We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid … the Mahdi at the holy house of God. The Islamic State was signaling that its flag was not only the symbol of its government and the herald of a future caliphate; it was the harbinger of the final battle at the End of Days. Legends of the black flag and the Muslim savior, the Mahdi, first circulated during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled the Islamic empire from Damascus in the seventh and eighth centuries C. Muslims argue over the veracity of individual hadith, and the contradictions between them, the way some Christians debate the reliability of the Gospels and their discrepancies.
End-Time prophecies were an especially inviting target for fabricators. Prophecies proliferated, reaching into the thousands. When the politics evaporated, the prophetic residue remained. As the revolutionaries built support for their cause, they circulated prophecies of soldiers fighting under black flags who would come from the East to overthrow the Umayyads.
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Other black-flag prophecies were attributed to the prophet himself. In early Islam, the color black was associated not just with mourning but also with revenge for a wrongful death. They wore Pucci uniforms. So within New York I ended up in another social circle. A little bit with Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, but there was just so much drug use.
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Hard drugs—speed, heroine, cocaine. Braniff International Stewardesses dressed in their Pucci uniforms. Source: The Red List. IA: New York had a very bohemian feeling, which leads to a darkness. I saw LA as something light and bright and fun and good and happy.
Spiritual was the word.
I flew out a few times and really loved it, so I moved to LA and that was that. I totally dropped out and became a flower child—a hippie. But even within that I was in a social circle. I dated a young Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss. It seemed like I had no problem sliding into good social circles. We used to go to the Old World. I connected more to his wife at the time—Dora—and we became friends.
JG: What was your first impression of him?
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IA: Jim was beautiful. He was very charming. He had a great personality. Everybody just loved him. He had such a great sense of humor. JG: Would you talk about your time with the photographer Ron Raffaelli? He was one of the most famous photographers of the time. He photographed everybody.
As I putter in a motorboat across the Tigris River one afternoon in May , I have no idea which of these, if any, I will encounter in the weeks ahead. I disembark with a handful of locals and walk up a gravelly slope to a small shack. Iraq, which I just came from, is on the opposite side of the river. Turkey is not far upstream.
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A man with a wrinkled, sun-worn face and an AK asks for our passports. One month after I submitted my application for one, the Syrian government dropped a chemical bomb on a building in Ghouta, outside Damascus. The United Nations said it killed 49 civilians, including 11 children. Less than a week later, the United States , the United Kingdom, and France bombed several research and military buildings. The area encompasses largely Arab regions as well as most of the predominantly Kurdish region Rojava. Most of the roughly 2, US special operations troops in Syria are based in the region, spread across about a dozen bases.
As the Kurdish border guard with the AK flips through my passport, his face brightens. The Kurdish people love Americans! I remember how, back in , my Syrian friends would fantasize about being rid of the dictator and his secret police, but no one could have imagined that the Arab Spring would come two years later. It spread to Syria, but Assad did not leave. The revolt against the regime turned into a civil war, and nearly everyone I knew fled the country. I wrote about what had happened to their neighborhood , where the regime was starving people to death.
After that, I lost touch.
The news coming from Syria became darker. Cities were being leveled by Syrian bombs, then by Russian planes. The regime was poisoning children with chemical attacks. ISIS was chopping off heads and isolating large chunks of the country from the outside world. More and more, Syria was looking like the kind of tragedy the world had promised would never happen again, and no one knew what to do about it. About 1 in 10 Syrians have been injured or killed. The exact number of dead is a mystery —the United Nations stopped counting in —but a report by an independent organization put it at around , Like many Americans, I was overwhelmed and disheartened by the scope of the tragedy.
What had started as a homegrown effort to oust a regime that has held the country in its iron fist since became a magnet for many outside interests. The Syrian war has become such a fog that few Americans know the extent to which we have been involved. Even those who are paying attention struggled to form a clear opinion. The United States did not start the war in Syria, but the only thing that seemed worse than getting sucked into the conflict was not getting involved at all.
Could we stand aside as the Syrian government slaughtered its people? What about ISIS? What about our obligation to take in some of the millions of refugees? At the same time, should we be fighting a shadow war against Russia and Iran? Yet there was next to no outcry as the US-led coalition against ISIS nearly flattened the city of Raqqa , inflicting heavy civilian casualties, later that year.
American involvement in Syria has been as fragmented and volatile as the conflict itself. Official policy has gone from demanding that Assad step down to allowing him to stay in power as the opposition has grown weaker and groups hostile to the United States have flourished. The Obama and Trump administrations have backed opposing armed factions. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have fought a proxy war against each other while simultaneously aligning themselves against the common enemy of ISIS.
Owen Freeman I came here to try to untangle our role in what has been one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century. My ride picks me up from the border and we drive into the green plains. Oil derricks slowly bob up and down along the road. A young man kicks a ball on a soccer pitch not far from a coalition air base. The roads and towns are guarded by the SDF and its police forces, but in the center of Qamishli, the de facto Kurdish capital, our car enters a roundabout flanked by Syrian government troops and billboards, some depicting Assad in aviator shades and some showing the faces of his soldiers killed in battle.
The regime still controls several surrounding city blocks, where it maintains a courthouse and administrative offices. My driver tells me US special forces frequently drive through this roundabout, unmolested by the Syrians. They understand as well as anybody that in Syria, different Americans are fighting different wars.
Before there was war in Syria, there was revolution. Anti-authoritarian uprisings erupted in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. Yet Syrians were hesitant. There were isolated incidents: A man lit himself on fire in Hasaka. Protesters demonstrated in Damascus after police beat up a shopkeeper. Bashar al-Assad tried to stop the mayhem by ordering that the teens be released, but it was too late. By the end of the month, protesters in Daraa had torn down a statue of Hafez al-Assad, and security forces had attacked a mosque where demonstrators had taken refuge. People across the country were now calling for the president to resign.
During the first two weeks of the uprising, Assad did not appear in public. In the two decades before they took power, there had been a series of military coups; the CIA had made several efforts to install pro-American, anti-Soviet leaders during the late s and s.
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Hafez guarded himself against challengers by installing members of his minority Alawite sect in high-level positions in the government, the military, and the vast security state. His party implemented quasi-socialist welfare policies, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, he started to liberalize the economy.
These were taken as signs that the country was opening up. Syrians were hopeful.
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During what came to be known as the Damascus Spring , about 1, intellectuals and activists signed a statement calling for political reforms.
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