I had the pleasure to work on Charles Glass’s new book on the Syrian civil war, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring, which is now for sale at the OR Books website.
As might be expected, the often catastrophic unpredictability of revolutions, especially armed revolutions, is a theme running through the book. Glass himself spent many years covering the Lebanese Civil War, an experience that unfortunately set him in good stead to make sense of the revolution in Syria. He writes,
In 1975 young Lebanese, every bit as idealistic as their Syrian counterparts in 2011, began a revolution against corruption and pseudo-democracy. It produced a 15-year war, foreign occupation and devastation. The Palestinian revolution sold out, making the lives of the people it claimed to represent more wretched in the Israeli-occupied territories and in exile (most obviously, in Lebanon and Kuwait). The Iranian revolution, begun as a coalition of hope in 1978, led to a regime more brutal and corrupt than the one it replaced. Revolutions produce surprising outcomes, and those who start them must be prepared for the unintended consequences of success as much as for failure.
Some have a tendency to dismiss the ‘liberal fear of civil war‘ as mere lily-livered acquiescence in the status quo. But as Glass’s book shows, this complacency does not long survive impact with the phenomenon itself.
[A]fter living through two and a half years of violent war, many of the young idealists I met in the café of Rulla Rouqbi’s hotel when I returned in September 2013 were exhausted and discouraged, and the café itself nearly empty. “Stop the war. Stop the blood. The Syrian people are tired now,” said Khaled Khalifa, author of the acclaimed Syrian novel In Praise of Hatred. He was fed up with the revolution he once longed for. “You can play revolution for some time,” he said. “But not for a long time.”
I spoke recently with a Syrian living in Turkey, who recalled that when the uprising started, he realised that ‘if Assad would lose, he would lose only at the end’, after the destruction of the country and a substantial portion of its inhabitants. Fast-forward and the devastation has indeed been immense, while a decisive outcome remains out of sight.
The book places external support for the contending actors in Syria in the context of a century of imperialist meddling in the region, invariably to the detriment of its inhabitants. Truly, what outside powers have wrought in Syria boggles the mind and would appall the conscience, were attention being paid.
‘Four years on’, writes Glass,
a conflict that has screamed from the outset for a diplomatic settlement perpetuates itself with outside help, for outside interests. External support has not merely escalated the killing but, mirroring fratricidal struggles from Spain in 1936 to Yugoslavia in 1992, made it ever more personal and vicious. No hands are clean. No one, apart from the undertaker, is winning. Yet it goes on and on with each side certain of the justice of its cause…
If Syria’s friends set out to destroy the country, they have done well. The war has reached the stage at which many on both sides no longer regard the others as human, let alone as citizens of a country in which all must coexist. Neighbor has turned against neighbor. People who thought of themselves in 2010 as Syrians have become Sunnis, Druze, Christians or Alawites. The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side. The population that survives the violence is contending with famine, disease and exposure to the extremes of Syria’s summers and winters.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking chapter of the book documents how sectarian revolutionary and regime violence has shredded the fabric of Syrian cosmopolitanism. ‘The mosaic of cultures that made for Syria’s richness is being lost’.
With Turkey, the Saudis, and powers further afield showing no sign of willingness to acknowledge error and reverse course, Syrians’ torment looks set to continue. Glass concludes:
Hopes for a negotiated end to the war receded with the deterioration in America’s relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Assad’s only ally apart from Iran and the regime in Baghdad, over Ukraine and the eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The US, Russia, the Syrian regime and much of the Syrian opposition came to Geneva in January 2014 with no plan, no inclination to end Syrian agony and no purpose other than pushing their own goals to the detriment of a population that was enduring the daily reality of death, maiming, exodus and oppression from both camps. The dominant force in the Syrian revolution proclaimed itself a caliphate, beheaded innocent prisoners, raped and enslaved women, hurled young men from towers because of their sexual preferences and burned alive a young Jordanian soldier who fought for his country. This is where superpower, Turkish and Arab policies have led. Where will they take Syria next?