Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution & War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami
The Syrian Conflict is one of the great open wounds of our time. It has ground on for five years. Syria is devastated, with once great cities such as Homs reduced to rubble. Damascus and Aleppo, cities with thousands of years of rich history and culture, are war zones of devastation.
Over 470,000 Syrians have died, with 12 million displaced, an estimate 90 percent at the hands of Assad and his allies. Five million are now refugees outside the country living in squalid, makeshift camps, at risk from disease, violence and sexual abuse. A fragile ceasefire has been agreed by the U.S. and Russia. Putin is reputedly withdrawing his forces, but with bombing raids continuing. Meanwhile ISIS dominates whole swathes of the country.
Few seem to know what to do, even fewer are clear as to how the conflict began or how it escalated, or who is responsible for the vast majority of the carnage. Everyone focuses on ISIS, many see Putin as the saviour. Into the fray comes Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, a comprehensive account of the Syrian Revolution from its beginnings to the present. Their work places special emphasis on the Syrian Rebels themselves, the least represented and most defamed of all factions involved, but with the most at stake. As a work of clarity, integrity and simple journalistic truth-telling, it is outstanding, and should be required reading for anyone with any serious interest into the subject.
The brilliance of the book lies in the calm, measured tone its authors adopt throughout. Instead of resorting to emotive language and melodramatics, the facts are left to speak for themselves. Page after page deals systematically with the build-up of the Revolution, its causes and unfolding, in language that, given the enormity of the situation, is devastating in its control. The authors have spoken to Syrians both within and without Syria, with activists who have risked their lives to get information out, and people on the front line fighting Assad and ISIS. Yassin-Kassab himself has twice been into the north’s Idlib province to see for himself what is going on.
The personal testaments that support the wealth of historical detail add weight and authenticity to what they say; one cannot easily turn one’s face from personal accounts of torture, the horror of aerial bombardments, of peaceful people taking up arms in order to survive, of seeing friends and whole families slaughtered in massacres, or the despair and anger of a population that feels abandoned by the international community.
The book begins with a brief history of Syria; how its current borders were born out of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the rise of Arab Nationalism and the aftermath of French Colonial rule. Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad, the current leader of Syria’s father, came to power as part of a Baathist coup in 1963, and took absolute control in 1970 after the “Black September” conflict between the PLO and Jordan. His rule was Stalinist. All aspects of Syrian life were strictly controlled by the State. The notorious secret police, the Mukharabat, oversaw everything.
Human rights abuses abounded. We learn of the “German Chair,” which broke the back of prisoners being interrogated. A cult of personalty was created around Assad, who had no compunction in using maximum force against any dissent within his country, most famously in Hama in the 1980s, when tens of thousands were killed during an Islamist rebellion. With Hafez’s death, succession was supposed to fall upon his dynamic eldest son, Bassel, but when he died in a car crash, his less impressive younger brother Bashar was co-opted as President. Originally hailed as a reformer and courted by the likes of Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, Bashar liberalized the Syrian economy, but did not give up his father’s repressive State regime.
Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami show how the trigger for the Revolution was not outside intervention (least of all American or Israeli), but popular unrest at the inequalities created by Bashar’s liberalised crony-Capitalist economy, State mismanagement of a drought-induced famine that was paralyzing the country, and long-standing anger and discontent with the repression of the regime brought thousands into the streets to protest.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, which had toppled regimes in Tunis and Egypt, the original movement was broad-based, secular, and democratically-minded, not Jihadi, as has been so long asserted. It was non-sectarian, bringing together Leftists, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, men and women of all classes. Most of all, it was entirely non-violent, “Selmiyyah, selmiyyah” (Peaceful, peaceful) was its slogan. It was organised by spontaneously-created, non-sectarian Local Co-Ordination Committees (LCC), which continue to administer the Syrian Rebel areas. The Assadist/Russian position, that it was made up of terrorists and Jihadis is simply not true.
After five months of LCC-led civil protest, the Assad regime started to round up, torture and mutilate demonstrators (11,000 at one point). Army snipers began to fire on the crowds, then tanks and machine guns. Even then the LCCs sought to resist militarisation. The Revolution was not violent until the State’s response became overwhelmingly so, at which point Army units started to defect, unwilling to fire on their own people, turning their guns on State forces to defend the growing Revolution. The Revolution did militarise, but only once the Assad regime had started to use maximum force.
Out of this came a vast patchwork quilt of Syrian Rebel forces, most of whom were not Jihadi or even Islamist. Poorly equipped, lacking central command, scattered across the country and often with opposing aims beyond removing the regime, these Rebels succeeded in beating Assad’s forces back, and even driving ISIS out of the country when it first reared its head. Quite quickly, many of these forces united under the umbrella title of the Free Syrian Army, which still constitutes the main secular, pro-democratic Syrian resistance to the regime.
At first the U.S. supported Assad, even when he began the tactics that he would become notorious for: barrel bombs, indiscriminate bombings, sieges involving starvation of whole towns, and, of course, chemical attacks. Burning Country quietly demolishes the theory that regime change was ever truly the agenda of the West, in spite of official statements to the contrary. The authors describe the Rebels’ frustration at their consistent lack of financial support or delivery of arms on a scale that could have helped turn the tide, particularly heavy weapons such as anti-tank guns to counter regime armor and, more importantly, anti-aircraft weapons to protect them from devastating Russian and Assadist air attacks.
The nadir came with the deadly Sarin attack of 2013, now conclusively proven to have come from the regime; Obama pulled back from acting on his “Red Line” and did not launch any attack on Assad’s chemical weapons stocks. It was then that the Syrian Rebels realised that no substantive help was going to come from the West to support them against Assad’s massacres, let alone topple him.
Burning Country points out that the Islamization of the Revolution need never have happened had it been allowed to succeed early on. Even then, the majority of the Rebels are not Islamist. Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami point out that many of the Islamist movements within the FSA umbrella are not extremist, but committed to democracy and secularism like their fellow Rebels. Some adopted Islamist rhetoric to attract funding from Gulf donors (primarily Qatar, according to the authors, the Saudi Government has never funded Islamists, although individuals have), some were radicalized by Assad’s violence, and all are bitterly opposed to ISIS.
Burning Country seeks to understand and contextualise the rise of Islamism as a symptom of the carnage unleashed by the regime, without ever condoning the excesses of groups like Islamic State who are loathed by the Syrian Rebels. They also lay the blame for the rise of Jihadism in Syria directly at Assad’s door, who adopted a tried-and tested tactic used by his father to bolster his position:
In the early months of the Revolution, Assad released hundreds of Jihadi fighters from prison. Many of these went on to help found ISIS and other Jihadi groups. Since then, Assad has had an effective, non-aggression pact with ISIS for years, enabling him to pose as the only bulwark against Jihadism. The tactic seems to have worked. The world now believes that the conflict is one between Assad and Islamic Fanatics, with the Syrian Rebels either forgotten, ignored or willfully defamed as Islamists themselves.
As Burning Country points out, the tragic irony is that most of ISIS’s fighters are not Syrian but foreign. This is also true of Assad’s forces, calling into question whether the conflict can be called a Civil War at all. The regime has dwindling support among its own base and has had to call upon Iran, Hezbollah and, most notoriously, Russia, to bolster its position. Only the Syrian Rebels are predominately Syrian Arab in make-up.
Of Assad’s allies, Russia is, by far, the major player. Idolized by many on both Left and Right in the West, Putin has backed his regime to the hilt with money, arms, military advisers, propaganda and diplomatic support. In the last year Putin has escalated Russian involvement with devastating effect, largely from the air with massive bombing raids, but also now increasingly on the ground. Moscow’s intervention has outstripped American at every level, with far less international protest, even though the death toll is now approaching that in Iraq. The precarious UN-brokered ceasefire looks like it is doing very little to save the Syrian Rebels from their darkest hour.
But Burning Country is not all horror. Its authors write throughout, with enormous feeling, about their hopes for the Revolution, the idealism and valor of the Syrian people, their dream of a united, democratic, non-sectarian country, and their extraordinary resilience in the face of the overwhelming violence. One chapter describes the many cultural and artistic flourishings that have come with the Revolutionary cause—poetry, art, music, film—giving hope that even in the midst of chaos and death the spirit of the Syrian people can give birth to joys. Even when detailing the communities loyal to Assad and the rise of ISIS, the authors’ goal is to contextualize rather than demonize, perhaps to hold out some hope that, one day in the future, Syria can be reunited again through understanding rather than recrimination.
This is an exceptional book, a moving testimonial to a country undergoing terrible agonies, and a plea for the world to put aside its wider chess-game of power politics and engage with the Syrian people themselves. Ignored, denied, slandered as Jihadis, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have given them a platform at last. We should listen and act for justice.
Author: Jake Murray
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Book Cover