Belén Fernández

Two of the four chapters of Charles Glass’ new book, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring, begin with jokes. In the first joke, a relic of civil war-era Lebanon, a war-weary Lebanese dog escapes to Syria only to return a couple of months later, to the confoundment of the other dogs:

“Seeing him better groomed and fatter than before, they asked whether the Syrians had been good to him. ‘Very good.’ ‘Did they feed and wash you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why did you come back?’ ‘I want to bark.’”

The second joke, which Glass describes as a Cold War favorite among Syrians, features a survey question posed to citizens of different nations: “What is your opinion of eating meat?” In Poland, the overwhelming response is, “What do you mean by ‘meat’?” In Ethiopia, it is, “What do you mean by ‘eating’?” The Syrian response, finally, is, “What do you mean by ‘what is your opinion’?”

To be sure, freedom of expression hasn’t exactly been the most salient characteristic of the Syrian Arab Republic under the leadership of the al-Assads—first Hafez, who ruled until his death in June of 2000, and now Bashar—although, as the Lebanese dog attests, there were certainly other comforts. Glass notes in his book that, prior to the 2011 onset of the Syrian civil war, the country not only “fed itself” but also boasted health care and educational services that were “among the best in the region.”

During my own first visit to Syria in 2006, part of an extended and somewhat aimless hitchhiking journey with my friend Amelia, Syrians we spoke to who were not fond of al-Assad generally refrained from criticizing him too loudly. They were, however, less hesitant to voice their negative opinions of our souvenir preferences: colorful posters and decals of the ruling family, which we found amusingly ridiculous, and fake Syrian military epaulettes that we sewed onto wife-beaters.

Now, of course, Syria is far from a joking matter. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the war over the past four years, and millions have been displaced. As Patrick Cockburn remarks in the foreword to Syria Burning, it’s difficult to find an account of the conflict that isn’t hopelessly biased in favor of one side—and indeed, it’s Glass’ defiance of this tradition that makes his work valuable.

Glass, formerly the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News and a veteran of Lebanon’s kidnapping heyday (he spent sixty-two days as a hostage in 1987), cuts none of the parties to the current Syrian war much slack. He establishes that the government’s murderous response to protesters in Dera’a was initially to blame for “escalat[ing] and radicaliz[ing]” demonstrations throughout Syria, and pulls no punches when it comes to highlighting the brutality of the state: “President Assad’s counter-insurgency strategy has appeared to involve targeting the civilian population and medical facilities in rebel areas, in order to deprive the armed opposition of its support.”

Nor does he reserve any kind words for the opposition, now dominated by atrocity-happy jihadists. Glass notes that the Free Syrian Army “has continued to cooperate with extreme Islamist jihadists in…operations against the government”—an arrangement that clearly doesn’t leave much space for the “moderate rebels” that certain outsiders are forever purporting to support. Furthermore, Glass writes, sectarian killings and kidnappings by the rebels only serve to drive afflicted communities into the arms of the government for protection, thus helping to obliterate prospects for a resolution of hostilities.

Among the foreign powers that worked to propel the Syrian situation into what is now a seemingly intractable war, Glass amply distributes blame. Regarding the opposition, he stresses that, though “armed men were a minority among dissidents” at the start of the conflict, they “gained the ascendancy by the force of their actions and the international support they gained for their choice of the rifle over the banner.” And in the rifles came. “Saudi Arabia and Qatar…poured in weapons and money. Turkey opened its border to arms, rebels and refugees. Clandestine training and logistical help came from the US, Britain and France. Protests turned to civil war.”

Foreign meddling in the region is nothing new, of course. Glass’ discussion of the effects of Syria’s colonial history on modern politics is helpfully thorough on this count—namely, Britain and France’s forcible divvying up of territory in the Middle East against the wishes of the majority of inhabitants, and their implementation of divide and conquer policies. That such policies might engender some degree of societal friction, entailing negative sectarian ramifications, is fairly self-evident. This is not to claim, obviously, that European colonialism is directly responsible for the present strife, but rather to emphasize that Syria’s troubles didn’t start with al-Assad—and that the pro-democracy credentials of various backers of the opposition are beyond defective.

Although the United States arrived later than Britain and France to the Middle Eastern scene, it also managed to engage in its fair share of anti-democratic machinations in Syria. In one lesser-discussed episode from 1949, Glass writes that “the CIA sponsored the army coup that destroyed Syria’s parliamentary democracy.” Among the results of the coup: the Syrians signed off on the American-managed construction of the Tapline oil conduit from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean, a project the overthrown government had opposed.

This episode wasn’t simply of passing historical importance. The coup, Glass recalls, also paved the way for the rise of Alawite military officers, culminating in the 1970 seizure of power by Hafez al-Assad. And as it turns out, the “Alawite foothold in the armed forces” was itself a “legacy of that brutal 25 years of colonial rule” by the French, who recruited Alawite peasants to serve in their army in Syria and assist in putting down nationalist rebellions.

Glass is often on point. With regard to the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, an amalgamation of 107 countries and organizations that have apparently failed to realize that there are also many Syrian people who in fact support al-Assad, he appropriately wonders where these “friends” have been for the past half century:

“What were they doing in 1967 when Israel seized the Syrian Golan? What support did they send to more than 100,000 Syrian citizens when Israel demolished their villages and expelled them from their homes? What was their reaction to Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan in 1981?” According to Glass, the opposition to al-Assad by the United States and its Saudi and Qatari pals was motivated by his “alliance with Iran that gave him a strategic asset against Israel.” 

Other sections of his analysis are less coherent, however. For example, he describes Hezbollah, fighting on the side of the Syrian government, as “a sectarian grouping of religious Shiite Muslims that represents Iran.” This is the same Hezbollah that previously earned the following description from Glass himself in a London Review of Books essay: “Israel may portray Hezbollah as the cat’s-paw of Syria and Iran, but its support base is Lebanese.” And while contending in the LRB essay that Hezbollah had “remained aloof from the [Lebanese] civil war,” we’re inexplicably told in Syria Burning that the organization had in fact spent part of that conflict “making life unbearable in West Beirut.”

One might also potentially take issue with unnecessary passages such as one describing a hillside summer villa belonging to a Syrian friend of Glass, which was wrecked due to activity by both government soldiers and insurgents. Glass draws from the story this moral: “If a single image sums up the war in Syria, my friend’s house does the job,” because neither side “gave a damn about him or his house.” It’s safe to say there are a whole lot of images that could better illustrate a brutal war than damaged luxury houses a world away from the reality experienced by the vast majority of Syrians—especially, perhaps, since Glass shows himself to be more willing than most observers to address the class dimensions of the conflict.

Criticisms aside, Glass’ concise book provides a decent summary of the war in Syria—and loads of material for students of international hypocrisy. As Syria continues to burn, there’s an ever more burning need for honest examinations of why.

Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring is published by OR Books, 2015. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.