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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Turkey’ Category

Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy

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This was published first at The New Arab.

ocalan

‘There is no life without the leader’. PYD militants raise Abdullah Ocalan’s picture in Raqqa

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.

As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.

At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.

As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.

At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.

The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 25, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Syria, Turkey

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‘Democratic Confederalism’ or Counter-Revolution?

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ocalan

Abdullah Ocalan (the Turkish ‘c’ is pronounced ‘j’)

This is my latest article for al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab.

The first fact is this: the Kurds have suffered a terrible historical injustice. The Arabs were rightly enraged when Britain and France carved bilad al-Sham (the Levant) into mini-states, then gave one of them to Zionism. But the post-Ottoman dispensation allowed the Kurds no state at all – and this in an age when the Middle East was ill with nationalist fever. Everywhere the Kurds became minorities in hyper-nationalist states.

Over the years an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in Turkish-Kurdish fighting, most of them Kurds. In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussain’s genocidal Anfal campaign murdered somewhere between 50 and 200,000 Iraqi Kurds. In Syria, where Kurds formed about 10% of the population, or around two million people, it was illegal to teach in Kurdish. Approximately 300,000 Kurds (by 2011) were denied citizenship by the state, and were therefore excluded from education and health care, barred from owning land or setting up businesses.

While oppressing Kurds at home, President Hafez al-Assad (Bashaar’s father) cultivated good relations with Kurdish groups abroad. This fitted into his regional strategy of backing spoilers and irritants as pawns against his rivals.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 22, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Kurds, Syria, Turkey

Tagged with , ,

Shouting on TRT World

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There’s an urgent need for discussion between revolutionary Syrians and Syrians who are scared of the revolution. The two sides need to hear each other. Alawis and others have good reason to fear aggressive forms of Islamism and the possibility of generalised ‘revenge’ against their community when the regime falls.

The TV argument below, of course, is not the discussion required. On the revolution’s side, for a start, there’s me, resident in Scotland and not at all a ‘proper’ Syrian revolutionary. And on the other side is an outright propagandist called Ammar Waqqaf, a deliberate purveyor of misinformation and a slanderer of the Syrian people.

Where are the  serious representatives of anti-revolution Syrians? The ones who are able to recognise the genocidal slaughter and displacement suffered by their Sunni neighbours? The ones who don’t (pretend to) consider an imperialist invasion of the country to be an expression of sovereignty? The sad truth is that such people are silenced and eliminated by the regime, which has silenced and eliminated oppositional or just independent Alawis over decades.

The shouting starts at 4.37.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 16, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Russia, Syria, Turkey

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The Salam School

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DSCI0221This was published at the National.

Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.

Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a

the train to syria

the train to syria

result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.

They also asked why I was going. The answer: I was lucky enough to know a group of committed and talented Syrian-Americans, including Chicago-based architect and writer Lina Sergie Attar, interviewed below, founder of the Karam Foundation. Karam delivers aid and opportunity to war-struck Syrian communities, and I was on my way to participate in its Zeitouna programme.

How do you act usefully in the face of a tragedy which unfolds on an incomprehensible scale? Syrians and their friends were forced to address this question as Assad’s genocidal repression transformed the popular revolution into a civil war, and as an unthinkable third of the population were made refugees. Every city except two has crumbled in whole or in part under bombardment. Ancient mosques and churches have been reduced to dust. The country’s multicultural social fabric appeared to dissolve.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Return from the Border

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I was interviewed by ITV Border about my trip to the Turkish/Syrian border, where I was working with the Karam Foundation.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 26, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Syria, Turkey

In Atmeh Camp

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Malek

Malek

This account of my visit to Atmeh camp was published at Foreign Policy. In deference to their new paywall, I’ve waited a week before posting it here, and I haven’t posted the edited version, which for a change is better than the original, and which includes a brief commentary on the proposed intervention after the chemical weapons attacks. (I think you can read a certain number of articles at FP before paying – though if you can pay, do. FP is a great resource. I may give up my subscription to the sadly orientalist London Review of Books and subscribe here instead).

At the north eastern corner of the Mediterranean lies what used to be called the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Historically part of Syria, the French Mandate awarded the territory to Turkey in the late 1930s. The Turks named the area Hatay, after the Hittites. The extreme Turkish nationalism of the time held that the Hittites, like the Sumerians and other ancient peoples, had been proto-Turks, and that the Hittite ruins in the area justified its annexation to the Kemalist republic. The Arab population of the province produced their own mythology in response. Zaki Arsuzi, one of the founding ideologues of the Ba‘ath Party (its slogan: One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message), did much of his agitating in Antioch, the provincial capital. Ba‘athism appealed particularly to non-Sunni minorities throughout the Levant. Today a debased version of the creed provides ideological cover for Syrian president Bashaar al-Assad’s campaign of slaughter.

Reyhanli (Reyhaniyeh in Arabic) is a town in Hatay right on the Turkish-Syrian border. Its population of Turks and Alawi, Sunni and Christian Arabs has recently doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The crisis has boosted the local economy but also brought tragedy – a car bombing on May 11th, almost certainly the work of Assad’s intelligence services, killed 51 people. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Turkey’s history.

A hotel in Reyhanli served as my base in late June while I worked with refugees on the other side of the border. A pleasant respite from the dust and trauma of the camp, it felt something like the setting of a Graham Greene novel. Saleem Idriss, chief of staff of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, wandered in one evening. Expatriate Syrians, charity workers or weapons smugglers, smoked shishas in the courtyard. And an American called Eric, with no surname, introducing himself as ‘a researcher’, visited the charity offices outside.

The back streets feature Syrian women being promenaded in their wheelchairs. It happens frequently that you shake a hand and realise that fingers are missing. One of my first friends there was Malek, an eleven-year-old boy from rural Hama with a big smile, a scar on his cheek, and only one leg. The hotel staff included Muhammad from Kafr Zeita, who escaped Syria after a year and a half’s imprisonment and torture. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 5, 2013 at 9:46 am

More Radio

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I was interviewed on KCRW’s To the Point. The programme focuses on Syria, Libya and foreign intervention. I was in august company – Anthony Shadid, New York Times correspondent and author of the wonderfully-written book on Iraq, Night Draws Near; as well as Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine. I’m on between 14.40 and 23.00, and then again from 36.00 to 37.15.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 16, 2011 at 1:38 am

Selmiyyeh?

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pic by Rex Features

This piece was published at Foreign Policy.

Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” — “peaceful, peaceful” — was one of the Tunisian revolution’s most contagious slogans. It was chanted in Egypt, where in some remarkable cases protesters defused state violence simply by telling policemen to calm down and not be scared. In both countries, largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes succeeded in splitting the military high command from the ruling family and its cronies, and civil war was avoided. In both countries, state institutions proved themselves stronger than the regimes that had hijacked them. Although protesters unashamedly fought back (with rocks, not guns) when attacked, the success of their largely peaceful mass movements seemed an Arab vindication of Gandhian nonviolent resistance strategies. But then came the much more difficult uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.

Even after at least 1,300 deaths and more than 10,000 detentions, according to human rights groups, “selmiyyeh” still resounds on Syrian streets. It’s obvious why protest organizers want to keep it that way. Controlling the big guns and fielding the best-trained fighters, the regime would emerge victorious from any pitched battle. Oppositional violence, moreover, would alienate those constituencies the uprising is working so hard to win over: the upper-middle class, religious minorities, the stability-firsters. It would push the uprising off the moral high ground and thereby relieve international pressure against the regime. It would also serve regime propaganda, which against all evidence portrays the unarmed protesters as highly organized groups of armed infiltrators and Salafi terrorists.
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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 11, 2011 at 11:48 am

Posted in Sectarianism, Syria, Turkey

The Earth Shifts

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Following the Israeli act of terrorism in the Mediterranean, calls for the siege of Gaza to be lifted have come from some unlikely quarters, including the British prime minister. A nervous Husni Mubarak has temporarily opened Egypt’s border with Gaza. More ships are being prepared to break the siege, including one organised by European Jewish groups. Norway has cancelled a military seminar because an Israeli officer was part of the programme. Swedish dock workers will block Israeli ships and goods for a week. The British trades union UNITE has voted to boycott Israeli companies. A French cinema chain has pulled an Israeli film and will instead show a film about Rachel Corrie (murdered by Zionism while protecting a Palestinian home from demolition). Nicaragua has suspended ties with Israel. The rock groups Gorillaz, the Pixies and the Klaxons have added their names to the growing list of musicians (Santana, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott Heron..) who refuse to perform in the apartheid state. But the big story, the earthshaking story, is Turkey. Idrees has already posted the video below at PULSE, but I must repost it here. It shows the expanding demonstrations in Turkey, with Turks waving Palestinian, Hamas and Hizbullah flags, and even pictures of Imad Mughniyeh. It can’t be stressed enough how important this is. After a century of bitter estrangement, Turks and Arabs are coming together. This is a game changer.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 6, 2010 at 12:16 am

Posted in Palestine, Turkey, Zionism

Tagged with

The Freedom Flotilla and Guardian Propaganda

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by Steve Bell

Dear Sir/ Madam
 
I appreciate the Guardian allowing a range of voices to be heard on the issue of Israel-Palestine, but I find straightforward propaganda in the news (as opposed to opinion) pages very worrying indeed. I refer to the ‘story’ by Harriet Sherwood – “Flotilla raid: Turkish jihadis bent on violence attacked troops, Israel claims”.
 
In Muslim cultures, it is common to refer to those who have died for a cause or who have been killed by state terrorism as ‘martyrs’. In the hospitals of Palestine, one might hear people crying – “My baby has been martyred! They’ve martyred my mother! My grandfather was prepared for martyrdom, and now it’s happened!” This does not mean that the baby, mother or grandfather in question were trained-up, armed Wahhabi-nihilists.
 
Sherwood’s ‘story’, which the Guardian positioned so prominently, is based on the assumption that when grieving Turks use the word ‘martyr’ they mean ‘Islamist suicide bomber’, that they mean what we decide they mean. This is not journalism but propaganda. Its purpose is not to inform readers concerning facts or to give more background on Turkish culture and Turkish responses to the attack on their ships, but to whitewash the piracy and murder committed by Israel in international waters. Sherwood’s sources are “the Israeli government” and Colonel Richard Kemp, who Sherwood doesn’t tell us is a well-known pro-Israel propagandist.
 
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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Myth-Making

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We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 11, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Arabism, Egypt, History, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Turkey, Zionism

Tagged with ,

What Comes Next

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This is the extended version of a piece published in today’s Sunday Herald.

Erdogan reacts to his war criminal neighbour

A strange calm prevails on the Middle Eastern surface. Occasionally a wave breaks through from beneath – the killing of an Iranian scientist, a bomb targetting Hamas’s representative to Lebanon (which instead kills three Hizbullah men), a failed attack on Israeli diplomats travelling through Jordan – and psychological warfare rages, as usual, between Israel and Hizbullah, but the high drama seems to have shifted for now to the east, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arab world (with the obvious exception of Yemen) appears to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next.

Iraq’s civil war is over. The Shia majority, after grievous provocation from takfiri terrorists, and after its own leaderhip made grievous mistakes, decisively defeated the Sunni minority. Baghdad is no longer a mixed city but one with a large Shia majority and with no-go zones for all sects. In their defeat, a large section of the Sunni resistance started working for their American enemy. They did so for reasons of self-preservation and in order to remove Wahhabi-nihilists from the fortresses which Sunni mistakes had allowed them to build.

The collapse of the national resistance into sectarian civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the natural way of things. It is the task of the imperialised to rectify these weaknesses in order to be victorious.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 31, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Myth-Making

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We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 17, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Turkey, Zionism

Tagged with

Syria’s Regional Alliances

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CreativeSyria (see the link on the left) organises a ‘Creative Forum’ where bloggers consider an aspect of Syrian politics. This time the topic is Syria’s regional alliances. My contribution, which I copy below, is on CreativeSyria along with several more opinions. I think Wassim’s is excellent, far more comprehensive than mine. But here’s mine:

For a time the pattern of alliances in the Middle East was organised into monarchical-conservative and republican-nationalist camps. Following the 1991 Kuwait war, there was a realignment which pitted a Saudi-Syrian-Egyptian alliance against a disgraced and battered Baathist Iraq and its perceived allies such as the Jordanian monarchy. Because the Damascus Declaration countries were the three key Arab mashreq states, some pretence at the centrality of Arab alliances in the region was still possible. But since the 2003 invasion and subsequent dismantling of Iraq a new set up seems firmly established. On one side stands Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas; on the other Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14th Lebanese, Mahmoud Abbas, and (implicitly) Israel.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 3, 2007 at 11:56 am