Author Jonathan Littell on Syria 'I'm Fundamentally a Pessimist'

Author Jonathan Littell says he is interested in studying human behavior in the context of armed conflict.

Author Jonathan Littell says he is interested in studying human behavior in the context of armed conflict.

Part 2: 'NATO Didn't Ask Russia's Permission Before Bombing the Serbs'

SPIEGEL: What options does the United Nations have in terms of forcing Assad out?

Littell: I don't believe the UN is prepared to intervene. Unfortunate as that may be, that is how it is. Still, in between the extremes of complete inaction or armed invasion, there's a broad array of possible diplomatic and military measures that can be taken: computer warfare against Syrian security systems, targeted air strikes, logistical aid for the revolution, a complete blockade of the regime. There are always options.

SPIEGEL: Russia determines what flies and what doesn't within the Security Council.

Littell: NATO didn't ask Russia's permission before bombing the Serbs in Kosovo either. Russia respects strength, and it will take any hesitation or strategizing as an opportunity to exert influence.

SPIEGEL: That sounds a lot like the language of the Cold War.

Littell: And it's a language Russia understands very well -- decisive behavior that makes it abundantly clear: "Fuck you, we'll do what we think is right, with you or without you."

SPIEGEL: Your impression of Russia likely stems from your experiences in the Caucasus?

Littell: Oh, yes, without a doubt. The Russians have always seen the people of the Caucasus, especially the Chechens, as savages. But in reality, the Russians under Putin are the savages. My opinion on Putin's Russia is unambiguous: It's an abhorrent, warped, corrupt, undemocratic system that's rotten to the core. Hopefully Russia will be free of it soon.

SPIEGEL: The conflict in Syria is growing increasingly bloody, with violence escalating on both sides and the victims put on show, to inspire fear or anger. How can the slaughter be stopped?

Littell: No idea. The situation has already been handled so badly that the only thing left to do is to stop the disaster from spreading. If Syria descends into total chaos, it will drag its neighbors in as well, especially Lebanon.

SPIEGEL: In other words, you're afraid the conflict will spread to the entire region? You report in your book that some military leaders within the Free Syrian Army are toying with the idea of drawing Israel into the fray.

Littell: It will end badly. I'm fundamentally a pessimist, and I always consider the worst scenario not only possible, but likely.

SPIEGEL: What is your impression of the FSA fighters, whose ranks are increasing from defecting regime soldiers?

Littell: Extraordinarily motivated, decisive, brave, prepared to die. For many of them, deserting the army, which can be a fatal move in and of itself, was an act of immense relief and liberation. Often, the defectors had participated in the repression by following orders to shoot at the demonstrators -- whose beliefs they share -- and then accumulating a terrible sense of guilt.

SPIEGEL: It seems the rebels are increasingly perpetrating atrocities as well.

Littell: I never experienced that myself, but there are certainly criminal groups operating at the fringes of the FSA, committing blackmail, rape and murder. Still, it is not nearly as systematic as it is on the government's side.

SPIEGEL: You write that the rebels sometimes execute prisoners.

Littell: They showed me injured prisoners they were treating in an underground clinic. A rebel fighter who ends up in the hands of the government's troops, on the other hand, will be tortured in every possible way, that's for certain. I admit, I also saw a member of the regime's dreaded Shabiha militia, who'd been lynched and whose naked, blood-smeared body, his head smashed in, was put on the back of a truck and paraded through the crowd, with shouts of "Allahu akbar!" It was a triumphal procession of bloody revenge. It depends who the FSA captures -- a member of the militia, a sniper who has been picking off civilians, women and children as they walk down the streets, or someone who was simply conscripted into the army.

SPIEGEL: The rebels showed you videos of horrible scenes. How do you react? You've seen many atrocities -- do you become numbed by them?

Littell: The more important thing is to try to reflect on these images. What do they show, what do they mean, what political message do they communicate? This plethora of images certainly demands that we put intense effort into our interpretation of them.

SPIEGEL: Images trigger emotions.

Littell: But that doesn't mean they can't be analyzed. There are three types of images that are widespread in Syria. There are the pictures of victims that family members save on their cell phones, reminders of the violent death of a father, brother or husband. Then there are photographs of those killed in action or tortured, bloody pictures with which they hope to stir activists around the world to political action. Then there are the videos Assad's henchmen themselves put online, showing their own violence, as a warning and a deterrent: See, this is what will happen to you!

SPIEGEL: There are limits to what's reasonable.

Littell: Some of these videos really do bear a certain resemblance to porn. I'm not passing judgment; I just mean the way the videos are shot: The camera travels over the maimed, mutilated body, showing the wounds and bullet holes close-up.

SPIEGEL: The intention here is clear, and there's no need for journalists to make themselves accomplices in that.

Littell: They can avoid falling into that trap by using their powers of analysis. But instead, we tend to block that out. I see a certain element of postcolonial disdain there -- whatever the locals present us isn't going be good for anything anyway, it's all just propaganda. But I believe one should look the reality of violence in the face.

SPIEGEL: Several journalists have been killed in Syria. How did you deal with that possibility, that Jonathan Littell, prominent literary figure and chronicler of genocide, might lose his life in the bloody conflict of the Middle East?

Littell: There's not much to say about that. All journalists who work in conflict areas expose themselves to danger, and are aware they're doing so. You do what you can to minimize the danger, based on your experience and your instincts, but there's always a large element of chance. The Syrian activists took far greater risks than we did, and often they did so for our sake, to protect us. We should pay more attention to the courage of these kind and hospitable Syrians than to foreign journalists, who always have the option of walking away when they've had enough.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Littell, thank you for this interview.

Littell: As you know, I'm no great fan of interviews.

Interview conducted by Romain Leick.


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cam72 07/15/2012
1. The west and dictators
" Littell: They closed their eyes to his regime for a long time. Less than two years ago, he was received in Paris, together with his wife, as a "good" dictator, a supposed modernizer and reformer. And now we're seeing the result. The West has a long history of willingly coming to arrangements with dictators of all sorts. The west, and especially France and Germany, has a very long a shameful history regarding murderous dictators. I see that Mr. Littell forgot to mention his country's and Germany's long a very fruitful relations with Saddam Hussain, they were very much against any change in Iraq and both still regret Saddam's good old times. Am interested in knowing who were the savages in the french-Algerian war?
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