“Syria’s Descent into Madness” is the cover story of the May 27 Time magazine, recounting the act of ritual cannibalism by a Syrian rebel commander that transfixed the West last week.
The sort of atrocities viewable on YouTube – the slaughter by government troops of entire families including infants in Tartus province this month, mass rape of women in rebel-held zones, or the rebel leader Abu Sakkar eating a piece of the lung of a dead government soldier – are becoming Syria’s new normal.
Westerners cannot deal with this kind of warfare. The United States does not have and cannot train soldiers capable of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Short of raising a foreign legion on the French colonial model, America should keep its military personnel at a distance from a war fought with the instruments of horror.
There is nothing new about the use of atrocities to persuade one’s own forces to fight to the death because defeat would entail a dreadful retribution. The Nazis “deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders,” as the Atlantic Monthly’s Benjamin Schwarz reviewed the latest research.  Both sides in Syria perpetrate crimes against humanity for the same reason. The Assad government encourages its irregulars to rape as many women as possible in towns controlled by the opposition.  Abu Sakkar’s videotaped cannibalism was allegedly retaliation for such rapes.
Something more sinister is at work in the killing fields of the Middle East, however. The danger that Islam would conquer the West attenuated after the Ottomans’ failed Siege of Vienna in 1683. Muslim birth rates are falling faster than those recorded for any people at any time in history, and two of the prospective Muslim powers, Iran and Turkey, will become geriatric shells within a generation. But Muslim societies in their death throes offer a different and deadly threat to the West. It was in response to this threat that I began writing these essays. A month after the 2001 attack on the World Trade center, I warned:
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy “des Schreckens” (to cause horror) and “Entsetzens” (terror, literally: dislodgement).
Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: “The horror! The horror!” It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Hollow Men, with a quote from the Conrad story: “Mr Kurtz, he dead.” 
Pre-modern societies competed as a matter of course to commit acts of cruelty horrific enough to paralyze the will of their enemies. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane – the Boston bomber’s namesake – killed almost all the city’s residents and piled their heads into a pyramid. The Romans lined the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified slave rebels after crushing Spartacus’ revolt in 71 BCE. During the Siege of Jerusalem in CE 76 they crucified 500 victims a day. Among all the ancient peoples only the ancient Hebrews prohibited the public display of executed corpses (Deuteronomy. 21:23), because an atrocity inflicted on the living image of God is an offense to God.
That is what holds the West together. The Christian West summoned the pagans out of pre-history on the authority of a God whose love extends to every individual, so that as individuals they might abandon the collective identity of tribe and instead embrace an individual identity as Christian converts. The bright line that separates pre-modern collective identity from the covenantal identity of the Western individual is nowhere clearer than in the matter of atrocity. Pagan tribes feel no compunction about torturing and desecrating the cadavers of members of another collectivity; Western societies cannot abide such acts without going mad. We cannot even observe them from afar without feeling a touch of madness.
We in the West already are more than a little mad. A gauge of our madness is our preoccupation with horror in popular entertainment. The horror genre supplied one in eight feature films released in the United States in 2009. When Universal Studios made its classic supernatural thrillers during the 1930s, the ratio was 1:200, and in 2000 it still was 1:25. Since 9/11, the volume of horror films has expanded from a trickle to a flood.
Horror films are not merely repellent, but stupid and repetitive. There aren’t enough possible variations on subject matter like vampires, werewolves and zombies to permit much originality, except, perhaps, in the realism of their depiction of mayhem. American audiences watch horror obsessively, the same way they watch pornography.
It is probably not a coincidence that that first big jump in the proportion of horror films (from the 2% to the 4% range) came towards the end of the Vietnam War (with Night of the Living Dead” and Rosemary’s Baby), and the second big jump (from the 4% range to 12%) came after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Americans are horrified because something has horrified them.
That was not always the case. In an essay on the horror genre for First Things magazine in October 2009, I noted that the old classic horror films were viewed as an exotic import:
Hollywood gave us a small run of exotic-origin horror films in the 1930s, all drawn from European fiction: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After the Second World War, however, these nightmares of tormented Europeans were mostly naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents. And that was how it was supposed to be. The monsters had a different meaning in their Old World provenance. As Heinrich Heine once observed, the witches and kobolds and poltergeister of German folktales are remnants of the old Teutonic nature-religion that went underground with the advent of Christianity. The pagan sees nature as arbitrary and cruel, and the monsters that breed in the pagan imagination personify this cruelty. Removed from their pagan roots and transplanted to America, they became comic rather than uncanny. America was the land of new beginnings and happy endings. The monsters didn’t belong. 
Horror became an American genre with local themes after Vietnam. The monsters have taken out citizenship papers and are no longer subject to deportation. The pre-modern roots of horror remain evident-every haunted house seems to be built over a Native American burial ground-but they now stem from our own past rather than the remote legends of European tribalism.
Why did Americans display a psychic immunity to the horrors of the European wars, but show such susceptibility to the Black Breath wafting from the World Trade Center? There are many reasons, but chief among them, I believe, is that we have forgotten what makes us different. President George W Bush told us that Islam is a religion of peace, and President Barack Obama told the world in 2009 at Cairo that America and Islam “overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Our clergy inform us that all adherents of the “three Abrahamic religions” are brothers under the skin sharing the same principles, and our political theorists assure us that democratic institutions eventually will make Muslim countries more or less like America.
We were told, and most of us believed, that the so-called Arab Spring of early 2011 portended a great democratic transformation of the Muslim Middle East. As the images of tech-savvy Facebook friends in Tahrir Square gave way to video clips of ravaged bodies, our faces turned gray.
It will get much, much worse. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. The colonial cartographers who drew the modern map of the Middle East after World War I understood something that America’s political mainstream does not: states composed of the tribal remnants of pre-modern society can be stable only if the ethnic and sectarian melange is ruled by a minority. Syria’s Alawites ruled over a Sunni majority with Christian support, while Iraq’s Sunnis ruled over a Shi’ite majority, also with Christian support.
Tyrannical as a minority regime might be, it is constrained by the fact that it is a minority. The minority cannot exterminate the majority, so it must find some sort of compromise arrangement. A majority government, though, can (and frequently will) exterminate an ethnic or religious minority. That is why the Sunni majority in Syria long tolerated the Alawite minority regime while the Iraqi Shi’ite majority tolerated a minority Sunni regime.
Syria’s Alawites will fight to the death because a Sunni victory would mean the end of their sect, and Iran will provide unlimited numbers of weapons and fighters. Iraq’s Sunnis, divided from their Syrian cousins by the thin pencils of colonial cartographers, will not stand by and allow Syria to turn into an Iranian protectorate, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Sunni rebels with weapons and personnel. What we have seen so far are the preliminary skirmishes. The real horrors of war are yet to come.
It will not help to stick our fingers in our ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!,” as Ron Paul and the new isolationists propose. America cannot abandon a region in which it retains vital strategic interests without disastrous consequences. But it must act in pursuit of these interests, rather than attempt to export democracy.
What America most requires is a renewed understanding of its own uniqueness, and the grim recognition that it cannot prevent civilizations that are determined to destroy themselves from doing so.
1. Hitler’s Co-Conspirators, The Atlantic, May, 2009.
2. Is the Syrian Regime Using Rape as a Tactic of War?, Time, July 12, 2012.
3. Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win, Asia Times Online, October 12, 2001.
4. Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid, First Things, October, 2009.
Has Assad succeeded in overcoming the Syrian crisis?
A series of revolutions swept through the Arab region. The first torch was from Tunisia when protester Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself in opposition to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This wave of revolts led to the overthrow of many Arab regimes and leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries. There has been a state of destruction, displacement and economic collapse in the countries affected by the revolutions, a lot of killing, torture and political division, as well as the penetration of terrorist groups in the Arab world.
The revolution began in the form of peaceful protests, but soon developed using violence between the Syrian army and opposition groups. Over time, the Syrian opposition was divided into a peaceful opposition aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime through diplomatic means and the armed opposition, which was divided into several factions: the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, as well as other armed factions.
This difficult situation brought the Syrian regime into a stage of internal popular and military pressure, which led to a request for military assistance from Russia. Russia responded to Assad’s request and defended the Syrian regime in earnest. Russia, which had good relations with the Libyan regime, did not veto the UN Security Council in favor of the Gaddafi regime. In the Syrian crisis, however, Russia and China have vetoed the UN Security Council in favor of the Assad regime, and they defended the Syrian regime in international forums.
Russia, which has historical ties with the Syrian regime, regards Syria as an extension of its strategic interests in the Middle East. Evidence of this is the presence of Russia’s military base in Syria, which is Russia’s only military base in the Middle East. Iran also stood by the Syrian regime in its war, and there was constant coordination between the Syrian and Iranian leaderships. On the other hand, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and replace the existing regime with a new regime. The United States has repeatedly threatened military intervention to strike the Syrian regime, but the American threat has always been matched by a Russian willingness to retaliate, creating a balance of power on the Syrian battlefield.
Russia’s active support of the Syrian regime and its allies’ support led to Assad’s steadfastness, despite widespread international dissatisfaction with this outcome. Syria’s political position has not yet changed, but the Syrian-Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance has been strengthened. Many military analysts believe that what happened in Syria cannot be repeated with other countries. The most important reason is Syria’s strategic geographic position and the need for a regime like Assad to govern Syria for the time being.
The Assad regime has not collapsed, but there has been an internal and international resentment that did not exist in the past. This is expected to happen because of the nature of the Syrian regime’s alliances and the division of the region between an eastern and a Western axis. But the Assad regime has been able to withstand and maintain its position in the face of the severe crisis in Syria.
The Syrian regime must work hard to involve the Syrian opposition in government and form a government that includes all strata of Syrian society so as not to feel a large segment of the Syrian people injustice, and must increase the margin of freedom in the country. These steps should change the perception that prevailed towards the Syrian regime, and lead to its acceptance internally and internationally in the next stage.
Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour
When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.
So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.
“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.
Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.
Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.
Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.
By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.
“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.
In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.
While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.
In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.
The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.
Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.
A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus.
Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.
Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”
In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.
RDIF and the kingdom’s counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.
The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.
Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach
Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”
No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack
The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.
Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.
On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.
It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”
The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.
Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.
On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”
Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.
Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.
It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.
At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.
In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.
Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.
The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.
On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies: “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.
Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.
If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.
In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.
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