Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

Leila Al-Shami  has worked with human rights movements in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.  She has co-authored  a new book on the Syrian conflict with long time media commentator and author Robin Yassin-Kassab.

Burning Country starts with an historical overview of Syria with a view to educating readers on the connections to the current conflict.  “It’s very important for people to know how this popular struggle started and really it was a response to two things. One was the authoritarianism of the regime where there was no political pluralism, there was no opportunity for people to participate in decision making inside Syria and where all political opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. So the cry for freedom which people raised when they took to the streets in 2011 was really in response to this.  The other aspect was the call for socio-economic justice.  The Assad regime implemented a range of neo-liberal economic policies and a distinctly corrupt form of crony capitalism where wealth was really concentrated in the hands of a few regime loyalists, meanwhile subsidies to the poor and the social safety net of the poor was taken away.  So people in the decade prior to the revolution became increasingly impoverished, so these were the two aspects that really lead to people taking to the streets in 2011 and calling at first for reform and then overtime for the fall of the regime.”

Al-Shami says that in the past 5 years, the situation in Syria has deteriorated into a civil war with many foreign actors trying to manipulate and control what’s happening in Syria and trying to set their own agenda. In addition, Al-Shami points to the many jihadi and extremist groups which have also gotten involved with an agenda that is opposite to the original ideals of the uprising, which called for human and civil rights.  “The popular protest movement…was ruthlessly suppressed by the regime.  Protestors were shot, peaceful protestors were shot.  Many people taking part in those protests were rounded up and arrested.  So increasingly people began to militarize, they began to take up arms to defend themselves and the communities from the assault that the regime was unleashing upon them.  Over time with the militarization of the uprising and the increasing repression by the state and the attacks that the state was carrying out on oppositional communities, you got the situation where the militarization became one of the most prominent parts of the struggle and into that you’ve got the influx of a large number of actors.”

Burning Country cites Russia and Iran as the two leading foreign players in the Syrian conflict. Al-Shami says the role of western countries has been overplayed. “I think the west in general is not one of the main actors in this conflict.  People have overstated the west’s role because the main actors continuing to destabilize Syria are Russia and Iran.  But of course the west is trying to influence the process specifically over the negotiations.  I personally believe that the best role that countries such as the US could play is to stay out of Syria and also to stop preventing other countries that want to provide support to the Free Syrian Army Militias from providing that support.”

The book is dedicated to Razan Zaitouneh  who Al-Shami says was one of the leading voices in the popular uprising.  “She was a human rights activist before the revolution. She dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of political prisoners.”  Zaitouneh also advocated against the Assad regime as well as advocating against the actions of some of the more extremist Islamist groups that were operating in Syria.”  She was abducted over a year ago and Al-Shami says she suspects that Jaish al-Islam was behind the abduction. Jaish al-Islam is one of the groups that emerged in opposition to the regime.  It’s also been trying to impose a strict version of Islam on the local population that it controls.

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Leila Al-Shami  and Robin Yassin-Kassab will speak about Burning Country at several Front Range locations:


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