Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Bamboo Stalk

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bamboostalkThis review was published at The National.

“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.

When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”

So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 18, 2015 at 9:52 am

Posted in book review, Gulf

ISIS: Hassan/Weiss versus Cockburn

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isisThe review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

And now here’s the whole thing:

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.

Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 28, 2015 at 10:24 am

Posted in Iran, Iraq, Islamism, Syria

Tagged with

Arab Jazz

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arabjazzThis review was published at the Guardian.

“Arab Jazz” – already the winner of the English PEN award – is a brilliant debut, both from Karim Miské and the very capable translator Sam Gordon.

The setting – “between the Lubavitch school complex, the Salafist prayer room and the evangelical church” in north east Paris, home turf of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers – couldn’t be more topical.

And Ahmed Taroudant, the novel’s main protagonist, is in some respects a typical French Arab – religiously non-observant, confused about his identity, haunted by the past, and now set up to take the blame for murder.

Immensely likeable despite his neuroses, Ahmed aims “to lose himself by devouring the whole world in a single, uninterrupted story written by others.” The metaphor fits fundamentalists perfectly, but in Ahmed’s case it’s more literal: he’s a crime fiction fanatic who tries to buffer himself from reality with a wall of books. He’s reading on his balcony when blood drips down from the corpse of his upstairs neighbour Laura, whose love he might have reciprocated had he been clear-headed enough to notice.

Ahmed, of course, wants to understand what’s happening. He’s the book’s third detective; the first two are Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot, an atheist Ashkenazi Jew from the neighbourhood and a Breton of Communist heritage; both, like Ahmad, are well versed in crime fiction, and both are “intellectual, cinephile types”. Karim Miské, the French-Mauritanian author, is a film-maker himself; his book is crammed with genre, literary and film references. One scene is set in ‘Chaim Potok high school’, for instance; the title alludes to James Ellroy’s novel “White Jazz”; and – as if the book were already a film – there’s a playlist of songs at the back.

The characters are strong and various, from the young, second-generation Muslim and Jewish north African immigrants – the girls generally better adjusted than the boys – through such predictable figures as a Turkish kebab-shop proprieter and a Portuguese concierge, to the more surprising – an Armenian anarchist, for instance, or a Hasidic Rastafarian who produces a messianically-sanctioned MDMA-variant called Godzwill.

There’s an implicit commentary here on the new phenomenon of gangster-Salafism: “craving the validation of others … they were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion which brought them such relentless contempt.” But the implicit critique of religion itself – of “those who clog up their depths, their inner space, with the concrete of certainty” – extends to political and social certainties too. Everyone’s been damaged by their heritage; everyone’s vulnerable to inner darkness and the explanatory narcotic of grand narrative.

“Arab Jazz” is a genre novel in the same way that “Pulp Fiction” is a genre film – superceding the form even as it pays homage. It’s a trans-continental identity novel, dramatising the painful contradictions and fertile syntheses of contemporary multicultural life, focussing on racial discrimination in Morocco as well as Paris. And it’s certainly a well-achieved literary novel, detailed with colours, tastes and flavours, sustaining a light and energetic comic tone even when the material is unrelentingly grim.

The settings are particularly rich, as Miské journeys confidently from his prime location as far as Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or to New York’s Watchtower, global HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and back and forth in time.

The dialogue can be somewhat clumsy, occasionally rendering the plot machinery too visible and the characters too obviously functional. In general there’s a little too much telling rather than showing – in the improbably self-revealing monologues of the police’s interviewees, for example, or the perfectly overheard street sermonising. Perhaps, as a detective story, the novel suffers a glut of too-easily-flowing information. This may irritate some genre readers, but it should be forgiven. “Arab Jazz” should be read charitably as a pushing beyond realism rather than a failure to achieve it. There’s something theatrical in Miské’s world; it’s as if the detective-readers witness performances, or discover texts, instead of teasing out meaning from an inscrutable and intransigent reality. Miské is a writer enjoying himself, playing on his scales, improvising sometimes, his subplots and walk-on acts fed deftly into the whole. The monologues are instrumental solos; the rhythms are propulsive. Like jazz, it’s complicated, but sounds beautifully simple.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 7, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Posted in book review, France

Tagged with

Brothers Blood

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Evening_over_Damascus_SyriaI’m honoured that the wonderful poet Golan Haji has translated the prologue to my novel-in-progress for al-Arabi al-Jadeed. Here it is:

دم الشقيق
روبن ياسين قصاب

3 فبراير 2015

كلُّ اسم هنا يعني شيئاً، لكنّ بعض الأسماء قديمة جداً فنُسيت معانيها. قد تعني دمشق في الآرامية “التراب الأحمر”، وربما كانت تعني “قِربة النبيذ” لدى الإغريق والرومان. تسمية أخرى متداولة محلياً اشتُقت من “دم الشقيق”، لأن قابيل قتل هابيل في مكانٍ ما من الأرجاء المجاورة. يقع مزار هابيل في قمة قاسيون، والقبر في داخله عملاق الحجم لأن رجال تلك الأيام كانوا عمالقة حقاً. والعشق هو فرط الحب، وهكذا ثمة احتمال آخر لأصل الاسم هو “دم العشق
المدينة في تجويف إناء أسفل الجبال، وتترامى عبر السهل، وتزحف إلى أعالي المنحدرات، كتلةً كبيرة من المساكن، أبراجاً بيضاء ورمادية وبنية تعلو وتنخفض. واجهاتُ رخام وقبابٌ وأسطحة قرميد أحمر. حمام يحتشد في أسراب مرفرفاً ويحطّ على أعشاش السطوح.
أزقةٌ مغلقةُ المصاريع، متاهات، جدران عالية من ضوضاء السيارات. عالياً فوق هذه الجدران حلّقْ وانظرْ تحت.
سهامٌ من مصابيح ملونة تشير إلى محلات الشواء؛ شاشاتُ تلفزيون تومض عبر النوافذ المفتوحة، في المكتب، في الدكان، أو على الأرصفة حين يكون الطقس دافئاً؛ شاشات مليون هاتف جوّال (يملكها جميعاً الشخصُ نفسه)، تتحرك بمستوى الرؤوس، أو في الأحضان، أو على السرير؛ والصحون اللاقطة؛ ومقاهي الإنترنت.
محلات المثلجات، الحدائق العامة، العوائل الكريمة البدينة التي تفصص البذور. البنوك، الصرّافون، مكاتب الاستيراد والتصدير. سيارات الأجرة والسرافيس. رجال في زي موحد. رجال يدخنون السجائر.
عشاق، متزوجون، جمهرةٌ من راهبات متجهمات في محل أزهار يبيع باقاتٍ سريالية الحجم، محلٌ ضيق لتاجر بسطرمة، تاجر بُنّ في بنايةٍ لائقة، أضِفْ مطحنته وأضِفْ غبارَ القهوة، وصفٌّ من محلات الألبسة، كلها للفتيات، واجهاتها نيون كلّها أزرق ووردي وذهبي، أغنية آر أند بي أميركية Do Me You Do Me You Can Do Me ترجُّ الرصيف، نساء يضايقهن الأطفال محجباتٌ ويلبسن الأردية الطويلة يعبرن تحت مكبرات الصوت، أمام صاحب محل سيديهات ملمَّع الشعر مصفَّفه وراء زجاج مدخّن، ثم باعة محلات الأحذية بأباريق الشاي والابتسامات، تتوالى باباً لصق باب، جدران من صناديق الأحذية تعلو، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
ساحة مركز المدينة. الفنادقُ المواخير، الراقصات النَوَريّات. البدو يعطفون على كؤوس الشاي، لا يزال بعضهم يضفرون جدائلهم، أخاديد ثلّمتْ بها الريح وجناتِهم. جدران من الأقفاص في سوق الطيور، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
كذلك ألقِ بالاً إلى ما لم يكن أو ما لن يكون. حفرٌ لم تُردَمْ، هياكل ما بُنيت، مواسير شبه منسية، ثغرات. هدم غير محسوب، إنشاءات من دون مخطط، منازل عشوائية لم تصِرْ بيوتاً، ومنازل أخرى غائبة موجودة على الورق. ثقوب طلقات لم يجمعها الفرنسيون. نهرٌ أصبح ممشى من الإسمنت المسلح، نفقاً ومستنقعاً آسناً. بساتين مبتورة الجذوع، مخنوقة، مسوَّرة.
ألف مليون كيس نايلون.
صِبيةٌ موشومون، رجال بسواعد مشعرة، أقدام برتقالية تهتزّ بعضها إلى جوار بعض في صفوف المصلّين في مسجد عند الزاوية.
الفنادق الجديدة الفخمة في المدينة القديمة، الخانات والقصور، المطاعم: بعض من ألذّ العشاءات في الشرق الأوسط، في العالم.
الحشد. يلتئم ويتفرّق، يتجمهر ويتبعثر. على عجل.
شبان يبدؤون حيواتهم، يعانون، يحملون الكتب، يقعون في الحب، يشعرون بأنهم محبوسون، يزرّرون عيونهم ليروا طريقاً يجنون عبره بعض المال. شبان في منتصفات أعمارهم يتآكلهم الطموح والفشل، وأولئك المسحوقون بالعار يزرّرون عيونهم أيضاً ليروا طريقاً يجنون عبره بعض المال. العجائز يشتكون أو ييأسون أو يرضون أو يأملون، لا يزالون يزرّرون عيونهم ليروا طريقاً من أجل أبنائهم وأحفادهم يجنون عبره بعض المال. العجائز القانعون بشيخوختهم. العجائز المصلُّون.
في الزحام امرأة تعضُّ شفتها إلى أن تدمى لتمنع نفسها من الصراخ.
عبق الجنس. عبق الياسمين والمازوت والغبار.
فوحُ خَبزِ الخُبز. دوائر ساخنة من الخبز مكوَّمة خارج الأفران، أو ملمومة في أكياس نايلون شفافة لتبني جدراناً، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
فندق الشام والفصول الأربعة. دور السينما والمراكز الثقافية. الملاعب والمسابح. الأبراجُ السجون. المآذن وذروات الأبنية.
الحيّ الشيعي والحيّ المسيحي. المخيمات الفلسطينية. الناحية الدرزية. الأكراد المكدَّسون على السفح الذي يحمل اسمهم منذ عهد صلاح الدين الأيوبي.
الجيوب العلوية التي تتقدم صوب المدينة.
سائح، متغافل عن توترات الحاضر، يقصدُ التمشّي عبر حارة اليهود.
جبال نصلت في الشمس، أذْوَتها الرياحُ القارسة، قوّضتها رشقاتُ المطر، غصّتْ بتكرار الثلوج، وكلّستها مؤخراً أربعة عقود من الجمود.
الألوان على الجبل مرهونة بالغيم، بمواقيتِ النهار، بموضعِ الشمس. وردية، برتقالية، حمراء، بيضاء، سوداء. لون التلوث البني معلّقٌ ولا يُرى إلا من بعيد. ثم هواء يتخلخل في كل اتجاه، فوق الجبال والهضبة والسهل المقفر، هواء رقيق وجاف، مادّةُ الملائكة.
شيء ما مضطرب في الجو يشي بوصول اللحظة. لحظة ستبقى.
تحت السماء، فوق دمشق: الفرقة الرابعة متوارية نسبياً. المدفعية وراء المتاريس. مدافع ضخمة مثبتة في الجبل. القوات الإسرائيلية على قمة جبل الشيخ، بذروته المكتسيةِ ثلجاً في المدى المنظور. وأربعة ملايين سوري، تحت، في المدينة

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 3, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Posted in writing

Writers in Erbil, 2011

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I wrote this account of the Erbil Literature Festival in early 2011, as Assad was bringing war to Syria, before the PYD militias took over Syria’s Kurdish areas, long before Mosul fell to Daesh. Since then there’s been a revolution in Syrian culture, and a further expansion of Iraqi literature. Ahmad Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, mentioned here, last year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as ‘the Arab Booker’.

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

5th May 2011

It was an annoying journey out: a thirty-mile lift to the train station, then a train, a bus, a plane, a transit zone, a plane; unfitting and refitting my belt, tired and prickle-skinned among the glassy hustling public, and the jarring mesh of duty-free odours, and the funneling tunneling lights. My night in Vienna, old Austro-Hungaria, was spent in a very contemporary airport hotel. The windows were sealed by regulation. I lay on the bed and watched TV – all I ever do in anonymous, upmarket hotels – on pillows too bulky, sheets too sterile. I watched too much Arabic Jazeera, slow eyes chasing the script on the news bar, about the killing in Syria, in Homs and in Dara‘a. I slid to sleep to the hiss of airconditioning.

6th May

Inaam Kachachi is a Paris-based novelist and journalist. Her most recent novel, available in English too, is “The American Granddaughter”, which concerns a young Iraqi-American woman who ‘returns’ to Iraq as a translator with the American military.

When Inaam returns home these days she finds that Baghdad, the cradle of her early life, has become a foreign city. Last time she was there an American soldier assumed she was the foreigner because she was dressed only in T-shirt and trousers, revealing her light skin, startling orange hair and (by her own description) her plumpness. ‘When he passed by me he said “Hi Ma’am!” I replied in English,’ (she puts on a parodic American growl) – ‘“Fuck you, I’m Iraqi!”’

Once she mentions her plumpness I notice it. She’s elegant and swish with it too. Her size seems to be an outward manifestation of powerful inner warmth, as if her raging humour requires great space to rush about in. We’d met before, half a year earlier in Berlin, and we wave to each other as she comes through the Vienna airport gate.

So: eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey. And south over snow-caked mountains towards the flatlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. I think I glimpse the glistening Tigris from my port hole. On the other side of the river is Mosul, where Inaam’s family originates (and, so rumour has it – much more distantly – mine too), and near Mosul are the ruins of Nineveh, where Ashurbanipal’s library was buried and dug up, and with it the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest versions of the flood myth, the omens and divinations of the ancient world. I experience a frisson of firm location: my first time in Iraq, which is the homeland of all writers, the birthplace of literature, the Babel-land of stories. This is where human beings first discovered writing.

The airport is contemporary, spacious and airy. Our group of writers is processed through passport control and into a minibus, green fields and long grass on either side; after a kilometre we stop at a lonely concrete hut where our bags are scanned again. We change buses here, for security’s sake.

And into the city. It’s called Hawler in Kurdish, Erbil in Arabic, Arbaa-ilu (Four Gods) in Akkadian, and Urbilum (The Upper City) in Sumerian. It’s the fourth largest city in Iraq, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Its population is well over a million, but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s spacious like the airport, low rise, and most of it is in very good shape.

Our hotel compound is surrounded by blast walls. The public side of the walls is painted with murals – prisoners breaking through bars, the Pepsi logo, mountains and flowers. Our bags are searched and scanned at the entrance to the compound and again in the foyer of the hotel.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm

The Road to Iraq

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A slightly shorter version of my review of Pulse editor Idrees Ahmad’s devastating dissection of the neoconservatives and their deeds appeared at the National.

roadtoiraqMeticulously researched and fluently written, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s “The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War” is the comprehensive guide to the neoconservatives and their works. The book’s larger story is of the enormous influence wielded by unelected lobbyists and officials over the foreign policies of supposed democracies, their task facilitated by the privatisation and outsourcing of more and more governmental functions in the neoliberal era. (Similar questions are provoked by the state-controlled or corporate media in general, as it frames, highlights or ignores information.) The more specific story is of how a small network of like-minded colleagues (Ahmad provides a list of 24 key figures), working against other unelected officials in the State Department, military and intelligence services, first conceived and then enabled America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a disaster which continues to overshadow regional and global relations today.

The first crop of neoconservatives emerged from a Trotskyist-tinged 1930s New York Jewish intellectual scene; they and their descendants operated across the political-cultural spectrum, in media and academia, think tanks and pressure groups. Hovering first around the Democratic Party, then around the Republicans, they moved steadily rightwards, and sought to form a shadow defence establishment. During the Cold War they were fiercely anti-Soviet. Under George Bush Jr. they shifted from the lobbies into office.

The neoconservative worldview is characterised by militarism, unilateralism, and a firm commitment to Zionism. Even the Israel-friendly British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said of neocon Irving Libby: “It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day.” The neoconservatives aimed for an Israelisation of American policy, conflating Israeli and American enemies, and adopting their doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’ from Israel’s 1967 war on the Arabs.

Lest we slip into antisemitic tropes (hidden cabals conspiring on international Jewry’s behalf), let’s remember that the neoconservatives form a tiny minority within a generally much more liberal American Jewish community. (The Israel lobby as a whole is much more hawkish than American Jewish opinion – the former aggressively lobbied for war against Iraq while the latter was much more opposed than the American mainstream).

And the neoconservatives weren’t the only factor. Ahmad recognises the military industrial complex is always enthusiastic for war, and writes “The neoconservatives succeeded because they operate within a political consensus that sees US global dominance as the desired end and military force as the necessary, if not preferred, means.” Nevertheless, the fact that neoconservatives were placed well enough to exploit the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 was the crucial element in the decision to invade.

The neoconservatives wanted (through ‘creative chaos’) to remake not only Iraq but also Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and even such crucial American allies as Saudi Arabia. Yet their messianic vision didn’t dominate administration ‘realists’ (Colin Powell and Richard Armitage were working on ‘smarter’ sanctions to contain the Iraqi regime) until the ‘catalysing event’ of 9/11.

They immediately seized the opportunity to establish a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussain, promoting claims made by Laurie Mylroie, who had also, improbably, held Iraq responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing and the 1993 World Trade Centre attack. This misinformation sold the war to the public. A 2004 poll showed 74% of Americans believed the Iraq al-Qaida link; 85% of American soldiers polled in 2006 believed their role in Iraq was to retaliate for 9/11.

Within the administration, Dick Cheney, a ‘robust nationalist’ and probably the most powerful vice president in American history, championed neoconservative perspectives and propaganda. Supposed evidence of Iraq’s WMD programmes was entirely furnished by the neoconservatives and their allies. The Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, for instance, set up by neocon Douglas Feith, relayed questionable Israeli intelligence to the White House and played up the ‘imminent threat’ posed by Saddam. That unfounded allegations were presented as casus belli to the United Nations was not an ‘intelligence failure’ but, Ahmad proves, the result of a very successful process of suppressing, spinning or promoting information for the sake of invasion.

Cheney was motivated not by neoconservative ideology but by a hardnosed (and unrealistic) realism. 9/11 for him was an opportunity to make an example of an easy target (North Korea and Iran, the other members of the ‘axis of evil’, were too difficult). But he was greatly influenced by neoconservative orientalist and popular historian Bernard Lewis, who held Arab rage against the West to be purely cultural, not political, and believed Arabs only understood the language of force. These assumptions played a part in ‘shock and awe’ over Baghdad; orientalist theories – in this case of Arab masculinity, straight from Israeli torture guides – were applied again in the sexual humiliations at Abu Ghraib.

Against Cheney’s hopes, Iraq proved America’s weakness rather than its strength. The American public was briefly awed; the rest of the world was only shocked by American recklessness. More Iraqi post-war oil contracts were awarded to states which hadn’t intervened than to those which had, while Sunni and Shia insurgencies steadily bled American lives and morale, and the region plummeted to greater depths of polarisation and instability.

Neoconservatives had hoped Saddam’s deposal would be followed by regime change in Iran, or at least a radical weakening of the Iranian theocracy, but this was their most dramatic miscalculation. Strengthened by the removal of hostile regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran took advantage of the new sectarian order to embed itself in Iraqi politics. In Syria today, Iranian-backed sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting on Assad’s frontlines. Iran has not been challenged on this policy, despite it constituting a major factor in the rise of Sunni sectarianism and groups such as ISIS.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, the ‘realist’ realisation that Arab democracies would produce economically nationalist and anti-Zionist governments (as the Palestinians voted for Hamas) was reasserted, and so therefore was the traditional dictator-friendly policy. Stung by Iraq and economically weak, the US under Obama attempted and failed to disengage from the region. Obama set ‘red lines’ and ignored their crossing; he let his Sunni regional allies arm Syrian resistance groups ineffectually and in mutual competition; he blocked them from providing the heavy weapons necessary to resist Assad’s scorched earth and the consequent refugee crisis.

Eleven years after the invasion, ‘realist’ folly has compounded neoconservative madness. One common thread between the schools is an abiding refusal to deal with the people at the grassroots struggling to improve their situation. After the 1991 Gulf War, America permitted Saddam’s defeated military to use helicopter gunships to put down the intifada in the south – the mass graves of this period incubated the later sectarian breakdown. In 2003 the neoconservatives pinned their hopes on Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile organisation as irrelevant on the ground as the Syrian National Coalition is today (the SNC enjoys tepid and purely rhetorical American support; the grassroots Local Coordination Committees enjoy no recognition whatsoever). And now, rather than providing effective weaponry to the Free Syrian Army which has been fighting ISIS all year, America loses hearts and minds by bombing Syria’s grain silos and oil installations.

If the region is to ever recover, imperial democracies as well as Arab tyrannies require further democratisation and greater accountability. This is one unspoken lesson of Ahmad’s very useful account.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2014 at 12:56 am

Posted in book review, History, Iraq

Tagged with

Shock and Awe versus Dentists, Farmers and Students

with 3 comments

binladensWhatever the hearts-and-minds rhetoric at the United Nations, in Syria the Obama administration is feeding the flames of Sunni extremism, and proving once again the truism that the American state is an enemy of the Syrian people (as it’s an enemy, like all states, of all peoples, including the American).

We expected strikes on ISIS. Some of the strongest strikes (and the strikes are far stronger than in Iraq), however, have been aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the organisation from which ISIS split. Nusra is certainly an extremist Salafist group, and is openly linked to al-Qa’ida. Because its ideology terrifies not only minorities but also huge swathes of the Sunni population, it’s also a strategic obstruction in the way of the Syrian revolution. In August 2013 it participated (with ISIS) in the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians in the conflict. On the other hand, Nusra (unlike ISIS) was until yesterday actually fighting the regime, not other rebel groups. From January, along with every rebel formation, it’s been fighting ISIS too. And its leadership is entirely Syrian. Many Syrians, not necessarily extremist Salafists themselves, admire Nusra’s victories against their most immediate enemy – the Assadist forces dropping barrel bombs on cities and raping and torturing at checkpoints. A sensible answer to Nusra would be to provide weapons and funds to Free Army forces who would then be in a position to gradually draw men from the organisation, slowly making it irrelevant (most men don’t care about the ideology of their militia’s leadership; they care about food and ammunition). But the Americans are allergic to working with the people on the ground most immediately concerned by the outcome, and bomb from the air instead. Nusra is now abandoning front line positions (in some areas the regime may be able to take immediate advantage). One Nusra leader has already spoken of an alliance with ISIS against the Americans.

Syria’s new daily routine: the Americans and Gulf Arabs bomb the Salafist extremists while Assad bombs the Free Army and Islamic Front (and of course civilians – as usual it isn’t being reported, especially not now the televisual US war is on, but about a hundred are being killed every day). The headline in regime newspaper al-Watan reads “America and its Allies in One Trench with the Syrian Army against Terrorism”. The opposition reads it this way too. Several demonstrations yesterday condemned the American strikes, called for America’s fall, and for solidarity with ISIS and Nusra. A sign at one protest read: “Yes, It’s an International Coalition Against Sunnis.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 25, 2014 at 9:44 am

Posted in Islamism, Syria, USA

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