burning country

The legacy of colonialism, and recent imperialist interventions lie behind Syria’s lost revolution and present catastrophes, argues Sean Ledwith


Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in War and Revolution (Pluto Press 2016), 250pp.

The seemingly intractable conflict in Syria appears to just stagger from one mind-numbing atrocity to another. This summer has witnessed a US airstrike on Manbij in the north of the country that killed 56 civilians, including eleven children; footage emerged of a CIA funded rebel group beheading a twelve-year old boy; a savage battle for control of Aleppo that has trapped thousands of civilians in appalling conditions; and a chlorine attack on the northern city of Irbil that was probably a government response to the downing of a Russian helicopter a few hours earlier. Countless images of the suffering of innocents have been generated that can overwhelm viewers on the outside, but perhaps one of the most striking recently was that of five-year old OmranDaqneesh, sitting shell-shocked in an ambulance in Aleppo, covered in blood and dust.

As these episodes indicate, what started as an internal uprising in the country five years ago has mutated into a labyrinthine cesspit of superpower rivalry that has sucked in regional players such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah, killed up to half a million Syrians, and triggered the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War Two. The centrifugal ferocity generated by the conflict has spread beyond Syria’s borders and become the context for grimly routine suicide bombings in Turkey, Iraq and the Kurdish controlled zones.

The rise of Isis and the reason it targets civilians in the West cannot be comprehended without examining its roots in the Syrian conflict. Russia and the US are now irrevocably committed to their respective proxy forces in the conflict and are playing a dangerous diplomatic game that oscillates precariously between ensuring their regional influence is secured and locating a mutually acceptable de-escalation plan. The recent Turkish invasion of northern Syria is just the latest episode indicating the potential for the situation to deteriorate even further.

In light of this bloody impasse and the preceding five years of carnage, it is unsurprising that many despair of the possibility that the country could ever return to any semblance of normality. The calamitous disintegration of Syria also makes it likely that many have forgotten that the horror actually began amid a mood of hope that gripped the country as part of the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami is written with the commendable purpose of reminding readers that there was a revolutionary and progressive impulse behind that initial carnival of the oppressed, and that Syria’s tragedy is rooted in the failure of that movement to break the Assad regime decisively, due to a toxic cocktail of internal and external factors. They write:

‘For a few brief moments the people changed everything. 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’ (p.ix).

The writers provide a valuable chronological account of the conflict from the rise of the Baathist regime in the 1960s, right up to Russia’s intervention in the conflict last year. They also write from a broadly left-wing perspective that usefully locates the conflict in the context of wider global trends of colonialism, state capitalism and neoliberalism. Of course, the Syrian conflict has provoked a huge amount of bitter argument and polemic on the left and the writers engage passionately with these debates, arriving at conclusions that may not be shared by all readers; nevertheless, their strongly held and scrupulously researched viewpoints are definitely worth examining in order to explain what led an outpouring of idealism in 2011, as they term it, to ‘metastasize’ into the nightmare of 2016 (p.222).

Colonial roots of present wars

Many Westerners probably dismiss the war as the consequence of incomprehensible sectarian divisions within Syria. The authors usefully remind the reader that, in fact, the long-term roots of today’s conflict can be traced back to a duplicitous Western carve-up of the region in the aftermath of World War One. The British and French made extravagant promises of statehood to the Arab resistance within the Ottoman Empire, only to renege on these offers as soon as the conflict was concluded and the vast quantity of oil beneath the sands of the Middle East was revealed. The notorious Sykes-Picot deal that effectively gifted Syria to the French and Iraq to the British remains a source of angry resentment in the region to this day.

The concept of the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe, is most commonly attached to the dismemberment of Palestine in 1947, but the authors point out that for Syrians it more immediately refers to 1920: the year French occupation commenced. They argue ‘the current chronic instability in Iraq and Syria can be traced to this early twentieth century bout of imperialist map-making and sectarian engineering’ (p.5). The French domination of the country between the world wars also sowed the seeds of today’s imbroglio as the colonial regime patronised the minority Alawite community as the backbone of its military and security apparatus. The French fighter aircraft currently bombing Isis targets are not the first from that country to be seen in action over Syria. In 1920 French warplanes killed two thousand people resisting the colonial regime (p.5).

Predictably, Western mainstream reporting makes scant reference to this era in its coverage of today’s crisis. The authors remind us that the uprising of 2011 represented a continuation of a tradition of heroic resistance linked to predecessors in the colonial period. An anti-French revolt in the mid-1920s resulted in the total destruction by the colonial regime of an area of Damascus subsequently known as ‘Hareeqa’, or Fire; this would be the scene of the first demonstration in the city against Assad in 2011. When the French departed in 1946, the Alawite community would provide most of the personnel for the elite that still prevails, including President Bashar Assad and his entourage.

Assad’s father came to power in 1970 after a turbulent decade of faction-fighting within the ruling Baathist elite. Hafez-Al Assad proceeded to construct a cohesive but brutal dictatorship that combined ‘pragmatism with ruthlessness’ (p.11). Rhetorical radicalism provided the cover for the entrenchment of a state-capitalist economy which earned ‘the at least partial consent of a cross-sectarian peasant constituency by redistributing land and improving rural conditions’ (p.13). Despite the revolutionary onslaught of the past five years, this in essence is the same regime that is obdurately clinging to power today.

The nature of Assad’s regime

The durability of the Assad dynasty is partly due to its efficacy in moulding a power base from a sufficient number of people who feel they have too much of a stake in the status quo. As Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami put it: ‘People could live in relative peace, and business could make money – so long as they kept out of politics. This was the security bargain and the final plank of consent’ (p.13).

When the ‘security bargain’ started to crumble in the face of revolution in 2011, some on the left argued the Assad regime should be defended as it was supposedly a bulwark against US and Israeli influence in the region. The authors have no time for this viewpoint, arguing it is based on taking the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Damascus government at face value. The elder Assad had, in fact, prematurely ended Syrian army operations against Israel in the 1967 war, smashed Palestinian forces in Lebanon with Syrian artillery in 1976, and tamely joined the US-led coalition against Saddam in 1991 (p.13). His son and successor ‘had no qualms about colluding with the US-led war on terror; Syria was a popular destination for terror suspects illegally extradited by the US to third countries for torture by proxy’ (p.25).

Along with de facto compliance with Washington’s New World Order, Bashar Assad, as President from 2000, also presided over the implementation of free-market economic policies, much to the satisfaction of the US, EU and IMF (p.31). Feeling under pressure diplomatically and economically after the fall of the USSR, Assad initiated a cautious liberalisation of the country’s suffocating political repression, laughably termed the ‘Damascus Spring’ by regime apologists:

‘Crucially the neoliberal reforms were accompanied by the dismantling – by cutting subsidies – of the economic safety net for the poor. Inequality grew, until 50% of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of 5% of the population’ (p.32).

The intensification of this roll-out of neoliberalism in the first decade of this century would provide the catalyst for the revolution of 2011. By that point, youth unemployment was almost 50%; one million Syrians had been driven off the land into the cities; 60% of the population of the capital city were living in sub-standard housing; and $20 billion had vanished into the pockets of corrupt officials. The authors cite a Syrian blogger’s comment that ‘Bashar‘s years were a fine example of the shock doctrine’ (quoted on p.33).

The promise of the revolution

The authors stoutly defend the progressive and revolutionary credentials of the thousands who rose up against Assad’s ‘crony capitalist’ state in 2011 (p.31). They describe how the initial protests were inspired by the contemporaneous uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and did not even call for the removal of the President; only for a relatively mild democratisation of the political culture. However, the iconic slogan of the Arab Spring, ‘The People Demand’, was greeted by the regime with bullets and tanks (and later, barrel bombs). The callous mentality of the Baathist state was encapsulated in the infamous response of a Deraa police chief to parents outside the local prison: ‘Forget your children. Go sleep with your wives and make new ones or send them to me and I’ll do it’ (quoted on p.38).

The authors vividly re-create the euphoria that accompanied the first few months of the revolutionary upsurge. They are keen to emphasise that the sectarian character of the crisis today was negligible in the early phase of the rebellion: ‘The language of protest was neither religious nor secular; the demands as expressed on the street were for political rights to be applied in general, not to specific groups’ (p.45).

The first year or so witnessed a remarkable flowering of grassroots organisations across the country, linked together as Local Coordinating Committees, which sought to fill the vacuum of essential services left by the retreat of Assad’s state. The Syrian revolt, like its counterparts elsewhere, was initially sustained by the creative deployment of social media by a new generation of young activists. The cumulative effect of the raw courage of thousands of protestors, backed by international support from other workers in the Arab world, was to generate a heady atmosphere in which anything seemed possible: ‘New forms of organisation and expression emerged which reconfigured social relationships away from those based on hierarchy and domination towards the empowerment of individuals and communities’ (p.219).

Revolution’s defeat

Yassin Al-Kassab and Al-Shami proceed to analyse the crucial question of why this vibrant impulse for change has led Syria not towards progressive social transformation, but tragically into a hellish maelstrom. From day one of the protests, the President’s willingness to unleash savage firepower and terror on his own population shattered the early optimism of spring 2011. Later the same year, Assad’s cynical release of jihadist prisoners swamped and stigmatised the secular opposition (p.120). Some of these freed Salafists would coalesce with like-minded fighters from Iraq to create Isis.

Another factor was the absence of major industrial strikes in support of the rebellion, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where trade unionists spearheaded the demand for regime change (p.61). Assad has also received indispensable military and diplomatic sustenance from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese-based militia, Hezbollah (p.198). The authors quote a dissident Syrian film-maker whose words encapsulate how the spirit of 2011 was suffocated by these and other constraints, overwhelming a ‘revolution which is now in many ways lost, one strangled by counter-revolution and currently too weak to hold its own against the savage reaction the counter-revolution unleashed’ (quoted on p.177).

One decisive factor insufficiently addressed by the writers, however, was how the character of Syria’s revolt – and of the entire Arab Spring revolutions – was fundamentally altered by the US intervention in the region in 2011; first by its sanctioning of the Saudi invasion of Bahrain and then the railroading of the UN into authorising the bombing of Libya. Together, these two events altered the dynamic of the revolutionary process and, fatally, conjoined it with Washington’s agenda of re-asserting its own hegemony after the fall of pro-Western dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. From that point onwards, the tragedy for the progressive opposition in Syria was that it became impossible to extricate itself from the chessboard of global power politics.

The authors discuss how the prospect of Western airstrikes against Assad in 2013 divided the left within and without the country; with the majority in Syria, according to them, supportive of the proposal. Yassin-Kassab and Al Shami suggest the successful campaign by Britain’s Stop the War movement to help block the bombing, let ‘Assad off the hook’ (p.194). The quasi-apocalyptic state of Iraq and Libya today, however, makes it unsustainable to argue that US military intervention has ever improved any situation. The authors more justifiably condemn Russia’s direct entry into the conflict last year. Such a high-stakes escalation only serves to underline the key lesson of the Arab Spring phenomenon: that conditions for the oppressed of the region will only improve when all foreign forces are withdrawn and they are left to liberate themselves.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters