Ask a reasonably well-informed member of the Western European or North American public what they most associate with Syria’s Palmyra. If you aren’t met with a blank stare, the likeliest response will be the destruction of its priceless ancient ruins by the self-professed Islamic State (ISIS) from 2015 onward.
Indescribably loathsome and abominable as that annihilation of a UNESCO World Heritage site was, for many Syrians it still isn’t the thing that most horrifies them about Palmyra. That macabre distinction would belong to the remote desert town’s prison; for many decades, the most fearsome penitentiary in a state not known for full compliance with the Nelson Mandela Rules at the best of times. In June 1980, anywhere between 500 and more than 2,000 inmates were massacred by soldiers in cold blood in a single day. Syrian poet Faraj Bayraqdar, who himself spent five years inside, called it “the kingdom of death and madness.”
Another inmate was Yassin al-Haj Saleh, whose sixteen years of incarceration included stints at Tadmor (as Palmyra is known in Arabic) as well as Adra prison. Born in 1961 near Raqqa, now the Syrian capital of ISIS’ “caliphate,” al-Haj Saleh was jailed while still a teenager in 1980 for membership of an anti-regime, anti-Moscow spinoff of the Syrian Communist Party. That party had run into trouble for, among other things, protesting Hafez al-Assad’s 1976 military intervention in Lebanon (against the leftist-Palestinian alliance, as people sometimes forget). He wouldn’t be freed until 1996, aged 35.
This isn’t the only respect in which al-Haj Saleh is unusually well-placed to assess the current situation in his homeland, as he does in a newly released book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The two years and seven months in which he remained in the country after the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011 took him from regime-held Damascus to rebel-held Douma to ISIS-occupied Raqqa (where he was forced, as in Damascus, to live in hiding). By the time he was compelled to leave for Istanbul in October 2013, his brother Firas had been disappeared by ISIS in Raqqa for organizing demonstrations against the jihadists. His wife, Samira, would meet the same fate at the hands of an Islamist militia in besieged Douma two months later (both remain missing to this day). When al-Haj Saleh speaks about Syrian fascism, in both its “necktie” and “bearded” forms, one could say he speaks from experience.
Yet for someone so directly affected by the Syrian maelstrom, one of the first things that strikes one about The Impossible Revolution is how much detachment he’s able to write with. This is not, indeed, a personal diary of day-to-day experiences on the ground (in the manner of, say, Samar Yazbek’s recent works). Instead, it’s a collection of scholarly essays (translated from Arabic by Ibtihal Mahmood) parsing the noise of daily developments, taking the measure of their underlying forces, and working out in general how a socially and culturally advanced nation –as Syria had been before it was made the private property of the Assad family in 1970– ended up where it is now. That all but one of these ten essays were written inside Syria makes them not only a literary jewel of the Syrian uprising (and Arab Spring more broadly) but a model of intellectual commitment and integrity under fire tout court. (Now might be the moment to make a double disclosure: al-Haj Saleh is an Al-Jumhuriya co-founder, and his publisher in English, Hurst & Company, is also releasing a book authored by this reviewer later this year.)
The essays, selected from “nearly 380” items published since 2011, span subjects ranging from the ethics of militarizing the opposition’s cause to the etymology of the word shabbiha; the sobriquet of the pro-regime death squads responsible for much of the early savagery against peaceful demonstrators and other civilians. With the gallows humor often seen in survivors of totalitarianism, al-Haj Saleh manages to make the latter rumination almost funny, as when he further explains the derivation of such verbs as salbata; “a uniquely Syrian term that condenses several ways power is exercised in ‘Assad’s Syria’ into one word: an amalgamation of salb (looting or robbery), labt (the act of kicking) and tasallut (tyranny).” Less uproariously, he makes the crucial point that the horror stories about the shabbiha extending back to the 1970s are an essential element –like Tadmor and the other dungeons– of the backstory to 2011; the decades of mass-murder and mass-rape and mass-torture which words like “repressive” or even “brutal” don’t come close to capturing: this unimaginable and never-ending humiliation –tashbih, to use the verbal noun form (“shabbiha-like behaviour”)– creates the psychological tinder that one day ignites in exactly the kind of societal detonation now witnessed.
Among al-Haj Saleh’s most original insights, developed across several essays, is his conception of the regime not as a national government in any remotely ordinary sense, but rather as an occupying, even colonial force. “The general public is viewed with contempt and disdain, in a manner no different from a colonizing power’s view of the colonized; this […] cheapens the value of their lives, so much so that killing them is a matter of no great concern.” One way to think of absolute dictatorship, indeed, is as a state in which everybody outside the miniscule ruling clique is a second-class citizen, or rather no citizen of any kind. I recall once asking a Palestinian-Syrian if it were true, as was sometimes claimed by regime apologists, that Palestinians enjoyed equality with Syrians under Assad. “Yes, we were fully equal,” came his ironic reply. “Injustice, corruption, subjugation, and repression were the lot of Syrians and Palestinians together.”
Al-Haj Saleh shows how this Leopoldian cruelty was coupled with the nurturing by the regime of an extreme form of classism, encouraging the small middle class that emerged under Bashar to feel horror and loathing for the barbarian masses of the suburbs and countryside. This, of course, overlapped substantially with sectarianism –the “backward” undesirables (mutakhallifun) routinely castigated in regime propaganda being universally understood to be Sunnis, in contrast to the “civilized” Alawites and Christians– but it also superseded sectarianism, so that an urban Sunni in the richer parts of Damascus or Aleppo might feel more affinity for his non-Sunni neighbors than for his co-religionists in Daraa or Deir ez-Zor. Al-Haj Saleh argues persuasively that it was this aggravated class divide, much more than religious belief per se or any political ideology, that was and still is the crucial fault line in Syrian society, and the fundamental driver of the uprising. I would diverge slightly from him only when he goes on to suggest religious doctrine plays no role whatsoever in this dynamic; that it’s “clear that the issue of sectarianism is a matter of political and social privilege, not a question of identity, culture, or religion.” Can it not be all of the above? It’s difficult to accept that “the world of faith, piety, beliefs, fanaticism, and rituals” may be so easily disentangled from the “world of politics and power, wealth and influence,” even if one could make a compelling case (as he does) that the latter are ultimately the crux of the matter.
Speaking of theocratic fanaticism, al-Haj Saleh sees from a mile off that the jihadist problem, which Assad had long known how to manipulate, would metastasize the longer the regime was allowed to continue its scorched-earth slaughter of the democratic opposition unimpeded. “If the regime carries on with its escalation of violence to the level of state terrorism, circumstances will become even more accommodating to terrorist-style jihadist violence.” That was written in April 2012, a full year before the formation of ISIS, and more than two years before the latter would expand into Iraq as far as seizing Mosul. A month later: “If the Free Syrian Army disintegrates, the result will be a growing proclivity toward al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers.” Once back on the ground in his hometown of Raqqa, he was able to see with his own eyes how the regime’s culpability was more than merely implicit or indirect: “In Raqqa, questions have arisen about the regime’s air force. For some reason, they have never launched airstrikes on Daesh’s headquarters, despite the fact that it is located at the well-known local Provincial Palace.” As an ISIS defector once put it to The Daily Telegraph: “We always slept soundly in our bases.”
Al-Haj Saleh demonstrates easily, in other words, how the regime and the jihadists have always been equal and opposite sides of the same coinage, and how the only hope for defeating both lies in the democratic movement that has ever been their common enemy. That ISIS and al-Qaeda must be trounced is self-evident for the (incidentally atheist) author, but no less self-evident is that the regime that did so much to bring about their emergence –and killed hundreds of thousands more civilians than them, in case anyone happens to mind about that– must also be allowed no future. That this apparently continues to escape the comprehension of world leaders, more than six years into the conflict, is a source of understandable bewilderment for him.
His conclusion is that there is a contagion of “criminality at the heart of the current international order.” The Syrian crisis, indeed, is “no longer a Syrian one. It is a crisis of the world.” The point is well captured in the book’s foreword by fellow Syrian writer Robin Yassin-Kassab: “The specter of Syrian refugees and/or terrorists […] is shaping America’s domestic politics and helping undo the European Union. As hopes for freedom and prosperity are crushed, new strains are injected into old authoritarianisms, and twenty-first century forms of nativism are taking root, west and east.” Al-Haj Saleh puts forward some remedial proposals, including overhauling the UN Security Council that places permanent vetoes against democratic progress in the hands of two appalling autocracies (and three democracies who don’t always vote much more admirably). Beyond that, there is a need to generate “new principles and new institutions, starting with the principle of global responsibility” for the sake of “democracy, which retreats everywhere as soon as it stops progressing anywhere.” In short, if our world has indeed now been “Syrianized,” as al-Haj Saleh puts it, we had better all start becoming Free Syrians.