Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh has been one of the most daring and interesting voices coming out of Syria in recent years, and is regularly published in the weekly cultural supplement of Lebanon's daily Al-Nahar (as well as in the English-language Daily Star). It is hard to imagine that this modest, low-key man spent his entire youth, and rather longer, in prison, for belonging to a dissident communist movement. To look back at the behavior of the Syrian regime, but also to predict its future, who better to ask than one of its victims, a victim who was not broken and now watches the gradual disintegration of his tormentors.
reason: Syrian forces have just left Lebanon under domestic Lebanese and international pressure. Will the Syrian regime survive this, do you think?
Yassin al-Haj Saleh: It will not. When Hafez Assad decided to send Syrian troops into Lebanon in 1976, during the civil war, he did it not for altruistic reasons as his propaganda organs affirmed, but to accumulate strategic assets for his regime. Syrian intervention put an end to what British author Patrick Seale called the era of "the struggle for Syria" between 1946 and 1963, and the era of the struggle for power between 1963 and 1970, when Assad took over. Why? Because the Syrian regime was accepted into the club of regional actors. It is well known that it received an American green light to enter Lebanon, and Israel was not opposed to this as long as the Syrians respected certain "red lines" in terms of their deployments and the weapons they could use. The Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, also endorsed Syria's move. The Soviet presence in the Middle East was initially weakened by this entry into Lebanon [which targeted the U.S.S.R.'s allies, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Lebanese politician Kamal Jumblatt], but after protesting against the Syrian intervention, Moscow accepted the fait accompli. Naturally, after that Assad's regime felt safe and secure.
This, in turn, allowed the regime to enhance its domestic stability through harsh suppression and brutality. The regime felt free to do anything it wanted at home. It was not coincidental, then, that Syrian intervention in Lebanon was paralleled by a qualitative leap in suppression inside Syria. The Syrian people, too, participated in the dance of death in the Levant between 1975 and 1991, and paid a heavy price for this, one that is not widely acknowledged.
Yet now the Assad regime no longer controls the external conditions of its stability; it has lost and is losing the tools that propped up its regional role. It will not be able to firmly hold the reins of power within Syria. Its grip is already loosening. Unless it receives outside—in other words, American—support, the clock may be winding down. However, we must consider that the Syrian version of regime change may be provoked by people within the regime.
reason: Has the Syrian regime accepted that its direct influence over Lebanon is over? Or do you expect it will try to pursue influence through other means?
YHS: If you mean influence through military and intelligence instruments then, yes, it is over, though the word "accepted" is not the most accurate in describing the regime's attitude. I think it is adapting itself to the new situation in Lebanon. I do not think we will see other bombs in Lebanon or other assassinations.
reason: Has the Syrian regime become, as many are suggesting, much more of a family-run affair than it was a few years ago?
YHS: I do not think so. It is weaker now than at any time before. This has opened the door for relatives of the weak president, Bashar Assad, to participate in running and occupying the highest positions in an authoritarian, "personalized" and highly centralized regime. But the same factor, Bashar's weakness, implies that this situation cannot last.
In recent years we have witnessed a change in the pillars of the regime. One can say the regime now has two weak and unstable centers of gravity rather than the one that was both stable and powerful. Today, money and violence, or the centers of power and wealth, prop up the regime, and they have replaced what existed before, namely a unified center of gravity based on violence alone. The Assad family has a preferential access to both money and violence. But this situation is still a reflection of weakness and a deteriorating level of self-confidence. People speak about [military intelligence chief, and Bashar's brother-in-law] Assef Shawqat and [Bashar's cousin, businessman] Rami Makhlouf. They are powerful men really, but in a dilapidated regime.
reason: You were among those Syrian intellectuals calling for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Why did you and your colleagues do so, when in the past Syrian intellectuals had avoided getting involved in Lebanese affairs?
YHS: I think it is unfair to say that Syrian intellectuals "avoided getting involved in Lebanese affairs" in the past. When Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976, dozens of Syrian intellectuals issued a manifesto opposing the intervention. This was dangerous under a ruthless regime like that of Hafez Assad. And as I mentioned earlier, when the regime intervened in Lebanon it also behaved increasingly harshly inside Syria. People were killed in Lebanon and Syria at the same time, often by the same people. Thousands of people in each country were jailed for long periods of time. Dozens of intellectuals spent years in prison; many others fled Syria; others took refuge in a kingdom of silence. The Assad regime bought off or corrupted others. The universities were literally occupied by armed militias and security men. It was a glorious period for informers who destroyed the lives of thousands of people. The entire Syrian population lived under extreme fear during the last 25 years of the 20th century.
What I want to say is that when Syrian intellectuals avoided getting involved in Lebanese affairs, it was because they avoided getting involved in all affairs—Syrian affairs included. They were aghast at their own situation. That is why the moment we began to discuss and criticize our domestic affairs was also, or nearly, the moment we began to speak critically about the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Some of us were quite outspoken in criticizing the regime and in speaking in favor of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Among those who were the most vocal, for example, were the communist leader Riad Turk and the political sociologist Burhan Ghalioun. We felt that the Lebanese struggle for independence and the Syrian struggle for democracy were deeply related, and that the regime's hegemony over both Syria and Lebanon were deeply interrelated.
reason: In June, the Baath Party will be holding a congress which is expected to be a key step in determining whether Bashar Assad can move toward reform in Syria or not. What are your expectations, and what challenges will he face?
YHS: There is a popular Syrian proverb that says: "He who tests what has already been tested is not right in the head." We have been testing the Baathist regime for more than 42 years now. It would be unwise, then, to expect anything propitious from those mediocre men who have led the country into the painful situation existing today, which writer Alan George correctly described as one of "no bread, no freedom." I do not mean to say that the Baathist congress will not take any serious decisions. What I mean is that the decisions will be maneuvers to bribe the Syrian people to side with the regime in the face of outside pressures. They will be endeavors to accommodate those pressures and create an impression outside that there is reform in Syria. The moment the regime feels those pressures evaporating, it will cancel any positive steps it has taken. This regime has treated our people as if they are unwanted guests at its table.