Book Review: Extremist Eclipse

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A new book sheds light on the many players involved in the current Syrian conflict.

A new book delivers a gripping account of Syria’s war

BY BRIAN WHITAKER

The war in Syria is becoming less and less about Syria. At the diplomatic level, it has turned into a sordid spectacle where foreign powers with conflicting and probably irreconcilable objectives—most notably Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—squabble amongst themselves. In Europe, it has turned into a debate about immigration and the tightening of border controls. To the extent that the Syrian people figure at all, the goal is no longer a just peace but pacification.
Cutting through this fog of geopolitics, a new book by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami re-focuses the conflict with the people at its center—the people who rose up against a regime which, as the authors say, was “fascist in the most correct sense of the word.” Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War tells a story of heroism on the home front, of mainly unarmed civilians struggling to organize, resist and survive.

The Syrians’ struggle, at least in the early stages, was as diverse as it was remarkable. As the Baathist state retreated, hundreds of local coordinating committees sprang up to fill the space. In “liberated” areas and camps for the internally displaced, some took over the running of schools, supported by volunteer teachers.

Amid food shortages, even gardening acquired a revolutionary tinge. A network known as The 15th Garden provided seeds and expertise so that urban communities could grow “free food for a free people.”

Others turned to journalism and soon the revolution had its own news networks, plus dozens of radio stations and more than 60 newspapers and magazines. This, it should be remembered, was in a country where the launch of a single independent newspaper, Addomari, a decade earlier, proved too much for the authorities to take.

More symbolically, activists began reclaiming emblems of statehood. They adopted the independence flag from the 1930s—its three stars representing three anti-colonial uprisings—while a Facebook project created imaginary postage stamps commemorating key figures and events of the revolution.

This, of course, was all happening against a background of brutal repression and by 2013 the effects of the counter-revolution were taking a severe toll. Even so, during the first two years of the uprising, Shami and Yassin-Kassab say, Syria witnessed “an explosion of creativity, expression and debate unlike anything in its history.”

The authors’ sympathies lie clearly with these grassroots activists and others broadly labeled as the “democratic opposition” who have now been eclipsed by more extreme elements. Explaining how this eclipse came about is one of Burning Country’s most important features since it’s also key to understanding much of the current morass.

In part, the authors also blame the U.S. for its lack of support—ironic, considering previous American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East—but they leave no doubt that the main cause of the democratic revolutionaries’ problems was Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which, from the outset, had been determined to marginalize them. “The double aim of the counter-revolutionary strategy,” the authors write, “was to frighten secularists and religious minorities into loyalty, and the West into tolerance of the dictatorship’s violence.”

Both those goals have now been partly achieved; the second more so. The regime’s narrative of being under attack from Muslim terrorists was one it also contrived to turn into fact: “At the same time that it was targeting thousands of non-violent, non-sectarian revolutionaries for death-by-torture, the regime released up to 1,500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists from its prisons.”

But this only partly explains how violent Muslims came to predominate, and the authors explore a variety of other factors. The militant group Daesh, they say, has little popular support in Syria and support for extremist groups in general often seemed more pragmatic than ideological. On the other hand, the trauma of war does tend to drive people towards religion. A man from Aleppo shows the authors a photo of a friend who previously worked in aid distribution, and tells them:

“He was a secularist; here you see him surrounded by unveiled women. One day a regime shell hit his house and his brother was killed. He came to me and said ‘everything we’re doing is useless—I`m going to fight.’ Next I heard he’d joined Jabhat Al Nusra.

“Then he moved to Daesh. Once he was with them, their brainwashing turned him into someone unrecognizable. The last time I spoke to him on the phone, he told me he’d behead me himself if I ever came back to Syria. The whole process took six months.”

Frightening as that might seem, it does raise the question of whether such groups might one day be abandoned as readily as they have been embraced. Overall, though, Burning Country gives little reason to be hopeful. Building a free and just society out of Syria’s wreckage will be an almost impossible task, the authors say. At present, the machinations of foreign powers are clearly not making the task any easier, but the ultimate blame surely lies with the Assad regime which has been more willing to see Syria destroyed than to surrender power.

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