Leila Al Shami / Robin Yassin-Kassab

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Edinburgh Book Festival

August 18th


Scottish chair Brian Meecham was clear and commanding in his delivery, just like the two authors of ‘Burning Country’, Leila Al Shami, the co-founder of a network that connects grassroots organisations across the Middle East, and Robin Yassin-Kassab, a media commentator on Syria. Both Syrian-British, they were here to discuss their book, ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’; written to publicise the work being done on the ground by civilian organisations in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011.

Leila had worked in the domain of human rights in Syria even before the the war began, particularly with women. Robin took his turn first to summarise their work, and was incensed that the Western media reports were so highly inaccurate about the very complex and particular situation that has developed in Syria. He’s weary of the commentary that emphasises geo-politics, speculation about US-driven regime change and the continuation of old rival factions. Where their work fills the void is in two main ways: firstly, in understanding the many factors contributing to civil war and subsequent displacement of millions, and secondly, focusing on the incredible work that regular Syrian people are doing in staggeringly difficult situations. For example, much of the mainstream media suggest that it’s a battle between secular and Jihadi forces, but the fact that many Jihadists are fighting on the side of the old regime itself contradicts this entirely. They have tried hard to add in critical details of context to these discussions in order to make any analysis of the Syrian situation itself much more accurate, as outsiders attempt to make ill-informed commentary based on their knowledge of other countries like Palestine or Iraq.

They discussed why the revolution occurred in the first place. The repression that ensued after the first failed ‘Damascus Spring’ an entire decade earlier, which simply asked for small reforms and an end to torture, created a lingering atmosphere of disappointment. Bashar al-Assad, after he unexpectedly took over the presidency from his late father, continued with crony capitalism and neo-liberalism, creating even more poverty in the country.The unwarranted violence the regime used to respond to the protests created an even more urgent call for reform and morphed into a revolution for social justice and freedom, including, importantly, a call for national unity. Support came from a huge variety of backgrounds, classes and factions, particularly amongst the working class.

Self-organised coordinating committees sprung up in secret, and worked in communities all over Syria, organising protests and linking with one another. Extreme repression resulted again, with torture, rape and disappearances. So extreme in fact, that many soldiers defected in disgust. This situation spiralled into war; convenient for Assad who wouldn’t have been able to justify killing peaceful activists. Al-Quaeda also wanted war; who became relevant again because of their needed military prowess. The regime and foreign states have contributed to sectarianism which was always part and parcel of the regime’s classic divide and rule policy. They outlined the major events leading to war; such as when the regime released the Jihadists who had been fighting in Iraq, imprisoned and then released as needed. Assad organising a massacre of Sunnis by the Alahouns who are a minority Shia sect. At this stage, the West, frightened of the alternative, decided to stick with Assad. Isis was being defeated, but Al Nusra, a home grown version of the Al Queda group, became stronger. Assad and his forces still have been by far the biggest killer of people.

Leila talked about the popular struggle for justice on the ground. The movement for democracy progressed to being a rejection of all forms of authoritarianism. In Idlib province, people protested daily for 160 days to get al Nusra out. It’s an Al Quaeda affiliate in Syria and people don’t want it. Civilians are self-organising in communities for self-rule, and it’s estimated that Assad was only in control of 20% of the country at one point. People were forced to take control at a local level, just to keep basic services like food, sanitation, health and education functioning. Protests were not enough, so people had to find a way to organise themselves using horizontal, autonomous organisational structures to provide food and medical services, many of which run by women. Local councils sprung up in the hundreds, and she estimates that there are now around 800. These administrative structures, many of which have been highly influenced by radical thinkers like anarchist theorists, Sufi clerics and an Italian interfaith priest, have the majority of their leaders democratically elected.

It felt like the discussion between passionate and knowledgeable speakers and a highly engaged audience could have easily gone on for hours, if given the opportunity. The questions were excellent and the answers were immediate and thorough. One of the questions was about the role of journalists, and whether they had given up on this war even though it has massive repercussions for the rest of the world; triggering the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war, and its own domino effect on Brexit and Putin’s military actions. Well-known commentators were named and shamed for being embedded or irrelevant, and even the political analyses of Noam Chomsky, the sacred cow of the left, were slaughtered for its old-fashioned binaries.

Laughter rippled across the tent as the last question was posed to Yassin-Kassab with just a couple of minutes remaining; what’s it going to take to stop the fighting? He sat back and smiled; the first and only smile of the session, given the subject matter. He wasn’t at all optimistic that the end was in sight any time soon. However, he suggested that pressure from outside would help; namely pressure from Western powers on Russia to withdraw its support of the government, and to investigate why the Americans vetoed support of arming the Free Syrian Army.

The audience was obviously a well-educated and politically aware crowd, with great concern and interest in the Syrian civil war and its effects within and without the country. People were keen to know how best we can continue to inform ourselves with accurate information, and what we as outsiders can do to help the situation. The authors indicated a list of news sources in their book, and suggested following blogs such as Syrian Untold and Syria Direct. The consensus was one of huge gratitude to the authors, as most of the vast amount of detailed information they gave us was new, and in a strange way, refreshing in its emphasis on people power and a radical departure from the standard media fare on Syria today.

Reviewed by Lisa Williams

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