The conscience of Syria
An interview with activist and intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a leading voice in the struggle against the Assad regime. By Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is often called the conscience of the Syrian revolution. Born in Raqqa in 1961, he was arrested in 1980, while a medical student in Aleppo, and imprisoned for his membership in a left-wing organization. He remained a political prisoner until 1996, spending the last of his sixteen years behind bars in the notorious desert-prison of Tadmur (Palmyra).
Saleh has emerged as one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, which began three years ago. In 2012 he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. Now living in exile in Turkey, Saleh writes for a variety of international Arabic-language publications. Along with a group of Syrians and Turks, he recently established a Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul called Hamish (“margin” or “fringe”). Saleh has published several Arabic-language books, most recently Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).
Interview by Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, co-editors of The Syria Dilemma.
For many in the West, the situation in Syria looks very confusing. On August 31, 2013, for example, President Obama said the “underlying conflict in Syria” was due to “ancient sectarian differences.” It is often heard – both in official foreign policy circles and among leftists and antiwar activists – that there are “no good guys” in the Syrian conflict, that all sides are equally bad, and therefore there is no one to support. What do you think of this stance? How would you respond to those who say there is no one to support in Syria?
Actually I find it confusing that many people in the West find our situation in Syria confusing. Is it a matter of information and knowledge? I tend to think that it is a matter of politics. Confusion could be a function of a certain position toward our struggle: inaction, which in my opinion is the worst kind of action, not from our perspective as Syrians but also from a regional and international perspective, not to mention humanity and human solidarity with the oppressed.
Sectarian differences? What a subtle analysis! When an armed structure uses the supposedly national army, media organs, and resources to kill its own people when they oppose its tyrannical rule — this can hardly be considered a sectarian conflict. We’re not talking about just any structure — we’re talking about the repressive state apparatus of the Assad regime. It thus becomes absurd to explain the Syrian struggle in sectarian terms. To the best of my best knowledge, states are not sects, are they?
I am by no means turning a blind eye toward sectarian tensions and conflicts in Syrian society. Many writers, myself included, have written about sectarianism in Syria. My main conclusion is that sects are politically manufactured entities, and sectarianism is a political tool for controlling people, a strategy for political domination. It certainly is not a matter of social “differences” but rather a method for guarding social privileges and transforming a struggle against tyranny and manipulation into sectarian strife, a fitna. The word fitna has religious echoes about it, and it is remarkable that the ‘secular’ Bashar Assad used it sixteen times in his first speech after the beginning of the revolution on March 30, 2011.
Even now, after more than a thousand days of the Syrian struggle, it is still a tremendous political and ethical mistake to say that all we have are bad guys. The regime is essentially criminal and has no solution whatsoever to Syria’s many problems. I think those who say Syria’s sides are equally bad are the same people who believe in that despicable slogan of realpolitik: a devil you know is better than a devil you don’t know. Meaning the devil you know isn’t really a devil after all. It’s only the devil you don’t know who is the bad guy. This is bad politics, devoid of knowledge, devoid of human values.
The Slovenian leftist philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote an article for The Guardian characterizing Syria as a "pseudo-struggle" lacking a radical emancipatory voice. What do you make of that criticism?
Firstly, he ignores how the Islamic faith can be a liberatory tool. This is a contradictory phenomenon to be sure, but a real one. Religion and religiosity can fuel emancipatory mobilization. Secondly, he fails to say anything about the origins of this situation in the country — extreme political poverty in particular (no right to freely gather, even in private places, no free speech or publishing). Thirdly and most importantly, the stance of Žižek and others like him does not help secular Syrians who are struggling against the regime. In fact this position serves to weaken us, and to make both the regime and the Islamists stronger. In effect they are saying that people who are interested in mass emancipation have nothing to do with "pseudo-struggles" and the right thing for them to do is to stay away from those struggles. This is irresponsible and insensitive to human suffering. Their recommendation — and I think this is the real criterion for evaluating the analyses of "leftists" — is not that secular Syrians like us distance ourselves from the struggle, but worse: it is effectively to side closer to the regime. The regime is not only responsible for the pains of the Syrians over the past few decades, but also for the ascendancy of the jihadi groups that Žižek complains about. The problem is not that such writers ignore something important about Syria, it is that they are ignorant of nearly everything about the miserable country.
Give us a sense of your political biography. You were born in Raqqa in 1961. What were your political and intellectual influences as a young man? In 1980 you were arrested for your political activism and spent 16 years behind bars. What exactly were you arrested for? What was your group doing in that period? What was Syrian political life like at that time?
I was a member of one of the two communist parties in Syria when I was a student at the University of Aleppo, the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau. It opposed the regime of Hafez Assad, and was struggling for democracy. I was influenced by thinkers like the two late Syrians Yassin al Hafez and Elias Murqus, and the Moroccan historian and political theorist Abdallah Laroui. To those of us seeking a better understanding of our social and historical situation, they offered a non-dogmatic Marxism with an orientation to our society and cultural problems. Under their influence, I decided I wanted to be a writer. We found ourselves enthusiastic about the Euro-communism of the 1970s and critical towards the Soviet Union. But our political identity was mainly built on our experiences of struggle against the tyrannical rule of Assad, the father. It combined a traditional leftist affiliation with a deep commitment to the people and an aspiration for freedom.
Before 1980 one could hardly speak of a political life in Syria. There was an alliance of seven parties, including the official Communist Party (who relied heavily on the Soviets). The alliance, the National Progressive Front (NPF), was under the leadership of the Ba’ath Party, and was supposedly the frame for political life in Syria. Actually it was the frame for political death. Other groups who were steadfast in opposing the regime were sent to jail. So prisons and NPF have been the political institutions in the country for forty-one years now.
At the political level, we harshly condemned the regime and considered it to be responsible for the “social and national crisis” that broke out in the country between 1979 and 1982. At that time, the regime of Hafez Assad showed increasingly fascist tendencies — organized violence against any independent social or political activities, building “popular organizations” to contain society, from school children to universities to women to trade unions. It also fostered entrenched, widespread nepotism with a blatant sectarian element, and created a cult of Assad via its media, military, educational institutions, and in public spaces (statues, banners, photos, songs, “spontaneous marches”). In a few years, this led to a big political and social crisis and a violent struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. By the time the regime won this battle through bloody means, which was widely ignored at the international level, it was already on its path of crushing all the remaining forms of political and cultural life.
The Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau denounced the outburst of fascism and spoke in favour of a democratic change to enable Syria to avoid violence and to open the political system to the people’s organizations and initiatives. We took active part in the protests in many Syrian cities in 1980. I was myself a participant in those protests at the University of Aleppo. Afterwards, I was forced to live in hiding for two months until I was arrested on December 7, 1980. I was only one of hundreds of members arrested. I was less than twenty years old at that time and spent sixteen years in prison. [Syrian opposition leader] Riad at-Turk spent nearly eighteen years in solitary confinement.
After prison I became a writer and participated in many activities of the opposition. Sixteen years in prison is a long time, but it was a formative experience for me as a public intellectual and as an ethical agent in the struggle for change. At the same time, it was an emancipatory experience; through suffering, learning, and struggle I broke out of some of my internal prisons: that of narrow political affiliation, of rigid ideology, and that of the intellectual's ego. Perhaps the second most important influence on my political identity is the revolution that began in March 2011 and the open-ended and multi-levelled struggle that is going on in the country. I stayed in hiding in Damascus for two years, and for another six months in other parts of the country. My role was that of an intellectual and writer, not of a politician or a political activist. In the coming years, I intend to work on the cultural dimensions of the Syrian revolution since I believe culture could be a strategic field for our struggle for freedom and against fascism, both the Assadist and Islamist versions.
Speaking of that “struggle for freedom and against fascism, both the Assadist and Islamist versions,” in a piece you wrote for the Irish Times in late September you described the jihadi elements in Syria as “enemies of the revolution” and you claim that they “in reality are more threadbare and less cohesive than the impression from afar portrays them.” It is false, you contend, to assert “that what is good for the jihadis is bad for the regime.” You say, “What is true is that what is good for the revolution, the Free Syrian Army and the democratic activists inside and outside of the country, is bad for the regime and the jihadis.”
Can you elaborate on this point a bit for those who might find it puzzling? To what extent are the democratic forces in Syria now engaged in a war on two fronts – one against the regime, and one against the jihadis? If the Assad regime were to collapse in the coming months, would there not be a second war in its aftermath between the democratic forces within the revolution and the jihadi elements? To what extent is that war already taking place? Doesn't this double-bind in which Syria’s democratic forces are caught call for more solidarity from internationalists on the outside rather than the defeatist turn away from the Syrian conflict that one finds more prevalent of late?
Jihadi groups only started to appear in Syria many months after the beginning of the revolution. The worse the situation became for the majority of people, the better the conditions became for extremist jihadis. When the social environment is being destroyed and dozens of people are being killed every day all over the country while the world is just watching — this is the perfect world for nihilist groups. Their very doctrines are built on the assumption that the world is evil and plotting against them, as Arabs or Muslims. By the way, this paranoid worldview is shared by both the Assadist regime and the jihadi groups.
It should be clear by now that the regime is happy with the appearance of these groups because they enable it to sell the narrative of “war against terrorism” to those who are ready to buy it in the West and elsewhere. Some prominent figures in Western intelligence and diplomatic circles are now calling for coordination with the Assad regime against terrorism. Having such a marketable commodity [the “war on terror”] enables engagement with influential international powers, something the regime constantly depends on to refresh its international legitimacy and renew its mandate for ruling the country. Staying in power “forever” is the highest aim of the Assad dynasty.
So it is expected that the regime will do its best to secure the production of this commodity on a massive scale. One needn’t revert to speculations or conspiracy theories about possible hidden ties between the regime and some of these groups. On January 21, based on Western intelligence information, The Telegraph published an article about secret cooperation between the regime and al-Qaeda, especially in relation to oil in the eastern part of the country.
Up until mid-autumn of 2013 I was in Raqqa, where the formal headquarters of ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda splinter group] were based in the enormous building of the local government. Though the regime fighters decided it was strategically vital to attack a school in the first days of October 2013, killing around twenty students, and its helicopters dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighbourhoods, the ISIS building was never targeted.
The best way to combat the fascist jihadi groups is to bring about radical change in Syria by getting rid of the regime that has ruled the country for forty-four years.The disappearance of the regime, with all its machinery of brutality and humiliation, will provide national and democratically minded Syrians and moderate Islamists with the mechanism to confront extremist and expansionist organizations such as the ISIS. This might trigger a process of tolerance and reconciliation among various Syrian parties and make the voices of reason and forgiveness heard — things that sound impossible now. While I was in Eastern Ghoota between April and July 2013, one day a member of the Civil Defence Units who was in charge of washing the dead and placing them in coffins, while carrying in his two hands a terribly mutilated body, looked into my eyes and said: “Istath (learned man), how could we deal with those who did this to the child? How could we live with them?” I had no words to say at that time. It is impossible for “Istaths” like us to do anything useful while the public killer is still in his post, progressing in his job of torturing, starving, bombing, and killing on a daily basis.
It is not only that the regime is benefiting from reactionary fascist groups openly expressing their enmity toward the revolution. Those forces who have adhered to the revolution are the ones who have been confronted by those nihilist groups. You perhaps know that the beginning of this year witnessed many battles against the ISIS in which many moderate groups participated, and the outcome was that the ISIS was pushed away from all of Idlib and many districts of Aleppo. This took place despite the war the regime is waging against these same districts. This is to say that with only one enemy to fight, it would be much easier for Syrians to fight parties like ISIS.
The general social law in Syria for the last three years, and indeed during the whole nightmarish Assadist decades, has been that extremism nurtures extremism. It is vital for the country that the source of extremism is dried up: the fascist regime has a whole complex industry of killing its wretched people, and the whole world now knows after the leak of 55,000 photos of 11,000 brutally tortured bodies. Sending this thuggish junta to the dungeon of history will be the first step towards the country’s recuperation. Only then can there be a dynamic of moderation and inclusion, leading to the isolation the most extremist groups. No moderation is possible in Syria without justice for the Syrian people. The relation between the concepts ‘moderation’ and ‘justice’ is clear in Arabic: The word I’tidal (moderation) is derived from Adl (justice); accordingly, injustices foster extremism.
What internationalist parties all over the world need to know is that there is nothing progressive or anti-imperialist or secular about the regime. It is a fascist regime, a deeply sectarian and deeply corrupt junta that is prepared to commit every crime to stay in power. In an interview on the day the Geneva II meetings began, an anchor from Sky News asked Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban about the 11,000 killed in the regime’s factories of death. Her answer was: “And what about the fate of the Christians? Don’t you care about the fate of Christians? Do you know that eleven nuns are still kidnapped?” This is representative of the mindset of the regime. Commenting on the chemical massacre of August 21 in Eastern Ghouta, Shaaban said that those killed were children from coastal villages (meaning: Alawis) kidnapped, brought to al Ghouta, and gassed! Even the French colonialism that dominated Syria between the two world wars was not as efficient in its divide and conquer policy as the regime is.
It is also clear that the imperial powers are doing their best not to cause the regime to fall, or even to weaken it. Actually they’ve done exactly the opposite: they have not helped the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council in establishing no fly zones and safe zones, which those groups have asked for since the autumn of 2011. Not a single Stinger missile was acquired by the FSA, though the regime has been using its jet fighters for more than eighteen months now.
Would you agree that the situation you describe is reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, in which the democratic forces within the revolution (the POUM, anarcho-syndicalists, independent socialists) were fighting Franco's fascists on one front but over time also found themselves fighting the Stalinists as well, who spent as much if not more energy attacking the independent and democratic forces of the revolution as they spent battling Franco? Do the democratic forces in Syria today find themselves in something of a parallel situation?
Things are more complex in Syria today than they were in Spain three quarters of a century ago. It is not only that our jihadi “Stalinists” are a burden on the revolution (they are enemies of the revolution indeed); it is also that some of them are suspected of secret cooperation with the regime, and that the regime is doing its best to boost the cause of those who are supposedly its enemies. Besides, only the worst of our “Stalinists” and of course the fascist regime have foreign volunteers; we do not have democratic or republican foreign volunteers, as was the case in Spain. Perhaps the military weakness of the democratic powers in Syria is the main difference. Democrats in the country did not resort to arms to defend the people, even though many of them supported the popular struggle against the Assadist fascists. This is one reason — indeed the most important reason — why various sorts of Islamists are in leading positions in the armed resistance. The other reason is that the regime arrested or killed or exiled those who were in leading positions in the uprising. While this is good for the Islamists, it says a lot about the “secular” regime and its alleged opposition to fundamentalists. It is like Franco cultivating the Spanish Communist Party in order to blackmail Europeans and Americans into engaging and cooperating with his regime.
In the end Franco was a dictator, a very brutal one, but with a vision of Spain and its greatness derived from the vocabulary and ideals of the European Right at that time. In comparison, Bashar is not a nationalist in any meaningful sense; he is only a mass murderer, and he and his gang have no vision or any ideal whatsoever of Syria or of Syrian nationalism. His only sacred principle is power — staying in power until he dies, and leaving his post, not to just any young Juan Carlos but to his son, who is not coincidentally named Hafez.
There is a big resemblance, however, between the course of the Syrian revolution and war and those of Spain — the role of the democratic Western powers towards the two cases: short-sighted, hesitant, lacking in vision and courage, counter-productive, and very selfish. This is harmful for us Syrians, as much as it was for Spaniards at that time, and days will prove that it will be harmful for the world at large.
Michael Ignatieff has argued that one reason intervention has not happened in Syria is because of the failure of the Syrian opposition. Comparing Bosnia to Syria, he observes:
Intervention will not occur until interveners can identify with a cause that democratic electorates in Western states can make their own. In the former Yugoslavia it was the Bosniak Sarajevans who understood this clearly and helped to mobilize the outrage in Western countries that eventually made intervention possible. They had always stood for a tolerant, multi-confessional city and in retrospect they did a heroic job in making their cause Europe’s own. Intervention finally occurred in 1995, at least in some measure because international opinion identified the Bosniaks as a worthy victim who could be assisted in the name of a general defense of "European values." The massacre in Srebrenica and the market bombing in Sarajevo were triggers for intervention, but the ideological ground had been prepared in the West by Sarajevan suffering in the siege. For the moment, the Syrian opposition has failed in making their cause a universal claim.
Can you comment on this argument? Do you agree that the Syrian opposition has failed in this regard?
Well, the Syrian opposition has failed in translating Syria’s dreadful suffering into universal meaning. I noticed this myself when I came to Turkey. The Syrian politicians and activists here either deal only with official Turkish bodies or live within their own isolated communities. They hold sit-ins in various cities in Turkey, but with banners and slogans written only in Arabic, thus failing to reach the Turkish community with their message. It seems that the same holds true in France, where there is a well-established Syrian community with many intellectuals living there.
I think one reason there is a monologue rather than a dialogue is the default mode of interaction among Syrians: we have really lived for half a century in solitude. Probably ninety percent of Syrians have never known any political formation other than the Ba’athist regime, and perhaps more than 80 percent have known only the atrocious Hafez Assad and his horrendous son Bashar. Furthermore, in Syria and in the Arab world at large, there is a deep resentment toward the West because of contemporary traumatic experiences with the big Western powers: the Palestinian issue is a major symbol of the rift between the two worlds and a dynamic source of Arab hostility to the West. It is also one source of hesitance in asking for Western help. Nevertheless, Syrians have been realistic enough to ask for Western help since the summer of 2011, even before they took up arms to defend themselves and even before they resorted to God as the only strategic depth from whom they demand support.
I would add that only recently, perhaps in the last few months, an increasing number of Syrians have begun to think that their cause, the Syrian cause, is a global one that requires them to think in global terms, to be interpreted in the same context of the liberatory struggles of the peoples of Eastern Europe or of South Africa. Things are changing at this level in my opinion, and maybe we shall see more Syrians fighting for their cause in the global arena.
But to come back to Ignatieff’s observation, I think the Syrian struggle says a lot not only about the Syrian opposition’s failures, but also about the failures of a Western-centric approach. The Western-centric approach expects the oppressed and the weak to view Western powers as if they are the conscience of the world, or the just sage you need to convince of the righteousness of your cause, and if you are patient enough and eventually win him over, he will act according to the principles of justice and human rights. I am afraid that this narrative is a fable. Palestine is a case in point here. The whole world knows very well about the plight of the Palestinians, and they know very well who the colonial power is that persists in eating away Palestinian land and resources, indeed their very existence. For Palestine, we have a 23-year-old “peace process,” the most ridiculous in history!
What choice do we have when a regime kills its own people with chemical weapons and the greatest power on earth is content with taking only some of the weapons from the hands of the criminal and without any sort of punishment? What conclusion will the war criminal draw from this other than that he can go ahead with his killing, using other weapons? Is it possible to interpret the American stance as saying “It’s OK to kill certain kinds of people. They are not the wrong people to kill. Why should we trouble ourselves and intervene on their behalf?”
By the way, military intervention was not indispensable and only few Syrians asked for it. What Syrians hoped for was some sort of military support, with which they would have achieved the task themselves. And I think this is exactly what influential powers did not want to see happen. It’s also important to state that the United States was not only reluctant to intervene in Syria, but it also pressured other parties — France, Turkey, and some Gulf states—not to offer efficient arms to the Syrian rebels. The present stalemate is not an inherent characteristic of Middle Eastern conflicts; it is something engineered by our putative American “friend,” the superpower. This is what Ignatieff’s approach misses.
What I want to say in summary is that however grave the deficiencies of the Syrian opposition are — and they are grave — it has been impossible for us to convince the “international community” that we are “victim(s) who are worthy to be assisted in the name of a general defense of ‘European values.’" I am afraid that when it comes to the Middle East, the Europeans are the first ones to abandon their proclaimed values. This must change, because only nihilist groups like al-Qaeda prosper under such circumstances.