Diwan Carnegie Endowment for Carnegie Middle East Center – Interviewed by Michael Young 

In an interview, Yassin al-Haj Saleh describes how Syrians have been denied any meaning for their suffering.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian intellectual who has just published The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, an English translation of an earlier book written in Arabic. In 1980, at the age of 19, he was arrested while a medical student at Aleppo University due to his membership in the Communist Party-Political Bureau, founded by the Syrian dissident Riad al-Turk. Saleh spent 16 years incarcerated, include one year in the notorious Palmyra prison, which he once described as “a place that literally eats men.”

Fate struck again after the Syrian uprising in 2011, when Saleh and his wife, Samira Khalil, herself a former political detainee, fled Damascus for Douma, in the East Ghouta near the capital. In December 2013, Khalil was abducted along with fellow activists Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamadeh, and Nazem Hamadeh, it is suspected by the Islam Army opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad as they were. At the time Saleh had already left for his native Raqqa, before he was forced to move on to Turkey, awaiting an opportunity to be reunited with his wife. Today Saleh lives in Istanbul, and continues to write and publish. Diwan spoke to him in mid-August as his book hit the bookstores.

Michael Young: Congratulations on your new book. Can you tell us what main ideas you sought to convey to readers?

Yassin al-Haj Saleh: Thank you. Most of the content of the book was written in Syria between 2011 and 2013. The articles were originally written in Arabic and were not intended to be included in a book. Writing them while living in hiding in Damascus was my way of participating in our struggle. This applies particularly to two articles in the book written in Douma and Raqqa, where I was again in hiding in summer 2013. I tried to explain what was happening and to imagine the contours of an ethically and politically progressive cause against the Assad regime.

By analyzing the social structure of the uprising, the rise of nihilism embodied by the shabbiha (pro-regime militias) or jihadism—both examples of Syrian fascism—the social formation of four Syrias in the struggle, and the fragmentation of our country, I hoped the book would be seen as a defense of our epistemological agency, which is denied in the West even more than our political agency (which is denied too). The last and longest article, on the modern sultan, was written in Istanbul as an effort to provide readers with an in-depth analysis of the Assad regime’s structure and the role of sectarianism in its formation.

MY: Where did the uprising in Syria go wrong? At which point did it take a direction that began to worry you?

YHS: The uprising is not a person or a party. It is a collective effort to own politics. It seeks to reclaim the ownership of Syria from the Assad family, which alienated the population by labeling the country “Assad’s Syria.” In that way it strives for such things as the right to talk about public issues and gather in public spaces. In the course of this Herculean effort for freedom, Syrians were confronted with brute force from the very start. Bashar al-Assad resorted to war, using the army, his extensive security apparatus, and the shabbiha against his own people to crush their will to resist the regime.

This led to the militarization of the uprising. Those protesting found themselves having to break the thuggish sectarian junta’s monopoly over the means of violence in order to own politics themselves. However, this justified reaction triggered uncontrollable dynamics of radicalization, Islamization, and sectarianization, which led to a breakdown in the national framework of the struggle and the influx of wandering global jihadis, as well as inviting regional and international interventions.

Syria, let us not forget, is a country in the Middle East, itself a cruel subsystem of the international order, built on Israeli supremacy and the political slavery of the ruled, under the patronage of the Western powers and now Russia. Our mistake as Syrians is that we were not powerful enough in this jungle. Two generations of Syrians are paying the price of exclusion from political life in this region, whose ruling elites enjoy, like the Israeli master, full exemption from international law.

MY: In December 2013 your wife Samira was abducted in Douma, apparently by the Islam Army. Five months before your brother Feras had been abducted by the Islamic State in Raqqa. Do you know what happened to them?

YHS: It was the sordid year, the year of the sordid criminals. First Daesh, or the Islamic State, appeared, almost at the same time as Hezbollah was fighting in Al-Qusair against the Syrian rebels. From that point on, the dynamics of radicalization, militarization, and Islamization became irreversible and we entered the second stage of the Syrian struggle, that of the Sunni-Shi‘a wars. In early July, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi achieved his coup in Egypt, rising on the shoulders of many honest people protesting Muslim Brotherhood rule—shoulders that Sisi would soon knock away. After that came the heinous chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta on August 21, which led to the death of 1,466 people, followed by the more heinous chemical deal between the Russians and the Americans, a deal whose inspiration came from Israel. This saved the criminal regime and boosted the hardcore nihilist Salafi-jihadis everywhere in the country.

The Islamic State that abducted my brother and friends and the Islam Army that abducted my wife and other friends capitalized on these shifts, which empowered the criminal dimensions of their character, while we were weakened by the same shifts. The abductions of Samira and Feras, and their “disappearance” since then, are for me linked to three inhuman factors: the Assad regime’s fascism, the nihilistic Islamist organizations, and the oligarchic world order. The freedom of my loved ones and the future of the world are interlinked. We have to tame or humanize the monsters of the state, religion, and the world if we aspire to a less cruel future.

MY: It appears today that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will survive. What does this mean for Syrians like you who sought a more democratic Syria?

YHS: It means denying any meaning to our suffering, our losses, and our struggle for freedom. It means that half a million victims are nothing and their killing will not lead to political change, while the lives of those who are still alive are not protected. They might also be killed without expecting any protest from those who assigned themselves a role as protectors of international laws. And of course when our death is meaningless, our life is also meaningless. For me that means that we have to be agents in a global change in order to reclaim any meaning for our life and our sacrifices. This is the necessary meaning of being a revolutionary in our present time.

As for the opportunity for a more democratic Syria, it is lost for good. Democracy is in crisis all over the world and Syria is a victim of this crisis. The world’s future is not safe in the hands of those renewing the mandate of an unspeakable criminal such as Bashar al-Assad, imprisoning us in a supposedly stable unchanging, and unchangeable, situation. They think that they are ensuring that Syria’s situation remains safe for them, but actually the world is being Syrianized under their leadership. They are merely versions of Bashar. This world must change, its change being a matter of self-defense for billions of people.

MY:  You once told me that liberty and the Middle East are as incompatible as health and illness. Do you still believe that is true?

YHS: The Middle East is not a geographical expression. It is a system characterized regionally by an Israeli monopoly over inter-state violence and an exemption from the imperatives of international law, and Arab regimes’ monopoly over violence within their borders and the denial of political rights to their subjects.

The Middle East is the land of “politicide,” to borrow from a book title by the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling. He invented the term to conceptualize the situation of the Palestinians and held up the onetime Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as the villain in his account. The fate of the Palestinians embodies the fate of the populations of the Middle East. If they resist the system of politicide, they will face genuine genocide, as is the case in Syria. And that is how I explain the negative democratic exception of Arabs or Muslims. It is not oriental despotism, it is a system of Middle Eastern politicide and genocide. We will be destroyed unless we can unite to overthrow this murderous system of slavery whose keys are in Washington, Moscow, and Tel Aviv.

MY: You now live in exile in Turkey. What does that mean for someone like you who had hoped for fundamental change in Syria?

YHS: It is a continuation of my life in Syria under the Assad regime. There, I was also exiled; I am still without a passport. However, I think I have more knowledge and experience about states in general. They are in essence not different from the one owned by the thuggish family ruling over Syria. That is why they were able to identify with this family more than they were with the Syrians resisting it. At the same time I am now part of a loose network struggling for justice and freedom with participants from many countries. I get much support from them.

MY: There is a Chinese proverb that if you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. Will that happen in Syria?

YHS: I never lose hope. I am working and changing my tools of work in ways that keeps hope flowing. I come from a culture that values patience highly. My personal experiences in a timeframe of two generations and through two major struggles in Syria have taught me to invest in longer-term change. The river of history is now controlled by our reckless enemies. They have done their best to own our change, to dispossess us from the ownership of our change and history. But in doing so they have unified our river with theirs, and their bodies will float soon in this one big river. I am full of hope.