Burning Country is a remarkable book about the complex and increasingly violent conflict in Syria. Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab have written an exceptional account of the multifaceted and convoluted Syrian tragedy. Unlike most books about Syria, which focus on geopolitics, international politics, and foreign intervention, Burning Country highlights everyday struggles and the creative resistance of Syrians. It gives a voice to the people on the ground without dehumanizing or orientalizing them.
Instead of focusing on the daunting military dimension of the conflict, or the demoralizing political maneuvering of opposition groups, the book documents Syrians’ myriad narratives of resistance. It depicts a complex and uneven geography of power and resilience. Its authors bring expertise about the subject, a first-hand knowledge of the terrain, and an experience from their organic connections with organizing networks.
Leila Al-Shami is an activist who worked closely with Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer who was abducted in 2013 by a jihadist group in the Damascus
suburbs. She maintains a popular blog about grassroots movements and autonomous politics in Syria. Robin Yassin-Kassab is a Syrian-Scottish author who published The Road from Damascus, a novel about Syria. He writes about Syria and the Arab world for the Guardian, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. In 2013, he spent several weeks in Kafranbel, a Syrian town with international notoriety due to its creative grassroots organizing.
Burning Country starts with a brief history of the Assad family’s rise to power. The book examines the modalities of state capitalism and class conflicts in Syria. Contrary to a commonly held belief among some leftist groups, the Assad regime never pursued a socialist agenda in Syria. To undo progressive policies implemented by the Baath since 1963, the former president, Hafiz Assad, crushed the populist faction of the party in the early 1970s and built a coalition with the most conservative social groups. In the early 2000s, Bashar Assad alienated popular classes further by imposing an authoritarian neoliberal program.
The book has several strengths, but three in particular make it required reading for anyone interested in a nuanced understanding of the uprising. First, it focuses on micropolitics and everyday practices rather than macropolitics and geopolitics. Second, it provides a complex analysis by tackling the contradictions of the rebellion, while at the same time producing a coherent narrative. Finally, it provides a comprehensive discussion of the various challenges that people face, and the ways they adapt their strategies to an evolving situation.
The book explores the subterranean world of the Syrian conflict, namely the myriad strategies that Syrians deployed in every field to topple the despotic regime and create favorable conditions for the emergence of a new Syria. Burning Country is not about foreign interventions, the rise of ISIS, and the flow of jihadist fighters, nor about proxy wars, or sectarian conflicts. Plenty of articles and books have been written about these questions. Instead, it documents resistance narratives, autonomous politics, self-governance, and revolutionary cultures. It is a reminder that the production of grassroots discourses about the rebellion is no less important than winning military battles against the regime, or providing bread to besieged areas.
Burning Country provides a vista to local knowledges, dreams, and aspirations. These aspects of the revolt usually have no place in studies about geopolitics and international relations. This is why the regime and its allies fear micropolitical interpretations of the conflict, and prefers macropolitical ones. Assad’s regime understands that if it doesn’t distort, subvert, and suppress stories and images of the rebellion, its chances of winning the war are slim. To achieve that goal, it deploys a wide array of coercive techniques, including targeting media activists, preventing foreign journalists from entering the country, censoring websites about the revolt, and creating an electronic army to counter cyber activism.
The book should be read in this context. It is both an insightful text about politics from below, but also a political intervention in the highly contested terrain of the Syrian conflict. Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab present the conflict from multiple angles, but their primary focus is micropolitics, while their main goal is countering the hegemonic narrative of the regime. In the third chapter, titled “Revolution from Below,” they explain, “The mobilizations were decentralized and spontaneous; they were neither led by political parties nor defined by the traditional narratives of socialism, nationalism, and Islamism.”
To do justice to the range of debates that erupted in the midst of an unfolding revolutionary process, the book presents an assemblage of stories shared by activists and organizers with first-hand experience of politics from below. What these activists have in common is a deep respect for people’s struggle and a desire for an authentic alternative to Assad’s regime. The authors note, “Commentators, including supposed ‘leftist’ and ‘dissenting’ ones, whose obsession with states leads them to see conflicts as a chess game between ‘better’ and ‘worse,’ [tend to] to ignore the people suffering under and struggling against these states.” Micropolitical processes cannot be understood using the state as a unit of analysis. In the same vein, human dignity has no analytical value in a geopolitical framework.
Burning Country’s focus on the work of Syrian economist Omar Aziz best illustrates the authors’ desire to emphasize micropolitics over macropolitics without denying the importance of the latter. Aziz, who is rarely mentioned in books about the Syrian uprising, played a pivotal role in developing strategies and producing knowledge to sustain and strengthen grassroots organizing and autonomous politics. In Burning Country, readers will learn about this visionary organic intellectual, and his tragic death in prison. The authors write,
Aziz believed that protests alone were insufficient to bring about a radical transformation, and that a new society had to be built from the bottom up to challenge authoritarian structures and transform value systems. . . . [H]e advocated the establishment of local councils [which] were envisaged as horizontally organized grassroots forums in which people could work together to achieve three primary goals: to manage their lives independently of the state; to collaborate collectively; and to initiate a social revolution, locally, regionally and nationally.
Burning Country documents inspiring stories about local councils, women’s struggles, media activists, relief workers, and organic intellectuals. These microprocesses, which are often dismissed in mainstream scholarship because they are seemingly contradictory and inconsequential, are shown to be the backbone of the Syrian revolution. In the end, the contrapuntal play of these processes produces organic and vital mobilizations against dictatorship.
The second important dimension in Burning Country is its ability to provide a complex, yet a holistic analysis of the Syrian upheaval. Since 2011, two main narratives have emerged to interpret the Syrian conflict. On one end of the spectrum, certain journalists and nonacademic writers present a Manichean worldview populated with heroes and villains. They usually describe a binary world where two opposing views confront each other. On the other end, the academic world often provides a dispassionate and complex analysis of military strategy, political machinations, economic determinism, and Orientalist culturalism. Complexity, in this context, was often utilized to enhance scholars’ own academic careers and help them leave their marks on an obscure disciplinary field.
These two approaches had disastrous consequences on the uprising. On one hand, powerful political actors deployed a Manichean narrative to denounce their opponents. Needless to say, revolutionary forces, which are heterogonous and dispersed, and evade simplistic taxonomies, had no place in such narratives. On the other hand, many academics and intellectuals chose to dismiss the popular struggles using the second approach as a pretext. They justified their neutralist position by explaining that the Syrian conflict is too complex to comprehend, and in any case, all sides are compromised to a certain degree.
Burning Country rejects Manichean interpretations, but it also denounces neutralism as a viable alternative. It proposes a third way to examine the rebellion. The point of departure for the authors is the recognition that political discourse in the Syrian context is the continuation of war by other means. In this asymmetrical battle of meanings, Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab offer a counterintuitive analysis that is both complex and ethico-political. The book provides an ideological arsenal, not simply to better understand grassroots politics, but also to help defend it in political and cultural arenas.
The central concern for the authors is to explain the significance of the politics of dignity, and why people were willing to risk their lives to topple the Assad regime. The book provides a unique vista to understanding the “zones of nonbeing” in which most Syrians are confined, in part due to the experts’ unwillingness to listen to their voices. For example, with the emergence and expansion of the Islamic State, many pundits shifted their focus to the jihadist group. Their main concern was not to shed light on the plight of Syrians, but instead to predict and prevent potential spillovers into Western countries. Burning Country doesn’t fall for this simple and seducing paradigm in which Syrians are without agency, and the West is permanently the focal point. One of the merits of the book is its ability to find a balance between a complex analysis and a clear political positioning.
Finally, Burning Country is a manifesto of love for the people who chose to risk their lives by courageously opposing the tyranny of the Assad regime. It is also a critical rebuttal of Orientalist theories about the Arab world and Syria. Most importantly, it is a book that explores the most difficult challenges that the Syrian revolt is facing. Despite its refusal to embrace a neutralist position under the pretext of objectivity, the book also rejects a naive and politically dangerous empty celebration of the revolt. It critically explores the incoherence and contradictions that are symptomatic of the uprising.
Among the multiple challenges the book examines, three should be highlighted. First, the authors examine the tension between the proponents of militarization and the fierce advocates of nonviolence. Second, they examine the relationship between political Islam and the revolution. Finally, they explore the structural reasons that prevented the political elite from adequately representing and defending the revolution.
One of the most pressing questions for activists and organizers, especially in the early phases of the rebellion, was the formulation of an ethical yet effective strategy to overthrow the old order. This meant producing a clear stance towards militarization and the use of violence. Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab note that militarization is by definition alienating since it prevents large sectors of the population from taking part in the rebellion. In addition, it legitimizes the regime’s use of violence against a fragile and nascent revolt.
Furthermore, they explain, “Militarization . . . transformed the revolution from a leaderless movement into a cacophony of a thousand competing leaders, from horizontalism to a jostle of hierarchies.” They quickly add, “Still, abstract criticism of the revolution’s militarization miss the point. Syria’s revolutionaries didn’t make a formal collective decision to pick up arms—quite the opposite; rather, a million individual decisions were made under fire.”
The book proposes a Fanonian reading of violence by suggesting that the main question is not about taking a side for violence or against, but rather about how people can regain their dignity and make history. This is probably why the chapter titled “Militarization and Liberation” ends with a suggestive quote by Ra’ed Fares, the director of the media center in Kafranbel. After describing the disastrous implications of militarization on his city, he remarks, “but it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.”
Second, the authors discuss the intricate and multivalent role of political Islam in the revolution. They explain that the emergence of jihadi Salafism in Syria has multiple genealogies, which could be traced back to the American occupation of Iraq, the sectarian interventions of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region, and the Arab regimes’ repression of their populations. They describe the central role played by the Syrian regime to push for the Islamization and sectarianization of the revolt, and by so doing, in effect undermining secular forces and preventing large sectors of the population from joining the revolutionary process.
In addition, the Islamization of the rebellion allowed the regime to send a clear message to the West according to which the only alternative to the “stability” offered by the regime is the chaos of al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab warn against totalizing discourses about political Islam. Many accounts of the Syrian revolt lack this type of nuanced analysis, and present the Muslim subject as the radical alterity of the Western Self. Burning Country also warns against simplistic understandings of the Syrian conflict, which reproduces an Orientalist view of Islam by presenting it as a monolithic, antimodern, and coercive religion.
Finally, Burning Country critically examines the question of leadership and political representation. It shows that most Syrian intellectuals and political leaders failed to formulate adequate strategies to support the revolution. The revolution in many ways toppled traditional intellectuals and replaced them with organic ones who are directly involved in the struggle. There are obvious structural reasons for this monumental gap between traditional and revolutionary intellectuals.
Even before the revolution, intellectuals and the political elite were not appealing to the youth. Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab explain,
Many [Syrian youths] were disillusioned by the traditional political ideologies which had been so distorted in the pursuit of power and profit. The three discourses to have grown from the anti-colonial struggle—nationalism, socialism and Islamism—had only served to facilitate the transfer of power from colonial masters to local elites across the Arab world.
When the demonstrations started in 2011, most intellectuals were not equipped theoretically to comprehend a radically new situation. The authors show that this void was filled with the organic knowledge produced by the groups active on the ground, in addition to other competing discourses such as Wahhabism, sectarianism, and regionalism. As the authors demonstrate, the emergent paradigm was the result of a complex interplay between experimental ideas, vernacular cultures, and hegemonic discourses.
Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab provide essential theoretical tools for activists and progressive intellectuals to comprehend the implications of the Syrian revolt. Unlike other books on Syria that dismiss the revolutionary process under various pretexts, Burning Country warns that alternative understandings not only are possible but also indispensable for the future of Syria and the region. The authors show that any serious analysis of antisystemic movements and processes necessitates a shift of paradigm. They demonstrate that the revolution, which is unthinkable from a dominant paradigm, becomes an unavoidable reality when we listen to the myriad Syrian voices that are telling their stories.