Book title: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War
Authors: Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al-Shami
Publisher: Pluto Press
Review by: Ian Anderson
To myself and others in ‘the West’, Syria’s internal crisis has often appeared a confusing mess with no sides worth taking. Competing bombs (Assad bombs, US bombs, Russian bombs) and competing sects (Alawi, Sunni, now ISIS) appear to have displaced the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring. While this despair isn’t entirely unfounded, it also risks turning into dismissal. The most significant refugee crisis in a generation perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘too complicated’. History may not look on us kindly for turning away.
In the context of this confusion, promoted as much by ‘Russia Today’ as Western networks, certain slogans have struck me as important clarifications. When progressive network Democracy Now hosted another in a series of disconnected white men on the Syrian situation, a change.org petition successfully demanded “Tell Democracy Now to have Syrians on to talk about Syria.”
This is the clarity offered by Burning Country. Written by partisans of the Syrian revolution Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, on the basis of extensive interviews with Syrians, the book offers a clear perspective shining through the muck of sectarianism, propaganda and conspiracy theory.
Burning Country‘s exposition of the 2011 (and ongoing) revolution emphasises its non-sectarian nature, in keeping with the broader uprisings of the region. Demonstrators chanted ‘Sunnis and Alawis are one’, defying what has since become the central sectarian divide within Syrian society; between Assad’s Alawi minority community, and the 60% Sunni majority.
While the book briefly goes into Syria’s ancient history, this account bucks the trend of rooting sectarian conflict in ancient history. Rather, the authors emphasise the long-standing diversity and cosmopolitanism of the region, with both Damascus and Aleppo claiming the title of ‘oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.’ Site of the first agricultural revolution, the first alphabet, and a long-standing trading zone, Syrian society has the potential (like any society) to be a progressive hub.
The early days of the revolution expressed these progressive possibilities. Democratic slogans were translated into action through the formation of the Local Coordination Committees, revolutionary networks transcending sect boundaries, described as an ‘underground parliament’. Extensive accounts of the cultural transformation – beginning in 2011 and continuing, though besieged, in the liberated zones – cannot be satisfactorily recounted here. The book is worth a read for anyone curious about the meaning of the word ‘revolution’.
The authors conversely emphasise the sectarianism of Bashaar-al Assad’s supposedly ‘secular’ regime. At the formal level, atheism is forbidden, and the president must be Muslim. More crucially for this account however, the regime deliberately stokes sectarian tensions to legitimate Assad’s rule. In crushing the 2011 revolution, Assad’s forces (and regime-militias or shabeeha) deliberately targeted Sunni areas, and bolstered the Alawi minority which tends to support Assad’s Baathist party. The release of around 1,500 salafist (militant Sunni) prisoners was another calculated move designed to stoke sectarian tensions.
In contrast to misleading accounts of sectarianism as ‘ancient rivalry’, this account emphasises how powerful forces play groups against each other for political gain. As right-wing populism grows internationally (see Trump in the US, and UKIP in England), this sophisticated account can help us think through the splintering of publics for political ends elsewhere. Rather than innate racial rivalries, let alone legitimate expressions of discontent, these formations reflect manipulation of popular anxieties by elite players.
While the early days of the revolution avoided sectarianism in favour of broad democratic demands, the hardening and militarisation of the revolution allowed Assad’s seeds of sectarianism to grow. The authors underline the contradictory nature of religion, as both a balm in oppressive situations, and a tool of the powerful. In the midst of Assad’s brutal counter-revolution, they note:
“Tormented, bereaved, and dispossessed, the Syrian people turned more intensely to religion… [yet] most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than Islamic state.”
Although local Islamist forces grew with the militarisation of the revolution, these were initially not the cruel militants of ISIS; surveys found that 60% of Syrian Islamic fighters thought that ‘democracy is preferable to any other form of governance’. They fought not for an Islamic state, but the end of Assad’s tyranny. ISIS appeared as an opportunistic foreign intervention, originating in Iraq and taking advantage of Syria’s strife.
Although some Syrians have joined ISIS, and others quietly accept its capacity to offer relative ‘stability’, Daesh (as ISIS is called by detractors, with a similar sound to the Arabic for ‘donkey’) overwhelmingly does not enjoy the support of the Syrian people. Revolutionary intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh influentially termed their rise a transition from ‘neck-tie fascism’ to ‘long-beard fascism’. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) fights both Assad’s forces and Daesh, and where civilians have an opportunity to resist, they generally join the FSA in beating Daesh back.
Probably the most prominent example of resistance to Daesh is the widely promoted Kurdish struggle, dominated by the formerly Leninist PYD/PKK and centred in Kobani. Conversely, the authors underline the ‘ruthless pragmatism’ of the PYD, which has collaborated with the regime. Locals reportedly express bemusement that the small town of Kobani receives such international attention, while the liberated zone of major city Aleppo remains beseiged and isolated.
As in Libya, the call for US intervention in support of the Syrian revolution is controversial. Burning Country co-author Leila Al-Shami has clarified in an interview that she is against US intervention:
“I’m not calling for anything from America. I don’t think America should be involved.”
Conversely, the books’ sympathetic account helps to explain why so many Syrians called for intervention. Between Assad’s brutality and the rise of ISIS, the forces of the revolution have limited resources and few friends. Many Syrians were shocked when Obama’s supposed ‘red line’ of no chemical attacks was ignored, after hundreds were killed in the deadliest chemical attack since the Iran-Iraq War.
Although many leftists oppose any US intervention, this risks devolving into a crudely one-sided ‘campism‘, where the biggest bully is perceived as the only bully. Syrians who have survived Assad’s massacres do not see the world this way. In light of international complacency, Assad has continuously bombed his citizens and subjected them to a ‘surrender or starve’ policy. Calls for a no-fly zone were ignored. Eventual US intervention in 2014 focused only on ISIS, implicitly supporting Assad and (perhaps unsurprisingly) offering no support to the revolution. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran back the regime for an opportunistic mix of military, economic and political reasons, centrally their own hegemony in the region – any attempt to depict this as ‘anti-imperialism’ makes a mockery of the term. Turkey and the Arab Gulf states have offered some support, the authors note, “not so much [as] allies of the popular revolution as opponents of Assad.”
So what can we do, assuming here a progressive ‘Western’ audience? Most immediately, the refugee crisis demands a humanitarian response, as many realised with the spectre of drowned children washing up on beaches. By July 2015, half of Syria’s population were not living at home – including international refugees and internally displaced. A majority of international refugees live in surrounding countries’ refugee camps, while a growing minority attempt escape to ‘Fortress Europe’. Standing with the refugee and migrant worker movements, we must demand open borders, full rights for migrants and refugees.
Beyond the humanitarian level, Syria’s crisis is political, as political as our own interconnected crises. Explaining the non-sectarian nature of the Syrian revolution, and boosting voices of the revolution, can counter the myth of innate Arab-Islamic sectarianism. As the authors of Burning Country underline, “The start of solidarity is to correct the narrative.”
The authors encourage readers to learn from Syrian experiences. We must build our own solidarity networks, our own revolutionary strength, if we are to stand with the Syrian revolution. Internationally, Syrian expatriates have formed solidarity groups, largely ignored by an ‘anti-imperialist’ left focusing on the Manichean evil of US intervention. However it may manifest in the specific, these groups demand our support. The old Third Camp slogan can be appropriately reworked: Neither Assad nor ISIS but Free Syria.