In a conversation with Enrab Feroz, Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh talks about his criticism of political observers and experts in the West who claim that there is no alternative to Assad and that shoring up the regime would be the lesser of two evils

You have been jailed by the Assad regime for 16 years. The reason was your membership in Syria’s Communist party. Can you briefly describe what happened to you then?

Let me begin with making clear some points related to the historical background of the Syrian communism. The Syrian Communist Party (SCP) split into two in 1972, on issues related to dependence/ independence relation to the Soviet Union (SU) concerning analyzing and understanding Syrian and Arab issues, on the centrality of Palestine liberation and Arab unification at that time, and in later years on the position from the Assad regime. I joined the faction that was independent from the SU, and more radical against Israel and pro Arab unification which was an issue of active debate at that time that followed the humiliating defeat of Syria, Egypt and the Palestinians before Israel. The other faction was obedient to the SU, accepting its approach to the Arab Israeli struggle, and allying itself to the regime. They were called the Bakdashists, after Khaled Bakdash, the SU favored leader of the SCP since early 1940s. The man kept his position until he died in early 1990s, succeeded by his widow Wissal Farha, and upon her death their son Ammar became the secretary general of the party. He is still sub-leading the withered and aging party under the leadership of the Assad regime.

Bakdashism meant always being obedient, subordinate, uncritical, and reiterating an unchanging vapid discourse of imperialist conspiracies, the steadfastness of our country, and of the crisis of capitalism. Bakdashists were the people who talk a lot on struggle without ever participating in struggles or risking anything.

The faction that I would join later moved to a position of radical   opposition to the in the second half of 1970s, with the rising of many active forms of opposition to the regime (professional trade unions, university students, communist militants, Islamist militants…). The ideological basis of this opposition shifted towards more concentration on democracy and nationalist democratic revolution. One additional important element of the background is that on the cultural level we were open to a Syrian and Arab movement of critical thinking, revisiting and reevaluating ideas of democracy, public freedoms, free thinking, and culture itself (as opposed to narrow ideological reiterations). This process was severely cut and 1980 when hundreds of us were arrested and tortured, and those who were not arrested fled the country or lived underground for whole two decades and even more.

I was a medical student and active in the political debate at the University of Aleppo when I was arrested. One point should be clear: we were crushed as a party because we were active in opposing the regime, not because we were communists. People are good for the regime whatever their ideologies are, communists, Islamists, Arab or Kurdish nationalists…, as long as they are obedient, and when they disobey publicly they will crushed whatever their self definition is. The highest value of Hafez Assad regime is power, absolute power over all the population in Syria (and around it: Lebanon and Palestine when possible) that longs forever. The gravest crime is to oppose this regime of political slavery. I was one rebelling slave among many others.

Of course it never occurred to me that I would stay in jail for 16 years. I was brought before court only in 1992, 11 years and 4 months after my arrest. I was sentenced 15 years, but stayed for an extra year, and was referred in that year to Tadmur torture prison, maybe the worst place on the planet in the last two decades of the 20th century. I suppose this gives an idea of what the Assadi state looks like.

We have a saying in Syria that a strike that does not kill you strengthens you. I was not killed. That long arduous experience of struggle was a formative experience that changed me a lot. Change does not come without a revolution. My revolution erupted in jail, and it was a cruel civil war the way most revolutions are.

Considering what happened to you, aren’t you surprised that many people, especially in the West, celebrate the Assad regime and defend its secularism and how it handles with minorities?

Assad’s regime is in no way secular, it is sectarian and securitarian. When it comes to the Islamic World, many I the west tend to adopt what I call Huntingtonian secularism, defining secularism in an oversimplifying culturalist way as something against Islam, completely detached from politics, social and economic affairs, and from individual and collective dignity. Most people in the west simply know nothing about Syria. Most of the press coverage of Syria is made of simplifications that show Bashar Assad in expensive suits and neckties, maybe his rich and elegant wife, usually with insinuations to his Alawi minority, meaning he is not from the Sunni Muslim majority, from whom minorities should be protected. Many of these coverages are imbued with Islamophobic sentiments. These factors made it easier for many to identify with the thuggish regime far more than with those who were invisible for years and decades, and are now rising up against it.

Deep in the genealogy of the protection of minorities or minority rights lies the colonial powers, discourses and practices in the time of rising Western imperialism which was also the time of the “Eastern Question” in the second half of the 19th century. What do the colonial discourses say? That the minorities in the ‘East’ are threatened by the Muslim Majority, and that the “civilized” Western powers are their protectors from those despotic rulers that seemed to represent the Muslim majority (and are the saviors of Muslim and Eastern women from the Muslim and Eastern men). In this way France ‘protected’ the Maronites of Lebanon, Cesarean Russia protected the orthodox Christians, England the Druze, etc. This has rarely been acknowledged and criticized in the West. The implied hatred of Islam and Muslims as was shown in the Executive Orders of D. Trump in his first week of his presidency is overlooked, and its role in creating and nurturing sectarianism was always denied.

The presupposition behind this discourse is that the cultural or religious majority is at the same time the political majority. Well, this was always wrong, and it is doubly wrong in Syria in the last half century. Those who occupy the posts that control the reproduction of the regime are mostly from one sect, with a publicly known discrimination on their behalf in the security agencies and military formation with security functions. Most of those arrested, tortured, killed, displaced, their towns and neighborhoods destroyed besieged and destroyed, are from the Sunni majority in the last six years. Nevertheless the dogma of minorities’ protection sticks there in the West like a fixed prejudice. The only innovation in the recent years is that the evil majority now is not Muslims, but Arab Sunni Muslims, which extends the blessings of minority protection to the Kurds and the Alawites, with Russia now is the champion of protecting all minorities, with implicit or explicit consent of many in the West.

Especially people on the Left have such stances. What do you think about Western leftists views on the Syrian revolution?

It seems that they have their own Bakdashists in the West, those who talk a lot about struggles without struggling themselves, fully isolated from human suffering and lacking humility that may lead them to listen to others, trying to learn from others, and identify with others. Our local Bakdashists lost any trace of independent political will in the course of 44 years now of servile alliance with the Assadi regime. But they are part of an international network of similar communists, holding meetings in Damascus and other capitals, enjoying free movement as loyal servants of the regime elite. We used to despise our Bakdashists for they are dull, docile, unprincipled, false witnesses to the history of our country and our people’s suffering. They became the living symbols of sluggish, wooden tongued middle class apparatchiks, whose aging leaders live in the center of the capital doing nothing apart from verbal attacks on imperialism from whom the latter comes out always intact.

But we committed a big mistake by underestimating them. While we were congratulating ourselves for our honesty, humility, creativity, we were under security surveillance, isolated from the younger sectors of our own people, while at the same time confined within the borders of our country, many of us without passports, never being able to meet political activists or intellectuals in other countries, the regime and its servants were controlling the masses within the country and were moving in the four directions of the globe, telling the imperialist powers that they are a strong bulwark against terrorism that springs naturally from their bestial subjects, telling the leftist in the West that they are a strong bulwark against imperialism, and the Syrian population that we should be united behind our historic leader in the face of Western plots. The state was an invincible jail for us, while it was an easy going and effective tool to reach the world for the Assadists and their vassals. Now we are paying heavily for our naivety.  

It came to me as a shock that the left in the West sided with a brutal, corrupt and sectarian regime whose history in a half a century is the history of the formation of a predatory class that have been exploiting the impoverished and unprotected Syrians and squeezes the Syrian pubic resources, depositing its billions in foreign banks. They know that Hafez Assad ruled Syria for 30 years, do not they? They know that his Syria was transformed to a dynastic monarchy ruled by the Assad family, don’t they? They know that this is a grave breach of the very concept of the republic, don’t they? Why have they never uttered a word about it? I thought that we are the leftists who were active in democratic struggle in our country, and of course we are the one that will be supported by leftists in the more democratic countries. We were not.

One direct reason behind this curious situation can be that most of those who define themselves as anti-imperialists in the imperial center tend to annex our struggle to a regime change plan they attribute to the American administration. Their distinguished ignorance of Syria, its modern and contemporary history, its society, political life, political economy… makes us even more invisible to them, and makes them even more daring in seeing imperialism behind what is happening in Syria. But actually regime change in Syria was our own imitative as Syrians, we were the ones who wanted to overthrow their barbarian regime, ad this came in a very well known context: “the Arab Spring”. Do not they know that? Maybe they know but it is hard for them to recognize our political agency, that we can have revolutions and we aspire to freedom and equality.      

Often it seems that people on the Left have misconceptions about Syria. How far is that true?

Too far. As I said above most leftist know almost nothing about Syria, and the little they know is either deeply flawed or absolutely false. And given the background above, it becomes a bit understandable though unforgivable. As true Bakdashists, their anti imperialism discourse moved from the field of analysis and politics to the realm of identity: concepts were transformed to symbols, a specific linguistic expressions that tell who you are, not what you are doing and how to offer a better understanding of the world. So when you talk about struggle against imperialism, this in no way means that you are really doing anything that will annoy imperialism. It just means that you like this pose for yourself and you belong to a group of your likes. And it seems that they those imperialists in the White House in the Pentagon, in Wall Street, are paying no slightest damn attention to you and your solipsistic anti imperialist world.

However, I think the traditional left all over the world failed to provide a genuine analysis about Syria, the Middle East, the Islamist nihilism, the Islamic question and the present world situation. They are nowhere aware of the urgent need to new approaches concerning these issues and many others. The word that rightly defines this situation is: CRISIS. And it is deepening. That is why I think there should be a paradigmatic shift, that transcends the inherited duality of left and right. In regard to Syria and Islamism, one hardly sees the difference.

Recently, the regime recaptured Aleppo. The narratives of Aleppo are very different. One side is talking about genocide and mass murder by the regime and its allies. According to the other side, the city has been liberated from “terrorists”. Which side is, in your opinion, on the “right side of history”?

I find this expression: the right side of history dreadful. Who are those angels who hover with their ethereal wings over history to be able to say: this the right side and that is the wrong side of history?

Genocide is a powerful notion that should be used cautiously. It is more legitimate to apply it to the whole course of continuous systematic torture, killing, bombing and forced displacement in almost six years. What happened in Aleppo is one episode in a long series. Those who were displaced are mostly local population and those who re-occupied the city are aliens: the regime army who is specialized in ransacking any neighborhoods or towns it controls, and Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’aa militias. And imperialist Russia carpet bombing made this possible for them. It is reoccupation.

Jabhat an Nusra was one group fighting in Eastern Aleppo and it seemed that its members were the first ones to leave in the green buses. But let me say that this term: terrorist, is an obstacle to understanding anything about Syria, Islamic nihilism and the Islamic question. The latter is not just a malaise of Islam as many think it to be, it is a global problem and it should be dealt with globally.

Aleppo is not only a turning point in the Syrian struggle, it is a victory of brute force and power politics and the defeated are the poorer and the weaker in Syria and everywhere. The world future after Aleppo is bleak.     

Is it wrong to assume that extremist groups are dominating the rebellion now? How did this become possible?

It came be true in the course of years.   

For a better understanding, we should have a closer look at the dynamics at work in Syria after the revolution rather than to given identities pre existing fully fledged organizations. I suppose this is the method revolutionary minded people adopt. The revolution started as peaceful demonstrations that went for months, and was faced with sheer force by the regime from the very beginning. Syrian protesters asked for “international protection” in September 2011, almost 6 months in the revolution. In the collective perception of Syrians at that time was the floating idea that the “world” will not let them be killed the way they experienced 30 years ago when 20-30 thousand were killed in Hama in February 1982. One reason behind this illusion was the democratic rhetoric that was the accompanying narrative of the intervention in former Yugoslavia in 1998, in Iraq 2003, and in Libya 2011. Receb Tayyib Erdogan, the then prime minister of Turkey, said at that time that there will not be another Hama in Syria, and he mistakenly thought that he is supported in this by the Americans.

Well, the international protection did not come. Armed resistance was rising, and vulnerable people who were losing their trust of the world were relying on their arms now and clinging their trust to the Almighty. Thus a dynamic of radicalization, militarization, Islamzation was triggered. This means that people become radicalized without being so all the time. It means also that you become an Islamist while you were before not even an observant Muslim. You are carrying arms now, and before you were a farmer or a university student or unemployed person. But if it happens that you are already a radical militant Islamist you find yourself in a more natural habitat. Iraq was a laboratory in which the Assad regime helped in generating such enzymes. Saydnaya horrible torture jails were another laboratory from which the regime released many Jihadis less than three months after the eruption of the revolution.

A third factor (beside the dynamic of radicalization… and the pre existent jihadi enzyme, coming primarily from Iraq) came from outside this dynamic: the rentier petrodollars form states (mostly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) or Salafi networks in the gulf. These states, one shpuld never forget, are integrated in the American national security system.

The rentier money gave some military formations independence from local communities in which they originally arose, and they become more rooted in their religious ideology. The Salafi mutation among Islamists cannot be reduced to an effect of the Wahhabism, imported for Saudi Arabia; it is related to the early globalization of Islamism in the Afghani laboratory in 1980s (with a crucial support of the American at that time) and with the gradual hegemony of what I call the Salafi Jihadi paradigm. The latter in turn cannot be isolated from the political and social situations in the Middle East, in which the American and Israelis are the sovereign power. Schematically speaking, the Muslim brotherhood is the Islamist formation before the era of globalization (1980s and after), the time when our countries had been independent for a generation or a bit more, and were ruled by nationalist dictatorships. The salafi jihadis are the Isalmist formation in the age of globalization and Neo sulatnic transformation of in many countries, with Syria being the vanguard in this regression. Politics is impossible in the neo Sultanic State which is a warring entity. This is the ideal environment for the salafi jihadis who prosper in conditions of war.

It seems that the Assad regime adopted the “war on terror”-narrative of the West. In fact, Russia and Iran are doing the same. Why is there so less criticism towards this construction?

There is a global morbid consensus against terror in its Islamic attire that you feel that terror is the world’s suppressed desire and the  Islamists are the desired enemy for many, though for different reasons. What unifies them is the enemy that they so much pinch for to resist change and foster stability. The Assadist sultanate that desires to stay in power for ever finds that this can be guaranteed better by joining the war on terror. The Russians desire the same enemy to enhance their international status and as a cover for their war against the rebelling Syrians, and you see that in actuality they did almost nothing against Da’esh. Iran needs Daesh to join an international consensus as a cover to its own aspirations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. US supremacists needs Da’esh to justify their neo fascist policies. Terror is the word/pretext that enables many opportunist powers, even experienced killers to be part of a global coalition in times of a deep change of the world order. The pretext is needed for the time being, before the new order is clearly formed. It is a very good cover now. Those whose duty is to destroy the cover are either ignorant or hypocrite or just cowards. They are afraid of being attacked by their likes or by trolls in commentary sections of internet sites.        

What can we say about the role of media relating the war in Syria? Would you criticize both the mainstream and the alternative media for its coverage?

I am not an expert on this issue. I always preferred to know better about what is really going one far more than what people say that is going on.    

However, on the level of media one there is a degree of deadening consensus that we are in a very urgent need of a salvaging division. But let me suggest something that may explain this consensus. It is not and an active one. It is an unstable outcome of knowing almost nothing about Syria, portraying the Syrian struggle as “complicated” because it does not surrender itself to the simplifications the ‘infotainment’ industry have been breast feeding people on it for around two generations, which leaves the space widely open to processes of identifications, misidentifications, and dis-identifications. These are affective processes that work on the level of images, impressions and symbols. Knowledge becomes superfluous.

The ones who really know about Syria or care to know, and there are many, sided all the time with the Syrian struggle for change or at least developed a nuanced understanding of our struggle.       

But I hope things will begin to change after Trump became the US president. The man is fool, reactionary and racist. He is a global threat. And a broad global front against him and his likes is an urgent need. I think many are feeling this need.

Many foreign powers somehow interfered in Syria, some more, some less. How can the struggle of the Syrian people be supported by that?

There are three modes of foreign powers intervention in Syria. The first is to use the state to invite foreign states and militias to participate in the killing feast, especially in the second half of 2012 and after. The Iranian and Russian interventions are examples of this mode. Substate actors like Hizbullah and other Shi’aa militias from Iraq and Afghanistan are other examples.

The other mode is the infiltration of Jihadis from many countries, mainly through the Turkish –Syrian borders, to build their own entities, fighting the regime at times, but fighting those who fight the regime and the local population all the time. The third mode is that of the American and the coalition they lead who are supposedly at war against Da’esh, but the stage of their operations is mainly Iraq. This latter mode coupled with political, diplomatic, financial interventions, greatly participated in engineering the present tragic situation in the country. Turkey’s intervention is not different from the Amerivan in that it targets turkey’s own Da’esh, the Kurdish PYD with his known ties with the PKK in Turkey, and from behind the curtains with Tehran and the Assad regime.

These interventions led to the horrible situation in the country.

Now as a Syrian committed to substantial change in my countery I can think of one of two approaches in relation to the intervention: either absolute nonintervention, direct or indirect, or intervention according to the international law to protect those who rebelled against a thuggish regime and hoped for protection. Now what really happened in Syria is a continuous intervention many powers in ways that did not protect the weak or weaken the powerful; bully. The anti war movement satisfied itself with the American administration not punishing the Assadi state after using the chemical weapons against its subjects in 2013, something the administration did not really want to do.  The movement ignored the Assdai war itself, and many other forms of intervention, by the Americans and others, that in effect kept intact the Assadi machinery of killing. Do not they know of this? An Arab poet said once: it is a disaster if you do not know, and it is even more disastrous if you know!

Do you see a future in Syria with Bashar al Assad?

No. The regime he inherited from his father is systematically based on keeping the public power in the hands of the Assad family. The real constitution of the regime is this: staying in power for ever which means eternalizing the present. This logically and actually means that you have to be in a constant battle against change and future. And this is precisely what the regime has been doing for 6 years: an open war against future. Eternity exists only in the form of endless repetition. Future is a impossible.

However Bashar is a dummy now and Syria is under occupation. The country is in a tragic situation, being for years a stage f interplay of a thuggish regime, fascist Islamists and imperial powers. It s not a matter of Bashar any longer. He is just a trivial detail by now.

Do you have hope in general?

I just cannot despair. My experience in prison taught me to develop a relation with change that helps in opening windows for hope. Hope is a matter of change, changing your ideas, your perspective, yourself, the world. You have to change in yourself and your world in ways that keep hope flowing. Despair comes from lack of change.

I throw myself in the revolution from the beginning not only because I wanted to be part of political change in Syria but also to own a new changing experience, one like my emncipatory experience in prison. It is happening in a way, but the price is already too high and the experience is too tragic.

But I try to think of myself as an agent of a change, in my torn country and in the world. I feel we are in need of a new global project and a new age of struggle. The dystopian Salafi Jihadism, which is the only movement in the world now with a global perspective, is in my opinion a symptom of an absent utopia.