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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

A Syrianized World

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fascistsAlongside the chants of ‘Blood and Soil’, ‘You Will Not Replace Us’, ‘White Lives Matter’ and ‘Fuck You Faggots’, some of the privileged fascists rallying at Charlottesville, Virginia gave their opinions on the Syrian issue. “Support the Syrian Arab Army,” they said. “Fight the globalists. Assad did nothing wrong. Replacing Qaddafi was a fucking mistake.”

It’s worth noting that these talking points – support for Assad and the conspiracy theories which absolve him of blame for mass murder and ethnic cleansing, the Islamophobia which underpins these theories, the notion that ‘globalists’ staged the Arab Revolutions, and the idea that the Libyan revolution was entirely a foreign plot – are shared to some extent or other by most of what remains of the left.

In 2011 I expected that Syria’s predominantly working-class uprising against a sadistic regime that is both neo-liberal and fascist would receive the staunch support of leftists around the world. I was wrong. Britain’s Stop the War coalition marched furiously when it seemed America might bomb the regime’s military assets, but ignored America’s bombing of Jihadist groups and Syrian civilians, as well as Assad’s conventional and chemical attacks on defenceless people, and Russian and Iranian war crimes. Key figures in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party followed the StW line. Diane Abbott called the police when Syrians attempted to speak at a StW event. During the final assault on liberated Aleppo last winter, Emily Thornberry suggested to Channel 4 News that Assad protected Christians, that the problem would be solved if ‘jihadists’ left, and that the Assadist occupation of Homs was an example to be emulated – never mind that liberated Aleppo contained democratic councils, that its revolutionaries included people of all religions and sects, or that 80% of Assad’s troops in that battle were foreign Shia jihadists organised by Iran – nor that the vast majority of Homs’s people remain in refugee camps, too terrified to return. John McDonnell gave a speech in Trafalgar Square on May Day under a Stalinist flag and the Baathist flag – that’s the flag of a previous genocide and the flag of a genocide still continuing. It wasn’t him who put the flags up, but he didn’t ask for them to be taken down.

In 2011 I should have known better. Leftists had long made excuses for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the genocidal occupation of Afghanistan. Noam Chomsky, to pick one, made excuses for Pol Pot and Milosevic (today, of course, he rehearses the conspiracy theories which claim Assad’s innocence of sarin gas attacks, and channels like Democracy Now  repeatedly offer him and others a platform to do so).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Syria, the Left, UK, USA

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We Crossed A Bridge and it Trembled

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This review first appeared at the Guardian. (I would recommend my and Leila’s book Burning Country as the best social, political, historical and cultural contextualiser of the Syrian Revolution, and Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution as the best analysis – and one of the best political books you’ll ever read about any topic – but I would certainly recommend this remarkable book for its method. The entire story is told through the voices of Syrians themselves.)

bridgeEveryone talks about Syrians, but very few are actually talk to them. Perhaps that’s why Syria’s revolution and war have been so badly misunderstood in the West – variously as a US-led regime-change plot, or an ancient Sunni-Shia conflict, or a struggle between secularism and Jihadism.

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” bucks the trend. Here the story is told entirely through the mouths of Wendy Pearlman’s Syrian interviewees, hundreds of them, from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, Ismailis and Druze, rural and urban, middle-class and poor. These best of all possible informants – the people who made the events, and who suffer the consequences – provide not only gripping eyewitness accounts but erudite analysis and sober reflection.

The introduction, alongside a concise overview of developments from 1970 to the present, describes Pearlman’s method. She interviewed refugees (who are therefore overwhelmingly anti-regime) in locations stretching from Jordan to Germany. And she interviewed in Arabic, enabling “a connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter.” The result is testament both to Syrian expressive powers and the translation’s high literary standard.

These heart-stopping tales of torment and triumph are perfectly enchained, chronologically and thematically, to reflect the course of the crisis. They begin with life under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, “not a government but a mafia”, when children were trained to lie for their families’ security. “It was a state of terror,” says Ilyas, a dentist. “Every citizen was terrified. The regime was also terrified.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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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

Hell on Earth

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Sebastian Junger has made a film for National Geographic on the Syrian revolution and war. The New Yorker has a review of it here. I gave Sebastian a long interview for the film, and I’m told a lot of it has been used. I haven’t seen the film yet, only the trailer, which contains some unfortunate editing. I say: “In Syria the choice is either Assad or ISIS,” and that’s taken out of context. It’s the opposite of what I believe. Assad boosted ISIS because he wanted people to think the choice is binary. Of course the real alternative to Assad and his creations is democracy, dignity, and social justice.

A friend has seen the film and says “it’s the best documentary available on Syria.” I’m looking forward to it. It seems the clumsy editing of my voice in the trailer is not repeated in the film itself.

The trailer can be seen here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 11, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Syria

Critique of Left Readings of Syria

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When I still talked about such things, I delivered this critique of the left and how wrong it went over the Syrian revolution. In Oslo last year.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2017 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Syria, Talking

The Raqqa Diaries

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samerAn edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.

In March 2013, Free Syrian Army fighters, alongside the al-Qaida-linked militia Jabhat al-Nusra, liberated Raqqa, a city in Syria’s east. Crowds assaulted the dictator’s statues. Detainees were set free. A hip-hop concert was held. Activists hotly debated the shape of the democracy to come. They set up a local council. Nusra set up a Sharia court.

Then ISIS, or Daesh, an Iraqi-led group, split from Nusra. It was contained for a while, until the Free Army in Raqqa was weakened, battered by airstrikes and “busy fighting the regime elsewhere”.

In January 2014 Daesh captured the city. “Snatching it away from the revolutionaries who had sacrificed everything to liberate it,” the jihadists immediately established rule by fear. Some people fled, some submitted, and some resisted as best they could.

samer1“The Raqqa Diaries” are as powerful and fast-paced as a thriller, but this is brutal non-fiction, plainly and urgently told. Their author, risking his life to break Daesh’s communications siege, goes by the pseudonym ‘Samer’. His group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC’s Mike Thomson, and a barebones version of the book was read on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Raqqa is a generally conservative but deeply civilised city, its roots stretching to the Babylonian period. Samer describes its people as “humble” and friendly.

Under Assad, Samer’s father was detained for muttering against corruption. The family was forced to exchange its wealth for his freedom.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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Dancing in Damascus

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wissam

by Wissam al-Jazairy

This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.

Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?

“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.

Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.

Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.

souad-al-jundi

by Souad al-Jundi

“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”

As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 27, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Posted in book review, Cinema, Culture, Syria

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