Interview with Yassin Al Haj Saleh, writer and political activist by Asmae Dachan, journalist and writer
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer and political dissident. He mainly deals with political, social and cultural issues relating to Syria and the Arab world. He studied medicine in Aleppo, but his studies were interrupted because from 1980 to 1996 he was incarcerated in Syrian prisons due to his belonging to the Syrian Communist Party, in opposition to the government. He defined the prison experience as a way to escape from the “internal prisons [of] close political affiliation [and] rigid ideology,” calling the Syrian revolution an “open and multilevel struggle”. Nonetheless, he has always remained tied to the Marxist orientation. He took the final exam in general medicine in 2000, but he never practiced medicine. In 2012 he received the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands but he was unable to collect the award because he was in hiding at the time. Al-Haj Saleh is married to Samira Khalil, a communist dissident and former political prisoner and revolutionary activist, who was kidnapped in Syria in December 2013. After 21 months in hiding because he was wanted by both the government and radical Islamist militants, he fled to Turkey and lived in Istanbul until 2017. In this same year he was awarded the Tucholsky Prize in Sweden. Al-Haj Saleh is currently working at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Studies (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin). Last March, his latest book Syria, The Impossible Revolution: The Revolution, The Civil War, The Public War in Syria, was published in Italy. (Mreditori, 2021).
How would you describe the human rights situation in Syria ten years after the riots began?
Human rights are connected, everywhere in the world, to the rights of citizenship, to the existence of a political life based on pluralism, freedom of opinion, as well as the right to peaceful opposition; all rights that Syrian citizens have been deprived of for over half a century, since the establishment of the government of the Assadist dynasty. The state has been privatized in Syria since the 1970s, so much so that the country has been given as an inheritance from the tyrant father to the tyrant son, both murderers. For over fifty years, Syrians have been treated as subjects, not citizens, and those who oppose have spent much time in prison, or been killed. 96% of Syrians are under the age of 60 and have lived in extreme political poverty all their life; by this I mean that they have been forbidden to meet even in private spaces and talk about public affairs. Politics, in its simplest definition, is to bring people together and talk about their common issues. This political impoverishment, by the way, is what has provided a suitable environment for Islamists. The more people are deprived of politics, the greater the political role religion plays. The Syrian revolution was precisely the voluntary gathering of people in public spaces and the talk of public affairs. That is, a struggle to take possession of politics.
In your opinion, was the Syrian government’s reaction to the peaceful demonstrations in any way predictable?
The regime faced the revolution with war from the very beginning. It has never made significant political concessions, nor has it accepted the legitimacy of the existence of a political opposition, however moderate. The pursuit of absolute security and permanence in power forever, according to an old Assad slogan, closes the door to politics and opens the door to extermination. But in reality, even our imaginations could not embrace what happened, such as the design of systematic death—developed in the headquarters of the Security ministry—such as widespread slaughter, barrel bombs and the chemical slaughter. No one could foresee that the regime itself would somehow surrender the country to Iran and Russia in exchange for protection, nor that 30% of Syrians would end up as refugees in countries near and far. All this was truly impossible to imagine.
What remains today of the ideals of the revolution between the Syrians who remained in their homeland and those of the diaspora?
What remains is what was mainly the engine of the revolution: the will of the people to be sovereign of the country and to live in it with dignity. The Syrian question is like the Palestinian question, it is driven by self-determination, and that is why the Syrian revolutionaries stand by the Palestinian people in their current crisis. The courageous protest against the brutal conditions remains alive in the memory and hearts of millions of people, and the memory of those who have fallen and fallen along the path remains, with their names, their stories and their faces.
Recently your book The Impossible Revolution has been translated into Italian. Let’s start with the title, why impossible?
What this means is that Syrians were not expected to rebel against the regime that had already killed tens of thousands of citizens in the early 1980s and arrested and tortured thousands more, at a time when the population of the Syria was barely ten million individuals. Syrian society was paralyzed by Assad’s terror for nearly three decades, until the revolutionary spring of 2011. The Syrian revolution is therefore the impossible revolution, which has been achieved. There is another impossible thing that happened in Syria: the destruction of Syrian society, the killing of over half a million people, the displacement of six and a half million Syrians. It was also impossible to imagine that the country would fall under five occupations, Iranian, Russian, American and Turkish, in addition to the older Israeli one. Furthermore, no one imagined the emergence of “wild creatures” such as ISIS and Islamic Salafist groups. Nonetheless, the regime survived all this, with the protection of foreign powers. All of this was impossible to imagine, but that’s exactly what happened. If therefore it was impossible to foresee the revolution, it is equally impossible to destroy it and this leaves two lessons. The first is that in the face of an impossible reality, we must push ourselves and look for other solutions, look beyond all limits. The second is that politics itself must push itself to seek alternative, innovative solutions that take into account the significance of the Syrian revolution. The Russian political games in Astana, Geneva and elsewhere have so far only sought to rehabilitate the regime despite the genocide, bypassing the need for an ethical and just solution, based on sustainable peace, in order to prevent a great war from breaking out, for each new generation.
How many and who are the enemies of justice, peace and democracy in Syria?
The enemies are many and powerful. The first is the dynastic regime and its protectors, Russia and Iran; secondly, there are the foreign powers that occupy Syrian lands, such as the US and Turkey, and first of all Israel, which behaves like a colonial power with nuclear weapons. Thirdly, the Islamists, especially the Salafis, who express their rejection of democracy and the refusal to guarantee justice and peace with their domination. Ultimately, we have a triad of forces of discrimination and tyranny, whose interactions are shaped by what I call the Middle Eastern order: the countries of tyranny that rule our countries, the powers of international control, including Russia, and Islamic absolutism—those who want to establish an unrestricted religious authority. Therefore, our struggle is complex and radical and we have no partners among other nations (unlike the regime and the Islamists). We are the political proletariat of the world and our emancipation is the greatest service to the struggle for freedom and peace in the world itself.
In your opinion, why did the Syrian tragedy not warm the hearts of world public opinion? Why has the international community allowed this genocide?
The structure of the world today is similar to that of Syria under the Assad regime: without an alternative. It is as if the world revolved on itself, in an eternal and stagnant present, and lacked a vision or a project to renew its youth. The world today is conservative, not a champion of freedom and equality, even if the forces that influence it like to give this impression of themselves. Democracy is in crisis in the West and elsewhere, and the nationalist and populist right is on the rise. This world that has adopted the war on terrorism as a great narrative and has identified terrorism as the main political evil, does not recognize genocides, on the contrary, it covers with the alleged fight against terrorism, genocides themselves and creates the likes of Bashar al Assad, Putin and the ayatollah regime in Tehran as partners in this endless war, which always puts the importance of security issues above the issues of politics and law.
What contribution have Syrian intellectuals made—and continue to make—in recounting the tragedy of the victims?
The horror and complexity of the Syrian question have made the role of intellectuals less visible than it deserved. In my opinion it is an increasingly important role, which is not limited to narrating the tragedy of the victims, but works to make today’s world more aware and responsible. We are not presenting an issue before a just international tribunal, with the aim of persevering in presenting the victims’ accounts. This tribunal does not exist, neither in the form of international public opinion, nor in the form of shared universal values. I see in the Syrian question a parable that helps us reconsider today’s world, thanks to its great revolutionary potential. I think we are in a suitable position to criticize the world today and to work to change its system. In Syria and the Middle East, which is the prison of contemporary peoples, peoples want to overthrow regimes, and this has been prevented by the structure of the world order. This system, therefore, must be opposed by the revolutionary struggle. On the other hand, the Syrian revolution produced its own intellectuals and renewed the perspectives of those who were previously active. The social base of thought, writing and debate has greatly expanded, which means that the revolution democratizes thought and debate, at least among the Syrians of the diaspora. This is important and may have a future.
The Syrian tragedy has two dimensions: one public and one private. The letters you wrote to your wife Samira have helped many people to understand what Syrians have been going through for years. As Syrians, can we hope for something other than empathy?
Collaborating. Working together. And thinking together. This is what we expect of the righteous in the world. I think that the model of solidarity as a form of political activity that has spread in the West since the 1990s is neither progressive nor liberal. Even among activists, the balance is not perfect in dealing with issues related to countries in difficulty, and one ends up favoring certain causes and neglecting others. We need a new solidarity based on equality, aware of the fact that we are in a global crisis, albeit in different proportions, that there is a collective need for a new liberal world, in which women do not occupy the position of a permanent minority within it, in which the planet is not treated with the logic of expropriation or capitalist extraction, and the safety of some is not considered to be above the safety of others, as well as the lives of some are not considered more important than the lives of others. Samira’s name and her story of moral strength are what drives many to go beyond mere moral closeness, and empathy, aiming to contribute to the emergence of a new humanity that does not live in a permanent war with itself or with the environment. This is, in any case, my commitment to her, who is an absentee from my daily life. My commitment is also for her partner in absence: Syria.
Is there still hope for Syria?
It is important that we realize that what happened to us was terrible, and that we do not attribute to ourselves a strength and firmness that can instead be broken and become poisonous. We must accept that hope is difficult, even radical, that hope is made up of despair and pain, and must be nurtured by continuity and courage. The opposite of hope in my opinion is false hope, in the form of optimism or an optimistic ideology in any case. Our hope lies in our intellectual, artistic and organizational creativity which also takes into account our failures, our faltering experiences and our pain. We also hope to think and work with partners on a global scale; this is already feasible in the different environments of the diaspora.