Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the War on Terror

Yassin al-Haj Saleh and his abducted wife Samira Khalil

Western leftists would do themselves a favour by listening carefully to the Syrian leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh. In this interview with Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham, first published at the Intercept, Yassin discusses leftist misconceptions as well as Islamism, secularism, intervention, the ‘Palestinization’ of Syrians and the ‘Israelization’ of the Assad regime.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.

“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.

Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.

From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.

By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since.

Saleh is now among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey as refugees. He travels the country helping to train Syrian writers and activists in exile, while writing and speaking about his country’s plight. As a leftist, he has also been a vociferous critic of a growing international consensus that has come to see the Syrian conflict in Bashar al-Assad’s terms — as a fight against terrorism.

Our interview with Saleh is presented below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Massacre in Hass

armThis won’t be a headline. And it happens every day.

Either Russian or Assadist planes bombed two schools in the small town of Hass, Idlib province, this morning. The video below shows a citizen journalist heading to the scene. I’ve seen much worse videos of this specific slaughter. One shows mothers screaming in total despair over the body parts of their children. The current death count is 35, most of them children. There are many injured.

I visted Hass very briefly in June 2013 on the way back to the Turkish border from Kafranbel. Hass is the next town along the road after Kafranbel, and like Kafranbel it’s a hotbed of democratic revolutionaries, not jihadists. Beyond that, the people are warm and welcoming rural Syrians, always willing to offer hospitality. In return the world ignores their torment.

It’s interesting that Assad has been sending surrendered civilians from revolutionary communities to Idlib province. The surviving people of revolutionary Daraya, for instance, were transported to Idlib. Then the families of Iraqi Shia militias began moving in to evacuated Daraya. Russian officials have said they want people from liberated  Aleppo to be transported to Idlib too. It looks like the emerging plan may involve a vast Sunni refugee camp across the province. Turkey may provide aid, and even be responsible for policing it. Some of the refugees in Turkey may ‘return’ there. Assad/Russia/Iran keep the cities of what the French called ‘useful Syria’. If Idlib gets too noisy, it will be bombed. Like Gaza but on a larger scale.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the Syrian Majority

yassin-al-haj-salehIt’s worse than just a shame that people in the West rely on their own ignorant, ideology-driven ‘informants’ on Syria, from Cockburn and Chomsky to Landis and Kinzer, rather than seeking out the analysis of progressive Syrians, people who actually understand the country and its people from their first-hand experience of life and struggle. This is particularly the case when Syria boasts thinkers of the standard of Yassin al-Haj Saleh, surely one of the most significant intellectuals in the world today.

In the article below, first published in Arabic and English at al-Jumhuriya, Yassin considers Syria’s past, present and possible futures. He makes the key point that the question of tyrannous Sunni majority rule will never arise in Syria, because there is no ‘Sunni Arab majority’. Though Sunni Arabs are a majority of the population, they are incapable of unifying into a political force, because their Sunni Arabism is only one component of their identity. They are divided by class, region, urban or rural location, lifestyle, education, as well as schools and shades of belief. Any government in the name of the ‘Sunni Arab majority’ would inevitably use the name for propaganda purposes, and would inevitably be another minority regime, drawn from one narrow subsection of Sunni Arabs and having to violently subdue the rest. (This is entirely true. More than that, even amongst Sunni Islamists, there isn’t a majority view on the shape of government or those who should draft and staff it).

Yassin’s thoughts on the western desire to ‘protect minorities’ (an old colonial trope now most visible on the fake left) are invaluable. His take on the Kurdish issue is a brilliant antidote to western leftist  fetishisation of the PYD.

Everything published at al-Jumhuriya is worth reading. The site should be bookmarked and referred to frequently. Here’s Yassin’s latest piece in full:

This article is addressed to an unidentified, moderately informed and well-meaning reader, and it suggests to them a vision for a just Syrian resolution, examining potential problems and hindrances in its path.

What is a resolution in Syria?

Syrians engaged in public affairs are always being asked about our conception of a resolution to the Syrian conflict. Rarely is the question a mere inquiry about what just resolutions may be possible. Instead, it is usually to provoke a concession that the issue is “complicated,” the resolution beyond the realm of possibility, or perhaps, that a solution is not attainable without setting the clocks back to a time before March 2011. Apart from that, the question often stems from a deafening ignorance of the history of political dissent in Syria, and of the squashed struggles towards democratic transition by a previous generation of Syrians. This line of questioning is also divorced, from any insight, albeit modest, of the different phases leading to the current juncture in our struggle.

Nevertheless, this article tackles that question of resolution directly, imagining an earnest unidentified reader, who genuinely aspires to a just resolution to the prolonged Syrian calamity, or one at least in the vicinity of justice.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: A just solution in Syria should be based on establishing a new political majority in the country, one in which an expanding majority of Syrians become familiar with its political representation, and do away with minoritarian, oligarchical rule, in turn laying the foundation for a new Syria and an assimilative Syrian regime. This requires the end of Assadist rule, and of Daesh and any Salafist-jihadist groups, in addition to instituting political and cultural equality for the Kurds with no nationalistic hegemony . It requires laying the foundations for a democratic Syria that is based upon citizenship.

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Assad’s Man in Oklahoma

Landis presents his sectarian partition plan to CNN

An astounding range of useful idiots and agenda-driven counter-revolutionaries have propagandised for the genocidal Assad regime in the last five years. Some, like David Duke and Nick Griffin, are honest about their hard-right, Islamophobic and racist politics. Others, including the ‘anti-imperialists’ who support the Russian-Iranian war-on-terror in Syria, and the ‘leftists’ who support the crony-capitalist Assad’s assaults on working-class communities, are much less so. Added to the list is the sectarian orientalist Joshua Landis, who poses as an academic while propagandising for both Assad and ISIS. In an article first published at the Huffington Post, Mohammed Ghanem takes him to task.

Over the past five years, Syria advocates have become well-acquainted with their most vociferous opponents in the American foreign policy debate. These analysts often have a grand theory that causes them to neglect key facts on Syria. They may have a reflexive mistrust of all claims made by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, an undue focus on “realist” theories of global politics, a mistaken belief that the Assad regime is “secular” and “anti-extremist,” or adamant anti-interventionist political views. In the case of University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, the grand theory is sectarianism.

Last week, I phoned in to a “Wilson Center” briefing that included Landis and was shocked to hear him say “I went through my mind thinking, Could one say that Shiites are better than Sunnis? And ultimately, I decided that this was a losing effort.” This rhetorical device, called paralipsis, seeks to highlight a rhetorical point by emphasizing that it was not mentioned. It usually is only a prelude to mentioning the point later, as it primes the audience to listen for exactly that point.

And indeed, Landis later wished for Iran, the main Shiite power, to win in Syria: “One side has to win…[It’s] more or less a done deal that Russia and Iran are closing this out…Allow it to happen.” Landis also stated, “The United States has been destroying Sunni rebels” in Iraq, while “Russia has been doing the same in Syria,” as if the ISIS insurgents America targets in Iraq can be equated with the civilian hospitals and residential neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of Russia’s air assault in Syria.

It was hardly the first time that Landis has pushed a highly sectarian view of Syria’s opposition; this has been his overarching focus since the conflict began. Just a month into Syria’s 2011 democracy protests, when demonstrators were chanting “One! One! One!” to highlight their diversity, Landis told “The Real News” that “The opposition says there is no threat [of sectarian war]…That’s what the opposition said about Iraq.” And in November 2011, only months before the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report would blame the Assad regime for increased sectarian rhetoric, Landis summarized the conflict to PBS Frontline later that year, “It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing…The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance.”

Landis, who maintains the blog Syria Comment, is one of the only academics to have focused on Syria’s domestic politics since 2004, and to be fair to him, Syria’s war did become steadily more sectarian with time due to Assad’s practices. Landis was also correct when he predicted in the spring of 2012, when many observers believed Assad was about to fall, that the regime would survive the year and beyond. But Landis’ stellar academic qualifications on Syria do not excuse his consistent distortions of the fundamental nature of the conflict ― always, it should be noted, in a pro-regime direction.

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On the Allies We’re Not Proud Of

palestine_solidarity_with_syria-jpg_1718483346This “Palestinian response to troubling discourse on Syria” is most welcome. Most Palestinians at the grassroots have been very supportive of the Syrian revolution. Certain ‘intellectuals’, however,  and even more supposed pro-Palestine activists in the West, have repeated the propaganda talking points of the Assad regime (which has murdered tens of thousands of Palestinians over the years, in Lebanon and in Syria) and its imperialist backers. Over 120 engaged Palestinians reject that discourse here. More and more are signing the statement. (If you’re a Palestinian, you can sign by clicking the link above and going to the end of the text).

We, the undersigned Palestinians, write to affirm our commitment to the amplification of Syrian voices as they endure slaughter and displacement at the hands of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. We are motivated by our deep belief that oppression, in all of its manifestations, should be the primary concern of anyone committed to our collective liberation. Our vision of liberation includes the emancipation of all oppressed peoples, regardless of whether or not their struggles fit neatly into outdated geopolitical frameworks.

We are concerned by some of the discourse that has emerged from progressive circles with regards to the ongoing crisis in Syria. In particular, we are embarrassed by the ways in which some individuals known for their work on Palestine have failed to account for some crucial context in their analysis of Syria.

The Syrian revolution was in fact a natural response to 40 years of authoritarian rule. The Assad regime, with the support of its foreign financial and military backers, is attempting to preserve its power at the expense of the millions of Syrians whom the regime has exiled, imprisoned, and massacred. We believe that minimizing this context in any discussion of Syria dismisses the value of Syrian self-determination and undermines the legitimacy of their uprising.

We also believe that an important consequence of all foreign interventions, including those purportedly done on behalf of the uprising, has been the setback of the original demands of revolution. The revolution is a victim, not a product, of these interventions. It is imperative for any analysis of Syria to recognize this fundamental premise. We cannot erase the agency of Syrians struggling for liberation, no matter how many players are actively working against them.

Though we maintain that the phenomenon of foreign aid demands thorough critique, we are concerned by the ways in which foreign aid has been weaponized to cast suspicion on Syrian humanitarian efforts. Foreign aid is not unique to Syria; it is prevalent in Palestine as well. We reject the notion that just because an organization is receiving foreign aid, it must follow then that that organization is partaking in some shadowy Western-backed conspiracy. Such nonsense has the effect of both undermining humanitarian efforts while simultaneously whitewashing the very crimes against humanity that necessitated the aid in the first place.

Furthermore, we object to the casual adoption of “war on terror” language. Enemies of liberation have historically used this rhetoric to target humanitarians, organizers, and community members. From Muhammad Salah to the Midwest 23 to the Holy Land Five, our community is all too familiar with the very real consequence of employing a “war on terror” framework. Therefore, we reject a discourse that perpetuates these old tactics and peddles harmful and unwarranted suspicion against Syrians.

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‘Our Anger is Boundless’: Syrian Artists and Intellectuals Condemn Imperialism

‘Demonstration’ by Tammam Azzam

150 of Syria’s brightest thinkers (names listed at the end) condemn the “nihilistic murderers and terrorists” behind the counter-revolutionary Russian-American ‘war on terror’ in their country. They lament the “decisions that violate our right to self-determination, as individuals and groups but also as a nation.” English version originally published at the Nation.

We the undersigned are democratic and secular Syrian writers, artists, and journalists who have opposed the tyrannical Assad regime for years, even decades. We are participants in the struggle for democracy and justice in our country, our region and in the world. We unreservedly, and in the strongest language, condemn the Russian and US approach of intervening in our internal Syrian affairs. At least since 2013, these two powers have been working to co-opt the Syrian liberation struggle under the rubric of the “war against terror.” This is a war that has failed to score a single success since its outset, and has led instead to the destruction of a number of countries.

Three years ago the two imperialist nations signed a reprehensible deal on chemical weapons that resolved a problem for the United States, Israel, and Russia, and even for the Assad regime, which had just murdered 1,466 of its subjects. The deal however did not resolve any of the problems facing the Syrian people. Rather it gave free rein to an extremely criminal regime that kills Syrians, destroys their villages and communities, and drives them into exile. The deal has also proved to be a priceless gift to Islamist nihilistic groups like Daesh and Jabhat an-Nusra. Three years into this contemptible deal—with the death count now at around half a million Syrians—Russians and Americans have agreed to freeze the current situation so that the two military powers can carry on their endless war against terror. The agreement remains silent on the untold number of detainees held in brutal conditions, and includes no call for lifting the blockade on besieged areas, or the withdrawal of Iran, the Hezbollah militia, or any other sectarian militia. It is also devoid of any reference to the concept of a new and democratic Syria. Nor are the warplanes of Bashar al-Assad restrained from bombing areas that will ultimately be the subject of a later agreement between Russia and the United States. Not only does this show complete lack of a moral sense of justice on the part of the Russian and American negotiating teams, it also exposes the degradation of politics and the lowly level of officials in the two most powerful nations in the world today.

Our feelings of anger over these agreements and their authors know no bounds. And we reject them absolutely. We are also disappointed in the United Nations, angered that, as was recently revealed, it has been financing the criminal oligarchy of Assad and his cronies throughout their war against the Syrians.

As Syrian writers, artists, and journalists, we see the world today heading toward an unprecedented numbing of ethics. Levels of fear and hatred escalate in parallel with the increasing visibility of politicians who invest in the same feelings of fear, hatred, and isolationism. We see democracy in retreat around the world, while surveillance, control, and fear are rife and advancing. We do not believe that our fate is defined by these conditions, but rather that these are a result of dangerous choices taken by dangerous political elites, and that we must work together to voice our opposition to them, right now and wherever we may be.

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FSA Statement on the US-Russia Syria Deal

freesyriaThis is reposted from the excellent “The Eternal Spring”. (See also this post on Free Army fighters removing US troops from northern Syria).

Syrian Arab Republic
The Free Syrian Army

Statement regarding the proposed truce as part of the US-Russian agreement

The false proponents of justice and freedom and the ‘guardians’ of human rights and democracy continue to insist on trading with the tragedy of the Syrian people and their corpses, taking from the Nakba [catastrophe] and ordeal of this poor population an arena for their competition and struggles for influence and interests, and a tinged road on whose sides drip the blood of the innocents in order to achieve some gains and ambitions, laying beneath their feet all of the meanings of justice and humanity and leaving behind their backs the demands for dignity and freedom.

Subsequently, a few days ago we received details of the /US-Russian/ agreement concerning a ceasefire to hostilities and a general truce in Syria accompanied by the entering of humanitarian assistance into the besieged neighbourhoods of the city of Aleppo, and after a careful study of those clauses and an in-depth reading of the whole of the internal and external challenges and the humanitarian and military realities on the ground and the complex political scene, the factions of the Syrian revolution view it as necessary upon itself to clarify to its people before anyone else the host of reservations it has with regards to this dry and unjust agreement:

– Firstly: The incredible humanitarian tragedy that our people and families are subjected to have always placed at the head of our priorities the necessity to improve the humanitarian situation of the rebelling Syrian people and especially in the liberated areas, and proceeding from this feeling of responsibility we have always taken care to evaluate international initiatives and truce proposals that are presented to us so long as they do not compromise any of the revolution’s fundamentals and its higher interests.

– Secondly: With our assiduous commitment to alleviate the burdens off our families we are nonetheless also assiduous in avoiding quick and temporary gains which are faced with certain dangers which will have a negative effect in the long run, such as some of the truces that may stop the bombardment and barrel bombs for a few days or allow the entry of limited quantities of food and medicine in exchange for hazarding the future of the revolution and losing strategic points and locations to the regime of criminality and its allies.

– Thirdly: The international unwillingness and indeed impotence to take any effective measures that can stop this massacre or ease the weight of the bombardment and siege of our people is no longer a secret, meaning that the only option remaining to us is to rely on our lord first and then on our self-capacities and the justice of our cause second, and to proceed in our battle against the regime and its allies until the last bullet in our rifles and the last fighter from our heroes.

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