An interview with the authors of Burning Country: “I think that’s the big story, that they’re practicing democracy and organising themselves to run things in really difficult circumstances and that’s the story that’s been largely unheard or ignored, strangely.”
Until now the Syrian story has been a fabrication of assumptions and sensationalism spun by the media. Burning Country is an attempt to counter this, a chance for real Syrians to tell their own stories. As co-author Robin Yassin-Kassab puts it: “We felt that people had been coming at it from narratives of big stories that zoomed out so far they couldn’t hear the people on the ground that had made the revolution and were suffering the counter-revolution. We wanted to amplify those voices.”
Yassin-Kassab and fellow co-author Leila Al-Shami have weaved together the testimonies of revolutionaries, activists, refugees, fighters, democracy activists, pro-regime Alawites and Islamists with their own analysis to create an account of Syria that takes us back further than Ottoman rule and up to October 2015. Published by Pluto Press this year, the book describes how Al-Assad was once respected for adopting an anti-Zionist, anti-Western and pro-Arab rhetoric and today garners western sympathy for his so-called opposition to US-led imperialism, a position the authors describe as “populist opportunism”.
“I think his rhetoric was very anti-imperialist and that was in line with popular sentiment in the Arab street and I think for that reason he was popular for his foreign policy stance both inside Syria and more broadly around the Arab world,” says Al-Shami. “But that didn’t match up in practice and when you see the actions of the Baathist regime whether they’re under Bashar or his predecessor, his father, they certainly didn’t match that rhetoric. You had the massacres of Palestinians in Tel Zaatar camp in Lebanon, you had the intervention against the Black September movement in Jordan and then under Bashar you had collusion with imperialism because you had people that were basically deported, tortured by proxy, to the Assad regime under the US rendition programme as part of its ‘War on Terror’.”
Though the nationalist rhetoric did work among some sections of the population, Yassin-Kassab explains, most people living in Syria were unhappy under the regime. But prior to 2011 economic stability was more important than foreign policy and Hafez Al-Assad had achieved this stability by building roads and installing electricity in long neglected areas of the countryside and subsidising fuel and food. When Bashar succeeded his father, he retracted many of these benefits. “I think these things were important and when these things were pulled out everybody said, ‘look this nationalist rhetoric which we’ve gone along with is rubbish isn’t it?’ When they got hungry, which is what happened when Bashar Al-Assad came and did these neo-liberal reforms which were really crony-capitalist reforms and removed a lot of the safety nets that had allowed people to keep quiet. I think that’s more important, I don’t think they stayed in power because of the nationalist rhetoric.”
It’s refreshing to read an analysis that considers Al-Assad’s role in the Syrian crisis given that these days much of the atrocities carried out in his name have been lost behind a media whirlwind of stories about Daesh. Even the US and other great powers have given the terror group more of their attention – observers have criticised the US-led coalition for intervening against Daesh and not Al-Assad, and questioned the coalition’s agenda. “ISIS has a global mission; it’s more of a threat to the west than the regime is. That’s one reason,” says Al-Shami, using another acronym for the group.
For the US to deal with Daesh effectively it has to work with the Arab opposition, Free Syrian Army groups on the ground and stop Russia and Al-Assad bombing those militias, explains Yassin-Kassab. “These are the only people that can win the land back from ISIS.” The general consensus on the ground in Syria is that Al-Assad has to go, he says later. “Not just Assad the person, the regime has to go… you need a serious but measured destruction of the regime which has destroyed the country.”
“If Assad falls,” says Al-Shami, “ISIS won’t last very long because the one thing that’s going to be able to unite pro-Assad supporters and the opposition is getting rid of ISIS. It doesn’t have a popular support base and there’s going to be an interest across Syrians to do that and get rid of it. At the moment the Free Syrian Army’s focus has been on the regime because it’s been responsible for so many more atrocities towards Syrian civilians than ISIS has.” Whilst Daesh rules by coercion, groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra have won popular support by being able to deliver on services and humanitarian aid, explains Al-Shami: “I think they will take a lot more time to get rid of.”
Despite their well-documented tactics of duress and barbarity there is still popular resistance to Daesh within Syria. “In places like Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa there’s been protests against ISIS – increasingly difficult now because of the attacks that ISIS have been doing on activists – and a lot of campaigns that have been trying to report on ISIS atrocities in those areas,” says Al-Shami. “So the popular resistance is quite strong to it, despite the massive limitations people have in being able to oppose it.”
One of these resistance groups is the “White Shroud” movement who assassinate members of Daesh and then disappear again. Another is the “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” campaign, an independent newspaper which aims to expose the atrocities committed by the regime and post live video recordings of Daesh abuses. Though some of its members live in exile in Turkey, others have been assassinated.
It is much easier for protestors to organise in liberated areas like Kafranbel in the northwest of the country. “They never gave up on their Friday protests despite the dangers of doing so,” explains Al-Shami.
“Throughout the liberated areas you now have free newspapers, free magazines, free radio stations, which is something that was just impossible to have prior to 2011. You have women’s centres run by women, which are working on projects such as microfinance. You have activists who are working to grow and produce food for the community especially in areas which are under siege; you have the local councils which are the administrative structures for the liberated areas which are continuing to provide schooling, to provide hospital care, despite the massive difficulties they face, not least because many qualified people such as doctors and teachers have fled. They’re doing garbage disposal in places like Douma, they’re organising renewable energy from methane, by taking methane from gases, they’re using solar energy to try to get around the energy crisis.” These days, little is heard about such projects in the British media.
This kind of activism is the only reason people are able to continue living in these areas, says Al-Shami. “All government services have stopped. You’ve also got the White Helmets, who are a volunteer force which grew out of the local committees, whenever there’s aerial attacks they’re the ones that are actually running to the site of the attacks to pull the victims from the rubble and take them to the hospitals, often makeshift hospitals, in people’s homes or basements because hospitals have been targeted for attack both by the regime and by Russia.”
“The fundamental thing is that people are practicing democracy and they’re organising themselves,” adds Yassin-Kassab. “That’s the remarkable thing. They’re doing it and there are cultural ramifications of that and political ramifications of that and practical humanitarian aid ramifications of that but that’s the interesting thing, that we endlessly have different kinds of debates about democracy and Arabs and democracy and Muslims, and should we bomb them to democracy, should we invade them for democracy, are they compatible with democracy but there we go, I think that’s the big story, that they’re practicing democracy and organising themselves to run things in really difficult circumstances and that’s the story that’s been largely unheard or ignored, strangely.”
“You can’t impose self-organisation on someone else, it’s something that people can only do themselves,” he adds. “There it is happening organically, out of necessity in the worst conditions. But also in good conditions because it started with the popular revolution, it started with a mass movement and everyone talking to each other.”
On a visit to liberated Syria in 2013, Yassin-Kassab recalls Syrians describing themselves as atheist, libertarian, liberal capitalist and Marxist. Ten years ago in Syria, he says, it was difficult for someone to talk so openly if they didn’t know you. “You didn’t have conversations like that before and now you do so that’s a remarkable thing, it’s a revolutionary situation, a huge cultural change and everybody in the world should be excited about it and they’re not.”
In the regime areas it’s much harder for people to organise, says Al-Shami, but there are underground committees, activist networks and the occasional public protest like a graffiti campaign. “Even the anti-revolutionary sections of Syria are much more noisy and vocal than they used to be,” Yassin-Kassab adds. “It doesn’t mean they’re joining the revolution, they’re still with the regime, but they’re increasingly fractious.”
In the current circumstances peace building efforts are difficult, but they are taking place. Burning Country details the story of Abu Hajad, a rapper from the regime-controlled area of Tartous, who has worked secretly to bring together an Alawite pro-revolutionary committee and a Sunni pro-revolutionary committee. “They’re working on introducing Sunni and Alawite revolutionaries to each other,” says Yassin-Kassab. “If there’s a sectarian fight in Tartous at some point there are respected people from both sectarian communities who could act as peace builders.”
In order to revitalise the civil society movement, Syria needs stability so that people can return and activism can gain a foothold once again, says Al-Shami. “That’s not going to be possible whilst the barrel bombs keep falling and whilst the regime remains in place.”
It’s short-sighted to let the regime stay, she adds later: “A lot of the impetus for the peace negotiations has come from the refugee crisis and if the regime stays a large percentage of the refugees will never return, they won’t be able to return, it will be much too dangerous for them.”
In February this year the latest round of Syria peace talks officially started in Geneva. In Burning Country the authors describe the talks as “ultimately as illusory” as the Israel-Palestine peace process. “It’s an absolute farce,” says Yassin-Kassab. “What’s actually happening is that Assad is advancing under heavy Russian bombs but thousands more refugees are pouring out every day, there are thousands more people living under bushes and the country is becoming much more traumatised. It’s really an insult to call it a peace process, it’s worse now than the Israel-Palestinian one because the scale of the killing and of the destruction and of the ramifications for everywhere else is so much greater now.”
The opposition has demanded the release of prisoners, an end to the siege on communities and humanitarian aid to be supplied immediately but the US has said they can’t set preconditions. “It’s a farce that those three core issues that have been put forward by the opposition are being seen as something that you can negotiate over. They’re basic human rights issues, they’re not negotiating principles, they’re basic human rights,” says Al-Shami.
Yassin-Kassab continues: “What it appears is that the great powers are in agreement that this is Russia and Iran’s sphere of influence and that Russia will continue to bomb the democratic nationalist opposition out of existence and then the whole world will be able to join in with winning the whole country back for Assad which is a sad necessity because he is a criminal but it’s necessary to stop jihadism and to contain the situation and bring stability back.”
In addition, says Al-Shami, the peace process has been very tokenistic towards women and civil society as a whole, despite the fact that women played a major role in the early days of the revolution, founding some of the biggest grassroots coalitions. “In the local councils the representation of women has been very limited but that’s not been uniform because in the Kurdish regions and the structures that they’ve set up there in the communes, in the local neighbourhoods and in the towns, they’ve had 40 per cent representation of women in those bodies, they’ve had separate women’s committees so you do see it in the Kurdish regions a big participation of women in those self-governing structures that have been set up in that area. There are a lot of women’s activities going on through the women’s centres, through the distribution of humanitarian aid. A lot of women participate in the White Helmets and the Syrian civil defence force. They are there and they are participating but with the militarisation it’s much more difficult for women.”
In some respects revolutionary impulses have made life better for women on the ground, but the pressures of war are also making it worse for them says Yassin-Kassab: “One of the problems with the local councils is that they’re fairly patriarchal and dominated by men and often heads of families. That kind of thing is being disputed by the revolution, there are contradictory things happening, on the one hand – I’m not talking about negotiating teams I’m talking about on the popular level – on the one hand you will find women, very conservative women from very conservative neighbourhoods, who will call up their husbands and say, tonight I’m not coming home I’m sleeping in the activist’s house because we’re delivering aid late, for example, and the husband will say ok, and if he doesn’t say ok he will be seen as an idiot by his peers. Women in that situation five years ago from those very conservative communities and very conservative areas would have immediately been divorced if they called their husband up and said I’m not spending tonight in the house, that’s a shame. On that level things have really changed.”
“On the other hand, when women are in refugee camps very often that kind of thing will just reinforce traditional situations,” he continues. “When men are frustrated and hungry they’ll take out their humiliations on women. So just the sheer pressures of the violence, the war, the poverty, the refugee status is making things much worse for women.”
The Syrian conflict will soon enter its sixth year and yet as the months pass, events on the ground and our understanding of these events widens. Burning Country is a good place to start in bridging that divide. “I’d like to give people some of the tools necessary to understand what’s happening in Syria better,” says Yassin-Kassab. “Firstly it’s an escalating disaster and a danger to everybody and we need to start dealing with it very differently. Secondly, at the same time as it being an escalating disaster, some truly wonderful and amazing and inspiring things have happened in Syria which can teach lessons to us all, specifically the explosion of culture, the self-organisation of communities, the wide ranging debate, the local democracy; there are things here which are really inspiring they’re just as inspiring as the things anarchists got up to in Spain in the 1930s and I think we would all be enriched if we paid attention to that. So I think we’ve got a great deal to lose if we continue to misunderstand Syria and a great deal to gain if we start to understand it.”
“For me,” says Al-Shami, “I think just an awareness of the diversity that exists in Syria, that there are so many initiatives that are worthy of support and that should be supported. It’s more important now than ever to support them because they’re really struggling to keep going, these experiments in local democracy, the various civil society initiatives both against the regime and against ISIS and against other authoritarian groups which have been emerging, that’s the thing that I’d like people to take away. Recognition of the great initiatives that are happening and that people are continuing to struggle in what are now very challenging circumstances.”