Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

End Appeasement

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In 2003 the US and Britain invaded and occupied Iraq. At the time Saddam Hussein, certainly a mass-murdering tyrant, was nevertheless contained and quiescent. Neither was there a popular revolution to defend (that happened in 1991, following the Kuwait war, and American troops watched passively). The Iraq adventure – sold on cooked intelligence – was a hubristic war of choice.

In 2013, haunted by Iraq, the West refused to enforce President Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ in Syria. Here there was not only a popular revolution but (at that point) a democratic opposition too, militarily weak but enjoying vast popular support. And President Assad was not only raping, torturing and killing on an industrial scale, but also releasing jihadists from prison.

What happened next? Calculating the red line had switched to a green light, Assad escalated his assault. Iran sent Shia jihadists to fight on his behalf. This, alongside Assad’s ‘scorched earth’ strategy, provoked a Sunni backlash. ISIS grew in the chaos. So the West – striking a symptom now but not the cause – bombed Syrian cities anyway, killing thousands. Then Russia stepped in to save the regime from collapse. Its pretext was the war on ISIS, but over 80% of its bombs fell on opposition-held areas – and on schools, hospitals and markets – nowhere near ISIS territory.

Today over half a million Syrians are dead, and over eleven million displaced. 90% of civilian dead were killed by the regime and its allies. So long as such impunity persists, Syria will continue to generate terror and war.

Meanwhile ISIS atrocities and the refugee outflow poison our politics here, contributing to phenomena including Brexit and Donald Trump. And there’ll be more poison coming. Assad’s original war on his people has already birthed a series of regional and global conflicts. Iran’s participation in sectarian cleansing – and its occupation of swathes of eastern Syria – almost guarantees a strong ISIS resurgence. For seven years the crisis has only escalated.

Beyond the potential fireworks of the next days, the West needs a sustained strategy to protect Syrian civilians. Unfortunately there is no evidence that western leaders (specifically President Trump) are interested in or capable of any sustained strategy.

This should worry us. As well as burning Syria, Putin has swallowed Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine. Alongside the false Iraqi analogy we should also consider the example of the 1930s, when serial appeasement led not to peace but total war.

(Update 14 April: At first sight it seems that the strike destroyed three chemical weapons production sites. So it’s a deterrent message against chemical atrocities – but still not strong enough to have made the last atrocity look like a miscalculation. By gassing the resistance out of Douma, Assad saved thousands of loyalist troops. So as expected, after all the noise, appeasement of the Assad-Iran-Russian extermination of Syrians continues.

Those fearing ‘world war three’ and ‘aggression’ can go back to sleep. It’s just Muslims being bombed, tortured, raped, and expelled now. Assad’s extermination will continue. The Russian-Iranian occupations will deepen. The west will continue killing civilians in its endless whack-a-mole ‘war on terror’. But no heroic state airfields will be in danger.

PS. with regard to the WW3 fear…. if people followed closely they’d know that a couple of months agao a pro-Assad force attacked the US-backed SDF in eastern Syria. An American plane destroyed the attacking force. Later it was discovered that dozens of the dead troops were Russians – both regular soldiers and Wagner mercenaries. Putin said nothing. The Russian media was quiet. Russia is strong only because it’s being appeased, and it knows it. Though collaboration may be a better word than appeasement.)

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 13, 2018 at 10:04 am

Posted in Russia, Syria

Diana Darke on Islam’s “moral economy”

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This interview/ review was first published at the National.

darkeThe Middle East “held a fascination for me since childhood. I mean, it’s where civilisation began.”

I was speaking to the British writer, historian and Arabist Diana Darke, whose second book, “The Merchant of Syria”, is published this month.

An engaging conversationalist, Diana told me about her life-long entanglement with the Arab world.

After studying Arabic in the 1970s, she spent six months in Beirut. This is when – through a series of cross-border visits – she first fell in love with Syria. “I was a 22-year-old blonde woman travelling alone and I was completely safe. Everybody was courteous and welcoming.” Damascus in particular captured her heart – “You breathe the history as you walk the streets” – so much so she wrote a Brandt guidebook to the city, and years later struggled through Syria’s notorious bureaucratic hurdles to buy and restore a 17th Century Old City home. Her first book – “My House in Damascus” (2016) – is an affecting account of this process.

For a while after the revolution and then the war erupted, the house was inhabited by friends displaced from the besieged Ghouta. Then, after a corrupt lawyer wrote a security report describing Diana as “a British terrorist”, the house was seized by profiteers. Undaunted, she returned in 2014 to reclaim it.

Her books interweave contemporary and historical events, providing a long-range perspective she deems “more important than ever. Because today everybody has short memories. The media works on immediacy – blood and gore. It distorts people’s view of the area, which across the centuries has been this incredibly open, tolerant, embracing place – and largely because of trade.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 6, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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The Shell

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This review of Mustafa Khalifa’s account of life and death in Syria’s Tadmor prison was first published at AlJumhuriya.

shell“The Shell” opens in 1982 with its young protagonist returning to Syria from his film studies in Paris. He rejects his girlfriend’s pleas to stay in France because his home needs him, and he misses its streets, and “in my own country I’ve got rights.”

He is arrested at Damascus airport. Only many years later does he learn the reason for his detention – reportedly he’d made “remarks disparaging to the president” at a Parisian party.

He is sent to the “Desert Prison” at Tadmor, or Palmyra, where the Assad regime consigned the Islamists and leftists who challenged it in the 1980s. Tadmor’s 10,000 inmates “contained the highest proportion of holders of university degrees in the entire country”. Very many died there. In 1980, a thousand were murdered in one day.

This is (with reservations) a true story. Mustafa Khalifa has transformed his own dreadful experience into a bitter classic of Syria’s burgeoning ‘prison literature’ genre. In prison, denied a pen, Khalifa practised “mental writing”. He made his mind a tape recorder, he explains, and then “downloaded” to paper over 13 years later, when he wasn’t entirely the same person. And he won’t download everything, he warns, for “that requires an act of confession”. So “The Shell” is a fictionalised memoir. Published in Beirut in 2008, it was widely admired in Arabic, and is now admirably translated to English by Paul Starkey.

It’s a tale of arbitrary victimisation. Accused of Muslim Brotherhood membership, the narrator tells a guard he’s not only of Christian family, but an atheist too. “But we’re an Islamic country!” declares his tormenter, and the beating recommences.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 5, 2018 at 9:18 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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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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Two Sisters

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This review was first published at the Guardian.

2 sistersAyan is nineteen and Leila only sixteen when their parents receive an unexpected email. “Please do not be cross with us, it was sooo hard for us to leave without saying goodbye.” They are travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. They want to help Muslims, they say, “everything from fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps.”

The names of these “Two Sisters” have been changed, but the story – related by Asne Seierstad, author of “The Bookseller of Kabul” – is entirely true. The girls are Norwegian-Somalis, from a devout but tolerant family. They’ve grown up and attended good schools in Baerum, “the Norwegian municipality with the highest percentage of millionaires and the greatest divide between rich and poor.” What disturbs in the account of their childhood is not its ‘foreignness’ but its comfortable ordinariness. Ayan in particular is a promising student. She develops crushes on boys and expresses indignation at women’s oppression. Then she transforms “from open and approachable to sarcastic, patronising and loud” – hardly an unusual adolescent trajectory.

Certainly the second-generation migrant experience of feeling culturally and racially ‘out of place’ creates an even more urgent need for self-definition. The sisters join Islam Net, a youth organisation seeking to cleanse Islam of the elders’ ‘ethno-cultural’ practices. The danger of such ‘purified’ religion is its potential transformation into an ethnicity-substitute, stridently political but stripped of its moral and spiritual core. Soon the sisters take to niqabs and – to their parents’ horror – adopt a snooty attitude to ‘kuffar’.

But all this – religious awakening, identity politics, conspiracy theories – is still standard teenage fare. What propels the girls from humdrum self-righteousness towards bit-parts in a war drama is their latching onto transglobal Salafi-Jihadism, a religious strain currently prominent on the internet and certain battle fronts.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 21, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Posted in book review

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Canadian Radio

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I was interviewed on ten different CBC radio programmes this morning (because Canada’s a big place). I was speaking about Syria, more specifically the eastern Ghouta, the ‘ceasefire’ theatre, uncontrolled escalation, and appeasement.

This is one of the interviews. I come in at 2:19:49.

Thanks to Dick Gregory’s obsessive thoroughness, you can also read a transcript of my words at his useful site, News of the Revolution in Syria. (Continuing the run of obsessive thoroughness, someone else – or was it a machine? – has translated Dick’s transcription into Spanish, here.)

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 1, 2018 at 8:59 pm

Posted in Radio, Syria

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The Ghouta Slaughter and Arab Responsibility

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This article was first published at the New Arab.

AFP photoIn 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.

Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.

Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.

Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.

But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 24, 2018 at 8:06 pm