Lessons of the Syrian Revolution for Iranians: A Review of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

Five years after the Syrian Revolution, many Iranians are still wondering why a popular revolution which demanded democracy, justice and equality turned into a holocaust of the Syrian people.  Why was Bashar al-Assad’s fascistic regime able to remain in power?  Why and how did sectarianism and religious fundamentalism grow?  How did ISIS arise?    What is the role of the Iranian government in bringing about the current disaster?   What can be done to possibly reverse the current course of events?  Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s Burning Country is a well-documented account that can answer these questions in a satisfactory way.

Lessons of the Syrian Revolution for Iranians:  A Review Essay

Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami.  Burning Country:  Syrians in Revolution and War.   Pluto Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Frieda Afary

This review was originally published in Persian on July 11, 2016  by Zamaneh , a Persian-language human rights website and radio station in Amsterdam.  https://www.radiozamaneh.com/286883


Five years after the Syrian Revolution, many Iranians are still wondering why a popular revolution which demanded democracy, justice and equality turned into a holocaust of the Syrian people.  Why was Bashar al-Assad’s fascistic regime able to remain in power?  Why and how did sectarianism and religious fundamentalism grow?  How did ISIS arise?    What is the role of the Iranian government in bringing about the current disaster?   What can be done to possibly reverse the current course of events?

This book is a well-documented account that can answer these questions in a satisfactory way.  Robin Yassin-Kassab,  a media commentator on Syria and author of the acclaimed novel,  The Road from Damascus,  and Leila Al-Shami,  a blogger who has worked with human rights movements in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East have written a work that offers a great deal of first-hand material, displays detailed knowledge of the Syrian struggle for social justice,  and candidly discusses the weaknesses and limitations of the Syrian revolution.

I.What Happened During the First Year of the Syrian Revolution?

“When we revolt, it is not for a particular culture.  We revolt simply because for many reasons we can no longer breathe.”  Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

In March 2011, the majority of the Syrian people revolted against an authoritarian Baathist regime after having lived under almost 50 years of its state of emergency.   The ruling Baath party which came to power in 1963 in a military coup,  had been influenced by Stalinism and fascism and had originally offered an admixture of state capitalism and Arab nationalism under the name of “Arab Socialism.”   Hafez Assad,  one of the participants in the 1963 coup declared himself president in 1971 after two other coups and turned the Baathist single-party state into a cult of personality.  After his death in 2000,  his son Bashar Assad was “elected” president in an election without rivals,  and continued a regime which denied Syrians their basic human rights.

A system that boasted of being “secular” was subject to Sharia law.   Family law was governed by the Sharia for Muslims and by the Church for Christians.   According to the constitution, the head of state had to be Muslim.  Over 220,000 Kurds (of a Kurdish population of 2.3 million) had been stripped of Syrian nationality and were considered stateless.  Those Kurds who were Syrian citizens faced institutional racism.

The state was openly cutting wages, benefits, laying off workers, evicting peasants from state farms and benefitting native business monopolies connected to the state as well as international investors mainly from the Arab states of the Gulf. (p. 31)   Workers and peasants were struggling to survive (the average salary was $115 per month) and could not have independent trade unions.  Prisons were brimming with political prisoners who were subjected to the most brutal types of torture.

The demands of human rights activists and intellectuals for freedom of expression, a multi-party system, freedom for political prisoners, an end to legal discrimination against women, and an end to discrimination against Kurds were rejected by the Assad regime.   The only intellectuals recognized by the state were the ones who were affiliated with the Baath party which also controlled the educational system.

The mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which had brought about the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak inspired the disaffected Syrian people to take to the streets on March 15, 2011.  At first the protests demanded the release of political prisoners, the repeal of the 48- year old state of emergency and the formation of new parties.  However, faced with the military’s violent assaults, the government’s shoot to kill order and tanks, the demonstrations began to call for the overthrow of the Assad regime.   (p. 43)

From the beginning the Assad regime refused to acknowledge the growing mass protests and attributed them to “infiltrators,” and  “armed gangs” incited by foreign parties and Salafists, Saudi Arabia and Israel. (p. 39-40)  In April 2011, the almost 48-year old Emergency Law was lifted only to be replaced by a “Counter-Terrorism Law” which was used to detain tens of thousands of people.   It only allowed peaceful demonstrations with “advance permission.”  Instead, the mass demonstrations went ahead without permission and started demanding the execution of the president.

Protests covered the entire country from  Dar’a   to the working class suburbs of Damascus to Homs  and the working class neighborhoods and rural areas of Aleppo,  from the Kurdish region in the north to Raqqah,  Deir al-Zur and Selemmiyeh.    Protesters also included Sunni Kurds, Christians, Druze, Alawis and atheists.  University students played a key role, formed the Union of Free Syrian Students in September 2011, published a magazine, “Voice of the Free” in Aleppo and declared their solidarity with women hunger-striking detainees.   In Aleppo, women revolutionaries founded Syria’s first independent radio station which promoted gender equality.    Activists tried to diversify meeting locations to allow for more diversity among the participants.   People in working class neighborhoods and areas started to organize in revolutionary committees not just for reform but for the complete overthrow of the  political system.  They set up independent radio stations and newspapers. (p. x)

The lack of an organized workers’ resistance was due to several factors.  The labor movement had been destroyed by the Baathist regime, and no independent unions were allowed to exist.  Furthermore, only 16% of the labor force was employed in industries like manufacturing, mining and oil production.  Most workplaces in large cities such as Damascus and Aleppo were family enterprises which employed fewer than 14 employees.  Many workers worked in the informal sector.  The majority of the Syrian Left were affiliated with Stalinist parties and were regime apologists who did not have any interest in promoting a genuine labor movement.

Despite the lack of independent and organized labor unions, unorganized members of the working class participated widely in the revolution and the strikes which the Local Coordination Committees called for on a number of occasions.  After the Dignity Strike of December 11, 2011, the regime closed 187 factories and laid off 85,000 people. (p. 62)   Some of the socioeconomic demands of the working classes were implicitly anti-capitalist.  However, given the Baath party’s Stalinist distortion of the ideas of socialism and Marxism, these ideas were discredited in the eyes of many Syrians.  Nevertheless, Independent socialists and anarchists were active in the revolution.   Many young members of the Stalinist parties also  broke from those parties to participate in the revolution.

As the regime started to put cities under siege, neighborhoods began to organize themselves by allocating water, collecting waste and directing traffic.  Activists called on people to shun sectarianism and reject negotiations with the regime until it ended its military and security crackdowns. (p. 51) Coordination Committees or Tanseeqiyat sprang up in neighborhoods, built makeshift hospitals, distributed food and contacted the media.  These committees founded by feminist human rights attorney Razan Zaitouneh promoted non-violent resistance, rejected sectarianism and rejected foreign military intervention (p. 54) Their decentralized form of organization was also influenced by the ideas of Syrian anarchist, Omar Aziz,  who was arrested in November 2012 and died in prison three months later.

By the Spring of 2012, faced with the increasing brutality of the regime, the detention and  torture  of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters,  the use of rape as a standard practice not only in prisons but in army raids as well, and the death of at least 2500,  many of the people who supported the revolution had to take up arms to defend themselves and their neighborhoods.  Every adult Syrian male had undergone compulsory military training under the Assad regime.  Many soldiers had also defected from the army and had returned to their homes to organize with their neighbors.

Earlier in June 2011, when the security forces opened fire on the funeral of 15 workers who had been slaughtered by the regime in Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province, mourners had responded by seizing weapons from a police station.    The army first executed the soldiers who refused to kill civilians, and then returned with helicopter gunships and tanks to kill more defectors and civilians.   This mass killing led to the flight of 10,000 people to the Turkish border and marked the first wave of refugees.   It also led a lieutenant colonel, Hussein Harmoush,  to openly defect in front of a video camera and call for the formation of a “Free Syrian Army.”  (p.83)

The “Free Syrian Army” was “never an army but a collection of militias, some mobile, most local and defensive—all signed up to the twin aims of destroying the regime and establishing a democratic state.”   It was a resistance without anyone in charge.  It was “not a centrally recruited and trained organization, ” was never sufficiently or continuously funded and did not have an enforceable code of conduct. (p.85)

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami argue that faced with escalating military attacks from the regime and the lack of funds and weapons within the resistance, “the scramble for weapons and funds transformed the revolution from a leaderless movement into a cacophony of a thousand competing leaders, from horizontalism to a jostle of hierarchies.  The horizontally organized committees and communities . . .  increasingly focused on basic community survival.  Women’s role in the revolution was increasingly marginalized.  Although women, particularly Kurds,  did sometimes take up arms. . .  Civil struggle became much less visible . . . As indiscipline and opportunist criminality tainted the resistance, and later as Jihadism flourished, the regime found an excuse for its already steadily escalating violence.” (pp. 78-79)

However, it was not only the steadily increasing brutality of the regime that weakened the resistance.   The Assad regime’s carefully crafted policies for promoting sectarian divisions also took advantage of the contradictions that existed within Syrian society.

  1. What Led to the Growth of Sectarianism?

“Communal tensions are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations.” Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami (p. 110)

“The opposition failed to present a national discourse that could persuade the minorities as a whole to stand with the revolution.”  Aziz Assad (p. 108)

The Syrian regime had a large army and security structure.  After the 1963 Baathist coup,  and especially after 1970,  Hafez Assad had used his Alawi identity and his connections within that community (a minority which constitutes 12% of the population) to train a large portion of the males of that community as military and security personnel.   After 1970,  the officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces and the security agencies, ”the real powers running the country” were almost exclusively Alawi.(p. 114).  “Dissenting Baathist  Alawis were ruthlessly repressed.  Independent Alawi religious leaders were imprisoned, exiled or intimidated into silence.”    Furthermore,  Alawis employed by the military and security services lived in Alawi enclaves built by the regime on  strategic approaches to the main cities.   Thus,  by 2011,  although Sunnis and Alawis were used to working together in mixed urban areas and sometimes intermarried,  almost every Alawi family had a male relative in the army or security services (p. 114).  Alawi identity became “not primarily religious but as a historically oppressed community whose fortunes are inextricably tied up with the repressive mechanisms of the state, and with the Assad family itself.”  (p. 115)

After the revolution, the regime took advantage of the divisions between Alawis and Sunnis to promote fear among Alawis and to present the revolution as a Sunni threat.  It would send disguised Shabeeha security agents to Alawi neighborhoods to warn them of an imminent Sunni attack.  It would  also send the Shabeeha to Sunni neighborhoods with the slogan,  “Either Assad or we will burn the country down.”   During the Spring and Summer of 2012, a series of state-directed massacres of Sunnis in areas surrounded by Alawi and Shia villages on the central plain between Homs and Hama and in other areas  “incited the victim community  with a generalized thirst for revenge, while exploiting the spectre of this revenge to frighten even dissenting members of the ‘perpetrator community’ into redoubled allegiance.” (p. 112)

Although at least 10% of Alawis including inspiring feminist activist and former political prisoner Samira Khalil and author/journalist Samar Yazbek supported the revolution, regime measures which used the already existing mistrust between Sunnis and Alawis greatly damaged the revolution.    As recently as April 2016 however, a group of Alawi community and religious leaders issued a statement in which they distanced themselves from the Assad regime and stated that “Alawis should not be associated with the crimes the regime has committed.”   (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35941679)

The regime had repressed the Kurdish desire for self-determination and had not allowed for any forms of autonomy prior to the revolution.  However, it had given some opportunistic support to Kurdish movements in Iraq and Turkey.  In the the early 1990s  “Hafez al-Assad had arranged training for PKK militants in Lebanon, and sheltered PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan until 1999 when Turkey threatened war.” (p. 88).   After the outbreak of the revolution,  it finally granted Syrian nationality to over 220,000 stateless Syrian Kurds who had had their Syrian nationality stripped in 1961.   A few months later, it murdered Kurdish leader Meshaal Temo who had recently been released from prison, was organizing anti-regime protests in Qamishli and opposed negotiations with the Assad regime.

The Kurds in the Kurdish region in northern Syria, as well as cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and others had actively participated in the 2011 revolution.  However, most Arab leaders of the Syrian revolution did not welcome any talk of Kurdish self-determination or federalism.

By the Summer of 2012, the regime faced a serious threat from a nation whose majority wanted its overthrow.  At that time, Assad coordinated a withdrawal of his forces from Syria’s Kurdish region,  and  based on an implicit non-aggression pact,  transferred the control of most security and administrative bodies to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).   An Autonomous Region was set up in the Kurdish-majority areas of Afrin, Jazeera and Kobani which the world now knows as Rojava (p. 73)     Assad’s army and courts however, continued to be present in Qamishli, the de facto capital of the Jazeera canton, and in Hasakah.

The regime relied not only on existing Sunni/Alawi and Arab/Kurdish divisions but also on the fear that Syria’s Christian community (10% of the population) had of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.  Prior to the revolution, it had established ties with the Christian church and had good relations with Church leaders.   The regime’s personal status laws had also placed family law for Christians under the control of the Church.

One minority group which the regime claimed to defend and which it then punished for siding with the revolution were the Palestinians in Syria.  The Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus which housed 200,000, the largest Palestinian population in Syria, had at first remained neutral even though it did offer refuge to Syrians displaced by repression elsewhere.  By December 2012, as more and more refugees and resistance fighters arrived from neighboring areas, Yarmouk was targeted by the regime and a siege was imposed on it with the help of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (p. 102)   Palestinians were tortured and starved for expressing their solidarity with Syrian revolutionaries.  (pp.214-215)

Thus we see that efforts to break through sectarian divisions faced many obstacles.

III. Why and How Did Islamic Fundamentalism and Salafi Jihadism Grow?

“Both [Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS] feed on the desperation caused by Assad’s counter-revolutionary war, and specifically on the regional sense of outraged Sunni identity, vulnerable to expanding Shia state and militia power. This means that so long as the regime survives and Iranian intervention persists, so too will violent Sunni reaction—under these or successor organizations”  Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami (pp. 145-146)

After the revolution most of the Ulama were discredited because of their silence (p. 117).   The Muslim Brotherhood had been “tainted because of their 1980s adventurism.” (p. 118) They had no ground presence in the revolution during the first few months because they had been decimated in 1982 after the Hama Massacre when Hafez al-Assad ordered the army to quell an uprising  led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama.  Islamic fundamentalism was not a strong force in the beginning of the revolution.  Even as late as 2014, an opinion poll conducted among Syrian refugees indicated that only 30% expressed a desire for a religious-based state. (p. 121).

What factors allowed various types of Islamic fundamentalism (from moderate to Jihadist) to grow over time?    First, “ in the face of the regime’s violence and sectarianism, there was an intensification of not only religiosity but also of Sunni identity and sectarian resentment.” (p. 121)   Secondly, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Assad regime had allowed Salafist networks to operate unimpeded in Syria had facilitated their passage across the border to Iraq to fight against the United States.    Furthermore, from March to October 2011, the regime released up to 1500 of the most well-connected Salafist activists from its prisons and facilitated them in their work in the creation of armed brigades in order to prove its claim that the opposition forces were only Salafi-Jihadists.    Many leaders of key Salafi Jihadist militias which we know as Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra (Syrian chapter of Al Qaida)  and ISIS were beneficiaries of Assad’s amnesty. (p. 45 and pp. 119-120)

Other factors that led to the growth of Islamic fundamentalist forces (from moderate to Jihadist) were the following:  1.  Lack of sufficient funds and other forms of help or solidarity from progressive and non-governmental sources and organizations.  2.  Support from Saudi Arabia,  the Arab states of the Gulf,  and Turkey.   3.  Ideological discipline among the fundamentalists proved effective in the battlefield and in providing services to civilians.  4.  The lack of an international response to Assad’s massacres and ethnic cleansings, especially after its use of Sarin Gas to kill civilians in a suburb of Damascus in August of 2013,  made many lose hope in international solidarity. (p. 122)

Anger over the international community’s willingness to close their eyes to the Assad regime’s use of chemical warfare against innocent civilians was a critical factor that led to the formation of the Islamic Front in November 2013. (p. 195).  The Islamic Front which included organizations such as Jaysh al-Islam, and Liwa al-Tawheed but not Jabhat al-Nusra  and ISIS,  vowed to “cleanse Syria of Shia filth.”  It also unambiguously called for a Sharia state and rejected the concept of popular sovereignty expressed through democratic elections.

Some of the first victims of the Islamic Front were Syrian revolutionaries.  In December 2013, it was most likely the members of Jaysh al-Islam who abducted four of Syria’s finest secular and democratic revolutionaries, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazem Hamadi.   Zaitouneh, Hamada and Hamadi  were founding members of the Local Coordination Committees which had continued to document human rights violations not only of the Assad regime but also of any groups and militias that were part of the opposition. (p. 92)   Samira Khalil was a feminist activist and former political prisoner who was setting up women’s centers.  This abduction took place in Douma,  a suburb of Damascus which is under the control of the opposition forces.  (p. 125)

In the words of a participant in the revolution,  Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra “were respected for their organization and discipline….as strong, well-trained soldiers, so people—including secularists like us—decided to tolerate them until the regime had gone…Now we can see that this was a mistake.”(p. 127)

Yassin-Kassab and Al Shami emphasize that in contrast to groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra,   ISIS did not have a popular base in Syria.  In April 2013, ISIS declared its formation under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,  an Iraqi member of Al Qaida.   Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian chapter of Al Qaida had tactical differences and refused to merge with ISIS.  From April 2013 onward, ISIS increasingly dominated the city of Raqqa by murdering revolutionaries and the establishing a reign of terror.  It was able to establish its headquarters in Raqqa without any interference from the Assad regime.   In fact, the regime pursued an undeclared non-aggression pact with ISIS for months and instead concentrated on bombing Raqqa’s schools, hospitals and market places. (p. 131) That implicit non-aggression pact in turn allowed ISIS to expand.

In the Winter of 2013-2014, popular protests as well as the Free Syrian Army(FSA) ,  the Islamic Front and Jabhat al- Nusra  drove ISIS away from Idlib and Aleppo.  ISIS seemed on its way out of Syria.

In the Spring of 2014 however, the events in Iraq brought ISIS back from the brink in Syria.  It took advantage of the fact that the Iraqi Sunni were dissatisfied with the Iranian-backed, Shia dominated and sectarian Iraqi state which severely discriminated against Sunnis.   By June 2014, in the very same areas where Sunnis had previously (2007-2008) driven Al Qaida out, dissatisfied Sunnis allied with tribal leaders and former Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s army, joined under the leadership of ISIS.   ISIS also took over the city of Mosul   and gained access to its arms depots, oil refinery and the money in its banks.  Then, part of ISIS was able to return to Syria with arms to beat back the starved Free Syrian Army and with money to buy loyalties.  (p. 134-135) It reinforced itself in Raqqa, surged back into the Aleppo countryside and soon had control of one third of Syria where it killed any voices of genuine revolutionary opposition to the Assad regime.

In Rojava,  and especially in  the city of Kobani,  the Kurdish population courageously fought against ISIS.  The combination of Kurdish Democratic Union Party fighters (men and women), assisted by U.S. bombs from the air and Free Syrian Army and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmarga forces on the ground were able to repulse ISIS’s invasion of that area by January 2015.

Yassin Kassab and al Shami point out:  “Unlike Iraq where ISIS leaders are Iraqi and the organization has a solid base,  in Syria,  the majority of ISIS commanders are foreigners and it is a late comer exploiting an originally non-sectarian popular revolution.” (p. 134)   The authors also cite local resistance in the form of small-scale guerrilla attacks and assassinations of ISIS militants (p. 135).  However, they point out that while ISIS has little popular support in Syria, it does have some, and that support might be growing because “ISIS exploits people’s rage against the Assad regime and their need for stability . . . Its divide-and-rule strategies are as coldly intelligent as Assad’s.”  (p. 138)

After September 2014, when the U.S. and its allies intervened with aerial bombardments to attack ISIS, the majority of the Syrian people were asking why the West had not intervened against Assad especially after it used chemical warfare against innocent civilians in  the Summer of 2013.     “The American raids provoked a series of protests across the north.   Towns and villages which had previously opposed ISIS saw this intervention as an alliance of U.S.-Iran-Assad in a war on Sunnis” (p. 142)

  1. Why and How Did the Iranian Government Intervene in Syria?

“Iran is to Syria what the U.S. once was to Vietnam.” Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami (p. 213)

“The alliance between Assadist Syria and Shia theocratic Iran is political not religious.”  Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami (p. 112)

The authors argue that Iran’s support for the Assad regime is not rooted in a religious alliance based on Shiism but a political alliance that is necessary for maintaining Iran’s connection to the Hizbullah in Lebanon and expanding  its power in the Middle East region.   This alliance was originally struck between Hafez al-Assad and Ayatollah Khomeini when Assad who was at odds with other Arab powers supported Iran (rhetorically at least) in its war with Iraq.  The Assad regime  became an essential link to the Hizbullah in Lebanon and allowed the Iranian government to transport weapons and coordinate intelligence.

After the outbreak of the popular revolution in the Spring of 2011,  Iran’s support for the Assad regime was at first rhetorical and repeated Assad’s conspiracist propaganda.  However,  in the Summer of 2013 when the regime’s forces were seriously threatened by the defection of soldiers and lieutenants and the taking up of arms by ordinary people who were defending their cities, towns and neighborhoods,   Iran started sending its military advisers. (p. 92)  Assad’s battles were now increasingly directed by Iranian military experts.  Iranian funded and trained  Shia militias  which were Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan started   fighting in great numbers on Assad’s frontlines.  (p. 198)   Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps(IRGC)  trained the regime’s new National Defense Force and a militia of at least 70,000 from Syria’s Alawi and Shia communities.   It also gave Syria a $3.6 billion credit line separate from its military aid and discounted oil deliveries.

“This is one reason why revolutionaries continued to be irked by the civil war designation.  The regime’s growing reliance on such militias made it seem much more like a war against foreign occupation.” (p. 198)

Iran’s Lebanese Hizbullah  suffered losses on the Syrian battlefield on a scale that could not be long sustained.   There were also dissenting voices within the Lebanese Shia such as former Hizbullah leader Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli and another Shia leader,  Sayyed Hani Fahs who opposed the intervention in Syria.    Sayyed Hani Fahs openly supported the Syrian revolution and argued that “among the factors that guarantee a good future for us in Lebanon is for Syria to be stable, free and ruled by a democratic, pluralistic and modern state.” (p. 200)

By the Summer of 2015,  both the  moderate  and the Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Syria were making serious gains.  Assad’s state was near collapse and retreating to Damascus and the  coast of the Meditaranean Sea.   At this time, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian IRGC made a trip to Russia to request more support from Vladimir Putin who was already giving Syria billions in arms, ammunition, fuel shipments, helicopters, military advisers, military intelligence and a monitoring center.

On September 30, under the pretext of “attacking ISIS,” Russia began massive aerial bombing  of the areas held by the moderate opposition such as part of the city of Aleppo.  “It hit nowhere near ISIS positions.  Instead it struck the communities which had driven ISIS out. The vast majority of bombs continued to fall on those opposed to both Assad and ISIS.” (p. 223)


“A people who dared to demand freedom, received annihilation instead.” Yassi-Kassab and Al-Shami (p. 224)

The authors emphasize that despite the regime’s scorched earth policy, its sieges of cities to starve people into submission,  and its constant use of barrel bombs,  many  people in  Aleppo, Zabadani,  Homs,  Kafr Nabl and other large and small cities displayed heroic acts of solidarity and  tried to find ways to challenge sectarianism and religious fundamentalism.   After  March of 2011, the majority of the Syrian people dared to speak and found a voice which had been suffocated by almost half a century of authoritarian Baathist rule.

The authors are also critical of the limitations of the Syrian revolution and candidly reveal how those limitations and contradictions allowed for sectarianism and religious fundamentalism to grow.  They acknowledge that the failure of the majority of the Syrian opposition to recognize the Kurds’ right to self-determination and their refusal to consider federalism greatly weakened the revolution.   At the same time, they point out the contradiction between the global Left’s selective and highly uncritical praise of the experiment of Rojava and its refusal to acknowledge the attempts to create revolutionary councils in other parts of Syria in 2011 and 2012.

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami  are  strongly critical of the majority of the international Left for having ignored  the original  demands of the Syrian revolution and for implicitly or explicitly supporting the Syrian regime in the name of opposition to western imperialism.    They argue that in fact, most leftists have acted in concert with the U.S. and other Western powers,  Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Arab states of the Gulf, all of which want to maintain the existing authoritarian system in one way or another with or without Assad.

The fact remains that the Syrian regime is responsible for the overwhelming majority of the nearly half a million people killed during the past five years.   Furthermore, it has imprisoned over 150,000 people and has been the main cause of the displacement of 13 million people who have become internal and external refugees.

Although most Iranians welcomed the Syrian revolution in March 2011, identified with its call for social justice and hoped that it would inspire the Iranian masses, by now some have come to accept the Iranian regime’s claim that Iranian military intervention in Syria is necessary to prevent ISIS from reaching Iran.  Some within the Iranian Left also promote the claim that “Assad is the lesser of the two evils.”

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami’s book refutes these claims and shows that the Iranian government has played an important role not only in promoting the Assad regime’s massacres but also in creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS.  The authors argue that if military and economic support for the Assad regime ends,  and sufficient support from progressive and non-governmental sources and organizations is given to the people who oppose both the Assad regime and the Jihadists,  “very many decent, forward-thinking Syrians still have the stomach for the fight even if many are in exile.   When the bombs finally stop falling and when ISIS and regime checkpoints no longer threaten death, these people will return and raise their voices for a better future.”  (p. 220)

The authors conclude that the failure of the Syrian revolution does not mean that the idea of social revolution should be dismissed.  Revolutions will continue to occur because as Frantz Fanon says:  “We revolt  simply because for many reasons we can no longer breathe.”

During the Syrian revolution in 2011, we witnessed the wide participation of the working classes, women, youth, and the Kurds in a struggle for social justice.    Unfortunately, the meagerness of the non-governmental and people to people international solidarity, the increasing brutality of the Assad regime, the military intervention of Iran and Russia in defense of this regime, and the rise of sectarianism, religious fundamentalism and Jihadism with the help of the Assad regime itself as well as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states and Turkey led to a catastrophe.

Now, it is incumbent upon all Iranian progressives to take a stand against their government’s intervention in Syria and to find ways to reach out to Syrian progressives.  This is necessary not only to help Syrians but to help Iranians.   So long as the Iranian regime continues its intervention in Syria, it can further repress the social justice struggles inside Iran.  Furthermore, learning from the experiences of the Syrian revolution and the weaknesses and limitations which led to today’s catastrophe, will compel us to address the problems and contradictions within the social justice struggles in Iran.

Frieda Afary

This review was originally published in Persian on July 11, 2016 by Zamaneh , a Persian-language human rights website and radio station in Amsterdam.  https://www.radiozamaneh.com/286883