Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

Reviewed by Chris Slee Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War
by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami
Pluto Press 2016 London
May 4, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Despite some flaws, this book is a good introduction to the Syrian revolution. It explains why people protested against the Assad regime, and why many of them took up arms. It also shows how the initially non-sectarian popular uprising was increasingly converted into a sectarian conflict. The main flaws of the book relate to the role of Turkey, and of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) in the struggle in Rojava (the predominantly Kurdish area in northern Syria). I will return to these points later. Creation of Syria The book begins with a brief history of Syria. When the Ottoman empire was divided up among the victorious powers after World War I, Syria was given to France. There were several rebellions against French rule in subsequent decades. Syria gained formal independence in 1946. The book briefly outlines the complex political struggles in post-independence Syria. The rise of Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East affected Syria too. Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez canal in 1956 inspired great enthusiasm in Syria, and led to a short-lived unification between between Syria and Egypt (1958-61). The United Arab Republic (UAR) government redistributed some land to peasants and offered social provision to the poor. However it repealed the right to strike and banned independent trade unions and political parties. The repressive and Egyptian-dominated nature of the UAR regime alienated many Syrians, giving right-wing forces an opportunity to carry out a military coup and end the union. The Baath Party was one of the main Arab nationalist forces in Syria. In 1963, military officers belonging to the party carried out a coup. After further struggles within the Baath Party, Salah Jadid emerged as leader. His regime was radical in its economic policies, carrying out the nationalisation of industry and agrarian reform. But according to the authors, this was a "top down revolution" [p. 10]. Jadid was also radical in his international policies, talking of a "people's war" to liberate Palestine. However there was no real preparation for waging such a war. When war broke out between Israel and several Arab states in 1967, Israel won a quick victory, and took control of Syria's Golan Heights, which it continues to occupy today. A coup within the Baath Party in 1970 brought Hafez al-Assad to power, replacing Salah Jadid who was jailed for life. Hafez al-Assad Assad pursued a more conservative policy, both domestically and internationally. He reached an accommodation with the Gulf regimes, obtaining aid and investment from them. He also reached an accommodation with the Syrian bourgeoisie and the Sunni clerics. He purged leftists from the Baath Party and the army. He pursued "more liberal economic policies which benefited some families from the old mercantile elite as well as parasitic new entrants" [p. 12]. The result was the growth of a "crony capitalist elite" which was "wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Baathist era" [p. 13]. In 1976, Assad sent the Syrian army into Lebanon, preventing a victory by leftist and Palestinian forces in the civil war and then slaughtering Palestinians in the camps. The Baath Party became "a patronage machine, a vehicle for personal gain. Membership offered job opportunities and eased promotion and access to state funds. The party was also an organised proclaimer of the Assadist cult of personality. Grim statues of the Leader watched over squares and campuses; his name was painted on walls and hillsides" [p.12], When leftists were purged from the army and party, they were replaced by people loyal to Assad, who were mainly from the Alawi sect, to which Assad belonged. This gave the regime a sectarian aspect, with the top levels of the army and party being predominantly Alawi. The Assad regime was highly repressive. Political prisoners were tortured. A "facade of pluralism" was provided by the National Progressive Front, comprising of the Baath Party and nine smaller parties that accepted the Baath's leadership. One of these was the Communist Party. But in reality, "Syria's was a one-party system and the party was controlled by one man". The authors argue that Assad's Syria was "fascist....It sought to replace class conflict with devotion to the absolute state" [p. 14]. The regime faced opposition from the left as well as from Islamists. There were rebellions in 1973, 1980, 1982. But the Islamist opposition "degenerated under harsh repression into a sectarian assassination campaign by the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which alienated the minorities and most Sunnis". [p.14] Bashar al-Assad When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, his son Bashar took over. Initially, there was some hope that things would change. Calls for an end to martial law and freedom for political prisoners were initially tolerated. Some prisoners were freed. But in 2001 there was a new crackdown. Some of those who had spoken out the previous year were arrested. One of them was Riad al-Turk, secretary-general of the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), a group which had split from the Communist Party after the latter joined the National Progressive Front. Bashar carried out neoliberal economic policies, including the privatisation of key industries, and cuts to subsidies for food and fuel. Inequality grew, as did unemployment. Youth unemployment was 48% [p. 29]. Foreign investment flooded in, especially from the Gulf. Assad used "anti-Western and anti-Zionist rhetoric". At times he opposed US policies, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But according to the authors: "On closer examination the regime's vocal anti-imperialism was no more than populist opportunism. Bashaar had no qualms about colluding with the US-led 'war on terror'; Syria was a popular destination for terror suspects illegally extradited by the US to third countries for 'torture by proxy'" [p. 25]. Kurdish protests In 2004 there was a wave of protests and riots in Kurdish areas of Syria. This spontaneous uprising followed a massacre of 36 people, mainly Kurds, in the town of Qamishlo. Regime symbols were attacked, police stations, courts and Baath Party buildings set alight. Repression was severe. According to the authors, "More than 2,000 Kurds were detained, often without charge. Many were tortured in prison, including children as young as 12. Five detainees died" [p. 23]. The Kurds had long been discriminated against. In 1962, 120,000 of them were deprived of Syrian citizenship. There was a ban on Kurdish publications and cultural festivals, and on the use of Kurdish as a language of instruction in schools. The 2011 revolt In early 2011 a wave of protest spread through much of the Arab world. Dictatorships were overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt. These events inspired similar protests in Syria. On March 6, fifteen schoolboys were arrested in the city of Deraa for painting revolutionary slogans on walls. They were tortured in detention. On March 18 there was a protest demanding their release. Government forces fired on the crowd, killing four people [p. 38]. From then on the violence escalated. Early protests were non-sectarian. A participant in a demonstration in Homs on April 18 reported that “all [religious] sects were present” [p. 43]. This protest was attacked by the army, killing many people. In response to such repression, some protestors took up arms. Some soldiers refused to fire on protestors, and deserted to set up or join rebel groups. Thus the uprising turned from a peaceful protest movement to an armed rebellion. The revolution was not led by a vanguard party or any centralized organisation. According to the authors, there were “a plethora of initiatives that emerged organically … In the revolution’s first weeks, coordination committees … sprang up in neighbourhoods, villages and towns across the country” [p. 57]. These committees helped organise resistance in local communities. “They focused on street action, preparing slogans and banners for demonstrations, barricading areas to protect protestors, and documenting events which they uploaded on social media. Over time their focus would turn to setting up makeshift field hospitals and collecting and distributing food and medical supplies to besieged and bombarded communities” [p. 58]. In some areas, when Assad regime troops withdrew, elections were held for local councils. However the regime’s repression took its toll on non-violent activists. “Tens of thousands of civil revolutionaries were disappearing into Assad’s dungeons. As the revolution militarised, the vibrant popular movement gradually lost its prominence” [p. 76]. Many activists were reluctant to take up arms. But, as the authors say: “Violence has its own momentum. When residential areas are subjected to military attack, when neighbourhoods experience the horror of children tortured to death, when young men are randomly rounded up and beaten, soon they will respond” [p. 79]. The armed rebels were referred to as the “Free Syrian Army”. But the authors say that the FSA “was never an army but a collection of militias” [p. 85]. There was “a cacophony of a thousand competing leaders” [p. 78]. One source of disunity was the competition between different rebel groups for funding and arms from external sources, particularly from governments and private individuals in the Gulf. For example, there were “conflicts … between Qatari- and Saudi-funded officers” [p. 87]. Growth of religious sectarianism The Assad regime escalated its violence. Rebel-controlled towns and suburbs were besieged and bombarded. The escalating violence was accompanied by the growth of religious sectarianism. According to the authors, this was “deliberately provoked and manipulated, by a host of secondary actors but primarily by the regime” [p. 110]. The regime targeted Sunni areas for collective punishment, in the form of aerial bombardment, prolonged sieges or massacres carried out by Alawi and Shia militia units. Such massacres created a “thirst for revenge” amongst Sunnis. In addition the regime’s increasing reliance on Lebanon’s Hizbullah and other Iranian-backed Shia militias gave the conflict a “Sunni-Shia flavour” [p. 112]. The “secondary actors” promoting sectarianism included some donors in the Gulf states. “With the FSA hierarchy unable to establish a consistent weapons supply, the fighting brigades had to organise their own networks of support. The most easily tapped sources were Salafist fundraisers and businessmen in the Gulf. In their nomenclature and (filmed) symbology, therefore, resistance militias increasingly appealed to this audience” [p. 121-2]. Gulf governments also played a role: “Saudi Arabia funded militias led by men with tribal or personal connections to the Kingdom, and some of these were Islamist … Qatar, in tune with its regional pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy, armed Muslim Brotherhood-linked as well as Salafist groups. In addition, the airtime given by Gulf TV channels to Islamist and Salafist anti-Assad activists may have been as influential on the ground as Gulf money” [p. 122]. One result of the promotion of sectarianism by both the Assad regime and the Gulf states was that most Alawis and other religious minorities remained loyal to the regime. Those who did not were ruthlessly repressed. Meanwhile there was a growth of Sunni-sectarian rebel organisations. The Assad regime contributed to this by freeing 1500 Salafists from prison, some of whom went on to become leaders of the Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. These groups try to impose a religious dictatorship in the areas they control. At times this has led to protests, sometimes successful, by the local people. “Campism”, illusions in Assad and the role of Russia The authors lament the lack of solidarity with the Syrian revolution from the Western left. Sections of the left have supported Assad: “Some Western sympathy is generated for the Assad regime by the sense that it – alongside Iran and Russia – stands in opposition to hegemonic US imperialism … A closer examination of the regime’s neoliberal policies and security collaboration with the West … soon demolishes the foundations on which this reading is built. Yet it persists” [p. 212-3]. The authors describe this “two-campist method of thought” as “an archaic legacy of the Cold War” [p. 213]. Russia has sent billions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition to the Assad regime. The authors point out that Russian-supplied equipment has been used in attacks on civilians: “Barrel bombs were dropped on residential tenements, for instance, from Russian-supplied helicopters” [p. 201]. In September 2015, the Russian air force itself began bombing rebel held areas of Syria. Russia has also supported the Assad regime at the United Nations. The authors view Russia, like the US, as imperialist, and say that “Russia – providing weapons, deflecting sanctions, shielding from blame – is to Syria what the United States is to Israel” [p. 213]. Turkey’s role While the authors are right to denounce Russia’s role in supporting the Assad regime, they are wrong to deny Turkey’s reactionary role in Syria. They say: “Conspiracy theories of outright Turkish collusion with ISIS, meanwhile, are unfounded” [p. 203]. In fact, the Kurdish media have regularly reported evidence of collusion between the Turkish state and ISIS. [a] The Turkish state also influences other rebel groups, to which it gives weapons and supplies, to attack areas controlled by the PYD and its allies. According to the Kurdish Question website, “138 people have been killed in attacks on Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood in the past seven months”. [b] Sheikh Maqsoud is a predominantly Kurdish area controlled by the PYD. Rojava The authors recognise that an "inspiring social revolution" is happening in Rojava [p. 73]. But they claim that "In the Kurdish regions, the revolutionary process was more top-down and party-led than elsewhere" [p.74]. This implies that there is a contradiction between leadership by a revolutionary party and democratic control from below. I disagree with this assumption. In my view the existence of a revolutionary party (the PYD) is an advantage, not a problem. The PYD has encouraged the formation of democratic institutions. The authors recognise some of the achievements of the revolution: "In each canton, councils and public institutions have been established through direct elections. These include the administrative structures dealing with security, service provision and justice. All are linked up in a decentralised confederation. Through local communes, people also self-manage areas such as health, education, environmental protection and food supply, discuss community problems, and mediate to resolve disputes before they go to court. Workers cooperatives have also been set up. The region's minority ethnicities - Arabs, Yezidis and Assyrians - are included in these grassroots forums, and 40 percent of commune and council members are women" [p.73]. But they claim that the PYD, which has led this revolution, "remains a highly centralised and authoritarian party" [p. 74]. They cite various alleged acts of repression by the PYD, but fail to put these in context. Rojava is a society under siege from all sides. It has been attacked militarily by Turkey, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and some other rebel groups. Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also hostile to the PYD and has repeatedly banned trade and travel between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. Given this context, it would be unrealistic to expect Rojava to be a model of unrestricted political freedom. Nevertheless, Rojava has made great progress in democracy and human rights. The authors note that Rojava's Social Contract (constitution) "promotes unity and coexistence among the region's diverse ethnic and religious groups" [p. 73]. Yet they claim that "PYD leader Salih Muslim has ... called for the expulsion of Arabs from the region" [p.74]. They don't tell us their source of information about this alleged "call". Everything I have read by Salih Muslim says the exact opposite. I will give two examples of statements about relations between Kurds and Arabs by Salih Muslim: * From an interview in December 2013: "We want a free and democratic Syria in which we live together with the Arabs". [c] * From an interview in November 2014: "Together with the ethnic and religious minorities of the region - Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Christians, Kurds - we have written a collective political structure for these autonomous cantons - our social contract". [d] Militarily, the predominantly Kurdish YPG is allied with Arab, Turkomen and other fighters in an alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces. Thus the unsourced claim that Salih Muslim called for the expulsion of Arabs is in contradiction with his own words, publicly stated on many occasions, and also with the actions of the PYD. Why then did the authors make this claim? I suspect they were misinformed by Kurdish opponents of the PYD. The book cites several such critics, at least one of whom is a supporter of the Kurdish National Council, a group supported by the KRG [see p. 74-75]. Given the misinformation about Salih Muslim's alleged statement, the other accusations against the PYG should also be treated with caution. References [a] See for example “Turkey continues to send arms, ammunition and jihadists to ISIS”, ANF, 9 April 2016: http://anfenglish.com/kurdistan/turkey-continues-to-send-arms-ammunition-and-jihadists-to-isis-part-i [b] “138 civilians killed, 912 wounded in Sheikh Maqsoud attacks”, Kurdish Question, 24 April 2016http://kurdishquestion.com/article.php?aid=3132-138-civilians-killed-912-wounded-in-sheikh-maqsoud-attacks [c] https://anfenglish.com/features/muslim-we-will-not-allow-for-a-second-lausanne [d] http://tenk.cc/2014/11/a-revolution-of-life/

This book review is a very deficient overview of the desperate situation in Syria. Chris Slee writes not a word of the longstanding regime-change drive of the big imperialist countries of Europe and North America in the Middle East. The imperialists have backed the right-wing forces in Syria and in the region to serve their goal of overthrowing the Syrian government. Before this, of course, the imperialists overthrew the sovereign governments in Iraq and Libya and they backed the military coup in Egypt in July 2013 against the elected government of that country and people. The regime-change goal and the bloody political alliance seeking to carry it out is still very much operative in Syria today. And yet, not a word of this in Chris' book review.

Chris also has not a word to say about the struggle to implement the ceasefire agreement of February 2016. But surely a ceasefire is a necessary first step to any political resolution of the conflict in Syria? Some on the international left have gone so far as to dismiss or outright oppose a ceasefire for Syria, notably the ISO in the United States.

The situation of the Kurdish people in all of this cannot be reduced to that of northern Syria, important as is the self-determination struggle in Rojava. The political struggle in Turkey is becoming desperate as the regime pursues its war course in the east of the country and as the stage is being set for the effective banning of the HDP and other political parties which support Kurdish self-determination. An expanded campaign of international solidarity with the HDP is greatly needed.

Chris explains that the authors of the book which he recommends consider Russia's intervention in Syria to be that of an "imperialist" country. This is a common view among many Marxist observers of Russia, who voice flimsy phrases to express a view rather than undertake materialist and dialectical analysis. This is also standard fare among liberal academics and mainstream editorialists. But where does Chris stand on the matter? Russia's intervention in Syria has delivered considerable setbacks to the imperialist regime change agenda in the Middle East. Is this not a good thing? The Russian government has been outspoken against NATO-member Turkey's war against the Kurds and Russia is voicing support for the historic struggle of Kurdish self-determination. Shouldn't this be welcomed?

How is it that an "imperialist" country (Russia) could act in such a manner? Has imperialism changed its colours and become a progressive force for change in the Middle East? The longer that Marxists avoid analyzing Russia for what it is--a capitalist country, yes, but not a member of the select club of Atlantic and Austral-Asia (Japan) predator imperialist countries--the greater the political confusion and disarray that will result.

Roger Annis

Roger Annis asks my opinion of the role of US and Western European imperialism in Syria.

As the main arms suppliers to the Gulf states and Turkey, the Western powers are complicit in all the crimes of these regimes, including the promotion of religious sectarianism by the Gulf states, and Turkey's war on the Kurds.

Roger claims that the US and its allies want regime change in Syria. At times this has appeared to be the case, but I am not sure that it is still the case today.

Regime change in Iraq and Libya has not brought the results that the US would have hoped for. It has not created stable pro-imperialist regimes in these countries.

In Iraq the US-installed government has lost control of much of the country, including Mosul (the second biggest city) to ISIS.

In Libya there are two rival governments (or three, if you count the "Islamic State").

Thus the US ruling class's enthusiasm for regime change in Syria has diminished.

Ideally, the US would like to get rid of Assad and replace him with a more consistently pro-US leadership, while keeping the regime largely intact. But this seems to be on the back burner for the moment.

Roger asks my opinion of the ceasefire. I would love to see it succeed, as this this would give a better opportunity for revolutionary mass action to once again come to the fore. But there have been numerous violations of the ceasefire both by the Assad regime and its opponents.

I will deal with some of Roger's other points later.

Chris Slee

I certainly agree with Roger Annis on the need for an expanded campaign of solidarity with the HDP against repression by the Turkish state.

Roger asks me whether I think Russia is imperialist. Some time ago I wrote an article arguing that it is:

However I don't think that our view of Russia's military intervention in Syria is necessarily determined by our opinion on whether or not Russia is imperialist. States that are not imperialist sometimes carry out reactionary interventions in other countries.

For example, Syria is not an imperialist power. But Hafez al-Assad's action in sending the Syrian army into Lebanon in 1976 was reactionary, because its aim was to suppress the Palestinians and the Lebanese left.

Today Russia's military intervention in Syria is aimed at propping up the Bashaar al-Assad regime. Evaluating this intervention is complex, because some of Assad's opponents are progressive while others are reactionary. But on the whole, my opinion is that propping this brutal capitalist regime is a reactionary policy.

Roger notes that Russia has condemned Turkey's war against the Kurds. In my view, Russia's willingness to denounce Turkey reflects the rivalry between Russia and Turkey for influence in the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. Nevertheless Russia's condemnation of Turkey's actions is welcome.

Chris Slee

There can obviously be differences on the question of whether Russia is imperialist or not. Patrick Bond prefers to describe the BRICS countries as sub-imperialist. You can also say that if you consider USA and the British Empire as yardsticks for what constitutes imperialism in a social science manner, then you can say that Russia does not match that yardstick given its minimal foreign investment and very few military bases beyond its borders.

That being said, you can dispense with the word "imperialist" and still come to the conclusion that Russia's role in Syria has been extremely reactionary. One has no idea what Annis means by "sovereign" nations when he referred to Libya and Iraq. While we can agree that the USA had no business intervening in either country, both were ruled by a torturing gang of kleptocrats. People did not vote for Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. They came to power in coups.It would be like referring to Pinochet's Chile or Suharto's Indonesia as sovereign.

The same thing is true of Assad. We are talking about a family dynasty after all. When elections were held in Syria, Bashar al-Assad ran unopposed in what can only be called a demonstration election. To maintain power, he instituted a powerful police/military apparatus that was commanded by Alawites. To oppose the dictatorship meant being thrown in prison for many years such as was the case with Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a communist who spent 16 years in prison for his support for workers democracy. Annis refers to the USA backing "the right-wing forces in Syria". One gathers that he views the government as on the good side of the barricades. In fact, the Baathists are the most right-wing forces in Syria next to ISIS. One represents bloody reaction with a necktie; the other without.

Finally, this statement is absurd: "Russia's intervention in Syria has delivered considerable setbacks to the imperialist regime change agenda in the Middle East." When the Pentagon demanded that rebels trained in its program sign a contract stipulating that not a single bullet would be aimed at the regime's military, how does this square with the idea that "regime change" was afoot? Most people who have stayed on top of developments in Syria recognize that the USA has only given lip-service to the idea of regime change. All you need to do is consult Jeffrey Goldberg's article in Atlantic based on interviews with Obama to know that this is the case:

Or better yet, read what I wrote about Washington's intentions long before that article appeared:

In fact there was zero interest in a large-scale intervention in Syria in either civilian or military quarters. All this is documented in a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest, that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” In other words, the White House policy was and is allowing the Baathists and the rebels to exhaust each other in an endless war, just as was White House policy during the Iran-Iraq conflict.


PYD leader Salih Muslim has denied that the Rudaw article is an accurate representation of his views on the relationship between Arabs and Kurds in Rojava.

In an interview published in the Turkish newspaper Ozgur Gundem, Muslim was asked:

"On the subject of recent developments in Rojava a number of recent claims attributed to you are being debated; you said that the Arabs settled in Kurdish cities were certainly some day need to be removed and that Arab-Kurdish fighting will certainly break out."

Muslim responded: "No...It is not like that...Here we have taken pains so that fighting and disputes do not arise and we do not see a return to an Arab-Kurdish war. Everywhere we are being extremely sensitive so that there is no return to such a war."


In an interview with the "Syria in Crisis" website, Muslim explained his views on relations with those Arab settlers who came to Rojava as a result of the Hafez al-Assad government's policy of demographic change, aimed at creating an "Arab belt" in parts of the Kurdish region of Syria:

Q. You’ve said that the Kurdish movement aims to redress historical mistakes. One of those mistakes you’ve identified is the Baath Party’s “Arab Belt” policy, a project in the 1970s to resettle Arabs in Syria’s predominantly Kurdish northeastern border areas.

A. "Yes, this is one of them. But we must also mention the genocide against the Syriacs and against the Armenians and against the Kurds. All this should be remedied.

"Of course, it’s a real problem that those Arabs were brought to the area, because it left a lot of Kurds without land. Because of that, we need to look for new arrangements. We don’t want to send the Arabs out, but we also don’t want to leave the Kurds without land. We have to reach an agreement on this in a peaceful way."

Q. But do you see a future for the Arab settlers in the Rojava self-administration?

A. "Yes, if they accept this kind of agreement to live together. There are already some Arabs who have done so. It is not Arabs from these settlements but Arab tribes who have been living with the Kurds for decades. But if the settlers would agree to be a part of this system, why not? It’s a democratic system.

"You know, I have mentioned this before, but I would like to mention it again: we feel that we are victims of the regime, but the Arabs were in fact also victims of the regime. They were taken from their land, and they came to Kurdish lands. So we are both victims of the regime, and we have to understand each other."


In another interview, Salih Muslim distinguishes between 3 kinds of Arabs: the indigenous Arabs of the Rojava region, with whom there is "brotherhood"; the settlers brought in by the Assad regime, with whom he wants a "peaceful solution"; and the jihadists, who came from outside and "do not belong".