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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Against all odds, village republics take hold in Syria


Robin Yassin-Kassab |


Destroyed buildings near a mosque in Daraya, Syria. AFP Photo
Destroyed buildings near a mosque in Daraya, Syria. AFP Photo

You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant choice between Bashar Al Assad and the jihadists. But the real choice being fought out by Syrians is between violent authoritarianism on the one hand and grassroots democracy on the other.

Interviewing activists, fighters and refugees for our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, we discovered the democratic option is real, even if beleaguered. To the extent that life continues in the liberated but heavilybombed areas – areas independent of both the Assad regime and ISIL – it continues because self-organised local councils are supplying services and aid.

For example, Daraya, a suburb west of Damascus now suffering its fourth year under starvation siege, is run by a council. Its 120 members select executives by vote every six months. The council head is chosen by public election. The council runs schools, a hospital,and a public kitchen, and manages urban agricultural production. Its office supervises the Free Syrian Army militias defending the town. Amid constant bombardment, Daraya’s citizen journalists produce a newspaper, Enab Baladi, which promotes non-violent resistance. In a country once known as a “kingdom of silence”, there are more than 60 independent newspapers and many free radio stations.

And as soon as the bombing eases, people return to the streets with their banners. Recent demonstrations against Jabhat Al Nusra across Idlib province indicate that the Syrian desire for democracy burns as fiercely as ever.

Where possible, the local councils are democratically elected – the first free elections in half a century. Omar Aziz, a Syrian economist and anarchist, provided the germ. In the revolution’s eighth month he published a paper advocating the formation of councils in which citizens could arrange their affairs free of the tyrannical state. Aziz helped set up the first bodies, in suburbs of Damascus. He died in regime detention in 2013, a month before his 64th birthday. But by then, councils had sprouted all over the country.

Some council members were previously involved in the revolution’s original grassroots formations. They were activists, responsible first for coordinating protests and publicity, then for delivering aid and medicine. Other members represented prominent families or tribes, or were professionals selected for specific practical skills.

In regime-controlled areas, councils operate in secret. But in liberated territory people can organise publicly. These are tenacious but fragile experiments. Some are hampered by factionalism. Some are bullied out of existence by jihadists.

Manbij, a northern city, once boasted its own 600-member legislature and 20-member executive, a police force, and Syria’s first independent trade union. Then ISIL seized the grain silos and the democrats were driven out. Today Manbij is called “Little London” for its preponderance of English-accented jihadists.

In some areas the councils appear to signal Syria’s atomisation rather than a new beginning. Christophe Reuter calls it a “revolution of localists” when he describes “village republics””such as Korin, in Idlib province, with its own court and a 10-person council.

But Aziz envisaged councils connecting the people regionally and nationally, and democratic provincial councils now operate in the liberated parts of Aleppo, Idlib and Deraa. In the Ghouta region near Damascus, militia commanders were not permitted to stand as candidates. Fighters were, but only civilians won seats.

In Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, collectively known as Rojava, a similar system prevails, though the councils there are known as communes. In one respect they are more progressive than their counterparts elsewhere – 40 per cent of seats are reserved for women. In another, they are more constrained – they work within the larger framework of the PYD, which monopolises control of finances, arms and media.

The elected council members are the only representative Syrians we have. They should be key components in any serious settlement.

In a post-Assad future, local democracy could allow polarised communities to coexist under the Syrian umbrella.

Towns could legislate locally according to their demographic and cultural composition and mood. The alternative to enhanced local control is new borders, new ethnic cleanings, new wars. At the very least, the councils deserve political recognition by the United States and others. Council members should be a key presence on the opposition’s negotiating team at any talks.

And the councils deserve protection. Mr Al Assad’s bombs hit the schools, hospitals, bakeries, and residential blocks that the councils are trying desperately to service. If the bombardment were stopped the councils would no longer be limited to survival. They could focus instead on rebuilding Syrian nationhood and further developing popular institutions.

As the US-led invasion of Iraq showed us, only the people themselves can build their democratic structures. And today Syrians are practising democracy, building their own institutions, in the most difficult of circumstances. Their efforts don’t fit in with the easy Assad-or-ISIL narrative, however, and so we rarely deign to notice.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War


The Dissolution of Past and Present


Robin Yassin-Kassab

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Baal-Shamin,PalmyraAn edited version of this piece was published at the National.

Zabadani, a mountain town northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border, was one of the first Syrian towns to be liberated from the Assad regime (in January 2012) and one of the first to establish a revolutionary council. (The martyred anarchist revolutionary Omar Aziz was involved in setting up this council, as well as the council in Barzeh). Zabadani has been besieged and intermittently shelled since its liberation. And since July 3rd this year it has been subjected to a a full-scale assault by (the Iranian-backed) Lebanese Hizbullah, alongside continuous barrel bombing. Apparently the town’s 800-year-old al-Jisr mosque has been pulverised. Human losses are in the hundreds, and beyond the numbers, incalculable.

In other news, Daesh (or ISIS) has bulldozed the 1500-year-old monastery of Mar Elian in al-Qaryatain and blown up the beautiful 2000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. The temple once mixed Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian styles. Today its rubble is further evidence that there will be no resumption of Syrian normality. The people, monuments, even landscapes that Syrians once took for granted, that they assumed their grandchildren would enjoy, are disappearing for ever.

Palmyra – Queen Zenobia’s desert city – is a world heritage site and perhaps Syria’s most precious cultural jewel. Remarkably intact until recently, it provided a tangible link to antiquity and a breathtaking proof of the region’s civilisational wealth. Nationalist Syrians, whether secular or Islamist, feel the importance of such sites for communal pride and identity. Rational Syrians can at least understand their utilitarian benefit to any future tourism industry.

Neither Bashaar al-Assad nor (Daesh ‘caliph’) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are nationalists. Al-Baghdadi is explicit about it: “Syria is not for the Syrians,” he says, “and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.” Al-Assad’s rhetoric is still nationalist (and sectarian), but his war effort is managed by a foreign power now pushing towards the nation’s partition. Though not nationalists, both are certainly fascists obsessed with reinforcing their respective totalitarian states and eliminating any independent intellectual influence. Thus, in a flesh-and-blood echo of its slaughter of Palmyran history, Daesh tortured and publically beheaded Palmyra’s head of antiquities, 81-year-old Khaled al-Assa‘ad, perhaps because he’d refused to reveal the location of hidden treasures.

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An Account Syncopated by Death: Littell’s Syrian Notebooks


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This review was published at the National.

Book review: Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising
 The Kindly Ones, one of the 21st century’s great novels, is an epic inquiry into the intersection of state power and human evil. Its narrator is supremely civilised but also – and somehow without contradiction – an SS officer engaged in industrial-scale murder. The novel is set in the battlefields and death camps of the Second World War.

The author, Jonathan Littell, previously worked for humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger) in various war zones including Chechnya, in whose fate he sees Syrian parallels. In 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence. Then collusion between Russian security services and religious extremists weakened Chechen nationalists, made the country too dangerous for journalists, and drained international support. This facilitated Russia’s 1999 reinvasion and the total destruction of the capital, Grozny. The Russian strategy is echoed today in what French foreign minister Laurent Fabius describes as the “objective complicity” between Bashar Al Assad and the militant group ISIL.

There are Second World War parallels too. Aleppo is the most bombed city since that conflict. Syria’s refugee crisis is the greatest since 1945. And the Assad regime, like Hitler’s, produces “thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration”.

Perhaps these commonalities explain why Littell chose to bring his clear sight to bear on Syria’s war. He went in, for 17 days in January 2012, with renowned French photographer Mani. The experience led to a series of reports in Le Monde in February, and now to a book: Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.

Reporting from Syria has been cursed by journalists who embed with the regime’s army or fall prey to regime-planted conspiracy theories. Littell mentions an article penned by Georges Malbrunot for Le Figaro blaming the Free Army for journalist Gilles Jacquier’s death “on the basis of an anonymous source in Paris citing an anonymous source in Homs”.

Similar blame-the-victims hoaxes were retailed by Assad’s useful idiots after the Houleh and Ghouta massacres.

Littell’s account is unembedded, and his narrative – pared down to the physical, psychological and political details – is never gullible. He records an informational chaos in which contradictory versions swirl, and remarks, for example, on revolutionaries feeding Al Jazeera a false report of captured Iranian officers – they turned out to be engineers working at a power plant. The civilian media office of the revolution, then still clinging to the uprising’s non-violent image, persistently obstructs Littell’s investigations. The armed resistance is more helpful, although it too betrays anger that foreign coverage doesn’t translate into solidarity.

“The period when we showed things is over,” complains one officer. “If your peoples haven’t understood for eleven months, there’s no point.”

Littell travels not by permission of the regime’s security grid, but via the “counter-grid” that circumvents it, a network including revolutionary Christians, an Alawi resistance fighter, and a woman who, having lost three sons to Assad, has vowed to cook for the fighters daily. He drinks with a man who “believes in Karl Marx the way others believe in Jesus or Mohammed”, and affectionately finds the Free Army to be “novice guerrillas; novices in PR, above all”. Littell crosses from Lebanon’s Tripoli with a driver called Fury, a former carpenter, who keeps a grenade beside the steering wheel. His first stop is Qusayr, the liberated border town that the regime would eventually claw back in May 2013. Assad’s forces in that battle were led by Lebanon’s Shia militia Hizbollah, making it a key stage in the conflict’s sectarianisation.

From Qusayr then, to Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Formerly known to Syrians as a nondescript sprawl beside an oil refinery, and the butt of a thousand jokes, in 2011 Homs was rethought as the capital of the revolution. Goalkeeper Abdel Baset Al Sarout and (Alawi) actress Fadwa Suleiman sometimes led its large and carnivalesque protests. On April 18, 2011, a huge crowd occupied the central Clock Square, which briefly became Syria’s Tahrir. The resulting regime massacre tolled an early bell for the death of peaceful protest as a realistic strategy. Homs was where the conflict first militarised.

By Littell’s visit, the citadel and university are regime fortifications; revolutionaries must move through a maze of basements, gardens and abandoned apartments. Holes are punched through walls, large ones for the passage of men, smaller ones for the snouts of guns. Cars speed across avenues, lights out, to confuse the snipers who aim at vehicles, adults, children, cats. Skirmishes alternate with singing and boredom. There’s “a curiously unreal feeling to it all”. The surrealism intensifies under bombardment: “We hear a loud impact … Everyone laughs.” This during the bitter cold of the Levantine winter, a pale sun shining through fog. Death syncopates the account.

A hospital in Bab Al Sba’a is regularly raided, its doctors systematically targeted for arrest. It accepts only emergency cases because it can offer no protection from the regime’s constant gunfire. The walls and windows are pocked with bullet holes; if they stack sand bags they’re accused of sheltering activists. The makeshift hospitals in private homes are still more perilous. The regime has no sense whatsoever of medical neutrality; by illustration, a Red Crescent nurse is told angrily at a checkpoint: “We shoot at them, and you save them.”

Worse still, and a sign of the regime’s inconceivable cruelty, hospital wards are sometimes used as torture chambers, state doctors and nurses implicated in the crimes. Littell criss-crosses the city, from besieged, working-class Baba Amr to Insha’at, which seems “a thousand miles” away – there are people in the streets here, traffic, open shops, and no piles of festering rubbish, though still there are snipers and competing checkpoints.

In less-conservative Khalidiyeh, where women mingle with men, the Free Syrian Army guards access to the main square, renamed The Square of Free Men. Here there’s a wooden copy of the old Clock Tower plastered with photos of the martyrs. It prompts Littell to reflect on the function of the protests:

“It’s a collective, popular jubilation, a jubilation of resistance. And they don’t just serve as an outlet, as a moment of collective release for all the tension accumulated day after day for eleven months; they also give energy back to the participants, they fill them every day with vigour and courage to continue to bear the murders, the injuries, the grief.” And the chants, “like the Sufi dhikr whose form they take – generators and captivators of force”.

Sectarian hatred is the grim counter-force. Littell witnesses the aftermath of a whole family’s slaughter – Sunnis on an Alawi street – children with throats cut or shot at point-blank range. Such killings are premonitions of the string of sectarian massacres through the summer of 2012. “It’s a form of ethnic cleansing,” one Homsi says, and after its victory at Qusayr the regime would indeed burn the Homs Land Registry and hand Sunni property to Alawi loyalists.

Littell hears of Sunnis killing Alawis too – people whose relatives have been raped or murdered, who think they therefore have the right. The book gives the sense of a situation hurtling into the abyss.

Littell meets Abd Ar Razzaq Tlass, who claims to head the Baba Amr military council – although this is disputed. Tlass originates from Rastan in the Homs countryside, a rural Sunni constituency and traditional military recruiting ground. His family includes Hafez Al Assad’s co-conspirator General Mustafa Tlass, and his sons Firas, a tycoon, and Manaf, a general in the Republican Guard. All three had left Syria by 2012, the latter making a public defection. Abd Ar Razaq is Manaf’s cousin, and an important resistance commander until his implication in a sex scandal (the regime bugged his Skype calls). The Tlass defections demonstrate the extent to which the Baath’s old cross-sect peasant alliance had collapsed.

Only 26 when interviewed, Tlass seems immature on several counts, not least his threat to call for jihad if the world failed to help. The civil activists disagree vehemently: “Our revolution is not a religious revolution, it’s a revolution for freedom.” Another predicts that jihad would “internationalise it, bring in Saudi Arabia, Iran … Lots of foreign groups would like to come fight here, the revolution would get out of the hands of the Syrian people”. This speaker wants Nato intervention and a no-fly zone. The protesters call for that too.

Baba Amr fell on March 2, 2012, the rest of Homs by May last year. International intervention never arrived. The revolutionaries’ “joyful despair” lost its joy entirely. Jihad won out. Littell’s burning anger at this outcome animates his book.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of the novel The Road From Damascus. He is writing a book with Leila Al Shami on the Syrian revolution.


Three Monsters

September 23, 2014 

threemonstersPart of me, of course, is happy to see bombs fall on the heads of the international jihad-fascists tormenting the Syrian people (I refer to ISIS, not the Shia jihad-fascists fighting for Assad, who I’d love to see bombed too). Mostly, I’m just disgusted. In the name of disengagement the West not only refused to arm and supply the democratic Syrian opposition – even as Assad launched a genocide against the people – the United States actually prevented other states from providing the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry the Free Army so desperately needed. It was obvious what would happen next. The Free Army – and the Syrian people – were increasingly squeezed between Assad and the ISIS monster. And now the Americans are bombing both Iraq and Syria. This is where ‘disengagement’  and ‘realism’ has brought us.

ISIS, like Assad, can be hurt from the air but defeated only on the ground. Obama and the Congress have just agreed to spend $500 million on training 5000 vetted members of the Free Syrian Army – the same people that Obama mocked as irrelevant “pharmacists, farmers and students” a few months ago. The training won’t be finished for eight months, and anyway will be of little use. The Free Army now houses some of the best, most battle-hardened fighters in the world. They don’t need training; they need weapons. In the present balance of forces, in any case, the wounds inflicted by America’s photogenic bombing run may not translate into any improvement on the ground. Only Syrians can improve things on the ground.

The West was not moved to act by 200,000 (at least) slaughtered, or nine million homeless, or by barrel bombs, rape campaigns, starvation sieges or sarin gas. It was only moved when an American was beheaded. The inconsistency is noted well by Syrians. In some quarters, an assault on ISIS which is not accompanied by strikes on Assad and aid to the Free Army will be perceived as a Western-Shia-Assadist alliance against persecuted Sunnis. This could increase the appeal of ISIS and successor Sunni extremist groups.

ISIS has many parents, but the first of these, in Syria at least, is Assad. He released extremists from prison while he was assassinating unarmed democrats. He sectarianised the conflict by setting up sectarian death squads and by bringing in Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon. His scorched earth policy made normal life impossible in the liberated areas, creating the vacuum in which organisations like ISIS thrived. And until this June, he had an effective non-aggression pact with ISIS, not fighting it, buying oil from it. From January, on the other hand, all opposition militias – the Free Army groups and the Islamic Front groups – have been fighting ISIS (and losing thousands of men in the struggle). These fighters are not about to become an on-the-ground anti-ISIS militia, as the Americans seem to want. They know the truth – that both states, the Assadist and the psychotic-Islamist, are absolute enemies. There’s no destroying one without the other. And both must be destroyed by Syrian hands, not by foreign planes.

Worth reading Yassin al-Haj’s comment, from here:

I am ambivalent about a Western attack against ISIS.

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society.

On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Western powers could have avoided this had they helped the Syrian resistance in its battle against the fascist Assad regime. The right thing to do, ethically and politically, is to build a coalition against both ISIS andthe Assad regime, and to help Syrians bring about significant changes in their country’s political environment.

Let me finally say that I am very skeptical of the plans and intentions of the American administration. ISIS is the terrible outcome of our monstrous regimes and the West’s role in the region for decades, as much as it is the result of grave illnesses within Islam. Three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body.

—Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, imprisoned from 1980 to 1996 for left-wing activities, now living in exile in Istanbul


Syria Speaks on Tour

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

left to right: Khalil, me and Khaled. photo by Khalil.

This was published at the National

For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.


In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.

In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”

So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.

Producer Itab Azzam describes the old cultural dispensation: “In Damascus, if you want to be a recognised artist, you have to be part of the system. The system is based on you being, or you being able to pretend to be, sophisticated enough.” In 2011, many of the established sophisticates took the side of the regime, from pop singer George Wassouf to state intellectual par excellence Bouthaina Shaaban (a translator and writer as well as regime propagandist); but many others – from poet Rasha Omran to actress Mai Skaf – stood publically with the savagely repressed protestors. More importantly, artists were now judged not by their position or prestige but by what they could contribute to a rapidly transforming society. ‘Ordinary’ Syrians no longer sought permission to speak; they no longer craved entry to the Arab Writers’ Union or other institutions of the state’s official culture. Instead, culture exploded from the bottom up, through slogans, cartoons, dances and songs, through endless debate and contestation in the liberated areas, through free radio stations and independent newspapers produced and distributed even in beseiged and constantly bombarded neighbourhoods.

Our tour of England was to promote “Syria Speaks”, a book based on the assumption that the cultural revolution is indistinguishable from the political. It contains a broad range of genres to reflect the growth of engaged art, both highbrow and low, in revolutionary Syria.

There is work by Ali Farzat, the internationally celebrated cartoonist (whose fingers were broken by regime thugs), as well as by the cartoonists and poster-makers of Kafranbel, the media-savvy village in southern Idlib province which almost nobody had heard of before 2011. There are agit-prop posters from the Shaab as-Soori Aref Tareeq group and photographs from the Lens Young collective (anonymous and cooperative production have flourished in the constrained security environment), alongside haunting canvases from Youssef Abdelke and Amjad Wardeh. Text by Sulafa Hijazi accompanies her nightmarish images – a woman giving birth to a gun; a weapon which is itself pregnant; a rosary of human heads – commentary on the cyclical aggression provoked by the state’s repression.

Music is represented by the text of “Come On, Bashaar, Get Out!”, the song sung in Hama by Ibrahim Qashoush before the regime ripped out his vocal chords and dumped his corpse in the River Orontes, and in an illuminating essay by rapper Hani al-Sawah on facing the new criticism. “The street is not an ignorant listener,” he writes. “It can distinguish the good from the bad.”

There’s poetry by Aboud Saeed, the provocative, defiantly working-class Facebook poet from Manbij (complete with date and number of ‘likes’), as well as by more established figures Golan Haji, Rasha Omran and Faraj Bayrakdar. Bayrakdar spent fourteen years in regime prisons, and prison literature (most notably “The Shell” by Mustafa Khalifa) became a well-established Syrian genre even before the revolution. “Syria Speaks” contains an extract from Dara’a Abdullah’s memoir “Loneliness Pampers Its Victims” as well as Fadia Lazkani’s account of a search for her detained bother which is really a journey towards accepting the reality of his death. Yara Badr, who as a child was robbed of her powers of speech when her parents were taken from their home, contributes a text. And the political thinker Yassin al-Haj Saleh, imprisoned for sixteen years, is interviewed on the role of the revolutionary intellectual. “I believe that the new culture will take shape around the experience of resistance to the Assads’ tyranny,” he says, “but also … resistance to the emerging forms of domination.”

What else? Much more, including script from Masasit Maté’s “Top Goon” puppet shows – a runaway internet phenomenon. And an interview with Assaad al-Achi, procurer of equipment for the citizen journalists of the Local Coordination Committees. Plus activist Mazen Darwish’s “Letter for the Future”, smuggled out of Damascus Central Prison in place of an acceptance speech for the 2013 Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights. And cultural activist Dan Gorman’s fascinating discussion with critic miriam cooke on dissident arts from popular debke to Emergency Cinema.

It was Dan, as director of Reel Festivals, who organised our book tour around the English regions, starting with a full house at Rich Mix in east London. Khaled Khalifa, Syria’s most accomplished novelist and one of the most important in the world, began the evening by reading from his new novel “No Knives in the Kitchens of this City”. He read in Arabic, and then I read the same passage in English translation. Malu Halasa, co-editor of the book and author of several others, read an irreverent flash fiction piece by Rasha Abbas. Artist and writer Khalil Younes read from “Chicken Liver”, a compassionate account of his relationship with a childhood friend, an Alawi he calls Hassan, who now fights for the regime.

The next day we headed west to lunch in uncharacteristic English sunshine on the River Avon, and then to Bristol, once a key port in the trans-Atlantic slave triangle, where we met the aforementioned little old lady, recently liberated.

Throughout the tour, we delivered workshops on behalf of English PEN (the writers’ defence organisation) to a variety of audiences. I gave one at an east London Sixth Form College (the students, several of them Muslim, were well-versed in Syria’s Islamic dynasties but knew little of its modern history – and none knew that Syria produced the world’s first alphabet). Khaled Khalifa delivered his workshop to an audience of migrants at Bristol’s Malcolm X Centre. Like Khaled, some came from rural Aleppo – there was a man from Afreen and another from Manbij. “They asked me about the olive trees and the seasons,” Khaled grinned afterwards. “I love these people.”

Khaled usually lives in Barzeh, a devastated Damascus suburb. In the tour’s quieter moments he directed a puzzled gaze at the placid English trees, the well-ordered streets, their well-fed pedestrians, and gasped at the surrealism of it all. I remember coming out of Palestine after a three-week visit, at a time of cold tension. As I arrived in Jordan, I noticed parts of my brain untensing, and understood just how much attention I’d been paying to the towers, checkpoints and armed men. How much stranger, then, for Khaled, who’s spent three years in the hottest of wars.

Our event in Oxford was at the Ashmolean museum, amongst the ancient Levantine statuary. That night we slept in Keble college, where I was once a student. The hot weather broke in a violent storm which lit the sky blue and cast furious thunderbolts. Again I thought of Khaled, and of the planes which hover above his house to fire missiles south at Qaboon. A bewilderment or exasperation breaks across his hands when he speaks of it. “Every time I leave the house I look at my things for the last time… But what can I do? It’s my country, my revolution. My situation is no different to any other Syrian’s. As a writer, it’s important to stay and to reflect the reality of what is happening.” The cost, however, is high. “I go home at night now.” He widens his eyes in wonder. “I never used to. This has changed me. I’m discovering a new Khaled.”

I set off to deliver a workshop in Wigan, setting of “The Road to Wigan Pier”, George Orwell’s investigation into the predicament of the 1930s working class. The participants were teenage writers, bright and eager, but also reflecting the general lack of knowledge of Syria. One boy was surprised to learn that the country contains cities; another believed “it had always been war there.”

From Wigan on to Liverpool, a proudly northern city revived and bustling after the death of its industry, and Khaled’s favourite stop of the tour. “It’s a different culture here, stronger,” he winked to a backdrop of hen parties and street musicians. The “Syria Speaks” event was part of a larger Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Afterwards, there was a performance of Sarmada, a play based on the 2011 novel by Syrian writer Fadi Azzam.

Zaher Omareen, “Syria Speaks” editor and essayist, was on our panel in Liverpool. He spoke about growing up in Hama, scene of the terrible 1982 massacre, and how he’d never dared to look up at the statues of Hafez al-Assad. People believed there were cameras hidden in the stone eyes. In 2011 the statues came down and donkeys were paraded on the empty plinths.

Our first sight of Bradford was a white woman in shocking pink hijab and shalwar qamees, probably the wife of a British Pakistani. The Bradford trend more reported in the media is towards ethnic ghettoisation, though in the cosmopolitan city centre we didn’t notice it. The faded architectural magnificence, the crumbling mills and warehouses, made it feel like Lahore circa 1800 – a place immensely wealthy until recently, with a definite edge in the air. Our lovely tour bus driver Rasha Shaheen described it as “a living Ken Loach film.” The audience here was fully engaged but also the smallest of the tour. We were competing with the annual Bradford Festival. Bhangra and Reggae music drifted through the doors of the Fuse Art Space.

Khaled spoke about his ‘fathers’ – Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Faulkner. Do Syrian writers have Syrian fathers? Khaled mentioned a writer of an older generation, in negative terms – “A father must respect his children.” The conversation turned to relations between fus-ha, standardised literary Arabic, the preserve of the educated, and a‘miya, the dialect of the street.

Then Khalil Younes discussed his short film “Syria”, in which a needle is pushed repeatedly through skin, provoking an appalled response to mirror an expatriate Syrian’s nauseous experience watching war videos from back home. He also showed his pen and ink drawings, some of which have become revolutionary icons. The picture of Hamza Bakour, the child whose lower face was blown off by a regime shell, seeks to remember, mourn and celebrate this boy, otherwise a single flash in an endless stream of martyrs. “Comb” – a bloodier version of an amputation instrument from the American Civil War – and “Our Saigon Execution” are attempts to universalise the Syrian predicament by linking it to struggles in other times and places.

Next morning we travelled further north to Durham, a green, river-fed, cathedral town, where we were joined at our university reading by British-Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir. She read from her new novel “Willow Trees Don’t Weep”, and expressed powerful solidarity with the Syrian people.

Finally the long drive back to London and our final event, at Waterstones bookshop in Picadilly. Tonight we were in the company of the fearless Samar Yazbek. She read from “Gateways to a Parched Land”, an account of a regime assault on Saraqeb, and of a meeting with resistance fighters, which depicts the strange coexistence of terrible violence with “tolerance, altruism and dialogue”. Characteristically, Samar gives over half the piece to her interviewees. Such is her method in the much-translated “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution”, a personal narrative which nevertheless includes the perspectives of defected soldiers, grassroots activists, the tortured and detained, the refugees.

Her approach is an antidote to ubiquitously lazy coverage of Syria’s revolutionary trauma. Far too many journalists, academics and politicians stick to the pre-existent narratives they feel comfortable with. They twist and bend reality to fit their discourses; in doing so they sometimes find it necessary to make stuff up. As a matter of course they ignore, or fail to see, lived experience on the ground. In this way they missed the miracle of Syria’s non-sectarian freedom movement, the dominant trend throughout 2011 amongst poorer and ‘religious’ classes as much as among elites. They ignored this sure sign of Syrian political maturity, long before the rise of Salafist militias, in favour of the Orientalist story of eternally and causelessly warring sects. Others cleaved to the Islamophobic story, with its overgeneralising urge, or to the various conspiracy stories, or to the simplistic chess-game-of-states story, in which America is bad, so Russia and Iran must be good. In every case, the Syrian people are written out of the story.

Seldom are they permitted to represent themselves on the world stage, as agents of history, as architects of their own destiny, as contradictory, imperfect, struggling human beings. “Syria Speaks”, in a small way, aims to remedy this imbalance.


Beware the Game of Shadows in Syria

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am a signatory to this letter published by the Guardian.

'Hamza Bakour' by Khalil Younes

As supporters of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, we are concerned by the British government’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the crisis in Iraq(Shortcuts, G2, Iran, 18 June).

There is a grave danger that the Iranian government will see this as a licence to extend its already substantial intervention in Syria in support of its client – the Assad regime – which could not have survived this long without Iranian support.

Thousands of troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia are actively fighting in Syria on the regime’s side, as are Iran’s proxies,Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias. To ally with Iran in order to combat Isis is deeply ironic, since there is considerable evidence that the Syrian regime has been colluding with Isis: Assad’s air force bombs civilians, schools, markets and hospitals without mercy but declined to attack Isis’s massive headquarters in Raqqa until the Iraq crisis erupted.

The Syrian regime has been playing a game of shadows in which this covert collusion with the growth of Isis has been used to undermine the democratic opposition and strengthen its own claim to be a bulwark against “terrorism”. To accept Iran – and by implication Bashar al-Assad – as allies in the fight against Isis is to fall for this deception.

Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, Haytham Alhmawi, director of Rethink Rebuild Society, Reem Al-Assil, activist, Adam Barnett, journalist,James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, Mark Boothroyd, International Socialist Network, Sasha Crow, founder of Collateral Repair Project for Iraqi and Syrian Refugees, Naomi Foyle, writer and coordinator of British Writers in Support of Palestine, Christine Gilmore, Leeds Friends of Syria, Bronwen Griffiths, writer and activist, Juliette Harkin, associate tutor, University of East Anglia,Robin Yassin Kassab, author and co-editor of Critical Muslim, Tehmina Kazi, human rights activist, Maryam Namazie, Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation and Equal Rights Now – organisation against women’s discrimination in Iran, Fariborz Pooya, Worker-communist party of Iran UK, Mary Rizzo, activist, translator and blogger, Christopher Roche, Bath Solidarity, Naame Shaamcampaign group, Brian Slocock, political scientist and blogger on Syria, David St Vincent, contributing writer and editor, National Geographic Books, Luke Staunton, Merseyside Syria Solidarity Movement – UK


A Trip to the Border


Robin Yassin-Kassab

I’ve just returned from a brief visit to the Syrian/ Turkish border, to the Salaam School for refugee children in Reyhaniyeh on the Turkish side, where I was working with the Karam Foundation, and to Atmeh camp inside Syria, where almost 30,000 people are sheltering from the slaughter. Northern Syria is dotted with similar camps.

You can view pictures from the trip here.


Something that doesn’t come across in the pictures is how cold it is. Snow was lying on the ground in Atmeh the day before I arrived, and a child had frozen to death. I’ll be writing about my experiences and some of the stories of the people I met. In the meantime, here is the trip summed up by my Facebook status updates:

December 6th – the first stage of my trip to the turkish-syrian border involved being examined at edinburgh airport under schedule seven of the terrorism act (2000). To this the failed human beings of east and west have reduced the syrian people’s revolution.

drank tea and ate knafeh with the teachers of the Salaam School in Reyhaniyeh. very inspiring to see the organised hard work that’s gone into fitting new walls into a villa (and building an olive grove) to make a school which serves over a thousand refugee children. forget Assad, ISIS, and the Coalition – the future of Syria belongs to self-organised and committed Syrian women and men

December 7th – Assad forces backed by foreign Shia terrorists have executed dozens of civilians in Nabk. Watch the silence of the Western media, which seems to have no problem with terrorism and religious extremism when it seeks to preserve the status quo.

December 8th – there are the blue hills of syria, as ethereal as the future, so near and yet so far

December 9th – among the children’s chosen heroes in my storytelling workshop were Robin Hood, Batman, my brother the martyr, my father the martyr, and Sponge Bob. Among the problems to be solved were a dinosaur eating people, a car hitting a pedestrian, my house being shelled, and my cousin stuck in prison.

1000 days of the Syrian people’s revolution. 1000 days of Assad’s genocide. 1000 days of the world’s powers enabling the genocide directly or indirectly. A third of the population homeless. Thawra hatta an-nasr…

tonight the temperature’s at freezing point. a few miles away thousands of children are sleeping in plastic tents or under trees.

December 10th – Razan Zaitouneh

two men from Saraqeb, Idlib province are here with us. One of them lost his mother, grandmother, sister and brother to regime bombing on 15/09/2012 (he was also in the house at the time). these two are part of a team which publish various independent magazines, including Zeitoun wa Zeitounah, a children’s magazine. i saw a copy today. on the front it reads: ‘I have the right to express myself.’ of course the notion of free expression was forbidden by the regime for over four decades. the publication of such magazines is a sign the revolution has already succeeded, alongside the accumulating tragedy.

You sit abroad and read about the regime’s genocide, ISIS’s barbarism, the criminality of some of the free army militias, and you despair. You come near to the heart of the tragedy, a tragedy too enormous to comprehend, and you experience hope and love and inspiration. The struggling Syrian people, the women and men and children, are the most articulate, the warmest and brightest, the kindest and most sensitive, the bravest and most persistent people in the world. Borders and nationalities don’t mean much to me, but I’m enormously proud to be Syrian. I’ve never been prouder.

December 12th – there’s nothing wrong with dancing

I was talking to a teacher today. Her husband was an officer in the Syrian army. He defected because he didn’t want to murder his neighbours. He was captured. Seven months ago he died under torture. His body was thrown in a mass grave. Everybody has a story from this genocide.

December 14th – Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, and nothing has changed for the better since my last visit. More refugees now, less hope of imminent return, and instead of hot, dust-laden wind, melting snow and cold red mud. Despite it all, the people’s hospitality is extreme. People who own almost nothing serving glasses of tea and offering lunch.

spent the evening with a young doctor who worked in a field hospital in kafr batneh, the eastern ghouta, damascus suburbs. the regime has targetted bakeries, schools and hospitals in particular. after the plane fired its missile the doctor found himself swallowing dust, between life and death, trying to make sense and direction of the screams. that was a year and a month ago. he’s recovered, but has a hundred scars on his body and more on his mind. everybody has a story.

December 15th – spent the morning with a woman from Homs whose husband was tortured to death. his body was returned with bullets in the legs, chest and head, covered with burns, and missing chunks of flesh. the widow stayed in Homs until a missile hit her house. she showed me her broken arm and her son’s arm tatooed with burn scars. her little daughter sat listening to the story, which she witnessed, and which she must have heard recounted a thousand times.

something I won’t forget is the biting, burning, bone-deep cold, and the children in the camp in plastic sandals, no socks.

December 16th – I’m preparing to leave, inspired (by the persistence of the Syrian people) and depressed (by the slow death of Syria) in equal measure. I believe our team has made some difference to the children we worked with, and I will write the stories of some of the people I met, but all this is a blue drop in a red ocean of suffering which will continue to expand so long as the fascist regime and its backers are enabled to continue the genocide. The genocide is the prime story, not the Islamist extremism or sectarianism which have been deliberately engineered by the regime. The solution is ultimately not humanitarian, but political and military. In the coming decades we will all pay the price for ignoring this fact.

it doesn’t end. the cab driver who took me from Aziz’s place in Antakya to the airport is from Lattakia and happens to know my family. He and his 15-year-old son were arrested together. “They beat my son until he was nearly dead. They beat me until I wished I were dead.” In a cell with 50 others and a hole in the floor as a toilet, which they had to use in front of each other. Nobody was able to wash in the two months that he was inside. Two months of beatings, insults, humiliation, and near starvation. Then father and son were released, for which he thanks God profusely, because “so many die in their prisons.” Everybody has a story.

Journey to Kafranbel

Robin Yassin-Kassab

This account of my trip into Syria’s partially liberated Idlib province was published by the Guardian.

DSCI0172To cross the border I had to climb a wall three times my height. It was the most frightening part of my trip into liberated Syria.

At Atmeh camp (where I’d been working, just inside Syria on the Turkish border) there’s no passport control but only a gap in the barbed wire. On the day of our journey, however, the Free Syrian Army and PKK-linked Kurds were facing off nearby and the Turkish authorities blocked access as a result. This meant we had to go through the official border at Bab al-Hawa. Two of our party possessed Syrian passports, and were waved through. Two of us didn’t, and so were smuggled across by Kurdish teenagers.

We skirted a deserted shack which our escorts pretended was a policeman’s house. One disappeared for a while, pretending to pay an expensive bribe. Our winding path led through a red-soiled olive grove, far away from the border post, but then wound back towards it, and to the wall. I could see the backs of soldiers through the trees, smoking not patrolling.

There were no security cameras. The boys told me they’d taken Chechens across like this.

At wallside a whispered negotiation ensued. We soon haggled a price for their service. The next part was more difficult – They wanted us to scale the wall into what was obviously still the Turkish border post.

I looked at my fellow smugglee. “Do you believe this?” I asked in English.

“I don’t know. Talk to them some more.”

So it went on, until at last Abdullah, one of our hosts inside Syria, phoned to advise me to do as the boys said.

So I climbed too fast for vertigo to strike, scissored my legs over the railings, dropped onto concrete, rolled, picked myself up, then endeavoured to walk across the neatly-trimmed lawn with a nonchalant but entitled and entirely legal air. I strolled through the airconditioned duty free zone and rejoined my companions to wait for the bus through no-man’s-land. (No private cars have been allowed here since a car bombing in February killed thirteen). Sitting in front of me on the bus: a fattish version of Che Guevara, in curls, beard and black beret, but with nogodbutgod printed on the beret.

On the Syrian side a fighter from the Farouq Battalion glanced at the passports. Behind him, unthreatening men milled about with kalashnikovs. They were of various militias, bearded and clean-shaven, wearing mix-and-match military, sports and farming gear. Behind them, a 6th-Century Byzantine triumphal arch announced in its own way our passage into Syria, a land which possesses an unbroken archeological heritage, from Sumerian times to the present.

But this was Syria as I’d never seen it. Something unthinkable a year and a half ago: a territory liberated and defended by poorly armed armed volunteers and defectors. Instead of Assad’s blue-eyed visage, therefore, the Free Syrian flag was painted on a barrier. Revolutionary grafitti flourished at the roadside, from Freedom Forever through Zero Hour Approaches, O You Dogs of Assad to Death to the Enemies of God. The triumphalism of the slogans was immediately crushed by the onrush of the small but shocking Bab al-Hawa camp, tents of bright blue flammable plastic planted direct on concrete, a surface which burns in the sun and floods under the merest shower.

Two ambulances whizzed past towards Turkey, both caked in mud as camouflage from airstrikes.

At this point we expatriate Syrians were squeezed into a car with friends from Kafranbel, our destination, a rural town in the south of Idlib province become famous for the witty English-language slogans on show at its weekly demonstration. Our driver was Ra’ed Fares of the town’s Revolution Committee. Following the logic of the mud-caked ambulances, we switched off our foreign phones.

At first the strangest sensation was the normality of the surrounds. A hot and breezy afternoon ran past the windows – stubbled wheat fields, rocky outcrops, smooth-topped tells. But the villages seemed much poorer than before, some of their roads gnarled up by tanks. In one hamlet, Jabhat an-Nusra’s logo was printed on the walls. Our secular hosts explained that the Jabha (designated a terrorist organisation by the US) had liberated this stretch.

We diverted to avoid al-Fu‘aa, a Shia village still held by the regime, and drove on towards Taftanaz, where the scale of the damage wrought by shelling and aerial bombardment became terribly apparent. We passed streets of crumpled buildings, long banks of debris, shopfront shutters buckled by the vacuum bombs which suck in and ignite the air to create fireballs.

White paint on the walls warned: Watch out – Taftanaz Airfield Ahead!

DSCI0146The airfield was liberated in January after two months of siege. The resistance lost many men here – the burnt and cratered fields around offer no cover whatsoever. Now ruined tanks and lopsided helicopters rest inside the perimeter, and Free Army militia sit guard at the entrance.

Next we drove into Saraqeb, a city of significant size, again notable for its war damage, and victim of a chemical attack in April. We stopped in the busy centre so one of us could vomit into roadside rubbish, while the others (one an uncovered woman) entered a café to eat Haytaliyeh, a local speciality. The Jabha runs a Sharee‘a court here. Its black flag flies atop the famous TV mast. Nevertheless, nobody looked twice at our friend’s unveiled hair. Saraqeb felt not like the Taliban’s Afghanistan but like Syria minus the regime: socially conservative but largely tolerant of difference.


The media image of the liberated areas suggests the regime has been replaced by heavy-handed militias. At least in Idlib province (Aleppo has suffered much more from thuggery, corruption and Islamist fanaticism, a fact much lamented by the activists and fighters I spoke to), it’s not like that at all. No checkpoint stopped us. The men with guns were locals, and were considered protectors, not oppressors.

Very many men have fought. They fight for a while, then take time off to visit their families in the camps or to harvest the fields (those which haven’t been burnt). Most have no political aim other than defending themselves by ending the regime. Some are Islamists, usually moderate and democratic. One such is Abu Abdullah, who, before his leg injury, fought with Liwa al-Islam in Douma in the Damascus suburbs. He shocked me with his statement, “We aren’t fighting for freedom, but for Islam,” but the follow-up was more reassuring. “Europe,” he said, “is implementing Islam without being aware of it. It educates its people, it respects their rights, there’s one law for all.”

This is an Islamist who shakes hands with unveiled women and opines that Christians often have more self-respect than Muslims. He doesn’t fight for ‘freedom’ because to him the word means people doing anything they like, regardless of the rights of others. His vision of an Islamic state is one compatible with democracy; it wouldn’t enforce dress codes or ideological allegiances because (he quotes the Qur’an) “there is no compulsion in religion.” His idealist conception of the future is one free of crime. He illustrated this by example of today’s Douma, where, he assured me, nobody steals, despite the opportunities provided by bombing.

DSCI0204As for the foreign fighters, Abu Abdullah, like everybody I spoke to, views them with disdain. Syria has enough men, he told me. Syria needs weapons, not men. Foreigners only cause problems. They increase the sectarian element, as Assad and Iran want. They ruin the revolution’s reputation. In any case, most of them aren’t fighting but resting, waiting for ‘the next stage’.

He muttered against the Turks who, on the one hand, collaborate with the Americans to hold back the heavy weapons which the Free Army so desperately needs (this was certainly true until late June), yet on the other, do nothing to stop the flow of foreign jihadists. “It’s a plot so America can do to us what it did to Afghanistan.” It wasn’t difficult to sympathise with his conspiracy theory. I’d seen how easy it was to cross the border illegally.


After Saraqeb comes Ebla, an excavated city of the third millenium BC, and after Ebla the once beautiful town of Ma‘arat an-Nou‘man. Here the Crusaders resorted to cannibalism, and here Assad’s forces engage in savage bombardment. Abutting the ongoing battle for control of the Hama-Aleppo motorway, many of Ma‘ara’s apartment blocks are sheared into ragged slices. Shelling resumed shortly after we passed back through the next day.

The town used to house one of Syria’s finest museums, a collection of Byzantine mosaics in an Ottoman caravanserai. For months the museum stood between the regime barrier and the resistance, and was looted and bombarded by both. Ma‘ara was also once home to Abu Ala’a al-Ma‘ari, the 11th-century atheist and poet, one of the most important of the classical tradition, whose statue was beheaded – to great popular outrage – by Salafist militiamen last February.

We turned west over heights where fir trees are bent by the wind, and through villages built of breezeblock or local white stone, some depopulated, some overcrowded, according to the vicissitudes of battle.

DSCI0158We slowed when we reached Kafranbel to note the walls almost everywhere cratered by bullets, a pancaked mosque, and the blasted remains of a secondary school which the regime had used as a barracks until its forces were expelled. Ra’ed pointed out two sites of mass slaughter and a list of martyrs engraved on a plinth at the central roundabout (this reminded me of similar memorials in Palestine). Since the regime was driven out last August, a central stretch of wall has been painted in revolutionary murals. Perhaps the cleverest is a cartoon heart reading ReLOVEution.

Evening passed pleasantly, surreally, in the Revolution Committee building, on a terrace studded with potted plants overlooking olive trees and a jostle of fat-tailed sheep. There was a waxing midsummer moon, a cool breeze, and the usual Syrian night sounds: animated conversation, laughter, tunes from the ’oud, and a noise like thunder which was the regime launching missiles from Wadi Deif, twelve kilometres away. A safe distance. Kafranbel hadn’t been bombed in all June.

We ate apples and deliciously sweet plums. Food still tastes better in Syria than anywhere else, at least when you can get it. Manar Ankeer, a young Syrian who refuses to join his family in the Gulf, with kind, sad eyes, and energetic to the point of tension, runs a free bakery which feeds 40 villages. Without this aid (the bakery is funded by expatriate Syrians), some families would starve. (In Turkey I met an activist from Selemiyyeh, a solidly revolutionary Ismaili town, who showed me a photograph of his last meal in Syria – a trapped hedgehog.)

As we talked, chewed and smoked, Kafranbel’s activists uploaded films, updated Facebook statuses, and planned and painted slogans for the next day’s demonstration. The Free Army’s local commander dropped by for tea and conversation. The woman who drives the Karama (Dignity) Bus from school to shell-shocked school decided which cartoons to screen the following week, which stories to read aloud.

People are doing what they can. On the ground the revolution continues, not only the fight against the regime but also the protests against Salafist militias in Raqqa and the Kurdish PYD militia in Amouda, as well as the daily effort to self-organise and survive. In the absence of government, not the militias, not the absent Syrian National Coalition, but civil society has stepped into the breach. Not many inside have even heard of the Coalition, whose representatives spend their time in Istanbul hotels instead of with their people on the ground.

Much more relevant than those outsiders are the grassroots activists, both the locals and those – a photographer and a writer – who’ve escaped from regime-held Damascus. (One of our party had just left the capital, where everyone is off the streets by 8pm. Here people were out walking and playing in pool halls at one in the morning.) The expatriate presence was bolstered by a group of young Syrian American women, Muslim and Christian, so much braver than the elites of the external opposition.DSCI0201

I slept in Hamood’s house. One wall is raggedly punctured where a rocket struck, and the interior walls, still pitted by shrapnel, have been scrubbed back to the concrete after being blackened by fire. He shows me the damage, then shows off his radishes and parsley, newly planted and vigorously flourishing. The sight of a child’s toy bike on a shelf in the kitchen made me sadder than the rocket damage. Hamood’s wife, children and parents are in a camp inside Turkey.

Next door a family of ten, displaced from a worse place, share a doorless, windowless building with snakes and rats.


Before the liberation, the residents held their demonstrations in the fig orchards outside town. After the liberation, the post-Friday prayer gathering became a target for shelling. So this Friday Ra’ed scheduled the protest for 11am, before prayers, and in a sidestreet, so as not to draw a crowd. (He was stopped later by a townsman angry that he’d missed the demonstration). “What’s the point of attracting disaster?” Ra’ed asked. “At this stage, the most important aspect of the protest is the media aspect.”

It’s this canny media awareness that has made obscure Kafranbel one of the unlikely focal points of the revolution. Each week produces witty and topical slogans in English as well as Arabic. The first, in April 2011, declared Freedom Emerged From Under the Fingernails of Dera‘a’s Children. One threatened to “spank” Kim Jong-Un for his “childish attempt” to deflect attention from Syria. One punned on a Shakespeare quote (O Judgment! Thou Art Fled Brutish Beasts, And UN and Annan Have Lost Their Reason). One, which went viral, offered condolences to the people of Boston after the bombing there, and reminded the world that such things happen in Syria every day.

This week the slogans read:

Obama! You Send Us “Weapons” To Only Continue This Conflict?! Send Us Weapons To Win Our Revolution Once And For All!

And, referring to the sudden death of actor James Gandolfini: We Are So Sorry That Tony Soprano Is Dead. We Wish Assad, the Syrian Mafia Boss, Had Died InsteadDSCI0169

A cartoon entitled Negotiations Forever depicted the Regime and Free Syria flags hanging above Israeli and Palestinian versions. Another, alluding to the media popularity of the rebel liver-eater video, showed Putin and Assad stirring a pot of blood, and Putin saying, Let’s say…. FSA are cannibals.


After the protest an activist drove me outside town. Standing on a red pile of rocks, he traced a frontline in the blue distance between the Alawi mountains and the liberated Ghab valley. In the absence of a serious effort to arm the Free Army, it’s likely that the line will remain static for the forseeable future.

Despite Kafranbel’s stirling efforts, the larger media war has been lost. The Western narrative is that this is no longer a revolution but a civil war, a conflict with its roots not in Assad’s repression but in the theological disputes of the ninth Century. Since the regime and Hizbullah’s joint conquest of al-Qusair, the Syrian people are struggling against the odds.

The regime probably will eventually fall. If it had fallen a year ago there might have been a happy ending. But by now over a quarter of the population is displaced and far more have been traumatised. The social fabric is torn. If Syria remains one nation, it will be a nation of orphans and widows, of the maimed, the raped, the tormented. How does a country return from this?


DSCI0161We ate a quick lunch before Ra’ed drove us back north. We stopped in Hass to talk to a pharmacist about Leishmaniasis, a disease spread by sand flies now rampant in the country. Abu Farouq complained that he had the syringes (treatment involves injections into the skin ulcers caused by the disease) but not the medicine to fill the syringes.

Mercifully, Atmeh was open, which saved us from climbing that wall once again. As we approached the camp through the olive groves, we asked Ra’ed a final, uncomfortable question. “If you’d known what would happen, would you have still joined the revolution?”

“No,” he said, matter-of-fact. “The price was too high. Just in Kafranbel we’ve had 150 martyrs. As many as that are missing; they’re probably dead too.”

He rubbed his massive nose.

“As for me, I can’t cry anymore. I don’t feel properly. I’ve taken pictures of too many battles. I’ve photographed the martyrs.”

Hands on the wheel, he shrugged his shoulders.

“But it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.”

Iran Shoots Itself in the Foot

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.

Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.

Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.

In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.

Iran’s backing for al-Assad is ironic because at a certain point the Syrian revolution was the one that most resembled 1979 in Iran – the violent repression of demonstrations leading to angry funerals leading to still more in a constantly expanding circle of anger and defiance; the people chanting allahu akbar from their balconies at night; women in hijabs joining women with bouffant hair to protest against regime brutality.

It was also a massive miscalculation, a lesser cousin to the miscalculations made by Bashaar al-Assad, and one which stripped the Islamic Republic of the last shreds of its revolutionary legitimacy. Like the Syrian president, Iran was popular among Syrians until twenty two months ago, even among many sectarian-minded Sunnis. (So too was Hizbullah, now widely reviled. In 2006, the Syrian people – not the regime – welcomed into their homes a million south Lebanese refugees from Israeli bombing.) It now seems very unlikely that any post-Assad dispensation in Syria will want to preserve Iranian influence. The Free Syrian Army, the anti-Assad Islamist militias, and the Syrian National Coalition all see Iran as an enemy of Syria, not as an honest broker that could help negotiate a transition.

Iranian popularity has also collapsed in the wider Arab world, where its pro-Assad policy has undercut its position more effectively than American or Israeli messaging could ever have done. (James Zogby’s poll was conducted in June 2011, too early for revulsion over Syria to have fully developed, but it nevertheless shows a dramatic decrease in favourable attitudes to Iran.)

Back in August, President Morsi (whose foreign policy has been much more intelligent than his domestic governance) chastised his hosts on the Syrian issue. “We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria,” he said, “and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer to a democratic system.” The Iranian leadership was embarrassed enough to censor this part of Morsi’s speech from its state TV broadcasts.

Morsi also offered the Iranians the following deal: Egypt would develop a warm economic and political relationship with Iran to the extent of championing Iran’s nuclear energy program and opposing sanctions in the international fora. In return, Iran would pull back from its support of the Assad regime.

By its continued support for Assad, Iran in effect rejected the deal. Nevertheless, Morsi set up a four nation contact group – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – which has foundered not only on Iranian intransigence but also on Saudi absences from meetings. (Saudi Arabia has offered rhetorical support and some light weapons to the Syrian resistance; it also sent troops to Bahrain to help put down the democratic uprising there.) Egyptian-Iranian consultations on Syria continue.

Morsi was actually offering something substantial to the Iranians. It’s difficult to see how negotiations involving the Americans could produce better results so long as the US, bound up as it is with Israel’s self-perceived interests in the region, insists on sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.

This is a great shame. Alongside Russia, Iran is the only power to exert any real influence on Bashaar al-Assad. It is to be hoped that, as the fall of the Assad regime becomes more apparent, wisdom will eventually prevail in Tehran. A volte face even at this late stage would strengthen Iran in its battles with the West and would temper rising anti-Shia sentiment in Syria and the wider Arab World.

– Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel, co-editor of the Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal which looks like a book, and of He blogs at


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