Ahram Online, 22 April 2012

Syrian thinker Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, 51, who is based in Syria, is directly connected to the revolutionary movement on the ground. He has long been known for his anti-Assad regime stand that ultimately led to him and members of his family spending a total of over 16 years in the prisons of the Syrian intelligence during the 1980s and 1990s.

Saleh is a regular contributor to various Arabic newspapers and periodicals, including the London newspaper Al-Hayat and the Egyptian left-wing magazine Al-Bosla. He has published two books after he was released from prison in 1997, Syria from the shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box and The Myths of Others: Criticising Contemporary Islam and Criticising its Criticism.

His latest book, titled Walking on One Foot, published by Al-Adaab in Beirut, was released after the start of Syrian revolution. It is a collection of 52 essays written between 2006 and 2010; and it explores the social, political and economic circumstances in which Syrians have had to live and work under the Assads, which it presents as the motives behind a revolution after 40 years of Baath Party rule. Haj Saleh spoke to Ahram Online from Syria.

Ahram Online: How do you find a suitable environment for writing under the current circumstances?

Yassin Al-Haj Saleh: Good question. I live off my writing, and my main contribution to the revolution is writing about it and attempting to achieve moral and mental clarity about what is going on. I’m finding it increasingly difficult as the revolution goes on. On the one hand, I am more agitated and worried; on the other hand, there is the problem of losing the insider’s perspective. Yet maybe what we say during the revolution can only have the value of a personal testimony.


AO: What is the scene in Syria one year into the revolution with the regime’s rising rate of violence?

YHS: The regime has showered the country in blood, killing or causing the death of over 9,000 and injuring four times that number, in addition to tens of thousands of refugees and tens of thousands of detainees. This is too much for any country. Of course the economy is collapsing, the social fabric is breaking down, and sectarian tension is taking hold, imposing a regional religious polarisation that is tearing national consciousness apart. It’s difficult to be Syrian in such conditions.


AO: What is the implication of the protests reaching the modern heart of Damascus?

YHS: Damascus was never far from the protests, but the active neighbourhood kept changing; so one should not follow the media and putting particular emphasis on the protest of Almazza. The Syrian revolution is marching forward with persistence and vitality, its arenas are many and so are its tools. But there is no chance of turning back. But the other face of the Syrian revolution is a social, human and national crisis as great as or greater than any in human history.


AO: In your last book, you discussed the social motives behind the Syrian revolution…

YHS: The Syrian revolution is a revolution of the masses: the social group that has been politically and culturally marginalised since the early days of Hafiz Assad, losing its physical assets under Bashar due to the liberalisation policies which enabled the third generation of the Baath leaders – “the sons of the authorities”, as we call them – to make gains.

A services sector evolved at this time, offering a limited number of jobs for those qualified beyond public education, thus entrenching a gap between urban and rural, the larger and the smaller cities, rich and poor. This is why the protests spread in marginalised and rural areas, away from the big cities where the government’s inability to provide new graduates with jobs left many unemployed.

The Syrian labour market receives some 300,000 entrants per year, while the government sector can only offer jobs to some 62,000. In 2007, 37 percent of Syrians lived on less than $2 a day, while 11 percent were under the poverty line, unable to satisfy basic needs and denied the right to organise or express themselves openly. This explains why a wide segment of the financially well-off educated middle class joined the protests: they were sensitive to political needs and disturbed by the greed and ruthlessness of the new bourgeoisie.


AO: Why has the Baath been so violent, historically speaking, never seeing beyond “security”?

YHS: I have three points to make about this. First, the concept of absolute Arabisation that rejects plurality internally while erecting huge barriers against an “outside” insanely assumed to be hatching a conspiracy.

Secondly, sectarianism and religious divisions. There are some sects among Syrian Muslims that don’t exist in other Arab countries, in addition to large Christian and Kurdish populations. Each of these sects has a narrative of victimisation and excellence, each on its own historical or moral ground. Again “the outside danger” prevents free and critical thinking.

Thirdly, the ideology of “the modern” forcibly pushed against Islamism, leaving behind values of equality, justice, freedom and dignity; the behavioural technology of any fascist system. This ideology endorsed by some thinkers as well as the intelligence generals, both believing that the trouble with Syria is a public that is religious and backward, far removed from modernism, secularism and enlightenment.

All this on the backdrop of an Arab Islamist paternal culture that highly values obedience, and hasn’t yet gone through a phase of criticism or doubt where serious revisions are made. But it would be difficult to blame the current brutality on the Baath Party alone, especially since not a few Baathists today are “religious and backward”…


AO: How do you read reports blaming the cronies of Assad, denying that he directs the violence?

YHS: I think such analysis is characteristic of societies where politics has no legal, institutional cover. Such talk was common in Egypt in Nasser’s day, and maybe even under Mubarak. It was common in Syria under Hafiz Al-Assad. Boris Pasternak himself wondered whether Stalin was aware of the crimes conducted by his regime. There is an emotional bond with the father of the nation, especially among the less politicised and some of the sons looking forward to this role. In reality, Bashar is the one responsible politically, legally and morally for everything done by the regime, and there’s not one single indication that he ever objected to what his militias are doing.


AO: Do you think Syria has turned into a battleground for external forces (Iran v Saudi, Russia v West)?

YHS: Syria today is subject to the tug and push of those powers. The regime and its allies have the upper hand in military terms, and they look forward to ending this battle in their favour. Syria may indeed turn into such battleground if Russia and Iran resume their support for the regime aiming for victory against the Syrian people, while Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, with western weapons, decide to arm the Free Army. The worst possible scenario is for such conditions to continue while the regime is still in power.


AO: How do you perceive the refusal of the west to interfere in Syria; do they bear in mind the large internal opposition to this step?

YHS: The one thing to justify a military intervention from any side into Syria would be the human conditions, and right now there aren’t enough international humanitarian powers to interfere in this way. Western powers do not have enough reason to interfere, and they worry about the consequences and therefore hide behind the division of the Syrian opposition, lack of consensus and hesitation, bearing in mind that Syrians can only stay hesitant in this difficult matter.


AO: Why are the Chinese and the Russians still supporting the Assad regime?

YHS: The similarity of the political structure is the main reason: they weaken themselves if they object to a regime so much like them. But, even more importantly, they approach the whole matter from their own global-control positions, where the west is still ahead of them. Russia is especially worried about Islamists, probably due to their Chechnya experience. There is also concern about losing another source of “military facilitation” that depends solely on their weapons.


AO: Are you concerned that external military intervention could throw the country into civil war?

YHS: We’re facing a political and moral dilemma in this regard; of course we do not want an external solution if an internal one is available through a democratic transition or even a historic settlement with real gains for the Syrian people on the fronts of personal freedoms, the rule of law and social justice.

But more and more, the regime shows its invasive face and considers any objection a danger to its existence. If we request intervention, we risk falling prey to hostile and much stronger powers, while refusing this is like making peace with a gang of murderers. But it’s not in our hands, even if we all agreed.

Western countries are no support for the helpless – they know there is Syrian land occupied by Israel, and they are more secure about the Syrian than the Egyptian, Lebanese or Jordanian borders; they prefer the Assad regime, and Israel is likely to be playing a role in pushing the West away from from intervention and away from the opposition.


AO: What is the situation regarding the Iranian role? Is Iran supplying weapons and fighters?

YHS: Certainly weapons, and Turkey has already stopped a few arms shipments going to Syria; as the Washington Post reported, Iran is offering experts in monitoring communication and may be contributing directly to oppressing Syrians. There is also likely to be intelligence and financial support though we have no documented information about that. There is media support, and especially the Iranian media broadcast in Arabic that works alongside the regime and uses very hostile language.


AO: How do you see the recent Syria Friends Conference?

YHS: The conference was frustrating, a let-down; it came three weeks after the terrible battles in Homs and Baba Amr with bold encouragement from the Russians through their 4 February 2011 veto and the visits of both the minister of foreign affairs and intelligence service days later, in addition to a continuous supply of weapons. Yet it only gave statements reassuring the regime that nothing bad would happen, that the worst would be that Bashaar Al-Assad should be asked to leave and live securely in Russia – or even in Tunisia! When all you can do is to reassure the killer tell the victim that this is all you’re capable of, sorry, then why hold a conference in the first place?


AO: Why in your opinion does the Assad regime stand in unity without any political fractures from within?

YHS: The regime combines the brutal suppression of people (together with their entire families) with a message of parental patriotism to give that suppression legitimacy, spreading a psychology of obedience, even leading to insubordinate child-style guilt sometimes.

It is the military fractures that are important, showing that the weak point of the regime is its public arm, not the special elite factions and the presidential guard. However, existing military fractures remain marginal, not in the core.

Unlike the case in Tunisia or Egypt, the Syrian army had been made to follow the regime blindly, leaving the Syrians without any support. I believe this unity is likely to continue until the very end when everything collapses.


AO: How do you perceive the new constitution and the reforms?

YHS: The new constitution is not a true event, and its value is not in its content but in its role as a military trick in the regime’s war against the Syrian people. They sacrificed the article stating that the Baath Party is at the head of the state and society, but the party itself has had nearly no influence for decades; it is just a system for social subordination, following the core of the regime, and in particular the Assad family, the intelligence and the military factions as well as the ghost militias. What we call “the regime” in Syria is this core, and with it the “friendly bourgeoisie” that controls national assets. None of the reforms planned touches that regime.


AO: Do you think the time for negotiations is over? How do you evaluate the charge levelled at the opposition that it has rejected negotiations?

YHS: When did that time start? The regime doesn’t acknowledge the political rights of Syrians; it doesn’t even recognise or negotiate with them. It has only ever negotiated with a stronger opponent. It is based on owning 100 percent of power and control over resources and media; even a year on, it gives no sign of readiness to negotiate with any Syrians or give up even a tenth of its power. Such a regime does not negotiate. The majority of opposition refused to have talks with a regime that had not stopped killing its own people since the beginning of the revolution, because talks in that case would have been a fraud, undermining the credibility of the opposition and in no way impacting the regime.


AO: How do you feel about the proposal to set a transitional phase in negotiation with the regime, securing a safe exit for Assad and his family?

YHS: In my view, such a solution whereby the family is neither fair nor moral; many Syrians, maybe even the majority, will not accept it. But the first party to say no to such proposal is the Assad regime itself, unless it feels that the alternatives are worse. Whoever seeks such a solution today has to convince the regime first of all. And the longer the wait the less the appeal and the more the damage to Syria – political, moral, human.


AO: How do you perceive the dispute between the Syrian opposition, meaning the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC)? Is there much hope that the two factions of the opposition will unite? Is this a condition for them to achieve victory?

YHS: It’s not right to pit the LCC and SNC against one another; while the SNC is a broad representative umbrella, its political aim is order, while the LCC is smaller in representation yet is most concerned with broadening the margin of manoeuvre with the regime. It so happens that the SNC is accused of treason by representatives of the LCC – yet the West continues to call for uniting the opposition, holding the SNC responsible for the lack of unity.

In reality if they are traitors, we should fight against them – not be asked to unite with them; if unity is needed, then the accusations should stop. I don’t see any need for this call to unite opposition; what is required is managing the differences and agreeing on some basic principles. This seems impossible for social and psychological reasons besides paternal nationalism.

There’s information that some representatives of the LCC presented reports to some Western organisations presenting the Free Army as a terrorist organisation, rejecting any attempt to recognise the SNC due to its relations with it. This would be terrible if true; it would be like presenting a report to the Syrian intelligence that someone cursed the president, or that they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.


AO: Why did the SNC lose popularity on the streets after being received with much optimism?

YHS: Its performance was unconvincing and its internal structure limp. It wasn’t able to formulate a political initiative that could change the political environment in and around Syria by rallying Syrians to it. In addition, a number of the SNC leaders have no history of opposition and were unheard of until a few months back, in addition to the Islamists inside it behaving opportunistically to gain credit alone. The SNC dealt honourably with the revolution, but provided no systematic help or political leadership. It’s not clear to me that it will be able to reform itself.


AO: Is the militarisation of citizens a solution or will it entrench violence and chaos? What could the world really offer to Syria other than military intervention?

YHS: Wide militarisation wasn’t really a choice. Militants from the army broke off and some civilians joined them, becoming the militia of the revolution, and forming the core of the Free Army itself and much of the militarization of the revolution.

The important thing now is to preserve the unarmed civilian and peaceful arm of the revolution and to broaden it as much as possible, thus widening the choices available to the Syrian people against the regime. This is somewhat underway. It is important to work as hard as possible to stop the regime from defeating the militia of the revolution. If this happened, it would be a massive crush for the rest of the revolution.

The world should block physical and military supplies and otherwise weaken the powers supporting the regime. It’s important to realise that being lenient with such a brutal regime sends a very bad message, not to Syrians alone, but to any tyrant whose people protest against him. There should also be an Arab and international obligation to help the Syrians get rid of the regime. Finally, there is diplomatic and human rights support.