Facing the Counter-Revolution: A review of Burning Country, by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

  • Posted on: 17 February 2016
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

“In 2011 and 2012, Syrians launched a popular revolution of enormous consequence and reach. New forms of organisation and expression emerged which reconfigured social relationships away from those based on hierarchy and domination towards the empowerment of individuals and communities. From 2013 on, however, these experiments were increasingly submerged by fierce counter-revolutionary trends, both Assadist and regional. War dismantled the country's infrastructure and social fabric. Over half the population fled its homes. What does this mean for revolution as a desired end?” (219)

Anti-authoritarians Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab look back over the past fifteen years of resistance movements in Syria, to understand the anarchistic currents that emerged during the revolution that began in 2011. Altough this revolution has gone farther than any other in recent memory, it is poorly understand and has received little support. With Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, the authors seek to change that.
As they explain in the introduction, their goal is to increase our understanding of the Syrian revolution to encourage practical solidarity. They also draw many general conclusions about revolution, struggle, violence, organization, and authority that will be valuable to radicals in the Middle East and around the world in the rapidly changing terrain of the 21st century.
The authors explain that although there are many different groups and identities in Syria, to speak of categories in a country with the richness and diversity of Syria is always to oversimplify. “Generalisations are sometimes necessary, but it is most accurate to think of Syria as a collective of 23 million individuals.” (3) It is very much the stories of those individuals that make up this book – the voices represented here cut across lines of age, sect, gender, region, and class to show that although there are certain commonalities within groups, the revolution was built on the strength of differences and exceptions. This analysis goes far beyond what the authors call 'orientalising narratives' of hopelessness that seek to understand the conflict as entirely sectarian, the region as utterly backwards, and the violence as an internal and inevitable problem.
In each of their meticulously researched and sourced chapters (a chapter of 20 pages will have upwards of 60 endnotes), Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab present a particular aspect of the Syrian revolution. For instance, chapter 4, “The Grassroots”, focuses on the development of Local Co-ordinating Committees and neighbourhood councils and how they have adapted to changing conditions throughout the conflict. Chapter 6 deals with the rise of jihadist groups, particularly ISIS. This kind of clear separation between chapters shows that there were always many different voices and distinct tendencies contributing to the revolution and that the triumph of the counter-revolution was by no means inevitable.
Perhaps most provocative is the final chapter critiquing the practices of solidarity that have (not) existed towards the struggle. Kurdish groups affiliated with the PYD have been the main recipients of solidarity from Western radicals, however limited that has been. Throughout the book though, the authors offer a much more nuanced view of the Kurdish groups affiliated with the PYD than we usually hear. They see the revolution in the Kurdish regions as being very different from those in the rest of the country, mostly because of how centralized it was within existing political structures that took on the responsability of policing revolutionary currents.
The authors still call for solidarity with the struggles of Kurdish groups, of course, but they emphasize that we need a critical solidarity. They offer the words of Kurdish activist Shiar Nayo: “Critical solidarity means you support a struggle as a matter of principle (with real material support) but maintain an active, critical stance toward a particular version or force that claims to represent people's aspirations and capitalises on them for political ends.” Without this kind of solidarity, Nayo fears the PYD will further centralize power and increase its internal repression. At the time of writing, as Kurdish groups opportunistically attack rebel formations North of Aleppo, we would do well to keep this in mind.
In their chapter “Militarisation and Liberation”, the authors examine one of the most complex and troubling dynamics of the revolution – the decision to take up arms and the role of armed struggle. Although nearly all segments of the revolution initially tried to avoid armed conflict, the revolution militarised quickly. The regime's violence against the demonstrations lead to both the revolutionaries arming themselves and to mass defections from the armed forces.
Many revolutionaries knew that militarizing the conflict would play into the regime's hands and tried to avoid it. But we shouldn't hear in this the kind of sickening moralism common among Western pacifists. The Assad regime drove a relentless escalation of force – it was the government's choice to escalate every step of the way, knowing it could go much further down this road than could the revolution. The strategy of less-violent resistance was thus a way of refusing the terms of engagement dictated by the state.
To deal with the escalation and to protect liberated areas, the local committees increasingly collaborated with the emerging Free Syrian Army – revolutionaries tried to ensure the armed segment remained deeply connected to the social revolution. However, this all changed following the sarine gas attacks in Ghouta. The authors identify this as the turning point where the revolution decisively gave way to counter-revolution. With these gas attacks (which so many leftists around the world, parroting Assadist, Russian, and Iranian state TV, collaborated to conceal), it became clear that Assad was immune to pressure and that no outside force was going to put limits on his violence. This is the moment where armed groups and the war economy overtook the revolution -- ISIS would rise from this bitter experience and revolutionaries would soon be caught in a war on two fronts.
Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War is a challenge to all the anarchists and other radicals who have sat on the fence, feeling that the conflict in Syria is too complex. It is a denunciation of the segments of the left who, with their binary worldview dating back to the Cold War, somehow believe Assad is an anti-imperialist, who claim there is no revolution, and who collaborate to cast doubt on the violence of the regime. In just 225 pages, this book has the ability to change how anarchists and everyone who dreams of revolution understand the Syrian revolution and war and even how we understand the possibilities and perils of revolution itself in the modern world.

Sample chapters on Leila's blog: https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/11/burning-country-extract-on-i...



"Without this kind of solidarity, Nayo fears the PYD will further centralize power and increase its internal repression. At the time of writing, as Kurdish groups opportunistically attack rebel formations North of Aleppo, we would do well to keep this in mind."

Oh shit... this kinda shows how this article is more than suspicious. So is Leila Al Shami and her attempts at promoting Syrian rebels as not just a united entity , but one that is presumably devoted to a democratic revolution.

The recent interview with Salih Muslim (who's a bureaucrat yet has rather enlightening things to say about the conflict and the diverse actors involved into it) has expressed a diametrically-opposed perspective than hers, with is consistent with the fact that this "Syrian rebels" have gathered in a conference in nowhere else than Riyadh, which you should know is the seat of the totalitarian, ultra-repressive Saudi regime if you didn't sleep through your geography classes.

Leila neither has much to say about the violence of the Erdogan regime against any of its political opposition, conveniently. The one and only bogeymen still is "Assad" and it doesn't seem to matter for her if Daesh or any Islamic fascist groups are the ones to replace his authority, with something far worse.

Fuck this crypto-imperialist bullshit and power to Rojava from religious fanatics! The only place for caliphates, sultanates and other absolute patriarchies is in history books.

Put that in your pipe, Leila.

how brave of you to post your half-witted geo-political musings anonymously

when you write: 'Salih Muslim, who's a bureaucrat yet has rather enlightening things to say about the conflict ' I think what you meant is that he said stuff that aligned with your existing beliefs and prejudices

I suspect those prejudices are a crude Islamophobia or anti-theism that regards any armed Muslim or even religiously inspired group as suspect

am I right?

So then I told myself this must be some more trolling attempt... Actually quite an efficient parody, sir!

good.. glad we cleared that up

you are an militant atheist bigot masquerading as an anarchist

Yes! Because anarchism is really just about worshipping big ghost with superpowers recycled form past Mesopotamian mythologies.

S'cool as long as nobody asks questions about it... but when it starts happening, let's get out Black Standard bloc up and runnin' and chop some heads of. Common sense, ya!

Why so? Because you wanted to send the identity politicians after me? Or perhaps the local Muslim Brotherhood gang?


when Sam Charles Hamad wrote this great piece against the serial genocide-denier Chomsky, Chomsky accused Sam of being an ISIS supporter. Chomsky is a filthy racist piece of shit as well as a self-absorbed and arrogant counter-revolutionary. If this is the 'left', may it finally die completely.


Even tho he's right about Chompsky, he's been supporting imperialistic neo-fascists like Erdogan and John McCain upfront.

Typical of fascists these days... Redirecting the fascist accusations on an opposing party just to create a dead angle over you.


Chomsky's pro-fascist, pro-imperialist line on Syria has shown me clearly what he is, but I should have realised much earlier. He's previously gone out of his way to deny that Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims were being slaughtered by Serb fascists. He's also a cultural zionist and an opponent of BDS. There's nothing progressive about him at all.

Chomsky is "cultural zionist" ? LOL
Ok, a new antisemite synonym for "jew"....

It is just that I read Antisemite and I thought you were talking to me. Yes do you have a problem with that? Good. i always like when people use labels to win an argument.

Many more proud antisemites in the world every year maybe all of you should stop using the word completely so that you may be able o use it when you really need it in the future, since it is and has been loosing power and meaning all over the world, teh same goes with all the others that you like to use, but some still have more power like Xenophobe, although racist not so much, so that one is also a good idea to stop using it at least for a while.

No Chomsky fan, but that article is rife with extrapolations and assumptions that are not backed up by chimsky's words. Ideological opposition is no better than any other form of ideology. You're just playing politics, like the rest of them.


Saudi Arabia backed “Army of Islam” (“Ceyş’ül İslam”) gang group has declared they have used banned weapons against the Kurds in Şêx Meqsûd neighborhood of Aleppo.
In the statement, it was said that “one Ceyş’ül İslam battalion leader has used weapons that are banned from use in such battles in the clashes.”
YPG, local journalists and the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor a Kurd) had claimed the gangs had used “toxic gases” in their aggression on the neighborhood.


AKP-backed gangs of SNC/ENKS have been attacking Aleppo’s Şêx Meqsûd neighborhood since February 16 and have killed 19 people in the attack of the last two days. Gang groups continue the attack on the neighborhood today.
AKP-backed gangs have used chemical gases that have been banned in international treaties again in their attacks against the neighborhood in the rainy weather. Dozens of citizens affected by the gas or injured in the attacks were taken to the Heyva Sor center in the neighborhood.
YPG General Command had declared in a letter to the Ceasefire Watch Coordination in Syria that the gang groups had been using chemical gases in their attacks on the neighborhood. However, the international community is yet to react to the attacks on the civilian population.
The attack of the gang groups continue.

Anon Glad to see people do know how to think. Good that you have detected the mask of this stupidity, I liked the term you used crypto-imperialist BS.

In reality not many people can pierce the veil using reasoning, people do not have the intelligence, sadly, it does require intellectual capacity to be able to do it by your own, that leaves around 97.6% of the world population unable to achieve this.


This was first posted on The Hamilton Institute, which has a few other interesting articles about Syria too, though nothing else super recent.

About friggin time they critically distantiate themselves from Islamophiles and anti-Rojava drama queens like Leila the Syrian that keep promoting a war rhetoric that best serves the interests of the wannabe Sultan of Turkey and the Saudi monarchy, and their Takfiri footsoldiers.

Where was her outcry about the massacres committed by ISIS in and out of Turkey, for starters? She's still into the same old funnel vision of 'fighting he Assad bogeyman', without any deeper analysis of the role of the external agency in this civil war and its wider interests, that have nothing at all to do with democracy.

Like the rest of the Islamophiles and their Israel Vs Palestine false dichotomy paradigm, that is growing into some religious fanaticism in itself among significant portion of the Western Left.

Fuck their wars for Islamic fascist thugs, and fuck their war narratives forcing us down into funnels.

Equally... fuck God, and fuck Allah. And fuck that capitalist religion and its Holy Science to "insure" our Salvation. No more blood in the name of these abstractions.

Where are the revolutionaries in your story? There has undeniably been a revolution in Syria, and yet all you seem to see are shady international conspiracies. I imagine that you would participate in a revolutionary uprising in your home territory - how would it feel if others around the world decided you didn't exist and that it was all some fascist/imperialist coup?

Leila isn't against Rojava - far from it. Did you read the review? Did you see the part about critical solidarity? (Also, what about how the YPG is currently co-ordinating with the Russian Air Force to attack people north of Aleppo?)

Two more THI articles for you:

A Certain Discomfort: Of Anarchist Solidarity and Syria

Support for Refugees means support for Assad? Confronting the pro-Assad left in Hamilton

The only revolutionaries that are a safe bet to be revolutionaries (at least maybe somewhat hierarchical socialist revolutionaries) both for their univoqual, uncompromising rejection of all Islamist jihadist groups involved in this CIVIL WAR and their already-developed structures or self-management that are based on cutlural and ethnic diversity, are the Rojava people.

"Leila isn't against Rojava - far from it. Did you read the review? "

I've read it, that there's this segment I just can't get out of my head:

"Without this kind of solidarity, Nayo fears the PYD will further centralize power and increase its internal repression. At the time of writing, as Kurdish groups opportunistically attack rebel formations North of Aleppo, we would do well to keep this in mind."

...which makes it very clear that the authors (through Nayo's views) are presenting the YPG as some hostile, repressive organization that is also potentially "counter-revolutionary" against groups in Aleppo who they perceive as the legit "rebels" against the regime.

Now here's for the conjecture... YPG has for a long time declared their solidarity and been welcoming fighters from what's left of the FSA. And f I'm correct.. the FSA are already allied with the YPG. So how/why would the YPG suddenly double-cross them in such an attack in Aleppo?

So this leaves aside the other prominent rebel groups, like Al-Nusrah, Sham Legion, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Muslim Brotherhood, Alwiya al-Furqan, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam and Daesh, who are all Islamic ultra-conservative groups with proven ties and support from either the Turkish, Saudi/Qatari regimes. Unless you can name me other prominent rebel groups who are secular, progressive, anarchistic, or simply aren't Islamic fascists beyond the FSA and Rojava...

Due to the fact that Aleppo has a very long history of being a hotbed for Islamist mercenaries, some of which who, accordingly to "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", were the most bloodthirsty, trigger happy paid killers in the region. As a matter of fact, the city contained some of the most brutal Islamic groups of the rebellion, and it is claimed that ISIS was still around, controlling the north and east of the city. If we assume this report was real: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-aleppo-idUSKCN0S3...

As some may have noticed it is the main commercial gateway city to Turkey in that part of Syria, and connected to the Turkish port city of İskenderun. Also the main gateway for the ISIS routes for shipment of oil by trucks. from Raqqa, that is still apparently controlled by ISIS. There used to be another one going through what is YPG-held territory in the West.


For these reasons I have a hard time swallowing the notion that ANY SORT of offensive against positions in Aleppo means a counter-revolution by default, for this city appears to be riddled with worms. Especially for those "people north of Aleppo", who logically appear to be in the very area controlled by the Islamic State, or other jihadist groups related to Turkey.

...which kinda explains Turkey's recent offensive against YPG positions, NORTH OF ALEPPO, which you are not mentionning here.


And YPG dealing with Russian Air Force? No, they are dealing with the Coalition against ISIS... which also includes the US and other Western powers, beyond Russia. That's a fact.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a militarist who welcome turkish indiscriminate artillery shelling on Efrin Canton and kurdish cities...
looks his facebook https://www.facebook.com/robin.yassinkassab/posts/10208684083958390
"It now seems Turkey is shelling Assad forces, the PYD land-grabbers, and ISIS simultaneously. Opposition sources saying 4,000 Free Army fighters have just passed from Turkey into Syria. Assad is saying that Turkish troops have crossed (which is still very unlikely, I think). This enormously welcome action is offering immediate hope that Aleppo, specifically the Azaz corridor, can be saved. But it isn't yet nearly enough. The Turkish artillery is as nothing in comparison to the continual Russian carpet bombing. And 4,000 fresh, well-fed resistance fighters are as nothing to the tens of thousands of Iranian-backed jihadists and PYD mercenaries on the ground. Tel Rifaat is in imminent danger of falling."

Leila al Shami recently defined "Ahrar al sham" (jihadist that have gain freedom throght Assad amnesty from Sdenaia prison in 2011 and hijacked the revolution) like revolutionaries, fsa and rebel that are victim of YPGPAY ATTENTION TO THEIR LIES AND TURKISH PROPAGANDA

Thnx buddy... Time is now to take down yet another false dichotomy/revolutionary rhetoric set up by nefarious authoritarian and religious elements with hostile agendas within our own "ranks".

Fucking monsters... So we've been had once again by a bunch of manipulators. These two wolves in sheep clothing better not come to Montreal for more conference, or they'll deserve what they get, and I don't care how many Leftist dupes are gonna stand in the way to them.

Lying sacks of shit.

I'm in Montreal, these people spoke here? When? I'd for sure like to block that shit happening again.

"Tuesday April 26 at 6:00 PM – Montreal, QC
Paragraphe Bookstore, 2220 McGill College Avenue, Montreal"

Excellent work digging this up. I knew there was something fishy about these authors.

Biji Kobane!

I'm starting to enjoy that global open game of Deconstructing Authoritarian Myths. Requires skills in logic fallacies and empirical method, though.

"Apparently Turkey is using heavy artillery against the PYD in Azaz and Afrin. I do not oppose it. The PYD has been invading Arab-majority areas under heavy Russian bombing. It would be disastrous for civilians in Aleppo and Idlib as well as for the Turkish state if the PYD occupied the entire border."
Robin Yassin-Kassab, February 13, 2016 at 9:57am



Tuesday March 29 at 2:00 PM – Wayne, NJ
Gandhian Forum for Peace & Justice at William Paterson University, University Commons, Ballroom C, 300 Pompton Road — Wayne, New Jersey

Wednesday March 30 at 4:00 PM – Boston, MA
Emerson College, Charles Beard Room, 80 Boylston Street, Boston

Thursday March 31 at 12:00 PM – Cambridge, MA
Harvard University, Kalb Seminar Room, Taubman Building, Kennedy School of Government, 15 Eliot Street, Cambridge

Friday April 1 at 3:00 PM – Los Angeles, CA
UCLA, Bunche Hall, Room 10383 (10th floor), 315 Portola Plaza, Los Angeles
Click here for more info

Saturday April 2 at 7:30 PM – Los Angeles, CA
The Markaz & Inside/Outside Gallery, 5998 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

Monday April 4 at 12:00 PM – Denver, CO
University of Denver—Sie International Relations Complex—5th Floor, 2201 S. Gaylord St.
Click here for more info

Monday April 4 at 7:00 PM – Golden, CO
Colorado School of Mines (Golden, Colorado)
Click here for more info

Wednesday April 6 at 2:00 PM – Denver, CO
Regis University, 203 Peter Claver Hall, 3333 Regis Blvd. — Denver

Wednesday April 6 at 7:00 PM – Denver, CO
Tattered Cover Book Store, 2526 E. Colfax Ave. — Denver
Click here for more info

Thursday April 7 at 7:30 PM – Boulder, CO
Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado
Click here for more info

Monday April 11 at 12:00 PM – Evanston, IL
Northwestern University, Hagstrum Room—University Hall, 1897 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Illinois

Monday April 11 at 6:00 PM – Evanston, IL
Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington, Evanston, Illinois
Moderated by Wendy Pearlman, Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University

Tuesday April 12 (doors open at 5:30 PM, program begins at 6:00 PM) – Chicago, IL
International House at the University of Chicago, Assembly Hall, 1414 E. 59th St., Chicago

Wednesday April 13 at 7:00 PM – Chicago, IL
The Book Cellar on Lincoln Square, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Moderated by Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation
Click here for more info

Friday April 15 at 2:30 PM – Madison, WI
University of Wisconsin – Madison, 2195 Vilas Hall (immediately south & east of the intersection of Park St. and University Ave.)

Saturday April 16 at 2:00 PM – Madison, WI
Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, 426 W. Gilman St., Madison, Wisconsin

Monday April 18 at 12:00 PM – Washington DC
Event hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington, Middle East Institute, Boardman Room, 1761 N Street, NW, Washington, DC
Click here for more info

Tuesday April 19 at 6:30 PM – Washington DC
Busboys & Poets — 14th & V (2021 14th St. NW), Washington, DC
Click here for more info

Thursday April 21 at 12:30 PM – New York City, NY
NYU, Richard Ettinghausen Library — 255 Sullivan Street (at Washington Square South)

Thursday April 21 at 6:00 PM – New York City, NY
Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism, World Room (Third Floor)
Click here for more info

Saturday April 23 at 7:00 PM – New York City, NY
Bluestockings Bookstore, Café, & Activist Center, 172 Allen Street, Lower East Side, NYC
Moderated by Molly Crabapple, artist, author of Drawing Blood, contributing editor, VICE
Click here for more info

Monday April 25 at 7:00 PM – Colchester, VT
Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice — St. Michael’s College, Dion Student Center, Roy Room (3rd floor), One Winooski Park, Colchester, Vermont

Tuesday April 26 at 6:00 PM – Montreal, QC
Paragraphe Bookstore, 2220 McGill College Avenue, Montreal
Click here for more info

Wednesday April 27 – Toronto, ON
University of Toronto [details to come]

Thursday April 28 at 7:00 PM – Seattle, WA
Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. — Level 4, Room 1, Seattle
co-presented with the Elliott Bay Book Company
Click here for more info

Friday April 29 at 5:00 PM – Berkeley, CA
University of California Berkeley (Stephens Hall, 340, Sultan Conference Room)
Click here for more info

Saturday April 30 at 3:00 PM – San Francisco, CA
Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th Street, San Francisco
Click here for more info

Roger that!

But wait... "Sultan Conference Room" in Berkeley!? Can't have it more obvious!

Robin Yassin-Kassab

John McCain understands Putinism, the escalating costs of appeasement, and the human desire for freedom and dignity far better than, for example, Noam Chomsky or Bernie Sanders. Am I supposed to be embarrassed that McCain is a Republican? I certainly note the irony, and once again the irrelevance of old categories of 'right' and 'left', particularly in the context of Arab freedom struggles. The world is in flux, and the old categories hold no meaning.

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