Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars by Jonathan Spyer

Jonathan Spyer with Kurdish forces on the front lines in Kobane, 2014

Reviewed by Dimitar Mihaylov Bulgarian ambassador to Israel
(Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 202 pages

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2017

A quarter of a century ago, in a widely read political travelogue entitled Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan admitted that twentieth-century history had its origins in the Balkans, an area isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, mired in age-old hatreds. A quarter of a century later, we are presented with another area of rivalry and hatred as chronicled in Dr. Jonathan Spyer’ Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.
Kaplan tackles the end of the twentieth century and the Balkans, an area which by that time was on the threshold of enormous and radical changes, whereas Spyer explores what is probably the most sensitive and complicated spot in the world, at least in the first two decades of the new century: Syria and Iraq, both of which are engulfed in continuous turmoil and irreconcilable conflicts—an endless vertigo, if you will.
Whereas Kaplan looks at the world with curiosity and a profound understanding of how history reverberates in present-day realities, Spyer, through his candid nar- ratives, provides something more insightful: a deep sense of empathy for ordinary people, caught “between a rock and a hard place” in several malignant and merci- less conflicts. His journeys to the front lines—as an observer in this terrible war— reflect a deep humane attitude to suffering and pain.

While following his explorations, we gradually enhance our understanding of the internal dynamic of the conflicts, both in Syria and in Iraq, and their atavistic burden deeply rooted in history. We are inevitably faced with the same question as with the Balkans: Are the people of the Middle East also “doomed to hate?”
“Tragically for the people of this area,” Spyer writes at the end of his book, “the conclusion remains to be written” (p. 216). This is because “the ideas, structures, energies and interests that produced the Syrian war [and to a greater extent the turmoil in Iraq] appear to still possess vitality and wide support” (p. 215). As the conflicts now seemingly have begun to wane, though by no means have disap- peared, the root causes are still present.

Spyer’s humanistic attitude goes hand-in-hand with his readiness to feel and portray the suffering of the people encountered on his trips—not dispassionately or coldheartedly observing them from a safe distance. When the Syrian minister of information, Mohammed Torjman, tells a group of pro-regime foreign guests that the Syrian army never uses barrel bombs against the innocent civil population, Spyer immediately remembers how he stood with Syrians “in the basement at Dar al Shifa hospital” (p. 45) in Aleppo while a regime jet released a deadly barrel bomb. He was there not only as a witness to their pain and agony, but also to tell the world about “the street outside after the bomb had landed: the dead and the wounded” (p. 207).
In his journeys to the front lines, Spyer proves himself to be both a humanitarian and an adroit observer. His is a multifaceted and versatile approach that covers the two conflicts from a variety of angles. He meets and talks with those embroiled in them from all sides: “the Syrian rebels, the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, the regular Iraqi army, and the Shia militias” (p. 188). He even interviews notorious ISIS members (who appear to be not so monstrous when faced with honest ques- tions), and two ministers of the Assad regime in Damascus. It is as if he is rotating a kaleidoscope in order to see all the different shades and colors of life he encounters.

Spyer’s book is of particular importance because of its panoramic coverage of the Kurdish political-military formations, both in Syria and Iraq. He meets with the legendary Peshmerga general Maghdid Haraki of Iraqi Kurdistan, who was later killed in a firefight with ISIS, and talks to ordinary functionaries from the PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union) party in Rojava (the Syrian Kurdish auton- omous zone), young female fighters, and seasoned Kurdish political leaders. His book is a unique snapshot of the current Kurdish political-military topography.
One may ask why the author chose to embrace such a broad spectrum of people and events. My guess is that not only did he want to include the various walks of life that represent movements, parties, and interests in Kurdish territories, but also to convey the fact that developments in the Middle East are subtle and elusive, and people have a certain propensity to exaggerate and twist reality to reflect their own take on events. Spyer concludes the book with the acute obser- vation that “as always in Syria, the harmony was deceptive, and concealed some- thing quite different” (p. 67).

However, one of Spyer’s character traits stands out: his brave heartedness. His courage is neither forced nor foisted upon us; rather, it comes to the fore naturally. There are moments when his inner voice tells him that he may find himself in deep trouble with all these rough-and-tumble situations. In western Iraq he says, “If I get killed here, it occurred to me, my true identity and connections will become apparent, and they’ll bury me somewhere in the dirt in western Anbar” (p. 138). When preparing to fly from London to Beirut, he pauses and contemplates whether his choice is prudent (Hizbullah controls the airport completely, he antici- pates): “One direction leads to Heathrow Airport. The other goes to Uxbridge, where my family were living at the time” (p. 191). After only the briefest hesitation, he chooses to proceed to the airport.
Spyer, however, was not playing “Russian roulette.” He calmly calculated every risk. Unlike the late Steven Satloff, who was brutally executed after recklessly heading toward Aleppo via the town of Azaz in the summer of 2013 when ISIS and the Nusra Front were already present in the northern countryside, Spyer never acted recklessly or took risks beyond what was necessary. He always remained completely aware of his Israeli identity and his public activities. Throughout the book, he displays many qualities required for such dangerous mis- sions; for example, he writes,: “The ability to prevaricate convincingly is a grubby and ambiguous talent. But I am generally quite good at this kind of work, and it has its applications” (p. 189).
While reading this important book and reflecting on its insights, I was struck by the similarities between my own thoughts and conclusions and those of the author’s. From April 2011 until June 2012, I was the head of the Bulgarian diplo- matic mission in Damascus and observed events from that vantage point. I vividly remember, for instance, the strange death of The New York Times correspondent Antony Shadid. His demise was also noted by Spyer, who, like Shadid, was present incognito in the Syrian rebel zone.
Several of the observations in Spyer’s book coincide with those I reported to my ministry. I anticipated some of the others, but Spyer relates to them in a far more comprehensive manner.
The first such observation is how several internal events that grew from protest to a limited rebellion with local characteristics were “magnified into a regional contest, and drew in global powers” (p. 213). Like the Lebanese Civil War (1974–89), and unlike conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian conflict was unique in that it gradually entangled regional and global powers into a quagmire with no permanent solution.

The sectarian character of the conflict, “the process in which the war in Syria meta- morphosed from an uprising against a brutal dictatorship into a many-sided sectar- ian conflict” (p. 2), must also be highlighted. Iraq is not much different, so the sectarian nature of the two conflicts “led to the effective demise of the Syrian and to a lesser extent the Iraqi state” (p. 2). Whereas the sectarian and inter- national dimensions of these conflicts are intertwined, they also foretell the future of the Middle East: “The war became a front in a larger geostrategic conflict pitting Shia Iran against its Sunni opponents, and drawing in Russia and the US. This was a war for the future of the Middle East, with implications of global impor- tance” (p. 2).

Spyer exposes the false mantra espoused by the so-called Syrian political opposi- tion. For a long time, it played a coquettish game with the West, claiming that it had influence on the ground. The fact of the matter, as Jonathan clearly explains, is that:
The Syrian opposition, of course, were dependent on the willingness of large numbers of young men to go up against the butchery of the Assad regime. Islamism produced young men willing to fight. Arab liberalism did not. The result: any notion of the rebellion representing the doorway to some better or more representative future for Syria or the region had long since departed (p. 166).
outlines and underscores the vitality of political Islam,—not liberal Jeffersonian democracy—as a popular factor opposing the brutality of the regimes in the Middle East: “The strength of political Islam remains the language of popular politics among the Arabs of this area. More broadly the dominance of a political culture at odds with modernity, and ruled by conspiracy theories, grudges, magical thinking and the furious desire to revenge past humiliations is likely to ensure energies for continued warfare” (p. 214).

In this crucial time of division and disintegration, Arab nationalism and liberal ideas imported from the West proved to be a mirage:
The old and spent secular ideologies could offer nothing by way of com- parison, of course. But it seemed that the west and its lifestyle and ways also had but little purchase. Primordial loyalties and communities were the thing to which people returned. Sectarian and ethnic markers were ascending to prominence as the state began to recede (p. 45).

The author’s analysis of how Iran penetrates and expands in the Middle East, especially in those areas with Arab Shi’a majorities or minorities, is ingenious. Spyer points to the model of the Iraqi Shi’a militias, which he calls “a virulent strain,” and wittily outlines the model: “[T]hey translated political power into mili- tary strength and reversed the process back again, operating deftly in the shadows, in the murky area between legal authority and murderous criminality” (p. 139). The model of Tehran leads to “effective dominance of Lebanon and a good part of Syria” (p. 185). As for Iraq, where Jonathan penetrated the Shi’a militias, he observes a work in progress: “This strategy was now under way in Iraq, forged by capable cadres such as Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Badr’s Hader Al- Ameri, with Qassem Suleimani of the IRGC above them. This was taking place under the noses of the US and its allies, who had broken and remade Iraq in 2003, but who had yet to understand these dynamics” (p. 185). Such a conclusion may come as an inconvenient truth for some Western decision makers, but Spyer hits the nail on the head and brings to light the technology of Iranian intervention- ism in the Middle East.
Spyer writes of “a Pyrrhic victory,” and depicts the current positions of the regime in Damascus in the aftermath of the massive Russian military intervention in the fall of 2015. The author describes this trend in the following way: “By mid- 2016, it was obvious that victory in the sense that the rebels had originally under- stood it was no longer a possibility. There would be no triumphant march on Damascus” (p. 168). On the other hand, completely depleted and already depen- dent on foreign assistance and military support, the regime in Damascus was cel- ebrating a Pyrrhic victory and “the militias were feasting over the ruins” (p. 123). In another part of his book, Spyer portrays a vivid portent of this idea: “Bashar Assad was wearing a hollow crown, presiding over rubble” (p. 212).

His next observation is related to ISIS, viewed in the Western media in 2014 and 2015 as “a mighty, unstoppable force” (p. 150). Spyer divulges the true picture of a chaotic and declining organization: “[S]een from close-up, the Islamic State was a ramshackle, squalid, if psychotically violent affair” (p. 150). However, he hears voices from the Sunni community explaining why the organization is much appreciated and needed: “[I]f ISIS falls, you can forget about Sunni people in Iraq and in Syria” (p. 82). Spyer demystifies the ominous aura of this terror group and objectively views it as “emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014” (p. 83). He is very astute in concluding, “It was utterly brutal, dys- functional and sectarian. But it was speaking a language that was able to mobilize the Sunni Arabs of the country in a way that nothing else apparently could” (p. 83).

Spyer takes pains to explore the tragic fate of the minorities. Quite naturally, based on a request of a friend, Spyer searches for the traces of the Iraqi Jewish commu- nity and visits the district in which its members had once lived in Baghdad—Taht al Takiya. Beyond that, he outlines a process of a Middle East in transformation, becoming more monolithic and dull, whereas “[t]he Jews were the first minority to be ripped from the fabric of Iraqi society” (p. 144). The fact of the matter is that “the Baghdad Jews had escaped a worse fate because of the presence of Israel and its structures of rescue and defense” (p. 144), but other minority communities in Iraq and in Syria were far less fortunate. “The fundamental, unsettled dynamic” of gradually annihilating all minorities in the Middle East even to this moment “appeared unchanged, unresolved” (p. 144).

A keen and candid observer, Spyer provides in-depth descriptions of the nature of both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. Their political genesis is the Ba‘ath party (repre- senting a concept that originated in the 1940s under the influence of European totalitarian movements). The author, though, is interested in something deeper —the psychology of tyranny and its effect on the human psyche, a subject dealt
with by Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1854–1902) in his magisterial and pioneer- ing book in Arabic The Nature of Despotism.

Spyer vividly recounts “the scenes where Saddam Hussein is greeted by soldiers who dance and proclaim their love for him and kiss his hand” (p. 204). His analysis of despotism is surprisingly precise, down to the most minute details, which are quite telling, “It consists of an interaction where one person who has power behind him watches with amusement as another performs in ridiculous and humi- liating ways, abasing and infantilizing himself and going through gestures of sub- mission, in order to avoid harm” (p. 204).

Finally, what matters most in this extraordinary book is the uncertain future of all those ordinary Syrians and Iraqis who, for several years now, have been yearning for the dawn of a new day that will bring a world with less tyranny and oppression and more dignity and prosperity. When Spyer asks one of his interlocutors, a rebel named Ahmed al-Imam, he shrugs, ‘‘To be or not to be. No choice but to continue” (p. 173).
Spyer, however, foresees a gloomier future. “Both [sides] were disparate collec- tions of sectarian gunmen, loosely organized in the case of the regime, and unor- ganized in the case of the rebellion. Destined to fight one another to the end” (p. 174). This destiny is defined as “the fall,” with all Syrians and Iraqis who appear in his narratives witnessing “the crumbling of the countries in which they thought they lived” (p. 4). But there is another “fall,” more ominous and eerie: “an abyss of violence and cruelty that lurks always not far beneath the sur- faces of everyday life” (p. 4). In other words, it is the unremitting vertigo of irre- concilable conflicts.

Days of the Fall is a book not to be missed. As with Kaplan and his idea that twen- tieth-century history originated in the Balkans, Spyer’s opus raises a similar ques- tion as to whether twenty first-century history emanates from the Middle East. To a great extent, the answer is a resounding “yes.”