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Mirror from Damascus

In a war that remains unfinished, two Syrian-British writers acknowledge and affirm those whose stories and lives may be lost in its course.

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How do you write the history of a war ongoing? The subjects of an early chapter might change sides or be killed by the time you finish writing. Upon publication, the latest events in the book will be out of date. In the following months (or years), a faulty prediction of the outcome of the war might weaken your entire argument.

With the conflict in Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have risked these temporal challenges for the sake of two greater needs: to document and to comprehend. Their book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, is both exposition and record of the people behind the Syrian uprising. From their early premise that “it’s most accurate to think of Syria as a collective of 23 million individuals,” Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami work to undo the narrative traps that define popular perceptions of Syria, giving color to the individuals who have mounted alternatives for the country and whose stories are little known.

What distinguishes the book from other reporting on Syria is its deep look at how cultural and intellectual production has evolved alongside the conflict. Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab detail the explosion in the production of art, music, and literature, until recently the domain of the elite. They find unprecedented public discourse on political issues, and for the first time, the proliferation of independent magazines, newspapers, and radio programs. They encounter solidarity for and among previously stigmatized or unknown towns, something the regime’s nation-building efforts never achieved. As they write, the uprising has birthed “a generation of speech to replace the generation of silence.”

The resilience of the civil revolutionaries is matched only by the depravity of the war, which Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab chronicle in stark detail. There’s the regime’s deliberate strategy to get rid of civil activists through threats, imprisonment, or death. There’s the accounts of unthinkable cruelty: torture, barrel bombings, deprivation and starvation (as a woman from eastern Ghouta tells them, “Hunger is the most effective weapon of all.”) In these conditions, they show how subnational identities are reinforced, especially towards Islamism, both moderate and extreme.

Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab both grew up in the UK with Syrian and British parents and live in Scotland. Prior to writing Burning Country, Al-Shami worked for fifteen years as a human rights activist in Syria and the surrounding region. Her involvement with anti-authoritarian movements brought her into contact with people later at the forefront of the uprising (such as Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and founding member of the nonviolent Local Coordination Committees), many of whom provided source material for the book. Yassin-Kassab is a novelist and frequent commentator on the region. He lived in Syria previously and made two short visits in 2013 while working on the book. Much of their first-person information came from communicating with activists through Facebook or Twitter.

We spoke in New York in the late spring, and since then I have willed for a breakthrough development to reinforce the many messages of determination and hope conveyed in the book. If the breaking of the siege of Aleppo in early August was one such development, the subsequent dropping of more incendiary bombs by the joint Syrian-Russian military operation gave fresh weight to the book’s title. Our conversation considered the false hope in Bashar al-Assad, how Chomsky and others get it wrong on foreign uprisings, and why the decision not to fly the revolutionary flag in classrooms in an opposition town is a radical act.

Henry Peck for Guernica

Guernica: To what extent did you expect an uprising in Syria?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: It was a surprise to me. Embarrassingly, when the revolution was happening in Tunisia, the Guardian got me and various other writers to answer the question “Is there going to be a revolution there?” I was given Syria, and I said, “No, of course not!” And I gave very good reasons why not. The day that was published, somebody named Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in Hassakeh [a city in north-eastern Syria]. It didn’t start anything, but a few days later there was the first day of rage.

Leila Al-Shami: I was living in Palestine when the Arab Spring broke out. I remember discussing it with friends there, and I said no, the occupation in Palestine will end before you see demonstrators on the streets of Damascus. But once it did break out, I expected the response of the state to be as brutal as it has been, whereas I think Robin still held out for some hope, as many Syrians did, that Bashar would respond with some reforms.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: I was very disturbed from the start, but I hear that so many people inside Syria had been on the fence until Assad’s first speech to the parliament. In that speech he presented his conspiracy theories, his giggles, and his declaration of readiness for a fight. At that point I knew it was going to be very, very tough. In retrospect, of course, I think all the signs were there, in 2008, 2009, 2010, that something was going to happen. The neoliberal reforms—people were increasingly desperate; poverty was growing.

Guernica: You describe Bashar al-Assad’s first speech after the initial protests as a signal event for the uprising. What was the source of his popularity up to this point? Why were there such expectations around him?

Leila Al-Shami: Before it broke out, I think a lot of Syrians were unaware of things that were going on in Syria under Bashar—the extent of the political arrests and forced disappearances, the extent of the torture. My father’s generation was very aware of what the regime was like because they’d lived through the Hafez years, but I think people of my generation had not experienced it directly, and because things weren’t openly discussed, they were often made blissfully unaware of what it was like for those who were engaged in political issues.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: There were two reasons why people gave Bashar the benefit of the doubt. The first was the security environment in the region: with the Americans going into Iraq, perhaps coming next to Syria, [Syrians believed that] he can’t change anything because of this difficult circumstance, even though he really wants to. I think he encouraged this perception. And secondly: he wants to change things, but there are still members of the old guard who are holding him back. So when the protests broke out, now it seems very naive, but I remember people saying this will help him, he’ll be able to say to the old guard, Look, the people are unhappy. We have to change, like I’ve always been saying. So people did have this perception that he personally was nice even if the rest of the regime wasn’t.

Guernica: This brings up the creation of narrative and the differences in local and international perceptions of the conflict. How does information flow in the region about this extraordinary period?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: I think there’s more awareness in the Arab world of what’s happening. It’s still obscured by certain agendas. For example, famously, Al-Jazeera tends to prefer to put a kind of Muslim Brotherhood spin on things. These are also to some extent or other state-aligned networks, Al-Arabiya with Saudi Arabia, Al-Jazeera with Qatar and so on.

And of course the historical background. Until quite recently, a lot of what happened in the Arab world did happen through conspiracies, either imperialist like the British and French carve-up with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and all of the things that happened behind closed doors that the people learned about after it was imposed upon them. Or conspiracies and plots behind military coups, parties which weren’t really parties and came to power through the militaries, and people would wake up to discover that a new set of generals had moved into the radio station and a new set of tanks was in the street. Meaning everything seemed to be out of the hands of the people.

So it’s not surprising that Arabs often are ready to see things in terms of plots and conspiracies. Everything changed in 2011—there were earlier signs, but certainly from 2011, people have taken to the streets and have occupied workplaces and have taken direct action, in some cases picked up weapons to have a direct effect on what happens in their states.

Guernica: How would you evaluate the coverage of Syria from Western media?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: Well it’s complicated and it’s a mixed story. There have been some really great and very brave journalists. Many of them have given their lives for it. At the same time I think there’s been a real failure of commentary dressed up as reportage. There’s various reasons for that, but one is that people arrive with their pre-existing grand narratives, and they feel that they don’t need to talk to Syrians or examine the detail of what’s happening because they think they already know. For example, it’s part of the eternal Sunni-Shi’a conflict, which is totally inaccurate. Or, that we have a binary choice between security states and jihadism. [Those who believe that] are willing idiots who just fall for the propaganda frameworks that regimes, and in particular the Syrian regime, have set up for them.

And then you have figures on the left like Chomsky, for example, who whenever he’s talking in public says, “I know what’s happening in Syria because my friend Patrick tells me,” referring to Patrick Cockburn. Patrick Cockburn’s writing on the issue has been sectarian. In his book he refers to Sunni Islamists as Nazis and Shi’a Muslims as Jews repeatedly. He describes the Syrian opposition as an opposition which shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy. That’s ISIS, not the opposition. And he’s never once, as far as I know, talked about the democratically elected councils and the free newspapers and so on. It’s been shocking. Robert Fisk, who wrote a good article during the Iraq war about the dangers of embedded journalism, went to the Darayya massacre embedded with the Syrian military that had just committed the massacre, and came up with a very weird propagandistic narrative of what had happened, which [journalist] Janine Di Giovanni, for example, contradicts, the local coordination committees on the ground contradicted, and local people contradicted.

People like us, naively I think, would have expected that the left, the people who describe themselves as progressives and leftists, and who shout in countries where they’ve not seen revolutions for decades and decades and wouldn’t recognize a revolution if it bit them on the nose (we would have maybe expected those people to actually attend to voices from the ground), to show some interest, to build some solidarity. Of course there are worrying aspects of the popular uprising. It includes all kinds of things, including retrograde Islamism, criminals, and opportunists, which of course would scare people away. But you would have expected them to try and find people with whom they had some common ground and show some solidarity, and try to amplify those voices, but they haven’t—in fact they’ve helped to create these narratives that have made solidarity impossible.

And when you look at it, it goes back. I now learn, but kind of knew this at the time, that people like Chomsky and Tariq Ali, during the near-genocidal attack on Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims, they were so terrified about American intervention that they were busy saying Oh, it’s not so bad what’s happening in Bosnia, and even apparently in Rwanda and Cambodia. Oh, it’s not so bad; we should leave those people alone. Okay it might be a bit bad, but American imperialism is worse. And then it just becomes an Oedipal thing, that I have to prove to myself and others that I’m an opponent of American imperialism, even if American imperialism is not really involved in the situation, even if the Americans are doing everything they can to hand it over to other imperialist powers.

Guernica: This is reminiscent of the fracturing of the left during the Spanish Civil War, rather than the coalescence around a unified struggle.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: Yes. That’s a very good parallel.

Guernica: I particularly appreciated the book’s descriptions of the radio channels, magazines, and journals that have emerged, many of which I hadn’t come across.

Leila Al-Shami: This has been a major achievement of the Syrian revolution because prior to 2011 no independent media existed in Syria at all. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria the third worst country in which to be a blogger. But since 2011 you’ve had an explosion of different kinds of media. For example, independent radio stations such as Radio Fresh in Kafranbel, set up by a group of young activists, where they debate all aspects of the revolution, both positive and negative. They’ve been attacked, they’ve also had their equipment confiscated and journalists arrested, later to be released due to popular pressure. There’s Radio Naseem in Aleppo, the first independent radio station in Aleppo which was established by women, so they’re doing a lot of focus on women’s issues and women’s involvement in the revolution. And you have dozens of newspapers there now, for example in Darayya, Enab Baladi, or Local Grapes, which was also set up by women. Darayya is a community you might have heard of—it’s had barrel bombs daily, it’s been subject to a starvation siege, it’s been gassed, but this magazine focuses on unarmed civil resistance, so the fact that all of these ideas are being debated now, it’s just a really positive thing, and people don’t see those achievements.

And citizen journalists too. Thousands of citizens journalists are risking their lives to document what’s going on and get the information to the outside world. It is the most documented revolution in history, and still people are asking every time we have a talk, “Where can we get information from?” Well, it might be a bit hard initially to make the contact or make the links, but once you get into social media it just opens up for you. There’s so much information available.

Guernica: How has education fared?

Leila Al-Shami: The state education was so much about indoctrinating children into Baathist ideology, the president, the homeland, and these kinds of concepts. It’s really interesting how people have responded to that. Some people have just torn those aspects out of the textbook. Others have tried to develop an education system which is also based on indoctrination, put indoctrination into the revolutionary ideology. But then a lot of young people have been doing very creative things questioning that concept of indoctrination and trying to move away from ideological forms of education, instead encourage questioning, and that’s something very positive. One example is Kesh Malek in Aleppo.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: Zaid Muhammad of Kesh Malek said to me, We refuse to have the revolutionary flag in our classrooms, even though we’re prepared to die for it on the streets.

Guernica: You also quote Ra’ed Fares, the director of the media center at Kafranbel and a central figure of the revolutionary movement, who, when asked if he would have joined the protest movement in 2011 had he known what would happen, says no: “The price was too high. . . . But it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.” With so many people behind the movement imprisoned or killed, from afar it can be hard to imagine the capacity and will to keep going.

Leila Al-Shami: Syrians are not living in a vacuum. They’re very well aware of the debates that are going on in the world. You only need to look at the posters that Kafranbel does in English to see how much they’re responding to current debates that this is a choice between Assad or ISIS. And they want to go out and affirm that it isn’t a choice between these two different fascisms, that they’re fully committed to the original goals of the revolution. Protesters are chanting solidarity with other areas, to really say, “Look we’re still one movement; we still have common aims.

Guernica: How do you consider the ceasefire efforts, and to what degree have they represented the local councils you describe as filling the void left by the withdrawal of government services?

Leila Al-Shami: The negotiations have not included representatives in any meaningful way from the local councils, and we have to remember that these are the only democratically elected representatives of Syrians that we have. They should be playing a key role in the negotiations, and they’re not. Also with women and civil society, they tend to have these very tokenistic little consultation side events, when they should be key figures in the negotiations.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: The American and European governments do sometimes work with the local councils, for the pragmatic reasons that if they wanted to deliver aid to the people on the ground, the only way to do it is through the organizations that Syrians have set up themselves, but they don’t talk about it. We met somebody from the State Department in Washington, and he said that the reason is that local councils don’t want it to be known that they’re receiving aid from America because they fear that then they will be tarred as agents of imperialism or something. He was talking about practical examples—if there’s a bag of rice, they won’t put an American flag on it—and that’s fair enough. I understand that absolutely.

But on the political level, I think they should talk about the councils because that would immediately give them [political recognition]—and maybe they don’t talk about them because that would give them political recognition. Nobody knows about them really outside, and that’s shocking. And as I keep saying in talks, supposedly more than a decade ago, the Arabs having democracy was an enormous priority for Britain and America, and that was one of the supposed reasons for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and of course it was absurd because you can’t build a democracy for other people, only people themselves can do it. But in Syria there are people doing it, in the most difficult of circumstances, in the middle of a war, when they’re being attacked by everybody. Because a revolution is going on, and for practical reasons because they have to organize their communities, they’re holding elections and organizing councils.

In the Arab world in general, I think we’ve been cursed by these strong centralized nation states. Well, in the world in general, really. I think it’s a post-colonial problem. During the colonial period, Arabs and others thought, “Why are these Europeans so incredibly powerful that they can come and take over our societies? It must be because they have these strong centralized states with strong armies loyal to the center and so on. When we’re independent we want the same thing. But the evidence shows that strong centralized states do not result in strong peoples and communities. Quite the opposite.

Leila Al-Shami: All the ideologies that came out of the post-colonial struggle—Islamism, Arab nationalism, or socialism—all really fetishized this idea of having this very strong centralized state. That’s what’s been very interesting about the Syrian revolution, really challenging a lot of those ideas, either from an ideological basis, like has been happening in the Kurdish areas, or out of necessity, and people needing to self-organize on a local level. I hope that they fight to keep some of that autonomy.

Guernica: Much has been said about the Obama administration not following through on its threat to use military force against the Assad regime when it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. What do you think the US should have done?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: The Americans’ most significant intervention has actually been to veto others giving anti-aircraft weapons to the resistance. I think if the Syrians were able to liberate large areas themselves, if they’d then been able to defend themselves from aerial assault and from Assad’s scorched earth policies, you wouldn’t have had the vacuum in which transnational jihadists jumped in, you wouldn’t have had the mass refugee crisis. The local councils would not have just been focusing on trying to keep life going, trying to survive; they could have actually been building a democratic alternative, which would have been a good example, which the rest of the country would have seen, and I think that would have politically finished Assad. I think that any civilians anywhere in the world, whoever they are, who are subjected to continuous full-scale military assault, have a right to defend themselves.

About foreign intervention: if there were a no-fly zone, I would fully agree with that. Not because I have any illusions in states—I don’t—but I do think that at certain moments you can get an alignment of state interests with the interests of people on the ground. It’s not in the interests of Europe or even America for extremism in the Middle East to have its narrative fed. It’s not in their interests to have jihadist groups making their bases in Middle Eastern countries, and that’s what’s happening as a result of the violence. If they weren’t going to arm the people, which would have been the best solution, then they should have established a no-fly zone, and they’re paying for it and they will continue to pay for it.

In Libya, it seems to be a general assumption amongst leftists and a lot of the right that Libya is a terrible, awful mess because of the fairly brief months in which Britain and France were bombing Qaddafi’s tanks. And I can’t agree with that, I’m afraid. That seems to me a grotesque oversimplification. It’s the same kind of Euro-centric or West-centric approach that when white people or white states do something, suddenly it has consequences and history is being made. The fact that there was a four-decade psychotic dictatorship in which politics was banned, that’s irrelevant. The fact that there was a popular revolution, and in the first days, the army split—irrelevant. The fact that every young man in the country got a weapon in order to defend themselves from Qaddafi’s assault—irrelevant. Then the British and the French bombing for a few months, that’s very, very relevant. That determines everything that happens in the entire Middle East forever afterwards. This is just idiotic racism, as if the people on the ground have no agency.

Of course there is horrible chaos on the ground in Libya now. You could make the argument that after helping to get rid of Qaddafi, after helping to defend the Libyan—for their own reasons, they wanted to buy oil and gas from Libya and it was politically impossible when he was slaughtering people, and they didn’t want a Syria right across from Italy, which is what it would be like now, if Qaddafi had stayed and had been able to brutalize the country to that extent—maybe they should have stayed a bit longer. Maybe there should have been some kind of United Nations stabilization force that would have disarmed the militias and stayed there until there was one recognized government or some kind of new system. They chose not to, so I think maybe the argument that there was too little intervention may be a better argument. There are serious problems in Libya, of course there are, after such a long time of dictatorship and after a brief civil war. But 5,000 people have died in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi. In Syria it’s 500,000 people, and the regime has unfortunately not yet fallen. It’s the regime which is doing most of the killing and the displacement.

Guernica: How did you share the work on the book?

Leila Al-Shami: Well, we split up the chapters—we took half each. I think one of the advantages of the book is that we both come from very different backgrounds and have quite different perspectives. Alone, I don’t think we would have been able to cover the breadth of what we managed to cover. In terms of the interviews, most were carried out in countries in the region, and we did a lot of Skype interviews with people inside Syria, family members, activists, people from a range of different backgrounds. It just naturally happened that we got people from a range of religions, ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds, people from urban areas and rural areas, who have very different experiences of the revolution.

Guernica: Why did you not interview or include any perspectives sympathetic to the regime?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: We interviewed a couple of people, certainly one person who was anti-revolution but not really pro-regime. We didn’t really interview pro-regime people because we felt that those perspectives were already on show and being repeated everywhere in the Western media. But what we did try to do was contextualize the points of view of people that we disagreed with, including pro-regime communities and the various forms of Islamists who we don’t agree with. Even the mad jihadists are not mad, most of them—one or two of them are—but it comes from a social and cultural and political context. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum, and we tried to contextualize that. But certainly, I don’t think either of us could have written the book alone. Leila worked with Razan Zeitouneh and others in the Arab Spring period, so her awareness of what was happening there was much greater than mine.

Guernica: What’s next for you both? Will you return to the region?

Leila Al-Shami: No. . . . I got back from the Middle East two weeks before this tour began. And now I’m hoping to settle for a bit in Scotland and not think about the Middle East for a while because I’m quite exhausted with it all, and certainly the Middle East is a very different place now than when I moved out there in 2000. At that time, and for many years, I thought I would make my life there and that I would never want to return to Europe. But now it just doesn’t seem like an appealing place to stay. I mean, the whole region is in conflict, turmoil, and disaster. I’m opting for the quiet life. I want to get back to my gardening.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: I hardly dare say it, but I’m trying to finish a novel. I hardly dare say it because I’ve started so many novels and not finished them. And also I’ve been waylaid by various life events and a move from the Middle East back to Britain and so on. And then the Syrian revolution has come and grabbed hold of me and slapped my head against the desk. But I’m writing a novel set in Syria in the first years of the revolution, which keeps changing, and I hope it’s getting towards the end. It never works out like that, but I hope that I’m going to be able to take a few months and concentrate on that.

That’s what I want to do, is write novels. I think [Burning Country] is very valuable, but I don’t feel it’s mine. I feel it’s the voices of the people. Of course, to an extent it is ours. We’ve synthesized things and so on, but I feel almost embarrassed signing the copies of the book at the end of events because if it were a novel, it would be like, “Yes, I’m very clever; I’m great and I’ve made some beautiful sentences, and I’ll put my name to it, and there you are, thank you. Do you want to take my picture?” Whereas with this, I’m not the hero of this story. The hero is the people we spoke to and the people on the ground that we didn’t speak to as well.

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