Le Monde diplomatique, 3 December 2013
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syria’s most well-known secular intellectual who is known as hakim al-thawra, the sage of the revolution, has finally left his country to seek refuge in Turkey. He is one of the last intellectual activists leaving Syria. “I know a handful that are left behind, but most are looking for ways to leave,” he says. For over two years his articles in Al-Hayat, the major pan-Arab daily published from London, have offered penetrating insight into the Syrian revolution, deconstructing the language of domination and violence exercised by Assad regime.
Born in Raqqa, in northern Syria, he was a third-year medical student in Aleppo when he was arrested for belonging to a political group (the Syrian Communist Party’s Political Bureau). I asked him if their party had used violence. He said: “We did not even have a kitchen knife, we did not slap a single person on the face!” It was the period of conflict between the Syrian state and Muslim Brotherhood, and Saleh’s group considered the regime responsible for the violence. Although he was arrested in 1980, his trial took place only 12 years later, in 1992. He was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for “opposing the objectives of the revolution” and “forming a secret organization aiming to overthrow the state.”
At the end of his imprisonment, Saleh started to become anxious. “People think that long imprisonment is difficult. That is not true. The early years are hard, but then you get used to it. At the end, the idea that you will regain freedom causes anxiety,” he said. When his fifteen years in prison had ended, he was brought before three military intelligence officers. They offered him a choice: to collaborate with them, or return to prison indefinitely.
When Saleh protested that he had been illegally arrested and had already spent 15 years in prison, he was transferred to Tadmor prison — notorious for a massacre that took place in 1980. “Syrians say that when you are transferred from Tadmor to another prison, you already win half your liberty. In Tadmor, violence is indiscriminate and omnipresent.” He was freed after a year. He had been 19 when he was arrested and the Soviet state was then a superpower; when he was released, he was 35 and the world had changed.
Two weeks after the protests started, Saleh went underground. “I was not wanted [by the authorities] at the time. For over two years I decided to stay in Syria avoiding arrest, and to continue writing.” He went to the apartment of a friend in Damascus who was not known to the various security services, gave up talking to foreign TV stations, and stopped using his mobile phone. “But after two years I felt as though I was suffocating. I was immobile, seeing less and less people. Staying in Damascus did not serve its purpose anymore.” After two years without exercise, he had put on ten kilos.
He left central Damascus for the eastern suburbs, eastern Ghouta, and lived in a civil defence centre. “They brought in corpses every day: two or three a day, and once 28. Several times they brought people suffering from chemical attacks, foam coming out of their mouths. They were washed by water to get rid of the chemical agents on their hair, and clothes.” There was not enough food. The extra kilos he gained during the two previous years melted away in few months.
Ghouta was under siege, and living conditions extreme. By that time rebel forces had entered his hometown, Raqqa. He decided to go north. Leaving Ghouta was dangerous: three previous convoys had fallen into a trap and been killed. Saleh was one of 12 to attempt to leave, and the oldest. They had to walk 20 kilometres through plantations before reaching Qalamoun. From there they travelled on the back of a truck, driving by night without car lights. The whole trip to Raqqa took 19 days.
By the time he reached the northern, supposedly “liberated” part of Syria, bad news had reached him. The city had come under the control of “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or ISIS, a group more radical than Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda. ISIS kidnapped his brother Ahmad, a medical doctor who was active in the Local Coordination Committees. Later, his second brother Firas, who took part in an anti-ISIS demonstration protesting arrests, was abducted. Father Paolo, who was staying at his family home, was also kidnapped by ISIS. By the time he reached his hometown, al-Haj Saleh was forced to go underground once again.
I asked him about his expectations at the start of the Syrian revolt. “I was optimistic at the time,” he said. “I thought it would take time, it would not be like Tunisia or Egypt: maybe [it would take] until the end of 2011.”
What went wrong? Why has there been such an intensity of violence in the Syrian case? Al-Haj Saleh attributed it to the current situation, which he described as similar to the Hobbesian “state of nature” — a result of the limitless violence exercised by the regime to destroy dissent. Plus, the regime did not move, by even a margin, towards the idea of a political settlement. “What was not possible through violence, the regime would make possible by exerting even more violence. Their opinion was that a single concession would lead to more concessions, and eventually to regime collapse.” The absence of an outside deterrent, the explicit position of the US not to intervene in Syria, gave the regime a free hand.
I asked him if he had not missed one element from his analysis — the opposition. He said: “There was no organized moving force behind the revolution. Syrian society had already had its head cut off by the repression of the regime. The blood did not stop flowing since the start of the events in Daraa. Under these conditions the opposition [would have had few] possibilities, even if it had excelled itself. But it did the contrary.”
He criticised the opposition for keeping its distance from the people, failing to develop an institutional framework, and falling prey to political money from Gulf countries — whether private or governmental. Al-Haj Saleh also criticised Western governments, who “were preaching unity to the opposition, while directly funding activities in political, media, and relief activities. I am convinced they behaved the same way with the military formations”, resulting in the disintegration of the opposition. As a result, the exiled opposition figures “lost cohesion and the possibility to [make an] impact” on events.
He is critical of his own failure to see the emergence of what he calls the “fascist violence of ISIS.” He says: “We did not see it coming. You can be arrested by them not because of what you did, but because who you are.” But he disagrees with the dominant analysis that the most radical expressions are the influence of outsiders. “The Muslim Brotherhood is urban Islam, Salafism is rural Islam.” He adds that most radicalised have spread within a tribal milieu, while rejecting tribal values and practices. “There is something of a feeling of inferiority, and revenge against the city” in the exercise of their violence. Even so, he attributes the most extreme expressions of radicalism in Syria to the continuous exercise of violence by the Damascus regime: “This violence awoke all the sleeping devils of Syrian society.”