Russians and Assad killing many more civilians than Isis, says former hostage

Political plan is essential to checking ‘ocean of death’ in Syria, says Nicolas Hénin

Nearly five years after it started, the war in Syria has claimed some 300,000 lives. Now the Russian air force is pounding the country's second city, Aleppo, and 40,000 refugees trapped at the Turkish border are fleeing the Russians, not Islamic State.

The French journalist and author Nicolas Hénin observes Syria's tragedy with more knowledge and sorrow than most. Hénin was held hostage by Islamic State, also known as Isis, for 10 months in 2013 and 2014. Seven of his fellow hostages were killed.

Hénin's book, Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State, was recently published in English by Bloomsbury. In 10 brief chapters, he seeks to "destroy the cliches" about the Syrian war, chief among them the idea that Islamic State is responsible for most of the violence.

“It’s important to bear in mind the proportion of responsibility, because western governments are tempted to put [the Syrian president and dictator] Bashar al-Assad back in the saddle,” Hénin says. “If you look at estimates since the beginning of the conflict, Bashar al-Assad is responsible for between seven and 10 times as many civilian deaths as Islamic State.”

Primitive barrel bombs lobbed from Syrian helicopters killed the most civilians. "Over the past two months, Russia has become the actor who is killing the most civilians in Syria today," Hénin says. "It's estimated the Russians are killing 20 times as many civilians as Islamic State."

Story of captivity

Hénin refused to tell the story of his own captivity in his book.

“To ask people to navel-gaze with me, to say ‘Look what these wicked people did to me’, would contradict my basic message, which is that yes, terrorists have struck and killed us, but our dead are nothing compared to the numbers of dead over there,” he says.

The Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassing and Kayla Mueller, Britons David Haines and Alan Henning and the Russian Sergei Gorbunov were held with Hénin. Most were beheaded by Islamic State. Mueller died in a Jordanian bombardment. US officials claimed she was sexually abused by Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliph”, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Hénin’s book mentions them briefly. “I’m not ignoring them, but I refuse the logic that says our dead are worth more than theirs,” he says. “Nobody writes a book for seven Syrians who get killed. I was profoundly affected by the deaths of my seven fellow hostages. It still makes me suffer. But it would be indecent to give them more importance. Their deaths were drops in an ocean of death.”

Chemical weapons

Assad used chemical weapons for the first time in August 2013, killing 1,400 people at Ghouta. This was “the last good window of opportunity to act”, Hénin says. He reproaches President

Barack Obama

for inventing the “red line” of chemicals weapons use, which was supposed to trigger US action.

“There was already something scandalous about this ‘red line’, because it was a permit to kill by other means,” he says. “Then even when the ‘red line’ was flagrantly violated, we did nothing.”

An official French military source told Hénin there was another reason for what he calls "the most shameful inaction". Russia deployed warships with substantial anti-aircraft capability to protect Assad. The US and France backed down. As early as 2013, Hénin says, "the Russians were already blocking the westerners".

When Britain decided to extend its bombing campaign against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria after the November 13th attacks in Paris, a Labour MP quoted an opinion piece by Hénin and portrayed him as an opponent of the war.

“Of course, I don’t like war,” Hénin says. “Yes, I think the air strikes are counter-productive. Nonetheless, I am not totally against them. Targeted strikes can be used to diminish or wipe out certain means at Islamic State’s disposal. But these strikes must remain minimal compared to a global strategy, which can only be political.”

If Islamic State crumbled tomorrow, Hénin says, "it would be a disaster, since we have no political plan. The Sunni Arab majority would be left in limbo, and six months from now an even more radical group than Islamic State would move into the chaotic void left by them. We must have a political plan. The political plan has to accompany, even precede, military intervention."


The real objective of terrorists is not to kill but to instil fear, Hénin says. For Islamic State, the success of November 13th was not 130 dead, but “what we are seeing now: the state of emergency; constitutional reform; Muslim-bashing in the media”.

Islamic State has exploited the presence of large Muslim populations in Europe through what Hénin calls “jihad open bar: repeated appeals on social media to come to Syria, and if you can’t, take a kitchen knife or use your car to kill ‘infidels’ and we’ll manage to take credit for your attack”.

The strategy “makes little cuts in our national unity, because people come to see Muslims as a fifth column”.

The absolute priority in Syria must be to protect civilians, Hénin says. “We have two air forces [Syrian and Russian] who are responsible for the vast majority of victims. These air forces must stop flying.”

Russia's position in the UN Security Council complicated efforts to set up a no-fly zone for Syrian aircraft. When Russia joined the war on Assad's side last September, a no-fly zone became impossible, because the five permanent members of the Security Council enjoy immunity, Hénin says with regret.