Skip to content

Facing the Counter-Revolution: A review of Burning Country, by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

“In 2011 and 2012, Syrians launched a popular revolution of enormous consequence and reach. New forms of organisation and expression emerged which reconfigured social relationships away from those based on hierarchy and domination towards the empowerment of individuals and communities. From 2013 on, however, these experiments were increasingly submerged by fierce counter-revolutionary trends, both Assadist and regional. War dismantled the country’s infrastructure and social fabric. Over half the population fled its homes. What does this mean for revolution as a desired end?” (219)

Anti-authoritarians Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab look back over the past fifteen years of resistance movements in Syria, to understand the anarchistic currents that emerged during the revolution that began in 2011. Altough this revolution has gone farther than any other in recent memory, it is poorly understand and has received little support. With Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, the authors seek to change that.

As they explain in the introduction, their goal is to increase our understanding of the Syrian revolution to encourage practical solidarity. They also draw many general conclusions about revolution, struggle, violence, organization, and authority that will be valuable to radicals in the Middle East and around the world in the rapidly changing terrain of the 21st century.

The authors explain that although there are many different groups and identities in Syria, to speak of categories in a country with the richness and diversity of Syria is always to oversimplify. “Generalisations are sometimes necessary, but it is most accurate to think of Syria as a collective of 23 million individuals.” (3) It is very much the stories of those individuals that make up this book – the voices represented here cut across lines of age, sect, gender, region, and class to show that although there are certain commonalities within groups, the revolution was built on the strength of differences and exceptions. This analysis goes far beyond what the authors call ‘orientalising narratives’ of hopelessness that seek to understand the conflict as entirely sectarian, the region as utterly backwards, and the violence as an internal and inevitable problem.

In each of their meticulously researched and sourced chapters (a chapter of 20 pages will have upwards of 60 endnotes), Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab present a particular aspect of the Syrian revolution. For instance, chapter 4, “The Grassroots”, focuses on the development of Local Co-ordinating Committees and neighbourhood councils and how they have adapted to changing conditions throughout the conflict. Chapter 6 deals with the rise of jihadist groups, particularly ISIS. This kind of clear separation between chapters shows that there were always many different voices and distinct tendencies contributing to the revolution and that the triumph of the counter-revolution was by no means inevitable.

Perhaps most provocative is the final chapter critiquing the practices of solidarity that have (not) existed towards the struggle. Kurdish groups affiliated with the PYD have been the main recipients of solidarity from Western radicals, however limited that has been. Throughout the book though, the authors offer a much more nuanced view of the Kurdish groups affiliated with the PYD than we usually hear. They see the revolution in the Kurdish regions as being very different from those in the rest of the country, mostly because of how centralized it was within existing political structures that took on the responsability of policing revolutionary currents.

The authors still call for solidarity with the struggles of Kurdish groups, of course, but they emphasize that we need a critical solidarity. They offer the words of Kurdish activist Shiar Nayo: “Critical solidarity means you support a struggle as a matter of principle (with real material support) but maintain an active, critical stance toward a particular version or force that claims to represent people’s aspirations and capitalises on them for political ends.” Without this kind of solidarity, Nayo fears the PYD will further centralize power and increase its internal repression. At the time of writing, as Kurdish groups opportunistically attack rebel formations North of Aleppo, we would do well to keep this in mind.

In their chapter “Militarisation and Liberation”, the authors examine one of the most complex and troubling dynamics of the revolution – the decision to take up arms and the role of armed struggle. Although nearly all segments of the revolution initially tried to avoid armed conflict, the revolution militarised quickly. The regime’s violence against the demonstrations lead to both the revolutionaries arming themselves and to mass defections from the armed forces.
Many revolutionaries knew that militarizing the conflict would play into the regime’s hands and tried to avoid it. But we shouldn’t hear in this the kind of sickening moralism common among Western pacifists. The Assad regime drove a relentless escalation of force – it was the government’s choice to escalate every step of the way, knowing it could go much further down this road than could the revolution. The strategy of less-violent resistance was thus a way of refusing the terms of engagement dictated by the state.

To deal with the escalation and to protect liberated areas, the local committees increasingly collaborated with the emerging Free Syrian Army – revolutionaries tried to ensure the armed segment remained deeply connected to the social revolution. However, this all changed following the sarine gas attacks in Ghouta. The authors identify this as the turning point where the revolution decisively gave way to counter-revolution. With these gas attacks (which so many leftists around the world, parroting Assadist, Russian, and Iranian state TV, collaborated to conceal), it became clear that Assad was immune to pressure and that no outside force was going to put limits on his violence. This is the moment where armed groups and the war economy overtook the revolution — ISIS would rise from this bitter experience and revolutionaries would soon be caught in a war on two fronts.

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War is a challenge to all the anarchists and other radicals who have sat on the fence, feeling that the conflict in Syria is too complex. It is a denunciation of the segments of the left who, with their binary worldview dating back to the Cold War, somehow believe Assad is an anti-imperialist, who claim there is no revolution, and who collaborate to cast doubt on the violence of the regime. In just 225 pages, this book has the ability to change how anarchists and everyone who dreams of revolution understand the Syrian revolution and war and even how we understand the possibilities and perils of revolution itself in the modern world.

Sample chapters on Leila’s blog:…