Yassin al Haj Saleh is one of the most prominent Syrian dissident intellectuals. He was arrested at the age of nineteen for his membership in the Syrian Communist Party and remained in prison for more than sixteen years. When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Yassin, then working in Damascus, went into hiding. In 2013, he and his wife, revolutionary freedom fighter Samira Khalil, moved to Douma to work for the revolution. Yassin later traveled to his family home in Raqqa, where two of his brothers had been abducted by the Islamic State. Samira was abducted in Douma in December 2013 by Jaysh al-Islam, along with three other Syrian activists: Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamda, and Nazem Hammadi.
The following is a portion of an interview with Yassin al Haj Saleh that will be featured in the upcoming book, The Future of Progressive Politics: Voices of the International Left. It has been edited slightly for style and succinctness:
Andy Heintz (AH): What are your thoughts on President Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach to Syria?
Yassin al Haj Saleh (YS): I don’t see any difference in vision between Trump and former President Barack Obama. Both men prioritize the War on Terror over any political or ethical issues related to the Syrian people and their struggle for freedom, change, and justice. The Americans are currently playing an extremely nasty role in the northwestern part of the country. In a way, they are paving the way for future massacres and ethnic struggles in the region. The northwestern region is composed of Arabs and Kurds. But, the United States is following the traditional colonial formula of relying only on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The SDF is actually dealing very disrespectfully with the local population. It is relegating the local population and treating them like they are virtually invisible. They sadly rely on the same logic that the Assad regime used to subject the masses for decades. The SDF is basically a new occupying power that is imposing a rigid, dictatorial one-party system and completely ignoring the struggle for freedom and change that began in 2011. It is as if our history as Syrians begins now, with the SDF. This is a very colonial mindset.
On top of his negative role with the SDF, Trump is also “submitting” Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The fascist regime in Russia is reproducing fascism in Syria and fomenting sectarianism in the process. The West has a history of colonialism in the Middle East, and Russia is no exception. The Russian plan is to rehabilitate Bashar Al-Assad and his regime without discussing the real issues, including the maybe 200,000 prisoners and the perhaps 75,000 disappeared in Syria.
AH: What do you think would be a smart way for the international community to bring peace and stability to Syria?
YS: The situation is no longer about Syria. We don’t need a solution, we need a clear vision of the problem we are in. It’s a global thing, it’s not just Syria. Our new role may be to invent new tools, new theories, and new ways of seeing things. We need a new vision and a new project for the world.
AH: Will such a movement need intellectuals and critics that infuse their knowledge and understanding of issues with feelings and deep empathy with the downtrodden?
YS: Addressing the influential powers of the world, my abducted wife Samira wrote the following after the Eastern Ghouta chemical massacre in August 2013: “The world is one small village, is not this what you always say? Why are you leaving the population of one neighborhood of this village massacred, sieged, and starved?” The world is a small village indeed, and a very dear one to us all. But the global system which runs this “small village” is unfortunately bad and getting worse. Racism, environmental changes, a global crisis of democracy, and a universal lack of hope are the four main problems affecting us all. The need to change the current system and address these problems is becoming more and more of a universal imperative.
There are no ways out of this one world we live in, so we either kill each other in an aggravatingly narrowing world, or find ways for creating new spaces, “new worlds,” in this one world we share. It seems that we lack global movements with new ways of thinking, imagining, communicating, and acting. Perhaps the model for new movements could be that of refugees, who are increasingly “appropriating” the world, as well as those conscientious people welcoming and helping them.
AH: Can you talk about the need to understand the situation in Syria (and the Middle East in general) through a political and historical context, as opposed to a cultural one?
YS: I see culturalism (or cultural determinism) as a plague that struck and continues to afflict the studies of politics and societies of the Middle East. It offers a lazy explanation to the social and political dynamics of our societies by resorting to supposedly clear notions like Islam, Islamic civilization, fundamentalism, Sunni, Shia, and the like. Strangely, some believe we can be defined, and our practices analyzed, by reducing them to “culture.” Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known as the poet Adonis, is the best Syrian example of this approach. In 2013, he said that the problem of dictatorship lies in the ra’as (head), namely the ra’ees (the head of state), and not in the kursi (chair of the ruler).
At that time, Assad had killed 50,000 people in Syria, of whom the poet said nothing. In fact, he claimed that the problem does not lie with Assad killing “his people,” but rather with the bad elements of the rebellion. If this domestic culturalist discourse sounds like an iteration of the orientalist discourse, that’s because it essentially is. It replicates tropes about the relationship between the “Western” First World and the “Eastern” Third world, which are found most explicitly in Samuel Huntington’s work. Huntington actually borrowed his conception about the “Clash of Civilizations” from Bernard Lewis, the infamous white orientalist. His “civilizations” are reducible to culture, and culture is then reducible to religion. These reductions enable almost everybody to be an “expert” on the Middle East, explaining everything through “Islam.” When Assad refers to “terrorism” and explains it with culturalist language, he is only showing how much he is “white” and to what “world” he belongs.
AH: You have talked about the need to simultaneously offer radical criticism of Islam while at the same time criticizing some of the criticisms being made of Islam by political commentators. How hard is it to get this view across in a media landscape that often reduces conflicts to simplistic black and white narratives?
YS: I am secular, and I do criticize Islam and Islamism. But, I find nothing in common with many secularists who kept utter silence toward Assad’s crimes in Syria (I came to call them Huntingtonian secularists), and I also try not to give credit to essentialist critiques of Islam, which are typically sectarian or “civilizational” in tone. In fact, the subtitle of my 2011 book, Myths of the Successors, is A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique. It seems that culturalism and the critique of culturalism, a recurrent theme in my work in the last decade, has helped build a long bridge between many in the Arab world and those residing in the West. We live in a small world, and only by connecting through it can we understand what is happening here or there. True, we do not occupy equal positions in this small world, for it is characterized by great polarizations and disparities. Yet it is still our “one world,” and viewing it as such is a great universal achievement. The next step is to change our world so that it offers more freedom, more justice, and more dignity to its various populations.
AH: Can you describe some of the demonstrations and other non-violent actions taken by the peaceful wing of the Syrian revolution before the Assad regime’s ruthless repression made some protesters turn to armed conflict? Is the peaceful wing of the Syrian revolution still active today?
YS: The uprising was composed solely of a “peaceful wing” in its first stage. That came to an end only after the Assad regime occupied Hama and Deir Ezzor in August 2011. The two cities witnessed huge demonstrations with hundreds of thousands participating. This can be seen in these two videos, for example. People really thought the regime would be overthrown by occupying central public spaces in great numbers and expressing aspirations for freedom and political change.
It is noteworthy that the demonstrators were holding the formal Syrian flag at that time. Later, that flag was replaced by the pre-Baathist flag, or “the independence flag” (it was the country’s flag years after Syria got independence from the French mandate in 1946), which gradually came to be known as the revolution’s flag. The regime saw this symbolic replacement as a signal of radicalization, and many were victimized, arrested, tortured, and killed in the dozens every day as a result. I was in the country at that time, and I was able to monitor the process of militarization. The people, seeing their countrymen slaughtered, became despaired with peaceful demonstrations. Those who stopped joining demonstrations eventually took up arms and did not simply stay home. Armed struggle was never a free choice for the rebellious Syrians. It was a matter of life and death.
AH: You have said that a political precondition for fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) would require the end of the Assad regime. Why do you think so many Western and Middle Eastern countries have concentrated mostly on destroying ISIS instead of helping other Syrian forces oust Assad’s deplorable regime?
YS: The “War on Terror” is a method to consolidate the power of states and elites, and to weaken popular movements everywhere. Unelected people are ruling most Middle Eastern countries today, and they are supported by political elites in the West who have never suffered. The latter are isolated from the human struggle, and are seen by Middle Eastern leaders as bastions of stability, order, and rationality. “Rationality” means giving preference to the powerful, no matter how much the weak must suffer. “Stability” means disowning people of politics, killing them, and destroying their cities when they try to occupy public spaces and openly express their grievances. And because of the centrality of “stability” in the region, the biggest political shift in Syria’s history before the revolution went unnoticed in the West: the inauguration of the Assad monarchy in 2000. Not a single elected leader said a word about this extremely reactionary and tyrannical shift. Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. secretary of state, gave her blessing to the event, and Jacques Chirac of France did the same. Maybe they told themselves: this is how things are in the Arab World! It is in their culture! Probably in their genes! Maybe to them the fact that 20-30 thousand people were killed in Hama in 1982 is “natural.”
AH: Do you think there was a time that an international intervention in Syria would have been justified, or do you think countries like the United States should have instead focused their energies on arming the Free Syrian Army and other anti-Assad forces to bolster their chances of overthrowing the regime from the inside?
YS: There has always been an “international intervention” in the Syrian struggle. It is a myth that the “international community” is reluctant or unwilling to intervene in Syria. What do you call American pressure on Turkey (and other regional countries) not to efficiently arm the Free Syrian Army, which has been happening since late 2011? What do you call the Syrian cities and towns that have been bombed by jet fighters and barrel bombs for four years while Syrians were unable to get a few stinger rockets to defend themselves? What do you call the despicable Russian-American chemical weapons deal in September 2013 that gave the Assad regime full impunity to kill the rebellious Syrians with other means?
That criminal deal was not only a big gift to the fascists with suits and neckties, it was no less a big gift to the nihilistic fascists with shaggy beards. And who lost? Only the vulnerable rebellious Syrians who, at that time, had been asking for help for thirty straight months. Among those people were my wife Samira, and my friends Razan Zeitouna, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi. My wife and friends were abducted at the site of the chemical massacre around 100 days after they first witnessed it.
There is another part to this myth about intervention: that rebelling Syrians asked for American or NATO boots on Syrian soil. False. Many Syrians asked for help: international protection, safe zones, no fly zones, manpads. These methods could have done the job easily before the end of 2012, were it not for American pressure (through the Saudis) on some brigades not to enter Damascus. Now, dozens of countries are intervening in Syria, including the five members of the Security Council (Chinese military personnel are training Assad’s military). The main criminal, the Assad regime, is more secure now after these interventions by so-called “international law propagators.” Conclusion: intervention in Syria is bad when it is against elitist fascists like Assad. All other interventions are good and welcomed.
AH: You have written about how in Syria there are many different groups with their own narrative of “victimization” and “excellence.” Could you describe these narratives and their difficulties?
YS: We have three active victimhood narratives in Syria that came to the fore after the revolution: the Sunni narrative, the Kurdish narrative, and the old Alawite one. These are not the discourses of actual victims and are not designed for popular demands for justice. Rather, they provide elites with a good arsenal of effective emotional and symbolic tools to mobilize certain people against others, defined in identititarian terms. It also incriminates internal dissidence as a betrayal to the “victimized community.” When your political side is criticized, you translate this into communitarian language and promptly retort back: “How dare you question our behavior, us, the victims? Where were you when we were oppressed, impoverished, marginalized, and humiliated?” Implied in this is that you are an agent of the enemy, a primordial antagonist that is always united against an “Us” who have minimal or no differences, let alone internal struggles. In this way the peace within the self, collective, and individual is restored, and dissent and plurality within it suppressed.
AH: Can you talk about how the Sunni-Shia divide in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries is not some predestined inevitability because of the so-called primitive nature of Islam, but is a conflict that has been stoked by the powerful to keep the poor masses from uniting against them?
YS: I do not think that the postulate of the “the primitive nature of Islam” deserves comment. It is itself a pathological symptom of a primitive narcissistic disorder that attributes superiority or excellence to the self and inferiority to “Others.” There have been Sunnis and Shias in the region for more than a thousand years. The worst clashes in the past and in contemporary times were related to power, as is the case everywhere. A tectonic shift came into existence in 1979, with the Iranian revolution. The Sunni world was still dizzy at that time after the defeat of Arab Nationalism in 1967 and 1973 by the United States and Israel, and a poisonous mixture of corruption and despotism was creeping in. This “poison” was made from oil revenues and blood. Partly under the influence of the Iranian example, partly because of that humiliating defeat, and partly because of a rising need for a collective project, the Islamists began to ascend, and secular Arab nationalism began to decline.
The corrupt regimes ruling the main Arab countries were supported by the “democratic West” against all opposition forces, Islamist and secular alike. Islamists were horribly dealt with in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. But, it was arguably the worst in Syria. I was in prison in the 1980s and through more than a half of the 1990s, and throughout that time the Islamists were sent to the Tadmur prison, which was maybe the worst jail on the planet. They were tortured far more brutally than us communists. They began to develop a narrative of victimhood ever since, something that was aggravated after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri, the Sunni Lebanese former prime minister, in 2005. The Shia Lebanese Hezbollah, which was formed and is supported by Iran, is suspected to have had a hand in this terrorist operation. The party was (and still is) immune, and in 2013, it intervened openly in the Syrian struggle, siding with the Assad regime. The Sunni-Shia divide is not a matter of primordially separated beliefs and identities that shape politics in our region. Rather, it is politics that shape and reshape these beliefs and identities.
AH: What are some important political, economic, social, environmental, geographical and cultural issues in Syria that have not received adequate attention from the Western press despite the role they have played in the Syrian conflict?
YS: The main problem with Syria-related media coverage in the West is that it fails to capture the political and ethical dimensions which define our struggle. Issues related to justice are usually absent. They mostly deny us political agency. Instead, they tend to think of our struggles as irrational, “complicated” ones that erupt all of a sudden in violent ways. Some think the “rational West” should intervene in order to “rationalize those irrational boys,” and to calm down the crises “they” frequently cause. We are told the right method for this is “crisis management,” a method that systematically sidelines issues of justice, and which is power-centered and state-centered. It goes without saying that when you “manage” a crisis, like the Palestinian one for instance, you are maintaining it and saving it for more of your “management” in the future. This method is only related to your needs as a rich powerful state or bloc.
That is why coverage of Syria and the attitudes of the right-wing and left-wing media in the West are really scandalous. The majority of analysts know absolutely nothing apart from a few clichés and stereotypes. There are decent, respectable analysts, but they are either isolated or slandered. There is also an absurd tendency among some in the United States to explain our struggle through “drought,” if you can believe that! These “environmentalist analysts” believe the four years of drought which preceded the 2011 revolution essentially caused it. It’s not a matter of politics, or of social demands, or of a thuggish ruling junta. It’s not what those irrational Syrians think it’s all about. Science says it is drought, so it’s drought. But this “science” is full of politics and suffers from an obvious ethical drought itself. This environmentalist approach can be fully embraced by neurotic thugs like Bashar Al-Assad, the same way he embraced the “culturalist” talking points that absolved him of the horrible crimes his regime committed.
AH: Can you talk about the treatment Syrian refugees have received in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States? How has their treatment been similar and how has it differed?
YS: It is a continuation of the treatment they received from the Assad regime, rather than a rupture from it. State power everywhere has become more entrenched, and it seems there are deep feelings of kinship among the despots of the world. In fact, the differences between “democratic” states and despotic ones seem to be decreasing, while the gap between states (even the most “democratic” of them) and the general population is widening. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan received a “state reception,” for example, rather than a genuine human one. They were reluctantly accepted, and they were expected to conform 100% to the rules of the receptive countries. Most importantly, they were denied any political agency. These states have “programs” to accept a limited number of refugees, and you have to often bend over to be accepted. This may require lying to officials of embassies and consulates.
Usually, people of minority origins can make it to Europe and the West more easily than Arab Muslims. The role of the secular West in promoting sectarianism in the Middle East has always been bad, but it has gotten even worse in the last few years. Still, the worst places for Syrian refugees are currently Lebanon and Jordan. In Turkey, too, we are not granted official refugee status, and that is one big reason why many Syrians risked boat trips to Greece and elsewhere in Europe. As for the United States, I have heard many stories of Syrians singled out at American airports for “special” interrogation. Anyone who happened to visit Syria after March 15, 2011, have been dealt with in a “special” way. They may be university professors from Britain, for example, but they will still be denied visas to visit the U.S., apparently because Syrian blood runs through their veins.