Bostjan Videmsek interviews Yassin al-Haj Saleh, former political prisoner and one of Syria’s foremost intellectuals, on ‘civil war’, sectarianism, and the geo-political conspiracy theories which render the people of the Middle East invisible.
Three years and three months into the conflict, Syria and its people have more or less been forgotten by international community, the media, even NGOs. How does this effect life on the ground and the conflict itself?
I do not approve of words like ‘conflict’ and ‘crisis’ in describing our struggle. The connotations of these terms cover up the responsibilities of the terrible situation in Syria, that of a regime that had been ruling the country for 41 years when the revolution started 38 months ago, and that killed perhaps 40,000 Syrians in a previous generation (between 1979 and 1982). There are many ways to forget the Syrian struggle; one of them is to refer to a vague and distant conflict. I think the sort of symptomatic forgetfulness you refer to in the question is only a continuation by different means of the coverage which speaks about ‘conflict’ and ‘crisis’.
Having said that that, life on the ground is affected by barrel bombs thrown from helicopters over civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo, by chlorine gas bombs thrown over people in Kafr Zeta near Hama, and by fighter jets bombing towns of the eastern Ghouta near Damascus. This affects life more than being forgotten by the international community, the media, and NGOs. People are not killed because they are forgotten. They were always forgotten in the past, then they revolted against their masters, and decided to remind all the world of their existence. They are being killed because they revolted, and they are being punished for their insistence on visibility by being forgotten again.
Was there a moment when you personally believed that something would change, that there would be a limited international action against the regime, or did you understand in advance the real goals behind the silence?
Yes. I thought that after the chemical massacre in the Ghouta in August 2013 the regime would be punished, not because it had been killing ‘its’ people for 29 months at that time but because it had violated an international rule and trespassed a ‘red line’ set by the powerful. But instead, the powerful arranged things so that they punished the knife the killer slaughtered his victims with while assuring the criminal that it was safe for him to kill using the other weapons in his arsenal.
Everything gives the Syrians the impression that killing them is not important, that they are the right people to kill. What is important is that weapons may be used against the wrong people to kill.
Syria right now is a destroyed country. Is there still a chance of stopping the conflict? How can the country which is full of rage, bitterness and the desire for revenge survive?
No. There is really not the slightest chance of ‘stopping the conflict’. The regime has never shown any sign that it is ready to relinquish even 2% of its absolute power. Do you know what the shabbiha’s slogan is? It is: Either Assad or Nobody! Another version says: Either Assad or We Burn the Country! A third version says: Either Assad or Let the Country be Dispensed with! The shabbiha are the political unconscious of the regime, they express better than anyone the nihilist constitution of the ruling junta. That is why we will never see a political solution to the ‘conflict’. This is a matter of logic. Is it possible for a republic to be ruled by a dynasty? Is it possible for a State of Emergency to last forever? For a sectarian regime to be the patron of national unity? Only when people are without heads. You have to cut off their heads to prevent them from thinking. And you have already killed so many that you are forced to kill more in order not to pay the price for killing those killed before. The first massacre was a crime, the following massacres are the impossible solution. To stop massacring people is to lose power. This is not a dictatorial regime as many think; it is a regime of political slavery that owns the country and the population, and that kills them when they revolt against it, the same way the slave owner does.
What I want to say is that there is no way for the country to survive while this dynasty is still in power. Even if the regime regained control – which is still impossible – it will do this through super-fascist methods. And the way they regain control determines the way they rule: massacres and ethnic cleansing. We have a historical precedent: the regime defeated its Islamist and secular opponents in the 1980s through fascist methods, and ruled with fascist methods for nearly two decades after that. I was less than 20 when I was arrested, tortured, and left in prison for 16 years. Our struggle for freedom did not begin yesterday or three years ago.
Can you describe everyday life in Damascus? How is your family? Can you communicate with your relatives and friends in the other parts of the country?
I left Damascus in the first days of April 2013 after two years of living in hiding. At that time the city was chequered with hundreds of checkpoints and one needed 2 hours to reach a place one used to reach in 15 minutes. Security men were checking the neighborhoods house by house. Receiving a warning in advance, my wife and I fled one house in May 2012. A second time we simply did not open the door, but then we were obliged to stay away for a while before coming back to our safer district.
The situation now is far worse, with longer electricity cuts and mortar shells falling randomly and killing helpless people at times.
I stayed for 100 days in the eastern Ghouta. Samira, my wife, a former political prisoner for four years in the days of Hafez al-Assad, and the only other member of my family, followed me after a month and a half. Then in July 2013, I left for Raqqa in the north, a hard and dangerous journey that took 19 days. The city in which I was born was under ISIS control when I arrived, and two of my brothers were kidnapped by this fascist organization. I found myself forced to live in hiding again for 75 days. I left for Turkey in October. One of my brothers was released, but my friend Doctor Ismael al-Hamed was kidnapped after I left. My brother Firas has been in their hands for nearly 10 months now.
Samira, our friend Razan Zeitouna, the famous human rights activist and writer, Wael Hamada, Razan’s husband and a former political prisoner, and Nazem Hammadi, the poet and lawyer, were kidnapped in Douma, eastern Ghouta, on December 9th 2013. And for five months now we have not had any information about them. But it is sure that Jabhat an-Nusra and Jaish al-Islam, two Salafist military formations, are the culprits.
I can communicate with some of my friends and relatives, but we always avoid asking the traditional questions: How are you? What is the news? My friends would feel embarrassed to ask me about Samira.
Did you ever think that something so horrible would happen in your country?
Never. Like many Syrians I’d always felt that this junta was prepared to destroy the country to stay in power. But we hoped that, in a mysterious way, this would not happen. In some of my work, I concluded that a big social explosion was coming, and that it might have a sectarian form; still I did not predict the horrible situation of today. I think what we failed to see was the collapse of the national framework of our struggle and the influx of jihadis from many countries, as well as the regime’s invitation to people from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries to take part in its killing. Both sides, the regime and its allies and the Sunni jihadis, are hypersectarian, and see it as their highest duty to kill their sectarian enemies. Maybe we have to conclude from this that we have many meta-state problems that cannot be dealt with and solved within the framework of the existing states.
Do you agree that there would have been no civil war if the West had given some concrete support to the original groups of rebels?
I still do not like the expression ‘civil war’, especially when it means sectarian war. We have a thuggish regime using our national army, our national resources, the fighter jets, tanks and scud missiles we paid for in order to defend the country, to kill the people. Is this a civil war? If a ruling junta did such a thing in, say, the US, would we call it a civil war? This is mainly war by a tyrannical regime against its miserable people.
However, I think, yes, we could have avoided the worst of the ‘civil war’ if we had got some effective support to either overthrow the regime or compel it to negotiate. The fountain of our war is this Assad dynasty, and everything will become worse if they stay in power.
Was Syria ‘given away’ for geo-strategic purposes?
It has always been like this in the ‘Middle East’. Syria and the region have always been defined in geopolitical terms. This knowledge makes us invisible. We are the invisible subaltern in the most internationalized region on this planet. What is seen of our countries from the metropolitan capitals is Bashar Assad, his “rose in the desert” (his wife Asma), and their likes, the power and money elite, but not the people, not women and men struggling for a better life. This constant approach opens to a concept of politics as deals between outside big powers and local petty rulers. That is why it is of vital importance to deconstruct this approach that insists on not seeing us as individuals and collective actors.
By the way, this ‘geopolitical’ approach finds its ideological reflection in the conspiracy theory held by many in our country, a theory that ‘helps’ ordinary people not to see themselves, or to see themselves only as passive victims in a grand game played by bigger actors. It seems, however, that conspiracy theories are also greedily consumed in the “big world”, with the same function: not to see ordinary people. This is the real hat of invisibility that our folk stories spoke about more than a thousand years ago. But when you put it on, you only see the important people. All rank and file people disappear.
Where will the Shia-Sunni fight lead? To a Middle Eastern not-cold-anymore war? Who’s behind this growing conflict?
I think the sectarianization of the struggle is a strategy of elites, political and religious, to deflect the popular aspirations for freedom and justice, to make the conflict last forever, and for these elites to discipline the masses.
But it is not a matter of religions or sects; these are only tools for mobilization. It is a struggle for power, for resources and privileges. The mission of the regime is not the welfare of the Alawites. Rather its highest value is to stay in power ‘forever’, as the Assadist slogan really goes. Shiism is a tool of the foreign policy of an ambitious national state, Iran, and not a value in itself. Islam, Sunni Islam in different versions, is also a tool of power for different sides, the jihadis included. Actually the real religion of ISIS is its power, absolute power over the bodies and souls of women and men, and over public resources.
I think we in Syria and the Arab world are in dire need of new thinking about religion, politics, society, and life. Many people say so, but they usually tend to isolate themselves from the current political and social struggle for freedom, or even to side with these so-called ‘secular’ regimes. We will be in a better position to effect cultural change when we engage ourselves in this great struggle of our people.
What could happen after the possible fall of the regime?
Everything will be difficult. It is sure that the end of the regime will not be the end of violence. But it will be a better beginning for the Syrians to rebuild their shattered lives and identities, and to reappropriate their country and neighborhoods. For the last three years an unstoppable pump of violence, radicalization, sectarianization and hatred has been working. It is unimaginable that the effect of this pump be reversed without the regime being overthrown.
The first thing we will face after the regime is the fascist jihadi organizations. ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and the likes. I think an atmosphere of moderation and tolerance will be felt when that brutal pump is deactivated.
Bashar al-Assad looks stronger than at anytime during the conflict. Was he promised something?
After the chemical weapons deal, I think he feels he is safe to do whatever he likes, even if he uses gas. And he really did in the last weeks. Iran and its satellites in Iraq and Lebanon are supporting his war with men and money, while “our friends” always did their best to prevent regional powers from helping the Syrian armed resistance. With enemies like ours, we were in terrible need of friends not like ours.
Then after Geneva II he feels he is secure in not giving up even 1% of his power to any “transitional governing body”. Now that its heinous crimes are not even reported, with the mainstream coverage of Syria in the west centered on ISIS and the jihadis, or at best speaking about two baddies, I think he feels most reassured.
How do you see the role of the media – in the context of your Hersh/Fisk essay?
The media is centered on power and powerful people. Not to be powerful is not to be visible, is not to exist indeed. Maybe the media has never been so servile before those who are powerful, to authorities, including some conceited and insensate journalists like Fisk and Hersh. Both men are putting on some very specific hats of invisibility: ones that make themselves visible everywhere in the world, but that help them not to see ordinary people.
But the media’s extreme preoccupation with power and money is the global condition of our present time. I think this global condition must be changed globally.
How do you feel, personally? How is the war effecting your writing, dreams, relationships, health? What do you need and miss most?
I used to say when asked such questions that I have no personal reasons to complain and no public reasons to be contented. I know that the personal is political, and after my brother Firas and some of my friends were kidnapped by ISIS in Raqqa, Samira and other friends were kidnapped by the Islam Army/ Jabhat an Nusra in Eastern Ghouta, this link between the personal and the political has become even stronger. So I do not have a choice but to work more for our public issue, a new free Syria. My solution of personal problems has always been doing more work. I cannot relax. I feel more ok when I work more than when I am having a break.
Living in ‘exile’ is not such a problem for me. I was in a way exiled inside the country. What I miss most now is just living the life of the people among the people.
But I have good friends here in Turkey and in many countries, indeed some of the best in the whole world. I miss Samira a lot. I miss Firas. I miss my books. They were my home; separation from my books is my real exile.
Bostjan Videmsek is foreign correspondent of the Slovenian daily DELO and author of “21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s)”