Assad's Forgotten Man

A Reason interview with Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh


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.

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?

YHS: From time to time. They summoned me to their headquarters 10 times in 40 months and prevented me from leaving Syria, even to go to Lebanon. But this applies to dozens of activists and intellectuals. And this is child's play compared to what tens of thousands of people suffered under the regime of Hafez Assad.

reason: What is the daily life of an opposition figure like in Syria? Do you find that society at large accepts you, even if the regime does not?

YHS: There is nothing unusual about our daily life except that we expect an "invitation" from the security services from time to time. Right now, a friend of mine is in their hands. They called on him four days ago and asked that he come see them on May 4. He was anxious when he telephoned me last Sunday. As for me, I spend my time reading, writing, sending and receiving emails, and meeting with friends once a week over a glass of arak. That is nearly all I ordinarily do.

When people are not afraid they express warm and generous sentiments toward some opposition figures, at least those who really respect people and have worked for their benefit. At the same time many Syrians have negative views about all kinds of politicians. They are not wrong because self-serving politicians, and now self-serving activists, are not rare.

reason: Is liberty possible in the Middle East of today?

YHS: Never; liberty and the Middle East are as incompatible as health and illness. If you want freedom you have to throw away all those traits that we see today in the region. Freedom is not possible in the petro-monarchies and emirates, not possible where regimes control security tightly, not possible for so long as the region remains a battlefield for global dominance, not possible when regimes are exempted from the human and political obligations faced by the modern state because they satisfy what the world hegemon, the United States, wants of them.

If you are asking whether there are inherent qualities in the peoples of the region that make liberty impossible and perhaps unimaginable, then believing this means that everything we learned since the Enlightenment is worthless. In other words, if those in the region are "incompatible" with freedom, then concepts of humanity, science and reason are irrelevant. But if these concepts are relevant, then freedom is possible and indeed compatible with what people in the region desire.