By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO
In an exclusive interview, prominent Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh talks about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.
Wednesday 20 January 2016
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a leading Syrian writer, a former political prisoner and one of Syria’s foremost intellectuals. Ever since his student days, Saleh has been a vocal critic of the Assad regimes. He was arrested in 1980 during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad and spent the next 16 years as a prisoner of conscience.
During the early days of the Syrian uprising, his voice became louder than ever. In 2012, he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. In 2013, he fled to Turkey. His wife and brother were abducted the same year. He is the author of several books, including Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).
Here, he speaks to Boštjan Videmšek about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.
How and where are you right now?
I am fine, thank you. When I was in Syria, I used to say: I have no personal reasons to complain of, and no public reasons to be contented. After the revolution, with the abduction of my wife Samira and my brother Firas and my living in exile in Istanbul, the personal has become public and political much more than before. The public and political has become personal. It is a life of a struggle.
How do you feel when you see so many of your fellow citizens on the run from the most horrible conflict of our time? Did you expect an exodus like that?
Weeks ago, I helped smuggle my sister-in-law and my nephew from Turkey to Greece. As a beginner, I consulted friends, met smugglers, and chose one.
I was anxious about their safety, and was relieved when they arrived in a European country, even if it was not the one they wanted to go to. The other half of my brother’s family, he and his two younger sons, are to join the first half someday. With the help of friends, we are trying to arrange things for another brother and his family to take refuge in another European country, after a mutual friend of ours, the journalist and film maker Naji Jerf, was assassinated in Turkey on 27 December 2015.
We are helping ourselves to a world that did not help to liberate us at home. Never had I contemplated the possibility of such an exodus. I did not expect that the regime would kill hundreds of thousands of people and that its chances of staying in power would grow bigger as the numbers of its victims soared. I did not expect the emergence of a monstrous creature like Da’esh [ISIS]. I did not expect that around 70 countries would be partners in bombing my country: not against the ruling criminal, but against an offshoot of his monstrosity.
How do you see the European handling of the refugee crisis?
I am impressed by many people from many European countries, mostly individual volunteers. Their generosity, courage and humanity dignify the human race. I was touched by a message from a Norwegian woman who was in Lesbos helping refugees. As for governments, while it is not fair to include all of them in one category – Germany is not like Hungary, Sweden is not Denmark – I think they are unified in building higher walls in the face of the influx of refugees, specifically the poorest and most vulnerable ones.
For months now, European governments have been pressuring Ankara not to allow refugees to depart from Turkey. In November, they promised to pay €3 billion to the Turkish governments to guard European borders.
With all this blood that has been spilt over the past five years right under the world’s nose, humanity has led itself down the path to full ethical numbness. I suppose the indifference the world showed towards the Syrian ordeal will lead to even less sensitivity to human suffering in political institutions everywhere.
Where do you – in this chaotic situation – see the solution(s)?
One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…
This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.
The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.
What should the so-called international community do? What about the UN?
The past five years were a great chance to follow the international institutions and the world powers. For me, it is no longer Syria, it is the world, which is in a deep crisis. It is not that I do not follow what is happening in my country, but the world is in Syria (around 70 states are at war there).
I tend to think that the world lacks the potential for freedom and justice more than at any time over the past a century. In December, Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons against “terrorists”, an extraordinarily irresponsible statement that was met with utter silence form the international community. A few days later, the same man said that the Russian offensive in Syria “is not a serious burden for the budget … It’s hard to imagine a better exercise [for the Russian forces]. So we can train there [in Syria] for a long time without any serious harm to our budget.” Full of colonial arrogance, this statement stirred no reaction at all from the UN or Western leaders, not even a word from human rights groups, or any leftist organisations in the world.
The situation in Syria has developed from a revolution against tyranny to a global question, the Syrian question. Creating questions is, in my opinion, the political method of the powerful in shaping history. They create complicated, despair-inducing situations that last decades or generations (or forever, as an Assadist slogan says), during which the poor and weak are entangled in ineffectual struggles. By contrast, the method of the vulnerable is to create clarity and hope through revolutions. Crushing the revolutions in Syria and in the region has been the common job of the powerful local, regional and global powers. The Gordian knots they create will be with us for a long time.
In history, questions and big wars walked hand in hand. The Eastern Question ended in the First World War, and the Jewish Question found two “Final Solutions” in the Second World War and its aftermath (the second at the expense of the Palestinian people). One might add the Kurdish question: denying the Kurds statehood, which is also a source of hatred, despair, and war. Syria is an active field for this question now.
That is why Syria is a microcosm and a global metaphor. Needless to say – the UN and the international community are creators of questions, or are, indeed, counterrevolutionary powers. I do not expect them to be revolutionary, but their role was criminal indeed.
Is the Sunni-Shia divide now too deep to overcome it politically?
It is. But there are no political solutions to confessional divisions. However, division in itself is not a problem; the problem is the violent struggle between the confessional groups. Contrary to the common wisdom in the West, this struggle is not something primordial that emanates from the very fact that there are Sunnis and Shia. Actually, it is the opposite: social and political struggles mobilise these idle belongings of ours and electrify them, or charge them politically. They transform into political, indeed military, parties. This is also the method of the powerful in order to weaken rebellious people and transfer the struggle from the socio-political field (the underprivileged v the elite) to the socio-cultural field (our underprivileged against theirs). What I want to say is that we need to know better the dynamics and processes of the social and political struggle in countries like Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the regional struggles to understand the ‘Sunni- Shia divide’. This is deepening indeed. It is being used as a tool to rule the masses and to exercise regional influence. Sectarianism, in general, is a strategy for political control. So it is politics, not religion or “culture”.
Can we say that Syria still exists as a country, as a state?
Again, Syria is the world. More than 70 countries are formally at war in the country, and jihadists from more than 70 countries are also there. Syria is a global question, a unique symbol of injustice, apathy, and amnesia. We have this Syria, at least – the symbol.
I am sorry to say that I am less sure about Syria as a viable country. The only chance, however, for Syria to survive is substantial political change. Unchanged, Syria is a dying land, sooner or later. Only changed will Syria become viable.
The reasons for the war and the brutality of the regime have been more or less forgotten in the Western narrative of the war. Why?
Primarily due to the identification between the regime and the major powers on the structural and symbolic levels. The modernist ideology is a common issue between the fascist with a necktie, Bashar al-Assad, and those neck-tied leaders in the world who lack vision and global responsibility. This issue is, in a way, related to the formation of the political elite in the West: high-income people who are fully isolated from politically inflicted human suffering. One source of the crisis is democracy in the West. If separated from the struggle and human aspiration for justice, democracy dies. In front of our eyes, we are witnessing democracy being reduced to political technology for dealing with crises. Crisis management, with its innate divorce from values and issues of justice, is the dominant method of politics over the past 25 years, even in the West. This method is good for nothing but creating questions, and the Middle East is the incarnation of these extremely unethical policies.
Some additional roots of this amnesia are related to the constitution of the powerful mass media in the West: the exciting is always more preferable to feed the masses on than what is humanly and politically important. For instance, beheading a man is more exciting than killing 100 with a barrel bomb. We identify with these who kill the way we do (their crimes, like ours, are not news), but we are enchanted with those who kill in a different way to the degree that we have offered Da’esh free propaganda for two years.
By the way, I think this enchantment with Da’esh that began in the summer of 2013 has deep connections with the sordid chemical deal between the US and Russia, which practically informed the Assad regime that it was okay to kill people with other tools, not with the one we had forbidden. The mainstream media was obedient in highlighting whatever Da’esh did and sidelining the crimes of the regime in order to legitimise that despicable deal between the two big global keepers of the peace (read: war). Da’eshmania is a way of suppressing the shame of that deal. Media and power elites want the masses to remain mesmerised, with their minds fixated on those exotic decapitators, who are absolutely different from us and our dear masses.
I want to add one additional thing concerning this fascination with Da’esh. I suspect that the mad extent of killing and control that Da’esh is practising in the regions it occupies is the level the power elites in the “civilized world” aspire to imitate. That violence has an essential virtue: it pushes past the limits of what can be done to the population at home, giving the power elites everywhere a sense of mastery and freedom. If this can be done there, it will be possible here someday. Da’esh is the laboratory test the elites like to peep at and hope to imitate someday. It is their utopia and our dystopia. That is why the population in the West should be anxious of what has been happening in Syria for the past five years. Do not defend us, defend yourselves!
Is there any player at all who has a positive role?
External players? Maybe not. However, it would be a big mistake to conclude from that that all the players are equally bad. Turkey’s record is mixed: it welcomed around 2.5 million refugees. Our situation here is acceptable and, so far, Tukey has had a consistent position towards the Shabeeha regime in Syria, but it caused a lot of trouble because of it is irrational and unjust concerns about the Kurds on both sides of the border. France’s position was mostly a consistent one, too. Both countries were clear all the time that the culprit is the regime and it should be overthrown and they tried to act accordingly, but were kept back by the United States. Washington has been the worst enemy of the Syrian revolution, worse even than Russia, which was a clear enemy from the first moment, along with Iran and the latter’s satellites in Lebanon and Iraq. I am not an essentialist anti-imperialist who thinks that imperialism is an essence hidden somewhere in the US, maybe at the White House, the Pentagon, or the CIA, but I tried hard to locate any positive elements in the Syrian policy of Obama’s administration in Syria. The world at large has become a worse place, especially after the chemical deal which was a big gift to Da’esh and al-Nusra Front (and, of course, to Assad), than it was before.
As for internal players: I think one can identify obscurantism as the position of saying that there are no “good guys” in the Syrian conflict; they are all bad. I see this as an essentialist, Da’esh-like way of approaching our cause. I do not imply that there are no bad guys, there are many; neither do I want to say that there are many good guys, which is of course true, unless one is Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, or Vladimir Putin. Rather, I want to make a paradigm shift from that reactionary distribution of labels of good and bad, to the actual dynamics of the struggle. I alluded before to the chemical massacre in which 1,466 Syrians were killed at the hand of the Assad regime, and to the chemical deal between the Americans, Russians and the regime. What was that deal? There were four actors, not three, at the time: the regime, the Americans, the Russians and millions of Syrians who had been resisting the thuggish regime for more than two years and four months, peacefully at the beginning then with arms. The regime gained not only its survival from that sordid deal but also impunity; the Russians managed to save a client regime and won a greater recognised role in the region and the world, while America (and from behind the scenes, Israel) succeeded in disarming the regime of the dangerous weapons that were thought of being deterrent to Israel. The party that was completely sacrificed is the one who had just lost 1,466 people in one hour: the rebellious Syrians. That is why that deal was despicable and its “heroes”, especially the one named Barak Obama, were extremely villainous.
Due the regime’s brutality and the baseness of the big egos of the globe, a dynamic of radicalisation, Islamisation and militarisation, was triggered and changed everybody in the country, myself included. In September 2015, I was in Oslo for a few days, where I appeared on a TV programme. Before this show, the presenter asked me, if I was “moderate”. No, I am not, I replied. She was alarmed, but she wanted to be sure: “But you are secular, aren’t you?” For the discursive habits in the West, ‘moderate’ implies that siding with us (“We are the centre of the world.”) and “good” are synonyms. You are “extremist” and “bad” whenever you side with your own people.
Of course, I am bad.
How do you see Turkey’s involvement and the future of the Kurdish question?
This is the main cause of the Turkish government’s biggest mistakes in Syria. Turkey has not been able to deal with its own Kurdish problem on a basis of equality, freedom and fraternity. Just now, there is a real war in the Kurdish regions in Turkey, with poor people being humiliated, displaced and killed. To Syria, the Turkish government exported its bad experience in dealing with the Kurds. And to make things worse, the Syrian PYD imported from Turkey its experience there, people to apply this experience, and with spades of the modernist ideological rubbish, designed specifically to enchant middle class left-wing spinsters (mostly males) in the West. This has already caused a lot of suffering, and I am afraid it will only cause more. What we are witnessing is, in my view, the building of an ultranationalist, one-party system, with hidden connections to the Assad regime and Iran, and less hidden ones with the US and Russia.
How can we effectively fight Da’esh? Personally, I don’t see any substantial political will to fight them with full force.
You do not see political will to fight Da’esh because there is none. There is political will for the war to go on. Da’esh is good for the war to continue. Its demise is the bad thing from this perspective. That is why the world seems unified against this ill-equipped (in military terms) fascist organisation, without making progress toward defeating it.
I think the American reasoning goes this way: Da’esh is strongest in its men. We have to besiege them in a certain area, so they will not spread everywhere the way they did after we (hysterically) invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Bashar should stay according to the lesson we learnt from our (unjustifiable) invasion of Iraq and dismantling the state there. As for those who are against Da’esh and fighting Bashar, well, er… they are mostly bad. The Russian monologue maybe goes like this: we want Bashar to stay in power. To achieve this we have to destroy those who are really fighting him. Of course, we will talk only about a war against terror and fighting Dae’sh, is it not that what the Americans have been droning on about the whole time? When we crush all those who are against Bashar and Da’esh, the clandestine understanding between us and the Americans will become public, and we will decide the fate of Syria and the Middle East together. Israel will side with us. We can give it more than the Americans are able to do.
Imaginary strategising aside, I think it is not at all difficult to fight Dae’sh, but you cannot do so while systematically ignoring the local forces that did face this entity in the past, and relying on another fascist organisation, namely the Assad regime.
There are three levels of a fruitful struggle against Da’esh. First, to honestly build a just cause for this war, and this cannot be but justice and freedom for those oppressed by it, which in turn cannot be achieved while ignoring the main source of oppression and injustices, the Assad regime. How do you want me to fight Da’esh while you are dealing from behind my back with a cliquish regime that killed 300,000 of my fellow citizens? Second, there should be a clear political vision of supporting a democratic transition in Syria and Iraq. Things will be messy in the two countries for years to come or even more, but this is still far better than a war that goes on for generations as both Jolly Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, and Martin Dempsey, the former American head of staff, said in similar words few months ago.
Third, you need a clear military strategy that can be achieved in months or a year or two. What I see now is that we have a war without a clearly expressed aim, with no timeframe, with no local allies (The PYD is not that ally: they have relation with the fascist regime, and they are not democratic, let alone that relying solely on them will creating a very big ethnic problem in Syria). The international mobilisation against Da’esh is annihilation-oriented (not geared towards justice). But this is also the essential feature of Da’esh’s mobilisation against the world. Is it that far-fetched to say that Da’esh is a mirror reflection of the present world? How else can we explain this morbid attraction to talking and writing about Da’esh in the media of the West? This dis-disenchantment of the world?
Maybe this is the reason for this reluctance to fight this supposed global enemy.
What will be their role in the future of Syria and Iraq?
Da’esh is a mixture of settler colonialism, a fascist regime, and a nihilist terrorist organisation. As such, it is a pump of evil and death that should be completely dismantled.
But there should be a big shift in the current dehumanising mobilisation that affects all Muslims and promises us only a huge massacre. For effecting such a shift, the best starting point is to understand Dae’sh as a worldly power and explain it through secular tools of analysis. It is not a religious thing, not a flourishing of a primordial seed within Islam.
It is a sorry fact that one does not see any prospect for such a shift, when even people like Slavoj Žižek volunteer in this hysterical campaign, providing it with a warring classificatory logic of us and them, and stupid generalisations about the Syrian struggle (a pseudo struggle according to him) and Syria that he knows absolutely nothing about – its society, history, political system, political economy, regional environment. That postmodernist superstar wrote recently an even more combative article about the relationship between Turkey and Da’esh – one based on false information and a passion for hatred. With this in mind, I am afraid hopes for a change of course become considerably slimmer. One may even think that Da’esh, as bad as it is for Syrians and Iraqis, is something good for the West and Russia. So the question of Da’esh’s future is: will they ever do anything real to dismantle this entity? Are they really antagonistic to this combination of settler colonialism, fascist regime, and terrorist organization? Maybe they are identifying in it things that they know very well in themselves.
Are the old borders in the region being redrawn?
It is possible that we are in the process. Drawing borders in the Middle East was an outcome of two world wars and historical shifts in two questions (the Eastern and the Jewish one), under the supervision of the colonial powers as they shaped the present world system. The precedents of Iraq’s and Lebanon’s wars denoted that creating new states and redrawing borders is not as easy as we may think. For such a thing to happen, one of the following two is a pre-requirement: a new world system and/or a massive ethnic cleansing; one that surpasses Rwanda.
I do not see how redrawing new maps in the region will solve any older problems. Our present states are already a century old at least, and they are reformable far more than new states that will be either pure, and consequently less capable of ethical and political promotion, or mixed, with no guarantees of not spiraling into a new circle of ethnic or sectarian wars. And in both cases these new smaller states will seek protection from each other by resorting to the same old colonial powers that drew the old maps, and that patronised their very present struggle.
I am for (1) reforming our states (decentralisation, autonomous regions, etc.); (2) a sovereign Palestinian state; (3) a sovereign Kurdish state. I look forward to a Middle Eastern commonwealth, where Arabs, Israeli Jews, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians live together on a basis of equality, respect, and shared prosperity.
Syria has been destroyed, with 4.5 million refugees and more than 11 million people displaced inside their own country. The state has collapsed, at least two generations have been deeply traumatised, their lives irreversibly shattered. What can be done to help? How do we start from “ground zero”? How do we rebuild society?
First of all, you have to remove the knife from the loin.The Assad regime is a knife, a poisoned one, that Syria will never recover from without it first being removed. Second, Syria will need a long time to convalesce. It is regrettable that one cannot expect help from “the international community” that helped plunge the knife in the first place. National recovery has become a formidable task, but what Syria needs most is to launch an opposite dynamic to that of militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation – one of reconciliation, moderation and inclusivity. People are vengeful now just because they are still being killed. A different dynamic will encourage a predisposition towards co-operation and mutual understanding.
I believe that an increasing number of people will work for a new, more inclusive Syria, the moment the Assadic knife will be plucked out of the Syrian body. They are now scattered all over the world, but real change in the country and building a new Syria will be a collective cause for the majority of them.
Most of the educated people fled. How do you see the future of your country?
Your questions are painful. If Syria does not die, many of those who fled would come back. I will be one, definitely. I just want a minimal chance to go back home. I have to track down a loving wife and a brother, both abducted in 2013.
I believe that the creativity of people can do a lot. The alliance of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, is possible, and they will save Syria. I only want to live in a changing/changed Syria, among the people who are struggling for life. I lived there all my life.
How does the tragedy of your people affect the way you write?
I am essentially an essayist. I enjoy doing this and I am living off it.
Having survived after my wife, my brother and many of my friends were abducted with no information about them, I am trying to tell their stories, to prevent them from lapsing into oblivion. This is one of the main topics of my work.
As a writer, I think our specific participation as writers in the let-down revolution is to achieve revolution in our own sphere: writing and culture in general. A cultural revolution is extremely vital in Syria and the Arab World, and it is the only project that radically dignifies those abducted, tortured and killed. I know that my work is now imbued with a tragic sense, derived from what befell Syria, my beloved and me personally. In Arabic, there is a telling etymological relation between suffering and meaning, and I think that our culture should be rebuilt around our horrible experiences of suffering.
Besides, I feel that culture is a strategic field of our struggle in this exceptional situation. I said something before about enemies and fields of struggle: war could be a tool of struggle when you have one enemy (Assad dynasty tyranny), politics is the method when you have two enemies (say tyranny and religious extremism), but culture is the right field when you have three enemies, as we have: the Assad dynasty, the nihilistic Islamic groups and global imperialist powers, principally the US and Russia. Of course, culture should be formed in a way that responds best to the challenge of these three inhumane powers. What unifies these three fields of struggle is autonomy and creativity.
It is a matter of emancipation.