Ogres and Orientalism: An Interview with Yassin al-Hajj Saleh

Yassin Al Haj Saleh is one of Syria’s most iconic political dissidents, intellectuals and authors. He was imprisoned by the Assad regime for 16 years from 1980 to 1996 for his membership of a leftist party, going on to become a widely acclaimed author and journalist, and one of the key intellectual voices of the Syrian revolution. After spending 21 months in hiding within Syria, he eventually escaped to Istanbul in 2012. He was kind enough to take time for an email interview with Radio Free Syria editor Ruth Riegler in June 2015.

Radio Free Syria: You said in a 2014 interview that “three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body” - the Assad regime, Daesh and the West. With the first monster – the regime - growing steadily weaker, how do you think Syrians can best vanquish the other two or, in the West’s case, restrict its influence?

Yassin al-Hajj Saleh: Prior to that interview, I wrote an article analysing the state of Arab culture before the Arab revolutions. It appears that the Arab world and its culture are facing three major problems or problematic situations that are amorphous and ambiguous. These problems pertain to state, religion, and the West (which, in this context, includes Israel), each of which I call an ogre - because by definition an ogre is a ferocious monster that is not bound by form or rules of conduct. And that makes living amongst ogres a constant struggle for today’s Arabs, especially Syrians, Palestinians, and Iraqis. I think that constructing forms – of rules, concepts, and principles – to discipline those entities is what we hope to achieve through literacy and public service. Let it be clear that I do not mean that the state is in itself a monster, or that Islam is a monster, or the modern West is one. I mean that, in this context, these are transformed into formless and lawless entities which now wield power in our region.

A political or military defeat of these ogres will not be sufficient since they are not just brutal forces. There must be a revolution which gives rise to laws, constitutions, principles, concepts, and meanings, a cultural revolution that takes us from the ogre status to the human status. This is a cornerstone for societies as it provides people with the tools of knowledge, morality, and aestheticism for them to take charge of their reality and build a new, more humane world. Not only is this an antidote to the ogre of religion but it will also – in my opinion - help in confronting the modern West, which manifests itself here in a biased, colonial light, and in facing the ogre of tyranny in our societies

For more than fifty months Syria has been heading towards becoming a battlefield for ogres: the Assad state both savage and rogue, the Islamic groups unstructured and brutal, and the Americans with their ferocious Syria and Middle East policy which lacks legal and ethical dimensions. Of the three the Western ogre seems to be the primary architect behind the devastation in Syria. That is even before it directly intervened – albeit remotely- against the ISIS ogre, and before its attempt to concoct a Syrian mercenary force in its despicable fight against the Islamic ogre but not against the Assad ogre. The United States is not viewed as a fiend domestically, but it is in this region an infinitely inhuman force. And it seems that this brute force is no longer able to control the Middle East region after having tried and failed to invade Iraq. At the same time, it cannot afford to distance itself from the region nor does it have the desire to do so considering its interests and deep involvement (especially in the colonial Israeli scheme). Through their old blind bias on Israel and thanks to their acts of aggression, the Americans have contributed to the region’s current state of insanity rather creating a climate of rational reasoning. And they must bear the consequences.

Regarding the two other monsters, in my opinion, a political or military defeat of the Assad ogre remains the best approach to repulse the Islamic ogre through using a greater, more balanced force. Syrians need to turn the page on the mass murderer in order to start a new page, instituting new dynamics of moderation and tolerance in Syria. Alternatively, so long as the regime stays in place, it is only the dynamics of fundamentalism, violence, and sectarianism that will prevail. This is something that American politicians fail to grasp due to their policy makers’ ignorance, arrogance and racism.

I fear that the outcome of international policies –American, Iranian-Russian, and Saudi-Turkish- is heading towards dividing the country among the ogres instead of changing the political environment, starting a new chapter in Syria’s history, and allowing minds and consciences to work.

RFS: After years of asserting that they want to see Assad ousted from power, senior US administration officials have signalled recently that they fear the “sudden” fall of the Assad regime, citing concerns over the possibility of a radical Islamist takeover should Assad leave. What is your reaction to this equivocation and what are your predictions in light of this for the near-term future?

YHS: America’s policy in Syria lacks ethics and exhibits a complete disregard of issues of justice. It also has no clear vision to drive its actions towards Syria. I could not even distinguish a military strategy for their war against ISIS. As you know they destroyed the ‘Friends of Syria’ group that was supposedly founded to provide an independent body in the United Nations – which was eventually disabled by the Russians - to help the Syrian people in their struggle for change.

Two years ago, the United States wasted an opportunity to take a stance, even for once, to bring us closer to justice against a criminal (Assad). Rather, it appeared to condone his crime and reassure him of survival in return for surrendering his chemical weapons. It has subsequently lost its leverage over events in Syria and now merely reacts to them with the rest of the other players, thus earning widespread contempt from the very Syrians that it initially displayed contempt towards.

American policy today is concerned with outcomes, not causes, and with the latest threats rather than the threat sources. It operates according to a ‘crisis management’ mind-set, not one of sound ethical politics. And since that chemical weapons deal and the subsequent rise of ISIS, the American administration has leaned towards the fascists sporting neckties rather than beards. The reason for that in my opinion is the imperialist and Orientalist views of the American political elite towards the Middle East. I don’t think supporting one fascism against another qualifies as policy, and the plausible outcome of that is a further loss of U.S. leverage in the course of events in Syria.

We heard news a few days ago that Syrian groups who were to be trained by the US rejected the Americans’ precondition that they would fight only the ISIS but not the regime that destroyed their towns and homes and killed their families. This shows how far the Americans are willing to go in their immorality. I can’t find the words to describe it. It is despicable, and so are those behind it.

I said two years ago that the longer the regime stays, the more Islamist extremists there will be. This has been made possible by the regime employing the dynamics of extremism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and violence. I also said that toppling the regime would diminish the rise of fundamentalist Islamist groups. It wouldn’t be easy in any case, but doing so would initiate dynamics of moderation and tolerance that would at least challenge and maybe curtail the extremism and violence if not defeat them altogether. We need just one day without killing and barrel bombs and Bashar, so that we can take a look around us and ponder our situation, in order to be able to recognize how we and our nation have changed, and first and foremost, to mourn our dead. This would enable us also to put an end to the intransigence in the hearts of each one of us, to start asking about those imprisoned and kidnapped, and to reconnect our disrupted lives.

We want to be normal humans again living our lives as best we can. And this is what may weaken the extremist Islamists who thrive on extraordinary circumstances and continuous wars. However, Washington provides the optimal conditions for their success, which are: injustice, extraordinary circumstances, distrust in the world, and never-ending wars.

RFS: It seems clear that the Tehran regime is effectively running Syria now, with some suggesting that Washington is complicit in this de facto occupation as part of Obama’s ‘legacy’ deal with the regime in Iran. What’s your take on this?

YHS: Like every wealthy dominating power, the Americans have always favoured ‘stability’ in the Middle East. This is the main preference that they may deviate from only when they feel there is a compelling need, as with ousting Saddam and exercising direct control over Iraq in 2003.

After the failure of their Afghanistan experiment and especially after their ‘revolutionary’ Iraq experiment, which was in effect a pilot scheme for implementing the neoconservatives’ new plan for changing regimes and redrawing maps, it seems that Americans have reverted to their old stability-oriented policy instead of a justice-based one. And that requires backing powerful authorities even if they are brutal and have abandoned any rational policy in dealing with their people.

I guess the Americans are frustrated with their experiment in Saudi Arabia just as they were with their ‘revolutionary’ experiment in Iraq. You see, Saudi Arabia, despite being opposed to “political Islam”, is the source of one of its worst proponents (the Jihadi Salafist), whether by supporting Al-Qaeda and ISIS Salafist networks in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or by the Wahhabi ideology upon which the legitimacy of the Saudi regime is founded, while running an insecure regime unable to build an efficient army from its own people.

All those interactions are hostile to the Americans and play right into the hands of Al-Qaeda and other nihilistic currents. And because those experiences converged over the past dozen years, the Americans seem to prefer a contender that is firm’ with his people, but trustworthy and ‘sensible’ in his calculations with them [the US], one who is also predictable and keeps his word to them. Hafez Assad was the poster child for the kind of ‘sensible’ ruler that the Americans liked. They always commended him for keeping his promises to them (while either neglecting to say anything about his treatment of his people or blaming his tyranny on the culture and psyche of his people, in keeping with the worst of Orientalist traditions). And I think that they have found in Iran today another such trustworthy regime.

In the Arab region, not only does Iran behave as an ascendant empire adopting sectarianism in its foreign policy, but it also seeks hegemony in the region as a price for a temporary compromise on its nuclear program. It is a combination of the Shah’s regime plus the Shiite ideology replacing the modernity that was associated with the rule of the Shah. Moreover, the Iranian revolution gave rise to a wave of the political Sunni Islam which it battles today.

RFS: We’ve recently seen protests and some armed resistance spreading in Iran itself, among Kurds, Ahwazis and Balochis. Do you see these events as part of a wider revolutionary movement inspired by the Arab revolutions?

YHS: Unfortunately, I have not followed these movements closely. I admit to this shortcoming. And I feel the need to explain this negligence. In the Arab world, there is a widespread tendency to highlight any movement against the Iranian regime no matter how small it is. This tendency gives a distorted picture about the events inside that neighboring country. As a result, some people including myself grow suspicious about that picture and develop an aversion towards this approach in media coverage.

On a different note I have always felt genuine respect for this massive neighboring country, for Iranian artists and intellectuals and even towards its nationalistic aspirations to become a significant regional and international power. And I think many Syrians and Arabs share this general view. We all wish that we could exchange ideas with Iran instead of having it as a force of destruction and subordination. However, not only did this neighboring country leave no room for sympathy and respect, but it also displayed an immense amount of hostility and injustice akin to that of Israel. What I find especially inexcusable is the dirty sectarian game being played in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the reawakening of dormant historical conflicts which were better kept at rest.
Iran has chosen to be an enemy to our aspirations as Syrians. It has participated with the murderer (Assad) in killing our people and in entrenching the dangers of dividing the country. Never has it wavered in its support for the killer, and this was the case long before anyone heard of Sunni jihadists entering the country.

These criminal policies generate similarly hostile reciprocal sentiments that are said to be not just towards the Mullahs’ regime but also extend to the Iranian public. And that is wrong. Those who protest in Iran - be they Arabs, Kurds, Balochis, Farsis, Shiites, or Sunnis - are partners to us. We cannot fight for our aspirations for freedom while neglecting theirs.

Contrary to what Iran’s representative in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, says, his militia’s presence in Syria, taking part in killing Syrians alongside the Assad state, is what provides the proper conditions for Sunni jihadists. In mid-2012 when Hezbollah’s role was felt before it was publicly acknowledged in Spring of 2013, the Iranian party’s victory in Damascus provided a fertile ground for global Sunni jihadists. In my opinion, however, the last thing that’s eligible to counter this Sunni jihadism is Shiite jihadism, which is akin to it but which also follows foreign powers with imperialist ambitions. The best candidate to stave off this Sunni jihadism is Syria’s multi-cultural Sunnis who were mostly and generally moderate before the Syrian revolution. They are known to have actually stood up to ISIS in early 2014 and still do. Moreover, Iran’s complete withdrawal from Syria along with its followers will set the best stage for Syrian Sunnis to deal with extremist jihadi formations that are direct descendants of Al-Qaeda.

Regarding the effects of Arab revolutions on the protests in Iran, I think there is definitely an impact though it should not be over-estimated. Iran witnessed street protests in 2009 (the Green revolution) in addition to the Iranian revolution itself 36 years previously. One of the tried and true methods that unarmed people use in their protests against tyrannical regimes is to physically throw themselves into the struggle and try to occupy as much space with as many people as possible for as long as they can. And the Arabs have built on previous experiences elsewhere, including that of the Iranians, to stand where they are now. I return to admitting my shortcoming and my limited knowledge of Iranian struggles, and I promise to work on it.

RFS: Palestinian parties and the global pro-Palestinian solidarity movement have largely remained either ‘neutral’ or openly supportive of the Assad regime, despite Syrians’ constant support of Palestinian freedom since long before the Assads came to power. To what do you attribute this lack of solidarity?

YHS: I would like to add two points regarding the reference to denouncing the stance taken by Palestinian parties and the global pro-Palestinian solidarity movement. First, the Assad regime has always treated Palestinians, and Syrians alike, as troublesome elements of insurrection and disruption of its disciplined “sensible” policy towards the great powers. It killed many Palestinians to limit this supposed disruption, from the days of Tal Al-Zaatar in 1976, to the Tripoli siege in 1983, to the war on refugee camps in 1987, and Al-Yarmouk Camp siege and the killing of Palestinian men and women under torture in its prisons during the revolution, as well as killing plenty of Syrians at the same time.

The other point is that Syrians have been ‘Palestinized’ during the revolution by their own regime which, just like Israel, has a monopoly on an air force and WMDs, and similarly enjoys the protection of superpowers and UN veto, representing a solid ‘First World’ compared to its people’s ‘Third World’, where anything goes. It is true that Syrian-Palestinians have been doubly ‘Palestinized’, but the Syrians’ share of this is infinite and their suffering is by no means less than that of their Palestinian brethren, often exceeding it at the hands of the Assad ogre or the Islamist ogre. It is also likely that the American ogre has no less engineered more death for us than it has provided weapons and immunity to Israel which is killing Palestinians.

Going back to the futility of explaining it. The pro-Palestinian solidarity movement was formed in the West in the last quarter of the 20th century. That was also when the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993) transpired after the end of the Cold War when the Palestinian cause was no longer polarizing the international community. Therefore, if the Assad regime was not considered a partner, it certainly wasn’t viewed as an enemy.

Through all that time the Assad regime seemed to side with the Palestinians in the struggle against imperialism. He [Hafez Assad] was a leftist compared to the stance of the Palestine Liberation Organization regarding the Palestinian cause. Those unfamiliar with the backstories and the western leftists who have no substantial knowledge find themselves considering Hafez Assad and his intelligence officers to be their allies, not the Palestinians supporting the Fateh movement or the likes of us who spent time in his prisons.

Who among the Western leftists knows anything about the war in refugee camps? About the siege of Tripoli? Tal Al-Zaatar? Palestinian detainees in Assad’s prisons? And I needn’t add, what do they know about Syria in the first place? About its society, economy, or politics? Or about the Syrian detainees and the massacres the regime committed against Syrians? About the emergence of a ‘white’ segment of the population that discriminates against most Syrians and kills them in colonial-style punitive campaigns? Or about the colonial structure of the Assad state and its fostering of a ‘superior civilisation’ culture like that of the “white” settlers against the colonised peoples? About the sectarian divide-and-conquer policy also modelled on the colonial methods? Nobody.

I have read Noam Chomsky for years and translated a book of his after my release from prison. I also helped translate a book about him. Not once have I seen in all his abundant work anything in reference to the Syrian people’s feelings about the Assads’ colonialism. He may have mentioned in passing something about the brutality and tyranny of the Assad regime, but that was it. All his views revolved around the United States and Israel. He doesn’t see us. He sees the Palestinians to some extent. Three years ago a few Syrian and Lebanese friends met with him in Beirut. The man knows very little and didn’t seem compelled to listen to his mostly young interlocutors. And it looked like he was irritated with them after the meeting because, instead of them listening to his views, they expressed theirs. I am talking here about a man with indisputable courage and morals, but the traditional Western left is incomparably less courageous and ethical than that in the region.

I hope I’m not mistaken when I say that some sympathizers with Palestine against the West think that they are doing Palestinians a favour by supporting them when the majority is against them. They are not willing to extend their support to include the humanity of Syrians and others facing a racist Assad regime that is similar in form to an imperialistic relationship which they’ve stopped analyzing and trying to understand anything new about, a regime that is no less racist than Israel towards Palestinians. Its utmost ambition is to evolve into a white colonialism. Its biggest problem is that it is not white enough either to itself or to the people it was long told it belonged to.
Apparently, according to these Western leftists’ view, they feel that they’ve done more than enough by empathizing with Palestine against Western-backed Israel, so why would we ask more of them?

As for Palestinian organizations it looks like their excuses for their immoral behavior pertain to origin and interest. They share the same ideological and social origins with the Assad regime as well as the same doctrine which is the Arab nationalist movement that lost all substance for freedom since the 1970s. These origins regained their significance with the loss of organizations and movements like Fateh and the People’s Front and the Democratic Front, after they became more liberal in their policy and work. Add to that the strategic and financial ties in the case of Islamic organizations which share with the rest of Arab nationalists what we in the Arab world call the resistance ideology: a fundamental rejection of the West as a means to control local societies rather than to support freedom. It is not an act of resistance or a development of alternative means of resistance. Rather, it benefits from the West’s blind bias against Muslims with Israel.

To further understand this situation we should also remember that the Assad regime benefits from two types of ideologists: The ‘anti-imperialist resistance’ ideologists with previous ties to the Soviet Union (like Egypt after Abdul Nasser) and their relations with Iran and Hezbollah and with North Korea and Chavez, and the ‘modernization’ ideologists (like Saudi Arabia and the like) similar to the modernity of Iran before the Islamic revolution.
The regime’s also gained from Western journalists like Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Seymour Hersh. All of them have visited Damascus for a few days at a time, staying in five-star hotels and meeting with Bashar and some of his trusted cabinet members and intelligence officers, engaging in classified conversations about Blair and Cameron, or Clinton, Bush, and Obama. They also accompanied Assad army tanks which were carrying out punitive measures against ‘black’ Syrians like Fisk did in summer 2012, when he was the only embedded journalist in Darya near Damascus. Or they’ve fabricated eyewitness accounts of themselves like Patrick Cockburn who falsified a report a few months ago. That man calls for a coalition between the US and Assad, between Syria’s first world and the Western first world. But to him, we - the leftist opposition to the regime - are not just invisible, we don’t even exist.

RFS: On a related theme, you said previously that it’s too late for Western leftists to express any solidarity with Syria, given the Western left’s widespread shameful refusal to acknowledge any Syrians but Bashar al Assad. Do you have any message for the minority on the Western left who are in solidarity with Syrians’ revolution who continue to try and get the message of universal brotherhood and solidarity across to their wilfully blind brethren?

YHS: I would like to begin by saying thank you for standing with us and for fighting on more than one front to stand with us: against the fascist leftist front that is exclusively concerned with the West even when protesting against its political, economic, or ideological frameworks. And the mainstream front: today’s political majorities in the West and their racism, cloaked or overt. Often you fight without support from a disgraceful Syrian opposition.

I think the Syrian cause is one of the major international causes. And Syria is representative of the big picture in the world. I feel that the entire world will probably develop more rightist and fascist tendencies due to its failure to respond to Syrians’ aspirations and to push for an effective change in the Syrian political environment. This failure is also due to its bias in favour of the killer, against his people and against the most basic principles of justice.

We are now witnessing a rise in discrimination in most Western countries against Syrian refugees. Europe is inventing new ways to monitor the Mediterranean Sea and to win the war on refugees, no matter how hard it tries to disguise this as a war on intercontinental human trafficking mafias.
In this context, the left that is supportive of the Syrians’ struggle stands in the world’s defense, for a fairer world. And that is an honor to the left and the West.

RFS: A common refrain and excuse for neutrality on Syria from media figures and activists is “It’s complicated.” What would be your response to this?

YHS: Let me introduce them to a way to help understand the situation in Syria. The problem in this Middle Eastern country is that people in it have been and are being killed nonstop for 51 months by a known killer, the Assad regime that has been ruling for 45 years and which previously waged war on its people in 1979 and 1982; that was the first Assad war against the Syrian people, followed by a Cold War that lasted until Spring 2011 when the Syrian revolution erupted.

During the second, still ongoing, Assad war on Syria, other killers turned up to aid the regime two years ago. The solution to that is to stop the killers and punish them, and for those who are ‘neutral’ to spare no effort in preventing the continuous killing, including helping those subjected to the killing to more effectively stand up to the killers. So if the people are being bombed with barrels from air space that only the Assad regime has access to, is it too much to ask for anti-aircraft weapons? Doesn’t preventing the people from defending themselves contribute to complicating matters further? And if the regime is getting mercenaries from Iran, Lebanon, and Afghanistan to support it, why aren’t these mercenaries considered terrorists just like ISIS and the Nusra Front? Isn’t this another contribution to complicate matters? Is it really so difficult to understand such things? Is it so complicated?
Fair-minded people who study the American administration’s policy will discover that the outcome of it has been a continuation of the Syrian conflict with no regard to justice or human life, and that the U.S. has given priority to its geopolitical interests over the rights and the blood of the Syrian people.

They will find that Iran has sided with the killer from the beginning, and that Israel would prefer either the continuation of the regime that has accepted its occupation of Syrian land without a bullet in 40 years, or a total collapse of Syria. And that wouldn’t prevent Israel from launching strikes every now and then as it deems fit to serve its strategic interests before and after the revolution, knowing very well that the regime - busy killing its people - will not think of retaliating against it.

Is it difficult to grasp that the disintegration of a country and a society provides fertile ground for opportunistic and fascist phenomena like ISIS and Al-Nusra Front? Granted, both organizations are hostile to society but Al-Nusra displays hostility to the regime as well, while ISIS is more hostile to the society than the regime.

However, I’m afraid that people who say that the Syria situation is complicated have not attempted to understand it and failed; instead they’ve made no effort. They think that Syrians live far, far away by different principles and are not like us: educated sensible middle class Westerners. They certainly do not know - and perhaps do not wish to know - about Syria’s recent history and the massacres the regime had committed, and that it cannot survive without killing or even without foreign occupation. Or that the regime sees its people as enemies just as colonial and racist regimes do. This did not come to pass in just the last four years, but rather over the last 40.

RFS: The UN has provided three envoys to date to Syria, or rather to Bashar al Assad. What is your opinion of the UN’s role in Syria and has it damaged the UN’s credibility and authority?

YHS: Of the three international envoys, De Mistura seems the worst. The man is very ‘white’ and relates to the world of a killer whose hands are blood stained like Bashar Al Assad, but not to any of his opponents. He shares with a wide segment of the Western middle class – especially the upper- middle class - a preference for stability and a strong hostility to Islamists, and to Islam in general. Add to that a lack of any personal sense of justice and human dignity, particularly towards non westerners. I think he gets paid tens of thousands of dollars and considers that it would be inconvenient for him to lose that pay.

While the two other bureaucrats, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, did blame Bashar Assad and his regime and their sponsors for the Syrian tragedy, they did so only after they had left their positions. So I’m not sure whether De Mistura will say something similar after the inevitable failure of his mission due to the absence of justice and fairness and even politics in his approach to the Syrian cause. Instead of starting where his predecessors left off and admitting to the UN, himself, and the world the necessity of the regime’s departure as a beginning to a solution in Syria, he started with a partial ‘freeze’ in Aleppo which was a step backwards, and has remained there.

Moreover, by taking these random steps and by trying to maintain an equal status between the murderer and his victims, I think that the United Nations has depleted what little currency it had with the Syrians. And I’m afraid this depletion can only serve the nihilistic powers like ISIS and Al-Qaeda whose recent history proved that they flourish where confidence in the outside world is absent.

RFS: Louay Hussein, a former leader of the ‘regime-tolerated’ opposition, was recently recorded prior to a conference with the SNC leader saying, “The shoe – not just of Bashar Assad, but of any member of the Syrian intelligence, is more honourable than this revolution.” Does unity with such a figure damage the Syrian Coalition’s credibility, and how representative is the coalition of the Syrian people?

YHS: This is hardly worthy of comment. There is a ‘white’ opposition [a reference to the ‘soft’ opposition still based in Syria, which is tacitly accepted by the regime] that is against the ‘black’ opposition as much as the regime is. All it wants is an Assadism without Assad, for everything to stay the same with a few tweaks, even today after four years of war, with the only difference being Bashar Assad’s departure. They want to save the regime from Bashar rather than save Syria from the regime and Bashar.

Incidentally, the coalition is not far from this in terms of structure and formation. It enjoys whatever little weight it has from its proclaimed cause of ousting the regime - the cause that the revolution committed itself to. It cannot give that up without disintegrating. Both sides have much in common: not only the small size and the numerous international connections, pronounced or otherwise, but also the fact that both of them are totally dependent on the financing that they get from these connections. These people live on the revenue that they generate from playing their roles. Without it, they cannot survive.

Translation by Dima Tarakji Alghazzy