In their recent book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War,” Leila al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, two British authors of Syrian descent, challenge the narrative on the crisis in Syria. While the book was informed by the authors’ areas of expertise and interest, the story of regular individuals most influenced “Burning Country’s” final form. “We saw this book as a recording of this amazing and ultimately very tragic moment through the voices of those that have lived it,” Al-Shami told Muftah.
In a Skype conversation, the authors spoke with Muftah editor, Anastasia Vladimirova, about their writing process and thoughts on how the Syrian conflict has developed since they finished writing their book.*
How did you come up with the idea for the book? Whose idea was it?
Leila al-Shami (LS): I think the idea came from our frustration about how the story on Syria was being told. There was quite a lot being written about Syria, but not very much asking the perspective of Syrians themselves who are involved in the revolutionary process and subsequent war.
Robin Yassin-Kassab (RY): We wanted to explain the points of view of everybody on the ground. We did not particularly want to explain the point of view of Barack Obama, because we think that lots and lots is written about that every day. So the voices that we deliberately highlighted were the voices of fairly ordinary people who found themselves wrapped up in this struggle for social justice and democracy, which then became a war.
LS: And we made a conscious decision to try and ensure that there were male voices and female voices, and also people from all of Syria’s sects and backgrounds. We tried to get as much diversity as we could but really focusing on Syrians and on ordinary people’s experience.
Could you describe the process of gathering people’s stories, and connecting and interviewing them? How did you find the people whose stories are in the book and how did you decide whom to interview?
LS: Well, some people were people we already had contact with, since we have been very involved in the revolution in terms of solidarity work over the past five years. So originally we reached out to people associated with civil society organizations or activists we had already built up some relationship with. And inevitably they suggested people who had strong stories or experiences to share. Many of the interviews were done in countries bordering Syria, like Turkey. I have spent a lot of time talking to people now living in exile or refugees or activists who regularly go back and forth to Syria, as well as with a lot of people inside Syria over Skype.
Every Syrian has a story to tell. From my experience spending so much time with refugees in the region, people really do want to tell their stories. They are very eager to have their story recorded and their messages shared with the outside world.
What was the audience you had in mind when you were working on the book?
LS: We wanted the book to be accessible to people who did not have much previous knowledge of Syria. We were very conscious to make the information accessible through human stories, which, I think, takes it outside of an academic crowd to more ordinary people who are really interested in reading a book on the Syrian revolution. We also knew it would probably most appeal to people who were already following the situation.
RY: And there are a lot of people with orientalist and ideological approaches to the Middle East in the West and in the Arab world, too. So I suppose, to an extent, we wanted to appeal to a general audience and try and inform them and give them another side to the story. But we also wanted to address those misconceptions that we felt were very prevalent in the commentary, not so much in reporting, and some reporting, which is really commentary, dressed up as reporting.
You are very critical of U.S. policy in Syria. From its late intervention in the crisis to its targeting of groups fighting against the Assad regime, the United States clearly has not been acting purely in the interest of Syrians who want positive change in the country. How, in your opinion, would America’s policy toward Syria look, if U.S. politicians truly had the interest of the Syrian people at heart?
RY: The first thing is that America is intervening, as you said. Many Syrians have called for America to intervene against the regime. But, I do feel that if America is intervening then it should do it in a more intelligent way. Or the other choice is to really not intervene, which means keep out of it. It means, if other countries want to arm the Free Army or others fighting the Assad regime, let them arm them, do not veto the anti-aircraft weapons and so on as they usually do. Do not starve them of weapons as they are currently starving the Southern Front. The Free Army fighters who are surviving in the south of Syria are being starved of weapons. They are being bombed by Russia and Assad. They are not Islamists; they are a kind of hope for the future. But, America is ordering the Jordanian and Saudis to starve them of weapons. It is adding fuel to the fire.
I understand why they are attacking ISIS, but ISIS is a symptom of a larger problem. Going after the symptom, without trying to solve the root cause, which is the Assad regime’s war on Syria, is a doomed policy. I think you can defeat ISIS, but there will be some successor organization that takes its place. Jabhat al-Nusra [which has now rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] is becoming much more powerful. Over the last few months, it has been recruiting thousands upon thousands, precisely while the Americans have been openly talking with the Russians about coordinated bombings in Syria.
As for what America should be doing, I would like to see safe zones and no-fly zones. Everybody should stop bombing Syria, including the Americans who are killing civilians rather than killing ISIS members. It just contributes to the ISIS narrative. It just helps ISIS and those like them, in the long run.
What they should be doing is trying to get the Russians out of Syria. The Russians are bombing schools and hospitals and bakeries and market places in the name of the “War on Terror,” and Obama is smiling and saying let’s do more business with the Russians. Now, this is an incredibly dangerous policy to deliberately alienate so many millions of angry people. It is a ridiculous policy and it is not going to dent jihadism, in the long or medium-term, quite the opposite – it is going to encourage it.
LS: Nobody expects the American government is going to intervene or support the revolution. I think people were expecting that America would help where there are points of convergence. It is in America’s own interests to reduce the terrorist threat. It is in America’s own interest to try and stop the flow of refugees coming out of Syria. The main reason for the increase of extremist groups such as ISIS, the main reason for the massive exodus of Syrian refugees is the flawed policy, the Assad regime, and, most recently, it is the regime’s Russian allies.
Today, Western coverage on the Syrian conflict almost exclusively focuses on the role of international stakeholders, such as Russia and the United States, on their cooperation and attempts to figure out “concrete steps” to address the conflict. Your book underscores the problematic simplicity and superficiality of this approach. What, in your opinion, must change if media coverage is to present an honest, holistic perspective on events in Syria?
LS: The geopolitics of the situation is incredibly relevant. Obviously, there are so many countries involved in what’s happening in Syria that, to a large extent, what happens and what is going to happen is out of the hands of the Syrian people. But, this is only one part of the story. By ignoring local dynamics and Syrian voices, the perspective gets very skewed. There are many people who believe everything that happens in Syria is solely because of this chess game of states, and, in this kind of narrative, Syrians themselves have no agency. What they are doing on the ground to make changes to their lives and their communities is just not covered at all.
RY: It is not only disempowering, it is inaccurate because for example the obsession of some people on the so-called left with American regime change plans in Syria is all based on completely false analysis, not on facts. I can see that maybe in 2012, if you did not know much about Syria, you might think this could be an Iraq invasion and occupation scenario. In 2016, there are still commentators, on the left and right, who still assume this is the case, but they have not paid attention to anything that has been happening.
The crowning achievement of Obama’s administration was signing a deal with Iran at the precise moment when Iran was sending tens of thousands of occupation troops to Syria. A lot of people are still sticking to their old stories about America trying to destroy Syria so it can destroy Iran because that is what they feel comfortable with and that suggests some kind of cultural problem.
And, of course, there are some brilliant journalists covering Syria.
Daily and Sunday Telegraph Middle East Editor Richard Spencer, Martin Chulov who covers the Middle East for The Guardian, Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan, Marie Colvin who was killed deliberately, it now seems, by the Assad regime, Janine Di Giovanni, Francesca Borri, and lots of others.
One of the major developments that happened in Syria, since you finished writing your book was the Russian intervention, which you have described as “Russia’s direct imperialist intervention.” Since you did not have the chance to talk about it in the book, could you please comment on what the Russian intervention has meant for the opposition, and, in particular, for the Syrians whose stories and voices you featured in the book.
LS: The regime has been saved twice now – first, by Iran’s intervention and, second, by Russian intervention. The Russian intervention has really completely changed the dynamics on the ground. The regime has managed to make major gains. So much essential infrastructure has been destroyed, many hospitals and medical facilities have been completely taken out, and there has been a huge loss of civilian life due to the Russian intervention. Also, ISIS has been able to make gains because the Free Syrian Army, which was the main force fighting ISIS on the ground, is basically being obliterated.
RY: In many ways, there is a full-scale, foreign occupation in Syria now. By the autumn of last year, the regime was down to less than a fifth of the national territory and was losing battle after battle after battle. Then, the Russian bombing began. Since then, every single battle has been lost by the Syrian-Arab army, or what remains of it.
As Leila said, the intervention has vastly increased the appeal of jihadism in Syria. According to the jihadists, who do not make subtle distinctions, on the one hand, you have the American Western Christians in league with the Jews bombing everything in Syria except the Assad regime, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties. On the other hand, there are the orthodox Christians of Russia. There are pictures on the Internet of the Russian orthodox church’s clerical hierarchy blessing the war planes before they go off to bomb marketplaces in Syria. This rhetoric has vastly increased the appeal of Sunni identity politics.
The intervention is also creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. I suspect Vladimir Putin is doing it very deliberately, because he knows many of those people are heading toward Europe. At the same time, he is funding right-wing anti-immigrant political parties across Europe. So this is part of his struggle against the European Union. In a grand geopolitical sense, I think this is very dangerous. It follows a series of aggressions by Putin’s Russia, which started close to home, in places like Chechnya and Georgia, then proceeded to Ukraine, and has now arrived in Syria.
To me, it seems unwise to continue and appease Putin when he is doing so much long-term damage in Europe and the Middle East. As Leila said earlier, we do not expect imperial or foreign powers to come and aid a popular working class revolution in the Arab World, but do can expect them, for the sake of their own interests if nothing else, not to appease Putin.
What is the ultimate message of the book? What kind of impact are you hoping the book will have?
LS: I am not really sure we wrote the book with a message in mind. At the end of the book, we say that the start of solidarity is correcting the narrative. I think that was our driving motivation, that we could at least open a discussion about aspects of the crisis that are not being addressed. I think that was the main hope, that people would get interested and excited about new things they had not heard about before, and they would maybe engage a little more, go to some of the websites that we suggest at the back of the book, and build a more bottom up knowledge about what is happening in Syria themselves.
RY: We did not start working on the book thinking we had to get a particular message across, but I guess we wanted to humanize this terrible story somewhat and try and correct the narrative, and encourage people not to rely simply on big stories, big narratives.
*Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.