The Syrian Revolution: reflections on a decade of struggle

  • March 17, 2021

People & Protest

Syrian writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh speaks about the hopes of the revolution, the tragedy of the war and the lessons from a life of struggle.

Protesters at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. waving the Syrian rebel flag. November 25, 2019. Photo by Miki Jourdan / Flickr


he cycle of protests that collectively became known as the “Arab Spring” were triggered by a desperate event outside a government building in the small Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in late December 2010, when Mohamad Bouazizi set fire to himself in an act of protest.

Mass demonstrations followed across Tunisia and quickly ricocheted across the Middle East and North Africa — expressions of young and old, men and women asserting their right to a life of dignity.

By early February, huge mobilizations had forced Tunisian and Egyptian dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak to resign. However, it’s a long road from regime change to social transformation as would become clear over the following years. And even such a preliminary victory would prove elusive for other countries in the region.

Come March 2011, protests had kicked off in Syria too, in response to the arrest and torture of youths that had sprayed anti-regime slogans on the walls of Darra would become the starting point for a movement to topple the Assadist regime.

The makeup of the protests that quickly spread around the country were by no means less complicated in Syria than elsewhere, and for a while they constituted a radical challenge to a regime dependent on rigid sectarian divisions and the impoverishment of large parts of the population.

To mark the ten years since the initial uprising in Syria, ROAR is publishing this interview with the Syrian writer and activist, Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is the author of the book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy (Haymarket Books, 2017), as well as seven books in Arabic and hundreds of articles. He is also a co-founder of the online journal, al-Jumhuriya, where his writings on Syria and the global crisis can be found.

He has lived in exile for the past eight years — currently in Berlin and prior to that in Istanbul. Born in 1961 in a village close to the city of Raqqa, Yassin al-Haj Saleh studied medicine in Aleppo, where he became involved in the breakaway Communist Party-Political Bureau. In a crackdown by the regime, he was imprisoned for his activities in 1980 and would remain in prison for the next 16 years.

Soon after his release he met Samira al-Khalil, she too a former political prisoner, and they later married. Both were active in marginal dissident circles in Syria throughout the 2000s, attempting to develop and spread new critical ideas about Syrian society and to get beyond the limiting frameworks of previous opposition struggles. From its beginning in 2011, both were immersed in the activities of the Syrian Revolution.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s work as part of the Syrian resistance has continued to foreground that demand for dignity that was central to the uprisings of ten years ago. He has persistently posed the question of how to understand the global problems we face in a “Syrianized” world and how to be in solidarity in ways that are accountable across the intersecting barriers of class, nationality and religion.

The interview was conducted via email by Liam Hough.

ROAR: With regards to the periods of both Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad’s control over the Ba’ath Party and its rule in Syria, you’ve described Syrian society as having experienced a systemic political poverty. Could you give a general description of what life was like in Syria throughout these decades? How would you describe the forms of solidarity or interaction across religious or ethnic lines that existed despite the repression and sectarianism?

Yassin al-Haj Saleh: The notion of political poverty was intended to mean two things. First, that for decades Syrians have been denied two basic tenets of citizenship: the right to talk about public issues and the right to gather and possibly create social and political organizations. Silent and atomized, Syrians have been subjected to “politicide,” that is, our political agency was killed off. We were reduced from citizens to rightless subjects with no agency.

The other main purpose of the notion of political poverty is that it helps to provide some explanation for the growing economic poverty among the vast majority of Syrian society in the Assadist era. Economic poverty and political poverty have gone hand in hand during what I call the “neo-sultanic turn,” which saw Syria transformed into a hereditary privatized state, where political coercion plays an essential role in the economy, the way it did in the feudal system.

Religion then came to constitute a limit to political poverty, for there is one “opinion” even a politicidal regime cannot suppress, which is the holy scriptures recited by believers in their prayers, and one “gathering” it cannot disband, that of believers in mosques and churches.

Due to their lack of legitimacy, the privileged elite leaves the believers to their religion, even patronizes religions, while crushing independent political and social organization. Religious talk can perform a protest of sorts, while prayers and gatherings in mosques or churches provide atomized people with communities of trust.

What do we get when religion and politics converge? Sects, exclusive communities.

So, for a society that has experienced this politicide, the only “politics” it is left with is that of sectarianism. This is without saying anything about the fact that the regime has systematically discriminated between Syrians on a sectarian basis. Sectarianism was the elephant in the room that everyone knew about, but no one was allowed to mention. If you do, you are sectarian yourself, undermining “national unity.”

Still, many Syrians tried to overcome these dynamics, and the revolution was about owning politics and “overthrowing the regime,” something that would have changed the political, social and psychological dynamics in Syria and possibly weakened the sectarian grip over many. This has always been heroic — Sisyphean indeed — while the discriminatory engine, especially in the omnipresent security archipelago, is still working, its branches in every city and town, its unknown numbers of informants. This security apparatus is the nervous system of the regime and it’s a “legitimate” institution practicing terror and torture on a routine basis. It is greatly sectarianized, with most of the influential people from the Alawi community.

What has been seen after the revolution is not some new phenomenon in the shape of the sectarianization of politics in Syria, as much as the brutal unveiling of what had always been hidden beneath the surface.

Could you give an overview of how the Syrian economy has been structured and organized throughout the Ba’athist or Assadist period? What are the differences and continuities between the eras of Hafez and of Bashar al-Assad? To what extent would you say that economic factors played a role in triggering the civil uprising?

I think people should distinguish clearly between Ba’athism and Assadism, similar to how we do between communism and Stalinism. The Ba’ath Party was reduced to a big, weak, and awkward body, dominated by security apparatuses in the early days of Hafez’s rule. Everything in the country was centered around the president, who was far more important than parties, ideologies, cities, citizens, Syria and the “Arab Nation” itself, as hailed by the Ba’ath Party. He was the real god, his personality cult was the real religion, and the different branches of the security apparatus were the real temples of this religion.

The Assadist era of our history can be seen as the emergence of a ferocious class, a new bourgeoisie who gained their immense wealth through primitive accumulation —expropriation by means of brute force. The privatized state is the key engine for the accumulation of wealth in Syria. The entire country is treated as private property by the owners of the state. The process can be traced back to the early days of the first oil shock after the 1973 War, when money from the Gulf states poured into the coffers of the regime. The next phase of this came after the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 1976, which was about enriching the regime officers as much as it was about power on the regional level. In the early 1990s, the regime relaxed regulations related to investment and private accumulation of wealth even further.

But it was after Hafez’s death in 2000 that the new bourgeoisie really became a class for itself, to borrow a Marxist term. The “social market economy” banner was raised at a Ba’ath Party conference in 2005. This period heralded an intense neoliberal transformation, from which the centers of big cities benefited rather than the smaller towns or rural areas. The structural changes that were initiated around this time determined that those who were affected more by this “economic reform” were the communities that lacked channels to power, wasta [mediator] — what we call “vitamin W” in Syria. The revolution erupted in the regions that were struck by growing poverty and were unable to make their voices heard.

It is worth mentioning that the mechanism of primitive accumulation gained even more impetus after the failure of the revolution. The regime, as the guardian and political expression of this class, has been coordinating to seize the properties of displaced people. The logic of expropriation goes along with that of political impoverishment.

To state that Western sanctions have made things worse for the Syrian people is circumstantial. It is the internal dynamic of primitive accumulation that is structurally responsible for the impossible destruction of Syria after the impossible revolution. Already in 2007, 37 percent of the population was under the poverty line, and 11 percent were living on less than $1 dollar a day.

Given the power that the regime held over society and the atmosphere of conspiracy and sectarianism it fueled for decades, were you surprised at all that such protests and political initiative emerged as they did? What lessons are there to take from the Syrian Revolution in terms of the experiences of different generations and the unpredictability of social uprisings? You’ve emphasized the role of creating and sustaining a culture of resistance both before and since 2011.

Yes, I, for one, did not expect the protests, which remained peaceful for months. As someone who had first-hand experience of the regime’s cruelty, I thought that the conditional reflexes of fear were still paralyzing Syrians. But it appeared that almost 30 years after the Hamah massacre, the spell of terror had lost its effect. It was our generation who had lost the political initiative because we were severely beaten and affected by the fall of communism in the early 1990s. But we were still there, somehow, as symbols of a struggle that was still to be won.

We, as the older generation, including many former political prisoners, shared good relations with the first revolutionaries of 2011, with whom we shared similar ideas and dreams. Looking back at the decade before the revolution, I think we kept a spirit of resistance alive against all odds. We were only activists and writers, living in a closed country, under permanent surveillance, and hardly managing to make ends meet. We were completely without allies — both on the regional and on the international level — and facing an extremely brutal regime.

So many people from the younger generation were active in different ways in the revolution: people like Razan Zeitouneh, who was disappeared in December 2013 by Jaish al Islam, a criminal Salafi group, or Ahmad ash-Sheikh, who was martyred by the regime in Aleppo close to the end of 2012. There was no political body that brought us together, but we were developing again an emancipatory culture, a rebellious spirit, an ethical sense of duty, a call of freedom. All this is still there now, despite the tragic fate of many of the revolutionaries.

When revolutions are victorious, they tend to leave us with a solid and exclusive tradition to be adopted or imitated by other revolutionary groups (the communist tradition was very solid). But when they fail, we are left with soft traditions: lessons, memories, stories to be told and elaborated. The soft tradition of the Syrian Revolution is already expanding.

Building on this soft tradition, it is now important for us to move beyond “March 2011” if we want to keep the spirit of that moment alive. I mean that we, Syrian revolutionaries, should free ourselves from certain processes that developed with the revolution, and reorient in ways that respond creatively to our failures and shortcomings. We have to think regionally and globally. We need to coordinate with other revolutionary groups in the region and we have to organize better.

Above all, we need to develop a new problematic that unifies our three fronts of struggle: against a neo-sultanic and genocidal regime, against imperialist and sub-imperialist occupation powers, and against nihilist and elitist Islamism whose method in struggle is terror. Not an easy task.

In 2013 you moved to Ghouta, north-east of Damascus. Could you talk about how the revolution was taking shape on the ground in this period and in what ways you participated? Of course, this period is overshadowed by the abduction of your wife, Samira al-Khalil and three others — Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada and Nazem Hammadi — collectively known as the Douma Four. It is strongly believed that the culprits were the Salafist group Jaysh al-Islam. What happened and how did this tragic event affect your views of the revolution?

I was not aware when I moved to Eastern Ghouta on April 3, 2013 that those days were the beginning of a very different stage in our struggle. Up to that point, it was mostly Syrians versus Syrians struggling for political change. But from July 2012 onward, the struggle changed from being largely confined to Syrian society, to a regional one along sectarian lines.

This began with Iran and its proxies from Lebanon and Iraq intervening — with the Iranian general Qassim Suleimani taking up the leadership over the regime’s war against rebellious Syria — and with the infiltration of many Sunni jihadis from so many countries into Syria, supported by Salafi networks in the Gulf. Hezbollah’s occupation of Quasir in Syria in May 2013 marked the end of the first stage of the Syrian Revolution.

In eastern Ghouta, a Salafi group, Liwa’a al-Islam, was entrenching itself in an area that was under siege and heavily bombarded. Five weeks after the chemical attack of August 21, 2013, that group would become the more pompous Jaish al-Islam. Led by two former Salafi prisoners in Saidnaya jail, this group was receiving money from both the Saudis and the Qataris at that time, and it capitalized on the Assadi aggression to exert its control over the local population.

For the people of eastern Ghouta, it was an impossible situation, with Assad’s troops besieging them from the outside and with the Islamists’ increased control over their lives within the area. After the chemical attack, and even more after the US-Russia chemical deal, which practically gave the regime a license to continue its killing through other means, the fate of the revolution was effectively sealed. It took me some time to understand the effects of that criminal deal and the preceding collapse of the national struggle into a regional and sectarian one. I wish I had seen it more clearly at that time, for things developed tragically in the following weeks, and Samira was kidnapped with Razan, Wael and Nazem on December 9, 2013.

Jaish al-Islam was just a civil war party within the Syrian Revolution. After their displacement to the northern part of the country in April 2018, they became mercenaries on Turkey’s payroll. The criminal duo of the chemical deal intervened militarily later: the US in September 2014 against Da’esh [ISIS], and Russia in September 2015 on behalf of the regime. Turkey would follow them a year later against the PKK-affiliated PYD.

For one, my life has never been easy, it has always been a life of struggle. I would have preferred less cruel experiences. Some peace. I would have especially wished to be spared Samira’s disappearance. But as a survivor of a desperate struggle, I must continue our revolution with what tools I have, or I can master. I do not deny feeling despair and fatigue at times. But then they have been part of my life since I was 20.

The Assad regime seems to have managed in the long run to somehow evade being framed in the broader Western and even some Leftist media as one lacking legitimacy in the way that other governments did during the Arab Spring. In their version, broadly speaking, there were various radical Islamist factions on the one hand, and Assad on the other, with the latter being the far more palatable option to the West. Before discussing the West and the Left, could you first talk about how much the Assadist regime itself is responsible for securing this image in the public discourse and in shaping policies towards Syria?

Is it really the case that the Assad regime managed to look legitimate? I rather think that the regime itself was probably quite surprised that it was liked by many leftists as well as by the fascists in the West. It sold to the latter the discourse of combating Islamism, and to the former the discourse of being targeted by imperialism. And both were more than happy to work with what they got.

The discourses of wide sectors of the Western left and the right about Syria share one important thing: they are depopulated. As for mainstream professionals — ambassadors, diplomats, and no shortage of journalists and researchers — they knew very well how brutal, discriminatory and corrupt the regime was, but their perspective is state-centered, with stability as their highest priority. They like to have Syrian food, which is good, and to save a lot of their income in a country where the cost of living is not high. So why care for Syrians? They are convinced that the regime is bad, but many of them tend to think that we, Syrians, do not deserve better. Certainly, from the Syrian and Palestinian experience, I tend to think that they share the mentality of imperialist generals and administrators from the heydays of colonialism. These people pose a danger to democracy everywhere: in our countries as well as their own.

So, it is the statist elitist structure that puts these people on common terms with the regime — a regime that deals with its own subjects in the same way their own colonial predecessors once did.

The regime is the guardian of the internal First World in Syria, or the Syrian whites. Why should the West’s privileged classes bother if the internal Third World or black Syrians are bombed with chemical weapons or barrel bombs, or tortured and killed in security dungeons, or massacred here or there?

Likewise, the same attitude is reflected in these Western states’ willingness to abandon their own citizens who traveled to Syria to join Da’esh [ISIS] and are now captives in Europe’s Guantanamo, as they don’t see them worthy of due process. The problem belongs “over there” so to speak. What we see here is a process of bringing citizenship back closer to the dominant ethnicity. This is the vector of the right-wing populist program.

What the regime did successfully was to create the conditions of radicalization and release Salafist prisoners from its jails as part of a general amnesty at the start of the revolution. Zahran Alloush, the founder of Jaish al-Islam, spent just two-and-a-half years in jail on charges of weapons possession before he was released. My wife, who was later abducted by this thug, spent four years in prison. I was in jail for 16 years. Do you see the difference?

Much of the Western left has generally failed in developing a coherent analysis of the Syrian situation and in mobilizing in solidarity — from parties to prominent theorists or journalists to the remnants of the Anti-War Movement. Part of your critique of this side of the international left as I understand it is that they come from a mainly geopolitical perspective that is rigid and Western-centric. This leaves no room for movement-based politics and what non-state actors might have to say about their own struggle. Could you discuss this perspective and what you see as its underlying roots?

Many Western leftists seem to know little outside their countries and feel even less. Their priority is to oppose and struggle against their own powers, which is quite legitimate, but they tend to supplement all struggles to a struggle against imperialism, which I do not see that they are involved in in any meaningful way.

Moreover, they tend to think that imperialism is an essence ensconced in the US or in the West and will never think of Russia or China or Iran as imperialist powers. Many are eager to instruct you how to think even about your own country, basing their ideas not on real knowledge but on some very general principles about capitalism and imperialism, on neoliberalism. Instead of reconsidering their ideas about the world following major historic events like the “Arab Spring,” their knowledge seems to be complete before, during and after these historical upheavals. This is a practice more akin to conservatism than revolutionary or left-wing politics.

The subjectivity of our revolutions and the agency of millions of people are denied on behalf of something that has never tried to incorporate our experiences in its grandiose schemes. The fact that tens of thousands of Syrians were arrested, tortured and killed in the early 1980s has not taught them anything about Syria. Not even the dismantling of leftist parties by Assad senior in the 1980s and 1990s. The fact that Bashar inherited his position from his father, the butcher of Palestinians in Lebanon and of Syrians in Hamah and many other places, seems irrelevant as well.

What is relevant? Ethereal struggles that have cost them nothing? People armed with arrogance and ignorance are dealing with us as the subaltern who cannot speak for or represent themselves. This anti-imperialism is imperialist in itself, and its adherers seem to be unable to reflect on their condition and themselves.

When it comes to Syria, many of them relied for information and analysis on the likes of Robert Fisk, who I think was one of the most unethical journalists imaginable. To give just two examples: he accompanied the regime’s forces when they committed the Darayya massacre in the summer 2012 and accused the rebels of killing their own people. I was in Damascus at that time and contacting people in Darayya. He was a sheer liar, which is worse than a denialist: he was a propagandist of a genocidal regime.

Before embedding himself in this despicable way, Fisk had been writing against embedded journalists, most notably during the 2003 Iraq War.

Around the same time as the Darayya massacre, he was able to visit prisoners in one of the regime security centers and they relayed to him exactly the same narrative as the regime — of being foreign Salafi jihadis. As a Syrian and a former political prisoner myself, I know that it is impossible in Assad’s Syria for anybody to visit prisoners unless he is guaranteed to be a regime confidant. And Fisk was.

This is like visiting Auschwitz in 1943 or 1944 and coming out talking about a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy after meeting Jews and communists there. This same immoral person gave a voice to murderers like Jamil Hassan and Suhail Hassan, and never to any Syrian activist, opposition figure or intellectual. He was an authority for so many in the West, in Japan, and beyond, and I believe that he was more useful to the regime than a whole well-armed brigade.

Could you also discuss another trend which you have described as “selective solidarity”? Has your time in Europe brought you more insight into this issue?

My main experience with this selective solidarity has been since leaving Syria. In Berlin, I was asked by the moderator of an event that referred to my city, Raqqa, in its title, basically to help her moderate better, without ever realizing that in effect this meant making me and the whole Syrian struggle even less visible. Uninvited, I attended the event where PKK supporters were giving lengthy displays of self-praise and self-congratulation, with no one raising the obvious question: how come not a single Syrian was invited to talk about a Syrian issue, a Syrian area and population, while there were thousands of them in Germany and in Berlin?

Of course, the Syrian struggle for democracy was never mentioned. You are left with the feeling that the history of progressive struggle started in 2013-14, with the role of the Kurdish YPG/YPG militias in fighting Da’esh [ISIS]. We did not exist. The only Syrian Kurd that was there knew about the event from me. Are there better examples of being subalternized, and by supposedly left-wing people? Needless to say that my question — why at an event titled “Nach Raqqa…” [To Raqqa…] were there were no Raqqawis or even Syrians present? — went unanswered.

This frustrating experience was only the trigger that led me to develop a critique of the very concept of solidarity. I tried to show that solidarity is a market, and it tends towards oligopoly, with high hurdles facing the newcomers. It is also a power relationship, and by no means based on equality, friendship, and camaraderie. And again, it is centered on western leftists and humanists’ priorities.

Recently, I had an unhappy experience with the Progressive International that left me in the dark. They had contacted me, asking me to join their new initiative, but after I sent them a letter, they never responded or explained anything. This only signifies to me that Syria is still unapproachable by the “imperialist left,” those who annex all struggles in the world to a grand struggle against imperialism, without doing anything and especially without risking anything.

Now, with the world in an acute crisis with COVID-19, and a chronic environmental one, while older issues of imperialism and racism are taking new forms, there is a need for a new solidarity, a revolutionary one. This should aim at changing the world, instead of satisfying itself with patronizing the agents of this cause or that. Syria, a rather small country with the Iranians, Americans, Russians, Turks, their proxies, and the Israelis, and a genocidal regime remaining in power, is possibly the right starting point to rethink the world in crisis today.

You have called for more critical thinking around Syria and global politics today. If we look at political changes elsewhere in the last few years, along with a return of a broad-based class politics, there has definitely been an upsurge in movements taking steps to challenging white supremacy and the ongoing legacies of colonialism and imperialism. As for actually linking struggles, we see gradually renewed ties between Black, Indigenous and migrant solidarity movements and the Palestine solidarity movement, just to give one example. What are your thoughts about these developments and the potential for building stronger solidarity networks in general?

For many years now, the refrain about Syria is that “it is complicated over there.” And it is indeed complicated. But this should be a call to know better, a challenge to old simplistic approaches, rather than a cause for disidentification and apathy, as it has mostly been.

The complicated nature of the situation in Syria stems from the fact that the country is occupied by five different powers and the spillover of civil wars in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. On top of that, outside observers make the mistake of approaching our struggle from the perspective of the “War on Terror,” which is (mis)diagnosed as the main political evil in the world. I am afraid that ours is an even more complex crisis, one that will be there for many decades to come.

With the world in Syria and Syrians scattered everywhere in the world, I think we have to think of Syria globally. Since the sordid US-Russia chemical deal and then the nuclear deal with Iran — from which both imperialist powers, the West and Iran, gained something, while the Syrians were just among the items in the payment balance — it has not been about Syria: it is about the world in its present form.

As far as global politics goes, it seems that the highest ambitions of many in the West now, many leftists included, is to get back to the good old days of the Iran nuclear deal after Trump pulled the US out. When the alternatives are Trump or Biden, this shows how pathetic the world we live in is. Thatcher’s TINA (“There is no alternative”) dictate applies in our era more than ever. Whereas that was the slogan of an emerging neoliberalism in a world of political and ideological conflict, today it is simply ubiquitous.

The nihilist refusal of the world, which reaches its apex in the Islamist version of terror, is born out of an environment where this TINA dogma prevails. I’m not suggesting a blanket causal explanation, but the context in which such nihilism takes hold is never addressed. And it is so convenient to obscure terror’s origins in the politics of the powerful, by making it appear as something just emanating from the weak — from their ignorance or religion or fanaticism.

This justifies also the genocratic turn that takes the form of white supremacy, or Hindutva in Modi’s India, or the toxic mixture of Russian nationalism and Christian orthodoxy of Putin’s Russia, or the equally toxic mixture of Persian nationalism and Shia Islam in Iran, or Israel as a purely Jewish state, or Sunni Islamism itself with its own mixture of imperialist imaginary and victimhood narrative etc.

I believe we are witnessing the replacement of the idea of a demos (citizenry) by that of a genos (race or kin). The Middle East has in many ways been the vanguard or testing ground for this form of securitized politics but increasingly we see it everywhere.

In a world stripped of its past ideological battles — the post-Cold War world basically — terrorism has become the universal “political evil,” in a way that totally obscures or even rewards state violence done in the name of suppressing terror. This holds true even when that violence reaches a genocidal scale.

When the state kills its own subjects, it is in the natural order of things, this is what is expected of it. When its subjects emulate this killing it is called “terror.” Terrorism has become framed as the primary political evil of the world and we are urged to simply understand its roots along some culturalist line of inherent fanaticism or resentment.

I believe that the main political evil and the logical endpoint of this era is genocide, something that prioritizing the “War on Terror” conceals, facilitates even, especially against Muslims. The world looks very different according to our diagnosis of the main political evil.

As for the advance of the Palestinian cause in the US, I am not sure how much this lies within the paradigm of (neoliberal) solidarity and identity politics, or if it breaks out of its confinements. It is vital that these advances open to a revolutionary horizon, with the political proletariat in the Middle East, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis and so on, breaking free from the people’s jail that is the Middle East itself. Here it is more useful to think of the Middle East less as a geography than as a system, in which the US and Israel, also now Russia, are the real sovereign power.

We, the people of this region, are also a religious proletariat, something that has the potential of revolutionizing our thought and culture, and hopefully breaking with identity politics.

For now though, that potential has been channeled into a religious proletarianization. I argue that it is our political proletarianization that triggers this — leaving the only room for any sense of agency, even a nihilist one, to the religious sphere.

The culturalist narrative starts from this appearance of a unique religious fanaticism and essentializes it — so we end up with the “Clash of Civilizations” story which claims that politics in such a scenario is impossible. I argue that it is the other way around. The denial of political agency is what leads, in a way unique to modern times, to the desperate Islamist paradigm in the sense we know it today.

This is what we have to undermine, which is entirely against the interests of those who benefit from the Middle East as it stands.

“Syria is in the world and the world is in Syria.” This quote from you points to the global nature of the whole question around Syria today. What do you see as the main tasks for Syrians at home and abroad in their struggle? In terms of solidarity, how can people engage on the issue of Syria in a way that is more accountable going forward?

There is a bad way to think about Syria: keep talking about Bashar and his regime, about the formal corrupt and inept opposition, and confining our analysis to the internal dynamics. A better way to think about Syria is to embed it in the world, which is already there in the country, and to find ways to insert our analyses and our struggle with those of our partners in the world. Syria is not a planet of its own, it is a microcosm, and the TINA world is a macro-Syria.

Whether we think of the displacement of the roughly 30 percent of the population that is living outside Syria as a loss for the country or as a victory in escaping a genocidal regime, the opportunity for freedom — to learn, unlearn and change — still exists. I do not ignore the challenges of being an uprooted refugee, but for some of us at least there is an opportunity for “exilement,” a notion similar to what I’ve called “enjailment”: turning jail into a home, into a place for emancipation, living in jail as if it is your preferred place in the world. With this “exilement” I mean benefiting from being “outside” the control of the regime. This is already something for the future.

When one looks at the Syrian reality, it instills deep despair in you, but when you insist on the priority of hope, you think, imagine and act differently. I cannot ignore a crushing reality, but I prefer to start from hope: doing things in ways that keep hope alive.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, intellectual and former political prisoner. He writes on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria, and regularly contributes to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, the Egyptian leftist magazine Al-Bosla, and the Syrian online periodical The Republic. He is the author of The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy (Pluto Press, 2017).

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