In the West, it’s easy to concentrate on each daily drama about the Middle East and forget the world in which the real people of the region live. The latest ravings of the American president on the Iran nuclear agreement – mercifully, at last, firmly opposed by the EU – obscure the lands of mass graves and tunnels in which the Muslim Middle East now exists. Even inside the area, there has now arisen an almost macabre disinterest in the suffering that has been inflicted here over the past six years. It’s Israel’s air strikes in Syria that now takes away the attention span.
Yet take the discovery of dozens of corpses in a mass grave in Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian “capital”. It garnered scarcely three paragraphs in Arab papers last month, yet the 50 bodies recovered were real enough and there may be another 150 to be recovered. The corpses lay under a football pitch near a hospital which Isis fighters used before they fled the city – under an agreement with Kurdish forces – and could only be identified by markings which gave only their first names (if they were civilians) or their nom de guerre if they were jihadis. Who killed them?
Even less space was given to another gruesome discovery last month in tunnels beneath the Syrian town of Douma, east of Damascus. This vast stone warren of underground streets wide enough for cars and trucks was found to contain 112 bodies, 30 of them Syrian soldiers, the rest probably civilians, many killed long ago, presumably by the Jaish al-Islam group which fought for the town for many years. Were they hostages for whom the Islamists wished to exchange prisoners? And then murdered when no deal was struck?
My colleague Patrick Cockburn investigated an even more terrible mass killing outside Mosul which occurred in 2014, most of the victims Shia Iraqi soldiers. We know this because Isis filmed their appalling end, shot in the head and then tossed carelessly into the blood-stained waters of the Tigris, some of them floating far south towards Baghdad. History has not been kind to these lands. In 1915, when the Turks were massacring Armenians, many of the Armenian corpses drifted down the Tigris and reached Mosul – the very execution site which can be seen in the Isis video, taken, of course, 99 years later.
Like the vast mass graves of Europe after the Second World War – especially in the Soviet Union – the memory of this savagery will not be forgotten. Which is why the Iraqi authorities (largely Shia in the case of “judicial” trials which meet no international standards) have been hanging Isis suspects like thrushes on prison gallows, 30 at a time, in the south of the country. The Kurds appear to be behaving much more humanely outside Raqqa where court hearings have a modicum of justice, albeit unrecognised in the West. And so it goes on.
And to whom does one turn for justice? Or peace? The Russians in Syria, interestingly enough, have just started publishing a monthly newspaper for joint Syrian and Russian forces in the country. It has a touch of the old Soviet Union about it. The title is “Together, We Make Peace” – which might not convince the Syrian government’s opponents – and there are photographs of Russian troops feeding refugees (flat, Arab bread), of red-bereted soldiers patrolling front lines and a very large front-page photograph of both Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad.
Intriguingly, just below, is a colour photograph of perhaps Russia’s top soldier in Syria: General Aleksander Juravlov, much bemedalled and in his dark blue dress uniform, staring unsmilingly at the camera. We may hear more of him as the weeks go by. Because Russia’s presence in Syria is far from over.
Copies of the newspaper in Arabic also attempt to teach Syrian soldiers basic Russian – the Russian version teaches Arabic. And there’s even (in the Arabic print run) a guide to Moscow, maps of Russia and stories about Second World War weapons. In the top left of each front page is another Soviet-style symbol: two hands clasped together. One hand is coloured in the red, white and black banner of Syria, the other in the red, blue and white of Russia. Yes, the Russians are going to be around for quite a while.
So are the Israelis. Their earlier attack on Iranian forces in Syria – of which there appear to be far fewer than the West imagines, although there are many pro-Iranian Hezbollah fighters still in the country – came suspiciously close to the Trump announcement reneging on the US nuclear agreement with Iran. And an Israeli statement that the Iranians had missiles in Syria was surely made in concert with the Trump administration – it came within hours, and coincidences don’t run that close in the Middle East.
The latest overnight Israeli air strikes, supposedly at Iranian forces in Syria after a supposed Iranian rocket attack on Israeli forces in Golan – and it’s important to use the “supposed” and not take all this at face value – must have been known to the Americans in advance. The Russians, too. And it’s clear that any Israeli plans to create a “security zone” (ie occupation zone) inside Syria and along the border of Golan – along the lines of the “security zone”, equally occupied and patrolled by local militias, in southern Lebanon until the year 2000 – would meet with American approval.
So it’s a moment when all sides are now staring at each other with increasing concern. Oddly, in all the coverage of Lebanon’s largely peaceful election last weekend, hardly anyone commented upon one of the successful Shia candidates in the Baalbek-Hermel district. He’s a familiar name – Jamil Sayyed – and he used to be Lebanon’s head of general security. He was also a loyal friend of Syria. The West had him locked up for three years after the inquiry into ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder but he was released without any evidence found against him. After which, General Sayyed has been a frequent visitor to Damascus.
“Robert,” he said to me over coffee there some months ago, “why do you hate me?” That was a bit of a breath-taker, and your correspondent hastened to deny any such emotion. Then came an invitation to the restaurant his businessman best friend owns in Beirut.
The point, of course, is that General Sayyed’s election means that one of Syria’s most trusted friends now has a seat in the Lebanese parliament. His speeches will be listened to with deep interest by his parliamentary colleagues. Odd, though, how we go on missing these developments. Out in the West – or Trump’s Wild West – mass graves, Russian alliances and Lebanese elections just don’t get the coverage they deserve.