At the start of it all, before the uprising and the civil war – and the refugee exodus and the terror and the hatred that have sprung from it – a 14-year-old boy stood giggling with a can of black spray paint, pointing it at the wall of his school in southern Syria.
Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad,” he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011.
It was an incendiary political idea – suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, written by an apolitical teenage prankster. Painted on a cool and dry winter evening, it would improbably set in motion a chain reaction of events that continue to rock the Middle East – and the world.
“It was something silly,” Naief told me as we sat in a McDonald’s at the train station in Vienna, more than 3,000 kilometres away from where it all began. It was his first retelling (other than his interview with Austrian immigration authorities) of what happened that day in Daraa, and his life in the five harrowing years since. “I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
A neighbour who came to the school that night to see the graffiti calls those words – combined with the regime’s violent reaction – “an explosion.” The fallout is still landing all around us.
By most estimates, more than 400,000 people have been killed, and the war in Syria rages on, with the Assad regime now obliterating large swaths of the city of Aleppo. Millions more have been driven from their homes, with hundreds of thousands – including Naief – seeking refuge in Europe, inducing an epic clash of cultures on the continent and the startling rise of politicians from the anti-immigrant far right. The so-called Islamic State, the ugliest outgrowth of Syria’s conflict, has battered the West’s confidence with attack after murderous attack. And the initial hope generated across the Middle East and North Africa by the Arab Spring uprisings has been strangled by a violent new reality born in Syria.
Naief’s graffiti has had an effect on our world similar to the assassin’s bullet fired in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the First World War. Without Naief’s act of teenage impetuousness – and the Assad regime’s violent reaction to it – would the extremist caliphate have been declared? Would the refugee crisis be on the scale it is now? Would the United Kingdom – spurred by campaign posters of streams of refugees heading north – have voted to leave the European Union? Would the anti-immigrant message of Donald Trump – who has spoken, without evidence, of possible “Trojan horses” among the Syrian refugees accepted into the United States – have resonated quite so deeply with the American electorate?
In an effort to understand the moment that we’re in, I set out to find the teenagers who were at the al-Banin school the night it all began. It became a months-long odyssey that would take me to a half-dozen countries as I tried to gradually earn the trust of key figures, and to corroborate their stories as much as is now possible.
Naief himself was arrested, tortured for weeks, released from prison, celebrated as a hero, shot in the arm, and then whisked into exile – all in the first year after he spray-painted that school wall. His life since has been no less terrifying: He and his family lived in poverty as refugees in Jordan, returned for a time to a shattered Daraa, and then Naief fled north via checkpoints that brought him face-to-face with fighters of Islamic State. He anonymously joined the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled to Europe in 2015, and was recently granted permanent residency in Austria.
But he still wonders out loud whether a teenager from a devoutly Muslim and conservative province of Syria can ever fit into the sexually liberal, pork- and alcohol-consuming society around him.
Meanwhile, Austria and the rest of Europe are increasingly wondering the same thing.
What Syria has lost: A map of the damage done
And Naief was not alone in paying directly for his act of adolescent defiance. Determined to stamp out what it saw as a revolutionary spark, the Assad regime would arrest 22 other boys in connection with the graffiti. The Globe and Mail has learned that at least three of them are now dead, and only half remain in Syria.
Their story provides a grim snapshot of the unparalleled damage that five years of war have done to the country and its future – as do the tales of other Syrian refugees I interviewed for this piece. Among them: Abu Fuad, a friend of Naief’s who joined him at the school that night, and who has since found his way to Germany; Ahmad Abazid, a jeweller, now living in Sweden, related to several of the 23 boys; and a young man named Jamal, himself a thorn in the side of the regime, and now settled with his family in Jordan.
Naief Abazid – a short, thin young man with slicked-back black hair and a stubbly beard – is stunned by all that’s resulted from his impulsive act five years ago. “I was the youngest one in the crowd. They told me what to write,” Naief recalled, sipping on a coffee and sharing a McDonald’s pie.
“I only realized it was serious when I got to prison.”
The uprising begins
Naief went to school as usual on Feb. 17, 2011. He was sitting in class when he heard the hall monitor take a call asking for Naief to be brought to the principal’s office. When he got there, he was introduced to a man who said he was from the Education Ministry. Naief says he immediately knew from the man’s accent that he was from Mr. al-Assad’s home province of Latakia.
In fact, Naief was already in the hands of Syria’s feared internal security service, the mukhabarat.
The officer said he wanted to talk to Naief about some graffiti on the school wall, and told the boy to follow him outside. (Naief later realized that he had written his name a year earlier on another part of the school property; that sample of his handwriting was all the evidence the security forces would need.)
The boy was pushed into a waiting car and handcuffed. As soon as the car left the school grounds, three other men started to hit him. “They were so harsh,” he says, cringing at the memory. “They punched me, slapped me, elbowed me.”
It was only the beginning. At the mukhabarat office, Naief was hung by his wrists from the ceiling, his feet dangling several inches off the ground. Then, the security men started to whip the wispy 14-year-old with thick cables. Through his pain, the boy counted 40 strokes.
Next, his body was folded into the inside of a tire – a particularly cruel piece of torture already made infamous by the Assad regime’s interrogators – and rolled forcefully down a hallway until the tire slammed into a concrete wall with Naief inside.
For the next 10 days, he was kept in an isolation cell that he remembers as a metre and a half long and just a half-metre wide. Every hour or half-hour, he was subjected to another session in the tire, or another round of lashes.
“I kept saying ‘I don’t understand,’” Naief tells me across the table, hunching his shoulders together as he recounts his torment. “They just said, ‘Don’t worry, you will.’”
After several hours, he gave in and confessed that he had indeed written the words about Mr. al-Assad on the wall of al-Banin school.
“They said, ‘Do you know what it means?’
“I said, ‘No.’”
Eventually, he gave his torturers the names of five boys who had been in the crowd that urged him to write the graffiti. Those five would in turn be arrested and tortured into giving up the names of others who had been at the school that night, as well as some who weren’t, until there were 23 boys in custody.
After he had given the five names, Naief and the other boys were driven to another security office, this time in the nearby city of Suwayda. Ten days later, they were transferred to a building that all Syrians had heard horror stories about, the Palestine Branch mukhabarat headquarters in the Syrian capital of Damascus (the same place that Canadian citizen Maher Arar was held for 10 months and tortured into a false confession almost a decade before).
Naief remembers a sign on the wall of the Palestine Branch: “Those who enter here are missing. Those who leave are newborn.”
Inside, the “interrogation” of Naief Abazid and the other boys began anew. He says he was forced to beat other political prisoners with his fists. “If I didn’t beat them,” he says, “they would beat me.”
Naief felt scared and alone. He remembers an encounter with an elderly prisoner who burbled nonsense. The man had been in the Palestine Branch so long that other prisoners whispered that the guards had forgotten when or why he had been arrested. Naief despaired that he might also never see the outside of the prison again.
But, despite his despair, the disappearance of so many of Daraa’s children into the hands of the security apparatus was something residents – though used to living in fear of the regime – proved unwilling to tolerate. While Naief and his friends were being tortured, a movement to set them free was stirring outside the prison walls.
The uprising had begun.
A country divided
The modern Syria in which Naief and his fellow students grew up is a creation of a secret 1916 deal between Britain and France that divided up the southern territories of a crumbling Ottoman Empire between the two European powers. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, as it’s known, paid little heed to the ethnic and religious groups that lived inside the new borders it created.
The defining feature of the map that diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot created is a long, almost ruler-straight line stretching east from the River Jordan to the mountains of northwestern Persia. Everything north of the line – today’s Syria and Lebanon – was called Area A, and put under French control. Everything to the south – Iraq and Jordan – became the British-run Area B.
Despite the insensitive map-making, the French colonists arrived in Syria with a more nuanced understanding of the lands they were inheriting. They created five mini-states, each with a separate administration. Critically, Sunni Muslims – who then made up three-quarters of Syria’s population (Naief and his family are Sunnis, as were the other boys at the al-Banin school) – were appointed to rule over the mini-states of Damascus and Aleppo.
Meanwhile, a separate Alawite State was created in the coastal Latakia region, where the minority Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, was predominant. (There were also other states for the country’s Druze and Turcomen minorities – the latter mini-state is now part of Turkey – as well a multiconfessional entity that became today’s Lebanon.)
The divisions within Syria disappeared when the country gained independence after the Second World War, the old sectarian lines seemingly erased by a pan-Arab nationalism that swept through the region.
But independence was followed by six military coups over the next 22 years.
The last of those, in 1970, brought Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, to power. Although a member of the supposedly secular (and pan-Arabist) Baath Party, Mr. al-Assad brought an end to those two decades of turmoil by appointing loyalists to all key positions in the military and security services – nearly all of them members of the al-Assad family’s Shia-offshoot Alawite sect. In effect, the Alawite State had taken over the whole of Syria.
The fundamentally sectarian nature of the Baath Party regime, and thus its opponents, was something I and many Western analysts had badly underestimated until the recent civil war began. Although I had been banned from reporting in Syria back in 2007, following a trip to Damascus during which I had written about dissident writer Michel Kilo, I nonetheless saw the regime as badly atrophying, an edifice that would collapse if given a good shove. As the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to Egypt, I privately predicted to friends that Syria’s government would be the next to fall – and swiftly.
What I miscalculated was how hard Mr. al-Assad and his fellow Alawis – terrified of the fate they expected under Sunni rule – would be willing to fight for what they had. (Many Christians and other minorities, meanwhile, unnerved by the appearance of extremist Sunni groups – most notably the Islamic State – have also backed the Assad regime.)
Critically, Iran and Saudi Arabia – the great Shia and Sunni powers of the Middle East – also saw Syria through sectarian lenses of their own.
Predominantly Shia Iran viewed the Assad regime as critical to its ability to supply Lebanon’s (Shia) Hezbollah militia, and thus keep pressure on its most-hated enemy, Israel.
The Saudi rulers in Riyadh, by contrast, feared the “Shia Crescent” that they saw emerging across what had long been a Sunni-dominated Middle East – a belt stretching from Hezbollah’s heartland in the suburbs of Beirut; through Damascus; to Baghdad, where pro-Iranian forces had emerged dominant following the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Iraq’s Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein. The rise of a Sunni-led government in Syria would empower Saudi Arabia’s friends in Lebanon and Iraq as well.
The Saudi monarchy, along with Sunni allies Turkey, Qatar and Jordan, began sending money and weapons to anyone willing to fight against Mr. al-Assad’s army. In this war, all those amenable to fighting for the Sunni side against the Shias were initially seen as friends, even if those new “friends” were affiliated with al-Qaeda, or the nascent Islamic State.
The interventions of Iran and Saudi Arabia (along with half-hearted U.S. aid to anti-Assad rebels whom the Americans believed were sufficiently “moderate”) would quickly turn the 2011 uprising into a bloody struggle for the future of the entire region.
A spark spreading from Tunisia
Beyond its brazen poke at a paranoid dictator, it was the timing that made Naief’s graffiti so inflammatory.
Two months earlier, on Dec. 17, 2010, a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had been accosted by a policewoman, who confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling because Mr. Bouazizi lacked a vendor’s permit. Usually, Mr. Bouazizi would have paid a bribe, and carried on with his day. But that morning the 27-year-old had no more money. He bought a canister of gas, doused himself with it, and lit himself ablaze outside the local governor’s office.
Arab youths across the region – frustrated with and bored by the corrupt dictatorships they had grown up under – immediately understood the rage and hopelessness that Mr. Bouazizi expressed with his gruesome final act.
The regime in Tunisia, which would collapse when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile after four weeks of protests, was only the first domino to fall. Demonstrations soon erupted across much-larger Egypt, with tens of thousands marching in Cairo and other cities against the repression and torture of Hosni Mubarak’s military regime. “They were the best days of my life,” Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian activist and journalist, said of the brief period when positive change seemed possible across the Arab world.
But soon after Naief Abazid’s spray-painting of that school wall, the Arab Spring began to darken into a renewed winter.
Feb. 17 – the day Naief was seized and beaten by the mukhabarat in Daraa – was dubbed a Day of Rage in Libya, the Moammar Gadhafi dictatorship flanked by Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. A small crowd of protesters gathered in the eastern city of Benghazi, and were immediately confronted by the regime’s police. By the end of the day, 14 people were dead. Police opened fire again the next day at funerals for the Feb. 17 martyrs, and Libya’s revolution slid quickly into civil war.
That day also saw the first small protests in the Syrian capital of Damascus. A crowd gathered near the city’s ancient covered market to protest the beating of a shopkeeper by police. “The Syrian people will not be humiliated!” the people chanted. Anyone watching would have recognized the case as similar to Mr. Bouazizi’s, and the chants as borrowed from Tunisia and Egypt.
The demonstration in Damascus lasted only a few hours before it peacefully dispersed following the arrival of the interior minister, who promised an investigation of the event. In the weeks that followed, the regime would promise more changes, and even an end to the country’s 48-year-old state of emergency, which had been introduced following a 1963 coup, stripping citizens of most basic rights and handing wide powers to the security services.
The proposed reforms, had they been introduced earlier, might have set Syria on a very different course. But on the ground in Daraa, it was too late for political promises.
Daraa’s Day of Rage
As days turned into weeks, the parents of Naief and the other boys became frantic, their requests to see their sons met with a stony and horrifying silence.
A delegation of local elders demanded, and eventually were granted, a meeting with Atef Najib, a cousin of Mr. al-Assad’s who was in charge of the regime’s security apparatuses in Daraa. Spooked by events in Tunisia and Libya, he had set up extra police checkpoints in the city even before Naief wrote his daring graffiti.
What Mr. Najib said to the elders on Feb. 26 was at least as provocative as the words Naief had painted on the school wall. “Najib told the people, ‘Forget about your children. Go have new kids. If you can’t, send us your wives and we will get them pregnant for you,’” recalls Ahmad Abazid when we meet in early September. A 32-year-old jeweller who worked at his family shop in the centre of Daraa before the conflict, Ahmad is another of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled their country in the five years since. (Abazid is a very common family name in southern Syria and northern Jordan; Ahmad and Naief are only distantly related, though Ahmad has closer family ties to some of the other graffiti boys.)
It took another three weeks for the anger to boil over into action. On March 18, residents of Daraa gathered at the city’s Omari Mosque for a protest march that came to be dubbed Daraa’s own Day of Rage. (There were also small demonstrations in Damascus and other cities that day.) After Friday prayers, the crowds headed toward Mr. Najib’s fortified office in the centre of Daraa, chanting for the release of the 23 boys, as well as of other political prisoners.
Their grievances, then, were still local: There was no talk yet of challenging the regime. Along with freeing the students and other prisoners, “we just wanted to get rid of Najib,” says Abu Fuad, a student at the school and a friend of Naief’s who joined the demonstrations. He was 18 when it all began. When we meet, he’s a frustrated young adult in faraway Germany.
But everyone knew what the al-Assad clan was capable of when it felt its grip on power under threat. The city of Daraa and the surrounding province were inhabited by deeply conservative Sunni Muslims, a population naturally hostile to the Baathist regime with its Alawi leadership. The last time that Syria’s Sunnis – spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational movement that pushes for government based on the Koran – had risen up against the regime was in 1982, in the central city of Hama. Bashar al-Assad’s father ended that rebellion by obliterating much of the city with warplanes and tanks, killing upward of 10,000 people.
Three decades later in Daraa, the regime would again resort to heavy-handed force. Soon after marchers demanding the release of Naief and the others began hurling rocks, police snipers opened fire, killing two protesters and giving the nascent Syrian Spring its first martyrs.
“It just made us angrier,” says Abu Fuad, who was only metres away when the first protesters were shot.
“The kids were so brave,” says Ahmad Abazid. He had gone to al-Banin school the first night to see Naief’s graffiti, an event he describes as “like an explosion.”
A former conscript in the Syrian army, Ahmad says he stayed away from the protests out of fear learned over a lifetime living under dictatorship, a fear he and others in his generation trace back to the Hama Massacre.
But the kids, he says, didn’t know enough to be afraid.
At a funeral march for the first two “martyrs,” police again shot into the crowds, killing several mourners and spawning a cycle of more funeral marches, and much more violence.
‘Nobody was afraid any more’
Hoping to keep events from spiralling out of control (and perhaps with an eye on Libya, where a full-blown civil war was now under way), the al-Assad regime decided to offer Daraa an olive branch.
On March 20, the 23 boys being held in the Palestine Branch prison were gathered together and addressed by an intelligence officer. They had disrespected the president, they were told. But – after a month of torture and isolation – they would now be pardoned by Mr. al-Assad.
The boys were put on a bus and driven back to the Daraa mukhabarat headquarters, still uncertain of their fate. It was only there – during a chance encounter with some other prisoners being held for taking part in the protests to free the boys – that Naief and his friends began to understand what had been happening in their city and their country while they were in custody.
They were then bused to the local Baath Party headquarters, where they were met by relatives who quickly escorted them to the Omari Mosque. The boys were shocked to see what looked to be the entire city lining the streets and cheering as they passed.
“It was like a wedding,” Naief recalls, with a smile. Men shouted that the boys were heroes. Women ululated from balconies and rooftops. It was overwhelming. “I didn’t understand why they were calling us heroes,” Naief says. “I just wanted to go home and see my mother.”
But that quiet evening at home wasn’t to be. The family’s neighbours had prepared another celebration, specifically for Naief, on their street. “They were calling us heroes because, in the past, people had been afraid to say anything about Bashar al-Assad or the regime or the police,” he recalls. “After this, nobody was afraid any more.”
Decades of fear and deference had given way to a defiant rage.
The stories – and the evidence on their bruised and blackened bodies – of how the 23 boys had been tortured added to the mounting fury. The day of the boys’ release, protesters in Daraa torched the Baath Party building.
Angry demonstrations were by now a near-daily affair, and had spread across the country to the cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama – even Mr. al-Assad’s home province of Latakia.
But in each place, the marchers were met by force, and the death toll rose. On March 23, security forces stormed the Omari Mosque, prompting a bloodbath that left at least 37 people dead. (The plaza in front of the mosque has since been renamed “Dignity Square” by the rebels.)
Syria: The numbers
On April 1, the crowds in Daraa found a new focal point for their anger. As they converged on the city centre, some began to yank with their bare hands at a statue of Hafez al-Assad that had stood there for decades. Others, including Naief’s friend Abu Fuad, joined in.
To their surprise, the statue proved easy to topple. “We expected it would be very sturdy. We always believed it was made of bronze,” Abu Fuad says when we meet near his home in exile in Dusseldorf. “But it was very cheap material – just two metal poles in the legs.”
On YouTube videos of the moment the statue was pulled down, laughter can be heard in the crowd. Abu Fuad still smiles broadly when recounting how it happened.
The mirth was momentary. Regime soldiers responded by again opening fire on the crowd.
Shortly afterward, regime tanks were sent to encircle Daraa – intending to crush the uprising by isolating the revolutionary population from the rest of the country. The city had prepared for the moment by smuggling Kalashnikov assault rifles in from nearby Jordan. Many rank-and-file Sunni soldiers who had grown up in Daraa deserted, unwilling to take part in an assault on their hometown. It was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Free Syrian Army.
Syria’s civil war had begun.
“If [the regime] had behaved differently, if they had treated the people well, maybe none of this would have happened,” says Ahmad Abazid, the jeweller related to several of the 23 boys. “We arrived here because of how they behaved in 2011.”
He was speaking of his own family’s new place in exile, in small-town Sweden. But he could have been speaking about the entire planet, which has spun slightly differently since the events in Daraa.
‘It was like Tom always chasing Jerry’
For the first year of the conflict, Naief Abazid and his family stayed in Daraa even as the Tunisia-style revolution the youths had hoped to see slid ever more quickly into unchecked violence. Each day, the regime’s army erected more checkpoints in the city, and arrested more people. Each night, the increasingly well-armed rebels fought back.
Naief never took up arms, he says, unless you count the cans of spray paint that remained his weapon of choice. He doesn’t claim to be a great artist, but says he became expert at making stencil portraits of Mr. al-Assad on the streets – portraits that Daraa residents could step on or drive over, the ultimate insult in the Arab world.
Despite his young age, Naief’s early role in the uprising gave him the credentials to join the revolutionary organizing committee for his neighbourhood, which helped plan and co-ordinate protests against the regime. They were exciting times.
“We had this hope, that this week or next week Assad would be gone,” Naief recalls. “After a year, the hope disappeared.”
Eventually, the regime banned the sale of spray paint, forcing the young rebels to come up with creative solutions.
Naief’s friend Abu Fuad worked at a restaurant that bought supplies from Jordan, and used those contacts to begin a spray-paint smuggling operation. Meanwhile, the youths devised new tactics to keep the peaceful protests going: a group of them would start a demonstration in one part of town – drawing police there – while another group would hit unguarded government buildings with a fresh layer of graffiti.
“It was like Tom always chasing Jerry,” Abu Fuad says with a laugh.
His favourite slogan was the iconic “The people want the fall of the regime” that had appeared on walls first in Tunis, then Cairo.
But Syria’s president proved far nastier and more tenacious than his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts. Like his father before him, Bashar al-Assad was willing to do anything it took to remain in power.
Naief learned to avoid the security forces that had invaded his city, something that eventually became impossible when the Syrian army set up a checkpoint just outside his family home. One day, while leaving his house, he heard a regime soldier tell his commander on walkie-talkie: “I have Naief.” The soldier raised his Kalashnikov, and Naief started to run. A bullet tore through his left biceps. He kept running until he found anti-regime rebels, then collapsed into unconsciousness.
The next day, he was whisked across the border to a hospital in the Jordanian city of Ramtha. Shortly afterward, his parents and his four siblings joined him in Jordan. It was the beginning of Naief’s first stint in exile.
Bashar al-Assad’s powerful friends
By the autumn of 2011, Bashar al-Assad had reason to be desperately worried.
The fighting in Daraa had spread to the entire country. Syria’s Sunni neighbours, Jordan and Turkey, had thrown their support behind the Free Syrian Army. The northern cities of Homs and Hama seemed beyond the regime’s control. In Damascus, the Baath Party headquarters – once a fear-inducing symbol – was hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire.
For the Syrian leader, the situation around the region would have been even grimmer to contemplate. Tunisia’s Ben Ali was in exile; Hosni Mubarak was in jail; and a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, had been elected president of Egypt.
In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi had decided to fight rather than stand aside. It was a decision that brought NATO warplanes (acting under a UN Security Council mandate) into the war against him, accelerating the advance of his armed opponents. On Oct. 20, he was discovered hiding in a drainage pipe near his hometown of Sirte. Nauseating video shows armed rebels dragging the man who had ruled Libya for 42 years out of his ignominious hidey-hole, and parading him before a celebrating crowd. “Brother Leader” was then sodomized with what appeared to be a bayonet, before his life was ended with a bullet to the brain.
A few months earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama had declared that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
But in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had come to a very different conclusion. Mr. al-Assad, he determined, could not be allowed to fall. Weeks after Mr. Gadhafi’s death, reports began to surface of Persian-speakers working with the Syrian regime’s security forces. Soon, battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters, always an Iranian-supported force, were crossing the border from Lebanon to aid their fellow Shiites.
Other players were also getting set to join the burgeoning proxy war. In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly watched the video of Mr. Gadhafi’s grisly death three times before issuing an angry statement calling the execution “repulsive” and American-orchestrated.
Mr. Putin – infuriated by what he saw as the West’s deceit over Libya (he considered Mr. Gadhafi a Kremlin ally) – had just announced he would switch jobs with his protégé Dmitry Medvedev and return to the presidency, a post Mr. Putin had previously held for eight years. He would return to the job haunted by the idea that the Arab Spring, left unchecked, could inspire similar protests in Moscow.
Those close to the Kremlin say that Mr. Putin’s second rise to the presidency was partly motivated by a conviction that Mr. Medvedev had made an enormous strategic error by not using Russia’s veto to block the UN Security Council resolution that enabled NATO warplanes to attack Libya. Mr. Putin believed the West had tricked Mr. Medvedev into standing by as yet another Kremlin ally was toppled – just as Boris Yeltsin had been sidelined while NATO bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia in 1999, and Mr. Putin himself had been ignored while the U.S. invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Syria had been a Russian ally since the Cold War, when U.S. support for Israel made Syria a natural Soviet ally. In 1971, Hafez al-Assad granted the USSR use of a Mediterranean Sea naval base at Tartus – near the al-Assad family’s hometown of Latakia – and thousands of Syrian military personnel were sent to Moscow for training.
Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin determined not to allow the West to topple another one of Russia’s dwindling number of friends. He would back Mr. al-Assad, come what may.
Across the border, a grim refuge
Daraa and the city of Ramtha, its neighbour just across the border in Jordan, would probably have grown into a single city by now, if not for the whims of Sykes-Picot. That solid line separating areas A and B cut right between Daraa and, just 15 kilometres to the south, Ramtha. The colonists didn’t care that the two desert cities were inhabited by many of the same tribes, including members of the extended Abazid clan.
Ramtha, now a city of 120,000 people, would provide a ready rear base for the Free Syrian Army in the early months of Syria’s war. It would also function as a welcoming – if uncomfortable – escape hatch for Naief and his friends, nearly all of whom would spend time on its dusty streets, as well as those of the nearby Zaatari refugee camp.
Among those who passed through both was a 12-year-old boy named Jamal, whom I arranged to meet in Ramtha after being told he was one of the original 23. In fact, I discovered, he was not: Jamal went to a different school in Daraa than Naief and the others, and says he knows them only by reputation. But his story is depressingly similar.
One day in February, 2011 – he doesn’t remember the exact date – Jamal was goofing around with some of his classmates after school. Thrilled by the exciting scenes of protest and revolution they had seen broadcast from Tunisia and Egypt, as well as what was starting to unfold in Syria, Jamal and his friends grabbed a couple of cans of spray paint that he had bought to decorate his bicycle.
They headed to the al-Quneitra school, where Jamal (who, like Naief, was the youngest in his crowd) painted slogans borrowed from the television news, including “al-Assad looted the country,” on the outer wall, while the older kids laughed and cheered.
The police arrived at al-Quneitra the next day, and asked every student to give a handwriting sample. It didn’t take them long to narrow their focus to Jamal: On both the wall and the sample he submitted, Jamal misspelled Mr. al-Assad’s name as “al-Ssad,” leaving out one “A.” “I wasn’t very good in school,” Jamal shrugged when we met this fall in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
Although Jamal was not one of the original 23 arrested in Daraa, Syrian refugees in Ramtha told me that he and his own cans of green and red spray paint had played a galvanizing role similar to that of Naief and his schoolmates.
His torment at the hands of the mukhabarat was also much like Naief’s, except that Jamal took to shouting out the names of imagined accomplices under torture. “I gave them whatever names came to mind,” he says. Now a wiry 17-year-old who wears a white ball cap pulled low enough in the stark Jordanian sun to cast shade on his long unibrow and striking blue eyes, he bites his fingernails as he recounts his time in the custody of Syria’s mukhabarat.
Syria: The numbers
“I would give them a name so that they would stop torturing me, and leave me alone in my cell for 24 hours. Then they’d find out that the name I gave them was worth nothing, and the beatings would start again until I gave them another name.” It was a cycle that lasted an entire week.
Five years after his act of preteen rebellion, Jamal is among the estimated 750,000 school-age Syrian refugee children scattered around Jordan, Syria and Lebanon who are not attending classes of any kind. Aid workers have been warning for years of a desperate “lost generation” of Syrian refugee kids – some of whom are now young adults – growing up traumatized and poorly educated around the Middle East. For now, the chief concerns are child labour for the boys, and prostitution and early marriage for the girls. The long-term concern – for the Middle East and the world – will be radicalization.
Jamal and his family settled first in the Zaatari camp, a sprawling collection of tents in the desert that, since it opened in 2012, has grown into the fourth-largest “city” in Jordan. It is an intentionally grim place – built to host Syrian refugees without making them feel welcome enough to want to stay in Jordan. Syrians are denied legal work permits, or any path to citizenship.
Intended to be temporary, the camp now feels increasingly permanent, as the canvas tents I saw when I first visited in 2013 have been slowly replaced by metal caravans, and the refugee settlement develops an economy and culture of its own. It is now home to roughly 80,000 people, a disproportionate number of whom hail from Daraa. (Naief registered before he and his family settled in Ramtha.) Though such organizations as Unicef and Save the Children run tented schools inside the camp, drop-out rates are sky high.
“I haven’t been to school since the day I was arrested,” says Jamal. He shrugs and looks confused when I ask what his dream job might be.
Naief, too, says he hasn’t been in a classroom since the day he was pulled out of school by the mukhabarat.
Arab Spring’s end: ‘We were defeated’
If the Arab Spring had a final act, it might have been the Jordanian opposition’s attempt at a Day of Rage – mimicking those in Tunis, Cairo and Daraa – in November, 2012. The Hashemite monarchy had just hiked fuel taxes, and thus the cost of living, in a country where most residents were already struggling to get by. Anger was high.
“Gadhafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak all left,” chanted a crowd of several thousand as it moved that fall through the streets of Amman, roadways that are framed by limestone buildings and usually choked with honking cars. “Go, Abdullah, go,” they shouted at the country’s long-ruling King Abdullah II.
The crowd started out small compared to those that had toppled Mr. Mubarak in Egypt. Still, the organizers expected that many more would quickly join in. But Jordanians could see, looking at neighbouring Syria, what challenging their own regime might mean. Most stayed home: choosing stability, poverty and continued authoritarianism over the uncertainty of revolution.
An awkward opposition coalition that had been formed in 2011 – bringing together Jordan’s liberal intellectuals, communists and members of the local arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, under the name “National Front for Reform” – soon crumbled over internal divisions created by the fighting in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted the National Front to stand with the demonstrators in Daraa, and to make an outright call for regime change in Damascus. But, with one eye on the escalating bloodshed in Syria and the other on the rise of an Islamist government in Egypt, the secularists were no longer sure that challenging the Jordanian regime in the streets would lead to something better.
“The National Front was paralyzed, and then dissolved over Syrian and Egyptian issues, not Jordanian ones,” Labib Kamhawi, an outspoken intellectual and political analyst in Amman who emerged as a spokesman for the group, told me. “One day we simply stopped meeting.”
Mr. el-Hamalawy, the Egyptian activist, also says the Arab Spring’s collapse began in Daraa. Egypt’s 2011 revolution came undone a year later when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government, returning Egypt to de facto military rule and political repression. To Mr. el-Hamalawy’s dismay, many of those who had fought to oust Mr. Mubarak stood aside when the army moved to seize control again in 2012.
“Syria is now the bogeyman that the counterrevolutionaries use in Egypt and elsewhere,” he says, adding that the message is “‘If you continue with the Arab Spring and with the protests, the country will collapse into war.’ The events in Syria were used to scare Egyptians into accepting the military coup and accepting the repressions.”
Mr. el-Hamalawy, who now lives in exile (he asked The Globe and Mail not to specify where he is), believes the Arab Spring is over – at least for the time being. “We were defeated. I’m not saying this is the end of the story, but we have to be realistic.”
Red lines are drawn, and redrawn
In 2013, videos of hundreds of children, women and men lying dead and dying in the wake of a sarin gas attack on the Ghouta neighbourhood of Damascus sent an unexpected ripple of hope through Naief and other the refugees living in Jordan: Mr. al-Assad’s forces, presumed culpable in the attacks, had now crossed the only “red line” that U.S. President Barack Obama had laid down in the otherwise lawless Syrian conflict. Surely now the outside world would act to punish the Syrian leader.
But the refugees’ hopes were soon dashed; it seemed that Westerners no longer had the desire to try putting out a fire they had come to accept as blazing out of control. Instead, under a deal crafted in the Kremlin, Mr. al-Assad would promise to give up his chemical weapons, and the U.S. and its allies would stay out of the war. Although today allegations of chemical-weapons use by all sides continues, by 2014 it was clear that there were no more “red lines” in Syria’s war.
And so, after two “hopeless” years in Jordan, Naief Abazid and his family took the difficult decision to return to Syria. By late 2014, their neighbourhood in Daraa was under the relatively stable control of the Free Syrian Army. The Abazids’ home had been damaged in the fighting, but was still intact enough to live in once the holes were patched up.
Naief was shocked when he witnessed what had happened to his city. “I didn’t expect what I saw. I had seen videos on YouTube, but I still wasn’t ready for it. Everything was destroyed, knocked down,” he says, closing his eyes as though replaying an image in his head. “It was awful. If someone told me how bad it really was, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
For seven months they remained in Daraa, despite the fact that Naief’s father – a cross-border truck driver before the war – no longer had work. It was a terrifying existence. Naief describes the near-constant rain of artillery shells and bombs dropped from the air by Mr. al-Assad’s air force. “People were surprised,” he says, “if there was a day without any bombing.”
Like the northern city of Aleppo that is the focus of much of today’s fighting, Daraa has been cut effectively in half by the war. At the time of the family’s return, the Abazids’ neighbourhood was under the control of the FSA – as was the route in from the Jordanian border – but regime forces were only a few blocks away. Chunks of the city were no-man’s lands where anyone or anything that moved got shot at.
On their TV, which still received Al Jazeera by satellite, Naief’s family saw images of the swelling tide of people – Syrians and others – fleeing to Europe. It was the middle of September, 2015. The tiny body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy, had just washed ashore on a beach in the Turkish resort of Bodrum, briefly generating an outpouring of sympathy for refugees – in Europe and as far away as Canada.
Naief says he didn’t know the name Alan Kurdi until he was already in Europe. But his family heard and saw Angela Merkel’s declaration that her country would welcome any Syrian refugees who reached Germany’s borders.
Germany was more than 3,500 kilometres from Daraa. But the family decided that Naief, along with one of his older brothers and a cousin, should try to get there. They scrounged up as much money as they could and gave it to Naief and his brother so that they could pay the people-smuggling network they would need to use along the way.
“There was no future in Daraa any more,” Naief says with a shrug. “There were two options: get killed, or become homeless.”
Live free or drown
It wasn’t just Alan Kurdi who died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea last year. The International Organization for Migration says at least 3,771 people – most of them refugees, some of them economic migrants – perished trying to reach Europe on tiny craft pitted against the unpredictable Mediterranean Sea. That bleak figure has been exceeded in 2016.
But as fraught as the sea passage promised to be, it was not what scared Naief most about the journey before him. “I can swim,” he explained to me, illustrating his point by windmilling his arms in a chaotic-looking impression of a front crawl.
The hard part would be getting to Turkey.
While his parents remained in Daraa, Naief and his travelling companions (he asked me not to name his brother and cousin) took a minibus that was arranged by smugglers to transport 50 refugees from Daraa to Syria’s border with Turkey. It was a thousand-kilometre journey in a cramped vehicle, one that took them first east, past the ruins of ancient Palmyra, and then north into the heart of the territory controlled by the Islamic State.
The journey was horrifying, and occasionally surreal. At an IS checkpoint near the de facto capital of Raqqa, the minibus was turned back by a pair of camouflage-clad fighters, who told the refugees to drive several hours in the direction they had just come, to an Islamic State office in the city of Madan. Naief and the others would go no farther, they were told, unless the bureaucrats there approved.
As their minibus circled a roundabout, Naief and the other refugees caught a revolting glimpse of the way Islamic State simultaneously deals with its enemies and terrifies those who live under its rule: A corpse lay in the centre of the traffic circle with the dead man’s head placed, gruesomely, between his knees.
“We were so scared,” he says, his voice dropping almost to a whisper.
At the nondescript building in Madan that the extremists had made into something of a passport office, the refugees were given a stern warning. “They told us we shouldn’t go to the infidel countries, to Europe.” With little choice but to lie, Naief and the others promised they had no such plans. Only then was the bus granted permission to travel back toward Raqqa.
In a taste of how quickly the landscape can shift amid Syria’s gruelling war, the Islamic State checkpoint was no longer there by the time the refugees returned with their permission papers. So the bus cautiously proceeded west toward battle-ravaged Aleppo – Syria’s largest city before the war – and the Turkish border beyond.
Naief says the trip across Syria cost $1,000 (U.S.) a person, an enormous sum that his family gave to him, his brother and his cousin in hopes they would later be able to bring the rest of the family to Europe. Much of the cash, Naief assumes, was paid onward by the smugglers as bribes at the various military checkpoints they encountered during their trip through Syria.
A month later, Naief’s friend Abu Fuad would head north along the same route. “Everybody said, ‘Go to Germany, it’s the best place,’” he said to me.
He remembers the Islamic State checkpoints as being as strictly controlled as the Assad regime’s. “They would take your identification card and check your name against a list on their computer,” he says, adding that the IS fighters he saw were wearing army-standard desert camouflage uniforms as they stood under the black flags of their “caliphate.”
And if anyone was on their list?
Abu Fuad drew a line across his throat.
Crossing into Islamic State territory: ‘We were so scared’
When Naief and the other refugees reached the Turkish border, they were transferred to another smuggling network. After handing over another $1,100 a person (conveyed by Naief’s parents to the Turkish smugglers via a system of remittances), the refugees were put onto a bus to the port city of Izmir, one of the main hubs of the wild exodus to Europe last fall.
That price included space on a black rubber dinghy that took them to the Greek island of Lesbos. By Naief’s count, he was one of 40 people on the flimsy craft, which took two harrowing hours to cross the narrow stretch of dark, choppy waters.
From Lesbos, he paid 60 euros (just over $60) for space on a special refugee ferry to Athens arranged by the Greek government, and then took a bus to the Greek border with Macedonia. There, he joined tens of thousands of bedraggled Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Africans who trudged north through the country, using the railway tracks for guidance.
From there, it was a blur. Naief remembers passing through Serbia – sometimes walking, sometimes taking a bus, checking a map on his mobile phone to see where he was on the unfamiliar terrain. Belgrade was then a major transit hub; refugees could be found camped in parks and bus stations, waiting for news of the safest and fastest ways north.
The border between Serbia and Hungary, he says, was a particular challenge. Hungarian border guards were turning back any asylum-seekers they caught; as a result, refugees were camping on the Serbian side until they got the signal from smugglers that it was safe to cross the densely forested frontier.
The Hungarian government, reflecting its hostility to refugees, put them quickly onto a train bound for Vienna. There, finally, Naief exhaled.
Though they had begun the journey aiming for Germany, he and his cousin decided that Austria – where the refugees were greeted by volunteers handing out food and bottled water – felt as if it could be home. “We felt it was beautiful,” he says, “and safe.” Naief’s brother decided to press onward to Germany.
About a month later – and decidedly less cocky about his own chances of surviving if his boat capsized, Abu Fuad followed in his friend’s footsteps. “I can swim, but no one is stronger than the sea,” he says grimly as we sit in a café across from the main train station in Dusseldorf, more than 4,000 kilometres from home.
Abu Fuad’s trip followed a nearly identical route through Syria, though his own overcrowded dinghy from Turkey would land on the Greek island of Samos.
From there, he took the ferry to Athens, then headed north, via Macedonia, to Belgrade, taking buses when that was an option, walking when it wasn’t. But he faced an additional potential obstacle that Naief did not: By October, 2015, the Hungarian government had completed a four-metre-high fence along its southern frontier with Serbia, topped with razor wire and patrolled on the far side by armed police sometimes backed with armoured vehicles. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who led the way among the continent’s populist politicians in whipping up anti-immigrant rhetoric, said the measures were necessary “to keep Europe Christian.”
Yet the barrier proved merely a rock in the stream, one Abu Fuad and thousands of other refugees simply skirted. The exhausted masses marched on foot through the farmlands of western Serbia and eastern Croatia – past signs warning of unexploded munitions left over from the Balkan wars of two decades earlier – then onward, via tiny Slovenia, into Austria.
Unlike Naief, Abu Fuad didn’t stop there, but proceeded on to Germany, which had been mythologized that fall as a haven for refugees. Indeed, scores of Germans flocked to train stations to cheer and welcome the arrival of the first refugees, just before Abu Fuad arrived on his own train from Vienna.
But the warm reception was not to last.
A short 12 months after Abu Fuad arrived, relations between Germans and the new arrivals from the Middle East are much frostier, unspooled by what happened in the first hours of 2016.
Europe’s warm welcome turns cold
If the graffiti in Daraa was what tipped Syria into civil war, and the image of Alan Kurdi convinced Europeans to keep their straining borders open to the tide of refugees, it was the events of last New Year’s Eve in Cologne that propelled a brewing anti-refugee backlash into the mainstream.
New Year’s Day, the world awoke to the news that hundreds of German women had been sexually assaulted by a mob of men – police described them as being of “Arab or North African appearance” – outside the central train station in Cologne, the country’s fourth-largest city, directly beneath the dark Gothic spires of its famed cathedral. More than 1,000 criminal complaints, ranging from groping to rape, were filed in the aftermath.
Ten months later, the shock still lingers here. A police van is usually now parked on the plaza outside the train station, staffed by a half-dozen watchful officers in reflective yellow vests.
It’s not just the police who have shifted their posture since the sex assaults in Cologne, but an entire society. “It changed the atmosphere a little bit. There was concern about what kind of society we are in,” says Douglas Graf von Saurma-Jeltsch, president of Malteser International Europe, a non-governmental organization that provides aid and education to refugees in Germany and around the world.
Abu Fuad says he first heard about the sex attacks several days later, when television journalists arrived at the refugee camp near Cologne where he was living. There were only two Syrians among the first 120 suspects that German police arrested in connection with the assaults; but about half of the alleged perpetrators – including four Algerians living in the same camp as Abu Fuad – were found to have arrived among the 2015 refugee influx.
As Germans began asking themselves whether Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy had been a good idea, their government stopped processing asylum applications at the camps near Cologne, leaving thousands of asylum-seekers, including Abu Fuad, in prolonged limbo.
He now has a one-year permit to stay in Germany, but Abu Fuad feels his host country has become inhospitable to refugees and other immigrants since New Year’s Eve. “There are people who hate refugees, more and more,” he says, clutching his arms defensively to his chest. “People say Merkel will fall, and the radicals, the Nazis, will take over.”
Before the refugee crisis, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (known by its German acronym, AfD) was a fringe party, one that few Germans – sensitive to even the tiniest echo of this country’s Nazi past – would contemplate voting for.
But a mere nine months after that fateful night in Cologne, the party captured 22 per cent of the vote in regional elections in Ms. Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, pushing the Chancellor’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union into an unprecedented third place. Two weeks later, AfD won 14 per cent of the vote in cosmopolitan Berlin, as the CDU saw its support fall to an historic low in the capital.
Maximilian Krah, a CDU member of the Reichstag, quit the party over Ms. Merkel’s “crazy” policies toward refugees and migrants. In a subsequent interview, Mr. Krah told me he was leaning toward joining AfD ahead of federal elections next year that are suddenly anything but a sure win for Ms. Merkel and the CDU.
“I think the most dangerous person in the world right now is Angela Merkel and her policy of open borders,” Mr. Krah says. He claims that the majority of the refugees and migrants who entered Germany in 2015 are poorly educated (although statistics from the UN High Commission for Refugees suggest that 86 per cent of Syrians arriving in Europe have secondary or postsecondary education), and thus unlikely to succeed in the labour market.
He predicts there will be more incidents like Cologne, and perhaps even terrorist attacks in the country on the scale of those carried out repeatedly in France over the past two years. “The old liberal way of life, of being fearless in a public space, of knowing everyone accepts the same rules of behaviour, is gone” Mr. Krah says. “People feel the country is changing fundamentally, and in a bad way.”
Mr. Graf von Saurma-Jeltsch sees it somewhat differently: While the spirit of what Ms. Merkel called Germany’s “welcome culture” still exists post-Cologne, he says, the optimists are currently being “outshouted” by the pessimists.
“There is growing concern, of course. But that’s what’s called fear of the unknown, because people just fear they don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and who these people are, and ‘What about our cultural identity?’ Xenophobia is basically the word.”
Ms. Merkel’s explicit welcome to refugees last fall may yet prove to be as dramatic a turning point as Naief Abazid’s provocative graffiti. Her own political future is cloudy after announcing last month that she would lead her CDU into next year’s election, seeking a fourth consecutive mandate from German voters.
Indeed, across Europe, it is anti-immigrant parties that appear to be on the ascent, including the Front National in France, the Freedom Party in Austria and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. In the country where Ahmad Abazid has now found refuge, backing for the once-fringe Sweden Democrats and their rallying cry to “Keep Sweden Swedish” has doubled in the wake of the arrival of 160,000 asylum-seekers (the highest per-capita number of any country in Europe) in 2015 alone.
“If we don’t really stand up quite soon and say ‘There are some things we will not compromise on,’ there will be some turbulent years,” I am told by Paula Bieler, a prominent MP with the Sweden Democrats, when we meet in her parliamentary office. “There is anger in our society.”
In Austria, where Naief – who is studying German four hours a day – says he can sense a changing mood that he doesn’t quite understand, voters go to the polls Sunday in a twice-delayed run-off of a presidential election that could see Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, a movement founded by ex-Nazi officers, elected as Europe’s first far-right head of state since the end of the Second World War.
“Migration is changing the country,” Mr. Hofer told me in an interview this fall.
He could just as easily have said “the continent” – or “the world.”
‘It is very difficult for me to find love here’
It’s when the topic turns to gender relations that interviewing Naief and his friends becomes awkward.
Before the war, Daraa was a city of roughly 100,000 people. Most were either farmers who tended the nearby olive groves, or shop owners who benefited from Daraa’s position as a cross-border hub for trade with Jordan.
It was a conservative place. The Muslim Brotherhood – though banned by the Assad regime – had deep roots.
While prewar Syria was an officially secular state, and the nightclubs of Damascus were packed with young women and men dressing however they chose, it was uncommon in Daraa to see a woman not wearing a head scarf. An unmarried young woman who spent time in the company of men would bring scandal to her family – to her entire neighbourhood.
When the tide of refugees began arriving in Europe in the summer and fall of 2015, many Europeans were perplexed by the overrepresentation of men among the new arrivals. Of the more than one million asylum-seekers who arrived on the continent, the UN High Commission for Refugees reported that 69 per cent were men; only 13 per cent were women (children accounted for 18 per cent).
There was a perfectly logical reason for the imbalance: Many families in Syria, Iraq and beyond selected the young adult they believed had the best chance of surviving the long journey to Europe, and of finding work when they got there. The plan in the minds of many families was for that emissary to eventually bring his parents and siblings over once he was settled.
Syria: The numbers
But the arrival of so many young men, and so few women, has created predictable problems.
Naief Abazid says he finds it shocking when he sees young women out late, often in the company of young men, on the streets of Vienna. “It is very difficult for me to find love here,” he says as we walk past a young couple with arms wrapped tightly around each other’s waists. “Austrian girls are very different from Syrian girls.”
Ahmad Abazid, the jeweller from Daraa and distant cousin of Naief, now lives in the remote Swedish town of Anderstorp, where he met and married a woman from Damascus while taking Swedish-language classes.
Despite their new surroundings, old rules still apply at home. Ahmad calls out to his wife – giving her time to duck behind a curtain – before inviting me into their house. While the men chat in the kitchen, he rises to hand a plate of vegetables through the curtain to her, so that she can continue preparing their dinner unseen.
Ahmad says that he and his wife (he never mentions her name) are impressed with the tolerance of the society around them. No one, he says, causes any stir when his wife goes shopping wearing a hijab, and halal food is easy to come by.
But the couple recently had a baby daughter. And Ahmad says he’s not sure he wants her to grow up in a country so unlike the place where he and his wife grew up: “Some of the habits are completely different here, like how they raise their kids. When girls go out at night with their friends – this is not normal in our culture.”
Though Ahmad plans to stay as long as it takes to acquire a Swedish passport, he hopes his daughter will grow up a Syrian, back in Syria.
In Daraa, a war on hold
The end of Syria’s torment is not yet in sight, but it seems increasingly clear that residents of Daraa won’t get the regime change they were hoping for when they first rose up five years ago in the wake of Naief’s teenage taunting of their dictator.
If early in the conflict Mr. al-Assad’s fate had seemed sealed, raising questions of who and what would replace him, it’s now the Syrian army – along with its Iranian allies, and Shia militias from around the region – that is making slow but steady gains.
The focus of the war, for now, is the north, where the regime is laying siege to the rebel-held enclave of eastern Aleppo, home to some 275,000 people trapped in increasingly dire circumstances. The focus of the war will soon turn east, where many hope the Islamic State, surrounded by enemies on all sides, may implode.
The war in the south, where the Free Syrian Army still clings to much of the city of Daraa, but little else, is effectively on hold while those larger battles are fought. A victory in Aleppo would allow Mr. al-Assad to finally concentrate his army and his anger on Daraa, and those who dared to first challenge him.
Syria: The numbers
A new siege of the city could be months or years away, or it may never come to pass. But no one doubts that it will be bloody if it happens.
The war turned in Mr. al-Assad’s favour on Sept. 28, 2015, when Vladimir Putin took to the podium at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. The Russian leader used the occasion to read out a lengthy “J’accuse” letter, listing off the U.S. and Western misdeeds that he believes led the world into the state it’s in.
“Do you realize now what you’ve done?” he asked. Then came the core of his message: “We think it’s a big mistake to refuse to co-operate with the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground.”
Two days later, Russian warplanes were in action over Syria. Ostensibly, their mission was to combat Islamic State and other “terrorist” groups. In reality, they pounded whatever force – Islamist or secular – that opposed Mr. al-Assad’s army.
A map of who controlled what at the start of October, 2015, shows a country divided into four parts: the regime holding Damascus and the Mediterranean coast; Islamic State ruling in the east; and scattered other rebels, ranging from the Free Syrian Army to the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, controlling stretches along the northern border with Turkey (including much of Aleppo) and the southern frontier with Jordan (including most of Daraa).
Today, Islamic State is on the retreat, but so are the other rebels. The only forces gaining significant ground are the regime and the Turkish army, which recently entered northern Syria to create a buffer zone along its border. It did so under an apparent deal with Russia, which controls the air space but has refrained from attacking Turkish units.
Three years after Mr. Obama stepped down from a confrontation over Mr. al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it is Mr. Putin who makes the rules and sets the red lines in Syria’s war.
And Mr. Trump, the U.S. president-elect, has made it clear that he sees the war the same way Mr. Putin does. “Assad’s a bad guy,” he said during the election campaign, “but they’re all bad guys.”
Such talk, Hadi al-Bahra, a senior rebel negotiator wrote to me shortly after Mr. Trump’s election win, “will inflame [even] more an already disastrous situation.”
Division and disillusionment in Jordan
Jamal, the youth who as a 12-year-old misspelled Mr. al-Assad’s name in spray paint, bringing torture at the hands of the mukhabarat, says he became “bored” with life in Zaatari camp, where he was neither attending school nor doing any kind of work. He started leaving as often as he could, spending more and more time lingering around Amman, a 90-minute drive south.
At his urging, his parents and three sisters left Zaatari in 2015 and rented a two-room apartment in Ramtha, the city just across the border from Daraa.
Before the war, locals in Daraa and Ramtha paid scant attention to the international boundary that often divided the two halves of the same extended family. They drove around the official checkpoints using back roads, often carrying cartons of cheap Syrian cigarettes that they could sell on the black market in Jordan. Stores along the main market street in Ramtha sold other Syrian wares: low-quality T-shirts and jeans, and hard candy produced at a factory in Daraa.
Today – despite the influx of Daraa refugees that roughly doubled Ramtha’s prewar population – most shops on the main road are shuttered. The border has been tightly sealed by the Jordanian military, though the war had killed the cross-border trade even before that. In the stores that remain open in Ramtha, the cheap clothing on sale now sports “Made in China” tags rather than “Made in Syria” ones. Cigarettes in war-torn Syria are such a precious commodity that they reportedly sell for upward of $20 a pack. At night, residents can often see and hear the war next door.
A 23-year-old Jordanian student was killed last year when an artillery shell, fired from Syria, struck his family’s house in Ramtha. Five more shells fell on the Jordanian city earlier this year.
The other battle being fought on the streets of Ramtha is one that involves ideas, rather than weapons: It is over whether the revolution that began in their city was worth all the death and misery it has caused.
Jamal says he often hears comments on the street, from Syrian refugees who know about the role he and the other graffiti kids played in sparking the conflict. He has also been interrogated by Jordan’s secret police, who are sensitive to any hint of revolutionary activity on this side of the border.
“People are divided. Some say, ‘Yes, Bashar was unjust, but at least we had our lives,’” Jamal recalls, as he nervously puffs his way through a packet of cigarettes over several cups of thick Arabic coffee in the restaurant of an Amman hotel.
We have met in the relative anonymity of the Jordanian capital at his request. He says he told his story once before, to a German TV crew, and the video brought him unwelcome attention in Ramtha from those who thought he should be ashamed rather than proud of his role in instigating the uprising. To avoid a repeat, he asks that I not use his real name.
“Some people come up to me and say, ‘You ruined the country, you made us refugees.’ Others tell me, ‘You are a hero, and we praise the womb that carried you.’”
‘I was afraid they were going to kill me’
Abu Fuad also isn’t a real name. It’s a nomme de guerre adopted by a now 23-year-old man who, even living in faraway Germany, is still tormented by the al-Assad regime.
Wiry, bearded, he pulses with an angry revolutionary vibe that neither Naief nor Jamal possess.
He is also still a wanted man in Daraa. He was jailed once, in October, 2011, after his spray-paint smuggling operation was discovered by soldiers. The police later found that he had a Jordanian mobile phone and, more incriminating still, a memory card full of videos he’d taken during the early protests against the regime.
After 12 days of being hung from his wrists, Abu Fuad admitted to having painted anti-regime graffiti, and to having helped organize demonstrations. Under torture, he also confessed to something he says he didn’t do – shooting and killing a Syrian army soldier. “I was afraid they were going to kill me,” he says.
The teenager was transferred to Damascus and spent several more days in prison before his father paid 1.5-million Syrian pounds (about $7,000 U.S.) – part bail, part bribe – to get his son released.
The whole family fled immediately to Jordan, except for Abu Fuad, who stayed to do what he could to help the revolution. He says that he never fired a weapon, but instead used his motorcycle to help transport Free Syrian Army fighters who were wounded in battle.
Still, by the summer of 2015, he says, the war started to feel unwinnable (he blames the West for not giving the FSA enough aid to “defend itself”). Jordan, overwhelmed by the arrival of more than a million Syrians since the start of the war, had closed its northern border, cutting Abu Fuad off from his family. So he joined the mass movement headed to Europe.
Syria still haunts him. Shortly after he arrived in Dusseldorf, Abu Fuad received word that one of his uncles had been jailed in Daraa. The arresting officer put word out that the uncle had done nothing wrong – he was simply serving time until Abu Fuad returned to Daraa to take his place in prison.
Abu Fuad believes he would be executed if he returned.
Perhaps that’s why – thousands of kilometres away, and behind a screen of anonymity – he won’t admit to a key point in Naief Abazid’s story: Naief says it was Abu Fuad who led the crowd that encouraged him to write “It’s your turn, Doctor al-Assad” on the wall of al-Banin school.
Abu Fuad agrees that it was Naief who wrote those words, and that someone else put them in his head. But he swears he wasn’t at the school that day.
A painful past, an uncertain future
When Naief Abazid first arrived in Vienna after a month of travelling by car, foot, boat and train, he immediately felt that he’d found a new home. “I loved it. All of it,” he says with a broad smile, as we walk through his new neighbourhood in the Austrian capital.
To make his point, he waves his arm around a street where traditional Viennese cafés sit alongside Middle Eastern shawarma restaurants and hookah-pipe houses. It’s a brisk and sunny September afternoon. To complete the scene, a red streetcar rumbles by, as if on cue.
But 12 months after he first arrived, it’s less clear that Vienna and Austria still love Naief and the other refugees in return.
“I cannot find a job,” he sighs when we meet for a second time late last month. It’s again at a McDonald’s; this time he orders a vanilla milkshake. He says he’d like to work with mobile phones in some way, though he has no formal training in the field.
Still apolitical, Naief says he doesn’t pay attention to Austrian politics. He tells me he’s unaware of Mr. Hofer and the policies – including a plan to deport many refugees – that have brought the Freedom Party politician to the verge of the presidency.
But Naief can sense that it’s getting harder, rather than easier, to fit in to his adopted country. “It’s difficult for me to think like them, to integrate,” he admits.
Worryingly, Naief and his cousin were forced in October to move out of the small room they had been renting on the third floor of an apartment block in the southeast of the city. He says he’s not sure why the landlord wanted the two Syrians to leave, other than that the issue wasn’t about money.
More than a year after he arrived, Naief’s life still looks transient. The two-bedroom apartment he now shares with a new roommate, also Syrian, is empty save for their beds, suitcases, a vacuum cleaner, a teapot and a single frying pan. The only decoration is a Guy Fawkes mask propped on the window sill above Naief’s bed.
“Until three months ago, I was happy. But the last three months, I feel less comfortable,” he says. He’s thinking of moving to Germany to join his brother some time in the new year.
Communications with his family back in Syria are difficult, but when he does get through, the news is almost always bad. A cousin in Daraa was killed by a rocket in late November. His parents have decided they want to leave Syria; but, with the Jordanian border closed and the fighting intensifying, they don’t see a way out. “There’s no path for them,” Naief says.
He has lost contact with most of the friends who were with him that night at the al-Banin school. He’s still in touch with Abu Fuad and a few others, but when asked to list off where the original 23 graffiti boys are now, he asks to borrow a pen and paper so that he can do the math.
“Syria” is one column; he puts 12 marks in it. “Dead” is the next column; he puts two marks there for his classmates Bahar Khalifa and Akram Abazid, who were killed by regime shelling in 2013 and 2014. Four are living in Jordan, he thinks, and there are at least three, including Naief, in Europe. That’s 21 out of 23. He doesn’t know where the other two are. Naief gives a sad look and puts the pen down.
The bad news keeps coming. Two weeks ago, another cousin, Jabar — who Naief was close to because they were the same age — was killed in yet another artillery strike.
I ask Naief how he feels now about the words he wrote on his school wall back in 2011.
There’s a long pause before he answers. When Naief begins to speak, it’s clear that guilt often weighs heavily on the 19-year-old’s mind.
“I am of two opinions about it. On one hand, I regret it, because of all the people who have been killed and sent to prison and all the people who are homeless or who have become refugees,” he begins.
There’s another long pause before he completes his answer.
“But on the other hand, this was God’s will, and I’m proud of it. Something had to happen in Syria. Something had to change.”
Read the backstory of how Mark MacKinnon found Naief Abazid and visited half a dozen countries to learn what happened to him and his friends.
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail’s senior international correspondent, based in London. @markmackinnon
CREDITS: Reporting by MARK MACKINNON; Interactive design and development by CHRISTOPHER MANZA and DANIELLE WEBB; Editing by VICTOR DWYER, LISAN JUTRAS and GARY SALEWICZ; Photo editing by RACHEL WINE; Digital editing and additional reporting by EVAN ANNETT; Illustration by DOMINIC BUGATTO
The graffiti kids and others
The Syrian teenager who, on Feb. 16, 2011, spray-painted “It’s your turn, Dr. Bashar al-Assad” on a school wall in his hometown of Daraa. Naief, 14 at the time, was arrested and tortured by Syria’s mukhabarat secret police and named several other boys, whose arrest and torture would trigger the Daraa protests. The incident made him a hometown hero, but as the protests and Syria’s civil war escalated he became a refugee in Jordan, within Syria and in the great migration to Europe. He now lives in Austria.
A friend of Naief Abazid’s who joined in the Daraa protests and ran a spraypaint-smuggling operation. He was tortured by the mukhabarat and his family were subjected to punitive arrests before they escaped to Jordan. Abu Fuad stayed behind to help the Free Syrian Army, but later fled to Europe by sea and overland through Greece and the Western Balkans. He now lives in Germany.
A Sunni Muslim man who worked as a jeweller in Daraa when the graffiti incident occurred. He is not related to Naief Abazid, and says he took no part in the protests that erupted in Daraa after the graffiti incident, but grew tired of the repression that ensued and left Syria a year later. After perilous journeys through the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Algeria and Libya and a sea voyage across the Mediterranean, he arrived in Europe and settled in Sweden.
A Daraa boy, 12 years old at the time of the graffiti incident, who also painted anti-Assad slogans and, like Naief Abazid, was arrested and tortured by the mukhabarat. Now 17, he is a refugee in Jordan.
A cousin of Bashar al-Assad who was in charge of the regime’s security forces in Daraa. The arrest of 23 boys (including Naief Abazid) after the graffiti incident, and his brusque treatment of local elders who he told to “forget about your children,” made him a focal point of the Daraa protesters’ anger.
A three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in a refugee boat crossing from Turkey. Images of his body washed ashore in a Turkish resort town triggered newfound international sympathy for Syrian refugees.
A Tunisian street vendor who, on Dec. 17, 2010, set himself on fire outside the local governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid after his wares were confiscated because he had no sales permit and no money to pay a bribe. His death became the instigating incident for the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution,” which ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
Activist, journalist and occasional Globe and Mail contributor who helped organize Egypt’s Jan. 25 “Day of Rage” against president Hosni Mubarak. He believes the Arab Spring collapsed in Syria and the movement is now “defeated” – for the time being.
The leaders: Who fell to the Arab Spring, and who survived it?
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
President of Tunisia for 23 years, and the first leader to fall in the Arab Spring uprisings. Triggered by the self-immolation of an impoverished street vendor, the revolt against repression and poverty under Mr. Ben Ali’s rule erupted in December, 2010, escalating into a military coup. Symbols of the so-called Jasmine Revolution, such as demonstrators carrying loaves of bread, would come up again in other Arab Spring movements. Less than a month into the uprising, Mr. Ben Ali, now 80, fled the country to Saudi Arabia and has remained there since. Tunisian courts convicted him in absentia to life in prison.
President of Egypt for 29 years, Mr. Mubarak was the Arab Spring’s second major casualty. Weeks after Tunisia’s uprising, protests against poverty and corruption took hold in Egypt, with thousands occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. The president responded by sending tanks into cities to quell demonstrations, while promising not to contest the elections coming up that September. By February, he caved under pressure from the military; he transferred authority to his vice-president. In the spring, Mr. Mubarak was charged with abuses of power, embezzlement, and having protesters killed -- making him the first Arab ruler to be tried in his own country. He was convicted to life in prison for the protesters’ deaths, but he and his sons were acquitted of the corruption charges. Mr. Mubarak spent only about a year in prison. Now 88, he has been in a military hospital since 2013.
Syria’s President since 2000, Mr. al-Assad inherited a Baathist political dynasty founded by his father, Hafez, in the early 1970s. Anti-Assad graffiti and the arrest of 23 boys in Daraa, Syria, became the catalyst for uprisings against his regime in March, 2011, and Mr. al-Assad responded with violent crackdowns on dissent. As the conflict escalated into civil war, dozens of rebel factions, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and later Islamic State have fought the al-Assad regime and each other – killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the process and displacing millions. Over six years, Syria has become a proxy battlefield for bigger global rivalries, and so far Mr. al-Assad has protected his regime and pitted world powers against each other. Vladimir Putin’s Russia wants to protect Mr. al-Assad, a long-time ally; Shia Iran want Mr. al-Assad, a member of the Shia Alawite sect, to stay in office; the United States, its Western allies and Sunni Saudi Arabia want him gone, although the new president-elect has made it clear he sees the war the same way Mr. Putin does.
The mercurial leader of Libya from 1969 to 2011, Mr. Gadhafi was the only dictator to be killed in the Arab Spring uprisings. When Tunisia’s conflict began, he spoke in favour of the Ben Ali regime and tried preventing domestic unrest by cutting food prices; but in February, 2011, an insurrection by untrained and poorly equipped rebels erupted in the port city of Benghazi. Mr. Gadhafi responded violently, bombing civilian neighbourhoods and killing civilians; Western nations, including Canada, began bombing pro-Gadhafi forces to protect Libyans, with the official backing of NATO and the UN Security Council. Mr. Gadhafi made his last stand in Sirte, his hometown, in October; rebel forces attacked, dragged him from hiding in a drainage pipe, killed him and paraded his body around on the hood of a truck. He was 68 years old.
King Abdullah II
Jordan’s 54-year-old king is the heir to the Hashemite dynasty, an ancient family that has ruled Jordan since 1921. Arab Spring protests did emerge in Jordan in 2011 and 2012 over unemployment, corruption and lack of democracy, but the movement calling for the Hashemites’ removal from power was small in comparison to the other Arab Spring protests. By 2012, anti-monarchy demonstrations had largely subsided, as Jordan became a refuge for many of the millions fleeing Syria’s civil war.
House of Saud
The Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia faced some protests during the Arab Spring, but it easily survived them – and then played an important role in shaping the region in the Arab Spring’s aftermath. In 2011, Saudi military intervention helped the monarchy of neighbouring Bahrain to violently crack down on protests; support from a Saudi prince helped the fledgling Islamic State get ready to wage war on the al-Assad regime in Syria and Shia-led government in Iraq; and Saudi support has helped the elected Yemeni government stave off a Houthi takeover. The Saudis, under new monarch King Salman, are key allies in the U.S.-led coalition in Syria.
A who’s who of the Syrian civil war
The secular governing party of Syria. President Bashar al-Assad inherited the Baathist regime in 2000 after his father, Hafez, held the presidency for 29 years.
The obscure sect of Shia Islam that Mr. al-Assad and Syria’s political elite belong to. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and over the decades, radical Sunni groups have sought to overthrow the Alawites – while Shia powers in the Middle East, like Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, have sought to keep Mr. al-Assad in power.
What Arabic countries call their intelligence agencies or secret police. Syria’s mukhabarat is renowned for their use of torture, both before and during the civil war.
A Sunni extremist movement that, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, spread from Afghanistan to franchises across the Middle East, West Asia and Africa. In Syria, they want to overthrow the al-Assad regime, seeing the Alawites and other Shia Muslims as apostates.
A jihadist group that began as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, formed in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. It was the main opposition to the al-Assad regime until Islamic State muscled in on its territory, triggering a U.S.-led coalition air war that also targeted Nusra Front forces. In 2016 the group renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, claiming it had severed ties with al-Qaeda.
A Sunni extremist group, formerly the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, that broke away in 2013 and moved into Syria against the wishes of al-Qaeda’s leadership. Seeking to create a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, it swept across the region in 2014, killing thousands and worsening Syria’s already dire humanitarian crisis. Also called ISIL, ISIS or Daesh.
A Sunni ethnic group based in the northeast. Many Kurds, who also occupy territory in northern Iraq and Turkey, have sought for decades to create an independent Kurdish nation, and in recent years the destabilization of Iraq and Syria has given Kurds an opportunity to renew those efforts. Kurdish factions were drawn into the Syrian conflict in 2014 to fight back against Islamic State; a united group of Kurdish and Arab brigades, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is a key U.S. ally in the Islamic State conflict.
Free Syrian Army
A Syrian opposition group, founded by former army officers when the Syrian uprising began in 2011. Initially a major beneficiary of U.S. military aid, attrition and defections to rival jihadist groups thinned its ranks dramatically, and there is now debate about whether it remains a significant force.
The Syrian conflict has attracted a ragtag mix of jihadists, mercenaries and clandestine foreign fighters to fight for Islamic State and other groups. This summer, the U.S. State Department estimated as many as 40,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries had gone to fight in Syria.