The lion’s den: A brief animal history of the Syrian conflict

Animals have not fared well at militants’ hands in Syria over the past seven years, though civilians have been kinder. Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör traces the shifting role and symbolism of animals in Syria’s recent history.

“You animal (ya haywan)!” a Syrian would yell at someone misbehaving. The animal kingdom plays an important role in the cultures of the Middle East, including in Syria. Much like other human beings the world over, many Syrians were or are intimate with animals: peasants, pastoralists, and small farmers keep animals for their livelihood; and hobbyists, civilians, and pigeon breeders keep animals as pets and for leisure. Animals are important in the lives of Syrians as concrete creatures. But there are also strong elements of cultural symbolism tied to animals, both positively and negatively. How have Syrian animals fared since the beginning of the conflict in 2011?

 

The Lion King

The Syrian president, Dr. Bashar Hafez al-Assad, enjoys a last name that contains a reference to Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who was known as “the Lion of God” (Asad Ullah) for fighting valiantly in the battles of early Islam. Indeed, even many Alawites/Alevis in Turkey bear the last name Aslan or Arslan (“lion” in Turkish). This lion symbolism looms large. Assad supporters on social media often sport a picture of a lion on their profile, and it’s clear to everyone what this means. One pro-Assad militiaman in Hama even held a real lion in the garden of his mansion, drove around with it in a pick-up truck, and ostensibly threw his victims to it.

But the president is not known as a lion to everyone. Email leaks have shown that his wife calls him “duckie” (batta). Many Syrians renamed him “giraffe” (zurafa) because of his long neck, or curse him less gracefully as “Bashar the dog” (Bashar al-kalb). One of the revolution’s early slogans was “Lion in the Hawran, rabbit in the Golan” (Assad fi Hawran, arnab fi al-Jawlan), accusing the regime of ruthless repression in the southern Hawran region but pusillanimous behavior towards Israel in the Golan Heights. The armed opposition responded to the lion imagery by kidnapping a lion from the Damascus zoo and slaughtering it, the caption promising the president he was next.

Considering its Islamic roots, perhaps it is not surprising that Assad does not have the monopoly on the lion as a symbol of fierceness. Some Islamist rebels in Syria too appropriated the term and called themselves, ironically, “lions” (usud). Their child soldiers are then logically branded as “cubs” (ashbal). Indeed, ISIS’ “caliphate cubs” are a striking continuation of “Saddam’s Cubs” in Iraq two decades earlier. Also, the Islamists do not swear as obscenely as pro-Assad forces, but seem to limit themselves to branding their enemies “dogs” (kilab) or, predictably, “pigs” (khanazeer).

The name ‘Deir al-Zor’ didn’t ring much of a bell for most non-Syrians prior to 2011—except for Armenians. During the Armenian genocide, a German diplomat who was stationed in that area wrote that Armenians were “slaughtered like sheep” (égorgé comme des moutons). I always found this hard to imagine or even believe, thinking it was probably allegorical or even hyperbolical, in any case unreal, removed far away in geography, time, and culture… until we saw the ISIS videos. Once again, the desert soil of Deir al-Zor was colored red with blood.

 

Human conflict, animal victims

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” goes an African proverb. Well, when human beings fight, animals certainly get trampled. Animals have been directly and indirectly hurt in the ongoing conflict, most blatantly by combatants destroying the livelihood of people in opposing territories, as a form of collective punishment. The suffering of Syrian animals is probably as epic as that of its humans, and raises issues of animal rights during periods of political violence. Two common attitudes are humanism, and misanthropy. “Why care about the animals when people are hurt?” places human life above all other life. “The brutality of the war proves that human beings are a lost cause, it’s better to focus on the animals” dismisses human rights and overemphasizes animal rights.

In all civil wars, supply routes are of pivotal importance, either for medicine, food, or weapons. With the main roads cut off, Syrians turned to smugglers, who could cross mountains and deserts with pack animals. In one video from the Hama region, Syrian regime army soldiers collect the horses of an alleged smuggler, line them up, and shoot them in the head one by one. One of the bullets ricochets off a horse’s skull bone, and almost hits one of the roughnecks. In another, similar video, a special unit lines up a whole bunch of donkeys and sprays them with a curtain fire. “Sir, this one is [Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri, and that one is [prominent Salafist Sheikh Adnan] Ar’our,” brays one of the soldiers and downs a pretty crimson-red donkey. When one of the wretched animals manages to run off, one of the soldiers scrambles to take aim with his Kalashnikov, but he misses. The donkey runs off and the soldier ends up having to run after it, leaving the viewer wondering who the real donkey is in this video. After all, the near-synonyms himar and jahsh are reliable insults in Arabic.

The indiscriminate shelling of the Damascus suburb of Harasta in September 2012 hits a small chicken farm, prematurely roasting dozens of them, and igniting the owner into a tirade: “That animal Bashar, who killed our animals!” That same bloody autumn, regime snipers taking aim at the
Damascus suburb of Bait Sahm are having fun by using the local animals as target practice, taking out entire packs and flocks. A Friesian cow, sniped in the left eye and with an inconsolably sad expression on the remainder of his face, looks into the camera with a timid curiosity. Two wounded camels, literally thunderstruck, lean on each other for support, with only three intact legs between the two of them. They look around with their long necks, bewildered and utterly, utterly helpless. Indeed, whenever fighters are bored, they seem to bully animals. In a short video, one young soldier grasps a small black goat by its neck and holds it in the air. “Confess!” they yell and beat the thing, whose cries sound eerily like a child’s.

A November 2012 clip, also from Harasta, shows a snow-white rabbit, most likely a pet that escaped in the carnage, standing out amid the ruins of a bombed-out housing complex. The poor thing is completely disoriented, skipping to the left, flinching when it hears a sniper's shot or a shell fall, and hopping back to the right. The horrific chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta on 21 August, 2013, of course killed thousands of human beings, but it was a massacre of the animals too. Sheep, lambs, cows, dogs, cats, and horses were seen huddled together in an unrecognizable mass of variously colored fur, legs sticking up in lifeless matter. It reminded one of the 1988 Halabja chemical attacks—one of the most famous photos of that massacre show a black cat in the middle of the street, legs stretched out un-catlike.

Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s wrenching, poetic documentary Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is an epic story of the ongoing killing in Syria, with haunting music that evokes images of Shostakovich’s take on Leningrad. The film features footage of the siege of
Homs, including scruffy, limping cats, horribly and probably fatally wounded in the shelling. One of my colleagues said she cried more for the animals suffering in the film than the people. Residents of besieged areas, perverted from victimization, fear, and hunger, quickly lose their humanity and empathy with animals. From Eastern Ghouta, images were uploaded of a man stepping with a boot on a cat’s head and holding a knife to its throat. The local sheikhs issued a fatwa that animals normally considered forbidden (haram) could now be eaten due to the desperate shortages of food. Dozens of cats, dogs, and donkeys were slaughtered and eaten.

Is there any good news? Well, maybe a little. Syrian cat-lover Mohammad Alaa al-Jaleel took care of cats by buying scraps from a butcher, because he claimed to see no difference between human beings and animals: all deserve compassion. Like-minded Americans then sent significant sums of money for him to buy meat to keep feeding the cats. On a similar note, the global dog-loving community started the following campaign:

 

On January 13, 2016, the Syrian government went on a shooting spree killing as many stray dogs as possible with poisoned bullets. They shot dogs all night; killing mostly moms, leaving behind hundreds of orphaned puppies. Many dogs did not die right away; they were left to die in the cold, suffering from pain and hunger… Please help the forgotten victims of the Syrian war, please help the Syrian dogs.

 

From 2013 on, Syrian refugees fleeing en masse to Europe brought their surviving pets along, including rabbits, cats, and even birds in cages. Some of the animals did not survive the crossing and are buried in the Balkans.

 

Conclusion

The first video I saw of a barrel bomb made an indelible impression on me. The video started with a shot of a beautiful, bright blue sky, quickly interrupted by the steadily increasing buzz of a helicopter flying into the picture. The chopper drops a tiny, seemingly irrelevant dot in the sky that tumbles down, tolling around its own axis, casting an inexorable, hellish fate on the helpless civilians who’ve been staring up all day. The moment the barrel hits the street and explodes into a blossom of fire, dust, and shrapnel, a flock of birds fly away from the scene and disperse into the air. I re-watch the video and see a single sparrow sitting unsuspectingly on a tree. Then the sudden impact. The animal flies off in a directionless panic.

When I ask Syrians how they’re doing, they often answer, “By God, we are like crocodiles” (wallahi temsahna). By this they don’t mean they shed crocodile tears, but that they developed a thick skin due to years of violence. Their psychic numbing as a result of the unimaginable violence is thorough, persistent, and will reveal its lasting effects in the future. One of the most telling videos features opposition activist Ziad from Ma’arrat al-Nu’man. He stands with a red kufiyeh wrapped around his head, upset, desperate, in front of a collapsed residential building right after an airstrike. He yells into the camera: “We need a no-fly zone! We are unarmed civilians. Where are human rights? Listen, forget human rights, we want animal rights, even that would be fine!”

One cannot but wonder what these animals must be thinking about all this human violence.