Peter Stauber reviews Syria Burning by Charles Glass
Charles Glass, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring (O/R Books 2015), xiii, 142pp.
In one of the many conversations that Charles Glass recounts in his latest book, he quotes a young woman who used to be an activist but has given in to resignation. ‘The demonstrations are finished’, she tells him, ‘That was the good time’ (p.23). Those days in early 2011, when peaceful anti-torture protests in Daraa marked the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria, are now almost forgotten. In the years since, the country has been plundged into chaos that has caused suffering on a devastating scale - hundreds of thousands have died, millions fled.
Charles Glass has written a short book on the Syrian conflict that is at the same time a memoir, a lament, and a warning. Glass knows the region intimately. He started out by covering the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and was later posted in Beirut as the Middle East correspondent for ABC news. He covered the first and second Iraq wars and has been travelling to the region regularly since.
What he offers in his latest book is not so much an account of the Syrian conflict as a collection of episodes from the country‘s past history, interspersed with personal reflections. The only systematic part is the chronology at the beginning, which gives a useful overview of the sequence of events since March 2011. In the rest of the book, Glass jumps back and forth in history, drawing comparisons between today and earlier political developments and conflicts, which can at times be confusing if the reader is not familiar with Syria‘s politics and history.
A theme that keeps coming up is the way in which Western foreign policy has shaped the fate of the Syrian people. ‘Think back to when this [the present] mess began’, Glass writes, ‘which was a long time before young Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in Tunisia [in December 2010]. It was about the time the British and the French decided to save the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire‘s oppression’ (pp.35-6). That was a hundred years ago, shortly before the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France's least concern, naturally, was what the Syrians themselves wanted. They sought to control the region and to that end drew up a treaty that divided it up, thereby carving ‘borders across a region that had not known them before and whose people did not want them’ (p.37). In 1920, the French army imposed their mandate over little Syria and Greater Lebanon.
After a quarter-century of French domination and constant rebellion, the colonial power finally left after the Second World Wa, but independence did not bring self-determination. Two factors that have shaped the history of the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century came into play: one was oil, the other the United States’ desire to tap it. The Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) wanted to build a pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean, but the Syrian government tried to get better terms for the deal. An opportunity opened up for the USA when the government in Damascus had to resign due to popular protests, and the CIA arranged a coup to install a more ‘friendly’ government - ‘over 400 Commies [in] all parts of Syria have been arrested’, read an embassy report to Washington (p.15). However, the army colonel responsible for the coup was killed by another colonel, who in turn was killed by a third. ‘Thus began Syria’s instability, with military coups as regular as changes of season’ (p.16). The last seizure of power was Hafez al- Assad’s, the father of the current president, in 1970. From that year until 2011, Syria enjoyed continuity, but not freedom.
Glass draws parallels between historic Western interference and the way in which today’s Syrian civil war is influenced by powerful countries who pursue their own agenda. ‘Not since the old Soviet Union signed all those “treaties of friendship” with everyone from Finland to Afghanistan has one country had so many new palls’, he writes (pp.45-6). Of course, to the casual newspaper reader this is hardly a new insight, but Glass highlights these facts with a genuine sense of indignation that makes our government’s professions of goodwill seem all the more fatuous: ‘Where, you might ask, have these friends been hiding for the past fifty years? What were they doing in 1967 when Israel seized the Syrian Golan? What support did they send to more than 100,000 Syrian citizens when Israel demolished their villages and expelled them from their homes? […] Have they taken a stand against the thirty settlements that Israel planted on property stolen from Syrians’ (p.46). Where, he might have added, is the willingness of the British government to give shelter to those tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who seek the security of our wealthy Western countries?
With a deep sense of loss, Glass describes the kind of Syrian society that has been evicerated over the past four years – a society that has always been fragmented, but for a long time found ways of tolerant coexistance among the various religious and ethnic groups – Sunni Kurds, Armenian and Arab Christians, Assyrians, Ismailis, Alawites and Yazidis. The minorities, Glass writes, were always going to be the first victims of a war, and this is also one of the reasons why so many people support the Assad regime, in spite of all the authoritarian brutality with which he rules. The Christians and the Alawites (the sect to which Assad himself belongs) – which each make up around ten percent of the population – enjoyed a level of security. They grudgingly accept the regime because the alternative would be so much worse. This reluctance is well captured in a quotation from a Syrian Christian who tells Glass in a whisper: ‘I shit on this revolution, because it is forcing me into the arms of the regime’ (p.101).
Glass’ little book does not explain the origins of the Syrian crisis or the Islamic State in any methodical way, and nor is it useful as an introduction to the politics of the conflict. Nonetheless, what Glass does offer is a personal and intimate journey through decades of history, providing the reader with a sense of the tragedy that has gripped the country since it was plunged into chaos over four years ago.
Charles Glass, Syria Burning is available exclusively from O/R Books.
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.
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