Books: From hope to tragedy

When Syrians rose in protest in 2011, many thought Bashar Assad would go. Five years later, he’s still there.

Residents run along a street after an air strike by a fighter jet loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo’s al-Marja district in December 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Residents run along a street after an air strike by a fighter jet loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo’s al-Marja district in December 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"Every day people died, every single day. So the people armed themselves; they became as used to weapons as they’d become used to civil resistance before,” recalled Marcell Shehwaro, a chronicler of the Syrian rebellion, who is quoted in a new and timely book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab, a commentator on Syria, and Leila al-Shami, a human rights expert.
The quote from Shehwaro was written in the spring of 2012. After almost a year in which the Syrian people had been protesting and marching against the regime of President Bashar Assad, it was clear the regime would not fall. This was not Egypt or Tunisia where the Arab Spring had pushed out dictators.
“We couldn’t answer the question of how civil resistance would bring down the regime... we can’t bring down the Iranian and Russian economies [that supported Assad]... the West would see us in a brighter way if we were peaceful, but we couldn’t tell them this would bring victory,” Shehwaro writes.
For years the Syrian civil war has raged, becoming a symbol of all the suffering in the Middle East, sucking in numerous countries and becoming a proxy conflict for the sectarian war between Shi’ite and Sunni, between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Russia and the US are also involved – one bombing Syrian rebels, the other arming the Kurdish left-wing YPG (People’s Protection Units) and bombing Islamic State.
And Islamic State has burst forth from Syria and undermined the existence of Iraq. Burning Country gives a current account of how the Syrians devolved into the misery they are in today.
It’s like Syria was a Pandora’s box, and once it was opened, all the Middle East was changed.
We don’t know how the Syrian war will end. What the authors want to remind readers is that the horror story presented above was not how it all started. The story they sketch takes the reader back to the end of the Ottoman empire and quickly whisks us forward to the time when Assad took over from his deceased father in 2000.
There was supposed to be a new “Damascus Spring” as the reform-minded president appeared to relax controls on media and gatherings. The authors point out that the centralized Syrian state built around the Assad family cult of personality, was a truly fascist regime that employed torture and murder against its own people. The authors sketch how Syrian society was divided into different classes and groups, and also show how in the beginning of the rebellion in 2011 many of these groups were united.
There were Christians and Alawites who joined the protests. Rappers, poets and imams. Kurds and Arabs. It was only later that the sectarian massacres and killings would drive these communities into different camps.
There is a lot of good detail in this book, such as examining differences between cities such as Aleppo and areas like Idlib. The authors try to weave the reader through the various groups involved, such as the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and the different rebel groups, without bogging down the readers in details. But there is a feeling that sometimes the focus on the “nonviolence” of the first months of the rebellion are not entirely accurate and key details are missing. In one section they explain how the Kurdish PYD was able to take over Rojava, the eastern part of Syria, seamlessly as the regime withdrew, and was then able to suppress other Kurdish groups, “because it was armed.”
How was it armed? Why was it armed so well, why was it so effective? The answers are unclear.
What is clear is that Assad was very astute.
“[He] learned from the Libyan case that a hasty resort to large massacres or the threat thereof could draw intervention from NATO forces. A slower increase in violence against opponents, however would go unchecked.”
So he waited and played the Western powers for time, and survived.
This book explains how the Assad regime played a role in birthing the Islamist extremists that later dominated and discredited the rebellion. He had released extremists during his early years in office and actually built many mosques and collaborated with conservatives.
And the rebels themselves adopted a more Islamist outlook, due to increasingly religious feelings among front-line fighters. The authors argue that nevertheless only 30 percent of Syrian Sunni refugees wanted an Islamic- style state after Assad.
Unfortunately this book ends in June 2015, with the authors still hopeful Assad would fall. A postscript for October, after Russia intervenes, sketches a darker story.
If there is one book to read that looks at the first years of the Syrian rebellion, this is an excellent and accessible account.