Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

‘Criminals Kill While Idiots Talk’

leave a comment »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 19, 2016 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Iraq, Syria

Tagged with


with 3 comments


Mazen Darwish

It was a pleasure to visit Oslo, where my co-author Leila al-Shami and I were hosted by the Literaturhuset and the Syrian Peace Action Centre. Of course, not every moment was pleasurable. A couple of audience comments reminded us of the rising red-brown tide of counter-revolutionary propaganda spouted by people who describe themselves as ‘leftists’ as well as those honest enough to identify openly with the far right. Sam Hamad calls this ‘the fascism of the 21st Century‘. Karam Nachar (a member of the Local Coordination Committees and editor of al-Jumhuriya) gave a fascinating talk on the intersection of political and cultural activism in Syria. Afterwards a Nordic fascist stood up and said, “You claim President Assad is killing people, but is it surprising when the rebels are being armed by colonial powers?” Such a statement not only ignores (and justifies) the Russian and Iranian imperialist assault on Syria, but also encapsualtes the stunning (willed) ignorance of those who believe that the United States is trying to get rid of the Assad regime. After another talk, a Norwegian said he’d recently visited Damascus, “where everything was fine”, and explained how Assad is defending Christians. Anyone in central Damascus in possession of eyes and ears can hear the bombs falling and see the smoke rising from the suburbs. Fortunately the exemplary revolutionary (and great writer) Marcell Shehwaro, who happens to be a Christian, was there to put him in his place.

It’s distressing enough that the violence wielded against east Aleppo and other liberated areas of Syria has reached truly genocidal levels. In addition we are forced to observe the ugly spectacle of so-called ‘experts’, ‘leftists’ and ‘journalists’ cheerleading the slaughter. (One such is the grotesque far-rightist-posing-as-progressive Jill Stein.) In such a grim context, it was balm for the brain to spend time with Syrian (and Lebanese and Palestinian) revolutionaries in Oslo. Perhaps the greatest honour was meeting Mazen Darwish of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, a man of great principle and intelligence, who has paid a great price.

If you follow this link, you’ll see Mazen and I speaking about Aleppo on Norwegian TV.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 7, 2016 at 1:08 pm

No Knives in the Kitchens of this City

leave a comment »

noknivesThis review of the latest novel by Khaled Khalifa – an examination of Aleppo’s decades-long strangulation at the hands of the Assad regime – was published at the Guardian.

Were Syrians wise to revolt? Aren’t they worse off now?

Such questions misapprehend the situation. Syrians didn’t decide out of the blue to destroy a properly functioning state. The state had been destroying them, and itself, for decades. “No Knives in the Kitchens of this City”, the new novel by Khaled Khalifa, chronicles this long political, social and cultural collapse, the incubator of contemporary demons.

The story stretches back to World War One and forward to the American occupation of Iraq, but our narrator’s “ill-omened birth” coincides with the 1963 Baathist coup. The regime starts off as it means to continue. The maternity hospital is looted and emptied of patients. Soon the schools and universities are purged. Only pistol-toting loyalist professors survive. Public and individual horizons shrink as the president’s powers grow beyond all limits, through Emergency Law, exceptional courts, and three-hour news broadcasts covering “sacred directives made to governors and ministers”.

The novel follows a large and well-drawn cast – a family, their friends, enemies and lovers – back and forward across three generations. This multiple focus and enormous scope turns the setting – the city of Aleppo – into the novel’s central ‘character’. “Cities die just like people,” Khalifa writes. So ancient neighbourhoods are demolished, and lettuce fields give way to spreading slums.

“No Knives in the Kitchens of this City” won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. As in many of Mahfouz’s novels, Khalifa’s urban environment develops a power somewhere between metaphor and symbol: “The alley was witness to the destruction of my mother’s dreams, and the idea of this alley grew to encompass the length and breadth of the country.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 2, 2016 at 8:26 am

Posted in book review, Syria

Tagged with ,

subMedia and others

leave a comment »

I am interviewed (from 14 minutes to the end) in Requiem for Syria, a generally excellent and very sweary film by subMedia, an anarchist news channel in Canada. It’s particularly good to see their nuanced take on the (Kurdish) Democratic Union Party, or PYD. You can watch the episode here.

Henry Peck interviewed Leila al-Shami and me for Guernica magazine. You can read that here.

And Ursula Lindsey reviewed our book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’, alongside other books, for the Nation. That’s here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 22, 2016 at 5:59 pm

Posted in Syria

The Prison

leave a comment »

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.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 9, 2016 at 10:56 pm

Rising Up with Sonali

leave a comment »

It was a pleasure to be hosted on ‘Rising Up with Sonali’, an LA-based radio and TV show run by women. We discussed the High Negotiations Committee’s transition plan for Syria, the origins of the Assad dictatorship, and how the revolution erupted.

You can watch or just listen to it here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 7, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Posted in Radio, Syria, the Left

Another War Opens

with 7 comments


Jerablus residents returning home

This was first published at the New Arab.

On August 9th, Turkish President Erdogan visited Russian President Putin in Saint Petersburg. The two leaders cleared the air after a period of mutual hostility during which Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet and Russia had bombed Turkish aid convoys heading to Syria.

Clearly some kind of deal was struck at the meeting. Turkey now feels able to engage in robust interventions in northern Syria against both ISIS and the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish party-militia closely linked to the PKK, a group at war with the Turkish state. Except for the public recognition that Moscow is more relevant than Washington, it isn’t clear what Turkey has given Russia in return. Turkey has after all just supported the rebel push to break the siege of Aleppo.

Perhaps the earliest sign of the new reality was the Assad regime’s aerial bombardment of  PYD-controlled territory in Hasakeh. The PYD closed Aleppo’s Castello road to regime traffic in response.

A ceasefire was quickly agreed, but the clash was still a surprising turnaround. Assad had never bombed the PYD before. In fact the two had sometimes collaborated, not as a result of ideological proximity or fraternal feeling, but out of a ruthless pragmatism. The regime withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight in June 2012. The PYD inherited the security installations in these three cantons – now called Rojava, or western Kurdistan – and Assadist forces were freed up to fight the revolution elsewhere.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 31, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Kurds, Syria

Tagged with , , ,