MESOP “MUST READ : The Betrayal of the West’s Left SIDED WITH AL ASSAD – An Interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh
“It came to me as a shock that most of the Western Left have sided with Bashar al-Assad” – Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham write for The Intercept:
Yassin al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.
“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.
Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.
From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.
By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since.
Saleh is now among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey as refugees. He travels the country helping to train Syrian writers and activists in exile, while writing and speaking about his country’s plight. As a leftist, he has also been a vociferous critic of a growing international consensus that has come to see the Syrian conflict in Bashar al-Assad’s terms — as a fight against terrorism.
Our interview with Saleh is presented below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Please tell us briefly about your own background in Syria.
As a university student in the late 1970s, I was a member of one of two Communist Party organizations actively opposing the regime. At that time, there was an uprising in Syria that involved students, trade unionists, lawyers, and members of other professions who were fighting against the Assad government, as well as a separate conflict between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. There were regular worker strikes in Aleppo, where I was living, and I saw with my own eyes security forces breaking down the doors of homes and businesses.
To be arrested in Assad’s Syria, you didn’t need reasons. But in 1980, hundreds of my comrades and I were detained as part of a campaign by the government to break Syrian society.
I was young, and the early years in jail were very difficult. We suffered harsh treatment. In later years, our conditions were not so bad and we were allowed books and dictionaries. I learned English inside prison, and for 13 years, I read maybe 100 books or more per year. In the last year of my imprisonment, I was transferred to Tadmor prison, which is one of the most vicious places on the planet — a concentration camp for torture, humiliation, hunger, and fear. I was then released in 1996.
The experience of prison transformed me and my ideas about the world. In many ways, it was an emancipatory experience. I developed the belief that to protect our fundamental values of justice, freedom, human dignity, and equality, we had to change our concepts and theories. The Soviet Union had fallen and many changes were occurring in the world. My comrades who refused to change, those who adhered to their old methods and tools, found themselves in a position of leaving their values behind. This is one reason why many leftists today are against the Syrian revolution — because they adhere to the dead letter of their beliefs, rather than the living struggle of the people for justice.
What did you expect from the left in its response to the Syrian revolution?
It came to me as a shock, actually, that most of them have sided with Bashar al-Assad. I don’t expect much out of the international left, but I thought they would understand our situation and see us as a people who were struggling against a very despotic, very corrupt, and very sectarian regime. I thought they would see us and side with us. What I found, unfortunately, is that most people on the left know absolutely nothing about Syria. They know nothing of its history, political economy, or contemporary circumstances, and they don’t see us.
In America, the leftists are against the establishment in their own country. In a way, they thought that the U.S. establishment was siding with the Syrian revolution — something that is completely false and an utter lie — and for this reason they have stood against us. And this applies to leftists almost everywhere in the world. They are obsessed with the White House and the establishment powers of their own countries. The majority are also still obsessed with the old Cold War-era struggles against imperialism and capitalism.
Recently, an event in Rome that displayed images of those tortured and killed by Assad was attacked by fascists. Just days before, it had also been attacked in a local communist newspaper for promoting “imperialism.” There is a growing convergence between the views of fascists and the far-left about Syria and other issues. The reason for this is that perspectives on the left are outdated. They are interested in high-politics, not grassroots struggles. They are dealing with grand ideologies and historical narratives, but they don’t see people — the Syrian people aren’t represented. They are holding on to depopulated discourses that don’t represent human struggle, life, and death.