The reporting of the situation in Syria since protests against the Assad regime broke out in 2011 has never been particularly clear. Confusion as to what the situation in cities and the countryside actually is seems to depend on who is providing the narrative. Part of this lack of clarity is due to the tight hold the government in Damascus has on the mainstream news outlets. Censorship and news manipulation seems to be part and parcel of the regime’s toolkit of repression. From the other side, the reliability of cellphone videos and tweets of those resisting the regime suffer(ed) from the sender’s tendency to exaggerate aspects of the street protests and, as time wore on, other questions regarding some of the funding of certain bloggers raised other questions about their agendas. In other words, as the adage says, the first casualty was truth.
Tragically, those early days of the rebellion in Syria have long ago been lost in the fog of the civil war ravaging the country. The only thing certain about the situation is that it is much worse than it was five years ago. Another undisputable truth is that the Assad regime continues to control the government in Damascus and has maintained this control with the same methods the Assads have always used to maintain control when faced with resistance–sheer brutality. Beyond these known facts, most everything else about Syria and the conflict within its borders is clouded with lies, half-truths, government barrel bombs, terrorist bombings, outside interventions, Islamic State (Daesh), and US, European and Russian air assaults. As a resident of the United States, I find myself skeptical of every bit of news about Syria and its war. At the same time, I continue searching for some text that will provide some kind of narrative that holds up to examination.
I believe such a narrative now exists. Titled Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, and written by two supporters of the protest movement that became international news in 2011, this book provides an emotionally restrained history of the Syrian people’s struggle against the Assad regime. The text begins with an introduction to Syria’s history and the role of the European powers in the creation of its twentieth-century incarnation. From there it discusses the institution of the Ba’ath regime, its domination of the nation for decades, the infiltration of neoliberal capitalism into the Syrian economy, the US invasion of Iraq and the movement known as the Arab Spring. This discussion is both nuanced and concise, ending with a description of the politics of the movement against Assad’s regime in the early weeks of protest.
Combining great journalism with a protester’s perspective, the authors Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami then move into the bulk of the book’s content: a report on the battles on the ground and a chronicle of the resistance. In creating this narrative, Burning Country clearly delineates the resistance’s trajectory from a secular, anti-regime rebellion based in the workers and farmers of Syria into a multifaceted war between Syrians supporting the regime (and its allies) versus the Syrian religious and democratic opposition, with foreign Sunni extremist fighters opposing both. It is a tale that is at times reminiscent of the conflict in Iraq following the US invasion of that country in 2003. At other times, it is uniquely Syrian, with its own sectarian rivalries turning into bloodshed known to Syrians from ages past. It is always tragic.
If the reader is, like me, occasionally confused about the numerous tendencies and allegiances fighting in Syria, Burning Country helps to clarify some of those. At the same time, the authors seem to make some assumptions based mostly on their own politics and allegiances. This does not detract from the text, but it seems one should read this book with that awareness. If there is any elements of the book I find some fault with, one is when it blames the militarization of the situation on the regime, while simultaneously claiming that some elements of the resistance (primarily Salafist) were also calling for armed resistance. The other would be what I considered to be a misplaced belief that European and American governments should have done more, even imposed a no-fly zone. More importantly, as far as the relationship between religious and political movements goes, is the discussion of the Left’s failure in the Middle East and the consequent rise of religious organizations in the opposition to imperialism and the region’s authoritarian regimes.
This is a partisan text, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The authors are vehemently opposed to the Assad regime. The book is written with a belief that the northern powers (the West as they are known in their capitals) have failed in Syria and, in doing so, are propping up the Damascus regime. The approach it takes in its discussion of the Syrian conflict reminded me of another excellent text describing a nation’s civil war. That text is Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Like the author of Homage to Catalonia, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami describe a bloody war between two enemies both claiming the soul of a nation. With the Syrian civil war as context, the reader is also presented with instructive and absorbing discussions of the struggles for power and over ideas within the forces claiming the revolutionary mantle. Although the account written in these pages is of a tragedy beyond most readers’ comprehension, it is a tragedy that will continue to be felt around the world, as refugees leave their ruined lives behind in search of some kind of living peace. This is but another reason it should be read by as many people as possible.