Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

A Labyrinth of Suffering

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qusaii-side-nov2013

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

Is Corbynism anti-Semitic?

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corbynIs Corbynism anti-Semitic? My answer won’t please many people.

It won’t please those who believe that criticism of Israel, and especially questioning Israel’s ‘right to exist’, is inherently anti-Semitic.

I think it’s important to recognise that Israel has existed for seven decades, and that therefore several generations of Israeli Jews exist. These people are no longer Poles, Germans, Russians or Iraqis. They are Israelis, and they have no other home than Israel. Any solution which involves driving them out is no solution. (But this is a straw man; a large majority of Palestinians recognise that Jews are staying in Israel – and even if they didn’t recognise it, they are in no position to drive the Jews out. What Palestinians are struggling for is either a small state of their own next to Israel, or equal rights within Israel-Palestine.)

But I don’t believe it is inherently anti-Semitic to question Israel’s right to exist. I don’t believe any state has an inherent ‘right to exist’. I believe rights belong to human beings, not to states. Anarchists, for instance, question (or simply oppose) the existence of all states without exception. I certainly question the existence of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state, just as I question the existence of Syria as an ‘Arab’ republic, and of Iran as an ‘Islamic’ republic. If we must have states, I think they should belong to everyone who lives within them, not only to members of a particular religion, ethnicity or ideology. Israel is particularly open to criticism because it was founded less than a century ago on a massive ethnic cleansing, and because, under its apartheid-like dispensation, roughly half of its subjects are disenfranchised in some way or other.

So that alienates the Zionists. But my answer will also upset Corbynites, because it’s clear to me that Corbynism is indeed anti-Semitic. This is because Corbynism substitutes demonology for analysis; that is, it sees the world in terms of goody and baddy states. The USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia are baddies, and Iran and Russia are goodies. Once such a simplistic schema is operational, it becomes very easy to overgeneralise, and thus to erase reality. In this way the predominantly working-class revolution against fascism in Syria, a movement for democracy and social justice, was understood simply as a US-Zionist-Saudi plot against a glorious resistance regime. Syrian revolutionaries were cast as, at best, innocent children manipulated by the devilish white man, or, at worst, savage jihadist barbarians. This is how leftism (or at least the parody version which we see in the 21st Century) unconsciously applies racism in order to serve fascism and (Russian and Iranian) imperialism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2018 at 12:27 pm

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Disoriental

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disorientalMy review of this excellent novel was first published at the Guardian.

From a fertility clinic waiting room, a single woman seated between couples – Kimiâ – recounts her family history. She promises at the start to follow “the natural fits and starts” of memory, and her narrative jumps across a time scale from a grandmother’s birth in a late 19th Century harem at the foot of the Alborz mountains (the great-grandfather’s thirtieth child), through Kimiâ’s Tehran childhood, to her present incarnation as a twenty-five-year-old French-Iranian punk fan.

“Disoriental”, Négar Djavadi’s sophisticated debut novel, teems with fully-realised characters. Kimiâ ’s immediate relatives – her parents Darius and Sara (both political activists), her big sisters, and uncles numbered one to six – are the most closely observed.

Djavadi’s beguiling tale-telling, cynical and lyrical by turns, extends to an account of Iranian history. Imperialist assaults, coups, revolts, and waves of repression crash against the steady background of a “phallocratic society”. Before Khomeini and compulsory veiling there was Shah Reza Pahlavi, the “pauper-turned-king” who “used a special militia to tear the veils from women’s heads.”

Kimiâ  (meaning ‘alchemy’) grows up a tomboy in a country which doesn’t recognise the concept. Nor – though it tolerates transexuality – does official Iran accept the existence of homosexuality. President Ahmadinejad is quoted: “We don’t have this phenomenon.”

But for now sexuality is the least of Kimiâ ’s problems, as first the Shah’s police and then the mullahs target her parents. The family escapes, but there’s no happy ending. Kimiâ ’s father is broken in exile, avoiding the metro escalator because it’s “for them” (the French). Djavadi treats the immigrant condition with intelligence and compassion, exploring how to integrate into a culture “you have to disintegrate first”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 28, 2018 at 10:54 am

Posted in book review, France, Iran

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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

Arise! Again…

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I talked to Bill Fletcher on the Arise! show about the Assad-Russian assault on Deraa in south west Syria, the inevitable continuation of war, relations between the various occupying powers, the contradictions of US policy, the Israel-Iran clash, the collaboration of all states against the revolution … and so on.

You can listen to it here.

(I also talked to Bill in April. You can hear that here.)

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 26, 2018 at 8:32 pm

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The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor

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unexpectedJoseph Noor, Syria’s premier heart surgeon and the only man in Lattakia to live in a two-storey home, is experiencing a learning moment: “Living in a dictatorship meant that throughout his life, he, just like the president, could dictate his wishes to anyone who had the misfortune of having less power than him, and he now wondered whether this sort of power could turn any man into a monster.”

This necessary connection between macro and micro is only one of many wonderful things in Rana Haddad’s quirky, very readable, and slightly odd novel. Contradictions abound – Syrian ‘socialism’ solidifies bourgeois snobbery while ‘secularism’ intensifies religious division. Characters sometimes manage to squeeze their various prejudices into gnomic phrases, like: “Only an Armenian would think photography is a career, that and hairdressing.”

The novel’s chief protagonist, Dunya (Joseph’s daughter), is an unruly element in Hafez al-Assad’s totalitarian society of the 1980s, so unruly that she dares state in Qowmiyya (‘nationalism’) class that she doesn’t like the Baath Party. To preserve her safety and her father’s reputation, Dunya is sent to her grandparents in England, where people enjoy “a freedom that caused them to lose all interest in politics”.

Wherever she is, Dunya keeps finding unexpected (and in the eyes of society, inappropriate) love objects – a poor fisherman’s son, a camera, a Muslim, eventually a person of the ‘wrong’ gender. This last love object is found in Aleppo, where the story shifts gear towards the genre of magical (and slightly dreamlike) tale.

I recommend “The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor” for its lightness of tone and the weight of its concerns. And because it’s part set in Lattakia – not many novels wear that particular honour.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 2, 2018 at 9:24 pm

Posted in book review

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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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Kaveh

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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Arise

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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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srebrenica

Srebrenica

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

Militarisation

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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

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.)

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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