Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a leading Syrian writer, activist and political dissident. A fervent Marxist voice in a represseive regime, al-Haj Saleh has spent many years in prison; jailed by Bashar al-Assad’s father, he languished in cells from 1980 to 1996.

After the Syrian uprising broke out, Al-Haj Saleh found himself hunted both by the regime and Islamist militants. He escaped and now lives in Istanbul. He spoke to Emraz Feroz about his latest work.

Feroz: The name of your most recent book is “The Impossible Revolution“. Can you briefly describe why the revolution of the Syrian people has been, in your opinion, impossible?


Al-Haj Saleh: “The title was not meant to be pessimistic. Actually, I wrote an article on the first anniversary of the revolution. Back then, the article said a revolution in Syria was impossible – but it happened. And in the course of six and a half years now, this impossible revolution has been crushed out of existence, in an unprecedented tragedy under the watching eyes of the world.

“Also this was impossible, unimaginable indeed. Half a million people have been killed, 13 million have been displaced and lost their homes. That is why we should look for a solution in Syria in the realm of impossible – which was the main aim of the revolution: genuine political change and the end of Assad dynasty rule.

“Is this impossible? Well, there are no possible – read ‘banal’ – solutions to impossible problems. When killing half a million is possible, I cannot see why the possible is any good. And when overthrowing a criminal junta is impossible, then impossible is the only good policy for those who insist they are ethical human beings.”

You say that the Syrian revolution was a peaceful one with a militarised arm. Why did this happen?

“It was a matter of self-defence. In my opinion, the Syrian revolution was a collective effort to own politics which means to be able to talk about politics and public affairs, and to gather and be able to protest in public space. This effort has been faced by brute force from the very beginning. Many people found themselves in a situation in which they were humiliated, tortured or killed.

“For that reason, they were forced to find a way to defend themselves and their communities. In 2013 I wrote six portraits of FSA fighters in Eastern Ghouta, all of them were civilians before the revolution and they said they would go back to their families and civilian life after the fall of the regime.

People were forced to arm themselves and literally to own war to own politics.

They had to break the regime’s monopoly on violence. The peaceful way of trying to own politics was crushed. For that reason, the militarised arm of the revolution was a foreseeable development. It is written in the fact that the counter-revolution was armed and brutal from the very beginning.

In your book, you describe “Syrian facism” under the Assad regime in much detail. What are the connections of this ideology with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in the United States and Europe?

“I think it is related to the fact that the ruling political- security-financial complex – headed by the Assad family and protected by the security apparatus and serving the new bourgeoisie – represents the whole “first world” in Syria.

“They are the ‘white Syrians’. Many right-wing groups in the Western world identify themselves with these white Syrians. It is important to mention that both share attitudes such as Islamophobia and a sectarian character. Especially Islamophobia is an important element of these neo-Nazis and white supremacists, like anti-Semitism in the past and present.

“The most racist groups in the Western world admire the Assad regime and its so-called ‘fight against terrorism’. For them, Bashar al Assad is a ‘tough guy’, like Hitler, who can kill as many people as he wants. Assad is their ideal for strong leadership. But actually Bashar is mediocre, and he is such a insatiable killer just to cover his mediocrity.”

How far, in your opinion, has the Syrian revolution been hijacked by foreign powers such as Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others?

“I have a problem with the word ‘hijacked’ because it does not really describe the reality of the Syrian people and their struggle. The internal dynamics have not been the only or even the crucial factor to determine the political situation in our country and other Arab Middle Eastern countries.

“The Middle East is a system built on the supremacy of Israel as the only really sovereign power, and of denying the political rights of the population in the other states. This a system of politicide, a concept coined by the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling to represent the status of Palestinians in Israel in the days of Ariel Sharon.

“Assad’s Syria is one main pillar of this system, and the Assad family rule is being rehabilitated because of its politiciding history and role in the region. The new thing is the rule of Iran and Russia in reproducing this regime, but the main actor, though from behind the curtains, is Israel which is essentially built on politiciding Palestinians.

“The effect of the Middle East’s structure [on the Syrian revolution] was enhanced in the second half of 2012 when the national framework of our struggle began to collapse. After the first chemical massacres conducted by the regime, the American-Russian deal gave the regime and its allies full immunity to kill the rebellious Syrians with other weapons.

“Since that sordid deal, it is no longer about Syria, not even about the Middle East – it is about the world, a progressively Syrianised one. This ‘Macro Syria’ should change what we aspire to – a better future for all of us. This is the meaning of Syria, and this why it is important to be earnest about Syria.”