And if you follow this link, and listen from 40 minutes till the end, you’ll hear me talking On BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ about Syria’s revolution and war. I was invited because our book Burning Country has been released. It tells the Syrian people’s stories first and foremost, before examining the global responses and results. We feel this drama has been very badly reported in the main, and we hope the book will fill some important gaps. So please read it.
If you follow this link you’ll hear me talking on BBC World Service radio (‘Newshour’) about Syria’s revolutionary councils, decentralisation, refugees, and the ‘peace process’ illusion.
(I made a mistake here. I said Syrians need at least one or two hundred dollars to escape Syria. Slip of the tongue. I should have said they need one or two thousand.)
Thanks to assistance and inspiration from Syrian activists, fighters, journalists, doctors, artists and thinkers, our book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War‘ is published on January 20th, and launched that evening at Amnesty International in London. In the following days and weeks I’ll be speaking about the book at other venues in London, and in Nottingham, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow and Edinburgh. A list of events below (and we’ll be in the US in April).
First, please read the endorsements, of which we’re very proud:
‘For decades Syrians have been forbidden from telling their own stories and the story of their country, but here Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami tell the Syrian story. Their words represent the devastated country which has denied them and their compatriots political representation. Burning Country is an indispensable book for those who wish to know the truth about Syria.’ – Yassin al-Haj Saleh
‘Burning Country is poised to become the definitive book not only on the continuing Syrian conflict but on the country and its society as a whole. Very few books have been written on ‘the kingdom of silence’ that effectively capture how we all got here while not omitting the human voice, the country’s heroes and heroines — a combination that is rare but essential for understanding the conflict and its complexities. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have written a must-read book even as the conflict still rages to understand what happened, why it happened and how it should end.’ – Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (New York Times bestseller), Associate Fellow, Chatham House, London
Alongside BBC correspondent David Lloyn; Richard Spencer, Middle East editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph; Shiraz Maher, author of Salafi-Jihadism:The History of an Idea; and Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran – I was part of this panel discussing Daesh, Nusra, Assad, Saudi-Iran, and the West. (It was also the first time I saw a finished copy of our book Burning Country).
An edited version of this piece was published at Newsweek Middle East edition.
In 2011, according to the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92% of respondents. A mere four years later, however, 39% of Arab youths believed democracy would never work in the Arab world, and perceived ISIS, not dictatorship, as their most pressing problem.
Powerful states seem to share the perception, bombing ISIS as a short-term gestural response to terrorism, re-embracing ‘security states’ in the name of realism – concentrating on symptoms rather than causes.
How did the bright revolutionary discourse of 2011 turn so fast to a fearful whisper? Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” – a passionate, sometimes polemical, and very timely book – examines “the repressive dynamics designed to crush any hope of democratic change, through the association of any revolutionary experience with the worst collective nightmare.”
For historical analogy, Filiu evokes the Mamluks, Egypt’s pre-Ottoman ruling caste. Descended from slaves, these warriors lived in their own fortified enclaves, and considered the lands and people under their control as personal property. Filiu sees a modern parallel in the neo-colonial elites – militarised elements of the lower and rural classes – who hijacked independence in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria (and, in different ways, in Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen).
This was published at the National.
Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Assad as their chief enemy – he is after all responsible for the overwhelming proportion of dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, who are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is ‘terrorism’.
There is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80% of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both Assad and ISIS. North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were batttling ISIS. This wave of the ‘War on Terror’ – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.
There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils, sometimes directly elected, and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for the Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label ‘expert’, explains exactly who they are.
Lister’s book-length study “The Syrian Jihad”, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational Jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, amongst them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.
This was first published (with some great links) at the Guardian. Picture is Abu Hajar. More stories about him and many others in our forthcoming book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’.
In the first heady weeks of the Arab Spring commentators made much of the role played by social media, and certainly Facebook in particular provided an indispensable tool to young revolutionaries throughout the region. But less noticed, and ultimately far more significant, was the carnivalesque explosion of popular culture in revolutionary public spaces.
The protests in Syria against Bashaar al-Assad’s dictatorship were far from grim affairs. Despite the ever-present risk of bullets, Syrians expressed their hopes for dignity and rights through slogans, graffiti, cartoons, dances and songs.
To start with, protestors tried to reach central squares, hoping to emulate the Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square. Week after week residents of Damascus’s eastern suburbs tried to reach the capital’s Abbasiyeen Square, and were shot down in their dozens. Tens of thousands did manage to occupy the Clock Square in Homs, where they sang and prayed, but in a matter of hours security washed them out with blood.
This April 2011 massacre tolled an early funeral bell for peaceful protest as a realistic strategy. In response to the unbearable repression, the revolution gradually militarised. By the summer of 2012 war was spinning in downward spiral: the regime added sectarian provocation to its ‘scorched earth’ tactics of bombardment and siege; foreign states and transnational jihadists piled in; those refugees who could got out.
Civil revolutionaries did their best to adapt. Alongside self-organising committees and councils, Syrians set up independent news agencies, tens of radio stations and well over 60 newspapers and magazines. Kafranbel, for instance, a rural town become famous for its witty and humane slogans, broadcasts discussion, news and women’s programmes on its own ‘Radio Fresh’ – despite a recent assault by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. And Enab Baladi (My Country’s Grapes), is a newspaper published by women in Daraya, a besieged, shelled and gassed Damascus suburb. Remarkably, the magazine focuses on unarmed civil resistance.
As a result of both security concerns and communal solidarity, anonymous cooperative endeavours proliferated, amongst them photography collectives such as the Young Syrian Lenses.