Syria Crisis

After Aleppo Inferno, Idlib To Become 'Purgatory'

For moderate, unarmed rebels, as well as anyone wanted by the government, the rapid and brutal offensive to retake east Aleppo is a sign of what’s to come elsewhere in Syria.

Syrian refugees in a camp in the Idlib province
Annia Ciezadlo

BEIRUT — In the final hours of the siege in Aleppo, as the Syrian military and allied militias closed in on Tuesday, the people who had once dreamed of a free country spoke of more immediate things: the freezing December rain that slicked the streets as people tried to escape. Families huddled in basements. The mother begging for help on her cell phone as she and her three children were trapped under their bombed building — until the line finally went silent.

"Hearing an ambulance is a good sign of life, I guess," said teacher Wissam Zarqa in a voice message to a WhatsApp group conversation used by Aleppo residents to communicate with the outside world. "With the rain, less helicopters in the sky."

As they sent what they feared could be their final words, they tried to convey some last details to a paralyzed world: cluster munitions in the areas being evacuated; phosphorus bombs in the al-Ansari neighborhood; a chlorine attack on one of the last remaining field hospitals; and always the rain. "The sky is crying for Aleppo with soft tears," Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a language teacher who became a media activist, told the WhatsApp group. "The sky is much kinder than human beings. For this, we will stay there finally. There is no justice but in heaven."

On Dec. 13, as the Syrian military closed in on the last remaining neighborhoods of rebel-held east Aleppo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights announced it had evidence of the execution of at least 82 people, allegedly by the Syrian military and allied Iraqi militias, and pleaded with the international community to "heed the cries of the women, men and children being terrorized and slaughtered in Aleppo." Pro- and anti-government partisans alike were posting photos of men being rounded up and lined up against a bright, sunflower-yellow wall. The message was unmistakable: This is what happens to those who don't surrender — and even to those who do.

What happened in Aleppo was many things, but most of all it was a warning — to anyone who may think of resisting the power of the state. To moderates, especially, the message was clear: Oppose us and you will be treated as a terrorist. The Syrian government delayed accepting a cease-fire until the last possible moment — and broke it before it had even begun. This was more than the usual playing for time. It was a live-action illustration of what the Russian-Syrian offensive's leaflets, dropped over east Aleppo in late October, had said: "If you do not leave these areas immediately, you will be finished." It added: "You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom."

In this, at least, the Syrian government was right. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump signaled throughout his campaign that opposing the Syrian government was not on his agenda. As soon as he was elected, Trump began making diplomatic overtures to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "My attitude was you're fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS," Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 11, just after the election. He added that Russia is "totally aligned with Syria," and implied that if the United States attacked Assad, it would end up fighting Russia.

For the Syrian opposition, and those civilians trapped in rebel-held territory, the immediate consequences were bloody and conclusive. Rebel-held eastern Aleppo was the first casualty. Just days after the U.S election, Russian and Syrian warplanes launched a devastating air offensive to clear out rebel territory. It took less than a month for eastern Aleppo to fall. By Dec. 12, the Syrian military had pushed armed opposition fighters and tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in eastern Aleppo into a few small neighborhoods in the southeastern corner of the city.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, as civilians began to send their last goodbyes, and pleas for help, the Russian and Turkish governments announced that they had negotiated a deal for rebel fighters to leave the last areas they were holding. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, said there was "no need for the remaining civilians to leave" — ominous words, because they meant that there would be no sanctuary for unarmed civilians. Even as the cease-fire was announced, Syrian military officials told Reuters that they had "no knowledge" of the details.

The following morning, as people waited to board the green government buses that would take them out of the war zone, the shelling restarted. The media department of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia and political party, which is fighting alongside the Syrian military, announced that no deal could take place until jihadist fighters stopped besieging civilians in Fuaa and Kefraya, two Shiite villages in Idlib province — effectively holding thousands of civilians collectively responsible for the actions of armed groups in another part of the country entirely.

This was the message of eastern Aleppo's defeat: In the future, any moderate opposition will be considered extremists by definition. This strategy worked well for Russia in Grozny, and the Russian and Syrian governments are banking on the idea that it will work with Aleppo. The defeat of Syria's legitimate political opposition (they do exist, contrary to Russian propaganda) will leave Syrians who can't go back to government-held territory — nobody knows how many, but a lot — with little alternative but to be ruled by extremist groups.

Idlib is where the next chapter of the nearly six-year conflict will likely take place. As the government clears out rebel-held territories, it is transferring large parts of their populations to the northwestern province, historically a rural area that has always had poor infrastructure. After Aleppo, the Russian and Syrian militaries will have a green-light to clear out remaining rebel-held areas and evacuate them to Idlib, which is slated to become, as one Syrian analyst speaking to Syria Deeply on condition of anonymity put it, "a kind of purgatory."

Extremists will be boxed in geographically, confined to Idlib. Moderates who are wanted by the regime for anything from minor infractions to being opposition leaders will be forced to join them. There, they will continue to be an example: this time, of how all those who oppose the government are "terrorists."

"Idlib, it will be a tomb," said the Syrian analyst. "But they need it, as a type of Gaza. You will have all kinds of fundraising. You may even have journalists going to Idlib. They need it to show Europe, to show those who are not supporting a political solution, that this will lead to terrorism. For Bashar, the best thing is to keep Idlib forever."

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Ideas

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.


In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

https://thewire.in/culture/re-reading-rumi-in-the-time-of-the-taliban
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