On June 6, I moderated a panel discussion in Chicago on Yassin al-Haj Saleh‘s momentous book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The event was presented by Haymarket Books, the volume’s North American publisher (it’s published in the UK and worldwide by Hurst). The panelists were Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria; Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation; Firas Aladai, director of the film Winter; Sarah Hunaidi, an activist and co-host of the Hummus for Thought podcast; and Behzad Tehrani with Haymarket Books. The discussion starts a few minutes into the video. Sorry for the uneven audio quality. Turn the volume up!
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.
It’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.
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.
What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion.
By Stephen Hastings-King
Note: This is a revised version of a presentation I made at Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, on October 16, 2015. I would like to thank the comrades of Hamisch for their hospitality and for the chance to make something new. Then as now, my hope is to contribute to a widening of conversations about the Syrian revolution and the ways in which the struggles of the Syrian people are interconnected with global struggles for basic human dignity.
Where I am from there is no political future. There is only repetition of the same. The present is a ubiquitous horizon. Only the details will vary.
Where I am from the future has been privatized. People worry about their children.
We need to make new significations, ways of thinking beyond the horizon of the present.
What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion. Continue reading “The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy”
This was first published (with some great links) at the Guardian. Picture is Abu Hajar. More stories about him and many others in our forthcoming book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’.
In the first heady weeks of the Arab Spring commentators made much of the role played by social media, and certainly Facebook in particular provided an indispensable tool to young revolutionaries throughout the region. But less noticed, and ultimately far more significant, was the carnivalesque explosion of popular culture in revolutionary public spaces.
The protests in Syria against Bashaar al-Assad’s dictatorship were far from grim affairs. Despite the ever-present risk of bullets, Syrians expressed their hopes for dignity and rights through slogans, graffiti, cartoons, dances and songs.
To start with, protestors tried to reach central squares, hoping to emulate the Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square. Week after week residents of Damascus’s eastern suburbs tried to reach the capital’s Abbasiyeen Square, and were shot down in their dozens. Tens of thousands did manage to occupy the Clock Square in Homs, where they sang and prayed, but in a matter of hours security washed them out with blood.
This April 2011 massacre tolled an early funeral bell for peaceful protest as a realistic strategy. In response to the unbearable repression, the revolution gradually militarised. By the summer of 2012 war was spinning in downward spiral: the regime added sectarian provocation to its ‘scorched earth’ tactics of bombardment and siege; foreign states and transnational jihadists piled in; those refugees who could got out.
Civil revolutionaries did their best to adapt. Alongside self-organising committees and councils, Syrians set up independent news agencies, tens of radio stations and well over 60 newspapers and magazines. Kafranbel, for instance, a rural town become famous for its witty and humane slogans, broadcasts discussion, news and women’s programmes on its own ‘Radio Fresh’ – despite a recent assault by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. And Enab Baladi (My Country’s Grapes), is a newspaper published by women in Daraya, a besieged, shelled and gassed Damascus suburb. Remarkably, the magazine focuses on unarmed civil resistance.
Thomas Keenan moderates a discussion with our friends, the great Yassin al Haj Saleh and Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses), on the situation in Syria.
We live in a world where images of violence and atrocity regularly flow from battlefields and streets in conflict, and circulate with increasing velocity. Whether they are intended to terrorize, shock, expose wrongdoing, “raise awareness,” or simply show what’s happening — and whether they are made by journalists, fighters, activists, citizens, or even satellites and surveillance cameras — they appear before us and ask us to respond. They raise not only political questions, but ethical ones as well. They are ultimately addressed to public opinion, and their fate is uncertain. Do they end in action, engagement, avoidance, prejudice, empathy, revulsion, memory or oblivion?
This discussion focused on images from the war in Syria, and explored a range of things to do with them.
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.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer who spent 16 years in the regime’s prisons. In this exclusive for PULSE, Saleh, who has been described as the “conscience of Syria“, discusses the distorted lens through which most people are viewing the conflict.
In the West, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are considered critical journalists. They occupy dissident positions in the English-speaking press. Among Syrians, however, they are viewed very differently.
The problem with their writings on Syria is that it is deeply centered on the West. The purported focus of their analysis – Syria, its people and the current conflict – serves only as backdrop to their commentary where ordinary Syrians are often invisible. For Fisk and Hersh the struggle in Syria is about ancient sects engaged in primordial battle. What really matters for them are the geopolitics of the conflict, specifically where the US fits into this picture.
On the topic of chemical weapons, Fisk and Hersh, completely ignore the antecedents of last summer’s attack on Ghouta .
A reader who relies exclusively on Fisk/Hersh for their understanding of Syria would never know that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons several times before the August 21, 2013 massacre in Ghouta. I was there at the time. I saw victims of sarin gas on two occasions in Eastern Ghouta and I met doctors treating them. The victims were from Jobar, which was hit with chemical weapons in April 2013 and from Harasta, which was hit in May 2013.
It is shocking that investigative journalists such as Fisk and Hersh know nothing about these attacks. They write as if Ghouta was the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Their credibility and objectivity is compromised by these omissions.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, from the suburbs of the eastern Ghouta, writes this plea at the New York Times.
THE story is simple. Here in Syria, there is a regime that has been killing its subjects with impunity for the last 30 months. The notion that there is a mysterious civil war that is inextricably linked to the nature of the Middle East and its complicated sectarian divisions is far from the truth.
The primary perpetrator of violence is the government of Bashar al-Assad, which controls public resources, the media, the army and the intelligence services. The civilians who rose up against that regime, first peacefully and then through armed resistance, constitute a broad spectrum of Syrian society.
When a government murders its own citizens and they resist, this can hardly be called a civil war. It is a barbaric campaign of the first degree.
During the revolution’s first year, Syrians demanded international protection. First we asked for no-flight zones or humanitarian corridors, and later for weapons and military aid for the Free Syrian Army, but to no avail.
Not a month went by without some American or NATO official expressing little appetite for intervention. Realizing that this attitude was not about to change, the regime escalated the violence. It attacked the rebels with everything it had: first with rifles, then with tanks, helicopters, jet fighters, missiles and toxic gases.
Meanwhile, Western powers masked their diplomatic inertia with empty rhetoric about a “political solution.” Yet they have failed to coax the regime — which has not once indicated that it is ready to abandon its “military solution” — to the negotiating table.
Inaction has been catastrophic. While the world has dithered, Syrians have experienced unprecedented violence. Around 5,000 Syrians were killed in 2011. About the same number are now being killed each month. The regime has targeted lines outside bakeries; it has used Russian cruise missiles to bomb densely populated areas; and local activists say they have documented 31 occasions when it has used chemical weapons (United States officials have confirmed only some of these attacks).
Countless Syrians, among them women and children, have been subjected to arbitrary detention, rape and torture. A staggering seven million people — one-third of Syria’s population — are now displaced, either internally or externally.