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I was in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.
Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.
Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.
Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS. Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified: there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.
In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels. The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.) Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.
Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria. Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.
Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…) Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.
Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times.
“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”
While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.
Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week. When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands: Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee. Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.
Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.
A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.
The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000. But no more. Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.
In any event, this is no time for comedy. Or is it?
In 2016, a well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a bit part in that hasty, furtive slicing up of the Ottoman Empire to please French and English interests. The new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model, or even into a viable French colony. The Syrian civil war continues into its tenth year.
In Europe, the new designation “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic. Elaborate historical justifications for changing to “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—after a world war. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, a committee of Czech and Slovak activists drafted the agreement. Later that year philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk became the new country’s first president. Masaryk was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of Aung San Sui Kyi of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities. Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student. McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had ventured with my mother into Communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German proved useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother, a cocky, annoying fellow, who travelled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside the village, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barn-like building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home for California.
After the Berlin Wall fell, of course I followed the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was in Prague in time to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. The Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination.
At that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to survive somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. It isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. In America, not, surely, a state walled against immigration. East and South Asian immigrants now animate Silicon Valley, universities, finance, and the arts. Farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life. Central American refugees flee violence and seek economic survival.
Map from ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)
“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)
Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca
Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad. There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.
Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?
The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War? If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted? It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.
During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism. And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.
Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.
The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.
Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.” Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region. Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.
However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.
And more recently……
Last week from Munich came a triumphant announcement by foreign secretaries Kerry and Lavrov of major humanitarian interventions in Syria, to be followed in a week by a cease-fire. Celebration was muted, and within hours the news was qualified, deprecated, and disparaged by almost everyone not involved in the negotiations, and some who were. Shortly before the news of the projected ceasefire, Bashar al Assad had declared that he would persevere until he had retaken all of Syria, beginning with Aleppo.
Given that neither a military nor a political solution is in sight, and none of the players seems deeply concerned about civilian casualties, the war will simply continue until the entire countryside, not just parts of it, becomes a sandy quarry for shards of ancient civilizations.
And the Alawites, with their dubiously valuable coastal bases at Latakia and Tartous.
Shortly after January’s blizzard, exiting the Met Museum, I happened on a small display of postcards—faded pastel photos of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama taken sometime during the French Mandate. These were a poignant contrast to an afternoon spent taking in many square yards of luminous Titians and Tiepolos, Brueghels and Rembrandts–not to mention the various treasures in the new Ancient Near East section.
Selections of the postcards were on offer in an envelope marked For the Syri an Relief Fund of Save the Children, $25, cash only. This last is either an ironic or realistic touch, given that in 2015 the so-called international community pledged $10 billion for Syrian refugee relief, of which less than half actually materialized. According to the U.N., last year’s biggest donor, Kuwait, provided $75 per capita for Syrian relief, followed by Norway with $28. The United States and the European Union provided less than $5 per capita, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did no better.
An old postcard view of the famous Aleppo citadel shows it largely overgrown and silted up. It appears much better preserved now, even after the most recent shelling of the citadel, by the government and/or by the insurgents, than in the early photos during the French Mandate. One explanation is the extensive restoration of the ancient site initiated in 2001 by the admirable Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international development agency established in 1967 by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, who is the worthy son of the less worthy but colorful playboy who married a movie star named Rita Hayworth.
The citadel of Aleppo has been destroyed countless times since the original temple was built on the plateau in the first millennium B.C.. Most of the remaining structures date from the 12th century, when the son of Saladin the Great excavated the moat, built the massive gateway and ramp, and most important, dug a deep well and a reservoir. The citadel’s slopes were faced with shiny, slippery limestone to discourage attacks, especially by night.
In 1260 the Mongols took the citadel anyway, beginning a series of invasions, from the Mameluks, who added a ring wall with 40 towers but lost it to the Ottomans in 1516. There followed three hundred years of Ottoman peace, which some now recall with nostalgia, and people moved back up to inhabit the citadel. But an 1822 earthquake leveled the citadel’s buildings to the ruins that were being mapped and restored when the Syrian civil war began. The Aga Khan conservation project focused on the outer walls and the Ayyubid palace complex within, while the Ottoman barracks became a well-equipped visitor’s center and cafeteria. The restoration was more or less completed in 2007 and presumably now serves the present convenience of the Syrian Army. Neither foreign journalists nor independent archaeologists have been inside the citadel since the war began. The extent of new damage during these latest years of fighting have inflicted will not be known for some time…..when a new assessment and reconstruction can be imagined to begin.
Is there anything to be said about these repeating cycles of feverish creation, violent destruction, and eventual restoration? The persistence and ingenuity of human efforts to repair and restore seem the only positive element of the terrible wars and natural disasters that have ravaged empires ancient and modern.
After the disastrous Florentine flood of 1966, an international rescue effort was carried out by art historians and students we recognized, even in their wading boots and mackintoshes, in the television coverage. (Cf. my account,”Restoration,” which I just located online, in J-stor.) Eventually, much was learned about art restoration, but much less about flood prevention, and some say that the Arno is as much of a threat now as it was in 1966.
There’s no way to make a transition to the disasters of September 11, 2001, where we had an agonizing, close-in view of the New York attacks. On that morning, we happened to have planned to breakfast downtown with a former student of my husband’s who was then city commissioner of culture. In the ensuing months and years, this remarkable woman had the heavy burden of coordinating much of the Ground Zero project planning and construction. But the terrorists’ mastery of 20th century destructive devices left much less of the World Trade Center to work with than the ruins of the Aleppo citadel.
A group called The Future of Syria is already planning the details of the reconstruction of the country if and when the war ends. At this point they are estimating that the recovery will cost at least $100 billion. Comparing it with the much-praised Marshall Plan for postwar Europe, which cost the U.S. $130 billion in today’s dollars, the Syrian plan seems a realistic if distant investment.
Today, this brutal conflict seems uniquely horrible in the number of innocent civilians killed, injured, and driven from their homes, but in the long view, perhaps it is not. Since 2014 there has been a lively debate, set off by Steven Pinker, as to whether our present bloody era is more or less violent than any in human history.
In any event, the Syrian civil war is a kalaidoscopic fragmentation of its conflicting forces, rebel entities all vying to represent “The Opposition” to the Assad regime in a series of variously stalled peace talks. Research has shown that in any civil war, the greater the number of warring factions and of their international sponsors, the longer the war will last. The Islamic State alone has at least four names, including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, and it has carved out for itself a role as the common enemy of all the groups fighting alongside or against the Assad regime. In North Latakia alone, dozens of insurgent groups have emerged, including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, Jabal al-Akrad, and Jabal al-Turkoman. (Note that Jabal means hill or mountain.) I can’t resist adding that the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion was the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade, now shifting to the First Coastal Brigade.
“Men and nations,” said the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
The Syrian postcard benefit project was the bright idea of a conservator on the Metropolitan museum staff, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, who works primarily with the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic collections. How much pain he must be suffering during these years of destruction of a culture that he knows so well.
His 18th-century ancestor was a famous explorer who mapped, among other places, the Pacific Coast of North America.
I would like to include here an interview with the living Laperouse, but I had to leave the wonderful museum, and return to the coast mapped by his ancestor.
Again: the cards are $25 each packet, payable in CASH.
At the end of September 2015, in the fifth year of the relentlessly ruinous Syrian civil war, all the world has been forced to take account of some two million refugees from that conflict, along with those from other ruined countries, seeking asylum in Western Europe–or as close to the West as they can manage. What did we expect?
In the spring of 2011, at the tail end of the Arab Uprisings, Syria suddenly began to implode. Bashar al-Assad’s regime reacted brutally, heavily documented by viral cellphone videos, against the localized rebellions. Very soon there were more rebel groups than could be sorted out. Later, amid the widening conflict, Barack Obama threatened retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. It was a nasty confrontation, since the Syrian regime was backed by Iran and by Russia.
When the chaos began, the regime of Bashar, an English-educated opthalmologist and his pretty banker wife, with their ideas of social reform and their inherited autocracy, had been holding the fragmented country together– Sunni, Alawite, Shia, Kurdish, Christian–for more than ten years, in conditions of severe drought with ongoing factional disputes.
Naturally this neo-colonial construct fell apart in an instant, the cities and archaeological sites collapsing in slow motion over the next four years. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, continued to support, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.
Now we’re waiting hopefully for the U.S. to acknowledge that peace in Syria can only be achieved by including the country’s only legitimate government, which is still Assad’s. It may not have been a perfectly democratic election, but whose is? At this point, there should be meaningful negotiation with all parties agreeing to fight the common enemy, ISIS–and to stem the flow of refugees with massive foreign aid. How long will it take?
Rebuilding Syria’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism, will no doubt include reconstruction of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years. Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. Much still remains of massive crusader castles and even of Roman Palmyra. Mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.
In October 2010 We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, when the poor Tunisian fruit seller sparked the series of uprisings first known as the Arab Spring. Syria took longest to ignite, but every place where we stopped then would soon be ravaged by the rising fury of young men without work, of impending famine after a four-year drought, of Shia, Sunni, Alawites turned against the regime and each other.
That October, a Palestinian exile, our driver, and the Iraqi Christian who gave us breakfast, were still safe under a firmly non-sectarian regime.
On a day trip from Damascus to the Roman ruins at Bosra, we stopped for water in the dusty little city of Deraa.
Deraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had always been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus. That October it was crowded with refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, and with others from across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Not surprising that it would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings.
A few weeks after we passed through, some bored Deraa youngsters posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to demand their release, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones. When one of the protesters died, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a town on the Euphrates which had once been an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. Near Deir, in 2006, the Israelis had bombed a nascent nuclear development plant, acting on intelligence from both the C.I.A. and an Iranian general. But only four years later, we Americans seemed to be welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
In a 2012 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syria: Deraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s northeast regions, including Deir ez Zor and Rakka, hold most of the Syrian oil reserves. There the land and the oil have been controlled by tribal warlords, with the regime looking the other way as long as they received a share. Now the new Islamic State is taking over, with an effective combination of intimidation and nutrition. They have established an effective network to produce and distribute bread at a low cost, and free to the poor.
In the far north, Aleppo, the largest and most historically important Syrian city, was bombarded by both the government and successive rebel factions. When the seventeenth-century Souk Madina went up in flames, we tried to make out, on some video footage, the smoky corridor that led through the market to the old house hotel where we had stayed. We did remember lovers trysting in the shadows of the citadel.
North of Aleppo are the ruins of the monastery church of St. Simeon Stylites, where the saint was alleged to have lived atop a pillar for thirty years, its height increasing with his growing distaste for the mob below. A stub of the pillar where he preached his angry fundamentalist sermons sits there in the middle of the Byzantine ruins, but we were more interested in the activity on the slope below. Two women in headscarves were laying cloths on the ground while small children scampered among the olive trees. Not a picnic, said our driver–an olive harvest. Olive oil is Syria’s number one export, he said, adding that the women were Kurds, and shrugging when we asked him how he knew.
Kurdistan was part of the area sometimes called the Levant, which also included the coastal Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and part of Jordan. After the First World War, the victorious Allies–in a series of agreements, some public and some secret, all self-serving and conflicting–carved the lands of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. With desultory attention to tribal religious and linguistic questions, the new borders were in complete accord with colonial interests. Russia’s share included most of the former Ottoman Empire, Britain held the Palestinian mandate, and the remainder of Syria, much diminished, became a French protectorate. The boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 form the main western carapace now targeted by the newly-formed Islamic State.
Southwest of Aleppo is the desert town of Ma’aret al Nouman. On a hot, dusty morning, we parked in the crowded market square by the old mosque. In the courtyard, two teachers came out to meet us, and we glimpsed a few boys’ faces pressed curiously against the schoolroom windows. The girls, of course, were in another school.
Ma’aret’s museum was a former caravansary carpeted with late Roman mosaics, mainly lively animal and vegetal fantasies, improbably well-preserved. Following us through the rooms ringing the central courtyard, an emaciated guard with kohl-ringed eyes turned on lights and offered cups of tea.
In Ma’aret in 1098, when the bloodiest of the Crusaders’ battles were raging, a pack of famished Franks fell upon a heap of recently slain townspeople, cooked and devoured them. The babies, it was said, were spit-roasted. More than one contemporary chronicler recorded this tale of Western brutality, which of course survives in the Arab world even after a millennium. Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but during the colonial decades, western schoolchildren were taught mainly about the barbarism of the infidels occupying the Holy Land.
The Ma’aret museum was shelled in October 2012 and at last report was serving as a rebel stronghold. A video from an archaeology site showed a young soldier in the courtyard, trying to fit a jagged mosaic fragment into a larger design. Months later came reports of a truckload of Roman carpet mosaics being stopped at the Lebanon border.
The soil of the Roman ruins at Apamea is now densely pocked with looters’ exploratory holes. There are those who hold that looting has at least the potential for saving precious artifacts from destruction.
As we traveled west from Ma’aret and into the mountain passages that led to the eastern Mediterranean coast, our driver pointed out that most of the towns were mainly Christian; women were moving about freely with uncovered heads. However, our next stop was Ugarit, whose cuneiform alphabet made it the center of the literate world in 1300 B.C.E. At the excavation site we were served refreshments by two women who were the wives of the cafe’s owner.
Down the coast we stopped briefly in Latakia, formerly the capital of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shia faith and counts the Assads as members. Latakia’s ancient history seemed mostly concealed under thriving commercial development; the port facilities had been modernized during the French mandate, and the city was later given to Syria, whose other ports had been lost to Turkey in 1939 . (In 2015, Latakia is the site of a Russian military build-up of uncertain, probably exaggerated, extent.)
Especially in Alawite country, Bashar al-Assad’s mild, unprepossessing image was everywhere, on awnings and kiosks and windshields, fluttering on banners. Our well-connected driver said that Bashar and his wife often went out of an evening without guards. He had been introduced to them in a restaurant and confessed himself impressed that Assad stood up from the table to shake hands.
A thousand years after the Franks had abandoned their last forts along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the mountains, Christian settlements still endure where the Crusaders first invaded, constructed forts and castles—and deposited their genes and their religion. We stopped in the little port of Tartus.
Ibrahim ibn Yakub at-Turtushi was a well-traveled Jewish trader whose tenth-century description of the city of Prague begins many Czech histories, including one I edited. I had never expected to see Ibrahim’s hometown of Turtushi (Tartus). Originally a Phoenician colony, it became a marginally prosperous port, with an inhabited crusader fort on the embarcadero festooned with citizens’ laundry.
Intermittent attempts have been made to depict Tartus as a powerful Russian naval base, supporting the flow of arms to the Assad regime. Yet reportedly only four men ran the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers was inoperative because of storm damage.
From the port we progressed to a very plain Gothic church, once an early Marian chapel, later a mosque, later still a billet for Ottoman soldiers, then restored by the French and eventually turned into a museum of musty Crusader tombs.
Tartus, largely loyal to the regime, has remained relatively unscathed during the war, and a sizable number of its youth try to avoid serving in either the army or the rebel militias. Both Alawites and Christians live in increasing fear of the rising power of the new Islamic State.
From the coast, we turned back east and drove out of the marine heat up into mountains, across pine-strewn ravines and around rocky hairpins, arriving finally at a hotel on a promontory just across a deep gorge from Qualat Salah es din, Saladin’s castle. Looking across the gorge in the gathering coolness, we decided to take the last hours of light to wend our way up its precarious access road. From the fortifications, the marauders’ sea was a distant blue through the pines. The site seemed impregnable, but Saladin and his forces drove out the Crusaders before the mortar was dry in the walls. On the way out of the castle, we stopped in the entry hall, where our driver was having tea with the guardian, an old friend who was keeping the site open late for us. But neither of them could explain to us how the immense stones of the wall had been dragged up the mountainside and fit into place a millennium ago.
At our hotel across from the castle was a more modest construction site—adding a new floor for the anticipated tourist rush. The work stopped only after we returned from a nearby hostelry, where we we had enjoyed our grilled fish and near beer entire alone in the establishment. In the morning our driver handed us water bottles for our coming trek through the mountains and across the Al Ghab plain to Homs.
Homs was Syria’s third-largest city, but its population as well as its buildings have been decimated by repeated shellings by the government and the insurgents.
In 2011 it seemed a very prosperous place. We stayed for only a day in a large, comfortable hotel liberally lined with oriental rugs and potted palms. In the hotel restaurant we were approached by a voluble young woman with a French accent who declared herself delighted–in a curiously proprietary way–to find that Americans were visiting Syria.
We stood on the edge of the Homs tell at sunset, listening to the calls of the muezzin across the city. A countertenor from a minaret on the left horizon rose above the others. One deep layer of the tell mound had been dated back to the biblical David and Solomon.
Later, as we circled the darkening citadel playground, small sheep-eyed kids shouted “Hello, hello!” and a few were brave enough to answer when asked their names.
We had taken a side trip that afternoon to Hama, half an hour away. The youths in the Hama souk had been far from friendly.
In the markets and mosques of Damascus or Aleppo, in any public space, our driver, tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, usually marched slowly a few paces before us, looking directly ahead, running interference. In Hama’s souk, we strolled through a dark gallery during the slow period of the afternoon when markets were often closed. Dour young men in kaftans lined up to watch us pass. Nobody tried to sell us anything.
Hama was the home of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, where in 1982 Bashar’s father, the Lion of Damascus, brutally quashed a rebellion by leveling the old town and killing tens of thousands of citizens. The silent hostility in the tunnel of the Hama souk was just a shadow of that catastrophe. To some extent, Bashar al-Assad’s hope of saving Syria from chaos may rest, for better and for worse, on his people’s memories of the sectarian violence leading to the terrible Hama massacre, as well as the regime’s violence in crushing it.
To the east of Homs was the Krac des Chevaliers (Qal’at Hosn), said by some to be the most perfect crusader castle in the world.
Our hotel that night was another one under construction, in a big way. The manager had been to hotel school in Damascus and had learned to tell customers what they want to hear…in our case that the hammering would end in half an hour.
After we went to our rooms, our guide and the manager began a long-running backgammon match on the terrace. Meanwhile the racket continued.
During the backgammon match, we went for a walk around the road to the hotel, past a scatter of ugly new buildings, followed by a very orderly Bedouin camp oddly close to the roadbed. Farther on, scorched olive trees spilled down a burnt slope in an old quarry. In the valley, plumes of smoke rose from the fires of stubble preceding winter planting, and a few lights glimmered on the slopes across from the castle. The landscape reminded us of one on the other side of the Mediterranean, in postwar Italy. It seemed possible just then that Syria, with its ancient treasures, might indeed attract hordes of tourists. Meanwhile, it was a very long night, with acrid smoke from the day’s burning in the valley filling our room.
On our trek back to Damascus from the coast, we detoured to visit Maloula, an old village of yellow and blue houses layered pueblo-style down a slope of the rugged Kalamun mountains. Biblical Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken there, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries—before the war of course.
To enter a fifth-century chapel in the lower monastery, we had to pass through a police cordon, which seemed odd. Our guide pressed rapidly ahead into the small crowd, mostly in western dress, clustering around two smiling couples.
The tall man in jeans and a blazer was Bashar al-Assad, with his wife Asma. With them were the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and his young daughter, as well as another man in Arab dress, unknown to us. Assad and Chavez had just signed oil agreements in Damascus, probably with the Arab as well.
Shortly before this meeting, Chavez, in a cheeky press blitz of countries not allied with the U.S. or Israel, had exchanged vows of loyalty and affection with the late Moammar Khaddafi of Libya. Assad, the mild-mannered opthalmologist, is the only survivor of this trio of strong men.
In November 2012, Maloula, still mainly loyal to the Assad regime, was struggling to stay out of the conflict, which one of its citizens said was the beginning of World War III. This was hardly an exaggeration, given the increasing part played by countries from Iran and Russia to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. More and more this was becoming a proxy war. By 2014, loyalists in Maloula had fled to Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad planned to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.
This is what remains of the small town of Azaz in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. In 1125 it was the scene of a famous victory of Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks. A thousand years later, during the Syrian civil war, it was captured by insurgents and then leveled by government forces. We didn’t see Azaz in 2010; this is a file photo.
*Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author or taken from open sources.