Thursday, 14 January 2016

Mini-Republics: A Syrian Village Seeks to Survive amid Carnage

Photo Gallery: A Mini-Republic in Northern Syria

 'The St. Lucie cherry trees were in bloom when the calamity began. It was not unexpected. Indeed, the men of Korin and surrounding villages had done their part to bring it about. Since winter, after two years of an almost static front line, they quickly overran several of the Syrian army's last outposts in the Idlib Province. And soon after regime troops fled the eponymously named provincial capital at the end of March, the bombs arrived. It is a pattern that has often been seen in Syria: Soon after rebels take an army base, an airport or a city, the air force arrives to pound them from above.

 For weeks, regime helicopters circled at an altitude beyond the range of rebel weapons and repeatedly dropped half-ton barrel bombs on Korin. On at least one occasion, a cylinder full of chlorine gas outfitted with detonators was dropped on the village, which is located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Turkish border. Sukhoi jets appeared between the clouds and fired rockets at those buildings that were still intact.

 It is almost as though someone had devised a wicked experiment to see what happens when everything that serves public order is suddenly removed. When police, courts and indeed the entire state simply disappears without a new one replacing it. And when the old state reappears periodically to spread death and destruction. It is a situation reminiscent of End Times science fiction tales in which marauding hordes find themselves in a constant battle for fuel, water and women. But what is it really like?

 Instead of simply crumbling, public order has merely contracted. "Korin has become a state," says Ajini, "just like all the towns here." A collection of rump states formed in self-defense. For years now, the media has portrayed Syria as being entirely consumed by horror and destruction, by explosions and black-clad barbarians who behead their victims on camera. But there are countless places that -- like islands in a storm -- are doing all they can to survive the fighting.

 The calm is astounding given the fact that it is simple for people to arm themselves. It is easier than ever to kill someone should one so desire, and it has become virtually impossible to hold criminals accountable without risking a blood feud. There are no police, and even if there were, it is no longer possible to call them. Not that a trustworthy judicial system existed under Assad, but there was a state. Today, there is merely a fragile balance that can be disturbed at any time. Everything must be negotiated. The authorities have been replaced by personal relationships and village solidarity.

The Western view of the war in Syria tends not to look beyond the Assad regime and the brutally murderous and propagandistically adept Islamic State. The group has taken over huge swaths of land in the sparsely populated desert steppes of eastern Syria, but hasn't made much headway in the more densely populated strongholds of the insurgency -- in Idlib and Aleppo in the north, in Hama in central Syria and in Daraa in the south. For the people living there, however, IS is no less fearsome than it is to Westerners. Indeed, the radical group is often seen as being more threatening in that it is often just a few dozen kilometers away.

Even as people from Washington to Moscow are warning of radicalization, a fundamental dilemma facing the opposition is largely being ignored. Village republics such as Korin embody both the promise and the limits of the revolution. On the one hand, the inventiveness and tenacity of these mini-states is astounding. Despite the adversity they face, they work on a local level. But only on a local level. What is happening in Syria is a revolution of localists. They vehemently deplore -- and usually rightly so -- the incompetence of the opposition in exile. But they cannot supplant it. They are aware of conflicting interests even among their supporters -- such as Saudi Arabia in opposition to Qatar, and both against the US -- but they don't join together. They want Assad to fall and they want a halfway fair, functioning state. But nobody knows who should achieve those goals.

 The Russian airstrikes hit northern Syria just as hard in September as the spring bombardments struck the village. Russian warplanes and helicopters flew up to 100 sorties a day, heading for those areas that were to be taken over by Assad's troops or their Shiite allies. But it remained largely quiet around Korin. It is a bit of geographical good luck amid the country's general disintegration. The Russian intervention notwithstanding, the Iranian military leadership in Syria negotiated a locally restricted, yet far-reaching cease-fire directly with one of the largest Islamist rebel brigades, Ahrar al-Sham. According to the deal, two isolated Shiite villages not far from Korin are not to be touched. In return, no airstrikes are to be flown in the entire region.

 It is a bit of calm in the middle of the storm. Some residents have given up anyway and are trying to flee from Korin to Europe. Around 30 people from the village have already made it to Germany, including the son of English-teacher Ajini. He now lives at a farmhouse in eastern Germany.

 Only Abdulhakim, one of the teachers in the village, can tell stories of the journey in person. He spent all of his savings to flee to Europe and made it all the way to Berlin. But a few months later, he returned to Korin. "I was in safety, but I couldn't do anything for my wife and my children as the bombs were falling here," Abdulhakim says. "I couldn't take it any longer." '

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