Book Review: ‘Burning Country’ by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab – Oh, what might have been

When should you read this book? Immediately. If, like me, you had no idea whatsoever of what was going on in Syria, who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and whether our own country should band up with either of them, read this book.

Burning Country

This incisively written piece of non-fiction charts the civil war in Syria from its inception in 2011 to the present day (the new edition I read was released only a few months ago).

The war in Syria originally began as a series of non-violent protests against perceived injustices committed by the regime in power, headed by Bashar al-Assad. When the protests were met with violence by the state, the originally peaceful movement descended into chaos and terror.

The war has now been going on for seven years, during which time countless refugees have made their way to neighbouring countries or beyond. In the context of the enormous number of displaced people, only a tiny fraction have even attempted to make it to Europe.

However ‘Burning Country’ focuses primarily on events inside Syria, drawing on interviews with surviving revolutionaries to detail how their dream of freedom and democracy has descended into such disaster.

The dream that died

‘Burning Country’ is written firmly from the side of the revolutionary movement in Syria, and explains how the revolution began as a hugely positive, peaceful movement to protest injustice and create a fairer, more equal society for all.

However the movement was sparked by a number of acts of state violence, and its spontaneous eruption meant that effectively no plan was in place for what would happen if it were successful (i.e., if Assad was removed from power).

History demonstrates that popular movements are often dogged by infighting and the same is true here, but there are many other factors unique to Syria at play.

In ‘Burning Country’ the reasons for the initial successes and later failures of the movement are examined in detail, taking into account Syria’s historical community allegiances, international politics, state repression and of course, the devastating impact of constant fighting on civilians.

The book charts the progress of the war, including all the major battles, sieges and atrocities that took place, often using eye-witness accounts.

15596725158.pngThe new edition is pessimistic about the future of the revolution. The finger is pointed at the international community, and not without reason. Without Russian support, the authors argue, the regime would have been forced out a long time ago.

Equally, they argue, the lack of other foreign intervention is partly to blame. In August 2012, President Obama stated that if chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians, the USA would take action against Assad.

About a year later, strong evidence came to light that there had been major chemical weapons attacks against civilians (there have since been more) and yet the USA did not intervene. The sense of betrayal this evoked in Syrian revolutionaries is made clear in ‘Burning Country’.

Revolution and misrepresentation

The civil war is a hugely complicated conflict which is never really explained through normal media channels, which stick purely to reporting where the latest air strike has taken place without giving any context at all.

This is partly why most people I have chatted to about the war in Syria have responded with a befuddlement to match my own. There are so many different groups involved in the conflict, and so many ‘good’ and ‘bad’ elements (in Western eyes) that are now so intermingled, that nobody really knows which side we’re on – if we’re on any side at all – and what on earth we should do about it.

‘Burning Country’ is hugely helpful in explaining the various factions involved in the revolution, their desires for the future, but more importantly, their fears of each other – something the Assadist regime took full advantage of.

It also explains the rise of jihadism in Syria. While media carelessness might suggest that the war in Syria is between ISIS and the Assad regime, that is not at all the case.

ISIS, ever the consummate opportunists, grew out of the wreckage and chaos created by the war. They are effectively in conflict with every other faction involved.

In one particularly sad episode, ISIS was almost completely pushed out of Syria by the rebels. However, they regrouped in Iraq, where popular support is higher, and returned in force.

The authors posit that if ISIS were driven out of Syria by amateur rebel fighters, then the suggestion that a military power like that of the USA is powerless to do anything about them in Syria is simply absurd.

That said, ‘Burning Country’ makes no bones about which side it is on. There is palpable anger behind this book and it is not a neutral perspective on the war, if such a thing is possible.

Overall ‘Burning Country’ is an important and well-written read – for anyone wanting to understand the situation in Syria a little better, it’s a great place to start.

strong 8_10

Buy a copy of Burning Country on my Amazon affiliate link.

Next up: ‘The Examined Life’ by Stephen Grosz.


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