‘Syria Burning’ by Charles Glass
William Armstrong - email@example.com
Damaged buildings are seen from the rebel held Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus, March 13, 2016. REUTERS photo‘Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe’ by Charles Glass (Verso, 192 pages, £9)
In 1918, after the First World War had ravaged the Levant for almost four years, an anonymous Syrian poet wrote the following lines:
The Drums of War are beating their sad rhythm
And the living people, wrapped in their shroud
Believing the war will not last a year...
Dear God, may this fifth year be the end of it.
A century later, Syria’s civil war has entered its sixth year with no end in sight. The conflict has been accompanied by an endless stream of articles and books trying to solve it. “Syria Burning” is a slim, punchy book by Charles Glass, a veteran journalist who earned his chops over years of experience in the Middle East. It doesn’t add anything new, but it is a good (and appropriately depressing) account of how Syria has degenerated to the hellscape of today.
It is an angry blast of a book. Glass traces a brief history of Syria up to the first protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime in 2011, and then describes the sad descent from peaceful pro-democracy protests to a sectarian bloodbath mixed with regional and global proxy war. He pulls no punches, condemning all sides for their role in the destruction of a country. No hands are clean and Glass takes no prisoners.
He has a pithy style and the book is full of one-line zingers: “When Syria erupted in 2011, the U.S. and Russia turned up with flame-throwers,” he writes. “Today Syrians are surrounded by more new-found friends than a lottery winner … No one, apart from the undertaker, is winning.” One anecdote is particularly illuminating:
A Syrian friend of mine had a summer villa perched in a hillside village between Damascus and the Lebanese border. Armed militants broke in and fired, from the roof, at an army post. Soldiers responded with mortars and machine-gun fire. The rebels ran away. No one won, and the house was wrecked. If a single image sums up the war in Syria, my friend’s house does the job. Neither the troops nor the insurgents gave a damn about him or his house, and it’s not clear how much either cares about the country.
The warring sides have been egged on by outside powers, turning the Syrian theater into a microcosm of a global conflict, a “free-for-all in which everyone pursues his own interests to the detriment of the Syrians themselves.” Overlaying local resentments and divisions, the U.S. squares off against Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar take on the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey clashes with Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre-WWI dominance. “External support has not merely escalated the killing,” Glass writes, “but made it ever more personal and vicious.”
Taking such a pox-on-all-their houses stance has its own problems. Glass recognizes that al-Assad’s claim that the uprising was one of fanatics and terrorists was premature and self-serving - but he barely refers to al-Assad’s active assistance of those fanatics. As protests against the regime spread in early 2011, Damascus released hundreds of detainees linked to Islamist and jihadist activities from high-security prisons. It was a cynical attempt to Islamize the opposition and justify al-Assad’s claim to be fighting an extremist uprising, and contributed much to today’s mess. While condemning al-Assad’s brutal crackdown, Glass’ case is weakened by not referring to such specific instances of criminal (ir)responsibility.
Unsurprisingly, Glass has no satisfying answers for how to solve the puzzle. He suggests rightly that what was true in 2011 holds today: Neither side has the power to defeat the other. But diplomacy has done no better. The book refers to the peace deal between the British government and the IRA, which required both parties to swallow their pride, negotiate seriously, and make compromises. Unfortunately, with so many outside interests now involved, such a dynamic looks unlikely to emerge in Syria any time soon. There remains no end in sight for the bloodshed – with all its tragic human and political consequences.
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