Judging from the news coverage, you’d think the Syrian conflict was about everyone but the Syrian people. Syrian perspectives have been almost entirely absent from conversations about the refugee crisis, ISIS and the fate of the Assad régime. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War offers a compelling counter-narrative, rich with the voices of the Syrian people.
Equal parts history and analysis, Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab foreground the grassroots organizations and culture that have flowered in Syria since the revolution began, despite the Assad régime and ISIS’s attacks. Most illuminating is the authors’ discussion of the local councils that oversee the functioning of public services primarily in rebel-controlled territory, of which there are more than 400.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a novelist and journalist who is co-editor at PULSE. Leila Al-Shami is a human rights activist who has worked in Syria and around the Middle East since 2000. She was a founding member of Tahrir-ICN, a network connecting anti-authoritarian struggles across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Before a recent book event in Chicago, I spoke with Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami at In These Times’ office about the current state of the Syrian revolution, the local councils, media misinformation and foreign intervention.
There are lots of books on the Syrian revolution. What does yours contribute that others don’t?
L: Everybody was talking about Syria, but nobody was talking to Syrians. So you get all these grand narratives, you get a focus on geopolitics, you get a focus on the Islamization, on the rise of extremist groups, but you don’t actually get people who are talking about the popular struggle on the ground, what the ordinary Syrians are engaged in. Those are the voices that we wanted to raise.
Skirmishes have recently erupted outside of Aleppo and other northern areas between government forces and rebels, and the ceasefire between the two seems to be disintegrating. What is the condition of the Syrian revolution today? Has the revolution failed?
R: The Syrian revolution has succeeded remarkably when you consider the extent of the counterrevolutionary forces and imperialist forces aligned against it. It’s remarkable that there are still hundreds of mainly democratically elected local councils, self-organized communities still functioning in the liberated areas. There are still all these free newspapers, free radio stations. There’s still so much debate and discussion and argument going on. That’s an incredible success in the most difficult of circumstances.
Describe the local councils. What are they, how do they function, who’s involved with them?
L: The local councils are the basic administrative structures set up in the liberated areas. As the state was forced out or withdrew, it also withdrew the provision of public services, and by 2013 and 2014 the state was no longer in control of four-fifths of the country.
These councils are made up usually of democratically elected representatives or people chose them by popular consensus. They’re made up of professionals that have specific technical abilities, so people who have agricultural expertise, water and sanitation expertise. They’re made up of the activists often from the local coordinating committees, people that were very active in the revolutionary movement. And they’re also made up of family members and tribal members from prominent tribes and families from that area.
Their job is to provide services to the local population. They try to keep the water and electricity supply functioning. If they can’t get the electricity cables fixed, they set up solar power panels. They recycle methane from waste to try to extract energy. They also grow food for communities under siege. They are in charge of garbage disposal. Some of the larger councils might have a department that’s responsible for legal work, a department for civil documentation, and or even a media department because getting news to the outside world is important.
How widespread are they?
L: There’s over 400; I’ve seen estimates of up to 700.
Do they still exist?
L: They’re still there. The only reason that life is functioning in the liberated areas is because of the existence of local councils and because people are self-managing their communities.
R: Of course they get stamped out whenever Assad or ISIS capture an area.
L: The councils are based on Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz’s vision. He produced a paper in the eighth month of the revolution in which he argued that it wasn’t enough for people to just go out and protest — they also had to find ways of organizing that were challenging these authoritarian structures of organization that were imposed by the state. He said that local councils could be a forum for people to collaborate effectively, manage their lives independently of the state and also initiate a social revolution, at the local level and also at the regional and national levels through linking of the councils.
What is the significance of the Assad régime re-taking Palmyra from ISIS? Hassan Hassan says this is primarily a political move meant to convince the world that the Assad régime is the only force that can stand up to ISIS. But mainstream rebels will continue to be the Assad régime’s primary target. Do you agree? [Editor’s note: documents leaked after this interview took place seem to indicate that ISIS and Assad negotiated a deal for the former to withdraw from Palmyra.]
R: Absolutely, I agree. The loss and recapture of Palmyra has been really quite theatrical. It’s notable that when ISIS captured Palmyra, they sent a huge convoy across the desert from Raqqa. It’s very easy to see it from the air. Neither the Americans nor the Assad régime who were bombing ISIS, supposedly — which has bombed almost everything in the country — succeeded in or even tried to bomb the convoy that came to take Palmyra. The régime wanted them to take Palmyra. They wanted them to blow up some of the heritage there because they knew that the world media would focus on that more than they focus on the Syrian people.
Now, supposedly the Assad régime has recaptured Palmyra but actually the forces that did it were under Russian air cover with Russian irregular troops on the ground, with troops from Serbia, with lots of Iranian troops, lots of transnational Shia jihadists from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and a few Syrian troops, too. This is part of the theatrics the Assad régime has helped to build up, a jihadist opposition including ISIS. Until the summer of 2014, the Assad régime had, in effect, an undeclared non-aggression pact with ISIS.
It’s fought ISIS since then when it’s politically expedient for the régime to be seen fighting. The Assad régime wants to present itself as the only alternative. It’s either Assad or ISIS. Most Syrian people would probably say, “ISIS is better than Assad” because Assad and his allies are responsible for the vast majority of the civilian casualties and displacement of people. Of course, the West is going to think the guy who shaves is better than the madman with a beard who wants to blow us up in London and New York and everywhere else.
L: It’s telling that all the people that fled Palmyra haven’t returned. If it had been liberated, people would feel safe to go back. That’s not the case.
Let’s talk about what the media has gotten wrong. There’s this dominant narrative that we can’t fight Assad and ISIS at same time. We have to pick one. You both disagree. Why?
R: The Syrian people have been fighting both and others at the same time. That’s a false choice. This binary choice has been one that’s been set up by the Assad régime and its international backers and far too many useful idiots in the West have fallen into this trap.
Right, but what Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn argue is that if you knock out the Assad régime, there will be a vacuum and the most powerful force left to fill it will be ISIS. Why is that untrue?
L: Because they’re following the narrative that’s been given to them by states. That’s the narrative of the Assad régime. That’s the narrative of Russia. But politics of liberation should be grounded in what people are doing, about people’s struggles, popular struggles. That’s where we should root our analysis, root our support. And it’s very clear that on the ground, people are struggling against all forms of authoritarianism including organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra.
R: It’s shocking that journalists like the two that you’ve just mentioned are held up as authorities by supposed leftists and progressives in the West. The reporting that these people have done has been orientalist and even racist. It’s been straightforward fraudulent in certain circumstances.
Robert Fisk, for example, wrote a piece during the Iraq war, a good piece, in which he complained about embedded journalism. He talked about journalists going in on American tanks with American soldiers and asking Iraqis questions and obviously not getting honest answers. [But] he did exactly the same thing. In the Deraya massacre when the Syrian régime army had massacred between 400 and 1000 people he went in embedded with the Syrian army and asked people questions and got a ridiculous set of answers which has been completely confuted by the local coordination committees, by local people in Deraya and also by serious journalists like Janine di Giovanni who went in with Syrian civilians.
Patrick Cockburn describes the Syrian opposition as an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy.” That’s ISIS. That’s not the Syrian opposition. The Syrian opposition has lost tens of thousands of men fighting ISIS. He says the Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist. Well, I’ve met them. We’ve seen in the news the results of their heroic battles against both Assad and ISIS. They cleared ISIS out of the whole of West of Syria in January 2014. This guy, for his own ideological reasons, just ignores it.
Noam Chomsky comes up with very strange ideas about Syria. He’s in effect serving this fascist propaganda. He says he understands what’s happening in Syria because his friend Patrick tells him about it. When you’ve got these old white men who rely on each other for their news about Syria, rather than actually talking to Syrians, then we’re lost. We’re not being leftwing and progressive people. They come out with silly conspiracy theories.
Like Seymour Hersh?
R: Like Seymour Hersh. They see American régime change plots everywhere, when it’s obvious Obama has handed over the Syria file to other savage imperialists like the Russian and Iranian states. The most significant U.S. military intervention has been to veto other powers that want to provide anti-aircraft weapons to the resistance. The Americans have vetoed that again and again. The Americans don’t want democracy in Syria. They don’t want the success of a revolution in the Middle East. And these Western leftists are so obsessed with the false notion that America is in there trying to do a régime change that they completely ignore working-class people struggling against the violence of a fascist and neoliberal régime.
L: It’s also a form of imperialism, because it’s such a Western-centric discourse. People are basically saying that we know more about your struggle than you do. We don’t need to listen to Syrian voices. We don’t need to leave a space for Syrians to define themselves what’s happening in their country because we think that we have all the answers.
But you acknowledge that the Free Syrian Army is an umbrella organization, right? And do you disagree with Fisk’s assessment that there has been mass defection, many of the defectors joining Nusra and ISIS?
L: Who’s just taken back 20 villages in the past week in the north of Syria? It’s the Free Syrian Army.
But it’s unclear who they are.
R: The Free Syrian Army is not one army. The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella term for more than 1000 different militias. When we call them the Free Syrian Army, what we mean is that these militias are non-ideological. Their only aim is to defend their communities from primarily régime attacks, sometimes from ISIS, too, to get rid of the régime and then allow the Syrians themselves to choose what comes next through some kind of process.
Then you’ve got the Islamic Front groups, which are groups with an Islamic agenda. They say that they want an Islamic state.
Like Jaysh al-Islam.
R: Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham are the two biggest, Liwa al-Tawheed, etcetera. These are people with a Syrian constituency and Syrian agenda, and they should have a say in the final solution because they represent some Syrians although we don’t like their politics very much and they have committed abuses.
Do you think they’re willing to follow democratic procedures?
R: In practical terms, yes, although our book is dedicated to Razan Zaitouneh, who was probably abducted by Jaysh al-Islam in Douma. Nevertheless, in Douma, in areas where these militias have a strong presence, there are local councils holding elections and functioning. They don’t interfere with that. They generally allow people to protest without shooting at them. It’s immeasurably better than the situation under either ISIS or Assad.
Then there are these transnational jihadist groups with a global agenda who have jumped into the chaos to take advantage like Nusra, which is the al-Qaeda franchise and ISIS. They are a third force, especially ISIS. It’s a foreign occupation. It’s not part of the revolution at all.
It’s true that some Free Army fighters have left Free Army brigades and joined more Islamist brigades and in some cases even ISIS or Nusra. Not as many as people like Fisk and Cockburn say. They just write the whole thing off Islamophobically.
We quote some research in the book from 2012, which admittedly is four years ago. But they asked fighters in Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra what was their preferred mode of government for the future. Was it a civil state or an Islamic state? Remarkably, 60 percent of the foot soldiers in these two organizations said they would prefer a civil state.
Why does 60 percent of the foot soldiers in Nusra, at least four years ago, say that they don’t want an Islamic state, they want a civil state? The reason they were moving to these organizations was for pragmatic reasons. It wasn’t because of Islamic ideology. It was because the Free Army was not being supportive.
The Free Army would run out of ammunition. They couldn’t defend themselves. If they go to an Islamist militia, which had its pre-existing relationship with people in the Gulf and so on, they could then get weapons. They could get ammunition. They could defend themselves. They may even get a small salary, which they could send to their family in a refugee camp. It was the lack of support for the Free Army that led to the rise of some of these Islamist groups.
For people who are skeptical of your claim that there are more than 70,000 moderate rebel forces, to whom are you referring?
R: I’m referring to those Free Army militias. More than a thousand militias which are subsumed under the non-ideological Free Syrian Army label. But I would also add to those most of the fighters in the Syrian Islamist militias. I would include people in Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Talwheed, organizations like this. A lot of those foot soldiers do have a strong Islamic identity. We don’t. But that does not mean that they are Islamofascists.
They’re ordinary religious, conservative Syrian men who come from religious, conservative Syrian communities. But they don’t have an agenda of driving out the Christians and the Alawis. They don’t have an agenda of imposing their idea of an Islamic state on the other. They’re just using this Islamic identity and vocabulary to give them strength as they attempt to defend their communities from the régime. The majority of those people are moderates in that all they want is to defend their communities from assault and to allow the Syrians to choose what comes next.
It seems clear you both think American policy was wrong on Syria. You write, “America refused to arm the democratic opposition properly.” What should American policy have looked like instead?
L: I’m not calling for anything from America. I don’t think America should be involved.
No intervention at all?
L: No intervention. I’m completely against it.
Should we be arming anyone?
L: Had the Free Syrian Army been armed in 2013, we would not be in the situation that we are in now with the massive rise of Islamist groups. I’ve called for arming the Free Syrian Army. The people that are struggling against annihilation have the right to accept weapons from anywhere they can get them.
At the time, it looked like their most realistic hope of that was the West. People in Syria were looking toward the West to give them weapons which didn’t come — certainly not the anti-aircraft and the heavy weapons that people needed to defend themselves.
My view is that America should stay out. It shouldn’t be involved. It hasn’t played a major role in Syria.
Why do you think America should have armed the Free Syrian Army when we look at Libya where the United States along with NATO, in effect, backed the ousting of Gaddafi? Things haven’t turned out well.
L: If Gaddafi had not fallen, Libya now would look very much like Syria. In reality, the situation in Libya is a million times better. Syrian refugees are fleeing to Libya. Far fewer people have been killed in Libya since Gaddafi’s falling than in Syria.
Gaddafi being ousted was a success for the Libyan people. The reason that there are problems in Libya now is not because Gaddafi is gone. It’s because Gaddafi was in power for decades in which all political participation was completely suppressed. All civil society was completely suppressed. The idea that from that situation people could create a perfect democracy is fallacy. It takes people time to build that.
R: It’s so West-centric, this notion that British and French intervention primarily, with a bit of American backing, is why Gaddafi fell. What the Libyan people did was irrelevant. There’s chaos in Libya now and wouldn’t it have been so much better if this fascist was still there able to slaughter his people. What happened was there was a popular revolution in Libya. This happened months before Britain and France got involved. There was going to be a civil war in Libya whether or not Britain and France chose to get involved.