The Syrian civil war is a dark stain on our global conscience. 470,000 deaths at the start of 2017 and counting. “Burning country: Syrians in Revolution and War” is an indispensable read for anyone who wants to learn about the Syrian Revolution. It is a relatively short read, packed full of invaluable facts, data, and interviews from a wide range of the key players. Despite its brevity, I managed to make more notes for this book than any other in recent memory. There is an awful lot of disinformation written about Syria. If you want an accurate and truthful account of the Revolution, look no further.
The book starts off with a brief history of the major episodes in Syrian history from the Ottoman Empire’s rule in 1516-1917 to the French occupation until 1946 and the brief period between 1948 and 1954, where free elections were held for the first time and it looked like Syria would become a democracy. Viewing it through the lens of the 2011 revolution, did this brief taste of democracy inspire the next generation? The deep impact of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war is chronicled, especially the actions of the defence minister at the time, one Hafez al-Assad, and his subsequent rise to power in 1970. Hafez’s vicious regime is exposed throughout. The massacre of 20,000 people at Homs in 1982 indicated the way in which history would violently repeat itself in Syria.
After coming to power in 2000, there were hopes that Syria would transform out of its autocratic past as Hafez’s son was seen in some quarters as a reformer when he allowed the internet to spread and civil societies to expand. The Damascus Spring in 2001 is analysed as a precursor to the Revolution when a small band of Syrian intellectuals called for society to be opened up in an attempt to pave the path for the Revolution. Sadly, it quickly became apparent that Bashar was cut from the same cloth as his father. His regime’s corruption was there for all to see, his cousin Rami Makhlouf owned 60% of the State’s businesses while most ordinary Syrians were living in near poverty. That was the backdrop as the 2005 Damascus Agreement was signed, which called on Bashar to transition Syria to a democracy.
The Revolution begins:
January 2011. Syrians began calling for their right to self-determination by organising peaceful protests. They tested the waters to see how the regime would react by arranging two protests for the 4th and 5th of February. Nobody turned up because people wanted to see what form of State presence the government would send. Fully armed riot police turned up. On the 6th March, fifteen children were arrested for spraying graffiti. They are kidnapped, tortured and their nails torn out. The parents are outraged. Thousands of people peacefully call for the release of the children. The regime opened up with live ammunition on the gathering, killing four innocent people. These are the first deaths of the Syrian uprising. The book is crystal clear that this early opposition to the regime is nonviolent. A big crowd marched at the funeral of the four protestors as crowds of Revolutionaries tore down a statue of Hafez Al-Assad in Sanamayan. The regime responded by killing twenty civilians. Syrians 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. A critical juncture was a speech that Assad gave on the 30th March. A lot of people had given him the benefit of the doubt up to this point. Would he show remorse? When he did not, and came across as aloof and out of touch, Syrians begin to contemplate what to do next. When the aptly named “Comical Sally” from the regime passed off the 10,000 Syrian refugees that had fled into Turkey as a small matter of them just wanting to “visit relatives”, people knew that Assad had intention of liberalising or democratising.
Why did the Revolution militarise?
By December 2011, the regime has begun raping women in front of their families in their homes in rebel areas, the threat of sexual violence now added to the daily bloodshed. Ordinary Syrians were living in terror. As the authors say, the people still did not want to take up arms but there was a “logical realisation that civil resistance was not enough”. The people had no option but to defend themselves and their families, street by street. They took up arms spontaneously because of the cruelty.
Every Syrian male had received at least one year’s military training so they knew the basics of how to use a weapon etc. This made it easier for them to take up arms when they felt they had no option. Local neighbourhoods weaponised in self-defence.
On the 4th June 2011, during a funeral for twenty people that the regime 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.
The role of Jihadists and Islamists in the Revolution:
The long chapter on this in the book is enlightening and lifts the lid on a complex issue. From March to October 2011, as the revolution had begun, the regime released 1500 well-connected Salafists and Islamists from prison. The authors explain that “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 a basic level, yes. If fuelled the violence. Yet, it has also allowed Assad to maintain that it is either his regime or the “terrorists” that he mentions in virtually every interview.
The book cites opinion polls about how many normal Syrians wanted a religious state. It was never higher than 30% and usually considerably less. Assad wants us to believe that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) does not exist. “Burning country…” explains how 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 of 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”.
There we have it. 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 “terrorists”. This Assad propaganda is a deception. He tries to classify anyone against him under this umbrella.
Back to why extreme Islamist and Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam etc. first took root.
- The FSA had little or no money. Qatar and Saudi backed the newly freed Salafists as a means to further their own regional agenda. This meant that they had weapons in local areas when sometimes the local rebels did not.
- The FSA was subject to corruption in the local areas it ran. The Jihadists 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. They accepted, over the course of the first two years, that nobody was coming to save them. They had harboured a belief that the West would intervene up until then.
ISIS also shipped a lot of fighters into Syria at the start of the revolution as they sensed an opportunity. They came in from multiple countries such as Chechnya. Suddenly black flags began to appear and ISIS took root in local cities. After they captured Mosul and large parts of the border area between Iraq and Syria, they became powerful agents. The authors write that it went underreported that the FSA fought against ISIS and drove them from lots of 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 take them out so he could focus on taking out the FSA.
The shout for democracy:
This theme is explored at length in the book. We learn what the crowds at demonstrations in Homs, Deraa and Deir Al Zor reworded “God, Syria and freedom” from the previous official regime chant of “God, Syria, and Bashar”. It is clear what most of the peaceful protestors wanted.
Initially, the 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. It set up its own secular government. Amidst all the propaganda from the regime, this is what they tried to suppress more than anything, the cries from the people for the right to determine their own future. The NCB (National coordination committee of the forces of democratic change) also tried to reason with the regime for a transition to fair elections. Of course, their voice was ignored.
In the face of these calls for the right to determine their own future, the authors highlight the disgusting levels of savagery the regime employed just to maintain power. It deliberately starved many rebel controlled areas forcing people to eat weeds and stray animals.
The book details the crucial role women played in the Revolution and how this went under the radar, especially as the Jihadists took control. The book details:
– 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. Their veils were useful as the regime could not recognise them. When the regime knew a person’s details, they frequently tortured and imprisoned 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.
The failure of the West:
In the summer of 2012, the Americans actually stopped the flow of anti aircraft weapons from Saudi and Qatar sponsors. They held the weapons back as they were worried about who they were going to. On 22nd September 2014, the US bombed al-Nusra, killing women and children. The Syrians saw al-Nusra as protecting them against ISIS and the regime. The Americans were completely incompetent and irrelevant. When the Syrians heard Obama say that “it was somebody else’s war”, they despaired. Early 2015, the US began training 15,000 FSA soldiers from the 30th regiment for warfare. 15 of the first 58 onto the battlefield were kidnapped by Nusra fighters. The West is shown to be amateurish again. Lastly, the Iranian nuclear weapons deal, signed 2015, was widely thought to have influenced an unofficial deal for the Americans to not attack Assad as they were being backed by Iran.
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 book concludes that the Syrian people’s “irrepressible urge to speak is perhaps the Revolutions greatest legacy and one that will outlast the regime and the jihadists”. Sadly, it seems like the 470,000-death toll will increase before the conflict ends. It may surpass the Congolese and Angolan civil war death totals, thereby making it the largest this millennium, before the Syrian people gain their right to autonomy. 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.