Assad's Forgotten Man

A Reason interview with Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh

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By the time the Baath congress is held, five years will have passed since Bashar Assad took over power. The upshot of this period is virtually nil. Acknowledging this, but also justifying it, the president said some weeks ago that "external" circumstances had obstructed reform. In fact, the opposite is true. But this is a standard pretext used by the Baathist regime to explain its successive failures. The regime has not ruled even a day without emergency laws. By virtue of this, Syria can boast of having the oldest emergency laws in the world.

reason: Could you tell us you own experiences as a Syrian opposition figure, and describe your time in prison? Why were you imprisoned?

YHS: I was one among the thousands, indeed the tens of the thousands, of Syrians who spent many years in prison. Anybody who opposed the regime was arrested, tortured and jailed. I was arrested at 19, a medical student at the University of Aleppo, because I was a member of a communist group opposed to the regime and calling for democracy—the Communist Party-Political Bureau. My 16 years in prison were spent in three places: I spent 11 years in Al-Muslimiyyah Prison, north of Aleppo, four years at Adra Prison, north of Damascus, and a terrible year in Tadmur Prison, east of Homs.

My first 18 months of incarceration, which followed a week of investigation and a day of torture, were difficult. I do not like that period. It was a time of pure imprisonment, by which I mean there were no tools that could help one to tame the monsters of prison. Later, we were allowed books and dictionaries. For thirteen-and-a-half years we had books. I learned English on my own there. Books saved me physically and mentally. If it were not for the books, I would have most certainly have been crushed. Now I live on what I learned in prison.

After more than 11 years they brought around 600 of us before the notorious Supreme State Security Court in Damascus. The hearings, which were conducted without evidence, witnesses or lawyers, took two years, after which I received a 15-year sentence [from which the previous 11 years were deducted]. The last 18 months were far easier, and in a strange way shorter, than the first ones.

The recurrent lesson the regime taught me is that it could always come up with things worse than our worst fears. After I completed my 15-year sentence they sent me to Tadmur prison, a place that literally eats men, that was worse than the "house of the dead" described by Dostoyevsky. Fear is a way of life in Tadmur, where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people. That was in 1996. They released me at the end of the year. I was 35.

reason: How have things changed for you in recent years, all the more so as the Syrian regime allows critics of the regime like you to publish in Lebanese media? Do you think the regime will continue to allow criticism of itself in Lebanon?

YHS: The regime never allows us to criticize it in Lebanon or in any other place. It is far from being happy that Syrian intellectuals have a window through which they can express themselves, speak to their people, and address their country's problems. But the regime has only two options: either to arrest people and put them in jail, which would cause an outcry among intellectuals and journalists in the Arab world and Europe; or to tolerate its critics, many of whom are former political prisoners or well-known intellectuals. In addition, the regime has not been able for the last two years to exert credible pressure on Lebanese newspapers and magazines, where we can now express our opinions. The Internet has also helped Syrian activists and intellectuals to break out of the embrace of censorship.

The regime has already lost the moral and cultural battles. Its main weakness is on these fronts. Its tools for domestic violence and suppression are still intact, but it doesn't have the spirit to use them effectively as it did previously. I think the regime will continue to "allow" us to write in Lebanese press. The alternatives are becoming more and more unthinkable.

reason: For opposition figures like yourself, it seems that the chances of effecting change in Syria are very slim, given that the weapons are in the hands of the regime, and Syrian civil society has, until now, generally been quiet, despite the expansion of protest or independent initiatives in recent years. How do you see things developing in the next years?

YHS: It may seem strange but the scenario I prefer is not a complete change of regime. Rather, it is prolonged outside pressure on the regime so that increasing numbers of Syrians take part in public affairs. The greater these numbers, the better Syria's future will be. The most important thing is that the regime not feel it has a free hand to crack down on activists and opposition members. The worst scenario is either of two alternatives: the Iraqi model of regime change, or what happened in Libya, where the international community eased pressure on, and even praised one of the cruelest dictators in the Arab world.

reason: But is change possible in Syria without outside intervention? If so, what kind of intervention?

YHS: The kind of change Syria needs is not just the installation of a new regime in place of the old one. It needs sustainable change that leads to a self- reforming political system. Outside diplomatic and public pressure can be very useful, especially when it is multilateral—American, European and Arab. Change through invasion, as in Iraq, is destructive and counterproductive. Similarly, economic sanctions harm people, not regimes. On the other hand, well-targeted sanctions against regime figures are useful. In general outside pressure is good when it is aimed against a regime and bad when it is aimed against a country.

The greatest single step that will help promote democracy in Syria is to compel Israel to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights. This will bolster the reformist elements within the regime and will create a cultural and psychological climate favorable to democracy. In the past, external factors played a very negative role in enhancing the suppressive policies of the regime. It is still too early to say whether outside pressures are beneficial now.

reason: Are you still being harassed by the secret police?

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