Rania Abouzeid excels in describing the scene and depicting the characters. Her words transport readers to the regime’s prison cells, to life under bombardment and to secret meetings of opposition fighters in the moonlight of summer nights in northern Syria. She takes us through the stages of the uprising, illuminating the hope, despair, delusion and fragmentation of the rebels. She also had access to members of the most feared groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Abouzeid follows her characters over several years, providing intimate accounts of their lives and how the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the manipulation of regional powers and the unfulfilled promises of the West have turned the rebels’ dreams of change into a nightmare.
But Abouzeid’s perspective raises some questions. She argues that the uprising was an armed Islamic undertaking from the beginning, which parallels the Assad regime’s propaganda. The regime’s tactic has been to try to impress upon the world that there was no citizens’ uprising but rather an armed Islamic movement that threatened the government and needed to be crushed. That storyline helped the regime to crack down on peaceful activism from the outset and established the narrative of an armed Islamic insurgency.
Under the regime’s instructions, many Islamists were released from prison in a 2011 amnesty, and at the same time, Assad locked up thousands of peaceful secular activists. This allowed the Islamic insurgency to mobilize and helped create Assad’s narrative that the uprising was an Islamic problem for the regime. Abouzeid recounts the amnesty but doesn’t explore the arrests of the activists and other ordinary Syrians.
Many who were in Syria at the time, including myself, clearly witnessed that the rebellion was not an action of Islamic extremism. It started as peaceful, civil and inclusive of all sections of society — people from all social and religious groups who wanted to see democratic change in Syria.
“No Turning Back” focuses on several main characters from different locations and ideologies in Syria. Among them are Suleiman Tlass Farzat, a wealthy businessman who became a protester; Abu Azzam, a poet who became a fighter; and Mohammad, a former prisoner who joined Jabhat al-Nusra.
While Abouzeid acknowledges that she is not “presenting a comprehensive story of Syria or even of rebel-held Syria,” her tale leaves out many non-Islamic Syrians from diverse backgrounds who rose up and embraced civil and pacifist resistance to Assad’s police state and formed the civil core of the uprising.
Where are Syria’s brave women in Abouzeid’s book? One major event was a silent demonstration in Marjeh Square in Damascus in March 2011 that was mainly organized by women from all sects to demand the release of political prisoners. As soon as they raised pictures of the detainees, the secret police attacked them, dragging one of the organizers by her hair to prison. In Abouzeid’s account, we mainly hear from male characters, the majority of whom embraced armed rebellion and joined extreme Islamic groups, which underplays the wider roots of the uprising. Only in a few scenes do we see the roles of female characters.
Yet many women in Syria have played a vital part in peaceful activism, political organization and, most important, in civil society, humanitarian aid and education. Hundreds or thousands of women became breadwinners while their husbands were detained, summarily executed or otherwise went missing, or died in the fighting. Women have also been involved in the spread of Local Coordination Committees across the country. One secular veteran human rights lawyer, Razan Zaitouneh, was kidnapped by Islamic fighters in Eastern Ghouta, a suburban area of Damascus, in late 2013. Zaitouneh, who played a role in establishing the Local Coordination Committees, is absent from the book. The few women characters in these pages mostly appear as submissive to social or religious codes.
Syria’s seven-year war is not only a military one. The regime and the Islamic hard-liners have restricted the media. Journalists have been prevented from doing their jobs and in some cases have been killed, beaten or ejected from the country. I was one of many journalists detained and threatened by the regime. Islamic extremists have kidnapped local and foreign journalists to obtain ransoms or to control the narrative. In response, citizen journalists have arisen to report on conditions and send the information out of the country.
But Abouzeid discredits the opposition media activists. Her reports on these journalists are inconsistent: She suggests that some have an Islamic agenda while others are affiliated with rebel groups; other times, she claims that the citizen journalists exaggerate conditions or even promulgate false accounts. Abouzeid stresses that her accounts are the true version, when many would argue against her narrative.
“No Turning Back” offers insight into the armed rebellion and the role of Islamic groups. But it fails to convey the reality that all Syrians — regardless of religious affiliation — have suffered under decades of Assad family rule. In the 1980s, the regime consolidated its rule by crushing any dissent from Islamic extremists, socialists, communists and secular Syrians. Today the country is facing ruin under a continuation of the same brutal policies.
No Turning Back
and Hope in Wartime Syria
By Rania Abouzeid
Norton. 378 pp. $26.95