Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, two British authors of Syrian descent, add a necessary and refreshing activist voice to discussions of the Syrian war with their new book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War published in February 2016. Their reading of the conflict is clear and compelling and crafted with great compassion, vigor, and, at times, heartfelt anger.
But, the decisive activist voice of resolve and resentment that gives Burning Country its strength is also its weak point. The book is largely written from a minority point of view, that of the democratically-minded protestors, adherents of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and cultural and intellectual elites, who surface as the infallible heroes of the story.
From Hafez to Bashar al-Assad
Burning Country starts with the ascent to power of Hafez al-Assad – the father of current President Bashar al-Assad. The authors outline Hafez’s careful sectarian-focused politics and explain how the earlier economic deprivation of the Alawites (a Shiite sect the Assad family belongs to) led to their entrenchment in Syria’s ruling Baath party. The book goes on to discuss the first decade of Bashar’s rule and his early personal popularity, which was based on his anti-Zionist and anti-Western rhetoric, as well as a façade of modernization and democratization.
Despite Bashar’s initially significant following, as well as Syria’s highly developed security apparatus, some intellectual voices emerged in the 2000s, to counter the government’s official narrative of economic and democratic progress. Referred to as the “Damascus Spring,” this political opening was quickly cut short, due to increasing repression, widespread fear, and a disconnect between largely elite dissidents and the lower classes, which as former beneficiaries of land distribution policies, had traditionally supported the regime.
In the months leading up to the 2011 protests, however, the regime alienated its base by mismanaging its neo-liberal reforms and creating even greater economic inequality in the country. This, in combination with a continuing drought, youth unemployment of almost 50 percent, and the government’s participation in peace negotiations with Israel, created an atmosphere ripe for public dissent. Inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the first Syrians took to the streets and broke the chains of silence in March 2011.
Burning Country provides a detailed account of the “decentralised and spontaneous” protests, the erection of numerous interconnected local committees by democratically-minded civic activists, and the eventual militarization of the revolution in 2012. Here, as in many other parts of the book, the authors effectively deploy personal stories to make Burning Country a visceral read.
Stories of the personal hopes, dreams, and tragedies of those affected by the Syrian revolution humanize a conflict that has often been portrayed in the West through impersonal numbers and generalized reports. Readers are, for example, introduced to the revolution’s initially open and secular atmosphere through the story of Yara Nseir, a Christian from Damascus, who during the early days of the revolution protested in a conservative neighborhood, wearing a skimpy top: “One young man asked me, politely enough, to dress more appropriately when I came next, but his friend said, ‘No, sister, you wear whatever you like; we’re here for our freedom, after all.’”
The tragedy of the Syrian war comes alive in visual detail as the authors recount Assad’s immediate and relentlessly violent response to peaceful protests, a strategy that was aimed at curbing the revolution’s popular momentum: “People were injured, we could see them from our home but we couldn’t reach them because of snipers. They died alone in the street,” a resident of Deraa, the Syrian city where the revolution began, is quoted saying.
AbdulRahman Jalloud, an activist in his twenties who was arrested during the protests and crammed into a seven by thirteen feet cell with thirty to fifty other prisoners, is representative of the thousands of victims of Assad’s torture regime. Recounting his fifty-three days in solitary confinement, Jalloud said “I used to spend an extra minute on the toilet so they’d punish me with torture – I wanted to be tortured to have a break from solitary.”
Assad, Extremist Jihadism, and the West
This mosaic of personal narratives and political analysis provides important insights about what went wrong in the revolution. “If the FSA had been seriously supported from outside, if Assad had not been so generously armed and funded by Russia and Iran […] then the armed struggle might have lasted months rather than years, and civil activism might have quickly regained its role. But the war stretched on, and the liberated areas became death zones. This was the vacuum in which jihadism would thrive,” the authors observe.
The authors explain how this vacuum was also made possible by Assad’s release of 1500 extremists in 2011 and his “scorched earth tactic,” a strategy by which the regime continuously burned and destroyed the infrastructure and population of areas under the revolutionaries’ control. For many Syrians, disempowered and impoverished, there was no other choice than to join extremist jihadist groups, which were better organized and funded by donors from the region. It is trauma and destitution rather than ideology, the authors argue, that drove Syrians into the hands of extremism. “In the Syrian context, radicalization is better named traumatization,” the authors write.
For Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami, the Syrian civil revolt was and is built around democratically-minded heroes. It failed, they argue, because of Assad’s ruthless military response and ability to “sectarianize” the conflict, thereby, manipulating the international community’s response.
As the authors explain, Assad intentionally triggered the rise of violent extremism, in order to make his government appear as the only viable option – a trap the West gladly stumbled into after failing to respond to the crisis in an adequate and timely fashion. By easing sanctions on Iran following the recent nuclear deal, the authors insist the West has helped Iran provide even greater financial support to the Assad regime, making Western nations complicit in the regime’s daily torturing, burning, and bombing of civilians.
The Free Syrian Army and ISIS
The authors effectively counter the widespread Western notion that the FSA should not be supported because it is hard to identify and incapable of seriously resisting ISIS and the regime. They refute President Barack Obama’s sneer about the FSA being composed of “farmers and dentists” by contrasting the organization’s military successes with the failures of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army in holding off ISIS’s invasion of Mosul in 2014.
In order to effectively intervene in the conflict, the authors argue that countries, especially those in the West, should support the FSA and target both ISIS and the regime, instead of siding with a government that unflinchingly uses barrel bombs on its own people. They explain that it is the regime, rather than ISIS, that many Syrians see as the greatest monster. “Assad, after all, had murdered a hundred times more Syrians than ISIS had,” they note. Targeting ISIS and not the regime – which is the West’s current strategy – will only alienate Syrians even more.
Lack of Diverse Perspectives
Despite the cogency of their analysis, the authors’ focus is arguably too one-sided. The individuals they interviewed for the book are predominantly democratically-minded civic activists, often leading protestors, cultural figures, or FSA fighters. The many actors who are not heard from – the U.S. government, (supporters of) the Syrian regime, international organizations, Alawites, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, Western politicians, supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS, among others – are treated as the unquestionable villains of the conflict.
This focus on a particular perspective – although an important and perhaps dominant one during the initial protests – compromises the journalistic impartiality of an otherwise exhaustive exploration of Syria’s conflict. By refusing to engage with a diverse group of actors, the authors’ plea to “attend to voices from the ground” reads as a call for unrelenting support for the FSA and civic activists. The book does not, however, offer much in terms of a specific course of action other countries should follow, or consider the possible consequences of such support. Nor does it address the military and/or political aspirations of the axis of Assad, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, which cannot be easily swept under the rug.
A Narrative Corrected
These criticisms do not, however, undermine the fundamental message of Burning Country, its critique of Western realpolitik, and – perhaps most importantly – its hope in Syria’s “generation of speech,” a generation that took to the streets to break the decades long silence of the Syrian people. The book successfully sets out to correct a faulty narrative and is an incredibly important wake-up call for those who have turned their attention away from the conflict. It will rattle anyone who has settled for the argument that the war in Syria is too complicated to be solved, and is an indispensable read for those who want to engage in a serious debate about the future of Syria and her people.