Interview with Robin Yassin-Kassab on the book 'Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War'


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The interview was for Canada's Free City Radio

FCR: I'm joined online by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who is the co-author of an upcoming book called “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War'. I'm joined by Robin on Skype. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

RYK: Thank you for talking to me.

FCR: It's really a pleasure. Your book is coming at a critical time. There's a lot we can talk about but maybe just first to start, if you could just give us a bit of an introduction about this book that is about to come out, some of the topics you're hoping to address in these texts, some of the urgent issues concerning Syria that you wanted to communicate with people.

RYK: Ok, well first, both I and Leila Al-Shami, my co-author, a British Syrian activist, we felt very strongly that the voices of the Syrian people have not been heard and with some great and valiant exceptions, the media has done a very poor job of reporting of what's been happening in Syria. Unfortunately the leftist media has been just as bad or worse than the rightist media in this. As Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian leftist and ex-political prisoner, who is quoted in our book is saying he can't see the difference between the left and the right from a Syrian leftist point of view. So we felt that people approached this with inaccurate grand narratives. They zoomed out so far that they saw in terms of a fight between Russia and America, which wasn't actually happening, or between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It's now partly becoming about that but it certainly wasn't when it started. Or they think this is a re-run of Iraq 2003, when it's a completely different situation.

There was a popular revolution. And what happened is, everybody knows about Jihadists cutting people's heads off, they know about the movements of states but they don't know about the remarkable things the Syrian people have done. Not many people have bothered to ask what are the Syrian people's motivations, their fears, their hopes. What's their experience of what's happening? In the book we've tried to amplify the voices of people on the ground. I'll give you an example of why that's so important before I go on. For example, at the moment there are about 400 Local Councils in the liberated parts of Syria. By 'liberated' I mean the areas, which are not under the control of the Assad regime and are not under the control of ISIS or Daesh or ISIL, I'm not sure what you call them in Canada.

FCR: All of the above

RYK: (laughs) All of the above, ok. In both of those areas there is activism but it must by necessity happen in secret and underground but in areas that are under the control of other militias, of oppositional militias, from Islamists to Free Army groups, in those areas there are over 400 Local Councils. The communities have organized themselves in those areas in the most difficult of circumstances with bombs dropping on them, in some areas areas under starvation siege. They've held elections, most of these Local Councils are democratically elected. This is a remarkable story.

There's also an explosion of popular culture, of debate. There's over 63 newspapers in a country where a few years ago everything was controlled by the state, lots of free radio stations, lots of exciting things going on and happening that we should know about. It's not often that we have a real revolutionary situation in history. It's a rare historical moment and we've kind of missed out on this one because we've been relying on very poor journalism and poor assumptions and because we started from a point from where we were very ignorant about the Middle East in general and we missed out on this stuff, which is inspiring, interesting and necessary for us to learn from.

At the same time, at the moment, this democratic alternative is being smashed by a full scale international military assault. Iranian transnational Shia militias on the ground and Russian planes clusterbombing from the sky. The country is being depopulated. There was another alternative but the West and East states seem to be collaborating and trying to crush this alternative, which we know so little about. I'll let you talk for a little bit. I've got more to say but I'll let you talk.

FCR: Oh, we're really excited to hear your perspective so as you were mentioning there is very little mainstream reporting about these liberated areas in Syria so if you have any more information or points to expand on, perhaps elements that are included in the upcoming book on this point.

RYK: Well yeah, we've interviewed a lot of people that have been involved in these experiments. We've interviewed a lot of activists, medical practitioners, fighters, organizers, refugees, intellectuals. We deliberately tried to amplify the voices of revolutionary Syrians, of course that's a range of revolutionary Syrians with a range of different ideas but we've also tried to give context because I think that without context you're just left with assumptions and ideology. So we've tried to put the whole story firstly into a historically context.

We start off with the history of Syria. We go to the Ottoman Empire and the French occupation and then the short experience of democracy after that and then the rise of the Baath Party, the militarization of the Baath Party, the rule of Hafez Al-Assad, then the neo-liberal economic reforms of the son Bashar Al-Assad and then the revolution, how it started. How it was a wide ranging, largely leaderless, or entirely leaderless popular movement, which involved people of all sects and backgrounds and how that was so savagely repressed, how the regime deliberately provoked a civil war and a sectarian war, which sounds strange to people. Why on earth would the regime do that? Well they did because they've done it before. They did in the late seventies when there was a movement of leftists and nationalists and liberals and Islamists against them. It wasn't a huge popular revolution like 2011 but it was a movement and they crushed it so ruthlessly that by 1982 all that was left was the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood who staged an uprising in the city of Hama and then the regime had a war situation, which they could deal with. They went in and smashed the city and killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood and left Syrians silent for the next decades until 2011. So they wanted to replicate this. And how did they do it? Well, the same time that they were rounding up tens of thousands peaceful, non-sectarian activists, democratic activists for death by torture, in the Spring of 2011 they were also releasing thousands of Salafist Jihadists terrorists from prison. People that they helped to go to Iraq after 2003 to fight the Americans but more to the point to fight the Shia population there, which helped to start the civil war there. When these Jihadists came back from Iraq the Assad regime put them all in prison and kept them there until the outbreak of the revolution in 2011 when it needed them again. So it set them out.

During 2012, there was a string of sectarian massacres organized by the regime in the area between Homs and Hama. It was designed to create a sectarian Sunni backlash, which would then in turn terrify the minority Alawite community that the regime relies on. Because 80% of the officers in the army are Alawite, because the heads of the intelligence services are Alawite. When we talk about context we then talk about what happened to sectarianization and the Islamization and then how in foreign Jihadist groups, who had nothing to do with Syria, exploited the chaos and came in.

And how they were allowed to grow, which lead to the situation where we now where president Assad is saying look, the choice in Syria is between me and the mad Jihadists and most states in the world and a lot of the public in the world, because they think that is the only alternative between him and the mad Jihadists, then they think well yes, we should accept what the Iranian and the Russians are doing, we should maybe even help Assad get control of the country from these mad head cutters. But it was him who created the conditions for the head cutters to come in. It was his scorched earth that helped it to come in, it was his effective non-aggression pact with ISIS for years, which allowed them to grow. And even today, over 80% of Russian bombs are not falling on ISIS, they are falling on the opposition to both Assad and ISIS, the people who have driven ISIS out of their areas before, the people that we need for any kind of serious solution in Syria. These are the people being eliminated at the moment having the hell bombed out of them. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees to add to the more than 11 million already displaced, more than half of the Syrian population.

It's an enormous and expanding tragedy and the West, through the leadership, if that's what you would call it, of the US, Obama and John Kerry, have in effect handed Syria over to Russia and Iran. In the name of disengagement of the Middle East, which did look like a very good idea when Obama arrived in power after the Bush experience. But he is disengaged in such a precipitous and dangerous way, in a way that takes no account of the democratic movements and revolutions in the region and the hopes of the people there and all he's ended up doing is handing over Syria and Iraq in effect to even more savage and imperialist powers, Russia and Iran in this case, which has become sadly a regional imperialist and the end result of course is that it's such a hell, such a mess is being formed in these two countries that now the US is not disengaged at all. It's back there bombing the hell out of both Syria and Iraq but it's bombing the symptoms and not the cause and it's allowing the Russians to set the terms as they are bombing the democratic nationalist oppositions, the people, the only hope for a longterm serious settlement of the problem.

FCR: There's a particular point that you mentioned, which I just wanted to pick up on, which was that there was a lot of prisoners in Syria that were released from jail after the demonstrations for democracy and social justice began in Syria. I wanted to talk about that because you mentioned that the people released from prison were “Jihadists”. Just for a bit of context, I'm just trying to understand exactly what you mean, because I would imagine that a lot of those people, at least Syrians who are jailed, are from pretty marginalized socio-economic conditions in Syria originally. I do understand your point about a lot of them have gone to Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 but I just would appreciate a bit of context in terms of who those people in prison were, the conditions in prison, because I do understand also that quite a few left activists who were released from prison at that time also.

RYK: I think the proportions of leftists who were released from prison in 2011 were very very small in comparison to the numbers of Salafist Jihadist fighters but that is a very good question that you ask and a necessary one I think. And we'll start by looking very briefly at what the word Jihad means. Because of course the word in English has only negative connotations. When you talk about a Jihadist it immediately sounds like somebody who cuts people's heads off in order to impose a very extreme and puritanical version of an Islamic state and that wad the way I was using it then in my previous statement. But of course in Arabic the word Jihad just means 'struggle' or 'effort'. That's why you find Christian Arabs who have been using Jihad sometimes. It's a very positive word. Islamically, in its Islamic uses it means a spiritual struggle. So the first meaning of the word Jihad is 'a struggle against yourself', against the baser elements of yourself. The struggle to be a better person, the struggle to be honest, the struggle to be a good parent, a good husband, you know, this kind of stuff is the traditional understanding of the main meaning of Jihad. Of course throughout history it also has a warlike meaning, something that approximates to the kind of English translation 'Holy War' and at times it's being used as a propaganda word for Muslim armies taking over other places.

In the current situation I think we have to talk about when we are talking about the Islamists in Syria, we have to recognize that there's a huge range of Islamists and in the world. Islamism is a very vague thing. It's the notion that some aspects, principles of Islam should in some way be applied to political organizations. Now you even have a few, although the movement is in general very rightwing, you even have a few leftist versions of Islamism, there's a feminist version of Islamism, there's anarcho-Islamists even These are little minority groups but these exist. So it's a wide ranging thing.

Now in Syria, in terms of the militias fighting, firstly we have the Free Army groups, who are the people that I think should be getting much more consistent support and should be allowed to have anti-aircraft weapons to defend their people from this terrible areal assault. And those people have no political agenda other than to get rid of this regime, defend the people from the regime and its foreign backers and to then arrive at a situation in which Syrian people themselves can decide what comes next through some kind of democratic process. After that you've got a group of militias that are collectively known as the Islamic Front. These include, the most famous ones are Jaysh al-Islam, the leader Zahran Alloush was recently killed by a Russian airstrike in the Damascus suburbs. And Jaysh al-Islam is strongest in some of the Damascus suburbs in the Ghouta area. And we also have a group called Ahrar ash-Sham, which is Turkish backed. It operates mainly in the north of Syria and it's probably the most extreme of these ones in the Islamic Front.

Now the position of many of the revolutionaries with regards to these Islamic groups is that they are both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary at the same time. It's very complicated. In this war situation people like me feel torn by an obvious contradiction that we are on the one hand supporting these organizations in their fight against the regime and its foreign backers and in defending their communities, which is what they are trying to do, and we recognize that they are Syrians, these are Syrian organizations, not foreign organizations and they have a constituency, they do represent some Syrians. They also allow, so I was talking earlier about the Local Councils and about elections, women centers I didn't mention, free newspapers the areas controlled by these Syrian Islamist militias, this kind of democratic civil society is allowed to continue. There are obvious exceptions to this and the biggest exception is the case of the Douma four, where four revolutionary and human rights activists primarily Razan Zaitouneh, who are book is dedicated to, were abducted almost definitely by Jaysh Al-Islam, this Islamic Front militia in Douma, in this Damascus suburb and we haven't seen any of these four since. Of course Jaysh Al-Islam denies doing it, it says it was the regime or some other group, it wasn't them but the families of these activists and the friends of these activists, people who know, are convinced it was Jaysh Al-Islam.

So there are these terrible authoritarian tendencies amongst these and they've made very sectarian comments at times, which helps Assad by continuing to alienate scared minority groups from the revolution. So in this sense they are counter-revolutionary but as I've said, they are much better than either Assad or ISIS. In a war situation people will put up with these kind of people and we would hope that in the future where the regime is gone and the bombing has stopped then these civilian Councils, which are allowed to operate in these areas, will call for the disarmament of such militias. As they consist of Syrian men who are of the people I think that they may listen.

The next group. So we've talked about the Free Army, then we've talked about the all Syrian Islamist groups like Jaysh Al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham and now I have to go on to the transnational Jihadists, Salafist Jihadists who have a global agenda, not just a Syrian agenda and there are two of them, Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda, it is Al-Qaeda, and then there is ISIS or Daesh. These two of course are at war with each other and ISIS is at war with everybody. Now it's at war with the Free Army, with the Islamic Front, with Jabhat Al-Nusra, with Al-Qaeda and with the states in the region and the world. I think ISIS, because it's apocalyptic and millenarian and, at least its propaganda believes that these are the end of days and so on and it's declared war on everybody... It doesn't have a Syrian constituency, it's trying to engineer one by brainwashing children in schools and so on at the moment, but it doesn't have a Syrian constituency, it's an occupation force though many Syrians have joined up for various because they see no optional or whatever but because it's declared war on everybody I think everybody will finally defeat it. And if you could just stop the chaos in Syria it would naturally be defeated by the people, if you stop the bombing and so on. Jabhat Al-Nusra is a different matter because Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is traditional Al-Qaeda if you like, has learned a lot of lessons from its past experiences and it's being very intelligent in Syria in not trying to impose total control in certain areas. It's working in coalition with other militias, it's working inside communities and it's...I mean there are centers for example open even in towns where the dominant militia is Jabhat Al-Nusra. They sometimes have made trouble but in general they haven't because they are embedding themselves deeply within Syrian society. They are showing the tormented Syrian people, look no one has come to your aide, in fact now the West is kinda openly collaborating it seems, openly agreeing whatever its rethoric is, it's openly agreeing with the Russian and Iranian foreign onslaught on you, and we are here as your Muslim brothers from all over the world to support you. And that's why they are better rooted in Syrian society.

Because no one has sent any anti-aircraft weaponry, which would be more useful than millions and millions of pounds of charity, to the Free Army to help them to defend their community from this constant aerial bombardement. But these Muslims from all over the world have turned up and said, we're willing to help. So that's a longterm danger. The abandonment of the Syrian people by the states of the world and also by the Left, who often believed silly conspiracy theories about it and didn't learn what was actually happening. And then Islamists came from abroad and kindof engaged and as a result they've got a state on the ground now, sadly. And of course this is very dangerous for the Syrian people because some of the Syrian people are Islamists and they have different ideas about different kinds of Islamic states. To some Syrian ears the notion of Islamic state doesn't mean head cutting and amputations, to some people it means good, honest, clean government and moral government. So there are some Syrians who are Islamists but I think the vast majority of Syrians, what they would like and what's so far from this, is a society in which they can choose and nobody will impose upon them. And what these foreign Jihadist groups have in common with the Assad regime and Russia and Iran and the powers of the world is that they don't want democracy in Syria, they don't want revolutions, they don't want people organizing themselves and making their own decisions. They want to impose their ideas by force. So the Syrians are now at war with all forms of authoritarianism and it's not a struggle which is well understood which is why we wrote the book.

FCR: And that book is 'Burning Country: Syrians in revolution and war' and we've been joined by co-author Robin Yassin-Kassab from London. Thanks so much for your time today.

RYK: From Scotland actually. The Scottish nationalists will be upset if we say from London.

FCR: From which city are we speaking to you from?

RYK: From a very small town called Castle Douglas in Gangaway in the South West of Scotland.

FCR: Well, thanks so much for your time and again just to encourage people to check out your book, do you have a website?

RYK: Well, my website is and there's lots of information about the book and articles I've written on that but my co-author Leila Al-Shami, if you look her up, she also has a website.

About the Author


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