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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for April 2018

End Appeasement

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In 2003 the US and Britain invaded and occupied Iraq. At the time Saddam Hussein, certainly a mass-murdering tyrant, was nevertheless contained and quiescent. Neither was there a popular revolution to defend (that happened in 1991, following the Kuwait war, and American troops watched passively). The Iraq adventure – sold on cooked intelligence – was a hubristic war of choice.

In 2013, haunted by Iraq, the West refused to enforce President Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ in Syria. Here there was not only a popular revolution but (at that point) a democratic opposition too, militarily weak but enjoying vast popular support. And President Assad was not only raping, torturing and killing on an industrial scale, but also releasing jihadists from prison.

What happened next? Calculating the red line had switched to a green light, Assad escalated his assault. Iran sent Shia jihadists to fight on his behalf. This, alongside Assad’s ‘scorched earth’ strategy, provoked a Sunni backlash. ISIS grew in the chaos. So the West – striking a symptom now but not the cause – bombed Syrian cities anyway, killing thousands. Then Russia stepped in to save the regime from collapse. Its pretext was the war on ISIS, but over 80% of its bombs fell on opposition-held areas – and on schools, hospitals and markets – nowhere near ISIS territory.

Today over half a million Syrians are dead, and over eleven million displaced. 90% of civilian dead were killed by the regime and its allies. So long as such impunity persists, Syria will continue to generate terror and war.

Meanwhile ISIS atrocities and the refugee outflow poison our politics here, contributing to phenomena including Brexit and Donald Trump. And there’ll be more poison coming. Assad’s original war on his people has already birthed a series of regional and global conflicts. Iran’s participation in sectarian cleansing – and its occupation of swathes of eastern Syria – almost guarantees a strong ISIS resurgence. For seven years the crisis has only escalated.

Beyond the potential fireworks of the next days, the West needs a sustained strategy to protect Syrian civilians. Unfortunately there is no evidence that western leaders (specifically President Trump) are interested in or capable of any sustained strategy.

This should worry us. As well as burning Syria, Putin has swallowed Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine. Alongside the false Iraqi analogy we should also consider the example of the 1930s, when serial appeasement led not to peace but total war.

(Update 14 April: At first sight it seems that the strike destroyed three chemical weapons production sites. So it’s a deterrent message against chemical atrocities – but still not strong enough to have made the last atrocity look like a miscalculation. By gassing the resistance out of Douma, Assad saved thousands of loyalist troops. So as expected, after all the noise, appeasement of the Assad-Iran-Russian extermination of Syrians continues.

Those fearing ‘world war three’ and ‘aggression’ can go back to sleep. It’s just Muslims being bombed, tortured, raped, and expelled now. Assad’s extermination will continue. The Russian-Iranian occupations will deepen. The west will continue killing civilians in its endless whack-a-mole ‘war on terror’. But no heroic state airfields will be in danger.

PS. with regard to the WW3 fear…. if people followed closely they’d know that a couple of months agao a pro-Assad force attacked the US-backed SDF in eastern Syria. An American plane destroyed the attacking force. Later it was discovered that dozens of the dead troops were Russians – both regular soldiers and Wagner mercenaries. Putin said nothing. The Russian media was quiet. Russia is strong only because it’s being appeased, and it knows it. Though collaboration may be a better word than appeasement.)

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 13, 2018 at 10:04 am

Posted in Russia, Syria

Diana Darke on Islam’s “moral economy”

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This interview/ review was first published at the National.

darkeThe Middle East “held a fascination for me since childhood. I mean, it’s where civilisation began.”

I was speaking to the British writer, historian and Arabist Diana Darke, whose second book, “The Merchant of Syria”, is published this month.

An engaging conversationalist, Diana told me about her life-long entanglement with the Arab world.

After studying Arabic in the 1970s, she spent six months in Beirut. This is when – through a series of cross-border visits – she first fell in love with Syria. “I was a 22-year-old blonde woman travelling alone and I was completely safe. Everybody was courteous and welcoming.” Damascus in particular captured her heart – “You breathe the history as you walk the streets” – so much so she wrote a Brandt guidebook to the city, and years later struggled through Syria’s notorious bureaucratic hurdles to buy and restore a 17th Century Old City home. Her first book – “My House in Damascus” (2016) – is an affecting account of this process.

For a while after the revolution and then the war erupted, the house was inhabited by friends displaced from the besieged Ghouta. Then, after a corrupt lawyer wrote a security report describing Diana as “a British terrorist”, the house was seized by profiteers. Undaunted, she returned in 2014 to reclaim it.

Her books interweave contemporary and historical events, providing a long-range perspective she deems “more important than ever. Because today everybody has short memories. The media works on immediacy – blood and gore. It distorts people’s view of the area, which across the centuries has been this incredibly open, tolerant, embracing place – and largely because of trade.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 6, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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The Shell

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This review of Mustafa Khalifa’s account of life and death in Syria’s Tadmor prison was first published at AlJumhuriya.

shell“The Shell” opens in 1982 with its young protagonist returning to Syria from his film studies in Paris. He rejects his girlfriend’s pleas to stay in France because his home needs him, and he misses its streets, and “in my own country I’ve got rights.”

He is arrested at Damascus airport. Only many years later does he learn the reason for his detention – reportedly he’d made “remarks disparaging to the president” at a Parisian party.

He is sent to the “Desert Prison” at Tadmor, or Palmyra, where the Assad regime consigned the Islamists and leftists who challenged it in the 1980s. Tadmor’s 10,000 inmates “contained the highest proportion of holders of university degrees in the entire country”. Very many died there. In 1980, a thousand were murdered in one day.

This is (with reservations) a true story. Mustafa Khalifa has transformed his own dreadful experience into a bitter classic of Syria’s burgeoning ‘prison literature’ genre. In prison, denied a pen, Khalifa practised “mental writing”. He made his mind a tape recorder, he explains, and then “downloaded” to paper over 13 years later, when he wasn’t entirely the same person. And he won’t download everything, he warns, for “that requires an act of confession”. So “The Shell” is a fictionalised memoir. Published in Beirut in 2008, it was widely admired in Arabic, and is now admirably translated to English by Paul Starkey.

It’s a tale of arbitrary victimisation. Accused of Muslim Brotherhood membership, the narrator tells a guard he’s not only of Christian family, but an atheist too. “But we’re an Islamic country!” declares his tormenter, and the beating recommences.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 5, 2018 at 9:18 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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