Activist Leila Al-Shami and writer Robin Yassin-Kassab were in New York last month to publicize their book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (London: Pluto Press, 2016), which provides a comprehensive account of the Syrian revolution from its inception in 2011 to the present. Through interviews with Syrians from across the spectrum of society, the book charts the trajectory of the uprising from the grassroots civil society initiatives that lie at the core of the uprising to its militarization and sectarian polarization. Ella Wind interviewed them for Field Notes.
Ella Wind (Rail): While the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia is known around the world, as is the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt, the origins of the Syrian uprising are relatively obscure. How did the Syrian uprising begin and why are its origins less known than those of the other Arab uprisings?
Al-Shami: I think a significant part of why it is less known is that people in the West were less connected to Syria from the beginning. Very few foreigners had ever visited Syria and very little was written in either journalistic or academic accounts compared with other places in the region, like Egypt or Palestine.
Yassin-Kassab: I would add that the lack of knowledge was also due to Syria not fitting into the schema of the Arab uprisings that people initially had in their heads. For some progressives in the West, who had been politicized primarily by Palestine and the occupation of Iraq, the Tunisian and Egyptian régimes were puppet dictatorships, so their popular overthrow fit into the ideas people had about Middle East politics. But a popular uprising in Syria did not fit into this so-called anti-imperialist framework so cleanly.
Al-Shami: As for the origins of the uprising, you have to place the Syrian uprising in the context of the transnational uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. The main changes the people were calling for were quite in line with the rest of the Arab uprisings: political freedoms after decades of one-party, one-man Ba’athist rule, as well as broader demands for social justice and an end to the neoliberal policies brought in under Bashar al-Assad.
Yassin-Kassab: Neoliberalism had a lot to do with it. Hafez [Bashar al-Assad’s father] ruled by force and fear, but he also made deals with the population. Various sectors of the population gave up political power and rights for something in return: Alawis gained representation in the military and government offices; some Sunnis reaped economic benefits; and many minority groups saw themselves as benefiting from the modernization policies of those years. Under Bashar’s rule, those deals broke down. Large sections of the population couldn’t put food on the table and people naturally began to wonder why they should put up with the daily humiliations of living under a dictator. That’s the broad background, but it’s ultimately a mystery why it came about at this particular time across the region. The drought was likely a contributing factor as well. Overall, Syria was suffering from a general state collapse that had been going on for decades and which touched every aspect of life—failure of the educational sector, failure of the agriculture sector, failure to ensure economic growth—
Al-Shami: —and this enormous population growth in the previous decades, which created a large population of frustrated youth who were connected to the broader world by the internet.
Rail: Much is made over the labels and euphemisms used to refer to what is going on in Syria: revolution, uprising, conflict, genocide, war. You seem to favor the label “revolution.” Why is that?
Yassin-Kassab: All of the above can work but “revolution” is the best label to describe what is going on in Syria, because it has been such a complete and total change on every level—cultural, political, and social—from the establishment of local councils across the country, to the revolution in women’s participation in society, everything has been questioned. All kinds of authoritarianism are being reexamined.
Al-Shami: It’s hard to understand how radical the changes have been in Syria if you didn’t know the country pre-2011. The things people discuss now in Syria—which seem very normal in most societies—were simply off-limits before. But beyond that, I call it a revolution because when I talk to those in Syria with whom I identify politically, that’s the term that they use themselves. People ask whether there’s still a revolution but the recent outpouring of demonstrations that we have seen should, I think, erase those doubts. We’ve all questioned if there are still people on the ground struggling with these ideals, and the recent demonstrations confirm that yes, they are still there and they are still struggling. So we have to show those revolutionaries our support.
Rail: While virtually all the Arab uprisings have witnessed some degree of violent conflict, Syria stands out among the Arab uprisings as the most bloody and tragic. What makes Syria’s uprising different?
Al-Shami: One thing that makes it so different was how thorough it was. In other countries they got rid of the head of state but did not get rid of any of the institutions of the deep state—the army officers, the Mukhabarat intelligence apparatus, the local political elites. In Syria, large swaths of the country were liberated and alternatives were put in. There were many positive examples of self-organization such as local elections for councils in very hard conditions. The repression against the uprising and the scale of the state’s response was especially brutal for this reason.
Yassin-Kassab: I see two main reasons. The first is the sectarian aspect: The régime was able to explode sectarian potentials, which fit into various regional fault lines that already had been put in place by the United States occupation, the Saudis, Saddam, and others. A parallel case we can point to is Yemen, which is also in very bad shape now and has a similar sectarian aspect. Once the régime managed to divide society around this cleavage, Iran and Saudi Arabia jumped in to engage in the conflict. The second major aspect can be seen in the comparison between Syria and Libya—the power and commitment of the régime’s international backers. Without Iran and Russia, the régime would have collapsed at least twice by now. There have been several periods of near collapse with these powers stepping in at the last minute to prop it up again. Bashar’s régime survives because imperial powers want it to survive, and it is supplied with footsoldiers in the Iranian case, and air power and money in the Russian case.
Rail: Burning Country. . . discusses how the uprising led at first to a great deal of cross-sectarian organizing and cooperation and how the conflict eventually came to fracture along sectarian lines. How did the Syrian conflict come develop a sectarian aspect that was not so important originally?
Yassin-Kassab: As in any society, there have been long-term sectarian, regional, and class tensions in Syria over the course of history, but there is nothing predetermined about their saliency. Sects at war in one moment can be natural allies later. We explain at length in the book how the régime coopted the Alawite community. They were wary of having any independent leadership in the community, and they have carefully kept alive the fears and divisions between sects to their own benefit. Samar Yazbek’s book The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria shows how the government militias went about whipping up sectarian fears on the coast, and how Bashar insisted on describing everyone involved in the rebellion as a Salafist well before there was a Salafi presence in the country. Early on, the government also released from prison Salafists that had returned from jihad in Iraq.
Now other sectarian tensions have come in as well. The sectarian dysfunctions of Turkey, Chechnya, and Iraq have all arrived and taken root in Syria.
Al-Shami: It’s important to point out that it was a cross-sectarian uprising. There was a lot of work being done at the cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic level, such as that of the Kurdish-Arab Fraternity Coordination Committee in Aleppo, and the active civil society organizations working in mixed communities like Al-Salamiyah, Yabroud, and elsewhere with very mixed sectarian populations. There are still such activities happening and it will be necessary to develop these organizations more in the post-conflict period.
Rail: Much of the squeamishness around Syria from the United States and British Left stems from what many see as parallels to the Iraq War. Do you find any merits in drawing this comparison?
Yassin-Kassab: I see no similarity whatsoever. To me, this represents a very silly way of doing politics, where something that happens somewhere in the Middle East must have the same dynamics as something else happening in the Middle East. The facts of these two cases are entirely different. The United States is not invading and occupying Syria, and is not interested in régime change. There was no popular uprising in Iraq that precipitated the collapse of the régime there. Syria is somewhat more similar to Iraq in 1991, after the United States and its allies destroyed the Iraqi state, and the north and south of Iraq had mass uprisings. In that case, the United States allowed Saddam to use helicopter gunships to get the population under his control again.
Rail: The Syrian uprising and war is usually spoken about in terms of ethnic and racial divisions, but does the conflict have a class component as well?
Al-Shami: Yes, certainly. That goes back to what we have been saying about the origins of the uprising. The neoliberal reforms, which the régime brought, meant we first saw the uprising in poor rural areas and working-class suburbs. There’s a definite class component and there has been an inability to see the class component from the outside.
Yassin-Kassab: Yes, that’s a widespread problem, which leads people to attribute everything to sectarian divisions. Academics and commentators as well as people in the street tend to assume that sectarian divisions are immutable and they don’t seem to analyze why suddenly they become salient at a particular point in history. For example, in the Lebanese Civil War, Christians and Muslims were seen as “natural enemies” but now the major political sectarian faultlines are between Sunni and Shia. Before 2003, one-third of marriages in Iraq were Sunni-Shia. Obviously, it’s not that people’s blood or ancient religious texts have changed, it’s the broader political context that allows these divisions to have meaning at a particular time. But even in the early days of the uprising you still had Robert Fisk saying people should study this like a Sunni-Shia conflict instead of attempting a class analysis.
Al-Shami: Syria was run like a mafia state, but it wasn’t just Alawis that benefited, there were Sunni businessmen cliques that benefited too. And then there were other key families, like that of Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar, who was said to own as much as sixty percent of the Syrian economy. And these families had key investments in real estate, in industry, in telecommunications. At the same time, most people were finding it harder to make ends meet—you had a lot of professionals who were teachers by day and taxi drivers by night, for example.
Rail: It’s also interesting how the régime itself really tries to create these class divides in its own media outlets’ portrayals of the uprising. Like in the videos of pro-régime rallies, the stations would highlight the women with jeans and blonde hair and the guys with muscles. They were always focusing on the régime supporters as this sort of bourgeois, elite crowd.
Yassin-Kassab: Right, and on the opposite side, you have the prototypical protester, Abu Shahata (the guy wearing flip flops) who’s supposed to be poor, unsophisticated—the unwashed masses.
Al-Shami: There’s the issue that when you talk to Western journalists, they often just see a middle-class uprising, because they know people through Skype and the internet, but that’s not the base of the revolution. The base is really these people from poor rural areas and suburbs, but these aren’t the ones publishing the websites, contacting journalists, and making the Facebook pages.
Yassin-Kassab: Meanwhile, there are people in the United States that really favor this depiction of Syrians as the poor masses in a negative sense, like when Ben Carson referred to refugees as “rabid dogs.” The Right is immediately jumping on that image—these people are dangerous, they’re foreign, and therefore a security threat. The Left, of course, tries to be nicer to refugees, but in fact, it was many of these leftist journalists who really created these tropes in the first place when they portrayed the Syrian revolution as a backward Islamic uprising. Patrick Cockburn in his book on ISIS The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution describes the Syrian uprising as “an opposition that shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy.”
Rail: Your book delves into Kurdish politics as it relates to the broader dynamics in Syria (especially the régime), Kurdish civil society before the uprising, and the broad Syrian opposition. What do you think is generally missing from the discussion or misunderstood in political analyses of Syrian Kurdistan?
Yassin-Kassab: There’s some romanticization or fetishization of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), where they are often posed as the one true progressive force in Syria, because of these images of Kurdish women fighters and the councils that were established. I think it’s a good thing that people have shown support of Rojava, because the Kurdish issue in Syria was something that was put on the back-burner for a long time, and of course Kurds faced a great deal of Arab chauvinism. There has been a huge victory on the national level for Kurds, who can now educate their children in their own language. It’s good that people have shown solidarity with the Kurdish councils there, but it’s a shame that people have written off the very similar self-elected councils in Arab areas.
There’s a selectivity about which experiments in self-organization people have chosen to highlight and praise. The Arab councils have been subjected to all sorts of terrible war on the part of the régime and ISIS, whereas Rojava was allowed to exist more or less autonomously before ISIS attacked it. It was a shame that people fell into these distinctions that the Kurds were feminists and progressive and the Arabs were backward and religious. There’s of course something to this—the Kurdish organizations do have more representation of women, for example—but it’s a gross simplification, just like sectarianism or racism of any kind. In the course of writing the book, the Kurds we talked to discussed the growing authoritarianism and dominance of the PYD and of course, in recent weeks, the PYD has been invading Arab majority areas. Federalism could be a very good idea in Syria; but when the PYD talks about federalism right now, while they are invading other people’s lands, they are giving it a bad name.
Rail: Do you have any insights into or analysis of the recent ceasefire and announcement that Russia has undertaken some degree of withdrawal?
Al-Shami: We prefer to call this a reduction of hostilities rather than a ceasefire, as fatalities have gone from one hundred and twenty killed a day to forty a day. Nevertheless, something very exciting and unexpected has happened in this period: the revival of the protest movement. I think many of us who follow Syria closely still manage to be surprised by how many people across the country have been coming out everywhere under the revolutionary flag and not black jihadist banners. It is also very interesting to see the recent tensions among the opposition and more extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra through these demonstrations. Before this, there was some degree of acceptance of al-Nusra among the opposition because of their effectiveness against Assad, but these recently publicized tensions show a recognition that allies in a broader fight against the régime are still not allies in building the state people want to see. People do not want to replace one authoritarianism with another. This is very positive and shows how much the Syrian people have developed politically in reaction to different types of authoritarianism.
It really must have been Assad’s worst nightmare to see people back on the streets in Idlib. The militarization of the uprising has sidelined women in the uprising, but in these demonstrations we also saw the return of women to the street.
Yassin-Kassab: The fact that people are rising against Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib recently shows the stupidity of the notion that the United States has to work with Assad and Russia to work against jihadism. As soon as the people have any respite from Assad, they immediately go against Nusra. That is very powerful.
Russia claims to fight ISIS but has been totally ineffective. Similarly, the PYD claims to be effective but is really only effective under heavy American air cover. So we say, support the people. The argument has always been that the Islamists would benefit from support, but these demonstrations show that it is precisely the lack of support that brought the Islamists.
The truth is, no one knows exactly what’s been going on with the Russian “withdrawal” or rotation of forces. I fear that there is an upcoming solution through partition of the country into two, three, or four zones of influence, which I do not think will be a real solution, but rather a continuation of the war.