“At least the Alawites aren’t being raped,” she adds. “I will not help them.”
This sort of moral corruption and sectarian self-righteousness helped violence spread through Syria like an uncontained, leaping fire. Many efforts at hastening the war’s end served as more fuel. Even would-be allies turned upon each other, as competition among groups seeking the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad created wars within the war, including the fratricidal militant infighting that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader, labeled the “waterfall of blood.”
And then there was the awkward and ineffective support provided by the United States. This element emerges in Abouzeid’s portrayal of the frustration of the Hazm Movement, an American-funded rebel alliance that gathered intelligence on the activities and locations of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, both of which were designated terrorist organizations by the United States.
For months the United States did not act on the intelligence. Then, when it began attacking jihadist positions in Syria in 2014, it gave Hazm no warning, leaving its fighters and agents exposed to retaliation.
Hazm was soon overpowered by Jabhat al-Nusra, yielding its American-supplied weapons to the Qaeda affiliate — a process resembling what has played out repeatedly since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq, where many American partners have been bedeviled by desertion and battlefield defeat. A Hazm operative shares a scalding critique, telling Abouzeid that “Russia is more honorable and trustworthy than the United States, because at least it is really standing alongside its ally.”
Abouzeid was briefly in New York this month. She sat down to discuss her reporting, and that word in her book’s subtitle — “hope.”
You covered Syria from the beginning, before protest seemed likely and when uprising seemed impossible. How did you select characters from the many people you met?
I ended up with these characters because I felt that although they are individuals, each of their stories illuminated larger truths. I wanted to use characters and their experiences as vehicles, for example, to explain what happened to a Free Syrian Army battalion or the Islamization of the uprising. So I chose characters who would help a reader understand certain elements of the Syrian conflict.
“No Turning Back” illuminates experiences and points of view of female characters, including girls who came of age during war. Such voices are not prominent in news reports. Was it a mission to include them?
I wanted to include as many voices as I could to present as full a picture as I could. I spent more time with the men, because it’s the men who wage the wars. But the women are certainly there, and they’re there in many different capacities. I focused on Ruha, who was 9 years old in 2011, to tell the story of her family of very strong women, because I wanted to make sure that even in stories of war, the voices of others, who are not necessarily waging it, are also heard.
The book mostly covers Sunnis, but there are sections that cover Alawites and sections that cover the government point of view. It was very hard in Syria to toggle between sides, but you managed, in spite of all of your time with Free Syrian Army and Islamist battalions, to be a guest of Air Force Intelligence in one of their main detention centers in Damascus —
Where I was wanted as well. I was wanted by Air Force Intelligence.
There were active warrants out for you. And you also covered the perspective of an Alawite family that was kidnapped by Islamists. How did you get access across this divide?
I was branded a spy for several foreign states, and I learned that I was wanted by three of Syria’s four main intelligence agencies and barred from entering the country. This forced me to focus on the rebel side. I was on the Latakian front with the rebels in August 2013, shortly after their raid into those villages. And then I returned to Beirut, where I arranged to meet Talal and other Alawites whose families had been kidnapped in the raid. I stayed in contact with these family members, and I did manage two trips into government-held territory in 2013 and 2016 and went to their homes.
The government let you in, in spite of long barring you. How did you meet with the Alawite families?
I was allowed into Damascus for a conference in 2016, and I sneaked away and made my way to the Alawite neighborhood. I continued reporting that side of the story from the homes of some of these Alawite families that were still hoping that their captive loved ones would be freed. It was hard. It was very difficult to get into that side, and it took years.
On the opposite side, you knew Mohammad and his wife, who were privy to and perhaps even participated in the detention of Talal’s family. What did you make of the absence of sympathy in Mohammad for these victims?
It’s a chilling moment. Mohammad is a father. He has children of his own. He has a wife, he has nieces and nephews, but he couldn’t relate. He had so dehumanized the other side that he couldn’t relate. And that’s what war does. It’s in the stories that people tell themselves to be able to brand somebody an enemy.
But in this case the enemies were children —
And they were neighbors, because Mohammad was from the same area. He was from Latakia, too. That’s the great tragedy of civil wars. They turn neighbors against one another.
You lay out starkly the American betrayal of Hazm. To those who have followed American proxy arrangements in the Middle East across the decades, this was not surprising. Did you see it coming?
I don’t know if I saw it coming, but the bigger point for me is repeated American involvement in the Middle East and the lessons that aren’t learned and the impact they have on the local communities. If you’re going to be stomping around in a place with a heavy footprint, then you should understand the place and the people you may be stepping on. Because, as history has taught us, blowback is an ugly thing.
Many of your stories are testaments to courage, like that of Hanin, the asthmatic Alawite child, who chose to remain a hostage so others could go free. In seven years of this war, what have you learned about Syrians?
The incredible resilience of ordinary people. Hanin was a prisoner. She was asleep one night when rebels entered her home and took her and her siblings and her mother hostage. The biggest lesson for me was the way people can adapt, the way they can survive, the way they can persist and the way they can continue, in some cases, even to have hope and to still be able to forgive and to still believe in a Syrian-ness that transcends politics.
Does that idea still exist?
I think it exists on the individual level. People are the building blocks of communities, and when it comes down to the community level and how neighbors become neighbors again, if they do, then it has to start with people like that who just want to get on with it and go back to living their lives. There is always hope. I mean, if they haven’t given up hope, then how dare we? Conflicts end. It doesn’t matter how long they take. They eventually end.
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