Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Lesson from Iraq and Syria

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Everybody’s asking what lessons can be learned from Iraq twenty years after the invasion and occupation. But more can be learned by looking back further, to 1991.

I’ve just listened to the two episodes on the The Rest is Politics podcast in which Rory Stewart grills Alastair Campbell on the 2003 invasion. It’s a fascinating discussion which I recommend listening to, but there are some glaring omissions. First, there’s lots of talk about British military casualties and the effects on western politics in the years since (and good they mention the Iraq hangover’s role in the west’s criminal inaction in Syria), but not much talk on the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians. Next, and most importantly, there is no mention of the American decision in 1991, after driving Iraqi forces from Kuwait, to not only leave Saddam in office but to give him permission to use helicopter gunships to put down the uprising in the mainly Shia Iraqi south.

That was the time to remove Saddam from power, not as a remotely decided regime change, but in support of a population that was already rising against the tyrant. At that key moment, America (and its allies) decided to NOT protect the Iraqi population. America had soldiers right there in southern Iraq watching as Saddam’s forces massacred civilians and filled mass graves. The reason for this was probably fear that Iran would take advantage – but if this terrified decision makers then into such immoral behaviour, why in 2003 did British and American decision makers not bother even considering how Iran would take advantage of their invasion? Of course the end result of the 2003 invasion was the takeover of Iraqi institutions by Iranian-run militias. This was the key factor in the rise of ISIS and then the consequent war to destroy the so-called ‘caliphate’.

So in 1991, after destroying the Iraqi army and liberating Kuwait, the US chose to allow Saddam to slaughter the southern Shia. Then it imposed ruinous sanctions which destroyed the Iraqi middle class. Sectarianism became much worse as Saddam used loyal Sunni troops to massacre Shia, and as he turned to sectarian rhetoric to shore up his damaged rule. By 2003, when the US and Britain decided to invade for their own reasons, on their own timetable, it wasn’t surprising that the place soon collapsed in civil war.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 22, 2023 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Iraq, Syria

Palestinian Assadists

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There’s nothing more ridiculous than a Palestinian Assadist. For western Assadists, the Arab world is a blank on which to project ideological fantasies. But the Palestinians are part of this world. So what makes some repeat inhuman and absurd Assadist propaganda?

One Revolution, by Abosherkoshamalhawa

How has the Assad regime under father and son won such loyalty? Is it because in 1967 Hafez al-Assad, then defence minister, ordered the Syrian army to retreat from the Golan before any Israeli soldiers had turned up? So the Golan was handed to Israel, which then annexed it. Or is it because in 1973 Hafez al-Assad, now in absolute control, lost another war (not surprising given his endless purges and rabid sectarianization of the army) but spun the defeat as a historic victory and proof of his nationalist genius? Perhaps it’s because early in the Lebanese civil war, the Assad regime, which had loudly proclaimed its support for the Palestinian/Muslim/leftist alliance, intervened, but on the side of the pro-Israel Maronite Falangists to defeat the Palestinian/Muslim/Leftist alliance? Or could it be because throughout the 1980s the Assad regime slaughtered tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in camps in Lebanon, most notably at Tel Za’atar? Perhaps it’s because the regime under Bashar utterly destroyed Yarmouk camp, until then Syria’s most important centre of Palestinian culture. Or because the regime tortured and starved so many Palestinians to death during the Syrian Revolution. Or maybe Assadist Palestinians love the regime because its reign has seen all of Syria parceled out to foreign powers – Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, as well as the part it had already handed to Israel. Perhaps they believe the destruction of Syria’s cities, the murder of a million Syrians, and the expulsion of millions more, will in the end hasten the liberation of Palestine.

I should say that very many, probably most, Palestinians sympathise with the revolutionary Syrian people and not with the regime (and its allies) killing them. The more working class and more religious the Palestinian, the more this is the case (in my experience). And among liberal middle class activists there are many decent people who have shown solidarity with Syrians. Here’s a great statement by some of them from 2016. But some of the signatories were ostracised by other Palestinians for signing. Amongst the West Bank middle classes, including not a few faux-intellectuals, there’s plenty of Assadism. There’s also, for God’s sake, the statue of Saddam Hussein at Bir Zeit.

Why is it that this kind of Palestinian, the very kind who in previous decades we might have considered as being at the forefront of radical politics in the Arab world, has become enmeshed in such backward and inhumane modes of thought? It might be because the Palestinians haven’t experienced the revolutionary wave of the Arab Spring. This isn’t really their fault. They are stuck with the old nationalist narratives because they are stuck with a foreign occupation. Whereas their neighbours have moved on to postcolonial struggles. The foreign occupations have gone (or had gone, before Assad brought them back), so the struggle now is against those gangsters who seized control of the weakened countries the colonialists left behind.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 5, 2023 at 8:30 am

Posted in Palestine, Syria

‘It can’t get any worse.’ And then the earthquake…

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(A lightly edited version of this piece was published by Dawn Mena. At the bottom of this page there is information on who to donate to.)

Syrians wanted to be known for their contributions to civilization, as they were in ancient times. Syria is part of the Fertile Crescent where agriculture began, where the first cities were built, where the first states developed. The first alphabet (Ugaritic) was thought up in Syria. The country produced Roman emperors and, under the Umayyad dynasty, became the first centre of a new ‘Islamic world’. When Syrians achieved independence in the mid 20th Century, they hoped their modern accomplishments would echo the old. As a diverse, cultured, hardworking people who valued education, and who tended to excel in business when abroad, they had good reason to hope this would be the case.

But like so many post-colonial states lacking strong institutions, modern Syria soon fell into a cycle of military coup and counter-coup, ending with the Baathist dictatorship which has tortured and plundered the country and its people since 1963 – and under the Assad family since 1970. In 2011 Syrians rose in revolution against the Assad regime, and would have liked then to be recognized for their revolution’s successes. For years they resisted the most extreme oppression, and even under the bombs managed to build hundreds of democratic local councils. They also managed to avoid falling into sectarian civil war, despite the provocations. Sunni and Alawi villages didn’t attack each other. The sectarian massacres had to be organized from on high, first by the regime, then by ISIS, the regime’s dark protégé.

But the Assad regime was rescued by Russian and Iranian imperialists, and by the West’s appeasement of these imperialists. The democratic Syrian Revolution was defeated by force of arms. Worse, it was ‘orphaned’, to use Ziad Majed’s term. Beyond Syria it was ignored or misrepresented, particularly in the West, by the Kremlin’s leftist and rightist useful idiots and a wider public prepared to believe the worst of a mainly Arab and mainly Muslim people.

So now Syrians have become known internationally not for their history, nor their modern success, but for the extremity of their suffering. Their pains under dictatorship were bad enough, culminating in the 1982 Hama massacre when at least 20,000 were murdered, but multiplied after 2011 when the full force of local, regional and international counter-revolution was deployed against them.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 7, 2023 at 8:40 pm

Posted in Syria

Ukraine, Syria, Russia and ‘anti-imperialism’

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My good friend Mira Krampera interviewed me at length in Czech on Russian imperialism in Syria and Ukraine, and western and global responses to the crisis. Here’s the interview in Czech. And here is an English translation. And now… here it is in Polish. And now in English in Antidote Zine.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2022 at 8:16 am

Posted in Russia, Syria, Ukraine

The Left’s Syrian Failure

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I’ve found a video of me criticising the left’s failure to understand Syria. The crude binarism, the ignorance, the conspiracy theories, the war-on-terror rhetoric, the racism. The talk is from Oslo in late 2016, but I think it’s still very relevant today. Since 2016 the crisis has intensified and spread. Cities are burning in central Europe, climate change is galloping, and we’re still playacting oppositional politics. Here it is:

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 18, 2022 at 5:00 pm

Posted in leftism, Syria


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Over the last two weeks very many people have asked, is Putin rational? Worse, many have argued that Putin used to be a pragmatist, a master strategist, but that he’s suddenly gone mad.

Michael Flynn, Jill Stein, and Putin. Rightists and leftists united in useful idiocy.

In 1999 Putin was a little known prime minister aiming to become president. Then a series of bomb attacks destroyed residential blocks in Russian cities, killing hundreds. Many insiders blamed Putin and the FSB intelligence services for the attacks. One such insider was the defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who Putin’s men consequently murdered in London (in 2006). The FSB obstructed all attempts to investigate, so its guilt has never been proved. Observers must make up their own minds. There are many good sources of information on the topic. I first came across it in Masha Gessen’s excellent book “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”

What happened next is not controversial. Putin blamed the blasts on Chechen terrorists, and on that pretext reinvaded Chechnya. The Chechen capital Grozny was leveled and tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Was this behavior rational? Well, it worked. It made Putin very popular in Russia, easing his succession to the presidency. It established his reputation as a patriotic strong man. It quelled Chechen independence.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 8, 2022 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Russia, Syria, Ukraine

A Labyrinth of Suffering

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Kassem Eid in Moadamiya

(A slightly edited version of this article – which reviews books by Alia Malek, Rania Abouzeid, Kassem Eid, and Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple – was first published at Prospect Magazine. If you’re interested in more Syrian perspectives on the revolution and war, I recommend Wendy Pearlman’s oral history – my review here – Yassin al Haj Saleh’s brilliant political writing – my intro to the book is here, Samar Yazbek’s books – Woman in the Crossfire reviewed here, and The Crossing reviewed here – and of course our book Burning Country, which gives a grassroots account – information on that here.)

“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were twenty-three million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?” – Marwan Hisham

Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, the Assad regime has returned in recent months to key parts of the Syrian heartland. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death notices for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. President Putin calls for the regime’s ‘normalisation’ against this backdrop, and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, it seems he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.

The democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the dual price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. From the originary counter-revolutionary violence, secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom – Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian – while refugee flows and terror scares have infected our politics here. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.

Of the expanding shelf of Syria books, the most explanatory (or least ideological) tend to start from the diverse experiences of Syrians themselves. Four recently published books do just that, in very different ways.

Both chronologically and socially, “The Home that was Our Country”, by Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek, has the widest focus. It begins at World War One, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and Armenian genocide-survivors arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowning ‘notable’ and entrepreneur, shelters one refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French – whose mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an Alawi-dominated army. By turns generous host and manipulative patriarch, equally attached to tradition and modernity, Abdeljawwad is a Christian, school founder, and womaniser.

Every character in these densely populated pages is as complex. After grandmother Salma – a heavy smoker called ‘sister of men’ – moves to multicultural Damascus, the fates and interactions of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society-at-large, as the imperfect post-colonial democracy is succeeded by coups and counter-coups, then the Baath’s one-party state, and finally Hafez al-Assad’s one-man party. Now people (including Salma’s brother) disappear for the slightest dissidence. Their relatives fear asking too many questions. Religious coexistence, once a given, strains under the mutual fear and suspicion built into the new dispensation. Infrastructural stagnation accompanies seeping moral corruption: “If people disregarded anyone’s welfare but their own, it was in part because the state made Syrians feel that everyone was on his or her own; people were being pitted against one another.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 15, 2018 at 5:19 pm

Introducing al-Haj Saleh’s Impossible Revolution

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Yassin and Samira

Yassin and Samira

It was an honour to write the foreword to Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s indispensable collection of essays “The Impossible Revolution”. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. Yassin is perhaps Syria’s most important political dissident, and a thinker of global importance.

Here are some extracts from my foreword:

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a burningly relevant political thinker. Unlike most of his counterparts, he speaks not only from theory but from a lived experience of repression, revolution, counterrevolution, and war. Objective but never neutral, he is engaged and in tune with the rapid shifts and turns of his tormented society, urgently seeking answers to the most wide-ranging and inclusive of questions, and unearthing more, previously unthought-of questions as he goes.

His context is Syria, where 12 million are homeless, perhaps half a million dead. Syria which, six years into the upheaval, has become a truly global issue. The war Assad unleashed to marginalise and destroy a democratic opposition has given rise to a series of increasingly complicated conflicts, often bearing ethnic or sectarian tones. Fanned by overlapping, sometimes competing foreign interventions, these conflicts have infected the region and the world in turn. Regional and international imperialisms are feasting on Syria. Battle lines and forced demographic changes are fueling a hunger to redraw the maps. The spectre of Syrian refugees and/or terrorists, meanwhile, is shaping America’s domestic politics and helping undo the European Union. As hopes for freedom and prosperity are crushed, new strains are injected into old authoritarianisms, and 21st Century forms of nativism are taking root, west and east.

Yassin speaks from the heart of this turmoil. Yet this in your hand is the first book-length English translation of his work.

It’s been a long time coming.

“They simply do not see us,” he laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running against all the evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime-change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.

Purveyors of such myths, the ideologues and regime-embedded journalists, the ‘experts’ who don’t speak more than a few words of Arabic, often seem to rely on each other to confirm and develop their theories. They brief politicians, they dominate opinion pages, learned journals and TV panels. And we the public, to a large extent, rely on them too. We see through their skewed lens, through a certain mythic framework which ‘covers’ the Syrian revolution only in the sense of hiding it from view. As a result we are unable either to offer solidarity to this most profound and thoroughgoing of contemporary social upheavals, or to learn any lessons from it.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 20, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Syria Films

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I’ve updated this post with links to Syrian-made films, over the fold…

I was interviewed for two documentary films on the Syrian revolution and war. I recommend both (and not because I’m in them).

The Impossible Revolution, by Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan, named after Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s essential book, is particularly good. It tells the story primarily with Syrian voices, and is beautifully made. For those interested, it also investigates the leftist failure to understand or engage with the revolution. You can watch or buy it on Amazon (here’s the UK link), or on Vimeo, here.

National Geographic’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, by Sebastian Junger, is also very good. And now on YouTube:

And…. look over the fold for Adnan Jetto’s ‘Jalila’, a Syrian-made documentary about women in the revolution.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 28, 2018 at 4:58 pm

A Letter Concerning Afrin

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Turkish-allied Syrian rebel militia destroying the statue of Kaveh, a figure of symbolic importance in Kurdish culture

A group of western leftists wrote a letter calling for US intervention on behalf of the PYD in Afrin. Many of these people never noticed the crimes committed by Assad and his allies in the rest of Syria. Many of them slandered the Free Syrian Army as tools of imperialism when they begged (largely in vain) for anyone at all to send them weapons to defend their communities. Some signatories are genocide-deniers. If their engagement with the PYD was in some way critical, and if it was matched by critical solidarity with the larger Syrian revolution, it wouldn’t look so much like fetishisation.

Anyway. I’ve written (in haste – no doubt I’ve missed things out) what I think is a more balanced letter:

We deplore the historical persecution of Kurds (and other minority groups) by regimes in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. We call on all concerned, in particular the Syrian revolutionary opposition, to unambiguously recognise the Kurdish right to self-determination in areas where Kurds are a majority.

While recognising the extreme difficulty of acting on principle when lives are at stake, we call on both the Syrian opposition and the PYD to carefully consider their alliances with regional and international imperialists. What appears tactically intelligent may turn out to be strategically disastrous.

We condemn the Turkish state’s self-interested intervention in Kurdish-majority Afrin, as we condemn the self-interested interventions of Russia, Iran and the United States in other parts of Syria.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 24, 2018 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Kurds, leftism, Syria

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billI talked to Bill Fletcher on his WPFW show ‘Arise’ about the Syrian Revolution, the current state of the various wars born out of Assad’s war on the people, the west’s role, and western cultural myopeia.

You can listen to it here. And you can read a transcript of my comments at News of the Revolution in Syria.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 22, 2018 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Radio, Syria, Talking

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Genocide Denial

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I recently came across an article written in 2009 by Marko Attila Hoare. It concerns the self-absorbed nonsense of some academics and many prominent leftists (Chomsky, Tariq Ali, etc) in the west concerning the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. This nonsense often amounted to outright propaganda on behalf of the Milosevic regime, and therefore to genocide-denial.

The article could have been written today with regard to the leftist denial of the counter-revolutionary extermination of Syrians. It could have been written in the 1970s, when Chomsky was denying the Khmer Rouge’s extermination of millions of Cambodians, or in the period from the 1920s to the 1960s when many western leftists denied or downplayed exterminations and genocides perpetrated by the Soviet Union and Maoist China.

One reason for this ugliness is the left’s general tendency to identify with authoritarian states rather than with oppressed people. Another is its ridiculous (and west-centric) binarism, in which the enemy of its enemy is its friend (this of course must be connected to a profoundly illogical and fact-free analysis – in Syria, for example, the US, Russia and Iran have more often collaborated than been opposed). And Hoare correctly points to a further motivator: racism.

It is the racism of those who view their own Western society, and in particular their own political or intellectual circle, as being composed of real people; of being the real world. Whereas they view war-torn Bosnia (or Darfur or Iraq) as not being the real world; of not being inhabited by real people with real lives and feelings.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 22, 2018 at 3:58 pm

Media, Propaganda and Truth

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Ailean Beaton asked me some very interesting questions concerning “the partisanisation of basic facts” in western media (and social media) coverage of Syria. My responses describe a general “cultural slide involving populism, conspiracism and the dominance of powerful fictions.”

You can read the interview here.

And while you’re visiting…

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 19, 2018 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Syria, Talking

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Talking Trump with Sonali

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It was a pleasure (again) to speak to Sonali Kolhatkar on her Rising Up With Sonali show. We talked about Trump’s strike on three chemical weapons sites in Syria, and the outrage this caused among ‘anti-imperialists’ (as well as American strikes which killed thousands of civilians, but weren’t noticed, and the daily Assad-Russian-Iranian extermination of Syrians, which isn’t either). You can watch, or just listen, by following this link.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 18, 2018 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Radio, Russia, Syria, Talking


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This extract (with an introduction) from our “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” was published by the Daily Beast a couple of years ago. It describes the transformation from unarmed revolution to armed resistance, and the Assad regime’s central (and deliberate) role in provoking the change.

fsaThe Bashar al-Assad regime has burned Syria with artillery, Scud missiles, barrel bombs and sarin gas. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, it has committed “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.” Assad is responsible for the lion’s share of the violence, but criminal and authoritarian elements in the opposition’s Free Army and Islamic Front have contributed to the terror too. And the third force—the transnational Sunni jihadists, particularly ISIS—has murdered surrendered soldiers, opposition activists, journalists and gays, while subjecting religious minorities to forcible conversion or sexual slavery. Syria’s ancient heritage—most famously Palmyra—has been pulverized. Somewhere between 300,000 and half a million Syrians are dead. Almost twelve million have been displaced. None of this is pretty.

At the same time, coexistent with the horror, some Syrian communities are practicing democracy, organizing themselves for practical rather than ideological purposes, debating everything, publishing independent newspapers, running independent radio stations, and producing art, music and writing on a massive scale. This much more positive story is largely unknown outside the country. And that’s one reason why I, a British-Syrian novelist, and Leila al-Shami, a British-Syrian activist, wrote our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.

One of the supposed reasons for the American and British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was to bring democracy to the Arabs. In Syria in 2016 there are over 400 local councils, most of them democratically elected, and most of us in the West have never heard of them.

Revolutionary Syrian voices have been drowned by war noise, inaccurate grand narratives and simplistic assumptions. Currently under full-scale Russian and Iranian military assault, they are now in danger of elimination. We may well end up with Putin’s preferred choice—only Assad and the jihadists left standing. So for the historical record, we should know that another alternative existed, and one of rare intelligence and courage. And for our children’s sake, we need to better understand the escalating Syrian tragedy, and to encourage our leaders to do better.

The extract below is excerpted from the chapter “Militarization and Liberation”:

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 17, 2018 at 11:29 pm

Posted in Burning Country, Syria