In his semi-autobiographical novel The Shell (originally published in Arabic in 2008), Mustafa Khalifa—who spent the years from 1982 to 1994 as a political prisoner in the notorious Tadmor prison—tells the story of a Syrian arrested and held prisoner on trumped-up charges. The book, writes Kyle Orton, is not only a powerful and moving account but also one that can be instructive to those in the West still enamored of the idea of partnering with Bashar al-Assad to defeat Islamic State (IS):
The notion that IS, a symptom of the war Assad started, could be treated with a narrow counter-terrorism strategy—in isolation from broader conflict—was always a fantasy. The recent collision between the coalition’s anti-IS war and the [Syrian] civil war is merely the intrusion of reality: it was one war all along. As the U.S.-led coalition was destroying the caliphate, it was parceling out territory to various contenders in Syria, changing the political and military balance in the wider war—mostly against the rebels, from which IS had taken most of its territory.
Still, for many Westerners, there is something that just doesn’t quite compute; Assad is a bad guy, [Westerners admit], but IS [is composed of] monsters! They drown people in cages and enslave Yazidis—medieval savagery that must surely be everybody’s priority. . . . The Shell helps break down this illusion [of a moral distinction] between a jihadist organization that revels in its brutality and a regime that proceeds in silence with a system of near-indescribable cruelty on a scale Islamic State cannot even dream of.
Khalifa’s protagonist, Musa, is living in Paris. Returning to his home country, he is picked up by the security services, tortured by being folded into a tire and caned on his feet until he passes out, and then thrown in a cell. Musa will remain in detention for the next thirteen years. Formally held, despite being an atheist of Christian background, as a suspected member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Musa will never be charged with any offense, and only finds out in the last few months of his captivity the trivial [crime] that landed him in prison.