Middle East Monitor reports: Until now the Syrian story has been a fabrication of assumptions and sensationalism spun by the media. Burning Country is an attempt to counter this, a chance for real Syrians to tell their own stories. As co-author Robin Yassin-Kassab puts it: “We felt that people had been coming at it from narratives of big stories that zoomed out so far they couldn’t hear the people on the ground that had made the revolution and were suffering the counter-revolution. We wanted to amplify those voices.”
Yassin-Kassab and fellow co-author Leila Al-Shami have weaved together the testimonies of revolutionaries, activists, refugees, fighters, democracy activists, pro-regime Alawites and Islamists with their own analysis to create an account of Syria that takes us back further than Ottoman rule and up to October 2015. Published by Pluto Press this year, the book describes how Al-Assad was once respected for adopting an anti-Zionist, anti-Western and pro-Arab rhetoric and today garners western sympathy for his so-called opposition to US-led imperialism, a position the authors describe as “populist opportunism”.
“I think his rhetoric was very anti-imperialist and that was in line with popular sentiment in the Arab street and I think for that reason he was popular for his foreign policy stance both inside Syria and more broadly around the Arab world,” says Al-Shami. “But that didn’t match up in practice and when you see the actions of the Baathist regime whether they’re under Bashar or his predecessor, his father, they certainly didn’t match that rhetoric. You had the massacres of Palestinians in Tel Zaatar camp in Lebanon, you had the intervention against the Black September movement in Jordan and then under Bashar you had collusion with imperialism because you had people that were basically deported, tortured by proxy, to the Assad regime under the US rendition programme as part of its ‘War on Terror’.”
Though the nationalist rhetoric did work among some sections of the population, Yassin-Kassab explains, most people living in Syria were unhappy under the regime. But prior to 2011 economic stability was more important than foreign policy and Hafez Al-Assad had achieved this stability by building roads and installing electricity in long neglected areas of the countryside and subsidising fuel and food. When Bashar succeeded his father, he retracted many of these benefits. “I think these things were important and when these things were pulled out everybody said, ‘look this nationalist rhetoric which we’ve gone along with is rubbish isn’t it?’ When they got hungry, which is what happened when Bashar Al-Assad came and did these neo-liberal reforms which were really crony-capitalist reforms and removed a lot of the safety nets that had allowed people to keep quiet. I think that’s more important, I don’t think they stayed in power because of the nationalist rhetoric.” [Continue reading…]