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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Iran’s Recipe for Terror Wrapped in War on Terror Packaging

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The New Arab published a piece by Iran’s foreign minister.  This, my response to Zarif, was also published by the New Arab.

daraya

Iraqi Shia militiamen pray in defeated and depopulated Daraya.

Today the New Arab publishes Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s latest appeal for greater regional cooperation, specifically to build a collective “security net” which would establish “prosperity, peace, and security for our children.”

This certainly sounds wonderful. Most people in our region share these noble aims. But when they are expressed by an Iranian minister (or by any servant of any state), we owe it to ourselves (and indeed to our children, whose future appears thoroughly insecure) to separate misleading rhetoric from actual facts on the ground. Surely Zarif wouldn’t disagree with this. His own article emphasises the need for “a sound understanding of the current reality.”

Let’s examine the context of this Iranian overture. It doesn’t contain any concessionary policy shift, and is therefore an appeal to the Arab public rather than to state leaderships. Zarif wishes to recreate the pre-2011 atmosphere, those halcyon days when Iran enjoyed enormous soft power across the Arab world. Back then (Iranian president) Ahmadinejad, (Hizbullah chief) Nasrallah and even Bashaar al-Assad topped Arab polls for ‘most admired leader’. Iran was widely considered a proud, rapidly developing Muslim nation and a principled opponent of American and Israeli expansion. Its popularity peaked during the 2006 Israeli-Hizbullah confrontation. People appreciated its aid to the Lebanese militia fighting what they thought was a common cause. When hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shia fled Israeli bombs for Syria, Syrian Sunnis put any sectarian prejudice aside and welcomed them in their homes. Al-Qusayr, for instance, a town near Homs, welcomed several thousand.

How things have changed. Today many Arabs fear Iran’s expansion just as much as Israel’s. Iran’s rulers, meanwhile, openly boast their imperialism. Here for example is Ali Reza Zakani, an MP close to Supreme Leader Khamenei: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian Revolution.” He referred to Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, and went on to add that Sanaa would soon follow.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 21, 2018 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

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This review was first published at the New Statesman.

frankensteinBaghdad, 2005. Occupied Iraq is hurtling into civil war. Gunmen clutch rifles “like farmers with spades” and cars explode seemingly at random. Realism may not be able to do justice to such horror, but this darkly delightful novel by Ahmed Saadawi – by combining humour and a traumatised version of magical realism – certainly begins to.

After his best friend is rent to pieces by a bomb, Hadi, a junk dealer, alcoholic and habitual liar, starts collecting body parts from explosion sites. Next he stitches them together into a composite corpse. Hadi intends to take the resulting “Whatsitsname” to the forensics department – “I made it complete,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be treated as trash” – but, following a storm and a further series of explosions, the creature stands up and runs out into the night.

At the moment of the Whatsitsname’s birth, Hasib, a hotel security guard, is separated from his body by a Sudanese suicide bomber. The elderly Elishva, meanwhile, is importuning a talking portrait of St. George to return her son Daniel, who – though he was lost at war two decades ago – she is convinced is still alive.

In what ensues, some will find their wishes fulfilled. Many will not. After all, the Whatsitsname’s very limbs and organs are crying for revenge. And as each bodily member is satisfied, it drops off, leaving the monster in need of new parts. Vengeance, moreover, is a complex business. Soon it becomes difficult to discern the victims from the criminals.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 6, 2018 at 10:53 am

Posted in book review, Iraq

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‘Sectarianization’

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Felipe DanaAP

The remains of the Nuri mosque amidst the remains of the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq. photo by Felipe Dana/ AP

An edited version of this article was published in Newsweek.

In his January 20 Inaugural Address, President Trump promised to “unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s only had six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is almost concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. Here a new Great Game for post-ISIS control is being played out with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key actors. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the US), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may in the end be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa – its Syrian stronghold – is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisors, are leading the fight. Civilians, as ever, are paying the price. UN investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by US-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multi-ethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organisation is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety), and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadist anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty per cent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 19, 2017 at 8:55 pm

The President’s Gardens

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president's gardensThis review was published first at the Guardian.

Since 1980, Iraq has suffered almost continuous war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions, and war-related cancers. “The President’s Gardens” by Muhsin al-Ramli –published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren – at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi, and deeply human, perspective.

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This book must belong to Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘the Fated’, the discovery of whose head (in a banana crate) opens and closes the novel in 2006, and whose life until that decapitation is narrated in the most detail. Yet Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq ‘the Befuddled’ and Abdullah ‘Kafka’, are essential to the story.

Tariq is a schoolteacher, a perfumed, snappy dresser, and a grinning, earthy imam. As such he is spared military service, and prospers in the village, making necessary accomodations to the ruling system.

Abdullah, the “prince of pessimists” who describes contemporary events as “ancient, lost, dead history”, is already alienated by his illegitimacy when he is called up in 1988 for the war against Iran, captured, and incarcerated as a POW for the next 19 years, with almost 100,000 others. In Iran he is paraded, tortured, starved, and lectured on Khomeinism. Prisoners are separated by religious affiliation, but those ‘penitents’ who adopt the Islamic Republic’s ideology are raised up to rule over the unconverted.

There is no sectarianism at all in the narration. The main characters, from north of Baghdad, are probably Sunnis, but the reader must bring knowledge from beyond the text to make this assumption. Their travels through the country’s beautiful landscapes and terrible warscapes convey a clear sense of Iraqi nationhood alongside a sustained disdain for exclusionary and propagandistic nationalism. “When I look at the flag of any country,” says Abdullah on his release, “I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”

If Abdullah’s chief mode is principled nihilism, Ibrahim’s is gentle resignation. “Everything is fate and decree” is his catchphrase, and he names his daughter Qisma, ‘fate’. Made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, lamed during the invasion of Kuwait, he finds a job in the paradisal gardens of the title, secret expanses within Baghdad studded by Saddam Hussain’s palaces, where the fountain water is mixed with perfume, camels graze between rose beds, and crocodiles swim in the pools. Naturally, horrors lurk beneath this surface.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 23, 2017 at 11:34 am

Posted in book review, Iraq

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The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

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hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2017 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Iraq, writing

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‘Criminals Kill While Idiots Talk’

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criminals-killThe Pluto blog has published an extract from our book. Here it is:

‘Burning Country’, written by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, explores the horrific and 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 among many others. These stories are expertly interwoven with a trenchant analysis of the brutalisation of the conflict and the militarisation of the uprising, of the rise of the Islamists and sectarian warfare, and the role of governments in Syria and elsewhere in exacerbating those violent processes. In this extract taken from the book, Robin Yassin – Kassab and Leila Al-Shami dissect the 2014 seizure of Mosul and impact it had in Iraq and Syria and on international opinion.

In June 2014, ISIS led an offensive which took huge swathes of northern and western Iraq out of government hands. Most significantly, the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, fell to ISIS on 10 June Yassin-Kassab BCafter only four days of battle. General Mahdi al-Gharawi – a proven torturer who had run secret prisons but was nevertheless appointed by Prime Minister Maliki as governor of Nineveh province – fled, and his troops, who greatly outnumbered the ISIS attackers, deserted. This meant that the US-allied Iraqi army, on which the US had spent billions of dollars, was less able to take on ISIS than Syria’s ‘farmers and dentists’. Many Syrians saw a conspiracy in the Iraqi collapse, a play by Malki to win still more weapons from America, and by Iran to increase its regional importance as a counterbalance to Sunni jihadism. It’s more likely that the fall of Mosul was an inevitable result of the Iraqi state’s sectarian dysfunction. Shia soldiers felt themselves to be in foreign territory, and weren’t prepared to die in other people’s disputes. Many Sunni soldiers defected to ISIS.

ISIS’s control of the Iraq–Syria border, and especially of Mosul, was a game changer. The organisation collected the arms left behind by the Iraqi army, much of it high-quality weaponry inherited from the American occupation. Perhaps more importantly, it cleaned out Mosul’s banks. Then it returned to Syria in force, using the new weapons to beat back the starved FSA and the new money to buy loyalties.

The FSA and Islamic Front in Deir al-Zor, besieged by both Assad and ISIS for months, begged the United States for ammunition, warning the city was about to fall. Their plea was ignored, and the revolutionary forces (plus Jabhat al-Nusra) pulled out in July, leaving the province’s oil fields, and the Iraqi border area, in ISIS’s hands. ISIS reinforced itself in Raqqa and surged back into the Aleppo countryside and the central desert. Suddenly it dominated a third of Iraq and a third of Syria. In a tragic parody of the old Arab nationalist dream, it made good propaganda of erasing the Sykes–Picot border; in a tragic parody of Islamic history, it declared itself a Caliphate at the end of June.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 19, 2016 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Iraq, Syria

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The Prison

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blinding-absence-of-lightThis article about Arab prison writing was published at the National.

From ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ to ‘Orange is the New Black’, prison dramas fill the Anglo-Saxon screen. In the Arab world, you’re more likely to see them on the news. In recent months, for example, detainees of the Syrian regime have staged an uprising in Hama prison and been assaulted in Suwayda prison.

No surprise then that contemporary Arab writing features prisons so prominently, sometimes as setting, more often as powerful metaphor.

“About My Mother”, the latest novel by esteemed Moroccan writer Taher Ben Jelloun (who writes in French), is an affectionate but unromantic portrait of his parent trapped by incoherence. The old lady suffers dementia, mistaking times, places and people, but there is a freedom in her long monologues, the flow of memory and shifting scenes, torrents of speech which eventually infect the narration.

The novel is family memoir and social history as well as an experiment with form. Jelloun’s mother was married thrice, and widowed first at sixteen. At the first wedding, the attendants presenting the bride chorus: “See the hostage. See the hostage.”

Fettered by tradition and domestic labour, now by illness and age, she responds with superstition, fatalism and resignation. Her own confinement is echoed by memories of national oppression, first by the French, then by homegrown authorities. She learns to mistrust the police even before her son Taher’s student years are interrupted by eighteen months in army disciplinary camp, punishment for his low-level political activism. “That’s what a police state is,” the adult writes, “arbitrary punishment, cruelty and barbarity.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 9, 2016 at 10:56 pm