The Irrelevant Arabs – On Syria & “The Impossible Revolution” A Conversation With Yassin Al-Haj Saleh

In the first episode of Irrelevant Arabs, published on August the 25th, 2017, Loubna Mrie & Mustafa speak with political activist and author Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, author of the book ‘The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy‘, on the root causes of the Syrian uprising. You can listen to the other episodes on SoundCloud and iTunes.

Mustafa: Today we have with us from Istanbul the author of the book The Impossible Revolution, Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Hello, Yassin, how are you?

Yassin al-Haj Saleh: 
I’m fine, thank you, Mustafa.

M: To go straight into the subject, I’d first like to ask you about the title of your book. Throughout this revolution there were many slogans that we believed in, like “Victory is going to be ours,” and now your book comes out with the title The Impossible Revolution. Can you please elaborate on why you chose this title for the book?

YHS: Well, the impression that the title expresses despair or hopelessness is mistaken. I wanted to say that our revolution in Syria was impossible, was unimaginable, but it happened. The impossible is what happened in Syria. So it is an expression of hope: for once the impossible worked on behalf of the downtrodden, the weak, people who for almost two generations were suppressed, were despised, were denied any political agency—and even humanity.

This happened in Syria, and then another impossible thing happened: the crushing of the impossible revolution out of existence. I believe that not a single person on the whole planet expected that at least half a million Syrians will be killed, more than half of the population will be displaced inside and outside Syria, one third of buildings will be destroyed, eighty percent of the population will live under the poverty line, and that Bashar al-Assad will stay in power.

Because the revolution was impossible, and because the destruction of the country and Syrian society was also impossible, I tend to believe that we should look for a solution in Syria also outside the realm of the possible. Take the realm of ethics. You know that ethics, values, are relegated to metaphysics, to the impossible, to the unthinkable. Well, the unthinkable should be thought of, and it is only in this realm of justice, freedom, and the sanctity of life, that we should look for a solution in Syria.This is another impossibility that happened in Syria—and under the sponsorship and patronage of the influential powers of the international system. All of them. Mainly, actually, the US, but Russia was very active (though in different ways than the Americans). The Russians were more brutal, but the Americans engineered the situation. And the Israelis, of course, were very active in this; the Americans and the Russians are unified in supporting Israel and in giving “security” a high priority.

This means, of course, that Bashar al-Assad and all of his men should be held accountable and should be brought to justice, and that Syrians should for once own their country. It is our Syria, not Assad’s Syria. We want to be respectable human beings in our country. We don’t want revenge, but we want justice and accountability. This is the third impossibility that, if the world is sane—if it is not a Syrianized world—it should help us achieve.

Loubna Mrie: Yassin, you said something very interesting in the book: that Hafez al-Assad was working towards immortality in his governance. This is why we used to chant, every morning before going to class: “Qayidna al’abad, al’amin Hafez al-Assad” [“Our leader forever is president Hafez al-Assad”].

M: And if I can continue on your point, Loubna, many people don’t understand the ideology of tashbih, this crazy loyalism to one figure and one family as opposed to having loyalism towards your country. “Assad or we burn the country” is the culture of tashbih. That so many people were so ready to do anything for the continued existence of this dictatorship stemmed from a culture created from standing in the morning, saluting the flag, and calling for the immortality of the leadership.

There were so many social issues going on among Syrians, where the security apparatus pitted people against each other or triggered people to tell on each other and talk about each other—and to have a race about who can prove their loyalty to this regime—all for a humiliating reward, which is the regime “favoring” them and saying they are good people.

YHS: It is a matter of an intersection between class and sect.

But first let me say something about Syria being ruled by a dictatorship or a police state. I don’t agree. We don’t have a dictatorial regime. Syria would have been very fortunate if we had a dictatorial regime. No. It is a thuggish regime. It is a mixture of a colonial and a fascist regime. You praise Bashar al-Assad very much when you say he’s a dictator. He’s not. He’s a criminal. He’s a pathological person who ruled the country in the manner of the most brutal colonial rulers. He can be compared with the most brutal juntas that ruled in Latin America, for instance. It is not a dictatorial regime. Nasser was a dictator. Bourguiba was a dictator in Tunisia. Mubarak was a dictator.

Now, maybe Bashar al-Assad has not killed six million Syrians, the number of Jews who were killed by the Nazis, but he has the capacity to kill even more—and with more brutality and with more hatred. It may not be as industrially advanced as the Nazis or the Soviet Stalinist gulag, but this regime is able to kill six million, or ten million, Syrians.

But to come back to the question: it is a matter of class. There is a new bourgeoisie that has been formed in Syria in the last two generations, in the last fifty years under the Ba’athists (and mainly the Assad family). This new bourgeoisie has huge fortunes. They can do whatever they want, and they are doing so now.

By the way, there are studies showing that the destruction of many parts of Damascus and Aleppo was a matter of destroy-to-rebuild, to sell off land and make billions of dollars from it. There are many documented studies about this. Some of the buyers are from Iran, or from Iraq. Many from Iran.

Anyway, it is an intersection between class—fortunes of billions—and of changing the demographic composition of Syrian society, especially in areas like Damascus and Homs. They are working hard at this. And it’s not only a matter of religion. It is a matter of power and of money. Let us always keep this in our minds. It is to stay in power forever, as the slogan that Loubna reiterated a few minutes ago says, and power itself is a means for gaining huge fortunes. Millions and billions.

And this means, of course, that a lot of Syrians are living under the poverty line. We know now that eighty percent of Syrians are living under the poverty line of two dollars a day. But the emergence of the new bourgeoisie began a long time ago. Even before the revolution, the percentage of people living under the poverty line was 37%, which is not few. That is a very big number. Now it is more than twice that number. Of course, this is no longer a marker of poverty: it is a marker of a lost generation. It is a marker of one third of the buildings in the country destroyed. It is a marker of destroying the future of the country.

There are a lot of mines on our road into the future: sectarian hatreds, ethnic hatreds, all these parallel wars in the country. Now it is no longer about (as they call it very stupidly) a “civil war” in Syria. What civil war? We have so many wars, and it’s not civil in any way. When the regime is using fighter jets and inviting the Iranians and Iraqis and Afghanis, and when we have jihadis from a hundred countries, and we have America, France, Britain, and Turkey in our country (and the PKK: they have their own party in Syria, fighting under the tutelage of the Americans), it is meaningless to speak about civil war. It is global war in Syria.

Samira, my abducted wife, my beloved wife, said that it is a global war against one people. And it is. It is a global war against one people.

LM: Yassin, what do you think are the implications of the victory of a regime such as Bashar al-Assad’s over its people—for Syria and the rest of the world?

YHS: The regime cannot achieve victory. It is impossible. Victory is a political thing. They can crush us. They can kill all of us, one by one. They have killed half a million. They may kill ten million. All you can say about that is: You crushed them. You killed them. You annihilated them. You genocided them. But this is not victory. Victory is a matter of politics, a matter of including those you defeated by military means in a an inclusive political system. That’s why Hafez al-Assad was unable at all to achieve victory. He crushed so many people. And Bashar al-Assad is the same. Bashar al-Assad cannot decide his own fate, let alone decide our fate or the country’s fate. No, they cannot achieve victory.

We can talk, though, about the defeat of our hopes for political change, for freedom, for building an inclusive political system, for reconciliation, and for better human relations and political relations among Syrians. Yes, this was defeated, but this is not a victory for the regime. The regime cannot reproduce itself, and it is itself now subordinate to hegemonic powers: Iran, Russia, and, in a way, the Americans.

M: What does it say to the rest of the world when such a scenario is allowed to occur? Especially in a world where a lot of people live their everyday lives in a sort of illusion that human rights are being protected, and that there’s a force that safeguards them—and then we see this person allowed to crush the people of Syria in this manner, and it goes on.

And like you said, it is not something that happened over a three month period, where people were killed and there was no coverage of the incident. This is something that has been very well documented, by people recording on their cellphones, by journalists and the media, and of course by activists speaking about their cause.

What does this say about the world we live in today, in 2017?

YHS: Mustafa, there are not many people saying that human rights are being protected or that democracy is prosperous. Actually, there is a sense of a global crisis. I am not aware of the existence of one person saying that the situation in the world is improving. Not a single one. Not the American president. Not any minister or politician in the US, not in Europe. Not a single one. Only ten or fifteen years ago, let’s remember—and of course after the end of the Cold War as well—those were rosy times. “Democracy has come now, human rights are everywhere, dictators will at least feel fearful, or they will be overthrown.” No, no, no. When you have Donald Trump in the US, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Mr. Erdoğan here in Turkey; when you have Britain leave the European Union; when you have China, which has a bit less than a quarter of the inhabitants of this planet; when you have el-Sisi in Egypt, when you have Netanyahu, when you have Bashar al-Assad, I think the potential of hope on the global level is diminishing.

What I want to say is: it is not the problem of Syria. Syria is the victim of a brutal junta ruling the country and a brutal situation in the Middle East, the Middle Eastern system which is built on the sovereignty of Israel, with Americans and Russians controlling the situation. But Syria is, at the same time, a symptom of an ailing world. The world is in bad health, maybe worse than at any time in a century, since the First and Second World Wars. So many people were killed—but there were hopes and there were energies to fight for justice, for equality, for freedom, for communism, for socialism. Now what do we have? Nothing of this. Nothing at all. “Stability.” “War against Terror.” The rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad. Worship of states. That’s all that we have. This is not a world that deserves to be defended. This world actually deserves Daesh.I don’t see any living utopia. We have very vivid dystopias.Daesh is one of them (and Daesh, in my opinion, is a symptom of the absence of utopia and the presence of war), but it is not the only dystopia. Daesh itself is the product of this world. Many people became Muslims to fight. They don’t fight because they are Muslims. Many people who were not Muslim want to fight, because there is a deep feeling of a crisis, that we don’t know where this world is heading, that this world is worthy of destruction—they want to destroy this world. This is nihilism.

LM: I wanted to ask you this question—since everyone is answering this question and most of them are not Syrians, I wanted to ask you about your vision. How do you think this conflict should end? How do you think we can end this bloodshed? What is your ideal scenario?

YHS: This is a good question. There are two levels of talking about this. First of all, what is the problem? The problem is that people are being killed on a daily basis, for 77 months now. The solution is to prevent the killing of anyone in Syria. And we cannot exclude anyone. The Russians exclude the FSA and all those who are fighting the regime. The Americans exclude “the terrorists,” and of course for the regime all of us are terrorists.

So let’s define our problem and the source of our tragedy in Syria. It is that people have been being killed for 77 months now, more than 2200 days. The solution is that those who are killing people should stop now. Now. This is the first thing. It is simple. It is as simple as that. And then, to punish those who are killing—the regime, the Russians, the Americans, all of them—and to open a window of hope and a political solution in the country.

The second and longer-term solution is to build a new majority in Syria. We’ve been ruled for 47 years by the Assad family, and the Assad family is a junta, a shabeeha family that wants to stay in power forever and to kill all those who oppose it. They are a minority not in the sense that they are Alawis. More importantly, they are a minority on the social level. They represent a new bourgeoisie, while, as I said, eighty percent of Syrians are living under poverty. It is an oligarchical minority, in this social sense. It represents a new bourgeoisie with huge fortunes, and what I call in some of my work the “internal First World” or the “Syrian whites.”

We need to build a new majority in Syria. When you have eighty percent of the population under poverty and twelve million—maybe thirteen million or more—displaced, six million of them outside the country; when you have all these women raped, tortured, humiliated; when you have all these men killed under torture, or killed by torture (which is different: some people may be killed while they are being tortured, but many people are killed by torture—that is, it was intended, it was not an accident); when you have all this, a political solution cannot be built except on these priorities: that instead of rehabilitating Bashar al-Assad, you have to rehabilitate those displaced, those tortured, those killed, those impoverished, those marginalized; and you have to build a political system in the country with the priority of improving their conditions.

We don’t want to live in Europe. We don’t want to live in America. Maybe some of us want to live there. But we want to live in our country, without Bashar al-Assad. Without a thug who can at any time arrest us, torture us, kill us, destroy our regions, and at the same time accuse us of being terrorists—and with the complicity of the UN and the influential global powers.

Forgive me, Loubna, I am not a real politician. I am not a politician at all, actually. I am an intellectual, I am an activist, I am a writer, and I am interested in the ethical and cultural dimensions of public activities. And as a Syrian, as a writer, as a former political prisoner, it is an insult not only to us Syrians but to the world, to humanity, that a thug like Bashar al-Assad is being rehabilitated. Don’t ask us to approve of solutions like this. Don’t ask us to be complicit in rehabilitating a criminal whose mandate you chose to renew. This is colonialism. This is racial discrimination. This is apartheid. Don’t expect us to give a “yes” to these criminal policies of war.

LM: I completely agree with you, and I think a ceasefire is what is needed today in the country—

YHS: A comprehensive one. A comprehensive one, and now.

LM: Exactly. But also—and I’m not a politician either, none of us is—but the question is, how are we able to force those big powers, including the Russians—

YHS: We cannot. We cannot impose this on them. That’s why the world is drowning, I’m sorry to say, in shit. We cannot. The problem is that we cannot. The problem is that they will not change their course. But the fate of the globe, the fate of hundreds of millions of people, is at stake. It is no longer about Syria. Syrians are 23 million, and killing every one of us will not solve any problem for the powerful. Suppose that we disappeared, all of us. A world in which you have Putin, you have Trump, you have all these authoritarian leaders—Syria is only an additional place for their very narrow-minded, very selfish, and very unethical strifes and struggles.

LM: So since we’re not politicians, what do you think our role is today as Syrians living in exile? What is our role as Syrian activists? What is the role for Syrians who share this vision of the future of the country? What do you think should be done from our side?

YHS: First of all, to tell our stories. To insist on telling our stories, and to build our narratives. We shouldn’t wait for anybody to represent us or to tell what happened to us. We have to insist on our epistemological agency, our political agency. We are fighting for freedom, for justice, for equality. We can be agents of a big revolution. So don’t deal with us as subaltern agents in some regime change plan or imperialist plot or something. This is stupid of you. Not of us. We are people who struggled, who have been struggling all our lives, and so many of us—so, so many of us—were invisible because we were living under one of the harshest regimes on this planet. It is not our fault.

The second thing is: we have so many partners in the world—Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Indians, from everywhere in the world—and it is good to network with them. It is good to have networks, to communicate with them, to tell them our stories, and to coordinate activities. Again, the crisis is a global one, and we can learn from them, and I suppose that they can learn from us.

We must tell our story and represent ourselves, and cooperate and coordinate with our friends, who are many. We are not alone. Maybe we are not powerful, maybe we’re not organized yet. This is our main weakness. But still, we have huge experiences; we have to develop theories and formulas, and think about organizing and working together with our friends in many countries.

M: I would like to add onto this question also, because yes, asking what we can do as Syrians is one thing, but also we have to acknowledge that now, after the numbers of those exiled from Syria has increased over the years and we have such a huge number of refugees all over the world, many Syrians (especially the youth that one day stood up with so much hope for a chance at a different life and for a chance at changing the course of history for their own nation, and were crushed by this regime) find themselves at the bottom of a very deep, dark hole today: unable to even talk about their experiences, unable to talk about their country anymore—because they feel that the arguments have been monopolized by mainstream media; because of the brutality of the regime and the repercussions of talking about it; and also because of a deep-set depression across a lot of the world.

This, for me, is a very important and personal issue, because I fear that even though you said there can be no victory for them, if authoritarian countries can push people—who were so brave to once stand up against them—back into depression, then there is no way out of this world that, as you said, is sinking in shit.

LM: But also, I find it really exhausting here, especially in the US, that sometimes we go and talk to groups of people, and they come to our panels with fixed ideas about us and about the Syrian uprising. We go and talk, talk, and talk, and then when it’s open for the Q&A, they just want to ask you again and again about regime change, about how we can prove that the atrocities of the Syrian government happened.

So I’m sure, Yassin, you have dealt with this in Turkey, maybe in circles of the left: how we don’t have any agency, we don’t have any representation. For them we are like another file that is similar to Iraq or similar to Yemen or similar to Libya. Do you have any advice on how we should deal with those arguments, or how to present our thoughts without being sucked into their empty debates?

YHS: I’m afraid I don’t. It came as a shock to me, at first, that we are denied our own agency and we are instead considered agents of this power or that. We are people who have fought for change, for democracy, for freedom, for justice in our country, all our lives. So it is not our fault. Maybe we are not always very good at expressing ourselves, explaining what happened to us. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves to this degree. We were invisible for a long period, and we were denied any ways to improve our understanding of the world, of knowing about the experiences of other peoples, in Argentina and Spain and South Africa—and even in Palestine! Even in our country itself, actually.

In Arabic, there is an etymological link between sufferingand meaningMu’ana and ma’nan. In Syria, and in Palestine, we have a lot of mu’ana and we have to produce a lot ofma’nan. In the West, I’m sorry to say, they are very good at producing ma’nan, but they have no mu’ana. And people of the left, who specialize in interpreting human mu’ana, human suffering, should not teach us, the communities ofmu’ana, the communities of suffering, what to do. They are mu’ana-less people. They are suffering-less people, and they are meaning-less people. We shouldn’t be too concerned about these people. We are the people of mu’ana, and we should produce more ma’nan.I think time will teach us how to come up with better solutions to this. Let’s remember that the Vietnamese, the South Africans, the Palestinians, were not able to achieve anything in a year or two or five. It came, so many times, after a whole generation. And in our case it is a bit more complicated, because there are a lot of misunderstandings of our country and its situation in the atmosphere of a global crisis. This is very hard on us. But I prefer to see this as an opportunity. It’s not that we want the world to understand us. We have to be active in changing the world, and in changing the agenda of the debate at the global level.

LM: It is sad, today, to hear those people lecturing us. Because yes, exactly: they spend their life analyzing other people’s uprisings and other people’s revolutions, and now they’re lecturing us because we don’t really fit into—

YHS: They are imperialists, Loubna. They are imperialists. They do the same thing as the traditional imperial powers: they annex our struggle to their own struggle—a struggle they don’t even involve themselves in. They think that our struggle is only part of an imperialist plot they call “regime change.” They are mistaken. This is an insult to us, and it’s a big mistake. It is unacceptable. It is extremely wrong. It is leading them—has always led them—to side with criminals like Bashar al-Assad. They are mistaken on three levels, and I don’t see why we should care about them. We know that they have never struggled for a just cause.

We shouldn’t feel an inferiority complex towards those pseudo-leftists. We are the ones. From our experiences, a new conception of the left will emerge, or the left should die.

M: I think it’s also very important to point out that many of the people who counter our arguments—or who speak on our behalf—are themselves a product of the same imperialist regimes that they say are currently conspiring against the Assad regime. They themselves are Islamophobic. They themselves look at us from an Orientalist perspective. They themselves look down on our struggle, as you said, as something that is insignificant when compared to the global struggle—

YHS: —that they don’t participate in!

M: Exactly. And I think that’s a product of the media culture today. People talk and discuss their opinions openly about certain things, within certain circles, and they gain momentum in that circle, and the people who are actually suffering unfortunately do not have access to any of those media outlets in order to defend their opinion, and all of a sudden there are discussions going on around a topic where the actual victim of this topic is silenced.

YHS: Mustafa, when your suffering is not recognized by the hegemonic systems of meaning, you’ll find a system of meaning that recognizes your suffering. That’s why the suffering in our countries is finding some legitimacy or some narratives in the Islamist discourse. You failed, we failed, our supposed friends failed to recognize and to respect these sufferings. That’s why people will resort to an Islamic interpretation of their horrible experiences: this discourse will give some meaning to their suffering. We know that this religious system will deny them real agency, real representation. So we have to develop open systems of meaning and of political agency, to empower people so that they will not resort to religion as a source of meaning and legitimacy.

That’s why we are in a very difficult situation. We are struggling not only against one enemy, the Assad regime and his allies. We are also struggling against Salafijihadis and nihilist Islamist organizations. And we are struggling against imperial powers—the US, Russia, and others. And we are struggling against those liars on the left, those imperialists who cannot reflect on themselves. They cannot look at themselves. They cannot see that they are completely separated from human suffering. They studied in good universities, they have passports. Maybe they don’t know that having a passport is a big issue for many Syrians, myself included. I’m 56 now. I have never had a passport. This is true of so many people in Syria.

That’s why we shouldn’t feel an inferiority complex towards those pseudo-leftists. We are the ones. From our experiences, a new conception of the left will emerge, or the left should die.

M: You know, one of the core meanings of having a platform like this, one that is started by people who are not affiliated with the left—we might identify with a lot of the ideology, but because of this separation that exists today, we cannot be affiliated with the left. We are ready for the birth of a new ideology that is from us, that adapts ideologies that we have had that we believe in, but we are shedding our old skin.

Those people who are incapable of feeling our suffering, will just wait for ten, twenty years after our revolution has happened, for another revolution to start, so they can say to that revolution: “This is not how you do it. You should have done it like Syria did it twenty years back.” That’s the unfortunate reality that we live through. So I think creating a platform like this will redirect the conversation back out into the world instead of falling into the day-in, day-out discussion with these people about whether or not our revolution was justified.

Enough. I believe my revolution was justified. I stood up and fought and suffered, and many to this day still stand up and fight and suffer in many different ways, and it is time to talk about these people; it is time to talk about the reasons why their suffering exists, and, honestly, it is time to ignore the static noise of these debates happening all around.

LM: I completely agree. And I think the movement should be really simple. The aims of any solidarity are extremely simple. You just side with oppressed people, whether they are suffering under ISIS or under the Assad regime, or whether they are suffering under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. You cannot be selective in your solidarity. You cannot be selective in siding with one nation, just because your country is supposedly siding against it.

YHS: At the same time, Loubna, it is their duty to criticize us. We are not saying that just because we are victims, we are always right. No. Please listen to us, and criticize us. But respect our humanity. Respect our agency. Don’t lecture us. Don’t impose your agendas on us. We are not telling you to shut up. No. We need you to talk. We need you to advise us, to criticize us, to criticize the narrative of victimhood which is widespread among us Syrians.

We Syrians (and the Palestinians, of course, and in the past, the Jews) have so many victimhood narratives. We have an Alawi narrative, a Kurdish narrative, a Shi’a narrative—and now we have a very active Sunni victimhood narrative, which is interpreted and seized and controlled and exploited by the Salafi jihadis. It is not enough that you are victimized for your ideas, your narratives, your discourse, to be right and fair. No. It is not enough.

Please criticize us. But please understand us. Let’s deal with each other as equals. What we cannot accept at all, under any circumstances, is that you deal with us as inferior to you. We are not inferior to anybody. We are equals. Being equal would mean that it is even okay that you say to me, “You are stupid.” But I will not accept anything from you unless you defend my right to be equal to you.

If you don’t accept a dictatorial regime or an authoritarian regime in your country, why do you expect us to accept one? Why do you think that democracy is a natural state in the US and in France but it is not a natural state for us? This is racism. This is racism, and we cannot accept it.

When you say openly, open-mouthedly, that we are equals, then, as we say in Arabic, ‘ala ‘aini wa raasi, “on my head and on my eyes” [an idiom meaning something like “I am at your service” —ed.]. Then you can criticize us and you can say, “You are stupid and you made this mistake.” But not before that. Not before you say that we are equals, we are brothers, we are equally free human beings.

M: Thank you, Yassin, I think that was a perfect way to end this discussion.

YHS: Thank you Loubna, and thank you Mustafa. I hope your project will be heard and dealt with by many people in the US and the world. This is a very good idea. Please go on!

M: Thank you so much, Yassin.

LM: Thank you so much for your time, and for believing in us and our project.

3 thoughts on “The Irrelevant Arabs – On Syria & “The Impossible Revolution” A Conversation With Yassin Al-Haj Saleh

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