Elizabeth Shakman Hurd writes: The suffering of Syrians comes to those of us outside the country in words and images. Violent scenes and anguished accounts pervade the international media. Reporters tell us who is fighting, and commentators ask why. How should the United States and others respond? What should be done about ISIS? About refugees? There are days when it seems we have reached a saturation point. No more talking, please — no more words.
But that impulse, however understandable, is mistaken. In their new book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, journalist Robin Yassin-Kassab and human rights activist Leila Al-Shami provide a bracing and timely reminder that no matter how long the war rages or how unreachable a political settlement may appear, the world owes it to the Syrian people — especially the peaceful revolutionaries — to listen to their stories and support their cause. Burning Country is a portrait of the opposition, a movement of protest against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, which has been nearly forgotten amid the humanitarian strife, factionalism, and power politics surrounding and driving the conflict.
The regime’s extraordinary cruelty is well known, thanks to reporting such as Janine de Giovanni’s The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria (2016), the latest in a long line of works detailing Assad’s bloody response to the revolution for democratic reform, economic opportunity, and an end to corruption and institutionalized violence. This revolution has its own lesser-known backstory, though, which Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami helpfully emphasize. Contrary to popular perception, 2011 was not the beginning. Calls for change emerged with the political openings accompanying the Damascus Spring movement in the early 2000s and the 2005 Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change. Prominent civil and political figures of all backgrounds — secular and religious, Arab and Kurdish; the opposition, Muslim Brotherhood, Communist Labor Party — signed on. When I visited Damascus in 2009, the potential for democratic reform was palpable, if unspoken. Within limits, one could discuss and even debate issues such as women’s rights and Syria’s role in the region. My sense was that many Syrians, though mindful of the dangers, wanted change.
To appreciate the tenacity of the Syrian revolutionaries in the face of the regime’s violence, it is important for those outside the country to understand this history: the Syrian uprising was not a spur-of-the-moment reaction to the Arab Spring. It percolated just beneath the surface — and just beyond the headlines — for at least a decade before March 2011, when anti-regime graffiti drawn by schoolboys in the southern city of Daraa provoked Assad’s violent crackdown. It is also critical to recognize the depth of many Syrians’ disillusionment with a regime that has imprisoned, abused, and violated them. One evening during my 2009 visit, I had dinner with two weary but warm Syrian Kurds who had spent the prime of their lives in prison. I asked what outsiders could do to help people in their situation. “Tell our stories,” they replied. This is exactly what Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami do. [Continue reading…]