The London Review of Books on Syria

An improvised weapon in Aleppo
An improvised weapon in Aleppo

Robin Yassin-Kassab

I wrote to the editor of the London Review of Books concerning their Syria (and Libya) coverage. There’s been no reply, so I’m posting the letter here.



Watching the representation of the tragedy in the media has been almost as depressing as watching Syria burn. As someone with strong leftist and anti-imperialist leanings, it’s been particularly galling to find that ‘leftist’ commentary on Syria has often been the worst of all. Large sections of the left have wholeheartedly embraced the very discourse that they resisted during the War on Terror years – that of ‘terrorists’ and al-Qa’ida conspiracies explaining all. Leftist journalists have paid little or no attention to the regime’s blatant and deliberate instrumentalisation of sectarian hatreds, but have focussed on, and exaggerated, the backlash. Robert Fisk has gone so far as to embed himself with the regime army, and to (grotesquely) interview survivors of the Darayya massacre in the presence of the perpetrators of the massacre. Many leftists have convinced themselves, against all the evidence, that the American-led empire has been conspiring against the Syrian regime since the start of the revolution, that this is a re-run of Iraq. Tariq Ali even appeared on Russia Today (near the start) to explain that America was trying to take over Syria but Russia was protecting the country. Russia – the imperialist power which is arming and funding the regime as it commits genocide.

I subscribe to the London Review of Books because it’s by far the best written, most incisive, most reflective, and bravest British publication. Publishing Walt and Mearsheimer was a great move. On the middle east, Adam Shatz is always excellent, well-informed, interested in teasing out a complex truth. Much of the coverage of the revolutions has been eurocentric and orientalist, however. I agreed with novelist Hisham Matar when he called ‘shame’ on Hugh Roberts’s very long Libyan piece which at no point attempted to see things from a Libyan perspective. Rather, it cast the Libyans as passive agents, pawns in the hands of the devilishly clever white man. And on Syria, commentary has been statist-leftist, as if this were an amusing chess game between regional and super powers rather than a struggle for freedom and a genocide, with only one side receiving sustained imperialist aid. I wrote in brief about Patrick Cockburn’s orientalism here.

London Review of Books in the Israel Lobby’s crosshairs

If I had to rank the world’s best publications, I would put the London Review of Books on top. Unlike its progenitor, the NY Review of Books, it is edgier, more daring in its politics. It also has a generally-superior stable of writers. The late Edward Said was a frequent contributor, so is my friend Tariq Ali. Its Israel-Palestine beat is covered by critical voices like Rashid Khalidi, Yitzhak Laor, Ilan Pappe, Neve Gordon, Uri Avnery, Charles Glass, Henry Siegman, Alastair Crooke, Avi Shlaim, Sara Roy, Raja Shehadeh et al — writers you’ll never see in the NYRB or the New Yorker. And of course, in 2006 it did what no American publication dared do: it gave a platform to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

Unsurprisingly, it has been the target of the lobby’s wrath ever since. Earlier this year the neoconservative Standpoint magazine launched a campaign to have its (negligible) public funding revoked. It also smeared LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Now comes another salvo. Just Journalism — the UK counterpart to CAMERAhas published a ‘study’, now being publicized by the ADL, which claims to prove LRB’s anti-Israel bias (an allegation that has less sting in the UK than it does in the US). Just Journalism first tried to mask its Israel lobby origins by appointing the Egyptian-born Adel Darwish as its director. However, Darwish only lasted a few months, announcing his resignation in a rambling, semi-coherent post in which he warned that the overzealousness of the organization’s principals risked turning it into ‘a Maccarthist [sic] which-hunt of fellow journalists’. He also noted:

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