[Vredeslijst] Syria's forgotten revolutionaries

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Do Jun 23 18:00:00 CEST 2016


Syria's forgotten revolutionaries: an interview with Leila Al-Shami
Patrick Ward
17 June 2016

In 2011 the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa.
Millions of people rose up against dictatorships across the
region, toppling governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, with
the Libyan regime also falling following Western intervention.
Among the countries in which revolution seemed to be on the
cards was of course Syria. But, five years later, the country
is in turmoil, with President Bashar Al-Assad clinging to the
power he has left with the backing of the military might of
Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and others. Facing them are reactionary
Islamist forces such as Islamic State/Daesh and Jabhat Al-
Nusra. The situation looks increasingly hopeless, and it is
generally portrayed in the media as a battle between equally
horrific forces, with ordinary people reduced to spectators
desperately attempting to avoid barrel bombs or making
terrifying journeys out of the country as refugees.

But there is a side to the story that is often overlooked 
that of the continued resilience and self-organisation of
Syrians resisting both the regime and groups like ISIS. This is
the subject of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War
by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, a comprehensive
account of Syria's recent history told often through the
stories of people on the ground.

I spoke to Al-Shami about why contesting the prevalent
narratives on Syria is so important.

Q: Why did you write Burning Country?

There was a lot being written about Syria, a
lot being written about Syrians, but very
little that actually spoke to Syrians and
asked them how they themselves define what's
happening in their country. So we really
wanted to bring Syrian voices to the
forefront, and to speak with people who had
been involved in the revolution and see how
they felt, to hear their story and to enable
other people to hear their story.

I think in general a lot of the narrative on
Syria, whether it's been through people
writing books or through mainstream
journalism, has been looking at Syria either
through a humanitarian lens or through an
extremist lens. So, really wanting to see
Syrians as either victims or terrorists, but
not really wanting to see Syrians as agents
of change.

Q: Many people seem to think that the situation in Syria is
simply too complicated to understand. Why do you think that
view has become so common?

I think that a lot of mainstream journalism,
which people depend on for a lot of their
information on Syria, has been extremely
poor. By focusing on issues such as the
humanitarian crisis or the extremism, what
people are getting are symptoms rather than
causes. So people do not feel, often, that
they have a real understanding of why this
happened or what the dynamics on the ground
are. For example, if you are looking at the
refugee crisis only through a humanitarian
lens, you are not looking at the causes of
the refugee crisis. It's going to be very
difficult to find a solution, because there
isn't a humanitarian solution to a political

Q: One argument that comes across very strongly in your book is
that there's been a level of misinformation about the situation
 of a regime that's hated by the United States on the one side
and on the other side you have forces like Daesh/ISIS and Al-
Nusra, supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc. That seems to
have become quite a dominant idea in sections of the left, for

I think a huge problem is people coming to
the Middle East through a pre-2011 paradigm,
and they are trying to interpret things as
they interpreted struggles that happened in
the Middle East before. But of course the
whole region changed radically in 2011 when
there were transnational uprisings from Egypt
to Bahrain to Yemen, all across the region.

This has been hugely problematic, because
there is this very dominant narrative in
sections of the left that the regime is a
resistance regime, but this narrative doesn't
match reality. It doesn't explain the role of
the Assad regime, of Assad the father in
Lebanon, the massacres of Palestinians in the
Lebanese camps that occurred during the
1980s. It doesn't explain why Bashar Al-Assad
worked with the Americans for the
extraordinary renditions, when the Americans
were handing over suspected terrorists to the
Syrian regime basically for torture by proxy.
That was throughout the war on terror.

This resistance narrative has persisted, but
the thing is that the regime has used this
resistance narrative to build popular
support, and it did manage to do that both
within Syria and across the wider Arab region
because it was speaking the same kind of
anti-Western, anti-Zionist rhetoric, which
was in line with popular sentiment on the
street. But a lot of this rhetoric was really
to justify internal repression.

For example, you have the emergency law that
was put in place, which was ostensibly
because Syria was at war with Israel. But
really that was the law which suspended all
the constitutional rights of Syrian citizens
and greatly empowered the security forces, so
that was the law that was used to round up
and detain dissidents to take them to
military courts. But at the same time, the
borders with Israel remained quiet, there
weren't serious efforts to liberate the
occupied Golan, for example. The Syrian
borders with Israel were quieter, more
peaceful even than borders that had peace
deals with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan.
So the resistance narrative doesn't match up.

And there is absolutely no evidence
whatsoever that the Saudi regime or the
Turkish regime are funding Daesh, and it
seems highly unlikely that they will. If you
look at Daesh's statements, one of its main
targets is to bring down the Saudi regime. I
think it's certainly the case that
individuals in Saudi Arabia have sent money
to Daesh, and Saudi Arabia until fairly
recently has played a very negative role in
not clamping down on those financial
transfers to Daesh from citizens within its
territory. But I don't see any evidence that
the Saudi regime itself is funding Daesh,
there is enough we can criticise the Saudi
regime for without making stuff up.

Q: What has been the role of the United States in supporting
forces hostile to the regime?

The United States support for Free Syrian
Army militias on the ground has never really
been any more than rhetoric. It's never
really given any serious support to them. The
main thing that opposition fighters on the
ground need is heavy anti-aircraft weapons to
defend communities from air force attacks,
which are the main cause of civilian deaths
inside Syria. The Americans have never sent
in those anti-aircraft weapons and their most
significant military intervention has
actually been to veto other countries from
sending in those weapons to FSA fighters.
Some things have gone in, lighter weapons, a
lot of things like night vision goggles have
gone in, but that's not what these groups
need. And also with the weapons that have
been going in, it sometimes seems designed to
pressure Assad to the negotiating table, to
create a stalemate. Some gains will be made
as a consequence of that in the battle field,
and then the weapon supply dries up, so
there's always this small gains being made,
the weapons dry up and then of course the
regime makes gains. So it seems that this
stalemate is just maintained much of the

Q: That seems in stark contrast to the way Russia and Iran are
giving support to the Assad regime.

The regime has massive amounts of financial
and military support from its backers, both
Russia and Iran. There should be strong
sanctions on countries sending weapons to the

Q: Where does this leave the revolution, and the self-
organisation of those besieged from all sides?

Communities have had to self-organise for
survival because as the state's collapsed in
large parts of the country or has been pushed
out. People have had to come together to keep
life functioning in those areas. And I think
this is one of the really remarkable things
about the Syrian revolution and the untold
story is how people are creating alternatives
to authoritarianism in these immensely
challenging circumstances when they are being
bombed by their own government, they are
being bombed by foreign governments, they are
under attack from Islamic extremists, they
are being starved, they are being gassed. But
they are also trying to create ways of
organising which are democratic, which is
much more community-based, to keep their
communities being able to stay in those

Q: In the book you mention how a number of ideas, such as
Islamism and anarchism, are part of the debates in how these
communities should be organised.

There are so many different ideas going
around, and that's the result of the
revolutionary situation. People are really
discussing and debating and trying out new
ways of organising and new ideas. The self-
organised communities are under threat not
only from the regime but also by Islamist
extremist groups, and in some areas there has
been a power struggle, around the councils
and within the communities as other groups
have also tried to impose structures on the
people. Today in Idlib it was the 85th day of
protests against Jabhat Al-Nusra in Marat
Numan, so the people have been very clear
that they don't want Jabhat Al-Nusra to stay
in Marat Numan. They are very clear that they
do not want to replace one authoritarian
system with another. Idlib is under very
heavy bombardment at the moment from the
regime, and by Russia, and it's exactly to
destroy these self-organised and democratic
communities. They are not ISIS, they are not
these extremist groups, they are FSA militias
and self-organised communities.

Q: What's the best way of offering solidarity to the Syrians?

There are serious humanitarian issues that
need to be addressed, there are still many
communities in Syria which are under siege.
The UN set the deadline of 1 June to airdrop
to these communities, and that's deadline's
passed and there's been no airdrops. Now the
UN is saying that it's wanting permission
from the regime, the people responsible for
the siege of these communities, to access
those areas. Today in Daraya they've actually
sent in some aid, and what they've sent are
mosquito nets while the people are starving,
it's an absolutely desperate situation and I
think one very important form of solidarity
is to call on the UN to call on those
governments to ensure that aid gets to those

But we can't do this all through a
humanitarian lens, there has to be a
political solution to this problem, there has
to be a real and meaningful peace process
which is inclusive, and ultimately has
representatives from the ground included in

In terms of solidarity, there hasn't been
much visible solidarity with Syria and I
think that's hugely problematic that that's
been the case. I think it's amazing that at
the moment when you're having this massive
slaughter, this constant bombardment, there
aren't people in their thousands, in their
millions out on the street calling for it to

Q: Is that something that people feel betrayed over?

Of course they feel betrayed over it, and I'm
sure they are no longer waiting for
solidarity from the outside world, I think
those days have long gone.

Q: Do you have hope that the regime will fall, and that
something somehow positive can come afterwards?

In many ways the regime has already fallen,
because it is completely reliant on foreign
powers for survival. It is completely
dependent on Iranian and Hezbollah, and Shia
militias from Iraq and from Afghanistan and
from all over, for ground forces, and on the
Russian air force. It's not managing to take
and control territory, and it's unlikely that
it's going to be able to take back the
massive sections of the country which it's
now lost. But I don't see any quick solutions
to this problem. I can't predict what the
future will be, I'm fearful that there will
be some kind of partition scenario, some kind
of imperial carve-up imposed from outside,
it's so difficult to tell.

But what I would be fairly certain of is that
I think that throughout the region the return
to the security state is not going to be
something which is going to happen. I think
the region has changed dramatically and that
we're in a long process of change.

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