Fron the blurb to his new book, Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe:
Since its commencement in the upsurge of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Syrian civil war has claimed in excess of 200,000 lives, with an estimated 8 million Syrians, more than a third of the country’s population, forced to flee their homes. A stalemate now exists in the country with the government of Bashar al-Assad maintaining its grip on most of the cities in the west, while large swathes of the countryside in the north and east are under the control of the Islamic fundamentalist groups ISIS and the Nusra Front. The Caliphate announced by ISIS in the summer of 2014 occupies some 35% of the country, as well as vast territory across the border in Iraq.
The nuances of this conflict have never been well-understood in the West, least of all, it seems, by governments in the US and Europe, who, anticipating Assad’s sudden departure, made
it a condition of any negotiated settlement. The consequences of that miscalculation, Charles Glass contends in this illuminating and concise survey, have contributed greatly to the unfolding disaster that we witness today.
Glass has reported extensively from the Middle East, and travelled frequently in Syria, over several decades. Here he melds together reportage, analysis and history to provide an accessible overview of the origins and permutations defining the conflict, situating it clearly in the overall crisis of the region. His voice, elegant and concise, humane and richly-informed, is a vital antidote to the sloganizing that shapes so much commentary, and policy, concerning the civil war.
From a recent interview:
I suspect, if I look at the Obama administration, they misunderstood the strength of the Syrian regime. At the very beginning the Obama administration underestimated the power of the Syrian security forces and the military, as well as the degree of the support that the regime had in certain quarters of the country.
For example, the people in Damascus and Aleppo did not rise up against the regime as the administration had assumed they would. Acting on the belief that Hillary Clinton and others had that the regime would collapse if given a slight push, the way Gaddafi collapsed; they began arming the opposition and encouraging [Jordanians, Turks, Saudis, Qataris and jihadis from around the world] to come over to wage a civil war against the regime, which helped in large measure to destroy the country.
It was a huge mistake. One, on the misunderstanding of the strength of the regime, and two the arrogant belief that it was up to them to decide the future of Syria....
The Western world, for whom I’m writing, is very well aware of the regime crimes, and so I probably didn’t have to emphasize them because they’re well known. I certainly don’t mean to hush-up or hide any of the crimes that the regime committed against the people both before this war began and during this war. I’ve been covering Syria since 1973, and I’ve never hesitated to write about the crimes of the regime committed against the people in Syria, and also in Lebanon where they did horrible things. During the Syrian occupation of Lebanon I never pulled my punches on that. I certainly don’t mean to be pulling them now.
But the opposition has not managed to get popular support. The regime has the security services. It has a degree of support among secularists, among religious minorities, among the middle class. Whereas the opposition has not galvanized support for fighting from any sector of the society except those who have profoundly religious Sunni beliefs. That’s because they want to change Syria from an Alawite dictatorship to a Sunni dictatorship.
If people would want change, that’s not the change they want. They don’t want to go from one kind of dictatorship to another. They want to go from a dictatorship to a functioning democracy...
It was almost from the beginning that the armed rebellion, that the opposition was using the language of Wahhabism. I’m not talking about those demonstrators in Damascus, in Homs, who were democratic. I’m talking about the people who took up arms and went into the field against the military. They called themselves things like “the sons of Khalid”; Khalid, who would certainly be killing Shiites. They would use the language and the symbolism of Sunni theocracy, and that is not democratic.
It’s not surprising, one, because the Muslim Brothers, before this battle began, were the main focus of opposition to the regime and, two, because the funding for the opposition was coming from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who were not going to give their money to the young people I saw demonstrating in Damascus who wanted to keep the secularism and multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian nature of Syria, but just wanted democratic change. That is certainly not what Saudi Arabia envisions for any country in the Arab world, including itself...
The only border which has disappeared for the moment is the one between Iraq and Syria, which probably would have existed even without . There’s never been much unity between Iraq and Syria. There’s a great desert between them. Sykes Picot, first of all, drew a very different map than the one that emerged at the end of the First World War. But it did establish the principle that the British and the French would decide the nature of those borders. Mosul, for example, was meant to be in Syria. It ended up in Iraq. There were various movements back and forth between the British and the French that ended up settling the borders. You had the Lausanne conference, the San Remo conference, the Versailles conference, so forth. It kept moving things about.
We ended up by 1923 with Greater Syria divided into Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Transjordan, and the Mesopotamian provinces of the Ottoman Empire being united, which they had not been before, into one place called Iraq. In neither country were these borders ever accepted, internally.
But at the moment, I don’t see them going away. The caliphate has wiped away the border between Iraq and Syria, for the time being, but when ISIS disappears, the border will be reinstated. No one is suggesting that Syria—the modern Syria we know, not Greater Syria—should be further divided. As the Russians are helping the regime to take back Aleppo and probably restore state sovereignty over most of the rest of Syria, the country will stay united....
There’s always been a difference between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. Since the 7th century, it hasn’t been as violent as it became after the American invasion of Iraq. You have this phenomenon of the Americans installing a Shiite regime that ignored the Sunnis—in fact, terrorized the Sunnis. And that really did set in place a major violent conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. The ethos of it now has spread to Syria.