Burning Country

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“Revolutionary Syrians often describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth,” explain authors Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami in Burning Country. “At first I was scared to join in. But one day there was a very big demonstration, which came from two directions. When I heard the chanting and the singing, I started crying. Suddenly I was filled with courage, and I picked myself up and walked out to join in. My mother tried to stop me but I went anyway. It was a beautiful experience. I felt that at last I was participating in the effort to lift the oppression from all of us,” explains an engineering student from Homs.

The voices of those Syrians who were at the heart of the revolution shine throughout this book. It’s a compelling read, charting the course of the Syrian revolution from 2011 until today. In detail it describes the regime’s savage response, “a baptism of horror after which there was no going back”. How, “not silenced but goaded into fiercer revolt, the people organised in revolutionary committees and called not just for reform but the complete overthrow of the system. “Eventually, as soldiers defected, the revolution militarised. Then when the state collapsed or was beaten back people set up local councils, aid distribution networks, radio stations and newspapers, expressing communal solidarity in the most creative of ways.”

This detailing of the widespread establishment of self-governance networks organised through Local Coordinating Committees, and the establishment of the Free Syrian Army to defend the areas controlled by the revolutionaries, is the strongest part of this book. “We used to laugh at the regime propaganda about Salafist gangs and Islamic emirates,” explains Syrian revolutionary, Monzer al-Sallal. Then “the regime created the conditions to make it happen”.

Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad brutally attacked all protesters, but his strategy from the start was to divide and rule, to stoke up sectarian divisions. The most brutal attacks — barrel bombs dropped by helicopter — were targeted on the working class areas, specifically on the Sunni population. Better armed and better trained fighters, those sponsored by regional powers, Islamist groups, and finally ISIS, grew.

Serdar Ahmed is a secular, revolutionary Kurd. He says: “The religious think it’s a war on Islam. We think it’s a war on the Syrian people. We hate Daesh [ISIS], but you must compare them to Assad. Daesh’s worst crime in Syria was the massacre at Taqa airbase where they killed 220. Assad has killed 200,000. He has committed thousands of massacres. When people saw the coalition leaving Assad alone and attacking Daesh instead, some started saying, ‘We are all Daesh!’ Every bomb the coalition drops, the more popular Daesh becomes.”

Read this book to better understand the Syrian revolution, the people who made it, and the war from which so many have fled.