The unlikely kindness of mass murderers

Friday 05/06/2015

How ironic is it that many of the prison­ers held in Syria’s infamous Tadmur prison until the capture of Palmyra by the Islamic State (ISIS) will look up to the group as their liberators?

ISIS as liberators? Indeed. What a thought.

Well, in fact, the Islamic State group seems to have totally de­molished the prison in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 30th.

One of the ways that ISIS has been recruiting followers — was by organising major prison breaks when it could not blow up the jailhouses. It’s been a policy that has yielded positive results for the terrorist group. Who could refuse it anyway?

So this has not really been a sur­prise, the surprise in Tadmur’s case will be when we start to find out who was in the notorious prison. The Lebanese are likely to find people they assumed were long dead.

Chances are that if you had the misfor­tune of being sen­tenced to Tadmur prison, placed there by either Bashar Assad or his father, Hafez, you would have still been in prison. Many of the prisoners were jailed for political reasons and left to rot in jail, whether they were tried or not.

No firm data are available as to who the prisoners held in Tadmur were, nor even how many prisoners were detained there. Nevertheless, there were many rumours. Many Lebanese disap­peared during the civil war that began in 1975 when Syria sent its army to Lebanon first as part of the Arab Deterrent Force and then stayed on as an occupation force.

While in principle the Syrians left Lebanon, the reality is that is far from being the case as Syria left thousands of agents of the mukhabarat, the regime’s secret police. The war in Syria has, of course, drained resources yet there remains an important contingent of Syrian intelligence agents in Lebanon.

ISIS militants, who have been marked as probably the most bloodthirsty group in the region’s modern history, will be seen by the inmates of Tadmur as liberators. ISIS as liberators. Now there is a controversy if ever there was one.

It is precisely despotic govern­ments have pushed people over the edge to engage in violent op­position. The smothering of civil society and political activism for decades by these regimes led many of the region’s young people to embrace extremism.

In the worst of cases, dictators put dissidents in jail and threw away the keys. That was the case with the Syrian regime and Tadmur.

But there is more to the problem than government restric­tions. A former Arab diplomat and current lawyer confided to this reporter during a private conversation on the margins of a recent NATO meeting in Rome. Discussing the phenomenon that ISIS has become, the dip­lomat stated that the Arabs had a long way to go as a society. He severely criticised the majority of Arab countries where the values of human rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights and everything in between have still to be deeply ingrained.

As regimes and societies played for time, there came ISIS. It ex­ploited the frustrations of youth who have been ill-prepared for this day and age.

The ultimate irony is that ISIS fighters parade as liberators. But that it is an irony brought to you by near-sighted regimes that thought time was on their side.