The Syrian Civil War has become one of the defining international events of the 21st century. Indeed, the escalating conflict in Syria is one of the worst humanitarian crises of the modern age, contributing to the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II. The war has also allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—arguably the most prominent terrorist organization on the planet—to burst onto the scene.
What was initially an internal, “contained” conflict has grown to affect the rest of the world in one form or another. It is little surprise then that Syria has been the subject of numerous commentaries, books, and reports from across the Western political spectrum. Much of this writing has been focused on the outbreak of new extremist groups, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and the threat they pose to the West and allied states. Of course, there are also a plethora of policy pieces detailing the steps the Trump (and previously Obama) administration should take to resolve the Syrian conflict.
There has, however, been a noticeable lack of Syrian voices allowed to tell their own story. Publications like Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled and Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami’s Burning Country, among others, have attempted to fill this gap and discuss the experiences and origins of the Syrian Revolution from the point of view of Syrians. To this collection of publications, we can now add Yassin al Haj Saleh’s new book, The Impossible Revolution.
Saleh is a leftist activist from Raqqa who spent sixteen years in Syrian prisons for his membership in a left-wing organization. Over the course of the revolution, he has emerged as one of the country’s best known public intellectuals, and has now released his first English-language book containing ten essays written over a period of five years during the war.
The author’s story itself is one worthy of a book of its own. Not only did Saleh experience the harshness of the Assad regime first-hand, but he wrote these essays through a wide variety of circumstances; while underground in hiding in Damascus, Douma, and Raqqa, and near the sites of some of the war’s most notorious crimes. During the course of the conflict, Saleh has had family members and friends disappeared and killed by both the regime and extremist organizations.
Despite all this, the primary focus of Saleh’s essays is not his own personal struggle, but rather the Assad regime, and the revolution that tried to topple it.
The Regime’s History
Too often, writing on Syria fails to properly analyze the history and nature of the Syrian regime. Instead, readers are left with, and are forced to navigate through, multiple vexing paradoxes. Assad, a dictator who relies on sectarianism to rule, is also regularly described as a “secularist.” While the regime declares itself aligned with progressive causes, such as resisting U.S. influence in the region and supporting the Palestinian people, it also cooperated with the United States in some of the worst crimes committed in the “War on Terror,” and has used the name of Palestine to oppress Syrians and Palestinians alike. An inevitable byproduct of these and other contradictions, the Syrian regime has been embraced by both the far right and the far left.
Rarely are these deeper issues ever explored in popular analyses. This leads to a situation where readers, depending on their political persuasion, form narratives about the Syrian conflict based on a shallow understanding of the country’s history, society, and political economy, among other things.
Saleh’s book stands apart in providing readers with an analysis of Syria that helps to clarify some of the paradoxes other writers have ignored. Through lucid writing, Saleh lays out the structure of authoritarianism in Syria and how it has affected Syrian society. In detail, Saleh describes what he calls Assad’s “neo-sultanic” rule over the country, and how he has used the Baath party as a cover for his own dynastic rule. Saleh explains how the regime’s fascism has kept the Syrian population oppressed, while also encouraging divisions within society to help prevent an opposition from emerging. As a result, citizens have learned to rely on and trust only their religious sects, and be suspicious of everyone else.
Many of Saleh’s older essays in the book, written between 2011 and 2012, have proven to be quite prescient. During those years, many Western policymakers and writers were convinced that the non-violent protests (and later, the Free Syrian Army) were just weeks away from overthrowing the Assad regime, but Saleh thought otherwise. Indeed, in an essay written in Mary 2012, Saleh warned about the militarization of peaceful protests, rising radicalism among armed fighters, as well as the increasingly sectarian nature of the struggle. As Saleh points out, nihilists also embraced the regime’s “kill or be killed” mindset. As the Free Syrian Army had become noticeably weaker, Saleh predicts that the number of nihilist groups—seeing that resistance to the regime might fail—would become even greater.
As Saleh points out, even before the opposition became dominated by extremists, the propaganda used by the Assad regime and its supporters was similar to the narrative used by other authoritarian regimes, namely, that it is better to have a “secular” dictatorship than to let Islamists take control of the country. If there is one thing that Assad could rely on, it was that Western audiences would be more comfortable with a strongman killing hundreds, if not thousands, of his own citizens than with protesters yelling “Allahu Akbar.” And, so, Assad worked to make sure the opposition would become dominated by extremists.
What the Future Holds
Saleh ends his book by providing an overview of the “neo-sultanic” Syrian state, and the potential fate of the Assad regime. Saleh concludes that we must learn to move past the artificial, sectarian divisions that have plagued Syrian society for so long. Most importantly, he asks for tolerance and the development of critical tools so that the public can fully understand sectarianism and its general social and political purpose.
The book’s strength comes from the analytic overview of Syria and its history, and the conceptual tools it provides for understanding the many hurdles Syria faces. If there is one thing Saleh’s book is missing, however, it is a discussion of how to practically accomplish these goals. While presenting a perfect policy solution for Syria’s rapidly changing political landscape is not the purpose of Saleh’s writings, it would have been interesting to see what he believes could be done, or should be done to resolve the problems currently ailing Syria, including sectarianism and the presence of fascism. Still, the lack of policy prescriptions does not detract from the quality of Saleh’s writings or insights.
Syrians were betrayed. First by their regime, then by the opposition’s leaders, and finally by international powers and organizations that pursued their own interests at Syrians’ expense. By the time one finishes The Impossible Revolution, one cannot help but feel angry. The picture it paints of how the regime has repressed its own people and manipulated society to keep it divided engenders feelings of bitterness and helplessness. Freedom, justice, and equality did not exist in Assad’s Syria; a post-revolutionary Syria, with Assad as victor, does not promise to be any better.
Regardless of the conflict’s outcome, however, Saleh’s book will undoubtedly become one of the most important texts any student of the Middle East or Syria can read on the subject, as well as a reminder of what the Syrian people fought so hard to try and achieve.