Since the commencement of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, which would thereafter change the existent regional order in the Middle East, many have endeavored to understand the nature of this conflict. There is a debate whether it is a promising revolution or a devastating civil war. In Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe, Charles Glass conducts his inquiry into the Syrian ‘civil war.’
It can be said that his book is an autobiography, mainly based on his own experience and interpretation of Syrian history and current reality. Glass constructs his argument around conversations he had with many Syrian novelists, authors, activists, and ordinary people, rather than by conducting a casual or political analysis. He aims at providing an overview of the Syrian conflict by tracking the historical genesis of Syrian social and political history without detaching it from the surrounding political entities that existed since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The book discusses three main ideas. The first is that the situation now in Syria is not another shadow of the “Arab spring’ popular uprisings; it is far from being peaceful demonstrations for it ‘turned into civil war” (Glass, p. 36) as a result of the armed struggle among many sects of the opposition. That, in turn, paved the way for the rise of various fundamentalist and Jihadist movements such as FSA, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The second main idea of the book emphasizes the role of foreign state actors, such as the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, in inflaming the war in Syria. They have contesting and contradicting interests in Syria, and therefore they support different local disputing parties. By doing so, they have deepened the dichotomies between Syrian factions in a way that has made any chances of political settlement a herculean task. Both anti-Assad groups and their allies and Assad’s foreign allies have miscalculated the roughness and the protracted consequences of any attempt to overthrow the Assad Regime or sustain it.
The third idea argues that the armed dissent parties botched the ‘revolution’ by engaging in religious and sectarian conflicts over accepting monetary support and military assistance from foreign powers pursuing their own strategic, oil, and arguably imperial interests, which differ from those of the Syrian people who revolted to demand freedom, justice, and a well-functioning state. Glass proposes this idea through a comparative analysis of the main political developments and several historical examples.
For instance, he draws an analogy between the mandate of Imperial France over Syria which expelled King Faisal, and the foreign –and arguably imperial– powers that assist and back the Free Syrian Army. This implicitly leads the reader to conclude that if the FSA succeeds in overthrowing the Assad regime, it will not be able to establish a democratic and autonomic regime in Syria, because that regime will be vulnerable to the backing foreign powers’ own interests, and eventually their decisions would prevail over the desires of the local government. Furthermore, considering the further complexity of the present situation, other Jihadist groups or their former ‘allied’ powers may challenge or expel this local government, similarly to what happened to Emir Faisal in 1920.
Glass conducts his examination of this complex conflict and its dimensions with ease and in a capturing way, especially in terms of the language he employs. Syria Burning is a good, people-oriented overview and a short introduction to understanding the conflict, especially for those who don’t have much knowledge about Syria. However, his analysis is neither an academic nor a systematic socio-political or a strategical one, nor does it provide new insight. Instead, it basically depends on Glass’ normative judgment about his inquiry into history, and his analytical interpretation of what he has seen and heard during his long career in the Middle East.
On the other hand, it might be observed that Glass is biased toward how minority rights (mainly Alawite and Christian) are being violated by the reactionary and anti-Assad forces. He states that one Syrian Christian told him that: “I shit on this revolution because it is forcing me into arms of the regime” (Glass, p.101). This is a misleading quote because of the context in which it is used as well as the implicit meaning it conveys. In other words, he is saying that he hates the revolution whose consequences forced him to stand by the regime’s side and that the massive war crimes and atrocities committed by the Assad regime are more bearable than those of the revolutionary forces. Although Glass himself mentions several times that most of the Christians and Alawites were with Bashar from the very beginning of the ‘revolution,’ because the regime granted them their rights and security, (as an Armenian woman once told Glass), even when it violated the major percentage of the Syrian population’s political, social, and economic rights, to put it mildly. If we hold this true, then all of the reactionary forces’ condemned atrocities can be justified, for it is an al-Assad ‘terrorist’ regime who pushed them toward choosing the rifle over the banner.
Furthermore, it is unfair of Glass to equate the dictatorial regime of al-Assad with all its military might, let alone its use of chemical weapons, mortars, and barrel bombs, with the hostage kidnapping or even atrocities of the reactionary forces and non-states actors. This bias may stem from Glass’ romanticized and fantasized idea of a revolution that would reshape the whole region.
In this regard, the author’s strong prejudice against, if not the opposition, the Syrian revolution in general, seems clear to the reader in several sections of the book, and is evident in the dialogues he mentions, as in the above-mentioned quotation. Such prejudice and unfairness may stem from a romanticized perception of what revolutions are, how they occur, and their potential path of resistance to the oppressing authority. Firm resistance to an authoritarian and brutal regime may be considered as terrorist acts or actions that inflame a civil war. Yet, the concept of revolution, including the revolutionary endeavors in Syria, is one of the contested concepts that are too complex and manifold to be explained briefly. Moreover, defying dictators is neither easy nor cost-free endeavor since all forms of struggle have complications and costs; and the fall of a dictatorship does not automatically bring in a utopia.1
That romanticized perception may lead some to equate the crimes of the Assad regime and its militias with those of the groups opposing it, even if the latter have lost their way and turned extremist in ideas and actions. Granting the fact that foreign interventions have turned the already complex scene into an imbroglio and a protracted proxy war, Glass holds all parties (domestic and international) involved in this war, responsible for the inflaming of the conflict, and the miserable status quo civilians within Syria and millions of refugees are suffering on a daily basis. However, this should not lead us to deny the right of the Syrian people to liberate themselves from dictatorship and oppose the injustice being inflicted on them and reclaim their demands for freedom and sovereignty, which they have been striving for since the first day of this revolution.
In conclusion, Charles Glass’ grievous description of the massive casualties, and personal understanding of this conflict can be helpful for those who seek to acquire a general overview about the historical, political, and sociological context and origin of this civil and proxy war from another point of view.
- Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: a Conceptual Framework for Liberation, (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012).