Exclusive: The U.S. government blames the Syrian civil war almost entirely on Bashar al-Assad – and some progressives have bought into that propaganda narrative – but there is another side of the story, as Daniel Lazare describes.
By Daniel Lazare
How did Syria get so ugly so fast? This is a question that could just as well be asked of Libya, Egypt or Yemen, all of which saw stirring democratic revolts during the so-called Arab Spring only to descend into religious bigotry, civil war or military dictatorship.
But it is especially urgent with regard to Syria, a great bleeding wound on the edge of Europe that, over the last five years, has seen as many as 470,000 deaths, generated some 4.8 million refugees, and sent out waves of terrorism that are destabilizing politics from Eastern Europe to the U.S. Not since Yugoslavia has a country collapsed more completely or calamitously.
This should make Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leia Al-Shami’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War the book of the hour. Published by London’s Pluto Press, long associated with the International Socialist Tendency, it seemingly analyzes the Syrian disaster from a critical-left perspective, in other words one that isn’t afraid to tell the left when it goes wrong but otherwise reflects a progressive and democratic point of view.
Considering that the leftwing website Counterpunch hailed it as nothing less than the second coming of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, this is a book that many readers have been waiting for.
But they’ll have to wait some more. Burning Country is a disaster – defensive, contradictory, all too eager to blame others rather than asking how the revolution itself may have gone awry. Considering how it downplays the problem of religious sectarianism, makes excuses for Al Qaeda, and pushes for U.S.-Saudi military intervention, it’s not just bad but pernicious – an example of how broad sectors of the Left have collapsed with regard to one of the most explosive issues of the day.
But even pernicious books have their uses and, almost despite itself, Burning Country is packed with valuable information concerning how and why Syria went so grievously off course. To get at the truth, all one has to do is turn it on its head – or, rather, on its feet.
Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami – respectively a novelist, journalist, and blogger and an activist associated with the “anti-authoritarian” Tahrir network – repeatedly harken back to those heady days in early 2011 when it looked like the Arab masses would shrug off generations of nationalist dictatorship like a horse shrugging off a fly. Seemingly out of nowhere, vast crowds materialized chanting, “The people want the regime to fall,” as strong men like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Gaddafi, or Egypt’s Mubarak cowered in their offices.
Glorifying an Uprising
In Syria, the authors write, quoting unnamed interviewees, the protests were decentralized and spontaneous; they were neither led by political parties nor defined by the traditional narratives of socialism, nationalism or Islamism. They were “creating a new geography of liberation, which is no longer mapped on colonial or cast upon postcolonial structures of domination,” a “restructuring [which] points to a far more radical emancipation.
Religious differences, they add, faded as revolutionary fervor swelled. They quote a Christian attending her first anti-government demo: “I went to Meydan to protest. It’s a conservative Muslim neighborhood, and I was wearing a skimpy top. One young man asked me, politely enough, to dress more appropriately when I came next, but his friend said, ‘No, sister, you wear whatever you like; we’re here for our freedom, after all.’ We really were ready to transform into an open society. We had great momentum.”
But the euphoria turned out to be short-lived. Divided, unstable, and reduced to little more than a rump by repeated foreign incursions from Sykes-Picot on, Syria is one of the most complex societies in the Middle East. Where Sunnis account for 90 percent or more of the population in North Africa, they account for only about 65 percent in Syria, with the rest made up of Alawites (10 to 15 percent), various Christian sects (another 10 percent or so), plus Druze, Yezidis, other branches of Shi‘ism, plus the remnants of a once-thriving Jewish community as well.
But something else made it even more volatile. Syrian politics had undergone an inversion as the Alawites, previously an oppressed mountain people centered around the Mediterranean port of Latakia, displaced the old Sunni ruling elite and took political power following a 1970 military coup. The government was not solely Alawite since it drew on support from other minority groups as well as a significant portion of the Sunni community. But Alawites were unquestionably dominant.
To put this in a U.S. perspective, it’s as if African-Americans had somehow seized control of the Mississippi state government at the height of Jim Crow and, with support from disaffected whites, had held onto power for decades despite Ku Klux Klan uprisings and assassination campaigns. The regime might not have been the best government under the sun. In fact, it might have been downright awful. But however much Mississippians might complain about repression and economic stagnation, the one thing they feared even more was a return to old-style segregationist ways. Any sign of resurgence on the part of the old White Citizens’ Councils would therefore send them fleeing back into the arms of the black-led government.
This was more or less the Syrian situation as of early 2011. Bashar al-Assad was “genuinely popular,” as Burning Country concedes, but there is no doubt that the Baathist regime as a whole had run out of steam. The Soviet collapse in 1991 knocked away a critical life support while the advent of Bashar al-Assad, a London-trained ophthalmologist, in June 2000 brought even worse, a neo-liberal “reform” program that slashed welfare outlays and sent corruption shooting through the roof. By 2010, as Juan Cole points out, per-capita GDP was three-fourths below that of neighboring Turkey and roughly on par with Honduras and the Congo.
The protests that erupted in March 2011 were thus entirely justified. But as much as one might sympathize with masses of ordinary people rising up against poverty and authoritarianism, it should have been obvious that simple “majoritarianism” would not do in such a polarized society.
To avoid falling into religious civil war, anti-Assad Sunnis would have to reach out to Syria’s minority communities, Alawites first and foremost since they had the most to fear from a return to the status quo ante. This meant not just toning down poisonous rhetoric that for centuries had described the Alawites as enemies of Islam who deserved to be killed on sight. Rather, it meant tearing it out by its roots.
This is what should have occurred but didn’t, as a careful reading of Burning Country makes clear. Sunni majoritarianism went unchallenged while arch-sectarian Sunni fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists were given free rein. Predictably, Alawites, Christians and others responded by rallying to the government.
The fallout was evident from the outset, as Fabrice Balanche, a French political geographer who spent years studying the Syrian political scene firsthand, noted: “You could follow the sectarian patterns across the map. In mixed Alawite-Sunni areas, the protests only took place in the Sunni areas. In Latakia, Banias, and Homs, the demonstrators clashed with Alawite counterdemonstrators.…
“In the Daraa Province, the population is almost exclusively Sunni and the demonstrations naturally spread – but they stopped right at the border of the Druze-populated Sweida Province, which did not sympathize with them at all. In Aleppo, the divisions were mainly social, between the well-to-do and poorer people, and between indigenous city dwellers and new arrivals from the countryside who lived in the slums. But the sectarian factor was present in Aleppo too, with Christians remaining staunchly pro-regime and the Kurds playing their own game.”
The anti-Assad forces might have responded by doubling their outreach efforts. But instead they chose to shout down anyone who dared point out what was going on. Says Balanche: “In 2011–2012, we suffered a type of intellectual McCarthyism on the Syrian question: if you said that Assad was not about to fall within three months, you would be suspected of being paid by the Syrian regime.
“Members of the exile opposition’s Syrian National Council went on TV, one after the other, to assure us that the rare sectarian mishaps were all the work of Assad’s intelligence services, that the situation was under control, and that the Syrian National Council had a plan that would avert any risk of civil war.”
Judging from Burning Country, the spirit of neo-McCarthyism remains undiminished. Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami refuse to admit that protesters were in any way at fault. They quote an account of an anti-government rally in Homs:
“Speeches were then delivered … a woman takes a turn, then an activist, then a sheikh, then an enthusiastic young man.… Preparations for another type of prayer began to take place, for a prayer very well done, for a Qur’an recited smoothly.… All along the understanding of the true essence of freedom the way God the most almighty wants it, not like what tyrants want it.”
But while Sunni traditionalists might have been pleased, others might have felt more at home if someone had read from the Gospels or an Alawite text. But no one did. Conceivably, leftists might have interrupted at that point to call for secularism and minority rights. But that would have ruined the “Kumbaya” good feeling that Burning Country values so highly. So they held their tongue. A seemingly democratic outpouring thus morphed into a religious civil war with astonishing speed.
None of this is unprecedented. The English Revolution turned into an anti-Irish crusade under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, while the Revolution of 1848, which the Arab Spring is often compared to, degenerated into bloody ethnic warfare among Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, and Magyars once it advanced beyond Vienna.
Burning Country occasionally acknowledges the deep divisions that turned Syria into a charnel house. It quotes a Christian activist arrested for passing out pro-revolutionary leaflets: “I made the mistake of working in my own area, where my face was known. What hurt me most is that it was the people of the neighborhood who called the police. It’s a Christian neighborhood.”
The book quotes another Christian as saying: “We were always a society based on sectarianism. We lived in separate cantons and villages. When I was at school, although I was in a Muslim-majority city, I didn’t have a single Muslim friend. This is the Syrian geographical structure which the regime kept in place and exploited.”
Christians were so appalled that one of their own would join what they regarded as a Sunni revanchist movement that they didn’t hesitate to call the cops. Yet with crowds chanting, “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin,” they had reason to be afraid.
But not only does Burning Country fail to criticize Sunni chauvinism, it falls all too easily into the same trap. It quotes without comment an activist who says that revolutionaries initially ignored religious differences but then adds ominously that “sectarianism grew when people saw ninety percent of Alawis stayed loyal.”
Seeking to explain how Alawites had grown so powerful in recent decades, the authors write: “Alawis alongside rural Syrians of all sectarian backgrounds migrated to the cities to work and study, but – because of their poverty as well as the regime’s sectarianism – they also rose disproportionately through the Baath Party and army.… This ‘empowerment’ of the community after 1970 arguably reversed its growing acceptance by the Sunni majority.”
Does this mean that Alawites would have to pay a price if Assad were overthrown? Evidently. Burning Country’s explanation for the sectarian conflict couldn’t be simpler. Rather than the uprising, it’s all the fault of the government. Once the rebellion was underway, it says, “the regime would stick to reading the revolution through ethnic and religious categories; largely as a result of its own efforts, these categories would indeed eventually grow in importance until they dominated the field of struggle.”
Quoting a writer named Rasha Omran, it adds that “the regime mobilized to counter the challenge by besieging the revolution in specific areas and alienating it from others – stock divide-and-rule methods…. Then it launched false-flag operations and … sacrificed some Alawis in areas of sectarian friction in order to frighten the rest into believing that those who claimed to stand for revolution were actually sectarian killers intent on revenge for Hama. Simply put, the regime let loose the monster of fear which had been latent in Alawi minds, and reinforced once again the link between homeland and sect.”
Without offering a shred of evidence, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami want us to believe in a monstrous conspiracy theory in which a Machiavellian government in Damascus kills loyal Alawites so as to panic others.
Elsewhere, the authors quote another anti-Assad activist saying of the Alawites that they “see the revolution as a threat coming from the east, as Sunnis coming to kill them. When the regime falls, there could be a lot of blood in the city. The Alawi majority may react badly, just to protect itself, so the best way is to show them that they can protect themselves by talking to these figures who are pro-revolutionary Alawis. It’s very important that there are figures from both sects, already known to revolutionaries, who can act as mediators.”
If Alawite safety depends on a few well-placed individuals speaking up in their defense, then maybe they had a right to be nervous after all.
By placing all responsibility on the government, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami fail to acknowledge sectarianism’s deep roots in Syrian society as a whole. This is as serious as failing to acknowledge racism’s deep roots the U.S. It leads the authors down some exceedingly dangerous paths – toward outright apologetics, for instance, for the Sunni extremists who have dominated the rebel cause since its inception.
With remarkable credulity, the authors report that Al Nusra, as Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate is known, entered into a pact with other rebel groups two years ago embracing “freedom, justice and security for Syrian society and its diverse social fabric.” Christian and Alawites might be forgiven if they were little impressed.
Criticizing the United States for bombing Al Nusra, the authors report that “Syrians in the liberated [i.e. rebel-controlled] areas were astounded that the US, which had declined to bomb Assad when he slaughtered them with barrel bombs and sarin gas, was now bombing those who were defending them from Assad.”
While noting that Al Nusra militants massacred 23 Druze in the northern province of Idlib in June 2015, the authors hasten to assure readers that the act “apparently resulted from a dispute over property rather than sectarian hatred.”
Thus, Al Qaeda embraces secularism if Burning Country is to be believed, it defends Sunnis against the bloody dictator Assad, and if it slaughters a few minority members on occasion, it does so not out of religious hatred but because of a business dispute that has gotten out of hand. The authors’ sectarian bias, meanwhile, leads them to excoriate Shi‘ite Iran as the source of all evil.
“Iranian policy in both Iraq and Syria had vastly increased the Sunni sense of victimhood,” they write. “Iran was one of the factors behind ISIS’s rise, and will continue to galvanize Sunni extremists after ISIS’s fall.”
Once again, everyone is to blame for Sunni chauvinism except the Sunnis themselves. Bemoaning the failure of the “international community,” i.e. the U.S., U.K., and France, to intervene in the wake of Assad’s alleged sarin gas attack in August 2013, they express the fond hope that Saudi Arabia will intervene instead:
“Saudi commentators have suggested that once a clear defeat has been registered on Iranian-backed forces in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition will turn its attention more fully to Syria, perhaps even providing air cover for a Southern Front offensive against Assad’s Iranian-backed forces south of Damascus. Saudi clumsiness in Yemen, however, does not give cause for optimism.”
Optimism? With U.S. encouragement, the Arab Gulf petro-states have poured billions into an international jihad aimed at imposing a Sunni fundamentalist dictatorship much like the one in Saudi Arabia, if not worse. It’s a crime as great as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Yet Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami wish to add to it by subjecting Syria to an air assault like the one the Saudis have inflicted on Yemen since March 2015. Progressives should do everything in their power to see to it that such hopes remain unfulfilled.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).