March 9, 2017
By Michael Drohan
Review of book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, Pluto Press, 2016
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a British based journalist and novelist of Syrian descent and Leila Al-Shami is a human rights worker, also of Syrian descent and living in Britain. Their book presents a very informed account of the Syrian Revolution through its various stages from peaceful protest through militarization and the entry of foreign actors and powers. The book is dedicated to two heroes of the Syrian Revolution: Razan Zaitouneh and Samira Khalil, two women who contributed so much to transformng that country from brutal autocracy to democracy. Tragically both of them, together with two other activists, were abducted on December 9, 2013 and never heard of since. The authors interpret the kidnapping as follows: “Samira and Razan’s abduction symbolizes the twofold character of the battle imposed on Syrians: Against the Assadist necktie fascists and against the Islamist long-bearded fascists.” The tenor of the book is revealed in this characterization of the Assadist regime and its nemesis, the Islamic State.
The early chapters of the book provide the historical background to the 2011 revolution, from the coup in 1967 which brought Hafez al-Assad to power. By the end of his reign, with his death in June 2000, all organized opposition had been crushed and civil society had been co-opted and become quiescent. When Hafez’s son, Basher al-Assad took power there was a brief interlude when civil society pushed for human and civil rights. This became known as the Damascus Spring but it was short-lived. Neoliberal policies were implemented favoring the elite and increasing poverty; disillusionment and anger prevailed among the masses. The authors describe the situation on the eve of the revolution as follows: “The labor movement had been destroyed by the Baathist regime and no independent unions existed. The Syrian left, through the co-opted Stalinist parties, were regime apologists and thus thoroughly discredited.”
The pent-up anger and rage exploded in 2011 when on January 28, in the town of Hasakeh, Hassan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the regime. This act mirrored that of Mohamed Bouzizi in Tunisia ten weeks prior but received little international attention. With the action of Ali Akleh, protests popped up all over the country. For a people who had been so oppressed and subjugated, an extraordinary flourishing of organizing took place practically overnight. All over the country, Local Coordination Committees (LCC) were formed, giving structure to the revolution. Although the Arab Spring in Egypt, especially with the drama of Tahrir Square in January 2011 received enormous international publicity, the organization behind the Syrian Spring was even more dramatic. The authors describe it as follows: “In 2011 and 2012, despite the brutal repression, Syria witnessed an explosion of creativity, expression and debate unlike anything in its history.”
With the intensity and increasing violence of the repression, the Arab Spring in Syria and the revolution against Assad turned to violence and military means. By the spring of 2012 the armed struggle had come to dominate. Civil society was adamant in rejecting the militarization and sticking to non-violent means. The LCCs declared “while we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position as we find it unacceptable politically, nationally, and ethically.” The authors describe what followed as “militarization – more specifically the scramble for weapons and funds – transformed the revolution from a leaderless movement into a cacophony of a thousand competing leaders, from horizontalism to a jostle of hierarchies.” The book details the spaghetti soup of military organizations, some Islamist and some secular in great detail. Some pleaded for military assistance from abroad; some did not. To all this mix came foreign interests in a variety of brands, each one seeing the Syrian struggle for democracy through the lens of their own self-interest. In response, the Assadist regime increased its ferocity and barbarous attacks on rebel-held areas. On August 21, 2013, the chemical weapon sarin was released on the western suburb of Moadamiya, Damascus. It is estimated that 1,729 people were killed in the attack, which seems to have been incontrovertibly carried out by the Assad military. It was the worst use of chemical weapons since that of Iraqi use against the Kurds in 1989.
The book’s narrative ends with events up to October 2015. On September 30, 2015 Russia entered the war militarily on the side of Assad. According to the authors, “its public rhetoric was of stopping ISIS but it hit nowhere near ISIS positions.” Rather Russia struck communities which had driven ISIS out. When we put this analysis together with the massive onslaught on Eastern Aleppo in December 2016 by Russian and Syrian war planes, it is difficult to see a silver lining to Russian intervention.
This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to get a better handle on understanding the complex history of the Syrian revolution that for now has been derailed.
Michael Drohan is a member of the editorial collective and the board of the Thomas Merton Center.