Ten Years of Arabellion: “I was in contact with an IS fighter for a year. Then he’s dead.”

It is the tenth anniversary of the start of the "Arab Spring". A seemingly distant revolution that suddenly came very close. As Islamic State (IS) terror and the refugee crisis have shown, Germany and the Middle East are much intertwined. Our reporter was always there – he saw people hope and celebrate, torture and die.

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt on 16 December 2020. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for Die Welt

I. How it started – Tunisia 2011

The evening airplane from Madrid to Tunis is almost empty. A Tunisian lawyer and his wife sit in business class. The couple boarded the plane a little tipsy and continued to drink during the flight.

They have something to celebrate. The day before, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country to Saudi Arabia. “After 23 years of dictatorship, we are finally free,” says the lawyer, lifting his glass of wine. “Chin-chin,” they make a toast in French. Nobody had expected Ben Ali’s departure. His autocracy seemed rock solid – like that of all dictatorships in the Arab world.

As I drive through the dark from the airport to downtown Tunis, high fires blaze on the roadside. Police officers patrol and check with guns in their hand. Shots can be heard in the distance. The next day, the noise of helicopters wakes me up. There are protests again on Avenue Bourguiba. The dictator has abdicated, but protesters demand the rest of the old power elite must also disappear.

In Tunisia, Young people, not the critically educated middle class, take up the fight on the streets with the police. Image: Reuters

Before every new protest, I observe the young people who gather in side streets. You can tell from their clothes that they come from the poorer neighborhoods of Tunis. Later in the day they will be at the front and have street battles with the police. It is these fearless children who lead the protests, not the critically educated middle class. The outclassed, used to violence and hardship, make the revolution.

There is a euphoric atmosphere of optimism in Tunis. This is the spark that will gradually ignite the entire Middle East – for freedom, but also for many other goals and motives.

II. A mini-state acts as world power – Tunisia 2011

The roads are paved, the tents are made of special fibers. There is satellite TV, the children have a playground, and the food is delivered by catering service. It is a luxury camp which Gulf state Qatar built for the Libyan refugees who fled the civil war for neighboring Tunisia. The Gulf emirate spares no effort or money to make itself popular. “Everything is flown in, down to the last screw,” says the refugee camp manager proudly.

Dental services were also offered in Tunisian camps for Libyan refugees. Image: Reuters

But Qatar does not just fly in relief supplies. A video has been circulating on the internet for days. It shows boxes with weapons in the hands of Libyan militias, special delivery from the Gulf emirate. For the mini-state on the Persian Gulf, the “Arab Spring” is an excellent opportunity to satisfy its Islamist missionary drive. Qatar’s sympathy for the radical Muslim Brotherhood is no secret. Muslim Brotherhood representatives are supported in Tunisia, Libya and other Arab countries with many millions of dollars and weapons. The emirate ensures influence in the entire region through political parties and militias.

Qatar’s international news channel, al-Jazeera, plays a decisive role in this. It is the mouthpiece of the revolutions. Every protest, no matter how small, is broadcast as breaking news. “Without al-Jazeera, the Tunisian revolution would probably not have happened,” the young student Mohammed tells me in a bar in Tunis. “Me and many of my friends thought the revolution was over. But then we saw another video of protests on al-Jazeera.” He takes a sip of beer and says: “That gave us courage again”.

From its start, the “Arab Spring” is not just a struggle for freedom. It is also very much a fight – often in states with little freedom – for supremacy in a Middle East where everything suddenly seems possible.

III. The first war – Libya 2011

We wanted to buy bread when rockets hit. “Now you have to wait,” says the baker in the town of al-Galaa in the Libyan Nafusa Mountains. The high plateau is predominantly inhabited by Berbers. In May 2011, they revolted against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. As a punitive action, the regime cut off their water and electricity, and began a brutal war against the Berber population.

Gaddafi wants to quell the rebellion in the Nafusa Mountains and the rest of the country. Libya is the first country in which the “Arab Spring” turns into a real civil war. It will not be the last.

“It was a horror when Gaddafi’s troops approached,” Mohamad Glaawit told me. He belongs to the transitional council of al-Galaa city, which is fighting Gaddafi. Mohamad is now planning the decisive counterattack. The rebels want to advance from the Nafusa Mountains to the capital Tripoli. The next morning the attack begins. On the way to Tripoli, one last important position of Gaddafi’s troops must be taken.

I am sitting behind the front line with the ambulance as the shelling gets heavier. The attack seems to have failed. We race off in an off-road car. The driver holds back the splintered windshield with his hand so that it does not break completely. An artillery shell barely misses our car. When we reach safety, the driver stops to pray.

It was not until late afternoon that we receive news: “The position has been captured!” Two months later, in August 2011, the rebels from the Nafusa Mountains conquered Tripoli. The civil war was won, the dictator ousted. But peace was lost. And Libya will not find peace for a long time.

IV. Sharia instead of freedom – Syria 2012

The Russian fighter jet, Sukhoi type, draws a circle in the sky and starts to fly low. Our companion, a fighter from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), runs into the street. “Praise to Allah! I am invulnerable,” he shouts to the jet fighter. The Sukhoi attack is not aimed at us, but at a rebel base a few hundred meters away. The building breaks in two. Shortly afterwards, attack helicopters appear firing at the streets.

In late July 2012, Aleppo is the scene of chaotic events when Syrian rebels want to liberate the industrial metropolis from the rule of long-time dictator Bashar al-Assad. The black flag with the Muslim creed and the stamp of the prophet flutters on the roof of the rebel headquarters. Here Islam is taken seriously. But there is no trace of humanity.

In the courtyard, the rebels execute regime members and everyone they suspect of being a regime supporter. Every night the prisoners’ screams of pain can be heard. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” says the rebel commander. Even then it was clear: the image of the revolt of good against evil is an illusion.

In Aleppo, in the middle of the war, everyday life is not possible, people tell reporter Alfred Hackensberger (with helmet). Image: Vedat Xhymshiti.

”Freedom and dignity” – this slogan from the early days of the “Arab Spring”, was well received in the West. After autocracies fall like dominoes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, democracy will find its way, it was believed. And when the rebels of the small FSA challenged the powerful Assad regime in Syria, the West believed it to be a fight between a sympathetic David and a devilish Goliath.

The city of Aleppo was the heroic scene and symbol of the Syrian conflict for years. But hardly anyone wants to admit that it is too late. The Islamists hijack the revolution and from now on determine the course of events. At the political level, too, the dream of fighting for what is right stands in the way of rational judgement.

Aleppo after years of war: rubble and military equipment. Image: Vedat Xhymshiti.

V. The battlefield of the world – Syria 2013

“Take a look at these videos”, a colleague and friend from Holland writes me in September. “It will surprise you.” The material is exceptional. It documents the work of an Iranian officer in Syria. Iran has long been known as a staunch supporter of Syrian President Assad, but the secret video shows for the first time the true extent of Iran‘s presence in its western neighbor.

In the Syrian civil war, which has raged since 2011, the Islamic Republic trains and arms the Assad regime’s troops. Officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards direct the fight against the rebels. The footage was discovered after a battle near Aleppo in which the Iranian cameraman died. He was supposed to make a documentary about the work of his country’s military in Syria. Iran’s intervention makes a Syrian opposition victory seem remote.

Videos prove that the Iranian military not only fought in Syria, but also led and issued orders. Image: Screenshot WELT

At the same time, victory seemed within reach as the regime suffered one defeat after another. More and more of its soldiers deserted. Tehran’s intervention symbolizes a turning point in the civil war. Syria has turned into the battlefield of an open proxy war. It is becoming an arena for more and more nations that operate openly. Russia will also get involved, while the United States, the traditional Middle Eastern police force, barely intervenes.

The European Union (EU) hardly plays a role in the civil war – but it will feel the consequences through an unprecedented movement of refugees. In Iraq and Yemen, too, what began as a popular uprising is turning into an international power struggle. And for the people’s hopes for a historic democratization of the region? Their hopes have long since disappeared.

VI. The caliphate and its downfall – Syria 2014/15 and Iraq 2017

“Come on over,” they write to me and tell me later by phone, “How beautiful life is in the Caliphate”. They are Germans who have joined the struggle of the Islamic State. The terrorist militia used the chaos of war in Syria and Iraq to take control of large swathes of land.

Right at the front in Mosul, every change of position is life-threatening: Federal Police fighters cross a street controlled by IS snipers. Mosul, Iraq, April 2017.

In the end, I will not accept the offer of the IS fighters because in August and September it will become clear what the Islamic State can do to Western journalists. In August and September 2014, journalists were brutally murdered on camera – “executed” in IS jargon. The so-called “executions” demonstrate to the world what spirits the “Arab Spring” has evoked. IS violence culminates in the genocide against the Yazidis in Northern Iraq.

The terrorist militia has a network all over the world – in Arab, African and Asian countries there are numerous other organizations with a similar ideology. Even Turkey is letting radical Islamists fight for itself. There are hundreds of thousands of fighters worldwide. They take up arms in the name of Islam and want to die as martyrs. “Our goal is a new, just world,” explains German-Turkish IS fighter Abu Abdullah on the phone. I was in contact with him for a year until he was killed in an US air strike.

The German-Turkish IS fighter Abu Abdullah was killed in an US air strike. Image: WELT screenshot.

The American-led international coalition defeats the terrorists. In July 2017, after the defeat of IS, when I traveled to Mosul, the largest city of the former caliphate, I saw how the corpses of IS fighters were simply left to rot, especially in the old town of Mosul, which was fought over to the end. In a basement we see 50 corpses, close together. One can still see the fear of death in their eyes.

VII. Always more of the same suffering – Syria 2011 and 2020

Only two weeks ago I again visited northern Syrian and a refugee camp for the people who fled the Turkish invasion of October 2019. As always, similar images of endless rows of tents, muddy paths, and the smell of feces in the air. I have seen too many of these camps in the past ten years. Does this never end, I ask myself?

Also in this camp near Tel Tamr, I see faces full of despair. Stories of bombs, fleeing, death, torture, and rape, I hear them over and over again. The residents have no prospect of ever going back to their normal lives. I remember the first Syrian refugees nine years earlier, in 2011, in Turkish border towns. Even then I thought: it is impossible for people to stay in these emergency camps. Who can endure this in the long run? Crammed together with no proper food, medical care, and schools for the children?

In the Washokani IDP camp, near Tel Tamr, almost 13,000 people live in unworthy conditions: the paths are flooded after rain and large pools of mud form next to toilets, some of which they have built themselves. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

The refugees are the victims of higher politics and are left to their fate. For Europeans in 2011, they were far away refugees in a faraway country; the Syrian civil war was just another distant conflict. For years, Germany and the other European countries have ignored the calls for help from international organizations to provide more money for the refugees of the Syrian civil war.

More and more of them make their way to Europe until the situation escalates in 2015. Many hundreds of thousands flock to Europe, most of them to Germany. The political dispute over asylum and illegal migration will plunge the EU into an existential crisis.

VIII. A new spring? – Iraq 2020

Youssef programmed an app for online shopping, Amin programmed one for doctors and pharmacies. Ramia is thinking of starting a jewelry design company. The enthusiasm of the three young Iraqis is inspiring and contagious. They present their projects in “Mosul Space”, a co-working facility which offers office space, conference rooms, and a workshop in the city that was once the largest city of the Islamic State. It feels like an island of creativity and calm in the midst of so many troubles.

The co-working facility “Mosul Space” helps Mosul youth by offering space and technology to start-ups. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

Large parts of Mosul are still destroyed. As in other cities in Iraq, reconstruction is slow. Iraq remains religiously divided. In Egypt, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a new dictator in the saddle. In Syria, the Assad regime remains in power. The signs indicate restoration. But it is not that easy.

It is not only Youssef, Amin and Ramia who believe in a better prosperous Iraq. Their sympathies go out to the demonstrators in Baghdad, who have been protesting the corrupt political establishment since October 2019. New protests in Lebanon started almost simultaneously. Youth protests in Sudan and Algeria put an end to protracted dictatorships where protests by young people brought the long-term dictatorships to an end. The protesters want a state system that is independent of ethnicity and religion. A state that creates jobs instead of corruption.

These are the same demands that drove the masses onto the streets in 2011. Many continue to dream of change. The “Arab Spring” is not a finished project, but a long-term development. The upheaval can shake up the entire region for decades to come. “We can no longer continue to live as we did before,” says Amin in Mosul Space. “We have to create something new.”

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.