What is the Syrian Civil War? Is it a battle between rebels who want justice and a tyrannical regime? Is it a conflict between secular and sectarian leaders with irreconcilable visions for what the country should be? Is it a class war between those who have nothing and those who took everything? Or is it the stage for a far grander struggle between superpowers in what amounts to a kind of small-scale World War I that – with one false move – could erupt into a truly global war?
Charles Glass makes it clear in his incisive book, Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe, that, however you want to see it, the Syrian Civil War is a tragedy.
But how did Syria descend into such chaos? More specifically, how did peaceful protests in the streets lead to an event with international consequences for countries around the world (or, as Glass memorably puts it, how did we go from Arab Spring to Syrian Winter)? That is perhaps the most shocking aspect of all this madness, that it did indeed begin with peaceful protests during the Arab Spring of 2011. These protestors – at least not all of them – weren’t even calling for Assad to step down. Rather, they were protesting the abuse of Syrian citizens and calling for democratic reforms that would lead to a more just, free society. But once the Assad government began firing on these protestors, many stopped being peaceful, and the situation escalated – or rather deteriorated – from there.
Glass’ book is excellent because it serves a number of purposes. First, it is a clear and concise history that will help readers understand how this war even started. Second, it sheds light on how ISIS (or ISIL or IS) came into existence and how its rapid rise in power forced countries to make allies of former rivals and even, in some cases, change sides completely. Third, Glass walks you through all the various groups and countries involved, makes their motives crystal-clear, and puts the entire war in a historical and international context.
Now, it should be noted that this book was published in 2015 or 2016 so some of the information is, or may be, outdated. This is most notable regarding ISIS which to my knowledge (and I want to stress that my understanding of the Syrian Civil War, let alone contemporary Middle Eastern politics, is far, far less comprehensive and up-to-date than Glass’ is) has been severely weakened in the intervening years. But the fact remains that this is an invaluable resource because, ultimately, Glass tells a story that encompasses an entire region. Furthermore, his opinions on what would or would not work to help to end the Syrian Civil War are if anything only more thought-provoking now that they can be considered in light of more recent events.
Glass’ most significant accomplishment, however, is that – though he might mention a dozen countries or organizations in a single page – he never loses sight of the Syrian people and their suffering. Nor does he let the reader forget that diplomacy and warfare is not a game one “wins” or “loses” but the lived reality for people around the world.
You won’t know everything about the Syrian Civil War at the end of this book, but you will know enough to appreciate the overwhelming complexities of the politics involved and perhaps feel just an inkling of the profound suffering Syrians have endured and will likely continue to endure. Maybe like me, you’ll also feel inspired by how much you clearly don’t know to find out much more.
Of course, Glass doesn’t offer any simple solutions. No one could. But he does offer a few observations you’ll find it difficult to forget.
My favorite of Glass’ reflections? Probably that, “revolutions that begin with the goal of liberating people from the dead weight of an oppressive past often lead to a more oppressive present.”
And that’s just one.
So go read it. Now.