The dastardly Syrian civil war continues to be dark stain on our global conscience. 470,000 deaths, and counting, at the beginning of 2017. “Burning Country: Syrians In Revolution And War” is a short read, packed full of invaluable facts, data, and interviews from a wide range of the key players. Despite its brevity, I took more notes for this book than any other in recent memory. There is a terrible amount of disinformation written about Syria. In such circumstances, it is always worth listening to people who have experienced life on the ground there as evidence of what is actually happening.
The book begins with a brief history of Syria, including the Ottoman Empire’s rule from 1516 until 1917, the subsequent French occupation until 1946 and the brief period between 1948 and 1954 when free elections were held for the first time and it appeared that it may have become genuinely democratic. Perhaps this brief taste of suffrage inspired the next generation. The impact of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war is chronicled, specifically the actions of the defence minister at the time, Hafez al-Assad, and his subsequent rise to power in 1970. The violent massacre of 20,000 people at Homs in 1982 indicated the way in which history would violently repeat itself in Syria as al-Assad attempted to extinguish an uprising at the time.
After Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 there were hopes that Syria would transform out of its autocratic past. Hafez’s son was seen in some quarters as a reformer after he had expanded access to the internet and permitted a minuscule flourishing of civil society. The Damascus Spring in 2001, when a small band of Syrian intellectuals had called for increased personal and political liberties, was viewed as a precursor to the 2011 Revolution. Sadly, it quickly became apparent that Bashar was cut from the same cloth as his father. His regime’s corruption and nepotism was blatant and open for all to see. For example, his cousin Rami Makhlouf controlled 60% of the state’s businesses at a time when most ordinary Syrian people were living in near poverty. The 2005 Damascus Agreement, which had called on Bashar to transition Syria to a democracy, was signed against this backdrop.
In January 2011 Syrian civilians began calling for their right to self-determination by organising peaceful protests. The protestors tested the waters to see how the regime would react by arranging two protests for the 4th and 5th of February. The protestors did not turn up because people wanted to see how the government would react. Fully armed riot police turned up. On the 6th of March, fifteen children were arrested for spraying graffiti. They were kidnapped, tortured and their nails were torn out. The parents were outraged. Thousands of people peacefully called for the release of the children when the regime opened up with live ammunition on the gathering, killing four innocent people. These were the first deaths of the Syrian Revolution. It is absolutely critical to note that this early opposition to the regime was utterly peaceful. A huge crowd marched at the funeral of the four protestors and crowds of revolutionaries tore down a statue of Hafez al-Assad in Sanamayan. The regime responded by killing twenty civilians. People were shocked that the army would indiscriminately kill innocent protestors. Even after the regime went on multiple killing sprees, the revolutionaries were still calling for peaceful demonstrations and rejected the opportunity to militarise. The speech that Assad gave on the 30th of March was a pivotal moment. Plenty of people had given him the benefit of the doubt up to this point. Would he show remorse? He did not and came across as aloof and out of touch. Thus people begin to contemplate their futures. When the aptly named “Comical Sally” informed the public that the 10,000 Syrian refugees that had fled into Turkey had merely wanted to “visit relatives”, people knew that Assad had no intention of liberalising or democratising and was intent on keeping power for himself at all costs.
By December 2011, the regime had begun to rape women in front of their families in their homes. Ordinary Syrian people lived in daily terror which brought about the “logical realisation that civil resistance was not enough”. The people had no option but to defend themselves and their families.
Every Syrian male had been to military school for at least a year so they had a basic understanding of how to use a weapon and defend themselves. This made it easier for them to take up arms. Local neighbourhoods weaponised in self-defence.
On the 4th June 2011, during a funeral for twenty people that the regime had killed on the 20th May previous, the government forces were told to open fire. Some of the Syrian army that day refused to kill their own people. When large numbers of them repudiated this instruction, they were, in turn, killed themselves. This led to large scale defections from the Syrian army to what was to become the Free Syrian Army.
From March to October 2011, the regime released 1500 well connected Salafists and Islamists from prison because “the regime wanted to tell the world it was fighting Al Qaeda but the Revolution was peaceful in the beginning so it had to begin an armed Islamic revolt”. This is critical to understanding how events in Syria would subsequently transpire. Was it a major strategic error by Assad? On one level yes, as it resulted in an explosion of violence that became unmanageable, yet it also allowed Assad to maintain the narrative that there was a binary choice of either his regime or the “terrorists” that he mentioned in virtually every interview at the time.
Opinion polls were used to document the level of support that there was amongst ordinary Syrian people for a religious state in Syria. These polls indicated that the support for a non-secular Syria were never higher than 30% and usually considerably less. Assad wanted to convince the international community that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) did not exist or was a group of terrorists yet the fact is that Assad was absolutely complicit in the later actions of the Salafists, “there was nothing fated about the sectarian breakdown in Syria. It was deliberately provoked and manipulated, by a host of secondary actors but primarily by the regime. Why would the regime provoke first armed resistance and then a fierce sectarian backlash? Because Assadist policy under father and son, at home and abroad, is to present itself as the essential solution to problems it has itself manufactured – a case of the arsonist dressing up as the fireman”. Think of when Aleppo fell at the end of 2016. Assad managed to convince a large portion of the media that it was either him or the extremists. This Assad propaganda was a deception as he tried to classify anyone against him under this umbrella.
Islamist organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam began to take root after they were released from Assad’s dungeons. The FSA had little or no money. Qatar and Saudi Arabia had backed the newly freed Salafists as a means to further their own regional agenda which resulted in them having weapons in local areas when sometimes the FSA did not. There were two other key factors in the moderate Syrian opposition giving way to the extremists:
- The FSA was corrupt while the Islamists were extremely organised, disciplined and battle weary from their experience in other conflicts like Iraq.
- The lack of an international response, especially after the Sarin gas attack in 2013 in Ghouta, meant that people felt that they had no choice but to look to them to defend them from the regime. They accepted, over the course of the first two years, that nobody was coming to save them after harbouring a belief that the West would intervene up until then.
ISIS shipped a lot of fighters into Syria at the start of the revolution as they sensed an opportunity. They came from countries as far away as Chechnya. Black flags began to appear as they took root in local cities and captured Mosul and large parts of the border area between Iraq and Syria. The FSA fought against ISIS in some areas. Assad and the regime played up to the image of fighting ISIS but actually rarely attacked them. His logic was that the West would deal with them as the regime would take out the FSA.
The majority of Syrian people were not extremists and merely wanted Syria to democratise. During demonstrations in Homs, Deraa and Deir Al Zor, protestors reworded the popular refrain, “God, Syria and Freedom” from the original “God, Syria, and Bashar”. Initially people called for:
1) A repeal of the political prisoner’s law.
2) A repeal of the one state system law.
3) A repeal of the state of emergency law.
Yabroud, a city 90KM North of Damascus, held its own free elections and set up its own secular government. The regime tried to suppress the people’s right to determine their own future. The NCB (National Co-ordination Committee of the forces of democratic change) tried to reason with the regime to begin a democratic transition. They were ignored. The regime employed disgusting levels of savagery to maintain power, deliberately starving many rebel controlled areas, forcing people to eat weeds and stray animals.
The crucial role that women played in the Revolution was detailed. Namely:
- The Aleppo women who founded Radio Naseem (the first independent radio station there).
- How women transferred vital information in rebel controlled areas and beyond, often passing through violent regime checkpoints, using their veils so that the regime could not recognise them. This was because when the regime knew a person’s details they would frequently torture and imprison their family.
- The “Brides Of Peace” protests in Aleppo.
- Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman’s hunger strike in the name of the Revolution.
- How Zubaida al-Meeki became the first female officer to defect to the FSA.
- How 40% of the PYD (Kurdish) forces were female. From September 2014 until January 2015, they played a critical role in repelling ISIS.
In the summer of 2012 the United States stopped the flow of anti-aircraft weapons to opposition areas from their Saudi and Qatar sponsors as they were worried about which type of rebels the weapons were going to. On 22nd September 2014, the US bombed al-Nusra, killing women and children. Whilst uncomfortable with their extremist tendencies, the rebels viewed al-Nusra as protecting them against ISIS and the regime. When people heard Obama say that “it was somebody else’s war”, they despaired.
The authors quote Bashar Abu Hadi’s valuable insight, “This is a generation that will seek revenge. A generation reared on freedom. On the slogans of freedom and on the lives and experience of freedom”.
The Syrian people’s “irrepressible urge to speak was perhaps the Revolution’s greatest legacy and one that will outlast the regime and the jihadists”. Sadly, it seems like the death toll will increase before the conflict ends. Which begs the question, was it all worth it? The authors say this question misses the point, “(people ask if) we were wrong to revolt. If they ask that, they’re missing the point – that people revolt when they cannot breathe”. The Syrians are “a people who dared to demand freedom but received annihilation instead”. Let us all hope that freedom, democracy and peace come to Syria soon.