Review by BERNIE BELLAN The war in Syria which began in 2011 following upon earlier upheavals in the Arab world that were ignited by what became known as the Arab Spring has, by and large, vanished from the headlines of the world’s newspapers.
Once Russia intervened on the side of Bashar Al Assad in 2015, along with Iran and its Hezbollah acolytes, the tide was turned in favour of Assad. It is true that American troops, along with their various allies in Syria, were instrumental in ridding Syria of ISIS, but there were many more factions fighting the Assad regime than ISIS.
The complex world of what really amounted to inter-tribal warfare in Syria resulted in some of the most atrocious acts imaginable committed by all sides in the conflict, although when it came to the use of military hardware to massacre entire populations, Assad’s forces set new levels of barbarity in terms of the degree to which they were willing to gas, bomb, and murder innocent civilians throughout the conflict.
Within this nightmarish world, however, there were many individuals who not only did not suffer at all during the conflict – they actually thrived. Some were members of different militias who capitalized on capturing Western journalists and humanitarian workers in Syria, holding them for huge ransoms when they could.
We in the West were witness to the horrendous brutality that ISIS was capable of when it came to dealing with those captured Westerners – including their beheadings on a regular basis, but other groups were also willing to engage in equally savage treatment of innocent Westerners. In the cases of those other groups, however, the goal by and large was to trade Westerners for money.
Often captured journalists or humanitarian workers would be traded back and forth among groups. There were different reasons for the shuffling around of prisoners. For one, it made it almost impossible for anyone wanting to retrieve those prisoners to keep track of them. Secondly, at different times different groups placed different values on certain prisoners, depending on where they came from and with whom those groups were in a position to negotiate.
Into this hellish world stepped Daniel Levin, a Swiss-born Jew now living in the United States whose expertise is in negotiating with some of the world’s most unsavory characters. Levin is a lawyer by training and his legal negotiation skills were put to good use when he began working “with a European foundation and select individuals in Syria” in what became a project known as “Project Bistar”.
The purpose of Project Bistar, Levin explains in an incredibly fascinating new book (that is yet to be released for sale to the public) titled “Proof of Life”, was to mediate between the warring sides in the Syrian conflict, “in the hope of working quietly behind the scenes toward a negotiated settlement and, at a second stage, identifying young, next-generation individuals of the Alawite, Sunni, Druze, and Christian communities with leadership potential.”
Levin explains that, until 2015 when the Russians intervened on his side, Assad appeared amenable to a negotiated settlement, especially when rebel forces were inflicting terrible damage on his own forces.
With that as background information, in 2014 Levin found himself thrust into a situation totally unexpectedly in which his negotiating skills were put to a supreme test.
As a press release that was sent to me in January described it, “Daniel Levin was at his office one day when he got a call from an acquaintance with an urgent, cryptic request to meet in Paris. A young man had gone missing in Syria. No government, embassy, or intelligence agency would help. Could he? So begins a suspenseful, shocking, and at times brutal true story of one man’s search to find a missing person in Syria over eighteen tense days.”
Thus begins “Proof of Life: The Undercover Search for a Missing Person in Syria, where Arms, Drugs, and People Are for Sale“.
This lengthy preamble to my review of the book was necessary to provide some context for what the book is all about. Since the story that Levin tells – and the events which he describes are all true - although he has changed the names of most of the characters in order to protect the identities of individuals whose lives might be in danger, even years after the events which he describes.
Reading “Proof of Life” is like reading any well-written, fast paced thriller – except in this case, knowing that what you are reading really did happen will often leave you feeling physically ill when you realize the depths to which humans are capable of sinking to the present day. And I’m not just talking about the depravities of various armed groups around the world, many of which are Islamic it must be said (whether in the Middle East, Africa, the Philippines or any other of a number of areas in which offshoots of Al Qaeda or ISIS still hold sway).
Some of the most notorious characters in “Proof of Life” are not at all involved in actual fighting; instead they are the parasites who see opportunities in conflict situations to make vast sums of money supplying such commodities as drugs and women to the fighters.
It was within this dangerous and completely shadowy world that Levin found himself when he was asked to help obtain information about a young American by the name of Paul Blocher who had somehow entered into Syria sometime in 2014 – and disappeared.
As Levin describes it, he was contacted by an old friend who asked him for a favour, which was to use his various and very useful contacts throughout the region to do what he could to find out what happened to Blocher.
What follow sin the book is a complex series of encounters with some fascinating characters, most of whom are Arabs of varying nationalities, in locations including Ankara, Beirut, Washington, Amman, and Dubai, as Levin pursues a trail replete with scattered bits of information that bring him ever closer to the one character who he is certain can reveal what actually happened to Paul Blocher.
Throughout reading this book I couldn’t help thinking that Levin, who doesn’t at all hide his Jewish identity, was quite fearless in his willingness to seek out individuals whose reputations would leave just about anyone else terrified to even go anywhere near them, let alone try and arrange to meet them.
Given that he had been tasked with an assignment that very few individuals in the world would be capable of performing, as you read the very careful preparations he continually put in place prior to his meeting any of these dangerous individuals, although Levin doesn’t describe to any extent how he developed his unique expertise in negotiation and subterfuge, you can only marvel at the thinking he displayed at all times in planning his course of action.
At a certain point in the book though, the name of a drug known as “captagon” began to take on a prominent role in the story. I had to digress from reading “Proof of Life” to acquaint myself with just what Captagon is.
Captagon is a powerful amphetamine that is most popular in the Middle East, where it is both the recreational drug of choice in such countries as Saudi Arabia and the drug that was used by all sides during the Syrian conflict that, in the words of a BBC correspondent describing how Captagon is used in Syria,“gives people a euphoric feeling that they can take on the world and are relatively indomitable. [It] suppresses appetite and gives you a very long burst of energy, something like 18 to 24 hours.”
“Amphetamine use by fighters is commonplace, but I wondered if the specific properties of Captagon made it the perfect war drug.
“ ‘That depends on what your values are in the war,’ “ according to Max Kravits, a researcher who has spent years studying the use of Captagon in the Syrian conflict.
“ It is incredibly deteriorating and debilitating and it makes fighters take risks they otherwise wouldn’t take. But if your goal is simply to take said hill regardless of the human cost, it certainly seems to be doing the job.’ “
As Levin pursued his quest to find out what happened to Paul Blocher, he was led ever closer to the one man who, it is had become apparent from a variety of sources, would be able to tell Levin what happened to Blocher.
That man’s name was “Anas” and if you ever wanted to conjure up a more insidious villain you would be hard put to find anyone more absolutely evil than Anas. When Levin finally saw Anas for the first time – and he made sure that he was carefully hidden so that Anas did not see him, he was blown away by Anas’s physical appearance: A massive six foot five, so muscular that he said Anas’s wrist was as big as Levin’s thigh. (It turns out that Anas was a steroid junkie, which both explained his enormous physique and the almost constant bouts of rage to which he was prone.)
And, although you can’t help but fear for Levin as he entered into the proverbial lion’s den, knowing that this is a true account, the overriding question as he describes his eventual face to face encounter with Anas, was how was he going to pry information out of someone who, it turns out, was actually capable of killing his own child to exact revenge on a wife who dared to leave him.
“Proof of Life” was just recently published (in 2021, as a matter of fact) and the copy I was sent was a review copy. But, as I was reading this incredibly fascinating book (and I know I use that phrase all too often in describing books that I love), I kept thinking to myself: All right, we know that Israel is engaged in an ongoing war of sorts with Iran in Syria, as Iran uses Syria as its base for arming Hezbollah, and that threatens to turn into a major all–out war with Hezbollah, but what of the actual conflict in Syria itself between Assad and all those factions that were fighting his regime? Has it all quieted down or are we just not hearing about it any more?
Here’s the answer, as Daniel Levin writes in his postscript to “Proof of Life” (and again, it was just written in 2021):
“These days, conventional wisdom holds that the conflict in Syria has been decided. The war is over. Bashar al-Assad and his regime won with the help of Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; the opposition, the Kurds, and ISIS were defeated. Sure, some nasty things did happen, but it’s time to move on and rebuild the country.
“Turns out, conventional wisdom is not particularly wise. This war is not over. The killings have not stopped. The chemical gassings, the cluster bombs, the executions, the torture, the human trafficking the annihilation of entire villages – they all continue. For millions of trapped Syrians, the nightmare never ends. A small group of privileged men connected to the regime through family or business have amassed unimaginable fortunes as they control the war economy, trading everything – food, medicine, fuel, heating, oil, drugs, weapons, prisoners, young girls – and looting the destroyed cities for scrap metal, copper, steel, and anything of value. Like in all war, the only ones left are a few extremely rich individuals and many extremely poor people. Everyone in between has been wiped out. Yes, the war economy is alive and well, and this war will last as long as that remains the case.”
The insights that Levin offers throughout this book – and what I just quoted is but one example of the level of knowledge that he brings forth about of what is really going on in Syria - may differ from commonly accepted wisdom about what has happened in Syria of late. Yet, Levin’s profound understanding of the Middle East left me with only one conclusion about the Arab world: It is a cruel jungle, often surrounded by a façade of material wealth that only disguises the fact that it is thoroughly tribal in nature – and an extremely dangerous world in which to set foot.
Lucky for the Israelis who are now establishing connections throughout much of the region – they know what they’re getting into. They’ve been operating in what is probably the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world for a very long time. I’m sure that Israel has a lot of Daniel Levins around who know how to negotiate their way through the metaphorical landmines into which Israel is now stepping.
“Proof of Life” is set to be released to the public in May 2021.