07/13/2012 05:29 PM

Author Jonathan Littell on Syria

'I'm Fundamentally a Pessimist'

American-French author Jonathan Littell caused a sensation with his 2006 novel "The Kindly Ones." His latest book is based on his experiences with opposition fighters in Syria, including in the city of Homs. In a SPIEGEL interview, Littell explains why he believes the chaos in Syria could spread to its neighbors, including Lebanon.

On a clandestine trip over the Lebanese border and into Syria, author Jonathan Littell, 44, kept a journal in which he recorded his experiences and conversations with civilian activists and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters. Littell's notes, from January 16 to February 4, record the last days of the resistance in the city of Homs, a stronghold for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime. Shortly afterwards, Assad's troops launched a major offensive that reduced city districts to rubble.

Littell had intended to use his journal entries to write a series of articles for the French newspaper Le Monde. But the notes were so extensive that Littell decided instead to publish them as a book, in as authentic a format as possible, with only minor editing. The result, "Carnet de Homs" or "Notes from Homs," came out in May in French. The German translation will be available in August.

Littell was first confronted with the horrors of war in Sarajevo in 1993, when he worked for the humanitarian aid organization Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger). He continued working in numerous conflict areas until 2001, when he was slightly wounded in an attack in Chechnya. The experiences from that period have stayed with him.

French photographer Mani accompanied Littell and translated for him while in Syria. In the book Mani goes by the pseudonym Raed. Many of the young men Littell and Mani met in Homs are now dead.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Littell, for nearly 20 years you've visited sites of war and atrocities -- Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia, Sudan, Congo and now Syria. Your novel "The Kindly Ones," which portrays the Holocaust from the perspective of an SS officer, brought you global fame. Are you fascinated by murder?

Littell: Let's put it this way -- it interests me, yes.

SPIEGEL: In fact, your work leaves the impression that you're practically obsessed with violence and its excesses. Why?

Littell: That's a good question, but I don't know.

SPIEGEL: Does the normalcy of a life of peace and prosperity such as we lead here in our part of Europe bore you?

Littell: No, it's not boring. It's simply a different set of problems. I'm interested in human behavior in the context of armed conflict -- violence organized at a societal level -- more than I'm interested in the pathological aspect. Individual criminals, serial killers, psychopaths and the like don't do much for me.

SPIEGEL: But is it really so easy to separate the two? Violence in war rarely remains controlled.

Littell: War leads to crime, to the abandonment of the usual norms, to incredible brutality and sadism. But it's always collective violence, the madness of a group as a whole, not the insanity of one individual such as Anders Breivik in Norway. There's always a system at work behind the killing, an administrative organization of death.

SPIEGEL: People in Syria rose up against this system of oppression quite chaotically at first. Intellectuals often get swept up by their enthusiasm for a war of liberation. Does the same apply to you?

Littell: The romanticism of revolutionary heroism, you mean? I support the side of the Syrian people and the battle that the opposition there is fighting, there's no question about that. But I distinguish between my opinion as a citizen and a contemporary, and my work as a writer and a reporter. The emotional appeal of freedom and the whole philosophy around that, those things are less relevant for me.

SPIEGEL: Do you find ethical value and moral protest simply in the act of observing?

Littell: I want to bear witness and to record the reality of history as it's happening, without moralizing. I've been working primarily as a journalist for the last four years, and almost always in these types of situations.

SPIEGEL: Would it appeal to you to write a literary treatment of what you experienced and saw in Syria?

Littell: Not at the moment. My book "Notes from Homs" is a report, not a literary work.

SPIEGEL: Nor are your notes a manifesto. Unlike French intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, you're not using your time in Syria and your writing on what you saw there to issue a fiery appeal to the West to stage a military intervention.

Littell: No, that would seem absurd to me. But that doesn't mean I don't have a position on this. It simply expresses itself on a different level. People are dying in Syria, while elsewhere people are talking about it. Western diplomats have become wrapped up in pretty ridiculous waffling without doing anything. What would I accomplish by issuing an appeal? Given this situation, my rather desperate suggestion was that we'd do better to just hold our tongues and leave the Syrians to their fate. Unfortunately, that's exactly what has been done.

SPIEGEL: The US and EU are now unanimous in demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. Is that the solution?

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.

SPIEGEL: Especially when those dictators seem to act in rational and predictable ways.

Littell: Yes, the "enlightened dictators." Our heads of state and government sometimes engage in a very convenient sort of realpolitik. There's nothing more practical than declaring a disagreeable ruler crazy. It saves having to make a lot of explanations.

SPIEGEL: As with Gadhafi, for example.

Littell: Or with the Kims in North Korea. To me, the psychology of dictators is irrelevant. Just because one of them is supposedly crazy, that doesn't necessarily mean anything in terms of politics. Gadhafi was certainly more eccentric than average, but no crazier than Napoleon, for example, or a certain German leader in the 1930s.

SPIEGEL: You can't really compare them, though.

Littell: Granted. I just mean that Napoleon, in his personal behavior, was clearly an egomaniac. The decisive factor is that there is a system backing up every ruler who controls through violence. It's not just about one disturbed individual. Assad doesn't make his decisions alone. The structures of power in Syria are very opaque, and regime change requires more than just removing one individual. Without a doubt, Assad's inner circle makes rational, strategic calculations, even if the results of those decisions are absolutely insane.

SPIEGEL: Syria is a mosaic of different religious denominations which managed to coexist more or less harmoniously for a long time. Is it inevitable that this civil war will become a religious war?

Littell: I'm positive that the Syrian revolution was not driven by religious or ethnic concerns in the beginning, but rather by economic and social concerns. This is a true proletarian revolution of the workers and the farmers, an uprising of those for whom life had passed by. But if the situation deteriorates further, it's possible that precisely what the West fears will come to pass. Jihadists will infiltrate Syria from all directions, to misuse the revolution for their own unacceptable purposes. One more reason not to just look on and wait until we're tearing our hair and wailing: My God, my God, the Islamists!

SPIEGEL: Haven't we reached that point already?

Littell: I didn't meet any religious fanatics in Homs. But the regime is playing the religious and ethnic card to get the non-Sunni minorities on its side, the Alawis, the Ismailis, the Druzes, the Christians. That shows how embattled the regime feels at this point. Yet Assad could have easily defused the revolution in the beginning by initiating social reforms. Initially, the protesters had no intention of toppling him. They wanted equality, not democracy, which is a vague concept to them. Now, though, it's become a battle of life and death.

SPIEGEL: What will the outcome be?

Littell: The Syrian army and security forces aren't strong enough to defeat the revolution completely, as can be seen from the growing numbers of deserters. But neither are the rebels strong enough to win without help from outside. The worst thing would be a long war of attrition that would destroy the country entirely. I can image that, as a last resort, Assad and his people would consider dividing the country and withdrawing to an Alawi stronghold. That, though, would amount to a "Lebanonization" of the country, and would mean massive ethnic cleansing.

'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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