Book Review from the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’, by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami (Pluto Press, 2016)
Of all the countries swept by the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, Syria has been the most unfortunate. The sole response of the Assad regime to peaceful popular protest was ruthless violent repression, eventually resulting in a devastating many-sided civil war, intervention by rival regional and world powers, and massive flows of refugees within the country and across its borders. The authors have drawn on a variety of sources, including interviews with direct participants in the events, to produce an illuminating and often harrowing account from an anti-authoritarian left-wing perspective.
The book begins with necessary historical background, focusing mainly on the various divisions within Syrian society and on the origin and evolution of the Ba’ath (Arab nationalist) regime under Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar. Chapters 3-4 portray the nonviolent phase of the ‘revolution from below’; Chapter 5 explains how resistance to the regime – inevitably under the circumstances – came to assume a primarily military form. Chapter 6 discusses the growth of the initially weak Islamist forces. Chapter 7 (‘Dispossession and Exile’) describes how millions of Syrians became refugees. Chapter 8 highlights the cultural renaissance that accompanied the uprising. Chapter 9 deals with the failure of old opponents of the Ba’ath regime inside and outside the country to play a significant role. The last chapter analyzes the attitudes of the international left toward events in Syria. An epilogue brings the story up to date as of October 2015.
Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami give a preview of their analysis in the Preface. In the areas where the government machine broke down ordinary people began to run their own affairs: ‘For a few brief moments the people changed everything.’). But then
‘the counter-revolutions ground them down. The regime’s scorched earth strategy drove millions from the country; those who remained in the liberated zones were forced to focus on survival. Syria became the site of proxy wars, of Sunni-Shia rivalries, of foreign interventions. Iranian and transnational Shia forces backed the regime; foreign Sunni extremists flocked to join the Islamic State… Nobody supported the revolutionaries. ‘
Note that the authors perceive not one but two counter-revolutions – the one represented by the regime and its foreign backers (Iran and later Russia), the other by the Islamic State (IS) and its wealthy patrons in the Gulf States. They even find covert links between these two forces: Assad assisted the growth of Islamism by releasing many Islamist militants from prison. Islamist predominance in the anti-regime camp is very much to the advantage of Assad, enabling him to present himself to a confused world as ‘the lesser evil.’
There is evidently widespread bitterness among non-Islamist oppositionists that they have received so little material and moral support from the West and from the international left. It is true that the slogans of the uprising initially emphasized ‘Western ideals’ like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ Western politicians, however, are at best ambivalent about ideals; what they need is clients who can be trusted to serve the interests of the West and its regional allies. There is good reason to doubt the reliability in this capacity of Syrian ‘revolutionaries’ who, for instance, criticize Assad for insufficient militancy in the face of the Israeli enemy.
As for the international left, most of it – under the influence of its Bolshevik core – is inclined to support (‘critically’ or otherwise) the Assad regime. That is because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – their ‘enemy’ being not the world capitalist system but merely ‘US imperialism’ and its Zionist ally. Such is the stance, for example, of the Stop the War Coalition. It is only in the circles of the anti-authoritarian left that Syrian democrats can hope to find sympathy.
Although clearly written and coherently organized, this is a demanding book to read for anyone not already familiar with the complexities of Syrian society and the many political trends and movements within it. But if you want to understand what has been happening in ‘the burning country’ it is well worth the effort.