Spyer recently sat down with The Jerusalem Post Magazine to flesh out why he believes the scene in the basement of Dar al-Shifa Hospital is a microcosm of the conflict as a whole. He also didn’t leave out other harrowing situations, his thoughts on social and religious reform in the Islamic world, and his personal motivations for thrusting himself into this quagmire.
(Speaking of harm, Spyer often traveled with his British and Israeli passports. He wonders what some people he met and interviewed, like ISIS members, would have done had they discovered the Israeli half of his national identity.)
So why is the hospital episode so telling? Spyer says it brings together three important aspects of the Syrian conflict: 1) the utter ruthlessness of the Assad re-gime and its allies; 2) the extent to which religion is the mobilizing factor in so much of the region’s politics; 3) the relative weakness of the rebellion.
As we have seen, and Spyer reiterates, “The regime has no qualms about launching air attacks on its own civilian population.” But how can this be? One would think that with observers – who can easily capture events with just a cell phone and relay the atrocities to the outside world – international criticism would mount exponentially, causing the regime to think twice, or cease its attacks altogether.
“Sadly, there is no evidence that it lessened its attacks in the face of criticism or stories emerging on the ground,” he responds.
Instead, he explains, there is plenty of evidence the regime did not weaken its resolve to target the rebels and the civilian populations surrounding them.Even after revelations that the regime carried out systematic murder and starvation of populations and prisoners in its vast prison system, it remains steadfast in its bloody approach. And what about its crossing of another red line: chemical weapons?
We recall the 2013 sarin gas attack in eastern Ghouta that killed 1,400 people, mainly women and children. The regime subsequently used the gas again just this year, prompting the Trump administration’s retaliatory barrage of Tomahawk missiles.
“There is no sense whatsoever in which the Assad regime appears to have been deterred from its strategy begun fairly early in the war, which is simply doing anything within its capacity to stay in power, regardless of the cost in human lives and societal infrastructure,” Spyer says. “It is a scorched-earth policy, immune to outside pressure.”
How can Assad blatantly get away with it? Spyer says Assad can pursue brutal policies, such as “carpet bombing entire civilian neighborhoods – 1940s style,” onlybecause his powerful allies – Iran and Russia – have made no attempt to rein him in. “Maybe if the regime had been isolated,” he speculates, “it would have hadto compromise or have done something else.”
Has the viciousness of the regime dimmed the journalist’s view of humanity? “Not really,” he says with a chuckle, using hand gestures that seem to glide along perfectly with his intonations, creating a sense of flow in his speech.
Spyer adds that he had such a darkened view of humanity to begin with. It’s an attitude that surely helps one cope with the surreal cruelties of the Syrian conflict. In this environment, he says, “one is able to operate if you’re a person who has very few illusions about the human capacity for cruelty and for violence.”
When pressed, Spyer reveals one thing about his reporting that, if it didn’t shock him, at least surprised him: The revival of slavery as an institution was something he thought would never happen again. He was referring to Islamic State’s enslavement of the Yazidi women – who were often used as sex slaves – and children in northern Iraq. After interviewing several escaped slaves in 2014, he was one of the first journalists to break the story.
Religion and regional politics
For Spyer, Khaled’s chants in the basement of the hospital represent the extent to which religion is the mobilizing factor in so much of regional politics.
When people are confronted with extreme situations of life and death, he explains, maybe religion is the only flag people can rally around. “Nothing else seems to have equal strength and depth.”
When we talk about religion, Spyer clarifies, “We are not really talking about an individual’s faith. Rather we are talking about markers or badges of ethno-religiousidentity.” In this sense, a person feels inextricably enmeshed in his or her community, one that is linked by blood, creed, familial relations and common origins.
Spyer says this powerful form of community exists underneath official definitions of a state’s citizenry.
“Officially, Syria is a non-sectarian state that guarantees equal treatment to all its citizens. In reality, it’s deeply divided among primordial communities, brought together without their consent into a state structure, and then largely held there by force.”
What we are witnessing now, Spyer continues, is “the breaking up or cracking of that bigger structure. People are naturally returning to a state of nature.”
The state and its official organs can no longer offer citizens the protection it once guaranteed. The result is a political vacuum being filled by people who are organizing themselves politically and militarily in the communal sense, along the lines of those preexisting ethno-religious loyalties.
Such loyalties are what undoubtedly propel the tensions between Sunni and Shi’a. This sectarian fault line is one of the main factors behind the region’s seemingly pervasive instability. Will this rift ever heal itself? Will Sunni and Shi’a hash out some viable form of coexistence?
It is often said that Islam must go through a reformation, like the one Europe or “the West” initiated exactly 500 years ago, after Martin Luther defiantly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a German church in 1517, an act that split Christendom into warring camps of Protestants and Catholics. Today, there is no shortage of reformers in the Islamic world. One thinks of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Tariq Ramadan or Maajid Nawaz.
Spyer points out that most of the reformers end up in the West, a telling point, considering their lives are in grave danger. The problem, he explains, is that thereform camp has no weaponry in this fight. It doesn’t have the ability to mobilize groups of armed young men.
“Political power in this region tends to grow out of the barrel of many guns. This is the currency, and if you can’t deal in it, you’ve come to the wrong exchange.”
He admits the whole idea of armed liberalism in the Muslim world sounds ridiculous. “We all know it doesn’t exist.”
Nevertheless, he agrees with the need for reform. “Islam needs to become criticizable,” he says. “There needs to be a public space in which you can criticize and analyze holy texts with modern tools, in which you can clear them away so you can analyze reality without them, without reference to them.”
Granted, this space does not exist, but is Islam on the way? Is it moving, via conflict, toward some sort of gradual resolution of its religious divides, as many,perhaps hopefully, predict? Spyer is skeptical. Citing Hezbollah, ISIS and Hamas, he sees no reason why these movements won’t continue to proliferate and flourish for years or even decades to come.
“I tend to find that human experience is very chaotic, without a plan or order, and that different societies can arrange themselves in radically different ways.”
A weak rebellion
When it comes to advantages, Spyer says the Sunni rebel forces have plenty of armed young men on the ground, plenty of courage and willingness to fight to the end. What’s utterly lacking are the technical means required to achieve decisive military gains. For example, they have little or no anti-aircraft capabilities.
There were certainly moments in the last few years when the Assad regime appeared to be teetering toward collapse. What saved it was the timely intervention of its allies. Spyer believes that Assad could now only be forced out if his allies choose to abandon him.
Minus that unlikely scenario, “there is a feeling he could be around for a long time.”
During his six years of reporting in conflict zones, Spyer certainly compiled his list of close calls and distressing situations. He has illegally crossed heavily guarded borders, where trespassers have been shot at. In another instance, this time in Iraq, he traveled with Shi’ite militias and witnessed a firefight with Islamic State fighters. He has heard plenty of bullets whizzing past.
One time he posed as a British pro-regime journalist in Syria and began working with pro-regime collaborators. All they had to do was Google his name and they would have easily discovered his Israeli citizenship. He seriously considered the dreadful possibility of being taken away in some unmarked van. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
The close calls didn’t stop Spyer from laying claim to another bragging right: interviewing two ISIS members in 2014. At this time, however, the risks were con-siderably fewer. The jihadist group was part of the Arab rebellion and had not yet established its ill-fated, barbarous caliphate. Furthermore, the two fighters were unarmed and agreed to meet the journalist on much safer ground – in Turkey – just a short distance from the Syrian border.
Spyer discovered that most of the men fighting under this banner were not lunatics from all over Europe, as is commonly thought. Rather they were local men with local agendas. He admits it’s less glamorous to look into these more parochial concerns, but no less important if we hope to grasp how this group succeeded in attracting so many recruits.
They were also attracted to the organization’s perceived aura of purity. It wasn’t corrupt, unlike many of the rebel organizations which fed off local population, Spyer explains. By not siphoning off much needed food and supplies, and fashioning itself as a return to the ways of the prophet and his companions, ISIS achieved a reputation as a trustworthy and organized guardian of Sunni communities. The thinking was, “If ISIS goes down you can forget about Sunni people in Syria.”
In the end it was the wrong decision, he asserts. “Islamic State was a dreadful and evil group.”
ISIS would eventually become too extreme for even the likes of al-Qaida and its affiliates. It’s just one instance, among countless others, of the region’s unworldly extremism and skewed priorities.
Spyer retells another example, one that happened in 2012. He was following throngs of refugees pouring out of Aleppo City, a dreadful sight, he recalls. They trudged along hopelessly after leaving all their possessions behind. The refugees gathered in an area along the Turkish border, where they hoped the Assad regime wouldn’t bomb for fear of provoking a cross-border incident with the Turks. As the displaced made their way, the Danish cartoon controversy was raging throughout the Muslim world. A militia fighter who learned Spyer was British approached the journalist, demanding to know why Westerners can portray religion in this way. “This is not civilized behavior,” the fighter blurted.
“I thought, here is this man from the Syrian militia, part of utter chaos. Thousands of women and children were without any kind of defense, cowering against the possibility of murder by their own government, and this guy wanted to criticizeWestern civilization because we put a picture of Muhammad in a newspaper? This was a travesty to me.”
Spyer says he puts himself in harm’s way out of his loves for writing and the machinations of history and to understand political upheaval. There is also an altruistic drive. “By doing journalism in its purest form, you are out there alone or with your own team, miles away from other journalists. You often stumble upon stories that nobody else is going to get and you bring these truths to the world.”
“You experience degradation and suffering, that is true, but you are also witness to evidence of the most sublime aspects of human nature. The kind of generosity of young people, of armed young people who, before your own eyes, are willing togive up their own precious lives to save others who are helpless.”
He references Kurdish men and women fighters who in 2014 were willing to give their own lives to save 20,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, after barely escaping slaughter at the hands of ISIS.
“This is astonishing evidence of human altruism andgoodness, and that is available for view on the battle front as well.”
Interviewed by Terrance Mintner for the Jerusalem Post magazine, Dec. 22, 2017