Robin Yassin-Kassab

The London Review of Books on Syria

with 4 comments

an improvised weapon in Aleppo

an improvised weapon in Aleppo

I wrote to the editor of the London Review of Books concerning their Syria (and Libya) coverage. There’s been no reply, so I’m posting the letter here.



Watching the representation of the tragedy in the media has been almost as depressing as watching Syria burn. As someone with strong leftist and anti-imperialist leanings, it’s been particularly galling to find that ‘leftist’ commentary on Syria has often been the worst of all. Large sections of the left have wholeheartedly embraced the very discourse that they resisted during the War on Terror years – that of ‘terrorists’ and al-Qa’ida conspiracies explaining all. Leftist journalists have paid little or no attention to the regime’s blatant and deliberate instrumentalisation of sectarian hatreds, but have focussed on, and exaggerated, the backlash. Robert Fisk has gone so far as to embed himself with the regime army, and to (grotesquely) interview survivors of the Darayya massacre in the presence of the perpetrators of the massacre. Many leftists have convinced themselves, against all the evidence, that the American-led empire has been conspiring against the Syrian regime since the start of the revolution, that this is a re-run of Iraq. Tariq Ali even appeared on Russia Today (near the start) to explain that America was trying to take over Syria but Russia was protecting the country. Russia – the imperialist power which is arming and funding the regime as it commits genocide.

I subscribe to the London Review of Books because it’s by far the best written, most incisive, most reflective, and bravest British publication. Publishing Walt and Mearsheimer was a great move. On the middle east, Adam Shatz is always excellent, well-informed, interested in teasing out a complex truth. Much of the coverage of the revolutions has been eurocentric and orientalist, however. I agreed with novelist Hisham Matar when he called ‘shame’ on Hugh Roberts’s very long Libyan piece which at no point attempted to see things from a Libyan perspective. Rather, it cast the Libyans as passive agents, pawns in the hands of the devilishly clever white man. And on Syria, commentary has been statist-leftist, as if this were an amusing chess game between regional and super powers rather than a struggle for freedom and a genocide, with only one side receiving sustained imperialist aid. I wrote in brief about Patrick Cockburn’s orientalism here.

There are wonderful young Syrian or expatriate Syrian journalists writing reports from on the ground – people like Amal Hanano, Rime Salahi, or the National’s Hassan Hassan. There’s the intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh living in the eastern Ghouta, or Khaled Khalifa, the novelist, surviving under bombs in Barzeh. Outside Syria there’s Louis Proyect and Michael Neumann, who write about about the left’s failure in Syria from non-Syrian perspectives. But we keep reading dinosaurs who don’t speak Arabic, who haven’t been to Syria, who have been driven around by the regime if they have been, and who made their mind up about this very contemporary situation either in 2003 or 1968.
Hugh Roberts knows how to write an essay. Patrick Cockburn has a long reputation. If the LRB chooses to publish such people, or to see through their eyes, there’s nothing I can do about it but be disappointed. But I do think that the LRB has a duty to avoid publishing untruths and deliberately misleading half-truths. I am thinking of Tariq Ali’s recent blog piece, which said that Syrian rebels are “armed and funded” by the West. This is simply untrue. The West has sent some humanitarian aid, some satellite phones and so on, but no weapons. Indeed, the US’s most significant role thus far has been to actively prevent the Saudis and Qataris from sending the heavy weapons which the Free Army so desperately needs to defend the people from the genocide. Once these untruths are established, they are then used by conspiratorial statist leftists to build up an entirely false and insulting narrative which denies the agency of the Syrian people and casts them as pawns of foreign powers. Of course, the LRB isn’t alone in publishing this kind of thing. You can read the “armed and funded by the West” line in the Guardian every day. But at one point I had hoped and expected that the LRB would do better. It’s possible to oppose intervention (although I don’t see these ‘anti-imperialists’ opposing the massive Russian and Iranian interventions, the actually existing interventions, with similar passion) without a wholescale abandonment of reality. Such journalism is in fact a form of propaganda, and it’s very ugly indeed. Sad to find it connected to the LRB which, in general, is not ugly but beautiful.
Thank you very much for listening.

Very best wishes

update: Since September some American light weapons have gone into Syria, and the Americans have helped train a few Free Army soldiers in Jordan. This late and largely irrelevant involvement still does not begin to justify the allegation that rebels are “armed and funded by the West”, and it certainly didn’t justify the lie when it was told two years ago. The resistance in Syria remains dependent on the weapons it captures from regime bases. The al-Qa’ida linked groups have their own weapons supplies from Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf.

update updated: the feeble and very partial American weapons supply has stopped again.

Idrees takes on David Bromwich’s ignorant take on Syria for the LRB here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Posted in Syria

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4 Responses

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  1. “As someone with strong leftist and anti-imperialist leanings, it’s been particularly galling to find that ‘leftist’ commentary on Syria has often been the worst of all. Large sections of the left have wholeheartedly embraced the very discourse that they resisted during the War on Terror years – that of ‘terrorists’ and al-Qa’ida conspiracies explaining all.”

    I’ve come to the conclusion that this total abandonment of internationalism is the product of the left’s neoliberalization, it’s complete internalization of the Reagan-Thatcher “you’re on your own” worldview.

    Nott George Sabra

    October 3, 2013 at 5:55 pm

  2. Nott George Sabra

    October 3, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    • Regarding all this demeaning nonsense about the noble Syrian revolution, a few facts need to be remembered: (1) From its very inception and for well over six months after it began, the Syrian revolution was completely and exclusively a “home grown” uprising against the murderous and essentially illegitimate Assad regime. (2) Never in the history of all successful revolutions anywhere in the world, has this success been achieved without some form of foreign and/or outside assistance. What is lamentable, indeed tragic, about the so-called “foreign” assistance for the Syrian revolution is that it has been either so small compared to the massive assistance the Assad’s regime has been receiving from Russia and Iran, including the disgraceful involvement of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, or virtually “counterproductive,” if not destructive as in the case of the so-called “Ismlamist” foreign fighters who turned out to be more of a “liability” than an asset. (3) Aside from the almost vacuous and disappointing Western support which proved to be nothing more than “too much ado for nothing,” perhaps one of the greatest disappointments for the freedom-and-justice-loving people of Syria, has been the active participation of Hezbollah fighters with the murderous Assad army and its thuggish security forces, a massive historical miscalculations on the side of Hezbolla’s leadership because it has not only forfeited its claim to be a “liberation” movement the moment it sided with the criminal Assad regime against the oppressed people of Syria, but has also alienated the vast majority of the people of Syria who embraced the movement wholeheartedly during Israel’s barbaric invasion of Lebanon in 2006. You cannot claim to be a “liberation movement” when you fight alongside the a mass-murdering and essentially UN-SYRIAN Assad regime. (4) Just because such essentially tribal and despotic regimes like these of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are providing assistance to the Syrian revolution should not automatically deprive the revolution of its authenticity or undermine its ultimate noble objective, that is, to restore freedom, and with it dignity and justice, to the entire people of Syria. Indeed, the assistance these countries have been giving to the suffering people of Syria has been, in more ways than one, quite disappointing indeed. In this respect, democratic Turkey has proven itself to be far more forthcoming, and hospitable, than the despotic regimes of Arabia who were instrumental in the hijacking of the noble Egyptian revolution.


      Ibrahim Hayani

      November 2, 2013 at 9:51 pm

      • you are absolutely on the nail, Ibrahim. It’s a colossal tragedy.

        Robin Yassin-Kassab

        November 2, 2013 at 11:10 pm

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