Alex Rowell

An autobiography of Syria’s revolution

NOW reviews ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’ by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami

‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’ by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami was published by Pluto Press in January 2016

Can it really be three years this month since the enormous sarin attack on Damascus’ East Ghouta? Events move at such dizzying pace in Syria that a massacre in the morning is already forgotten by nightfall, while last week’s atrocity is ossified history. The British novelist Martin Amis says we each become different people with every decade that passes. If so, we’re only 50% at most of who we were when demonstrations broke out across Syria in March 2011, and for many of us our perceptions of what happened have since undergone equally pronounced transformations.


It’s bad enough that we forget details; worse is the way facts registered at the time get clumsily fused with information (and misinformation) acquired later on. We now know, to take an example at random, that Al-Qaeda was actively involved – albeit on a microscopic scale – in the armed insurrection from as early in the day as August 2011. Even those who are still perfectly certain Assad is a heinous war criminal can now increasingly be heard contemplating the state of the rebel movement today and asking: was there ever really a ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army? And, while we’re at it, just how democratic was the initial civilian uprising, anyway?


If you’ve ever caught yourself even momentarily entertaining such revisionism, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War will make for deeply embarrassing reading. One opens its pages and steps into the spring of 2011 and suddenly it’s all there once again, just as it was: the “crowds of hundreds of thousands – men and women, adults and children,” dancing the dabke to the beat of the dirbakkeh; Christians in Homs’ Hamidiyeh throwing rice affectionately onto mostly-Muslim demonstrators in the streets below their balconies, chanting “Muslims and Christians, we all want freedom” (it rhymes in Arabic) and “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.”


In fact, the authors Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami recreate the scene in much higher-definition than one watched it at the time. Among many things that make this the Syria book we’ve all been waiting for is the incredibly extensive and eclectic dramatis personae interviewed and quoted in its pages. Here we meet Sunni Marxist rappers organizing demonstrations with Alawite anarchists in Tartous; atheist supporters of the Free Syrian Army; and Christian women protesting in Damascus’ “conservative Muslim neighborhood” of Maydan wearing “skimpy top[s];” inter alia. Many interviews have in fact been conducted inside Syria, where the Syrian-British authors have traveled repeatedly since 2011. The result is the most vivid ground-level account of the revolution through the eyes and mouths of its own protagonists yet compiled in English.


Not, however, that this is remotely a sentimental stroll down memory lane or nostalgic lament for the golden days. Committed revolutionaries that they are, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami are also analysts of the first rank, and they set about diagnosing where it all went wrong with a remarkably Orwellian power of facing unpleasant facts. Where the opposition has erred, the authors are unsparing. Ahrar al-Sham, the “largest” rebel brigade and also the “most extreme” save for ISIS and the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is rebuked for its slaughter of Alawite civilians, and described as “undoubtedly led by jihadist extremists who oppose the revolution’s original democratic aims.” Jaysh al-Islam, kingpin of the rebel-held Damascus suburbs, is taken to task for its Islamist authoritarianism, best exemplified by its “likely abduction and perhaps murder” of the human rights lawyer and activist Razan Zaitouneh (along with her husband and two colleagues), a figure of peerless importance in the secular, democratic, grassroots opposition, and the dedicatee of the book. The political opposition in exile is pasted for its failure to sufficiently reach out to Alawites, Kurds, and other minorities in the crucial early days when it might have made the difference.


Some perspective, however, is called for here. Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains primarily, overwhelmingly, incomparably at fault for the disaster Syria has become. In his 1993 book Cruelty and Silence, the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya wrote that as much as he willed every moment of every day for the fall of the Saddam regime, he feared the profound damage done to Iraqi society by decades of Baathist totalitarianism would all but guarantee a nightmare of sectarian bloodletting in its wake. He could just as easily have been writing about Assad’s Syria. Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami demonstrate ably how a great portion of the opposition’s faults bear the genetic imprint of regime parentage.


Take religious sectarianism. While today often unthinkingly seen (by Arabs no less than Westerners) as a permanent, ineradicable feature of Middle Eastern society since time immemorial, the authors argue persuasively it is chiefly the bastard child of the region’s utterly unscrupulous contemporary regimes. Syria, they write, was “set on a secular trajectory similar to Europe’s” in the 1960s, when left-of-center politics dominated and the hijab (for example) was worn by fewer women than ever.


That all met a swift death with the advent of the Assads père et fils, whose approach to governance combined colonial divide-and-rule strategy with the mobster’s tactics of blackmail and extortion. It wasn’t just that Alawites were showered with socioeconomic patronage and other inducements to purchase their sympathies. Sunnis, while forbidden on pain of death from joining the Muslim Brotherhood, were permitted and even encouraged to become Salafists, the better to convince both Alawites and Western governments that the Assads – ever the arsonists and firemen at one and the same time – were all that stood between them and baying masses of fanatic lynch mobs.


At its most flagrant, this took the form of grooming fighters to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, facilitating their training and transport to the border. The regime’s direct collaboration with the group that would go on to spawn both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra continued until at least 2009, according to a Guardian investigative report. Famously, Assad also released a legion of violent Islamist prisoners from their cells in 2011 (at the very moment he was arresting, torturing and murdering non-violent secularists), including Ahrar al-Sham’s Hassan Abboud, Jaysh al-Islam’s Zahran Alloush, “as well as founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra [and] important figures in ISIS,” write the authors.


More generally, the complete lack of free speech, civil society, independent media, apolitical education, and cultural space stretching back four decades drained the air of the oxygen necessary for healthy communal coexistence. “What Syria needed was a national conversation about historical fears and resentments aiming towards greater mutual understanding,” write the authors of the pre-2011 state often dubbed the ‘Kingdom of Silence.’ “Instead people discussed the other sect in bitter secret whispers, and only among their own.” Baathist monopolization of politics had a further ruinous effect – in one of their most original insights, the authors note, “The elimination or co-optation of the left removed one of religion’s natural competitors.” (To this day, the godless whisky-guzzlers of the Lebanese Communist Party stand as the last remaining obstacle in certain Shiite towns and villages to Hezbollah’s Islamization.)


The wonder, given all this, is that the revolution was ever as democratic and pluralist as it was, and that so many Syrians were so readily able to break, spontaneously and entirely of their own accord, with a lifetime’s worth of conditioning. That their experiment – carried out in unfathomably dangerous conditions – was too often met not with encouragement and support from the democratic world but with ambivalence and even hostility is one of the great tragedies of the 21st century. In the final chapter, the authors write with cold contempt of all the segments of the so-called international community that failed Syria, from the UN to Western politicians to establishment pundits to dishonorable journalists to far-right nationalists to fatuous hard-left pseudo-anti-imperialists.


The lessons, as world leaders inch closer by the day to a long-term (re-)accommodation with Assad, should need no spelling out. It’s not just that he’s incapable of unifying the country, in the preposterous euphemism of diplomats, or that the ‘stability’ he would supposedly usher in would come at a rather unsavory humanitarian price. He isn’t merely not the solution; he is the walking, breathing personification of the problem; the radix malorum of the entire catastrophe. He’s the ‘devil we know,’ all right, and he’s an agent not of stability but of cataclysmic instability. ‘We’ may have already forgotten what the revolution was about – or that a revolution happened at all – but the millions of Syrians who continue to live day and night at the capricious pleasure of Assad’s homicide machine certainly haven’t, and won’t. By reminding us of this, and how we got to where we are, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami plainly illuminate for us the necessary path ahead.


Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami was published by Pluto Press in January 2016.

With an incredibly extensive cast of characters, this is the Syria book we’ve all been waiting for (Image provided by Robin Yassin-Kassab at NOW’s request)

The result is the most vivid ground-level account of the revolution through the eyes and mouths of its own protagonists yet compiled in English.