book reviews

Book Review: “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”

(“Burning Country” by Robin Yasmin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami provides a vital description of the events surrounding the ongoiong Syrian revolution. Written from a ground-level point of view, it provides a glimpse of what the masses of Syrians actually experienced and were thinking of during this period, and does so without being demagogic. The information it contains should be part of the workers’ movement’s arsenal.)

A protester holds a sign up in a protest in Syria on April 1, 2016. The sign reads: "I'm Syrian. I called for freedom. I was killed twice. Once in the name of the nation, once in the name of religion."

A protester holds a sign up in a protest in Aleppo, Syria on April 1, 2016. The sign reads: “I’m Syrian. I called for freedom. I was killed twice. Once in the name of the nation, once in the name of religion.”

The crisis of world capitalism is not merely an economic one. In fact, nothing more exemplifies that crisis  than the nationalist and sectarian wars that are tearing societies apart. (As this is being written, renewed violence has broken out in Nagorno-Karabakh between the Armenian and Azeri nationalist/capitalist forces. There, a bloody sectarian/nationalist war was fought in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.) Meanwhile, from Nigeria to Brussels, religious fanatics are ramping up the tensions with their terrorist attacks.

However, the real heart of this crisis, where it is most intense and also where it most affects the rest of the world, is in West Asia/North Africa (what is named by Europeans the “Middle East” – to which we ask: “east of where?”), especially in Syria. That is why the workers’ movement has to become better informed about the war in Syria, how it developed, the present forces at work, and what role the workers movement can play. After all, although there are many unanswered questions, one thing has decisively been proven: Capitalism and the world’s capitalist classes have no solution other than more war, death and devastation.

Towards this end, “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, makes a valuable contribution, although revolutionary socialists would differ with the authors in some respects.

A country whose very origins as a nation are based on Western imperialism through the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Syria is geologically very diverse, and maybe as a result also very diverse ethnically.* One of the main ethnic minorities is the Alawi, who practice their unique form of Shia Islam in a country that is predominantly Sunni Arabs. When Hafez Assad (father of present president Basher Assad) took power, he built a base of support in the Alawi community. Denied economic opportunities, the Alawi were able to rise through the government bureaucracy, including the military. Reflecting the times, Hafez Assad also supported pan-Arab nationalism and, domestically, he instituted a fairly high degree of state intervention in the economy, with price supports, etc. He also built a vast repressive state apparatus.

In 2000, Hafez died and was succeeded by his son, Basher Assad. Basher carried out neoliberal economic policies – privatization, etc. – which vastly increased poverty in Syria. This combined with a long term drought to drive many thousands, possibly millions, of people off the land and into the cities, where they formed a huge pool of unemployed, underemployed, participants in the “informal economy,” etc. Along with the neoliberal reforms went continuation of repression. This long-term repression helped create a generally “silent generation”, although a layer of intellectuals did try from time to time to open up society.

“Arab Spring”

The “Arab Spring” changed all that. In a matter of a few months, the situation in Syria was transformed with mass protests throughout the country.

The overwhelming mood of the protests was against sectarianism and division. Conscious efforts were made by the Sunni Arab majority to reach out to the Alawis, the Kurds, etc., and at least to some degree members of these different groups were, in fact, included in the leading bodies and in the movement as a whole.

The Assad regime fought back partly by increased repression. Thousands were kidnapped and over 300 detained, the majority tortured. In one instance, the mangled, tortured bodies of some scores of kidnapped school children were deposited at the doorsteps of their families. The regime also systematically tried to stir up sectarian conflict, hiring thugs posing as Alawis to attack Sunni neighborhoods, and vice versa. They released from prison “thousands of Salafist extremists who would come to dominate the armed uprising.”

Regime Holds On

Meanwhile, in what became a feature of the regime’s strategy, they carried out a general

Assad's war against the people of Syria.

Assad’s war against the people of Syria.

war against the population. “Snipers prevented ambulances from reaching the injured. Soldiers arrested medical personnel, set fire to pharmacies and prevented medical supplies from entering the city [of Deraa, where the rebellion was in full swing].” (p. 44) According to the authors, in the first three months of the rebellion, 1,000 Syrians were killed and 3,000 detained by the regime. (“Detention” in Assad’s prisons usually means torture.) Despite all of this, the movement grew, including the beginnings of desertions by rank and file soldiers – usually a death warrant for a regime.

But the Assad regime hung on. According to the authors, part of the reason was the failure of the protest movement to really take off in Syria’s two biggest cities – Damascus and Aleppo. They explain this by saying that, especially in Damascus, there was a relatively large Alawi population which was given both a few privileges (government housing, for example) as well as a steady diet of propaganda that the rebellion was going to attack them. There was also a sizable Christian population, which was also given similar propaganda. Even among the Sunni population, the top Muslim clericswere bought off by the regime, and they helped keep the Sunni majority in line.

Local Coordinating Councils and Assad

As is almost always the case, the activists throughout Syria organized their own bodies to build and coordinate the movement. These were known as Local Coordinating Councils (LCCs).

But Assad did not sit still. He prosecuted his war against the Syrian people, especially the poor. “The regime pursued a scorched earth strategy…. The shabeeha (“ghost troops” – armed militia) scrawled it on the walls. ‘Either Assad or We’ll Burn the Country.’ In the countryside they killed livestock and burned crops. In the towns the army shelled bakeries, schools, hospitals and market places. Hundreds of barrel bombs dismantled Aleppo…. Women feared the roads lest they were raped by shabeeha at checkpoints; men feared detention or forced conscription…. (there was) mass expulsion of the population from the liberated areas…. The war stretched on, and the liberated areas became death zones. This was the vacuum in which jihadism would thrive.” (p. 106) Children were arrested, tortured to death and their mangled bodies left at the doorstep of their parents.

The Assad regime also systematically sought to sow devision. He released some 1500 violent jihadi Salafists from prison. He organized bands of thugs who identified themselves as Alawi to loot and pillage in the Sunni Arab communities, and vice versa in the Alawi communities. “Cities became wastelands, villages, homes and livelihoods lay in ruins, communities were deserted as people fled in search of safety, shelter and food.” (p. 149)

Salafi Armies

Islamic fundamentalism first got a boost through the historic defeat of different Arab armies in the 1967 war with Israel. That defeat set back the left nationalist mood in the region. Then, in 1979 the Islamists came to power in the Iranian revolution, to which the Saudi regime responded by spreading its own version of Islamic fundamentalism.

Assad had a conscious strategy of encouraging their growth in Syria, starting with the release of the salafists from prison. Compounding this was a couple of other factors:

1) The first was the financing they got from other Gulf states;
2) The second was the “air of corruption and disorganization hanging over the FSA model.”
3) The third, according to the authors, was the failure of governments of other countries to support the revolution, combined with the defeat of the revolution in Egypt.

The local revolutionaries were also unclear on how to respond to the rising repression. Many at first called for non-violence, but this clearly was not an option. With thousands of rank and file Syrian soldiers deserting the army, a military response was inevitable. However, one thing the authors don’t mention (so we can assume it did not happen at least on a general scale) was a systematic integration of the soldiers into the LCCs and to make them part and parcel of the revolutionary movement itself. Instead, they tended to form their own “army” – the “Free Syrian Army”, under the control of a few former officers in Assad’s regime.

The militarization of the people’s revolt along with a lack of clarity on some issues (see below) and the conscious strategy of the Assad regime all helped lead to the rise of the salafi (Muslim fundamentalist) armies, starting with the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian “branch” so to speak of al Qaeda. At times, they met a friendly response when they first entered a town, but this soon changed as their repression and also corruption was revealed.

ISIS, which grew out of al Nusra, was essentially expelled from Syria in the years leading up to 2014. However, the anti-Sunni policies of Iraq’s President Alawi gave them a new lease on life. There, with the popular support of the Sunni population in Western Iraq, ISIS invaded and  took over large parts of that region, including the major city of Mosul. This provided them with a vast source of arms (abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army soldiers) and cash (from the banks that ISIS looted). Bolstered by these resources, they were able to stage a return to Syria. Success breeds success, and their reputation as well as their cash enabled them to win over local Sunni Arab leaders as well as rank and file fighters. Their brutal reputation, which they advertised as much as possible through the internet, also helped them win thousands of foreign fighter recruits. Many of these were petty criminals who admired ISIS’s ruthlessness.

The Syrian Disaster

By 2015, Syria was a disaster. Nearly 220,000 killed and almost a million wounded – 6% of the entire population. 715,000 were held in Assad’s prisons, with some 11,000 having been tortured or starved to death. Nearly the entire population (80%) was living in poverty with 65% in “extreme poverty”.

Syrian city of Aleppo after regime's attack

Syrian city of Aleppo after regime’s attack

Meanwhile, the Assad regime continued its war against its population, dropping barrel bombs filled with nails on busy market places, etc. “Cities became wastelands, villages, homes and livelihoods lay in ruins, communities were deserted as people fled in search of safety, shelter and food.” (p. 149)

Then there is the refugee crisis, with at least half the population having been displaced, either internally or forced to flee their country entirely. Those who remained, lived “in friends’ homes, in schools, in half-built or partially demolished structures, even under bushes.” And as for those who left the country? Either they risked their lives to get to Europe, or they live in tightly packed tent camps, lacking basic commodities, baking in the sun, flooded in the rain, freezing in the winter.

Despite all this, Syria has changed forever. Syria is a very youthful country, and this generation has been transformed. Whereas previous generations had been cowed into silence, even in their own homes, this one is different. As one Syrian put it: ““‘this is a generation that will seek revenge. And it’s a generation that’s seen its friends shot, that’s woken in the night to fire and screams…. but it’s also a generation reared on freedom – on the slogans of freedom, on the lived experience of freedom, if only for a brief passage… A generation of speech to replace the generation of silence.’” (p. 182)

Kurds and Rojava

Much has been made in the left in the US about the developments in Rojava, the main Kurdish area of Syria. Situated along the border with Turkey, this area has been administered by the Kurdish PYD, which in turn is an outgrowth of the Turkish Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. In the past, the PKK had an informal alliance with the Assad regime, and this appears to continue today at least in the form of “live-and-let-live.” According to the authors, Assad withdrew his soldiers from this region with the understanding that the PYD would not organize against his rule. Again, according to the authors, this has meant PYD repression of those anti-Assad forces within Rojava. (The claim of a live-and-let live strategy regarding not only Assad but other regimes in the region seems to be confirmed by this comment of a local PYD leader as reported by a visitor to Rojava: “He says they want to live in peace with all their neighbours, they have no beef with anybody, not even Israel. He talks of the dangers of sectarianism, of Sunni versus Shia, of how the US has encouraged and promoted political Islam and then I hear a surprising analysis: what the US labels ‘Arab spring’ in Syria is mostly an opposition organised by the Muslim Brotherhood and armed by the US.”)

Role of Reformist Forces

The book discusses the role of foreign governments and forces such as Hizbullah. Formerly, the latter was widely admired in Syria for their role in fighting Israel. However, due to their links with the Iranian regime, they are now supporting Assad.

There is also the role of the NGO’s, which has been largely negative. Wherever there is poverty and hunger, there follows the NGO’s like a swarm of locusts. Even in war time Syria they muscled their way in, corrupting and depoliticizing the revolution in their path. The authors quote one Syrian revolutionary: “Worst of all were the NGOs, which depoliticised the councils as much as they could. Imagine a council in an area being bombed not daring to write the word ‘revolution’ in a proposal in case it upset the NGO audience.” (p. 152)

So we see from the role of nationalist groups from Hizbullah to the PYD, and also from the liberal NGOs: Without a clear break from all wings of capitalism, fundamental principles have to be betrayed.

Foreign Capitalist Regimes

The authors explain the role of US government policy as being weak, with half-steps and blunders. They criticize the refusal of US officials to work with local revolutionaries. All of this is ascribed to such things as “cross-cultural blindness,” and simple incompetence.

But the reality is laid out there, right before our eyes. It is not mistakes or incompetence. A clue to this comes in authors’ description of the role of Monsanto in Iraq: The collapse of agriculture in Syria (due to Assad troops bombing, etc.) where possible met the response of community and roof-top gardens. This local farming brought them into conflict with Monsanto, who is pushing GMO crops. “’We saw in Iraq how Monsanto took over local agriculture, GMO was implemented, the seed bank in Abu Ghraib was deliberately destroyed and the agriculture of Iraq was destroyed,” commented a community gardener. (p. 151) But who does the Obama administration represent, in part, but Monsanto? And why does the US government has consistently, time and again, from one country after another, refuse to “work with” local activists (except those which their NGO representatives could corrupt and buy out)? Could it be that more than ISIS, more than their rivals like Russian, Iranian or Chinese capitalism, more in fact than general social breakdown and chaos, Corporate America sees their greatest threat as being the revolt from below?

Former Monsanto Vice President Michael R. Taylor is the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Is it any wonder that the US government is incapable of really supporting the Syrian revolution?

Former Monsanto Vice President Michael R. Taylor (left) is the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Is it any wonder that the US government is incapable of really supporting the Syrian revolution?

This, then, leads us to the “ultimate” question: Different steps are implied to resolve the disaster that is Syrian society today. But what should be considered is the fact that just as there is an underlying strategic reason for Corporate America and their representatives to play the role they do around the world and in that particular region, so there is an underlying reason why that region is in such a disastrous state in one country after another. With government intervention into the for-proift capitalist economy or with neoliberal reforms such as privatization, capitalism has proven it is unable to develop those economies. Likewise, it has proven that it cannot resolve either the issue of the repressed national minorities or the rivalries between the different capitalist regimes. And from the PYD to Hizbullah, all movements of those repressed national minorities that lack both a clear anti-capitalist position, a strategy to link up the issue of special repression of those national minorities with the wider working class struggle, and an overall program and strategy to overthrow capitalism in the entire region will end up making principled compromises.

How could a revolutionary power develop and organize? “Burning Country” provides much of the material to answer this in their description of the role of the Local Coordinating Councils (LCCs). However, we also have to consider their potential role as a rival to the capitalist state. As explained here bodies like this formed or were in the making throughout the world, whenever the movement from below really reached a fever pitch. It is through them that an alternative to the organized power of the rich and big business and the landlords can be really countered and an alternative built. From Syria to Egypt, and all the way back to the Russian Revolution of 1917, we have much to learn from this history. For one thing, through them not only could the power of the working class be harnessed, but the direct links could be made with the real fighters throughout the region and beyond.

Hope for the Future

From here in Oakland, California, it’s impossible to know the concrete details of the movement in Syria and elsewhere in the region, including Turkey, Iraq, etc. But it is difficult to see how a movement can resolve this disaster on a national basis, how it can move forward without direct links and coordination between workers’ organizations throughout the region. In fact, socialists and the workers movement in general are presented with a great opportunity in Western Europe, where hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Syrian refugees have settled. The overwhelming majority of them may be too traumatized to consider getting politically active at this particular point. But there must be some who are not. And even those who are might be willing to help make direct links with their family and friends back home. If socialists are in the forefront in the struggle for immigrant rights, they can build on this to make those initial links and help a true revolutionary socialist movement develop throughout the Mediterranean region.

To this day, the movement continues in Syria. On the authors’ Facebook pages they report on anti-government and anti-ISIS protests throughout Syria as recently as mid March (2016) and this under the most trying of circumstances imaginable. As one activist in Syria commented: Whereas previous generations had been cowed into silence, even in their own homes, this one is different. As one Syrian put it: “‘this is a generation that will seek revenge. And it’s a generation that’s seen its friends shot, that’s woken in the night to fire and screams…. but it’s also a generation reared on freedom – on the slogans of freedom, on the lived experience of freedom, if only for a brief passage… A generation of speech to replace the generation of silence.’” (182)

This generation of speech – and action – can be the basis of a true revolution. An international, socialist revolution.

In March and April of this year, despite everything the Syrian people have gone through, the protests in the streets sprang to life again. Here is a protest in Barzeh on March 18 of 2016

In March and April of this year, despite everything the Syrian people have gone through, the protests in the streets sprang to life again. Here is a protest in Barzeh on March 18 of 2016

  • – Unless otherwise specified, the situation and events reviewed here are based on what is reported in “Burning Country”. For reasons of simplicity, it’s simply reported that way instead of constantly interrupting the narrative with comments like “according to the authors”, etc. Direct quotes from the book are followed by the page number where they appear.

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