Dialogue with Yassin al-Haj Saleh on Syria, Iran, ISIS and the Future of Social Justice

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a leading Syrian intellectual and former political prisoner who participated in the Syrian Revolution from its beginning in March 2011. Since October 2013 he has been forced into exile in Turkey where he continues to write and speak out in defense of the aspirations of that revolution. He contributes to several Arab newspapers including Al Hayat and is the author of several books in Arabic, including: Syria in the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box (2009), Walking on One Foot (2011), a collection of 52 essays written between 2006 and 2010, Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons (2012), The Myths of the Successors: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique (2012). He is the editor of Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014). In 2012 he was granted the Prince Claus Award as “a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution”. However, he was not able to collect the award, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. Below is an interview which Frieda Afary,  the producer of Iranian Progressives in Translation, conducted with him in English and via e-mail. This interview and Afary’s Persian translation of it were originally published on May 29, 2015  by Zamaneh, a Persian-language  human rights radio station and website based in Amsterdam. The Persian translation can be found at http://www.radiozamaneh.com/221018

FA: Many Iranians welcomed the Syrian Revolution in the Spring of 2011 and especially hoped that it would inspire the democratic opposition inside Iran.   They were disappointed when this popular revolution which had strong social and economic justice demands turned into a war between the forces of the fascist Assad and various types of equally fascistic Jihadists.

 In your articles, books and interviews on the Syrian Revolution, you have extensively discussed four factors that led to this atrocious state: 1. The military and financial support which the Assad regime received from the governments of Iran and Russia, 2. The Assad Regime’s freeing of Jihadists from Syrian prisons in order to let them crush the secular and democratic opposition with support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States,   3. The refusal of Western powers to provide no-fly zones and arms for the Syrian democratic opposition that could have allowed for mass self-defense against the regime and the Jihadists. 4. The Western Left’s support for Assad as an “anti-imperialist,” their refusal to recognize the class struggle inside Syria and give moral and practical support to this social justice movement.

 Some Iranian dissidents respond that in a war between an authoritarian but secular state and a revolt in which religious fundamentalists had the upper hand, it would have been better for the Syrian Left to take a neutral position or support Assad’s proposed reforms. Other Iranian dissidents agree with your view that religious fundamentalists did not have the upper hand in the beginning, and that one cannot take a neutral stance vis-à-vis a spontaneous revolution of the masses against a fascist regime.

 In your opinion, in addition to the external pressures which you have discussed, what were the problems within the revolutionary movement that allowed religious fundamentalism and sectarianism to gain the upper hand?

 YHS: To begin with, I think one should differentiate between circumstantial causes and the structural causality of the present situation in Syria. The effect of Iran and the Gulf Arab states, the attitudes of Western powers and those of the international Left, are all circumstantial causes of the rampant sectarianism and fundamentalism which the world sees in Syria now. The structural causes are represented mainly in what I call the Neo- Sultanic State that Hafez Assad established in the country with his dynasty’s monopolization of power and control of public resources in the ‘republic.’ The inner constitution (as opposed to the apparent constitution) of the state and society is that Syria is the private property of the Assad family. This constitution is built on three pillars: the eternal dynasty, sectarianism, and “fitna” (civil war) when people revolt.

It is a known fact that the security apparatuses and the military formations with security functions — what I call the inner state as opposed to the apparent state that has no real power and is nonsectarian — are mostly headed by and composed of personnel of Alawi origin. This inner state, that monopolizes the assets of real power, is the dynamic spring of sectarianism in the country, and it is headed by the Assad dynasty or its trustees. This state always portrayed its internal opposition as solely Sunni fundamentalists. It did so in the 1979-1982 struggle and from the beginning of the revolution. One should add that many of those fundamentalists were full partners in this strategy in the years between the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian Revolution in 2011. People like us were always being dealt with harshly because we disturb the reductionist image: Modernist Assad versus terrorist fundamentalists.

The crime of the international Left –with the exception of some courageous people here and there– is that they embrace this false creed and toil themselves to circulate it widely. According to this false and biased representation, the majority of Syrians become invisible, nonexistent indeed. But we do exist, and it is not true that the majority of believers are the natural social base for the extremist groups. I made six profiles of fighters in Eastern Ghouta in the spring of 2013. Five of them were believers, but none was a fundamentalist. The historical social base of the Syrian revolution is the laboring society, those who live off their work, middle class and impoverished people in marginalized suburbs, towns, and rural areas. Many intellectuals, writers, filmmakers, actors, musicians, doctors, students, human rights activists, activist women, are organic components of the revolution.

In the second half of 2012 the Iran party in Damascus triumphed in the regime’s internal ranks.   Soon we saw jet fighters bombing cities, the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, scud missiles, big sectarian massacres etc., and the national framework of the struggle collapsed. Soon there were fighters from the Lebanese Hizbullah and other Shi’a fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Neo-Sultanic state put itself under imperial Iranian wings, and the imperial center in Tehran, symbolized by Qasem Soleimani, ordered its subordinates in Lebanon, Iraq, and everywhere to support the little Neo Sultan in Damascus. From that time the Iranian role moved from circumstantial causality to a structural one in effecting the Syrian tragedy.

Sunni Jihadists who are always a parasitical phenomenon found this environment ideal for their sectarian fascist actions. Like everywhere before, Afghanistan, Iraq, and to a limited degree Bosnia and Chechnya, the Jihadists from many countries found this “state of savagery” suitable for their own terrorist activities.

Now, what many leftists everywhere do not see is that it is not true that more of the Assad regime means less of terrorist Jihadists.   It is rather, completely the opposite: More of the regime (even without its Shi’a Jihadists) means more of the Sunni Jihadists. This implies that the first step toward weakening Jihadism is a deep change of the political environment in Syria. This is something that cannot be achieved without overthrowing the Assad dynasty’s regime.

This is not to say anything about justice: The sordid clique that killed its people with chemical weapons, through starvation, industrial-scale killing under torture, rape of children and women in security dungeons, should be held accountable for heinous crimes. Islamist extremism has always been the bitter fruit of this lack of accountability.

What kind of “Left” leaves issues of justice out of its thinking and self perception?

One last word: what are “the Assad proposed reforms” that we are advised to support? I am Syrian, and I am not aware of any news about these ‘reforms’! Would you, please, ask those “Iranian dissidents” to kindly send me their information about “Assad’s reforms”?

FA: Can you give us some details about the Iranian government’s military and financial support for the Assad regime? Do you think Assad could have survived without this support?

YHS: Recent reports said that Tehran has spent around 35 billion dollars in support of the regime. Who is paying the expenses of the Hizbullah war in Syria, those of Iraqi Shi’a Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq , Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and others, or Shi’a Jihadists from Afghanistan, like those who were captured in Der’aa and in Aleppo in March 2015? Iran is not only paying the money, it is controlling everything.

In Syria it is widely thought that the country is under Iranian occupation. And it seems that Tehran is not running the regime’s war against its population for only strategic reasons and for gathering more regional cards. The rulers of Iran are also putting their hands on Syrian land and state-owned property. On April 29, a Jordanian writer who is very loyal to the Assad regime and Hizbullah, wrote in the Lebanese Al Akhbar newspaper (currently owned by Hizbullah) that were it not for the “Syrian Army,” Iran would not have been able to expand its regional role, and its nuclear agreement with the West would not have been acceptable from the Iranian perspective. He went on to say that the persistent military and economic support from Tehran for what he called ‘the Syrian state’ was only commercial as opposed to ‘friendly’ or ‘brotherly.’ Loans are provided with state owned land and governmental property as collateral.

This is colonialism in the precise meaning of the word. I think the Assad dynasty’s regime could not have stayed in power without submitting the country to a foreign colonial power, not known for its human sentiments towards Syrians or its own subjects. By the way, it is a known fact that it was Tehran’s initiative to build the National Defense Army, which is composed of the Shabiha, loyal sectarian thugs who volunteered to help the regime in crushing the popular protests. Many of them were trained in Iran. This dirty sectarian game of Tehran will prove short-sighted and self injuring someday.

FA: The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has not only led to mass murder, rape of women, children and men, enslavement of women and children, beheadings, mutilation, destruction of cities and historical sites. It has also depressed the minds of democratic dissidents throughout the Middle East region. We all know that the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a situation that strengthened the Jihadists in the region. In your opinion however, to what extent are the policies of the Iranian government responsible for creating the conditions for an alliance of Sunni Jihadists, Ba’athists and disgruntled Sunnis that became ISIS? What is your analysis of the rise of ISIS?

YHS: I tend to think of Da’esh –what Syrians prefer to call ISIS because of the ugly sound of this Arabic acronym– not as a terrorist organization but as a super-terrorist security apparatus. Its prototype is not the modern nihilist or terrorist secular organizations, but death squads and secret police gangs. One essential component of Da’esh is the security and military personnel of Saddam’s regime that were disbanded after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Dae’sh is the combination of al Qaida and Saddam’s Ba’athist thuggish apparatus. Sunni grievances in the new Iraq dominated by ultra sectarian Shi’a parties (with their old and renewed grievance narratives) and patronized by Iran, are one important element in this monstrous being. These grievances are mounting in Syria, and Da’esh is capitalizing on them.

I think that Iran, as the sovereign party in Syria, planned and designed things so that Da’esh would appear as the only or the main power that is facing the regime. I was in Raqqa in the summer of 2013. In those days, there was a large building within the Da’esh headquarters in the city. This building was never attacked by the regime’s planes. The very same planes found it plausible to throw barrel bombs on the city several times when I was there, and killed nineteen schoolchildren in the first days of October of the same year.

Only after the American led campaign against this fascist entity a year later, did the regime begin to attack Da’esh held territories. And then it killed mostly civilians. They, the Assadists and their masters in Tehran, want to say that they are a credible partner in the American war on terror. Both of them, the fundamentalist regime in Tehran and its Assadi satellite think that when they win Washington’s heart, they can tread on the bodies of the weak in Iran and Syria. They are right.

FA: There has been popular support inside Iran for the courageous Kurdish struggle against ISIS in Kobane and Northern Syria. However, some Iranian activists criticize the Kurdish Democratic Union Party(PYD) and say that it entered a tacit non-aggression agreement with the Assad Regime from the beginning of the Syrian Revolution until several months ago. In response, some Kurdish activists and Syria analysts say that the PYD did not support the Syrian Revolution because the Syrian democratic opposition did not support Kurdish self-determination. What is the position of the Syrian democratic opposition on Kurdish self-determination? What has been the relationship of the PYD to the Syrian Revolution?

YHS: There is no clear attitude of the Syrian democratic parties toward Kurdish aspirations. At the same time, there is no clear expression of these aspirations by the different Kurdish organizations. But it seems to me that the majority of the Syrian democratic opposition support the Kurds’ cultural and political rights. When it comes to separation, the majority is opposed to it. Things might settle on a sort of autonomy, the concept for which still needs to be built and debated.

But I do not understand how these fluctuating positions can be used as a pretext for siding with a regime that never recognized the very existence of the Kurdish population (8-10% of Syrians) in Syria, let alone their rights. I’m afraid the PYD is viewing the Syrian revolution through lenses borrowed from the PKK in Turkey. This is extremely wrong, though the Turkish government has its share of responsibility for this situation. The geographic, demographic and historical actualities are different in Syria, and importing the experience of Kurds in Turkey to Syria could be as harmful as importing the Turkish government’s experiences in dealing with the Kurds to any Syrian political body.

The role of PYD in the Syrian revolution was meager. They fought Da’esh in 2013 and after, but I’m afraid their nationalistic policies pushed some of the Arabs of the region to join Da’esh.

FA: Samira al-Khalil, a socialist, feminist and human rights activist who is also your wife, was abducted by Salafists in December 2013. She was abducted along with three other human rights activists Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamadeh and Nazem Hammadi in Douma near Damascus. Since then you have received no information about them. In a recent article you say that “they represent the original liberatory values of the revolution in their persons, in their work and in their histories” and that “Samira and Razan also represent the major role of women in the Syrian Revolution.” (See www.yassinhs.com) Please tell us more about Samira’s and Razan’s work in defense of women’s rights and human rights.

YHS: I do not want to mythologize Samira, but every new day I discern more than before that she is a great symbol of our struggle. Samira was a political prisoner between 1987 and 1991 because of being an active member of a communist party (not the one I was a member of). This is why she is a symbol of the continuity of our struggle for two generations. Samira is of Alawi origin and she was always very consistent in opposing a regime with a special relation to Alawis. For this reason, she is a symbol of the nonsectarian character of our struggle. She (and Razan) did not wear the headscarf in a region controlled by an ultraconservative Salafi formation. By doing so, Samira is a symbol of those courageous Syrian women who insist on being ethical and consistent agents in our struggle for freedom and change. Samira is a person full of humanity and love for people, one who lived among the people and struggled among the people. And this makes her a symbol of the human character of the Syrian struggle. Based on these considerations, Samira is unique in all of Syria, one of our greatest heroes.

Razan is of a younger generation. She is a very courageous woman, a very good writer, a great ethical agent in our struggle for freedom. Razan is the person who revolutionized and radicalized the field of human rights activism in Syria, and brought it to the people, the persecuted, the impoverished and the invisible population. Before Razan, human rights activism in Syria was confined to well-educated middle class people and the narrow circles of political activism.

Samira and Razan’s abduction symbolizes the two-fold character of the battle imposed on Syrians: Against the Asaadist necktie fascists and against the Islamist long-bearded fascists. Both women are great heroes in the Syrian struggle for freedom on the political level and on the social and cultural level.

FA: In 1980, at age nineteen, when attending medical school in Aleppo, you were arrested for being a communist activist and remained a political prisoner for sixteen years in which you suffered many hardships. In your recently published book, Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons, you say that your prison experiences led to a “new beginning” or “rebirth.” Please explain what you mean. How has your concept of socialism changed? What does socialism mean to you now?

My book about prison experience was published in 2012, sixteen years after my sixteen years in prison. In the book I said that those long days of exclusion were in a way a second childhood for me. The first childhood was not enough. To have two childhoods is a great privilege: One learns a lot while being put under custody. But you pay heavily for it: One child should be sacrificed for the other to live. I suffered a very extreme ‘sacrificial crisis’ in jail that transformed me in the end. I am the child of jail.

It was not in prison itself, but after I was released and became a writer, that I realized that prison was an emancipatory experience for me, in which I challenged and broke out of some internal prisons: That of narrow political affiliations, that of a strict ideological perspective, that of the absolute ego, the jail of anger and hatred, and that of despair.

At the same time I deeply loathed being a ‘disillusioned’ former communist who converts to liberalism or goes back to the warm lap of his childhood community. I do not despise liberalism, but I stuck to the republican values that I thought were the foundations of socialism: Freedom, equality, brother- sisterhood.

In the long days of prison, I developed the perspective that changing property relations without appropriating change by the public is not only a defective socialism, but is actually the economic basis of modern forms of tyranny that are called totalitarianism. Appropriating change, on the one hand, means that people possess politics: they gather and organize themselves; they protest publicly and own the public space actively; they possess talk in public affairs. I mean they possess the ability to talk about public affairs and to change the agenda of the public discourse.

On the other hand, I think also that it is of vital importance to rethink the constitution of knowledge and of what is right and wrong, because determining what is “right” may give you the right to rule people the “right” way as defined by a self-righteous elite or party. One cannot be a leftist without revisiting issues of right and wrong. You cannot be armed with a dogma that defines the truth, and be left in politics. One has to be “wrong” in knowledge (unorthodox, heretic, dissident) in order not to be right-wing in politics or an agent in wronging one’s fellow humans or other creatures and the planet for that matter. I rarely used the word socialism in my work, but I think it should refer to people’s effort to appropriate change, economic processes of change included. But change must not be reduced to economic processes. Appropriating politics and changing knowledge are equally important.

At the same time, equality before the law cannot be defended without equality behind the law, I mean the public’s appropriating the process of making laws. This is political equality according to Foucault. The ideal is equality behind politics, or in making politics. The sovereignty of humans cannot be achieved without this. I prefer to give socialism this meaning.
FA: What can Iranian social justice activists and thinkers learn from the experience of the Syrian Revolution? How can we forge ties between social justice struggles in Iran and Syria?

In my opinion, the most important thing is the link between the expansionist policies outside and the oppressive domestic policies.   Iranians cannot sufficiently resist oppression in their country while ignoring– for nationalist or any other reasons– the urgent necessity to resist the imperial policies of their country. I mean they have a special responsibility to be eloquent in condemning their government’s policies in Syria, no matter how insufficient and criticizable the Syrian opposition it. Their right to criticize the Syrian opposition, and I am a harsh critic of it, is conditioned by having a clear and principled position against the Iranian involvement and the Assad regime. The more powerful Iran becomes in Syria, the more powerful the present Iranian government will be vis-à-vis the people in Iran.

FA: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

 May 29, 2015

One thought on “Dialogue with Yassin al-Haj Saleh on Syria, Iran, ISIS and the Future of Social Justice”

  1. Thank you Frieda for a very insightful article. It has made me reconsider certain conclusions I have made of late, such as the fact that there are no more moderates left in the Syrian struggle to overthrow Assad. I’m still not sure I’m entirely convinced that this not true, but I have to agree with El Haj that keeping Assad in power will simply create more Da’esh. That point was well taken.
    It’s funny that he talks about an Iranian “neo-sultanate.” That’s the term I’ve always used in referring to Erdogan, not to a the Iranian regime which never had “sultans” in its history. Unlike Turkey, who always dealt with its minorities either by expelling or exterminating them, Iran has managed to maintain its many varied ethnic groups intact (with the exception of Baha’i and Zardoshi). There are christian Armenians represented in the Majlis, while Erdogan is still trying to ethnically “purify” his neo-sultanate! We all know he is only pretending to fight Da’esh in order to eliminate Kurdish military power. So what’s ahead? Between a neo-Turkish sultanate and an neo-Iranian one, will it come to this? I certainly hope not, but the latter would seem to me the lesser of two evils.

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