Chris Keulemans: Pawns and pocket money – How Syrian people and their homes in Syria have been stripped of their value
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13 August 2017

‘Foreign sponsors do not just remove mechanisms for peace,’ Max Fisher wrote in the New York Times of August 26, 2016.  ‘They introduce self-reinforcing mechanisms for an ever-intensifying stalemate. Whenever one side loses ground, its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. Then that side begins winning, which tends to prompt the other’s foreign backers to up their ante as well. Each escalation is a bit stronger than what came before, accelerating the killing without ever changing the war’s fundamental balance. This has been Syria’s story almost since the beginning. In late 2012, as Syria’s military suffered defeats, Iran intervened on its behalf. By early 2013, government forces rebounded, so wealthy Gulf states flooded support to the rebels. Several rounds later, the United States and Russia have joined the fray.’

‘Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population,’ Fisher continues, ‘they have little incentive to protect civilians.’ This is a war about securing territory, not about defending the people who live there. Civilians are no more than pawns on the playing field, routinely subjected to violence, extortion, famine and expulsion. Their homes – in the crowded suburbs of Damascus, the ruins of Homs, the two halves of Aleppo, the countryside of Hasaka or the camps in Bab al-Salama on the Turkish border and Zaatari in Jordan – are no longer the site of family histories. They have been degraded to temporary shelters, that can be destroyed and evacuated at any given moment.

According to the most recent UNHCR statistics, 5 million out of the original population of 23 million have fled the country, to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and beyond. 6.3 million people are now internally displaced, and 4.7 million people live in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. Including the 400.000 casualties, after six years of war, the figures might add up to the frightening conclusion that only one in every four Syrians still lives where he or she used to live in 2011.

Here is a short and subjective description of the forces that created this catastrophe.


The man in the middle is the ultimate survivor. President Bashar al-Assad, as described by Anne Barnard in the New York Times of March 22, 2016, is an ‘expert in playing allies off one another; often refuses compromise, even when the chips appear to be down; and, if forced to make deals, delays and complicates them, playing for time until his situation improves.’ To the population placed under his protection, he is a cynical killer. His repertoire: chemical attacks, barrel bombs on densely populated urban areas, vast prisons with torture chambers, mass executions and the expulsion of civilians to areas where they can be isolated and controlled. A recent example: after the conquest of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016, the remaining civilians were transported to the outskirts of Idlib, joining thousands who had been moved there by force from the Damascus suburbs and other areas that the regime and its allies recaptured. Huddled together, these people formed an easy target for the sarin attack that took the lives of over 70 men, women and children on April 5.

Assad cannot afford to let go of power. His personal fate would be sealed. His family and his cronies would be stripped of their wealth and privileges. As he and most of the officials in the merciless state apparatus – including the military and the security forces – belong to the Alawite minority, they fear for a possibly genocidal retribution once the president would be removed from government. To ensure regime survival, the Assads have forged strong ties with Shia allies, most notably Iran and Hezbollah. The leadership in Teheran has provided him with weapons, fuel, intelligence and thousands of troops, including Afghan recruits living in Iran who have been forced to the frontlines. Iran has been using Syria for decades as a zone of trade and transport of cash, arms and soldiers in order to strengthen their presence in the region and to support Hezbollah, one of Israel’s most feared opponents. In return, Hezbollah fighters no longer operate only within the Lebanese borders, but have been ordered into Syrian towns such as Qusayr, where they fought house to house, suffered significant losses and played a decisive role in defeating radical Sunni troops. In operations like these, homes immediately become objects of military significance, no more and no less: fortification, shelter, medical wards and passages to avoid sniperfire. The people who inhabit them, caught up in the houses where they were born and spoke their first words and fell in love and mourned the death of their loved ones, those people suddenly mean no more than potential threats to the military operation and are discarded as such. In the cynical logic of this president and of the fundamentalist armed insurgents, people who are of no strategical value don’t need to be regarded as human beings.


The stories that reach us about daily life in the crumbling caliphate of Islamic State, or Daesh in Arabic, are far and few between. It takes extraordinary courage and luck to get these stories to the outside world, where most of the images we get to see are the carefully orchestrated propaganda by the army of the black flag itself. This in itself illustrates Daesh’ strategy: total control of public space, both physical and digital.

In moments of peace, Syrians live much of their social life in public spaces: the souq, the sidewalks, the flat roofs on summer nights. But times are rarely peaceful here, and as architect Muhamed al-Mufti from Damascus describes, urban public spaces in Syria have traditionally been used as a visible arena of power and propaganda: the eyes and ears of the regime’s secret service have always hovered among the people in the streets, and still do; the demonstrations of the 2011 Revolution took place in city squares; Assad reclaimed them by force, shooting live ammunition into the protesting crowds; monuments, mosques, shrines and marketplaces have been favorite targets of any armed group capturing a city – and when they leave, they will often make sure to destroy icons of the urban landscape before abandoning it: the demolition of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, just before Daesh surrendered Mosul, is another tragic case in point.

It becomes even more sinister when you start assuming that there has been a constant trade-off between Daesh and Assad. More and more documents are being smuggled outside of the country showing how the president allowed them to grow, using their evil to gain more foreign support and withdrawing regime forces from places which they then entered to destroy – Palmyra being the most notorious example – only to move back in again once the historical sites had been demolished. This macabre tango has produced some of the most devastating destruction seen throughout the vicious retaliation after the Syrian revolution of 2011.

In January 2014, Raqqa was conquered by Daesh, which proclaimed it the capital of the caliphate. Two years later, a member of the local activist group Al-Sharqiya 24 managed to describe daily life under the black flag to BBC Today. “It’s Friday, this is the day we used to gather in the streets and have long chats. But not anymore. Anyone gathering in public without permission now risks being accused of plotting against Daesh.” His diary is a story of terror and extortion. People suspected of being a spy are crucified, with their head cut off, in front of their family home. Women and girls stay inside, in fear of being taken away to brothels for the fighters. Internet, cellphones and televisions are restricted or forbidden. Basic foods become far too expensive, as importing them through the regime and Daesh checkpoints surrounding the city cost more than they will ever be sold for. Shopkeepers are being ‘taxed’ by Daesh police in mafia style. Even the services that Daesh offers, such as healthcare, aid and fuel, are used to keep the population under constant surveillance. And when the cities of the caliphate are being attacked, as it happened first in Mosul and then in Raqqa, citizens are forced to stay in their homes as a human shield against tanks and planes.

Daesh is not alone in enforcing this brutal strategy. Ever since the Saudis, Qatari, Emirati and Turks entered the fray, by financing and facilitating jihadi forces, they have helped transforming the insurgency into a jihadi enterprise, where other islamist forces such as Jabhat Fath al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham have reproduced this urbicide.


President Recep Erdoğan has mastered the art of making profit from masses of homeless people. Some 3 million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, according to al-Monitor: 260.000 of them in state-run camps, the others scattered across the country. For the time being, they are going nowhere. A minority has taken the risk to return home – which is unsafe, obviously, but also expensive: Turkish border guards routinely expect bribes, with the prices being established by the Turkish ganglords controlling them. And traveling on to Europe is out of the question, ever since the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, that has not regulated the safe passage of refugees but paralyzed it. While the reception by Turkish society on the whole has not been unfriendly, Erdoğan is effectively keeping 3 million people hostage. It gives him leverage with the EU, who have pledged him 6 billion euro to accommodate the refugees. It also allows him to open and close the border with Syria at will.

Erdoğan, Assad and Putin have been playing a nebulous powergame over the past years, shifting between alliance and antagonism every few months. Between 2014 and 2016, the passage from Turkey to Syria was nicknamed ‘the jihadist highway’: arms, material and fighters on their way to Daesh territory passed through without obstacles, oil from the territory claimed by the caliphate was trucked into Turkey. The Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava collected countless documents – passports, visa, transport approvals for fertilizer, explosive material and weapons – proving how ‘the only goal of [Turkey’s ruling party] AKP is to fight any democratic project for the future of Syria. To achieve this, AKP has cooperated with Daesh through providing training, supplying arms and facilitating the crossing of Daesh fighters to Syria through its borders.’

Rojava, the autonomous region in the north of Syria that is a living experiment in democratic confederalism, led by the Kurdish population and including Arabs, Assyrians, Yezidi and others, is Erdoğan’s worst nightmare. While he has been terrorizing the mainly Kurdish South-Eastern part of Turkey, shelling and raiding its cities and villages, Rojava’s armed forces – YPG and its female brigade YPJ – have been pushing back Daesh, aided by American air support. While Erdoğan seems to be wary of Assad’s return to domestic hegemony, he is certainly not ready to accept Kurdish autonomy and has been sending in Turkish military across the border, since last November, to halt the progress of YGP and YPJ. Needless to say, every move he makes produces new streams of refugees scrambling for safety – the pocket money he needs to bargain his way to domination.


The ancient city that served as the region’s centre of commerce throughout the ages turned into the icon of the Syrian tragedy. It also became the trading ground for many of the warring factions, each of them pillaging the wealth of those parts of the city they controlled. When the troops from the regime-controlled Western half of Aleppo and the surrounding region rolled into the Eastern half that had been bombed into submission, last December, YPG commander Polat Can wrote a damning analysis of how the fractured parties controlling East-Aleppo brought the downfall on themselves.

‘Aleppo is divided into two districts, Eastern and Western Aleppo, which is not only a geographical division but a social and cultural one. Eastern Aleppo is home to the poor, devout and pious Sunnis, Kurds from villages, Kobani and Afreen and also Turks, mostly poor and working class people from construction and textile industries. On the other hand, Western Aleppo is home to the middle class government employees, the rich and the landlords who don’t care about political slogans and only look for stability in order to thrive. (…) Once Islamic factions took control of Eastern Aleppo they stole and looted everything and exported it to Turkey for very low prices, leading to the destruction of the economy and employment opportunities that people rely on for their existence. (…) The armed opposition were divided into so many factions fighting each other for the spoils of looting and stealing from factories. These factions were scattered based on their ideological, political, geographical or religious background. (…) The penetration of these extremist Islamic factions into Aleppo and to the body of the armed opposition imposed a new life style on the people and on other factions. The control of Ahrar Al Sham and Al Nusra gave the Assad regime and the Russians the reason and legitimacy to destroy the city and kill its inhabitants.’

Commander Can and YPG managed to secure a number of surrounding towns and villages, populated by Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Aleppo itself is now ‘liberated’, hopefully on its way to reconstruction – including those parts that were destroyed by the regime in the first place – , which in itself might become another phase in the power struggle between wealthy foreign sponsors (Russia, China, Gulf States) searching for influence. The remaining civilians were transported to an uncertain fate in Idlib, as mentioned above. Many of them might never have the chance to return and start rebuilding their homes.


Wheat is Syria’s main and most important crop, ‘accounting for about 60 percent of cultivated agriculture land’ and providing ‘about 40 percent of Syrian households’ caloric consumption,’ according to a March 2016 policy brief published by Duke University. But the war has ravaged Syria’s agriculture, too, adding even more damage to the unusually dry and hot temperatures of the past few summers. In June 2016, Syria Direct spoke with several Syrian farmers from rebel-held east Hama province as well as a farmer from Syria’s breadbasket in Kurdish-held northeast Al-Hasakah province. They described what it means to farm their respective corners of wartime Syria: rising production costs, supply shortages, drought and farmland destroyed by pests and bombs. ‘Due to limited abilities and lack of support, the Hama Provincial Council doesn’t have the funds needed to subsidize irrigation or support farmers with fungicides and pesticides,’ said councilman Hallaq. While the council was able to spray for locusts in some Hama fields last month, much of the damage has already been done. Making matters worse are ‘area battles and the regime militias’ targeting and burning of farmland,’ added Hallaq. Farmer Abu Faisal cited ‘daily fears of bombardment, since we’re in an area adjacent to regime-held territory.’ Taken together, the many forces at work in northeast Hama have led to a single result, says Hallaq: ‘A single dunam of land is at a quarter of its usual productivity.’

So even when they were not fleeing from terror and barrelbombs, thousands of Syrians have had to abandon their homes and lands, the rolling hills and golden fields where they had lived and worked for generations. Often underreported amidst the chaos of Syria, war and global warming form a lethal combination, forcing people to migrate without hope of being accepted as a formal refugee elsewhere.

Street View (Reassembled)

So far, this text has barely mentioned some of the main external forces that, through their military, economical and diplomatic interventions and more often than not through the absence of coordinated action, have kept the war going. Elsewhere, though, the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the EU have been reported on widely for the contributions that have earned them a place in the sad gallery of this drama.

This text has attempted to give just a few examples of the disregard for people and their homes that has become a defining feature of the Syrian war. In that sense, it pays tribute to the extraordinary moment created by Finnish artist Anssi Pulkkinen: this time, it is not a family but a home that has made a long journey to reach the heart of prosperous Europe. The ruins of a home. The bricks and clay and glass and metal that sheltered a family in a time when there was no reason to believe that one day, all of this would be shattered and destroyed, in a war that has taken everything away and given nothing in return.





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Chris Keulemans

Chris Keulemans (Tunis, 1960), was until September 2014 artistic director of the Tolhuistuin in Amsterdam. He grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. In 1984, he founded the literary bookshop Perdu in Amsterdam, and during the nineties he worked at De Balie, Centre for culture and politics in Amsterdam; first as a curator, later as director. He has published both fiction and nonfiction books, and has written numerous articles on art, social movements, migration, music, cinema and war for national newspapers. He has travelled extensively in order to study art after a crisis in cities such as Beirut, Jakarta, Algiers, Prishtina, Sarajevo, Tirana, New York, New Orleans and Ramallah, visiting many talented artists. For his work in Amsterdam, Keulemans received the honorary pin of the city council, and was appointed district-chroniquer of the Northern part of town.

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