Revolution, counterrevolution, and imperialism in Syria

Interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is one of the pivotal figures in the Syrian Revolution. He has a long history of activism in the country. Arrested by the Syrian regime in 1980 for the crime of political activism and membership of the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) while in medical school at the age of 20, he spent the next 16 years in jail, including a final year in the infamous prison Tadmor, which the poet Faraj Bayradqdar called “the kingdom of death and madness.”

Released from prison in 1996, Saleh finished his interrupted medical studies, after which he became a political journalist and independent activist unaffiliated to any political party. Upon the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution, he went into hiding so he could tell the story of the revolution in newspapers and on a website he cofounded on the first anniversary of the Syrian Revolution: al-Jumhuriya (

At the same time, Saleh, along with his wife and political collaborator Samira Khalil, played an active role in the revolution, working with a team of activists including the legendary Razan Zeitouneh. They found themselves caught between the hammer of Bashar al-Assad’s counter-revolution and the anvil of his reactionary Islamic fundamentalist opponents such as al Qaeda, Jaysh al-Islam and ISIS (also known by its acronym in Arabic, Daesh).
Tragically, Samira Khalil along with Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi were abducted in 2013 and have not been heard from since. Saleh, who had moved from Eastern Ghouta to Raqqa, his native city, where he lived for two and a half months, again went into hiding, this time not from the regime, but from Daesh.

The group abducted two of his brothers. Nothing is known about Feras, his youngest brother who was abducted in July 2013. Two months before Samira, Razan, Wael, and Nazem were abducted, Saleh was forced to flee the country for Turkey.

The ISR’s Ashley Smith interviewed Yassin al-Haj Saleh in October to coincide with the publication of his first book in English, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy (Haymarket Books).

Before  getting into the many social and political questions about the revolution and counter-revolution, I want to ask about your own political history in the struggle for liberation in Syria. You spent 16 years in prison for opposing the regime of Hafez al-Assad. What kept you going during that time?

I WAS young when I was arrested. I was hardly twenty and a student at the University of Aleppo where I was studying for a medical degree. At that time, I was a member of a Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), which opposed the regime. There was another Communist Party that supported the regime back then and astonishingly still does today.

The “crime” that I along with many of my comrades was arrested for was to stand for democracy and political change in the country. Back in the 1970s, our implicit goal in the struggle for democracy was socialism. We were arrested amidst the struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. I was sentenced to fifteen years in jail and just for good measure they added another year to it in Tadmor Prison, the most notorious jail in Syria and one of the worst in the world.

When I was released in 1996, I wanted to continue committing ‘the crime’ of fighting for a new Syria, for which I was already punished. Ever since, I have been involved in struggle for progressive change in Syria, a struggle that may get you thrown in jail where the regime will rob you of your youth.

Apart from one year and a half at the beginning and the last year in Tadmor, our conditions in jail were not the most horrible ones. My imprisonment in Tadmor was different. So for 13 and a half years, we had books and dictionaries. I learned English in prison and I read hundreds of book. In a way, I am a graduate of jail. I learned more there than at university.

At the same time those years were very hard, because there is no compensation for losing all your twenties and more than half of your thirties, the prime of life. But at the same time we found a ways to preserve our humanity. I was with my comrades; we were changing ourselves through learning and struggling against inhuman conditions.

In some ways it was an emancipatory experience because I fought there against my internal jails, especially those based on narrow ideological and political affiliations as well as the jail of the egoist self. So it was a struggle not only against brutal conditions and the regime; it was also a struggle against myself.

It was my own civil war so to speak. And the outcome was a revolution in my personal life. We lost political battle with the regime at that time and we tried to win the battle against ourselves, to really free ourselves and be better equipped for the bigger battle for justice and freedom in our country and beyond.

Because of that experience, and it was desperate and extremely hard, I think I became immune from despair. This is very important thing now when we are being crushed for the second time in my (not very long) life. Maybe this new defeat is even far worse than the previous one. But because of my experience in prison, I am in the struggle again without falling into despair, without complaining, without surrendering to hopelessness. I am only more angry than I would like to be.

What did you do after you were released from jail? What impact did the Arab revolutions have on you, especially when Syrians rose up? What did you do during the course of the revolution and counter-revolution?

AFTER I was released in 1996, I went back to medical school and got my degree, but I never practiced medicine. I became a writer and translator from English. I cooperated with my comrades as a writer, but mostly I was not a member of any political party. My field of activism was writing and participating in some public activities. Among these were protests against the regime in public spaces. I was beaten in the street at in March 2005) and arrested for hours in March 2004.

As a writer before the revolution I do not deny that I practiced some self-censorship, but I tried also to push back the regime’s suffocating limitations on freedom of expression. It was a continuous battle and writing was and is still a form of political action. And because of this battle I was summoned to the security headquarters several times, and once they took me with guns and confiscated my identity card for days to force me to go to them. I was denied a passport at the time, and I have not had one since.

When the revolution broke out, I went into hiding in order to write freely and tell what I believed to be the full truth of what was happening. I wanted to be an agent of this struggle for change in Syria and for the values that I and hundreds and thousands of people of my generation paid a high price—justice, freedom, equality, human dignity, and the sanctity of life.

While I was writing I was directly involved in the struggle. I wanted to be the witness and participant who could portray what was happening in Syria from within the country. That is why I went into hiding. I wanted to help myself and others understand this pivotal moment in our and in indeed the world’s history.

Assad's regime has postured as defending Syria against Western imperialism and Islamic Fundamentalism. Of course much of this is propaganda. What was the nature of the Syrian regime under the Assad family dictatorship? How was it structured? How did it rule?

THE REGIME always played a double game. Inside the country, the regime blackmailed Syrians, claiming that we were all under threat from outsiders, the old colonial powers, Western imperialism, and the Israeli occupation. It nurtured a besieged castle mentality and paranoia in the population. This was always useful to incriminate dissidents as foreign agents and impose political and ideological uniformity on Syrians.

At the same time the regime blackmailed the Western powers with its assertion that it was a bulwark against fundamentalism and terrorism in Syria and the region. It was always prepared to slander its own population in presence of western diplomats, journalists, and scholars. The Assadists knew well that this discourse was marketable to imperialist powers that were engaged in their so-called War on Terror; this same discourse had justified the murder of tens of thousands killed in the early 1980s and now hundreds of thousands in their ongoing counterrevolution.

Beneath all this rhetoric, the Assad dynasty’s main aim is to stay in power forever and accumulate millions and billions of dollars that comes with ruling the country. Just recently, it was uncovered that Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin, is the richest Arab man with more than $27 billion. He’s even richer than the Saudi magnate Al-Waleed bin Talal.

Syria is owned by what I call a financial political security complex. Hafez al-Assad and now his son, Bashar al-Assad, have overseen a horrible and brutal security agency. They have spawned a new bourgeoisie by giving their clients and relatives privileged access to public resources.

The state itself was privatized in the 1980s at least. The Assads sold off the public resources to their family and friends. They turned this privatized state into a fearful guardian of the new bourgeoisie’s economic plunder of our country. This is the ruling class in Syria—an amalgam of a family dictatorship, their clients, the new bourgeoisie and the terrorist class of guards embodied in the most brutal, secretive, and sectarian organizations in Syria—the security agencies.

Often regime is represented as secular. Is this true? How did the regime rule through sectarianism?

THE REGIME’S so-called secularism is almost completely an ideological façade that covers its essential sectarianism. Divide and rule is not only a colonial method, it has become the regime’s method for over two generations.

By the way, the regime never used the word secularism in its discourse in the past. Bashar or Buthaina Shaban only used this word in interviews with western journalists. Like the War on Terror, this is only another cheap commodity to sell to Western powers and even those on the left looking for ways to avoid recognizing the fascist character of the Assad regime.

Inside Syria, the regime rules through a process of sectarianization to entice Syrians to fear and mistrust each other based on their sect. The regime attempts to present itself as the only force capable of keeping these divisions, which it in fact foments, in check. This is a deliberate policy. Sectarianism is not a primordial characteristic of Syria, or any other nation for that matter. It was foisted upon the country in order to divide the population and maintain the regime.

Of course, we have Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Alawis, Druze, Ismailis etc, but these are confessional groups without fixed rigid borders between them. The process of sectarianization crystalizes these groups, builds high borders between them, and transforms them into sects. Sects are social constructs under certain political conditions, as Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel show in their new book, Sectarianzation, and as I have tried to analyze in my own writings.

The regime has cultivated itself as the protector minorities against the Sunni majority, knowing very well that this was a colonial discourse in Syria itself and in our region, and is still is among wider circles in the West. This has had real material impacts in creating a social base for the regime. The regime is built around granting social capital, actual rewards and benefits, for being part of this or that favored sect.

Believe it or not, when you are Christian with a name like George or Joseph or Tony, you are in a way protected in “Assad’s Syria.” And when you are from this region or that, you will not be stopped and interrogated at the regime check points, while others will be and may well be arrested and “disappeared.”

It will be easier for you to get a passport or to find a job when you are from this origin or that and it is far more difficult when you are not. So being from this or that group provides you with some social capital even when you are poor. There are networks of clientelism working for you, binding you to the Assad regime itself, and confining you to your community. This is one way of manufacturing sects.

That’s why Sunnis in Syria were particularly angry. In particular, those living in rural areas and on the outskirts of the cities didn’t have access to these clientelist networks. By contrast, favored minorities, especially the wealthier ones among them, could to some extent feel at home in a Syria ruled by the Assad family. Others, especially poorer Sunnis, feel estranged and not at home. So some identify easily and others are extremely alienated.

How did the regime’s adoption of neoliberalism trigger the Syrian Revolution?

FIRST WE have to step back and see the nature of Hafez al-Assad’s state and its political economy before neoliberalization. It is classic of example of what Marx called primitive accumulation. The Assads turned the entire country’s resources into national monopolies. They then used crony capitalist privatization to transform these into private monopolies owned by themselves, their relatives, and their friends. They amassed vast fortunes in the process.

These clients of the regime pushed towards neoliberalization of the economy. They wanted to seize everything from state ownership and abolish any and all institutional structures that benefitted the Syrian majority. As a result, we were ruled by one of the most brutal new bourgeoisies in our region.

The regime protected them and denied the Syrian masses any opportunity to protest, to unionize, to negotiate, or even just say no. Politically speaking, we were slaves who had no rights at all. It was a combination of fascist structures in defense of neoliberalism that enriched our rulers and impoverished the majority. All of this led directly to the revolution.

What social classes joined the revolution and what were their demands?

THE REVOLUTION demanded both democracy and equality. The first thing that people wanted was, in my opinion, to own politics: to have the right to organize, and speak publicly about political issues. The second thing people wanted grew out of the experience of impoverishment and curtailed hopes that neoliberalism had imposed on us. They wanted redistribution of wealth and opportunities for social advancement.

The people who joined the revolution were from what I call working society—those that lived from their work, not from rentier income that the ownership of the state yielded that the ruling class passed on to their the relatives and cronies. So the social bloc of the Syrian Revolution is made of two groups. First the people Obama ridiculed from the middle class—students, intellectuals, doctors, engineers, and dentists. And second—and this is of decisive importance—the impoverished people in the countryside wrecked by neoliberalization combined with a horrific drought. Many left the countryside for the suburbs of the cities and country towns.

Both groups were aware that their income and their futures were being destroyed by the regime. That’s why reclaiming politics was important for them. That demand combined economic and political demands. It was similar to what happened in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. We wanted the downfall of the regime so we could establish a new democratic and egalitarian society.

How did the absence of class organization like trade unions impact the rising? Isn’t it very different from other countries in the region like Egypt and especially Tunisia where unions played a significant role?

THE CONTRAST is marked. Both Egypt and Tunisia had unions that were more or less independent, despite living under dictatorial conditions. The Tunisian General Labor Union was very active and was relatively independent and played a great role in the revolution.

In both Egypt and Tunisia the regimes were dictatorial but still people were able to protest, to express opinions, and to challenge them in some way. So there was space for basic organization. This made it easier for the revolutions to overthrow the regime in each country. The Tunisian dictator was overthrown in less than a month and the Egyptian one in less than three weeks.

In Syria the regime is different than those in Tunisia or Egypt. They were dictatorships. The Syrian regime is a fascist one. Bashar al Assad is not a dictator. He’s a very rich racist thug, and his only aim is to stay in power forever and to pass on his post to his son, Hafez, after him. So his fathers and his regime never tolerated any trade unions.

Actually, “professional” trade unions for doctors, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists and so on were dismantled in 1981 because they protested against the then rampant suppression during what I call the first Assadist war from 1979 to 1982. Many active members of those unions were arrested for long years. I met some of them in Adra prison in 1992. Their unions were “reestablished” with the regime cronies as their appointed leadership.

We were living under conditions of politicide—the complete destruction of any and all independent political organization of any sort—conditions far harsher than even those of Palestinians under the Israeli occupation. Syria was a political desert before the revolution. We did not have parties, independent unions, and social organization on the eve of the revolt.

And, as I said earlier, the regime consciously stoked divisions and fear among the people, pitting Arabs and Kurds against each other, Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Alawis, secular and religious people. So not only were we disorganized, but there was a fomented national crisis of trust among the people. So, as Marx said, we did not create a revolution in conditions of our own choosing.

How did the activists overcome these limitations and what kind of democratic structures did they set up in liberated areas?

DURING THE revolution activists created tansiqiyyat (coordinating groups) like the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) to overcome the reality of our disorganization. My friend Omar Aziz, the Syrian activist, was the “father” of the idea of Local Councils. The regime arrested him in 2012, brutally tortured him, and left him to die in Adra prison.

But his ideas took off in the revolution. The LCCs and other tansiqiyyat played a role in organizing protests, independent media coverage, and issuing political positions and statements. I helped in some activities of the LCCs. Razan Zeitouneh was the main leader of this effort. We cooperated when we were in hiding in Damascus for two years after the eruption of the revolution. I was the main author of the first political statement LCCs issued in June 2011.

The regime saw the emergence of these democratic organizations that began to unite Syrians as the main threat to its rule. So it did all it could to crush the tansiqiyyat. It killed, arrested, tortured or pushed into exile their first leaders—the first generation of revolution—in the first year and a half. Those that came after them—the second generation of the revolution—were pushed to defend themselves militarily against the regime’s increasingly brutal repression.

These new military organizations began to supplant the tansiqiyyat and Councils. Other organizations emerged to address relief activities, trying to provide incomes and living materials for people. In two years and a half these very interesting and very novel political grassroots bodies were almost entirely dismantled.

The salafist military organization, Jaysh al-Islam abducted Razan Zeitouneh, along with her husband Wael Hamada, the poet and lawyer Nazem Hamadi, and my wife the former political prisoner, Samira al Khalil, in December 2013. This signified the destruction of these grass root democratic organizations. In this way these nihilist Islamists continued the Assads’ politicide.

The tansiqiyyat, especially the LCC, were the heart of the revolution and its most creative expression. It is very different from the formal opposition, which existed abroad as the revolution’s so-called representatives. They were never genuine representatives of the movement on the ground, but self-appointed intermediaries with the regional and imperial powers.

The tansiqiyyat tried to persist in extremely difficult conditions. Even as late as 2017, and under the regime and Russian bombardment, we witnessed free elections for local councils in Saraqib, to the south west of Aleppo, and in Saqba in Eastern Ghouta. Of course the Western media never covered these elections.

The regime responded to the revolution with all the tricks in their counter-revolutionary playbook from brutal repression and war to attempts to divide and rule. What did they do? How did they manipulate religious divisions, whipping up and weaponizing sectarianism in particular?

THE REGIME knew it was in a fight for its life. Its strong point was its realization of this and its determination to concede absolutely nothing. It knew that it was incapable of retaining power and admitting even minor reforms. It was that fragile, and therefore had to be absolutely brutal in its response.

They knew they had to fight to stop any change even it meant the annihilation of the country. That’s what their slogan was “Assad or We Burn the Country.” They said all of this publicly. Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s billionaire cousin that I previously mentioned, was interviewed by the late Anthony Shadid in The New York Times in 2011 and said that the regime would fight to the end. And actually they did. They refused to accept any political solution.

First, they launched a brutal war against the revolution. They did not carry it out in an equal way, but in a sectarian manner. Remember that people from almost every background participated in the revolution in its first year—Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Christians, Alawis and Sunnis. To split this emergent unity, the regime meted out its brutality in an unequal way. It targeted Sunni Arabs in particular, and this section of the population suffered the bulk of bombings, murder, torture, and rape.

The regime hoped this would radicalize many Sunnis in a sectarian manner. They used the fact that this did happen as evidence of their claim that the entire revolution was a plot organized by sectarian Sunnis. To further create these facts on the ground, Assad released salafi jihadi prisoners from his jails.

One of these, Zahran Aloush, became the leader of Jaysh al Islam, the group that abducted my wife and comrades. It is very revealing that the man was only held in jail by the regime for two and a half years. Please, remember that people like Samira stayed 4 years in jail, and like me spent far more years in the jails of our “secular” regime.

The Islamic fundamentalists are the regime’s favorite enemy. They preferred them for two reasons: first to slander the entire revolution as narrow minded and sectarian; and, second, to bind all the religious minorities to the regime as their so-called protector.

How did the revolution combat the regime’s use of sectarianism?

IN THE first year of the Revolution, we did move toward overcoming the sectarian divisions. But the militarization of the Revolution and the discriminatory violence against the Sunnis led to deepening of sectarianization. The Sunnis became more Sunni and so did all the other religious groupings.

And this of course is the best world for the regime. It wants the Christians to be more Christian, Alawis to become more Alawi, and Sunnis to be more Sunni, Kurds to be more Kurds, and nobody to be more Syrian. It wants to be the only Syrian institution in the country balancing between these non-Syrian groups.

We couldn’t overcome this. When you have wars, massacres, you cannot preach about unity and we are all brothers and all Syrian citizens. This discourse is of course still alive, but people tire of it when there are barrel bombs over their heads, when there are chemical massacres, mass murder and torture. This discourse of Syrian nationalism was destroyed as Syrian society was destroyed.

We could not fight barrel bombs and sectarian massacres with the discourse of national unity and solidarity. We will have to recreate such a discourse, because it will be essential for political change and defending equality among Syrians, especially equality in owning politics and democratically deciding the nature of the state.

In what way the regime try and divide the revolution on ethnic lines, exploiting schisms between Arabs and Kurds? How did the regime treat the Kurds?

THE REGIME denied Kurds any rights and even their existence in Syria. They were denied the right to speak their own language, and they were not allowed to develop their own culture. Many of us in the revolution were in solidarity with the rights of the Kurds in Syria and worked hard to unite our forces.

The new element we did not account for was the Turkish based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, had been in Damascus for a long time, and the party was an old ally of the regime before it sold them out and forced them out of the country. Ocalan insisted that there is no Syrian Kurdistan.

As a result, the PKK were not prominent political actors before the revolution. They were oriented more toward Turkey. After they left, their remaining Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was a party among many other parties. But they were isolated from other Syrian opposition groups.

Amidst the revolution, the regime wanted at all cost to prevent the union of Arabs and Kurds against them. So in July 2012, they withdrew their army from the region of Afrin around Aleppo and from the Jazira in the northeastern party of the country. The vacuum left was filled by PKK/PYD.

The internationally based formal opposition to the regime did not understand this dynamic and did not know how to deal with it; and they made political mistakes, like not being clear in recognizing the Kurd’s right to self-determination.

Added to this difficulty was the problematic role of Turkey played in the revolution. It sided with it after six months. But Assad manipulated their entry into the conflict. The regime was happy for the PKK to see its enemy as the Turks and not itself. And Turkey’s nominal allegiance to the revolution led the PKK to distance itself more from it.

The PKK doesn’t consider itself part of the Syrian Revolution. Actually they talk about a Rojava Revolution. This discourse seems to me a mixture of exporting to Syria experiences related more to their struggle in Turkey, a nationalist expansion that is creating ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs in Northern Syria. At the same time, this discourse is sellable to Western imperialism as well as naïve left wing circles.

How did al Qaeda and Daesh emerge in Syria and what role did they play?

THEY DEVELOPED in two different contexts, and played an utterly destructive and counter-revolutionary role in Syria. Daesh developed in Iraq as the merger of al Qaeda and the deposed military and security cadre of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Al Qaeda itself is a merger of Saudi Wahhabism and Egyptian Qutbism. Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian Islamist militant executed by Nasser in the 1966.

Both developed during the American invasion of Iraq. Assad also allowed them to develop bases within Syrian for their operations against the American occupation. The history of their formation lies in three destroyed societies—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The groups find a base among communities who were radicalized in societies in collapse and are looking for ways to fight their wretched conditions. This is their material root. It is not in religion—in Islam—per se, but in these social conditions.

People, however misdirected and reactionary, become extremists to fight these conditions. They don’t fight because they are Muslims. And brutal powers like American imperialism and its occupation of Iraq, the Shia sectarian regime in Iraq, the Syrian regime, or the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s provides them with reasons to fight.

But they are certainly not ant-imperialist. In fact, their imagery and language invoke Islamic empires of the past. They claim to be the inheritors of Islamic imperialism: they declare, “We conquered the world, from Spain to china!” This proves that their ideal is imperialist in essence. I call them the conquered imperialists (as opposed to conquering imperialists like the Americans, Russians and others), and their method of struggle is terror. The project is in essence a fascist one. Their very constitution is elitist, autocratic, and bigoted.

But we should be clear that al Qaeda or Daesh never had mass support in in Syria; and they do not try to really represent or even try to be liked by the population. Both of them played an absolutely destructive role in the Syrian Revolution. Daesh in particular fought against the genuine revolutionaries, and only secondarily against the regime. In fact, Daesh managed to work out at least for a time a modus vivendi with it.

The regime used both al Qaeda and Daesh to claim they were fighting a war on terrorism. In truth they did not target these reactionaries, but the genuine revolutionaries. Thus there is a grotesque symbiosis between what I call the fascists of the necktie like Assad and those of the beard like Daesh.

What has been the role of various regional such as Iran and Turkey and imperial powers such as Russia and the United States? What roles have they played in the revolution and counterrevolution? What has been the policy of the US in particular? Was it ever committed to regime change? Or was it committed to what they called in Yemen an “orderly transition”?

FIRST OF all, it is an insult to Syrians to think of our revolution as an aspect of America’s supposed plan for regime change. I cannot find the words to express my indignation against this. If one can ascribe any plan to the Obama administration it was regime preservation, not regime change. The Americans vetoed any meaningful arming of the Free Syrian Army at every crucial juncture.

It is a fiction that we wanted the Americans to intervene and they refused. The Americans have been intervening in Syria all the time. They pressured the surrounding powers to intervene. And they corrupted many revolutionary groups in the southern and northern parts of Syria.

But their aim was at best Assadism without Assad, the existing state minus the thuggish ruler. And they certainly abandoned that after the chemical massacre. They and the Russians struck a chemical deal with the regime, giving it a license to kill with all its other tools, including chlorine, and sarin gas indeed. And Trump is obviously willing to strike a deal with the Russian colonial power in Syria, with full knowledge that the Russians prefer Bashar as an obedient ruler of ruined Syria.

As for Russia, its regime is not that different from our regime. Russia first used Ukraine and then Syria to reassert its status as an international power. It is an imperial power that just inked a classic colonial deal for it to remain in Syria for 49 years. Russia’s role was pivotal in saving the regime. It launched very brutal attacks in Aleppo and many other regions in the country. Contrary to their claims, they did not fight Daesh, but instead waged war on those fighting the regime. They bombed hospitals, markets, and schools.

The Turkish record is mixed. Turkey is obsessed with the Kurds. They played a very bad role because of this obsession. They opened their border for jihadis in the hopes that they would attack the PKK. This was a very short sighted and counter revolutionary plan. They in turn exported to Syria their experiences with PKK.

At the same time, Turkey is hosting 3 million Syrian refugees and their conditions are far better than those in Jordan or Lebanon. I was there myself and Syrians have access to healthcare without paying a penny, and many of them are in schools. But it must be said that it is still very difficult to live as a refugee in Turkey (and in Europe). And now the Turks are weaker than they were before and they are cooperating with the Russians. This is already causing bitterness among many Syrians.

Iran is also another regional imperial power. It is trying to build its own regional empire in the Middle East stretching from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. And they negotiate with the western powers and specifically the Americans. After Obama cut his nuclear deal with Iran, the Americans practically gave a free hand to Iran in Syria.

We must remember that Syria is in the Middle East—the most internationalized region in the world. You thus cannot separate any of the countries’ internal dynamics from the rest of the region and indeed from the whole structure of world imperialism. The outside powers are internal. The Americans are not an outside power for us in Syria or for Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and of course Palestine. And at the same time Syrians are now scattered everywhere in the world. So all the world is in Syria and we are throughout the world. We are a world, and the world is a Syria.

It is not the right approach analyze the situation in Syria only while looking at the internal aspect even of the regime itself. The regime is one actor in a big alliance with the Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah, and many other Shia jihadi militias. And this alliance has a sectarian dynamic binding Shia and Allawi. And of course we have Sunni sectarianism on the other side that was fueled and fomented by Saudi Arabia in particular. Both are a part of a regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional power.

We are in a horrible situation that is the outcome of three actors—the thuggish regime ruling the country, the Sunni and Shia Islamists, and the regional and imperialist powers. So we have many parallel wars in Syria. It is not just one war. Since 2013, we have many wars. The Americans have their own war. The Iranians, Russians, and the Turks have their own wars.

Much of the so-called anti-imperialist left failed to extend solidarity to the Syrian Revolution, and even went so far as to support Assad’s dictatorship and the intervention of regional powers like Iran and imperial ones like Russia. At the same time sections of the left have been principled defenders of the Syrian Revolution. How do you explain the failure of large sections of the left to live up to the principle of international solidarity?

THIS IS one of my biggest disappointments. I always thought that Western leftists were enlightened Marxists. They have passports, access to good books and magazines, many of them went to good universities, and they know the world far better than us. Or at least I thought so. I expected them to think globally because they are in New York, London, Paris, and Berlin.

So their betrayal of the revolution came as a shock to me. I thought we would be their natural allies. After all we were the ones fighting against a junta regime, defending democracy and equality, and fighting for our people and their future. We were the ones standing for socialism and social change.

But to my horror, so much of the international left aligned with the regime. I think in part they did so because they were caught in the old days. They remembered that the regime was more allied to the Soviet Union than to the US. So they then wrongly thought that this regime is against imperialism, and this regime is therefore their allies and we, the revolutionaries, are their enemies.

In reality, they know nothing at all about Syria and about the Syrian people. The Syrian regime is one of the main pillars of the Middle East. This is not a geographic region, it is a political system based on denying citizenship and political rights to the population, and denying states (apart from Israel) real sovereignty. States can only wage wars against their own subjects. By the way, this lack of sovereignty is one main reason behind the rise of our conquered imperialists. They are our substitute empire.

I think the leftists in the West are isolated from human suffering. They don’t know and they are not curious to know. They are satisfied with their knowledge which is based on remembering the past not analyzing what’s happening now.

In their own way they have an imperialist worldview that blinds them to reality. They annex our struggle to their grand struggle against imperialism. And they treat us, the actors from below, as mere puppets in an imaginary project of regime change. Even worse they adopt the regime’s and indeed American imperialism’s world view itself, dismissing the revolution as a product of Sunni jihadism, whereas the opposite is true: we have jihadism because the revolution has been crushed. All of this is a sign of a deep crisis on the international left.

In his book, Morbid Symptoms, Gilbert Achcar argues that the genuine left was perhaps too optimistic at the start of the Arab Spring and now is far too pessimistic. He instead argues that we are at the beginning of a protracted revolutionary crisis rooted in the political economy and state formation of the region. If that is the case, what are lessons so far in Syria and the region? What changes are necessary for the left to prepare for the future?

FIRST AN intellectual point. We cannot confine ourselves to analyzing the internal dynamics of Syria. We cannot isolate Syria from Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries of the region. We must think internationally.

Second, and most importantly we should build networks of solidarity throughout the region and world. Syrians can and must play a key role in this process because we are now everywhere.

This is essential to prepare for the future. While I am reluctant to prophesize, I think that in a generation from now there will be even bigger revolutions and upheavals in the region. Why? Because the states deny their subjects basic rights and their economies prevent them from meeting their basic needs.

In the nineteenth century, Marx dubbed Russia the prison house of peoples. Today it is the Middle East; and its structures are fundamentally destabilized in a protracted crisis. So this lead to a third task: we must build organizations capable in the coming years to dismantle this prison and replace it with new democracies.

Maybe the future center for this struggle will be the Gulf and specifically Saudi Arabia. It is the basis of reaction in the Arab world. Change is very vital there. I hope a new generation of western leftists will play a role. I know they hate the Saudi monarchy. It would be good if they invest their hatred to aid the revolutionary project for change in the Middle East, not in defending the fascists of the necktie like Assad.

Finally, I think we, as a Left must focus more on building a new project, a new utopia. We don’t have any global project now, because of the failure of twentieth century communism. Many have criticized the idea of utopia. This is narrow minded and short sighted, in my opinion.

We need a conception of a goal, a society in the future that we can imagine and fight for. A world with more equality, more brotherhood and sisterhood, more freedom and more respect for the planet and its seas, waters, plants, and animals. We need a big change of our ways of thinking and I hope we are beginning to think in these ways. If we do not dedicate ourselves to a new global project, we will have only dystopias Assad’s Syria and Daesh.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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