FRACTURED LANDS: HOW THE ARAB WORLD CAME APART – PART I: ORIGINS 1972–2003

Civilians fleeing Basra, Iraq, March 2003. Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

BY SCOTT ANDERSON PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAOLO PELLEGRIN for NY Times

1.


Laila Soueif attended her first political rally when she was just 16. It was 1972, and the protesters were demanding what students have so often desired — a more equitable world, greater freedom of expression. But they also had a demand that was a bit more specific to the Arab world: that Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, launch a war to recover the Sinai Peninsula, which was seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. From this experience, Laila would soon be convinced of the power of civil disobedience; Sadat launched an attack on Israel the following year. What Laila hadn’t counted on was the more immediate wrath of her parents. Just two hours after she joined the protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Laila’s mother and father tracked down their teenage daughter and dragged her home. “From that, I learned that it was easier to defy the state than to defy my parents,” she said.

Laila was born into a life of both privilege and intellectual freedom. Her parents were college professors, and her older sister, Ahdaf Soueif, is one of Egypt’s best-known contemporary novelists. She gravitated toward leftist politics at an early age. While studying mathematics at Cairo University in the mid-1970s, she met her future husband, Ahmed Seif, who was already the leader of an underground communist student cell calling for revolution.

By then, Egypt had long been regarded as the political capital of the Middle East, the birthplace of revolutionary movements and ideas. In the modern era, it owed that status largely to the legacy of one man: Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Well into the 1940s, Egypt, along with most of the rest of the Middle East, remained a lesser global concern, still in the thrall of the European powers that imposed their will on the area decades before. That began to change at the end of World War II with the discovery of vast new oil fields in the region, and with the collapse of the British and French colonial empires. The pace of change greatly accelerated when Nasser and his Free Officers Movement of junior military officers overthrew Egypt’s Western-pliant king in 1952.

Championing “Arab socialism” and Pan-Arab unity, Nasser swiftly became a galvanizing figure throughout the Arab world, the spokesman for a people long dominated by foreigners and Western-educated elites. Just as crucial to the strongman’s popularity was what he opposed: colonialism, imperialism and that most immediate and enduring example of the West’s meddling in the region, the state of Israel.

Nasser’s success inspired many other would-be Arab leaders, nowhere more so than in the artificial states of the Middle East formed by the European powers. By 1968, military officers espousing the Baathist (“renaissance”) philosophy — a quasi-socialist form of Pan-Arabism — had seized power in Iraq and Syria. They were joined the following year by the Libyan lieutenant Muammar el-Qaddafi, and his somewhat-baffling “third universal theory,” which rejected traditional democracy in favor of rule by “people’s committees.” In all three countries, just as in Egypt, Western-favored monarchs or Parliaments were neutered or cast aside.

But Nasser possessed an advantage that his fellow autocrats in the region did not. With a sense of national identity that stretched back millenniums, Egypt never seemed in danger of being torn apart; the centrifugal pull of tribes or clans or sectarian identity simply didn’t exist there to the degree it did in Syria or Iraq. At the same time, Egypt’s long tradition of relative liberalism had given rise to a fractious political landscape that ran the spectrum from secular communists to fundamentalist Islamists.

Part of Nasser’s genius was his ability to bridge these divides, and he did so by appealing both to Egyptian national pride and to a shared antipathy for the West, a vestige, perhaps, of 70 years of heavy-handed rule by Britain. Thus, even when Islamist conservatives became alarmed by Nas­ser’s moves toward greater secularism, most still saw him as a hero for nationalizing Western businesses, and for besting Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis. Similarly, urban liberals like the Soueif family who disdained Nasser’s strong-arm rule — his was a military dictatorship, after all — also cheered him for his leadership in the international Nonaligned Movement, for proudly thumbing his nose at the threats and enticements of the United States as it sought to compel Egypt into its orbit during the Cold War. This became the means by which Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, maintained their grip on power: play left and right off each other as a matter of course; bring them together when needed by focusing on an external foe. Such maneuvering resulted in many odd political turns, including the first protest march of Laila Soueif.

After working on leftist causes together throughout their time at the University of Cairo, Laila and Ahmed married in 1978. That same year, Egypt’s political landscape was neatly turned upside down. In September, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, which led to an American-brokered peace treaty with Israel. That stunning about-face simultaneously propelled Egypt into the camp of American client-states and isolated it from much of the rest of the Arab world. Even more ominously for Sadat, what was seen in the West as an act of courage was regarded by most Egyptians as an act of betrayal and national shame. This was certainly the view of Laila and Ahmed. It was in the wake of the 1979 peace treaty that some of the men in Ahmed’s underground cell began buying up arms on the black market and vowing armed action against the government. Those plans never got off the ground, though. Instead, it was a cabal of Islam­ist military plotters who finally got to Sadat, shooting and killing him at a military parade in Cairo in October 1981.

A month later, Laila gave birth to her and Ahmed’s first child, a boy they named Alaa. Their lives took on an air of increasingly apolitical domesticity, and by 1983, Laila, then 28, was juggling the demands of child-rearing with her new position as a professor of mathematics at Cairo University. All normalcy was shattered, however, when Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, ordered a sweeping security crackdown. Among those ensnared in the dragnet were Ahmed and his colleagues in the underground cell. Severely tortured until he signed a full confession, Ahmed was then released to await his verdict. When that verdict was returned, in late 1984, the news was grim: Ahmed was found guilty of illegal weapons possession and sentenced to five years in prison.

At the time, Laila was in France, having accepted a scholarship to further her math studies, but when Ahmed’s sentence was handed down, she rushed back to Cairo with Alaa. Thanks to a curious loophole in Egyptian law, sentences for security-related offenses like Ahmed’s had to be approved by the president, a process that normally took several months and during which the defendant could remain out on bail. It presented the couple with a tempting choice.

“We had to decide,” Laila, who is now 60, told me. “Does he submit and go into prison for five years, do we try to find some way to get him out of the country or do we go into hiding?” She gave a nonchalant shrug. “So we went into hiding.”

For several months, the couple lived as fugitives with their 3-year-old son. Ultimately, though, both realized it was a futile exercise. “He wasn’t willing to leave the country,” Laila said, “and he couldn’t stay in hiding forever. He decided it was easier to do the five years, so he gave himself up.” But not necessarily easier for Laila. She became pregnant during her and Ahmed’s brief time on the run, leaving her to tend to a second child, a girl they named Mona, as Ahmed served out his prison sentence.

It was in prison that Ahmed experienced something of an epiphany. By continuing the entente with the United States and Israel that Sadat had begun, Mubarak naturally also inherited the taint of capitulation in the eyes of many of his countrymen. Unable to forge national cohesion by turning to the old external enemy card — after all, Egypt was now in bed with those supposed enemies — Mubarak had devised a more carefully calibrated system to play his secular leftist and militant Islamist oppositions against each other. Ahmed, thrown into prison with both factions, saw firsthand how this strategy played out when it came to even the most basic of human rights. As he would later tell Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, “The communists would say secretly, ‘It doesn’t matter if Islamists are tortured.’ And the Islamists would say, ‘Why not torture communists?’ ”

Determined to fight for judicial reform, Ahmed devoted himself to studying law in his prison cell. Within a month of his release in 1989, he was admitted to the Egyptian bar.

This placed the ex-political prisoner and his wife at a crossroads. With Laila a tenured professor at Cairo University and Ahmed now a lawyer, the couple had the opportunity to carve out a comfortable existence for themselves among the Cairene elite. Instead, and at ultimately great personal cost, they would plunge ever deeper into Egypt’s widening turmoils, trying to cross the very divides that had for so long been critical to the government’s own survival.

2.


A once-prosperous port city roughly 120 miles east of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Misurata was a main terminus of the old trans-Saharan trade route, the stopping point of camel caravans taking gold and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa for export across the Mediterranean. Ever since, it has been one of Libya’s chief commercial hubs, its residents regarded as industrious and particularly capitalist-minded. Prominent among those inhabitants is the Mangoush clan, so much so that one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city bears the family name. And it was in that neighborhood on July 4, 1986, that Omar and Fatheya el-Mangoush, civil servants for the Misurata municipal government, welcomed the birth of the youngest of their six children, a boy they named Majdi.

By the time of Majdi’s birth, Libya had been ruled by Muammar el-Qaddafi for 17 years. Viewed in the West as something of a rakish enfant terriblewhen he and his fellow military plotters overthrew Libya’s king in 1969 — Qad­dafi was then himself just 27 — the handsome former signal corps lieutenant was wildly popular among his countrymen in the years immediately following the coup. A key to that popularity was his emulation of Gamal Abdel Nasser in neighboring Egypt. Like Nasser, Qaddafi kindled Arab pride by nationalizing Western business interests, including parts of Libya’s vital oil industry, and standing in vehement opposition to the state of Israel. By spreading the wealth around, he also enabled families like the Mangoushes to live a comfortable middle-class life.

Over time, however, Qaddafi’s rule increasingly bore less resemblance to Egypt’s “soft” dictatorship and more to that of two others influenced by the Nasser model: the Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. The parallels were quite striking. In all three countries, the dictators developed elaborate personality cults — their faces adorned posters and murals and postage stamps — and aligned themselves with the “anti-imperialist” bloc of Arab nations, their stances helped along by deepening ties with the Soviet Union. True to the Baathist credo of “Arab socialism” and Qaddafi’s third universal theory, all three countries embarked on fabulously ambitious public works projects, building hospitals and schools and colleges throughout their lands and bankrolling those enterprises with oil receipts (in the cases of Libya and Iraq), or through the patronage of the Soviet Union (in the case of Syria). At the same time, the states established extravagantly bloated governmental structures, such that their ministries and agencies quickly became the main pillars of the economy; eventually more than half of the Libyan work force — Majdi el-Mangoush’s parents among them — was on the government payroll, and the figures in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were similar. “Everybody was connected to the state somehow,” Majdi explained. “For their housing, for their job. It was impossible to exist outside of it.”

For all their revolutionary rhetoric, the dictators of Libya, Iraq and Syria remained ever mindful that their nations were essentially artificial constructs. What this meant was that many of their subjects’ primary loyalty lay not to the state but to their tribe or, more broadly, to their ethnic group or religious sect. To keep them loyal required both the carrot and the stick. In all three nations, the leaders entered into elaborate and labyrinthine alliances with various tribes and clans. Stay on the dictator’s good side, and your tribe might be given control of a ministry or a lucrative business concession; fall on his bad side, and you’re all out in the cold. The strongmen also carefully forged ties across ethnic and religious divides. In Iraq, even though most all senior Baathist officials were, like Saddam Hussein, of the Sunni minority, he endeavored to sprinkle just enough Shiites and Kurds through his administration to lend it an ecumenical sheen. In Hafez al-Assad’s Sunni-majority Syria, rule by his Alawite minority was augmented by a de facto alliance with the nation’s Christian community, giving another significant minority a stake in the status quo.

This coalition-building had a unique geographic dimension in Libya. Aside from the historical rivalry that existed between the principal regions, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, human settlement in Libya had always been clustered along the Mediterranean coast, and what developed there over the millenniums was essentially a series of semiautonomous city-states that resisted central rule. Thus, while Qaddafi didn’t need to worry about religious sectarianism — virtually all Libyans are Sunni Muslims — he did need to think about drawing into his ruling circle the requisite number of Misuratans and Benghazians to keep everyone mollified.

And if inducements and handshakes didn’t work, there was always the stick. Libya, Iraq and Syria erected some of the most brutal and ubiquitous state security apparatuses to be found in the world. Operating with utter impunity, the local security forces, or mukhabarat, of all three dictatorships rounded up enemies of the state, real or imagined, at will, to be thrown into their nation’s dungeons after sham trials or simply executed on the spot. The repression wasn’t limited to individuals but often extended to entire tribes or ethnic groups. Certainly the most notorious case was Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against Iraq’s ever-restive Kurdish minority in 1988; before that pogrom was over, between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds had been killed. Over a two-year period, hundreds of thousands more were turned out of their razed villages and for­cibly relocated.

The state also had a very long memory, as Majdi el-Mangoush discovered growing up in Misurata. In 1975, two of his mother’s relatives, both midlevel army officers, joined in a failed coup attempt against Qaddafi. While both were executed, that didn’t remove the stain on the family name. (Testament to the enduring tribal nature of Libya, Majdi’s mother was also of the Mangoush clan.)

“It’s not that we were directly persecuted because of it,” Majdi, who is now 30, explained, “but it was something officials would always comment on: ‘Ah, so you’re a Mangoush.’ It meant the government watched you a little closer, that you were never viewed as completely trustworthy.”

And in all three countries, there dwelled one group that was deemed wholly untrustworthy, one that almost always received the stick: Islamic fundamentalists. In Syria and Iraq, even identifying oneself as a Sunni or Shia could draw state suspicion, and in all three nations the mukhabarathad a special brief to surveil conservative clerics and religious agitators. Subtlety was not a hallmark of these campaigns. When, in February 1982, a group of Sunni fundamentalists in Syria under the Muslim Brotherhood banner seized control of portions of the city Hama, Hafez al-Assad had the place encircled with ground troops and tanks and artillery. In the ensuing three-week “Hama massacre,” somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 residents were killed.

But a perverse dynamic often takes hold in strongman dictators — and here, too, there were great similarities among Qaddafi, Hussein and Assad. Part of it stems from what might be called the naked-emperor syndrome, whereby, in the constant company of sycophants, the leader gradually becomes unmoored from reality. Another is rooted in the very nature of a police state. The greater the repression of security forces, the further that any true dissent burrows underground, making it that much harder for a dictator to know where his actual enemies are; this fuels a deepening state of paranoia, which can be assuaged only through even greater repression. By the 1990s, this cycle had produced a bizarre contradiction in Iraq, Syria and Libya: The more the leaders promoted a cult of hero worship and wallpapered their nations with their likenesses, the more reclusive those leaders became. In Majdi el-Mangoush’s case, despite living in a country whose total population was less than that of New York’s five boroughs, not once in 25 years did he ever personally glimpse Qaddafi. This was about the same number of times he uttered the dictator’s name in a disparaging way in public. “You would only do that with family, or with the most trusted of friends,” Majdi explained. “If you were around others and wanted to say something at all critical, it was ‘our friend.’ ”

There was another notable aspect to the posters and murals and mosaics of the dictators that could be seen everywhere in Libya, Iraq and Syria. In a great many of them, framing the image of the strongman, there appeared the outline of the country’s borders. Perhaps that juxtaposition was designed to impart a simple message — “I am the leader of the nation” — but it’s possible that the artificial-state dictators were also sending a message that was both more ambitious and more admonishing: “I am the nation; and if I go, then so goes the nation.” Of course, that may have been just what many members of the Mangoush clan — celebrated enough to have their own namesake neighborhood, notorious enough to be permanently marked — were secretly hoping.

PORTFOLIO: LIBYA 2002

3.


In early 1975, as Laila Soueif, at Cairo University, continued to agitate for change, Gen. Heso Mirkhan was serving as a chief lieutenant to Mustafa Barzani, the legendary warlord of the Iraqi Kurds, in a brutal guerrilla war against the Baathist government in Baghdad. For more than a year, the vastly outnumbered Kurdish fighters, known as the pesh merga, had fought the Iraqi Army to a standstill. Crucial to the Kurds’ success was a steady flow of C.I.A.-supplied weaponry, along with Iranian military advisers, as Iran waged a U.S.-sponsored proxy war against Iraq. But when the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein abruptly concluded a peace treaty in early March, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered an immediate cutoff of aid to the Kurds. In the face of an all-out Iraqi offensive, Barzani was airlifted out to end his days in a C.I.A. safe house in Northern Virginia, but thousands of other stranded pesh merga fighters were left to their fate, including Heso Mirkhan. With Saddam Hussein’s soldiers closing in, the general led his family in a frantic dash over the mountains for sanctuary in Iran. Somewhere along the way, his wife gave birth to another son.

“The treaty was signed on the 6th of March,” Azar Mirkhan, who is now 41, explained, “and I was born on the 7th. My mother gave birth to me on the road, on the border between Iran and Iraq.” He gave a rueful little laugh. “That is why my family has always called me ‘the lucky child.’ Kurdish luck.”

Indeed, it is hard to find any people quite as unlucky as the Kurds. Spread across the mountainous reaches of four nations — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — they have always regarded themselves as culturally apart from their neighbors and have constantly battled for independence from those nations they inhabit. The governments of these nations have tended to view their reluctant Kurdish subjects with both fear and distrust, and have taken turns quashing their bids for independence. Those governments have also periodically employed the Kurds — either their own or those of their neighbors — as proxy fighters to attack or unsettle their regional enemies-of-the-day. Historically, when those feuds were brought to an end, so, too, was the Kurds’ usefulness, and they were soon abandoned — as occurred in the 1975 “great betrayal.”

While the number of rebellions and proxy wars that have occurred across the breadth of Kurdistan over the past century is almost impossible to count, the biography of Heso Mirkhan’s commander, Mustafa Barzani, provides something of a gauge. By the time of his death in 1979, the 75-year-old Barzani had not only waged war against Turkey, Iran (twice) and the central government of Iraq (four times), but had somehow found the energy to also take it to the Ottomans and the British and a host of Kurdish rivals. Multiply Barzani’s list by four — the Kurds of Syria, Iran and Turkey have each had their own competing guerrilla groups and independence movements — and it all becomes a bit staggering.

Despite the fears of these governments that they might some day be confronted by an independent “greater Kurdistan,” the truth is that the differences among the Kurds in these four countries now rival their similarities. One thing they have in common, though, is a longstanding warrior tradition, and among the Kurds of northern Iraq, there is no more celebrated family of pesh merga — literally translated as “those who face death” — than the Mirkhans.

Following their father, Dr. Azar Mirkhan and four of his nine brothers have undergone pesh merga training; today, one brother, Araz, is a senior pesh merga commander on the front lines. But the family has paid a high price for membership in the warrior caste. Heso, the patriarch, was killed in combat in 1983, while one of Azar’s older brothers, Ali, met the same end in 1994.

But it hasn’t been just the region’s governments that have historically victimized the Kurds. In fact, few nations have brought the Kurds of northern Iraq more sorrow than the United States. After their role in the great betrayal of 1975, the Americans would again be complicit in the Kurds’ suffering — if this time largely through silence — just 10 years later.

By then, the United States’ chief ally in the region, the shah of Iran, had been overthrown and replaced by the hostile Shiite fundamentalist government of Ayatollah Khomeini. Searching for a new partner in the region, Washington found one in Saddam Hussein. With the Iraqi dictator waging war against Khomeini’s Iran, and with the United States secretly funneling weapons to his bogged-down military, by 1988 Hussein was so integral to the Reagan administration’s realpolitik policy in the region that it simply looked the other way when Hussein launched the murderous Anfal campaign against his Kurdish subjects. A squalid new low was reached in March of that year, when Iraqi forces poison-gassed the Kurdish town Halabja, killing an estimated 5,000 people. Despite overwhelming evidence that Hussein was responsible for the atrocity — Halabja would figure prominently in his 2006 trial for crimes against humanity — Reagan-administration officials scurried to suggest it was actually the handiwork of Iran.

What finally ended the American arrangement with Saddam Hussein was the Iraqi despot’s 1991 decision to invade neighboring Kuwait, upsetting not just the Western powers but also most of his Arab neighbors. Perversely, that event very nearly led to yet another slaughter of Iraq’s Kurds. Instead, it would eventually lead to their liberation, as well as mark the crucial moment when the United States propelled itself headlong into Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides.

In the face of Hussein’s belligerence, President George H.W. Bush marshaled an international military coalition — Operation Desert Storm — that swiftly annihilated the Iraqi Army in Kuwait, then rolled into Iraq itself. With Hussein’s government appearing on the verge of collapse, Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up in revolt. Both of Iraq’s marginalized communities — the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north — eagerly did so, only to see the United States suddenly take pause. Belatedly concluding that Hussein’s demise might play into the hands of a still-hostile Iran, the Bush administration ordered American troops to stand down as the Iraqi Army regrouped and began a pitiless counterattack.

To forestall a wholesale massacre of the rebels they had encouraged, the United States joined its allies in establishing a protected buffer zone in Kurdistan, as well as no-fly zones in both northern and southern Iraq. That still left Sad­dam Hussein in Baghdad, of course, and ready to take his revenge at the first opportunity. While the Bush administration concluded there was little it could do to aid the geographically isolated Shiites in the south — they soon suffered their own Anfal-style pogrom — to protect the Kurds, they forced Hussein to militarily withdraw from all of Kurdistan. Taking matters a step further, in July 1992 the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous union of Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces, was established.

The Bush administration most likely regarded this Kurdish separation as a stopgap measure, to be undone once the tyrant in Baghdad had gone and the danger had passed. The long-suffering Kurds of Iraq saw it very differently. For the first time since 1919, they were free from the yoke of Baghdad, and they had their own nation in all but name. While very few in the West appreciated the significance at the time, the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or K.R.G., marked the first dismantling of the colonial borders that were imposed on the region 75 years earlier, the de facto partition of one of the Middle East’s artificial nations. In the years just ahead, tens of thousands of members of the Iraqi Kurdish diaspora would abandon their places of exile to return to their old homeland. In 1994, that included a 19-year-old college student, Azar Mirkhan, who had spent almost his entire life as a refugee in Iran.

4.


Before its destruction, Homs was a pleasant-enough place, a city of roughly 800,000 in the flat interior of Syria’s central valley, but close enough to the foothills of the coastal mountain range to escape the worst of the region’s tremendous summer heat. It was never a spot where tourists tarried very long. Although Homs dated back to before Greek and Roman times, little of the ancient had been preserved, and whatever visitors happened through the town tended to make quickly for Krak des Chevaliers, the famous Crusader castle 30 miles to the west. There was an interesting covered souk in the Old City and a graceful if unremarkable old mosque, but otherwise Homs looked much like any other modern Syrian city. A collection of drab and peeling government buildings dominated downtown, surrounded by neighborhoods of five- and six-story apartment buildings; in its outlying districts could be seen the unadorned cinder-block homes and jutting rebar that give so many Middle Eastern suburbs the look of an ongoing construction site, or a recently abandoned one.

Yet, until its demise, Homs had the distinction of being the most religiously diverse city in one of the most religiously mixed countries in the Arab world. Nationally, Syria is composed of about 70 percent Arab Sunni Muslims, 12 percent Alawites — an offshoot of Shia Islam — and a roughly equal percentage of Sunni Kurds; Christians and a number of smaller religious sects make up the rest. At the geographic crossroads of Syria, Homs reflected this ecumenical confluence, with a skyline punctuated not just by the minarets of mosques but also by the steeples of Catholic churches and the domes of Orthodox Christian ones.

This gave Homs a cosmopolitan flavor not readily found elsewhere — so much so that in 1997, the Ibrahims, a Sunni couple, thought nothing of putting their first child, 5-year-old Majd, in a private Catholic school. As a result, Majd grew up with mostly Christian friends and a better knowledge of Jesus and the Bible than of Muhammad and the Quran. This didn’t appear to bother Majd’s parents at all. Although raised as Muslims, both were of the nominal variety, with his mother rarely even bothering to wear a head scarf in public and his father dragging himself to the mosque only for funerals.

Such secular liberalism was very much in keeping with the new Syria that Hafez al-Assad sought to shape during his otherwise typically iron-fisted 30-year dictatorship, a secularism undoubtedly encouraged by his own religious minority status as an Alawite. After his death in 2000, the policy was carried on by his son, Bashar. A bland and socially awkward London-trained ophthalmologist, Bashar came to power largely by default — the Assad patriarch had been grooming his eldest son, Bassel, to take over until a fatal car accident in 1994. But Bashar, while projecting a softer, more modern face of Baathism to the outside world, also proved adroit at navigating the tricky currents of Middle Eastern politics. While still publicly vowing to recover the Golan Heights taken by Israel in the Six-Day War, he maintained an uneasy détente with Tel Aviv, even pursuing secret negotiations toward a settlement. By gradually loosening Syria’s hold on neighboring Lebanon — its troops had occupied portions of the country since 1976, and Damascus was a prime supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia — the younger Assad was viewed increasingly favorably by the West.

And to a young Majd Ibrahim then coming of age, it increasingly appeared that it was the West where his nation’s future lay. Like other middle-class boys in Homs, he wore Western clothes, listened to Western music, watched Western videos, but Majd was also afforded a unique window onto the outside world. His father, an electrical engineer, worked at one of the best hotels in Homs, the Safir, and Majd — fascinated by the hotel, with its constant bustle of travelers — made any excuse to visit him as he went about his day. For Majd, the Safir was also a place of reassurance, a reminder that no matter what small deviations Syrian politics took along the way, he would always be able to inhabit the modern and secular world into which he was born.