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Syrian conflict ‘was existential’ from the very beginning, says author

Rania Abouzeid has been one of the closest chroniclers of the Syrian conflict, witnessing the first days of peaceful protests, the government's brutal crackdown, the rise of the Islamic State, the intervention of the Russians. Abouzeid joins William Brangham to discuss her book, "No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria," which tells the story of those who have fought and endured.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As President Trump weighs a potential response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria last weekend, it is worth remembering how this disastrous war began seven years ago.

    William Brangham talks with the author of a new book that takes a very intimate look at this most-brutal conflict.

  • William Brangham:

    From the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, Rania Abouzeid has been one of the conflict's earliest and closest chroniclers.

    She witnessed the first days of peaceful civilian protests against Bashar al-Assad, and then his government's brutal crackdown. She was there for the rise of groups like the Islamic State, saw how the intervention of the Russians changed the tide of the conflict, and witnessed the transformation of a hopeful revolution into a grinding seven-year war.

    She's now published a new book called "No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria," and it tells the story of this conflict through the eyes of those who endure it and those who fight in it.

    Rania Abouzeid joins me now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    Thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's start at the very beginning.

    You open the book with the story of a young man named Suleiman who is benefiting from all the privileges of life in Assad's Syria. This is in 2011.

    And yet, as the protests start to begin and his moment comes, he chooses to join the protests. I wonder, explain why? What was driving even men like him to rise up against the government?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    Suleiman was a man with everything, as you say. He had connections to the regime. He came from family that had money. He had a great job. He had prospects.

    But he was very aware of his privilege, and he knew that most Syrians didn't have the opportunities that he had. And for Suleiman, that was enough to get out on the streets.

    And I chose Suleiman because there is a misconception perhaps that only people with nothing to lose are the ones who take to the streets, but that's not often the case.

  • William Brangham:

    As you document in the book, it seemed apparent to both sides, the protesters and to the government, that right away this was a very serious matter, this was no idle protest.

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    No, it was existential from the very beginning.

    The protesters knew that, when they went out on the streets, like one of the protest, told me, we will be hunted. They will be hunted if they don't succeed, if they lose. And the regime knew that it was also a fight for its survival.

  • William Brangham:

    The way you tell this story is through a dozen or so different characters. And you toggle between them in time, chronologically.

    And I'm just curious, when you set out to do this, did you know that that was how you would tell this story, through so many different vignettes of so many different people?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    I knew that I wanted to show how history shaped people and how people shaped history.

    All of these different elements of the uprising were happening concurrently. So, we had people out on the streets. We also had some Islamists who were planning, who saw — who had darker motivations, and they planning for their moment when they could come forward and bring about some of the plans that they had for Syria.

  • William Brangham:

    Very early on in the process, the Syrian government blacklisted you and said you can't enter the country.

    So, that must have complicated the whole process for you.

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    Yes.

    In the summer of 2011, I learned — the Syrian government didn't even tell me and I don't even know why was I blacklisted, but I learned through human rights organizations who had leaked lists of Syrian activist that my name was on that list. So, that's how I learned of it.

    I don't know why. I have no way to appeal it, but I know that I am banned from the country. That's information that the regime — some members of the regime whom I know have also confirmed — and wanted by three of the state's four intelligence agencies.

    But it's also an indication of how the Syrian state operates, that somebody can be branded a spy and can be wanted without any means of recourse and without any understanding of why.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the characters, very, very striking character, is this 9-year-old girl. Rouha (ph)? Am I pronouncing it correctly?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    Yes, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Why did you want her in this story?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    I wanted to show how war can affect a regular family.

    And I wanted to tell it through this little girl's eyes, because she just was so precocious, and she was so aware of what was happening around her. And she would explain that in ways that would stump me. She would really leave me speechless in some of the phrases that she would use to describe what was happening around her.

    And I followed Rouha and her family for six years. I followed many families, but I wanted to focus on her. And I saw how she changed and how war affected even little girls.

  • William Brangham:

    For Americans who have been following this conflict, largely through newspapers and television, can you help them understand why this conflict has been going on for so long?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    The Syrian war has ceased to be about Syrians. It's an international proxy war with the Russians and Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah on the regime side. And you have the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, the Gulf states, the U.S. and Europe on the opposition side.

    So it's much bigger than Syria, and it's much bigger than Syrians. And that is helping to fuel the conflict.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think that there is a time where something could have been done, that this could have been different, that the outcome for the Syrian people could have been different?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    When I speak to Syrians who are in the opposition, they point to their demand for a no-fly zone, for example. That's what they say.

    They say that had a no-fly zone been placed in parts of Northern Syria, that perhaps the institutions of the opposition could have started to take form, hospitals could have operated without fear of airstrikes, that some of the millions of refugees who fled Syria could have found safe haven within their own borders. That's what some of the people in the opposition point to as a possible turning point, in addition to the red line comments about the use of chemical weapons.

    Syrians in the opposition also point to that as an example of a time when pressure could have been put on the regime. It could have been held accountable for its alleged chemical weapons use. So, there were moments, and before it became such a complicated battlefield, when perhaps something could have been different.

  • William Brangham:

    Syria, as you describe it, is a deeply broken place today.

    But yet, in the title of your book, there is still the word hope. Do the Syrians that you know and you are still in touch with have hope that something can come of this horrible conflict?

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    The hope is in the people. And there is always hope. It's in Syrians who can survive hell and emerge on the other side. And they don't have bitterness.

    It's in Syrians who can lose loved ones, but who still say that they can forgive. It's in Syrian physicians who could be anywhere. They could be in Turkey or elsewhere, yet they stay in their country to treat everyone under conditions would make World War I battlefield medicine look pretty sophisticated.

    The hope is in little girls like Rouha who just want to be home and who cling to the idea of family, which is one of the building blocks of Syrian society. So, it's in — the hope is in Syrians who still see a Syrian-ness that transcends politics and who just want to go back home and send their kids to school and know that they will be safe and that they will come home.

    It's in the small things. But that's where it starts.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, the book is "No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria."

    Rania Abouzeid, thank you very much.

  • Rania Abouzeid:

    :Thank you.

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