The Arab world in Revolution(s)

Nicolas Hénin: “There is a clear collective punishment strategy with the objective of causing a humanitarian crisis”

24 February


Nicolas Hénin is a reporter. He was, only a few days ago, working in Syria for Arte Journal, near Homs, reporting on the horror witnessed by the inhabitants of this city, victims of an ultra-violent repression by the Bashar-al-Assad regime. As a witness of the widespread fighting in the country, he answered questions by Manuel Dantas.

Manuel Dantas for ARTE Journal – You had gone there to prepare a series of reports on the situation in Homs, a city which you already visited last October. What was your reporting experience like?

Shortly after the beginning of the Syrian army’s offensive on Homs, I made an unauthorised visit to Syria for the second time to reach the city. But this time round, I couldn’t. Every day, I would go gather news from networks close to the revolution, who were taking care of different people- these are very subdivided and complex networks- and I would ask them if today was the day we could attempt to enter the city. And every day, they would say: “No, it’s not possible. The army is blocking everything, the roads and the shortcuts that we normally use to get our supplies, to transport the wounded, our fighters, food supplies, weapons or satellite communication equipment. In other words, to transport everything that is banned and that needs to be transported without the knowledge of the regime. All our roads have been blocked, we can’t get to Homs”. I spent eight days in a city which is approximately half way between the Lebanese border and Homs, and by the end of these eight days, I gave up and headed back…because the security conditions were bad, because I didn’t want to put people at an unduly high risk by twisting their arms when they were saying that it was impossible.

Since the beginning of the offensive, has the city of Homs been entirely isolated?

The roads between Homs and the Lebanese border have been largely blocked as Mary Colvin, who just passed away, went through the same network and the same border crossing point as I did, she managed to get to Homs shortly after me. After I turned back, some roads were reopened. But, generally speaking, the roads are blocked.

What are the living conditions like of the people who live in the outskirts of Homs, where you were?

Fighting has entirely become part of people’s lives. The fighting is not limited to Homs and that’s the first thing that I realised when I crossed the border. All the Sunni-populated and pro-revolution areas are under army fire, beaten down, surrounded by the army and subjected to a level of violence that I had not expected to see in Homs, but which I also saw in other cities. The population in all the areas is living in war conditions with an immediate risk associated with war, in addition to all the problems of everyday life. The city where I was had been liberated two months prior to my arrival, and for two months electricity had been cut and mobile telephone networks had also largely been cut. So they were living in complete isolation, unable to recharge their batteries but for some generators here and there, and having to rely on smugglers to bring them fuel by circumventing army checkpoints. The material conditions are therefore becoming extremely difficult for everyone, especially in the pro-revolution areas. There is a very clear collective punishment strategy on the part of the regime against these areas, which is not only military, but also humanitarian, with the clear objective, in any case, of causing a humanitarian crisis.    

What role does the Free Syrian Army play in this revolution, how is it operating, what is its strategy?

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has greatly developed in the recent months, but it still finds itself in a fundamentally asymmetrical situation. As a matter of fact, this makes me think of the Iraqi insurgency against the American army, all things relative, because the al-Assad army is nowhere near the level of the American army, but the situation in the field is very similar. The Free Syrian Army is underequipped; it’s punching above its weight from a purely military standpoint, and must therefore fall back on a strategy of harassment and guerrilla warfare against this regular army, which has control over the largest portion of the land, at least over the major routes. The major routes are under regime control, and the shortcuts are, where possible, generally under the control of revolutionaries in the Sunni areas, except recently around Homs. There is also a major difference in the field between the situations in Libya and Syria. In Libya, you had the Cyrenaic pocket, which was pro-revolution, and you had the Tripoli pocket, which was a regime stronghold, and between the two, a frontline. When you move around Syria, in the mountains, you go from a Sunni village, which is supposedly pro-revolution, to a Druze village, to a Christian village and then to an Alawite village. And even in the cities, you go from an Alawite neighbourhood to a Christian neighbourhood and then to a Sunni neighbourhood. The Syrian territory looks like it has been covered in confetti, each confetti being the living area of a community. The FSA strategy is therefore not a Libya-like wave strategy, but rather a strategy which consists in holding pockets and expanding them. The FSA is conducting a ripple-effect strategy to expand and connect these small pro-revolution pockets of resistance to each other. All this is happening in a context that resembles civil war, because I could see that community tensions were extremely high.

The Syrian society consists of various communities who are affected in different ways by current events. A civil war is looming, which forces are involved?

Overall, there is community determinism. This has been the great tragedy in the Middle East for the past ten years. It is the very spread of this sectarianism which is the determining factor for political choices, depending on which community you belong to. In other words, Alawites therefore support the regime, as does a large portion of Christians. Because the regime threatens them with the possibility of  an Islamist revolution, which is in actual fact not true. These revolutionaries are generally less Islamist than those that I saw in Libya or Egypt. And, in any case, the regime has, for the longest time, set the scene for a real ethnic showdown. Thirty years ago, it cracked down on the city of Hama. And Hafez-al-Assad, Bashar’s father, had sent Christian generals to head units which crushed the city. It was a way of tying Christians’ hands and sealing their fate with the regime, through a blood pact, by saying to Christians: “if one day the Sunnis come to power, they will crush you, they will seek revenge”. However, having said that, sectarianism is not absolute. I came across pro-revolution Alawites and Christians. But they are particularly discreet, because when they are caught, they are particularly badly treated as the regime sees them as traitors. On the contrary, the Sunni bourgeoisie, namely from Damascus and Aleppo, is still very weary of the revolution, because much of its economic interest depends on the regime, so it really fears a change in regime.

President Bashar al-Assad has opted for the path of escalation and had part of the Syrian people massacred in order to stay in power. Can he win his gamble without his country slipping into chaos?

The regime is doomed, but there are still many resources available. This may therefore still last another 6 months to a year. The problem is that the civil war has practically already broken out, and even a prospective fall of the regime is not very likely to impede this civil war race. A saying that I like very much is: “Geography placed Syria between Lebanon and Iraq, and History will give it back its rightful place”. The Syrian civil war, at its outset, has similar traits to the Lebanese war, namely due to interaction between communities, but also due to regional interventions. The different countries within the region all have a stake in this situation. And, this war also resembles the Iraqi civil war, namely through its extreme sectarianism and some of its practices, sectarian kidnappings and killings.


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