ISTANBUL — The subjects that have turned up in Ali Ferzat’s crosshairs for more than three decades range from hunger and oppression to corrupt generals and brutal politicians. Born in the Syrian city of Hama in 1951, the world-renowned satirist and cartoonist, considered one of the greatest living artists in the Middle East, has kept his focus local, finding hypocrisy and suffering around the region — and often at home.
The struggles of the Syrian people appear frequently in his award-winning political cartoons, which has led to dire personal consequences. In 2011, after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad met peaceful protests with brutal crackdowns, Ferzat began to target him more directly than ever: showing Assad inflating his stature in a fun house mirror, or trying to hitch a ride with a fleeing Muammar al-Qaddafi. One day Ferzat was seized by the regime’s police, who beat him savagely, taking special care to smash his hands.
Ferzat continued his work from exile in Kuwait — one famous self-portrait shows him in his hospital bed, flashing a middle finger with a bandaged hand — as Syria spiraled into civil war. The U.N. announced on Friday that more than 3 million Syrians are now refugees, with almost half of the population displaced from their homes. Yet in the murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, beheaded by an extremist militant in Syria in a video released last week, Ferzat saw a tragedy that extended the country’s suffering overseas. “We thought this would only affect the people of the Middle East,” he said, speaking by phone from his office in Kuwait. “But now it has affected the United States directly.”
Ferzat decided to express this with a new cartoon, published above, which he has provided to BuzzFeed exclusively. It paints Foley’s death in the same context as Ferzat and many Syrians see the cycle of bloodshed in their country — as a product of Assad’s brutality and Barack Obama’s indifference. “Obama has dropped the banner of freedom from the United States,” Ferzat says. “Or put another way, he is the worst president the U.S. has ever seen. And not doing anything while radical groups expand in Syria and people are being slaughtered is the biggest proof of his failure.”
The cartoon recreates the harrowing scene of Foley’s death, with the journalist on his knees and a robed militant at his side, holding a knife. Foley was executed by a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the extremist group that declared caliphate in June. Yet the militant in Ferzat’s drawing has the face of Assad, because many Syrians blame him for aiding the rise of extremists to undermine the uprising — either by supporting them directly, or by choosing to attack more moderate opponents while allowing extremists to thrive.
On the other side of Foley — who has “USA” written across his chest, to broaden his plight to all Americans — stands Obama, dressed as a medieval priest. He seems to bless the proceedings, waving incense in the air. “Obama right now, his role in Syria looks like he is blessing the acts of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, and that is the major idea of the drawing,” Ferzat says. “Of course not directly, but by not dealing with the issue, it’s almost as if he’s blessing this terrorist organization. Not in a political way, but in a human way, by him not helping or doing anything to stop these people from expanding.”
The U.S. began airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq earlier this month, but it has so far refrained from targeting the group in Syria. And in an address on Thursday night, Obama seemed to tamp down expectations that he would soon expand the military campaign across the border. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said.
Despite Obama’s calls for Assad to step down, many Syrians blame him for refusing to help the armed opposition topple the regime, and U.S.-backed moderate rebels have been sidelined by better-funded Islamist rivals. As extremists gain strength, Assad has positioned himself both domestically and abroad as the best alternative — which Ferzat says was his strategy all along. “The continuance of terrorism in Syria means the continuance of the regime,” he says. “And if it weren’t for Obama’s hesitation, we would never have reached this point.”