Meeting Robin Yassin-Kassab

Meeting Robin Yassin-Kassab
Interview: The author and journalist spoke to Andy Heintz about how Syria came to be the intractable conflict it now appears to be.
13 min read
28 Mar, 2018
Syrian civilians and rebels prepare to board evacuation buses in Arbin, Eastern Ghouta [AFP]

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road from Damascus. He is co-author, with Leila al-Shami, of the Rathbone-Folio prize-shortlisted book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. He has written articles for Daily Beast, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and Foreign Policy magazine. He co-edits and blogs at

He spoke to Andy Heintz for The New Arab.

Andy Heintz: What do you think is the best political solution for Syria?

Robin Yassin-Kassab: "What should happen is all foreign forces should leave the country, and that includes Sunni terrorists and extremists who come from elsewhere to join Sunni extremist organisations. It also includes the more than 100,000 Shia militia members, who have been organised by Iran, that are occupying Syria.

"The Russians and Americans should also leave, and the situation should be left to Syrians. I think the Syrians should have been allowed to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. He would have fallen if it wasn't for massive foreign intervention on his side.

"I don't imagine there would have been immediate peace and prosperity after the war ended, but the process towards building a more representative and decentralised government could have been ongoing among Syrians. Now we have no hope of this happening because the war has become regionalised and internationalised. So much of what is going to happen is in the hands of Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States.

"Democratic nationalist fighters and the democratic local councils where people have been elected in liberated areas have to be brought into the political process for a real peace process to work."

AH: If Bashar al-Assad falls, do you worry there will be a battle between Sunni extremist groups and the Free Syrian Army?

RY-K: "Yes, I do. But I don't think the situation will be that simple. There have already been battles between opposition militias and extremist groups. It's a great shame that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was not seriously supported by the outside powers. It would have been in the interest of world stability if, in 2012-2013, any outside force would have aided and armed the FSA in a centralised way.

"What happened was the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Turks each armed their own groups. No one was really interested in arming the nationalist democratic defectors from the Syrian army, who had no agenda other than trying to stop the regime from killing people, and then letting the people decide what came next through a democratic process.

"The result of this was a splintering of the opposition, authoritarians seizing controls of different militias, the traumatisation of the Syrian people, and the regionalisation of the conflict - especially with the intervention of Iran. This helped create an increasingly strong jihadist opposition."

AH: How long did the peaceful demonstrations last in Syria before people finally took up arms in response to brutal repression by the Syrian government?

RY-K: "There are still people who go out on Friday and protest unarmed for the same things - social justice, freedom, opposition to all forms of authoritarianism - they went out and protested for in 2011.

"The Syrian revolution really didn't start to look like a war until the summer of 2012, although there were still enormous peaceful demonstrations going on at that time."

When the Russians came in, they concentrated their fire not on the Islamic State group, but on the democratic nationalists and the FSA militias

AH: Can you talk about Russia's role in the Syrian civil war?

RY-K: "When the Russians came in, they concentrated their fire not on the Islamic State group, but on the democratic nationalists and the FSA militias. There was a concerted effort to take the urban areas held by revolutionary forces. These urban areas were the basic support network for the FSA, local councils and democratic alternatives to the state.

"The FSA does still exist: it has always existed as an umbrella term referring to thousands of fighters who just want to end Assad's misrule over Syria. However, the FSA is split up, under siege and dominated in some areas by transnational groups like Jabhat al-Nusra."


AH: Do you feel like more aid from the Obama administration to the Free Syrian Army would have toppled Assad - even with the Iranians and Russians backing the Assad regime?

RY-K: "When the Russians intervened militarily in September 2015, the Assad regime was in control of about one-fifth of the national territory. This was the case despite the huge number of Iranian proxies in the country at the time.

"What spurred the Russians to intervene was the Iranians flew to Moscow and said 'you have to come rescue Assad, or he's going to fall'. There was a group of Islamists and jihadist groups called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [previously known as the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra] in the northwest, which was supported by the FSA, that had taken Idlib and were coming up through the coastal areas, which is supposedly the regime's heartland.

"It was very problematic that one of the leading groups in the coalition of fighters taking these territories from the Assad regime was al-Nusra. Still, Assad was falling. I don't think it would have taken that much to change the situation.

"What Syrians really needed from the Obama administration was anti-aircraft weaponry. I don't think it was necessary for the Americans or any other country to give Syrians weaponry to fight their way into Assad's palace or hometown. I think they should have given them the weaponry to defend themselves and their community.

"If civilian communities are being bombed in a way that deliberately targets civilian infrastructure - schools, hospitals, homes - and there is no diplomatic way of stopping this, then the civilians have a right to defend themselves. There were times when the Obama administration gave the Turks, Saudis and Qataris the green light to send the Syrian fighters anti-tank missiles, but not anti-aircraft weaponry."

AH: Do you think the US would have been justified in arming the FSA if a fraction of the weapons were getting into the hands of jihadist groups?

RY-K: "If we found out that two percent of the weapons that were allowed to go to the FSA got into the hands of al-Nusra, I don't think this would have been an enormous problem. Most of the weaponry used by the rebels was captured from the Syrian regime.

"As for the Islamic State [group], most of its weapons were captured when the Iraqi army fled Mosul. These are weapons the US showered on the government in Iraq."

AH: What are your thoughts on the Rojava revolution and its implications for those living in the areas the YPG-YPJ-SDF have liberated from the Islamic State group?

RY-K: "If you want permanent peace in these areas and don't want the Islamic State to return, you have to involve the local people who rose up to challenge the Assad regime in first place. They need to be allowed to set up their own political structures."

AH: Is there hope for an alliance between the FSA and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces?

RY-K: "One would hope. The Syrian Democratic Forces are controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Some Arab refugees are returning to areas under PYD control, but others are not returning because they worry the PYD will give these areas back to Assad. Both sides share some blame for the conflict between them.

"The mainstream revolutionaries on the Arab side should have been very clear in 2011 that they accepted Kurdish autonomy and self-determination in areas where the Kurds were in the majority.

"On the other hand, the PYD both is and isn't a revolutionary force. To most people in Syria, the PYD looks more like a Kurdish nationalist force than a revolutionary force. This goes back to the relationship between the Assad regime and the PYD, and its parent organisation, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). PKK nationalist leader Abdullah Ocalan was protected and allowed to live in Syria by President Hafez al-Assad. Hafez, and later his son Bashar, allowed the PYD to flourish in Syria because the PYD tended to focus on the Kurdish struggle in Turkey, not the struggle for civil rights for Kurds within Syria.

"When the regime withdrew from a lot of areas in northern Syria in 2012, it withdrew from the Kurdish-majority areas without a fight and handed these areas over to the PYD. By capturing the Castello Road, the PYD helped the regime and Iran to impose the siege on Aleppo city, which later led to the city's fall.

"Some months before, the PYD had occupied Tel Rifaat and other Arab-majority towns in Aleppo province. The PYD said they were taking these regions from jihadists, but they were taking them from FSA militias. These were towns that had local democratic councils, and the people fled by the thousands when the PYD arrived."

AH: Can you talk more about Iran's role in Syria?

RY-K: "The Iranian regime sent 120,000 Shia militiamen to occupy Syria - Iran has also intervened in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon in profoundly destabilising ways. Iran has been a huge destabiliser in the country and it is one of the big reasons that the Islamic State [group] grew so quickly.

"The conflict became less about people demanding rights from a brutal dictator, and more about Shia Muslims taking control of Sunni territories. Sunni identity groups were able to thrive in this atmosphere."


AH: Could you also discuss how former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's actions helped destabilise Iraq and create an atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of a group like IS not only in Iraq, but Syria as well?

RY-K: "Iyadi Allawi's bloc got two more seats than Maliki's bloc in the 2010 elections, but Maliki stayed in power with US backing. This gave Sunni Arabs the idea that Iran was in charge through Maliki, because he was Iran's man.

"In 2011, there were protests in the context of the Arab Spring in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. Maliki responded to these peaceful protests with violence. This was the context the Islamic State group exploited, and which allowed it to take over vast Iraqi territories in 2014."

AH: Can you respond to those on the American Left who have framed the civil war as being between the jihadists and the Assad regime - because some factions of the FSA made short-term alliances with violent Islamist extremist groups, like al-Nusra, to fight against what they saw as the greater enemy?

RY-K: "It's racist in its simplicity. It's this Islamophobic narrative where you can reduce every issue to terrorism and jihadism that used to be embraced by the Right. But ever since the Arab Spring revolutions and counter-revolutions, you have seen the Left adopting this same language.

"Nobody is denying there are Islamist extremist groups in Syria after seven years of fighting. The leftists ignore the Shia jihadists. The current estimates are there are about 120,000 Shia jihadists in Syria. These jihadists are not just Iranian militias or Hizballah from Lebanon, there also are jihadists from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These people are jihadists and they are fighting on behalf of the supposedly secular regime.

"There is no Syrian army left. Assad only has one or two units left that are still effective - and they are more loyal to the local warlords than the government. Eighty percent of the forces fighting for Assad are Shia militiamen from around the world. The Left ignores all of this and paints Assad as a secularist."

AH: What is your critique of some leftists seeing the situation through the prism of the US government seeking regime change in Syria?

RY-K: "Any leftist analysis that seems to assume that America has had a regime change plot - and that's what this is about in Syria is seriously lost. You have a basically fascist regime in Syria that was carrying out neoliberal economics until 2011, and then you had a genuine popular uprising against it.

"This uprising didn't occur because the CIA or Mossad were phoning people up. That's not why ordinary people go outside and risk their lives. Syrians are not children. They decided to go out into the streets in the context of the Arab Spring because they had seen apparent successes of revolutions in countries nearby.

"They demonstrated and protested for social justice and democracy, and then they were slaughtered and raped and tortured. The armed uprising came out of this chaos and it wasn't supported the way it should have been supported by people around the world. It was slammed and misunderstood, and today people have retreated into absurd racist conspiracy theories about the Syrian revolution, while it's being comprehensively slaughtered by international, regional and local fascist forces of imperialism and reaction."

If you identify with a struggle fought by people from a different culture, then you have to know something about that culture

AH: Does the Western Left struggle to understand the heterogeneity of Islam in the Middle East and Muslim World?

RY-K: "There is a cultural comprehension problem in the West. They look around the world, and they will show solidarity with a struggle if they can project themselves onto it.

"I think it's arrogant and colonial to expect the struggles of peoples of different cultures to try and appeal to you. The way it should work is if you identify with a struggle fought by people from a different culture, then you have to know something about that culture. Islam is a huge phenomenon in the Arab and Muslim world, and its spectrum is as big as socialism.

"For instance, before the revolution in Darayya - a town outside Damascus - people were influenced by a liberal Islamist scholar named Abd al-Akram al-Saqqa, who preached about pluralism, the rights of women, and the rights of the individual, and democracy. This was the best way he thought to interpret the Islamic doctrine in the modern world. This resulted in a tradition of civic engagement in the town before the revolution.

"This cultural comprehension problem isn't only a problem for elements of the Left, it is also a problem for the so-called realist establishment thinkers in America and Europe. The excuse that was used to not build up the Free Syrian Army when the Assad regime's violence had reached such a level that war seemed inevitable was that if weapons were sent into Syria some of those weapons might get into the hands of jihadists - and they may use it against us and against Israel.

"That was precisely the wrong way of looking at the situation. I argued and wrote at the time that if you don't help the people - the nationalists, the defectors from the army, the volunteers who just wanted to defend themselves - stop this regime and then decide what they want to do next, then of course international Islamists are going to come in and exploit the vacuum and take over."

AH: What would you say to critics who ideologically sided with the Free Syrian Army, but who were concerned about the prospect of a showdown between the United States and Russia if the US government were to support a no-fly zone or take some other action that could lead to armed conflict between the two nuclear-armed states?

RY-K: "I don't think Putin is insane. I think it's absolutely impossible he would risk a nuclear standoff with the United States over his grandstanding in Syria. Russia is weaker than the United States in military terms - nuclear-wise and militarily - and the Russian government understands this.

"I don't think the United States wanted to have a confrontation with Russia either.

"Obama said chemical weapons were a 'red line', then the Assad regime used chemical weapons in 2013 that killed 1,500 people in a few hours, and the red line disappeared. The United States handed the Russian government and Russian Prime Minister Sergei Lavrov control over pressuring the Syrian regime to dispose of their stockpile of nuclear weapons. Relinquishing an area to another savage power is still horrible imperialism.

AH: One argument that has been used to make the case against more United States involvement on the side of the FSA is that it didn't make sense to fight Assad and IS at the same time. Would your counter-argument be that America wouldn't have had to deal with IS if the proper weapons had been supplied to the FSA in the early stages of the armed rebellion?

RY-K: "What the Americans could have done is they could have told the Saudis, Qataris, and the Turks, 'We can see you want to send weapons to armed opposition groups. We will help you do that and we will even help you fund these groups if you allow us to make sure it all goes through the FSA'.

"The Islamic State group is one symptom of the collapse of Syria, which was caused by Assad. IS didn't exist in Syria during the initial stages of the revolution. It was an Iraqi-based organisation. The Islamic State is barbaric and must be eliminated, but the vast majority of the casualties in Syria have been caused by the Assad regime and its allies."

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.