Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

Pluto Press £14.99

Reviewed by Peter Geoghegan

REMEMBER Mohamed Bouazizi? He was the street stall holder who, in late 2010, set himself alight in protest against graft and joblessness in his native Tunisia. The spark ignited the Arab Spring. Six weeks later, in north-east Syria, another young man, Hassan Ali Akleh, self-immolated. Syria has been ablaze ever since.

Penned by Castle Douglas-based journalist and novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab and human rights worker Leila Al-Shami, the adroitly-titled Burning Country charts the Syrian revolution – and counter-revolution - from the bottom-up. Theirs is a world of citizens and activists, not military leaders and political apparatchiks. “We ask the reader, rather than applying the usual grand narratives, to attend to voices from the ground.” The result is a vital – often lugubrious – journey from the heady early days of the uprising through to the blood-soaked Syria of today.

Back in 2011, Bashaar al-Assad was widely predicted to follow Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak into early retirement. But the willowy, thin-lipped Syrian president has grimly clung on, regularly delivering stiff interviews to foreign journalists denying dropping barrel bombs on his own people; his autocratic regime, he insists, is the only bulwark against Islamic State barbarism. Many in the West – particularly on the left – have bought into this mephitic narrative.

The Assad dynasty is an unlikely one. Hafez, ‘the Eternal Leader’, was an army officer from the minority Alawi sect who seized power in a military coup after Syria’s disastrous defeat by Israel in 1967.

Bashaar took over the mantle in 2000 with little enthusiasm; the heir apparent, Bassel, died in a car accident six years early, leaving the reins of power in the hands of his bookish, London-educated brother.

The young Assad inherited a police state. In the early days, the worst of the repression was lifted but the Damascus Spring soon turned to winter. Cronyism raged amid a slew of privatisations; one cousin was estimated to control an incredible 60 per cent of the Syrian economy.

Sweeping privatisation benefited the elites while the middle class saw their living standards plummet. By 2011, Syria was ripe for change.

Although loosely themed around various aspects of the revolution and the succeeding conflagration – culture, the rise of Islamism, the refugee exodus – narratively Burning Country can be divided into two:

between the hope of 2011 to 2013 and the despair of the intervening years.

“We really were ready to transform into an open society. We had great momentum,” a Christian activist from Damascus says of the first flush of revolt, when in towns and cities across Syria huge crowds defied the guns of government troops to take to the streets. An alphabet soup of civil society groups replaced the regime in vast swathes of the country.

What came next is often misconstrued. Lazy, shorthand analyses of Syria proliferate: on late night talk shows ‘experts’ dispassionately explain that it is a sectarian conflict, the product of mysterious ‘ancient hatreds’ between Shia and Sunni Muslims. But the reality is far more complicated. Shia account for only about 1 per cent of Syria’s 22 million population. And, at least in the early days, the revolution was avowedly non-sectarian. “All the sects were present,”

another activist recalls of the brutally-suppressed protests in Homs.

Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman was among the artists who supported the revolution.

Violence, however, “has its own terrible momentum”. As the government backlash intensified, the opposition became increasingly militarised.

The Free Syrian Army lacked the discipline needed for an effective guerrilla campaign. Regional and international players moved in: Iran, Hezbollah and, most importantly, Russia on the side of Assad; the US, Saudis, Qatar and others supporting a plethora of rebels, often with contradictory ideological and strategic goals. As the fighting intensified, so too the sectarian enmity.

“Let Allah sort it out” – Sarah Palin, who else – is a Saturday Night Live version of a significant section of Western opinion on Syria.

When Assad unleashed sarin gas on a suburb of Damascus he proved Obama’s “red line” illusionary.

A definitive conclusion to the war remains elusive. As the Free Syrian Army withers under lack of funds and internecine power battles, jihadist groups including Islamic State have stepped into the vacuum.

Foreign fighters have flooded in to fight under Daesh’s black banner.

Earlier this week, Russia surprised many by announcing troop withdrawals, but Russian fighter planes have continued to carry out air strikes in support of Assad forces.

Burning Country is at its most poignant when illuminating the tragic individual stories among chaos, often through the words of protagonists. Abu Furat, commander of an Assad tank brigade, defects when ordered to shell a rebel village in Latakia. Furat dies by regime fire just moments after declaring that the fighters on all sides “are our brothers”. Later, a 14-year-old is murdered by an ISIS affiliate for an offhand comment about the prophet.

The greatest casualty of the five-year-long war has been the Syrian people. By July 2015, fully half the country’s population was no longer living at home, including four million who had fled the country. Contrary to media reports, most of these refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighbouring states. By last June, just 4,000 had been granted asylum in the UK.

The Syrian revolution has begat a refugee crisis that looks set to re-shape the Middle East and Europe for years to come. But Burning Country bears witness to another story of Syria’s revolution. Of hip-hop acts and heavy metal bands. Of gay Syria and party drugs. Of non-sectarian activists fighting, and living, to change their country.

“The irrepressible urge to speak,” Yassin-Kassb and Al-Shami write, “is perhaps the revolution’s greatest legacy, one that will outlast both the regime and jihadists.” Few would not share that hope.