Robin Yassin-Kassab has distinguished himself as one of Britain’s leading regime-change propagandists. Whether it’s Libya, Syria or Venezuela, Mr. Yassin-Kassab can be handsomely relied upon to supply the clever and poetic armoury to push forward narratives to facilitate Western imperialism militarily overhauling a nation-state not to its predisposition. For most of the last decade, Syria was his favoured target for spewing regime-change propaganda. His byline has furnished The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Newsweek as well as the media of the Gulf state despots such as Al-Jazeera, The National and Al-Araby. Yassin-Kassab’s main contribution to the Syria regime-change campaign culminated in a book he co-authored with a certain Ms Leila Al-Shami titled, ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’.
War or regime-change propaganda is obviously nothing new. For the hundred years before the outbreak of the war on Syria, the Western establishment have provided bogus claims as pretext for war. Among the most infamous are Huns eating Belgian babies during World War One; Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin when the United States directly attacked Vietnam on the pretext of falsely claiming it was attacked by the Vietnamese; Iraqi soldiers removing babies from incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals in 1990; Weapons of Mass Destruction falling in the hands of al-Qaeda peddled by George Bush and Tony Blair regimes; Iraq’s purchase of Uranium from Niger; African mercenaries on Viagra killing and raping their way through Libya before the regime-change in Libya commenced. This essay argues that Yassin-Kassab’s account in ‘Burning Country’ of what happened in Aleppo in July 2012 must be seen in this ignoble historical context of regime-change propaganda. He begins his account of Aleppo with the following:
“On the night of 19 July 2012, as battle erupted in the Salahudeen neighbourhood, thousands of fighters poured into the city from the northern and eastern countryside. Videos of the convoy filled distant revolutionaries with enthusiasm to echo that of the men on the backs of trucks…brandishing Kalashnikovs and freedom flags.”[i]
Before this date, he acknowledges that Aleppo “had remained largely calm in the revolution’s early months…The poorer people of the outer suburbs and nearby towns felt a certain resentment towards those overcomfortable Aleppans who’d sat on the sidelines…”[ii] that is, ordinary Aleppans who he belittles as “overcomfortable”, wanted nothing to do with the “revolution” or the regime –change project. He also provides no evidence to substantiate the “feelings” and “resentment” besides the anecdote of one sympathiser from a city of two million people.
Yassin-Kassab continues that “the liberation of Aleppo” i.e. its invasion by rural militants, “had a definite class dimension – armed farmers and workers of the rural hinterland were welcomed by militants in the city’s working class zones.”[iii] Once again, he provides no evidence on their welcome and I would be very surprised if any of the “armed farmers” from the rural hinterland know what “class” is.
So even when we read between the lines in Yassin-Kassab’s account, it is quite easy to decipher that there was no “liberation” of Aleppo but simply an invasion from the Syrian countryside. To confirm that Aleppo in July 2012 was invaded by hordes of rural militant peasants we could turn to two sympathisers of the Syrian “revolution”. Firstly, Professor Samer Abboud in his account of the war on Syria, also claims that before the city was invaded:
“local Aleppines did not protest in large numbers against the regime, nor did armed groups emerge from within the city’s civilian population. Indeed, until mid-2012, Aleppo was relatively stable compared to other parts of Syria…[but] By 2012, FSA-affliliated brigades had entered Aleppo and established a presence.”[iv]
If I were to raid my neighbour’s house with weapons, I would not be “establish[ing] a presence” in my neighbour’s house, I would rightly be referred to, at the very least, an anti-social monster who upon being removed from said property would expect to be brought before a court of law to face a long prison sentence. More so, I am surprised the good Professor fails to inform his readers whether these “armed groups” emerged from Jupiter or the Syrian countryside.
Secondly, Rania Abouzeid, a journalist working in the Middle East for many years has written a book, “No Turning Back” about the Syrian War to rave reviews. Among the reviewers is Yassin- Kassab who endorses book as an “excellent account”. Abouzeid is more forthright about the nightmare that befell Aleppo in July 2012. The city was,
“dragged into the uprising in July 2012 like a hostage who were not its sons. The rebels who pushed into Aleppo were from the poorer, more religious conservative countryside around it. A band of rivals, not brothers, who weren’t welcomed by locals – men with little camaraderie, undisciplined groups, some of which looted the homes of civilians they claimed to be protecting.”[v]
So, there we have it Yassin-Kassab praises a book which totally contradicts his own account of Aleppo’s capture. Whereas he lauds the “liberation” of Aleppo, Abouzeid rightly informs her readers that the city was kidnapped by a disparate bunch of rural jihadis or as she says people from the, “more religious conservative countryside”. Whereas, Yassin-Kassab claims that these jihadis were welcomed by “militants in the city’s working-class zones”, Abouzeid claims they were not welcomed and indeed began their occupational tenure in Aleppo by looting the homes of the people in “liberated Aleppo”.
From establishing that there was no revolution or liberation in Aleppo in July 2012, we can now turn to identifying who specifically invaded the city of two million which had by all accounts remained relatively peaceful in the early months Syria’s upheaval.
On this point Yassin-Kassab rightly states that most of “Aleppo’s fighters were affiliated with the Tawheed, or Unification brigade – originally a merger of the revolutionary militias formed in the northern countryside.”[vi] The Arabic name is actually, Liwa’ al-Tawheed which Yassin-Kassab claims is “redolent of Islam” and “also of the national unity envisioned by the slogans of 2011.”[vii] Yassin-Kassab mis-translates the name of the brigade to take away its Islamist edge. The name actually translates as some variation of “Monotheism Brigade”.
There is nothing controversial about Tawheed per se and indeed it is as old as Islam itself but in jihadi circles it has acquired an understanding that is at distance from the original. To gain a more specific understanding of “Tawheed”, I have turned to another pro-regime change merchant, the academic, Dr. Shiraz Maher of King’s College London who has written a seminal book on Jihadis called, “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea”. Once again Yassin-Kassab reviews the book as “majestic” and “essential reading”. At its most fundamental level, Tawheed (oneness of God) is a concept which distinguishes Prophet Muhammad’s vision from the preceding era of polytheistic jahiliyya (ignorance) in the seventh century Arabian desert. However, in jihadi circles in the 1990s and especially after 9/11 it gained a more politicised meaning among jihadis like Osama bin Laden which certainly doesn’t take into account Yassin-Kassab’s “national unity”. Maher claims that for jihadis, the “political realisation of tawhid [Tawheed]” is “intrinsically linked to the establishment of faith itself.” And he proceeds to quote bin Laden who argued that Tawheed is disbelief in the taghut (non-monotheism) as a central pillar of Tawheed and ordinary Muslims who do not fulfil this pillar are not monotheist.[viii] Therefore, the implementation of Tawheed is in effect the implementation of one’s basic faith. What’s peculiar is that in Yassin-Kassab’s review of Maher’s book, he rightly translates Tawheed as “oneness of God”.
Another academic Dr. Christopher Phillips based at Queen Mary’s University in London in his book on the events in Syria, “The Battle for Syria”, translates the name as “Monotheism brigade”.[ix] If the name of the brigade was indeed “Unification”, then the Arabic equivalent would be, Wahdah. On this basis, Yassin-Kassab is not only mistranslating but concealing the Islamist nature of the name of the brigade of the rural militants.
The jihadist nature of Liwa al-Tawheed is confirmed by another propagandist for regime-change, this time Charles Lister who is known to be in the employment of Gulf state funded Western think tanks. Yassin-Kassab praises Lister’s book on the war on Syria, “The Syrian Jihad: The Evolution of an Insurgency” as “the definite account” on jihadi groups. Lister ideologically classifies Liwa al-Tawheed’s philosophy as an “ideology akin to the Muslim Brotherhood and enjoyed strong Qatari backing.”[x]
More so, not only do they have an ideology akin to the Muslim Brotherhood but as Lister confirmed they enjoyed a close-knit military alliance with Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the so-called Jabhat al-Nusra. The Muslim Brotherhood is known for its long history of brutal sectarianism in Syria and Al-Qaeda is not known for its insistence on democracy or national unity. According to Lister several months after the invasion of East Aleppo, in November 2012, Tawheed Brigade co-signed a declaration with Jabhat al-Nusra calling for an Islamic state and rejecting a secular future for Syria. The declaration stated,
“We are representatives of the fighting formations in Aleppo and we declare our rejection of the conspiratorial project, the so-called national alliance…We have unanimously agreed to urgently establish an Islamic state.”[xi]
So much for Yassin-Kassab’s false idea that Liwa al-Tawheed’s name represents “national unity envisioned by the slogans of 2011”. Furthermore, in September 2013, Liwa al-Tawheed issued another statement co-signed with Nusra/al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups calling for, inter alia, unification, “within a clear Islamic frame created on an Islamic power based upon sharia arbitration and make it the sole source of legislation.”[xii]
Yassin-Kassab then quite remarkably bemoans that the Tawheed Brigade, “ultimately presided over a cantonisation rather than a collective rebirth.” This is not a surprise as Western-Gulf backed jihadis always produce cantonisation whether in Afghanistan or Libya. The idea of a “collective rebirth” is mere poetic propaganda to cover up for the inevitable dismantling and disintegration of Aleppo. Yassin-Kassab proceeds to justify the attendant jihadi looting of the city on the basis of resourcefulness. That is,the reader is left the impression or to silently conclude that if militants were provided more support by the West and GCC countries such gangsterism would not have taken place,
“Hungry for bullets and food, rebel commanders squabbled over resources. By December, looting and gangsterism were common. Aleppo’s factories were stripped and sold off – sometimes to feed the fighters [invaders] sometimes to buy villas in Turkey. Some, posing as FSA militants, full-time highwaymen.”[xiii]
Once again Abouzeid is more forthright on what happened to Aleppo once the jihadi gangs established authority, “Nusra [al-Qaeda] stripped Aleppo’s multimillion-dollar factories bare and sold their equipment in Turkey for millions.”[xiv]
Aleppo or east Aleppo fell to jihadi gangs in July 2012 who according to Lister were financed by Qatar. The largesse received from Qatar did not sufficiently quench their desire for booty so they dismantled and looted the industrial infrastructure of the city. This is the reality which Yassin-Kassab classifies as “liberated Aleppo”.
More so, when these jihadis were on the verge of total expulsion from Aleppo to much Western and Gulf chagrin in late 2016, Yassin-Kassab bemoaned their defeat in Qatari media by disgustingly turning history on its head. He wrote that the imminent defeat and expulsion of the Qatari backed jihadis amounted to “population transfer”. And as such was on a par with the Palestinian experience of being ethnic cleansed in 1948 by Zionist forces! Palestinians that were ethnically cleansed in 1947-8 were indigenous to Palestine; the vast majority of Syrians and other jihadi nationals that were expelled from east Aleppo in late 2016 were not, they were originally a “band of rivals, not brothers, who weren’t welcomed by locals” in the words of Abouzeid. But what makes this analogy exceedingly disturbing, if not twisted, is that the Zionist state of Israel had been generously supporting the Syrian armed militants over the course of this war. One could argue that it is actually Yassin-Kassab and the Zionists of Israel who have enjoyed a de-facto military alliance against the Syrian state.
In conclusion, there was no revolution in Aleppo July 2012. The people who invaded and captured mostly eastern parts of Aleppo at this time were unwelcome jihadis from the countryside who proceeded to loot and dismantle the industrial infrastructure of the city under their control. They then sold the looted industrial parts in Turkey to the tune of millions. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s claim that the events of July 2012 in Aleppo were hitherto the “armed resistence’s greatest success” falls short and stands out, at the very least, as blatant propaganda if not outright deception. Then again, the media’s regime-change brigade lied about Vietnam, lied about Iraq, lied about Libya, so why would anyone expect anything else but a continued lack of sincerity about Aleppo?
Update: It has come to the author’s attention that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report in November 2017, almost one year after the jihadis were expelled from Aleppo which states that since militants’ defeat and expulsion, 300,000 Syrians have returned to east Aleppo. Therefore, proving that Yassin-Kassab’s theory of “population transfer” was entirely premature, misplaced and wrong.
[i] Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, (London: Pluto Press) 2016, pg.94
[ii] ibid., pg.94-95
[iii] ibid., pg. 95
[iv] Samer N. Abboud, Syria (Cambridge: Polity), 2018, pg.200
[v] Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria, (London: Oneworld), 2018, pg. 171
[vi] Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, op.cit., pg. 96
[viii] Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, (London: Penguin Books), pg. 153
[ix] Christopher Phillips, The battle for Syria, (London: Yale University Press), 2016, pg. 128
[x] Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: the Evolution of an Insurgency, (London: Hurst & Company), 2017, pg. 86
[xi] ibid. pg.97
[xii] ibid., pg.168
[xiii] Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, op.cit., pg.96
[xiv] Abouzeid, op. cit., pg.204