Photo by Andoni Lubaki. All other images courtesy of FSA cats.
Video footage online shows Syrian government troops massacring cows, killing horses and torturing cats and goats. In the torture scenes, the men “interrogate” the “rebel” animals, sadistically re-creating scenes that have no doubt been played out with human victims. These aren't the worst atrocities carried out during the conflict, but to Mahmoud Khatib, they seem to underscore the dehumanising effect of years of war.
In August 2012, Mahmoud, a Syrian-American living in Atlanta, saw a Guardian report that noted the kindness shown to stray kittens by fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), one of the main rebel forces battling the regime of president Bashar al-Assad. He started digging and realised that the FSA’s treatment of animals contrasted sharply with the cruelty shown to defenceless creatures by Assad’s forces. He thought this was an obvious, internet-friendly indicator of how much better for Syria they were than Assad and his animal-torturing thugs. In a bid to draw the world’s attention to the cause, he set up FSA Kittens, which collected photos of FSA fighters and kittens, first on Tumblr and then on Facebook.
Since the blog started, things have changed for the worse. With the war showing no signs of coming to an end and with the Islamic State adding a new layer of horror to proceedings, Syria looks further from peace than ever. I called Mahmoud to talk about Syria, the relevance of social media and whether there was any hope left.
VICE: Hi Mahmoud. Famously people love kittens and cats on the Internet. That’s often dismissed as being an example of how shallow we are, but in this setting it somehow feels a little different.
Mahmoud Khatib: It’s funny you say that. I began to notice a pattern of these kittens that were being cared for by the Free Syrian Army. It was a good story that really showed the human side of the revolution. A lot of folks will turn away if there are photos of killed Syrian children or orphans; it’s really depressing to look at. Cats are uplifting; I understand the Internet's obsession with cats. In this case I saw the cutest of cats as something that was directly challenging the narrative and showing that the Free Syrian army were human beings, they had the overwhelming support of civilians around them and were kind to animals. In contrast, Assad’s soldiers have machine-gunned livestock and donkeys and, in one case, swung a cat around on a chain. The regime actively tortures and kills opposition activists and shows the same cruelty towards animals.
So the fact that the FSA treat animals well is a very obvious indicator of them being kinder than Assad’s troops?
Yes it is and there’s nothing that says good vs evil more than one side treating children, orphans, the elderly and animals with kindness versus the other side beating the elderly, killing children with chemical weapons and killing animals.
It seems that, as the war has dragged on and got worse, Syrians abroad have become more depressed and far less hopeful. Were you full of hope when you started FSA Kittens?
I started the blog in the summer of 2012 when Syrians were really inspired. They saw this as part of the Arab Spring. Dictatorships were crashing down and democracy was rising up. That was the heyday of the blog. As the situation progressed it became more and more disheartening. Lots of Syrian Americans ended up feeling like Obama really let us down. We still support the revolution, we still want to see Syria free, but we also feel jaded.
Do you feel more isolated from people in Syria now? Has that early hope for change turned into a feeling of isolation?
The Syrian people went into this thinking, “OK the world’s eyes are on us, surely they can’t ignore us for much longer. The aid and support is just around the corner...” But no one wanted to do anything about the slow motion genocide that’s taking place and Syria left was left on its own to become a failed state. Me and other opposition activists feel helpless. There’s very little we can do – there’s fundraisers here and relatives have gone to the region to help refugees with medicine and so on. We’re trying to speak out in every possible way that would get interest in the US but it just hasn’t yielded results. I guess if orphans aren’t going to do it, you try kittens, and if kittens aren’t going to do it, we’ll try something else.
So FSA Kittens is just one attempt among many to engage people?
Yeah, I used to be very active on Twitter, sharing pictures of activists and massacres. People realise the Assad regime is evil. The Assad regime defector "Caesar" recently gave his report to Congress detailing, with 55,000 photographs, the industrial-scale torture and execution of opposition activists. It was little more than a footnote on CNN. Syria is old news, despite the fact that it’s ongoing. The coverage amounts to, “Well, there’s not a lot we can do and we’re not really sure who the good guys are”. People forget that the Syrian revolution is about pursuing freedom and that it started in a non-violent way. The news cycle has a very short memory.
At the beginning of the Arab Spring there was a lot said about how important Twitter might be. Having been involved with this yourself, how important you feel the Internet and social media has been in Syria?
I think at the onset of the Arab Spring, in terms of organising protests and showing that we all think the same way, it sort of lit that fire and helped the revolution take place. But now, when you have the government and their allies committed to using military force to put down a popular uprising, I think the Internet has become more or less irrelevant, particularly for ex-pat Syrians like myself. We’re a drop in the ocean and the stuff that’s happening that matters in Syria is happening on the ground.
I can create a blog about kittens but I cannot even begin to imagine what the Syrians have endured. I like to think I’m making a difference, but I really can’t take myself too seriously. In the beginning we were inspired, we thought online would have an effect, but essentially all the meaningful online activism is now in Arabic. The narrative the West and the media are following is detached from the themes of the Arabic-speaking tweeters and activists.
Maybe there are two different conversations going on, and the Arab one is more vital and connected to what is happening on the ground.
That’s correct. And it’s interesting how media savvy everyone is becoming – particularly Islamic State (IS), who’ve been copycatting the FSA Kittens type themes.
What do you think of IS’s Islamic State of Cat Twitter account? Are these guys ripping you off?
Haha, maybe. IS’s propaganda is two-fold. On one hand, they want to show their brutality and ferocity as a way to literally terrorise their enemies. This is where their penchant for decapitation comes in. On the other hand, they want to humanise their fighters with Sunni audiences. Fighters cuddling up with cats helped humanise the FSA and so IS is keen to do the same thing.
Whereas FSA kittens seems like an organic response to something that was actually happening.
Right. When Martin Chulov’s report for The Guardian was probably the first bit of coverage about rebels and cats. I don’t think it was a deliberate plan by the FSA to use cats as a PR weapon. I think they’ve just seen a lot of stray cats and who doesn’t like cats, you know? I took the initiative and I wanted to make it a theme. IS, by now, is very Internet savvy, they recognise the usefulness of cats, why did they choose cats? Are they copycatting me? They have an image problem that I don’t think cats are going to fix.
Having said that, does Islamic State's cat blog undermine your original idea that the morality of the different military players in the region can be determined by how they treat animals?
This war has put morality in the blender and turned it into pulp. Although it is more difficult to recognise, the components of morality are still discernible if you look hard enough: Caring for civilian populations, accountability and justice for all, humane treatment of prisoners, protecting minorities, kindness to animals – all of these are pieces that make up the greater whole. Taking care of cats while committing gross human rights violations misses the point.
It is interesting to think about the contradiction though. Whereas Assad forces have butchered and tortured both humans and animals alike, IS highlights their kindness to animals while simultaneously publicising their extreme brutality to people they deem enemies or heretical. The actions of Assad forces can be explained by cruelty towards life in general. The paradoxical actions of IS can only be explained by religious extremism.
More on Syria:
Watch – Syria: The Long War
Watch – Rojava: Syria's Unknown War