On Tuesday night, two British Syrian writers discussed their recent book about the ongoing Syrian conflict and the Western media’s misrepresentation of the situation at an event in International House’s Assembly Hall.
Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, the authors of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, were hosted for the discussion by the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, an organization of UChicago faculty focused on contemporary social issues.
Yassin-Kassab, a writer and journalist, and Al-Shami, a human rights activist and blogger, are both British Syrians with family in the region. According to their book’s official description, “Burning Country explores the complicated reality of life in present-day Syria with unprecedented detail and sophistication, drawing on new first-hand testimonies from opposition fighters, exiles lost in an archipelago of refugee camps, and courageous human rights activists.”
The event was moderated by Jerome McDonnell, host of Chicago radio station WBEZ’s global affairs segment Worldview.
Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami opened the conversation with the historical background of the Syrian conflict. The authors described an initial sense of optimism in Syria during the period immediately following Bashar al-Assad’s election in 2000. “People believed Bashar was a reformer, he was more open, and that this was going to be a period of political change,” Al-Shami said.
The turning point came in 2011, when Assad responded to countrywide protests related to the broader “Arab Spring” by blaming unrest on outside conspirators and using violence to quell uprisings. According to Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, Assad intentionally provoked a civil war to legitimize an armed crackdown, inspired by his father’s similar actions in the early 1980s.
Throughout the discussion, both Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami repeatedly highlighted the lack of accurate representation of the current circumstances in Syria. Both authors said the limited recent media coverage of the conflict has promoted inaccurate and Western-centric narratives.
In reference to the more than 400 popularly elected local councils that have taken over administration and management of basic necessities in many areas of the country, Yassin-Kassab said, “We all know about the foreign jihadists who’ve come in; we all know about, or we think we know about, the supposed battles between foreign states inside Syria, and we’re just not paying attention to the remarkable experiments in democracy that the Syrians themselves are doing.”
In response to a question from the audience about the role of media narratives in misrepresenting the Syrian conflict, Al-Shami argued that it is the responsibility of people in the West to challenge false accounts and support local councils working to restabilize the country. “We should recognize their struggle, and we should stand in solidarity with them,” Al-Shami said.