The Most Important Thing Missing from Coverage of Syria: The Perspectives of Syrians Themselves

Given that Syrians are the ones most affected by the conflict, it’s remarkable how little we hear from them.

Eli Massey

Palmyra before the revolution in 2010. (Alessandra Kocman / Flickr)

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.

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.

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.

Eli Massey is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Cur­rent Affairs, Jacobin, Mon­doweiss, and else­where. He pre­vi­ous­ly was an intern at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies where he worked on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. Fol­low him at @EliJMassey
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