Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s Impossible Revolution appears in print at the very same time Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its backers seem closer than ever to defeating the last vestiges of the Syrian Revolution. From 2011 to 2013, revolutionary forces had scored big victories, liberating cities and territory from the regime. But over the last four years, Assad’s counterrevolutionary alliance reversed these successes, culminating in the expulsion of the residents of Eastern Aleppo last winter.
Assad’s regime has been the main force of counterrevolution in this alliance. He took up a scorched-earth policy just months into the uprising, barrel bombing and destroying entire neighborhoods—mostly working-class and poor neighborhoods—that had dared to revolt. Meanwhile it released jihadists from its prisons who came to lead the Islamic fundamentalist organizations, including the al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam. This second pole of the counterrevolution tore at the revolution from within.
Still, the regime could not have retained control of the country without the third force of counterrevolution,
the numerous regional and international imperialist powers, all of whom intervened in different ways against the uprising. Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States all share culpability for the defeat of the Syrian Revolution.
The essays in Saleh’s new book were written during the first four years of this process, while he was in hiding. They celebrate the successes of the revolution given all the odds against it, while grappling with the mounting challenges to its survival. Saleh, who was imprisoned by Hafez al-Assad from 1980 to 1996 for his involvement in the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), made the decision to go into hiding at the start of the Syrian revolution in order to write freely, while continuing to participate in the uprising. He traveled and wrote first in Damascus, then in rebellious Douma in the Eastern Ghouta, in Raqqa under ISIS control, and finally in exile in Turkey, where he now lives.
Saleh brings a framework informed by Marxism to the discussion of Syria, its revolution, and Assad’s counterrevolution. He aims to repoliticize key questions concerning the path the uprising has taken, rooting them in the region’s history, its patterns of economic development, and state formation. He thereby provides a refreshing alternative viewpoint to the all-too-common Islamophobic and pro-regime dismissal of the uprising as the work of jihadists.
Throughout the book, he examines four ways that political discourse has been suppressed in Syria. First, the Assad family’s patrimonial dictatorship regime repressed organizing spaces, first under Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Saleh shows how he allowed “no political parties, no public political discussions, no political debates in the parliament or newspapers or universities, no free opinions, no independent or voluntary meetings, no public protests. . . . All Syrians, save only their free master, are slaves, or politically dead.”
This worsened under Bashar as he imposed neoliberal reforms. After a brief Damascus Spring in 2000 when he relaxed some of the regime’s worst restrictions, he quickly reversed course and further curtailed political freedoms. “Syrian society continued to be excessively impoverished politically,” Saleh writes, “because it was prevented both from expressing itself and its needs within public space, and from independent gathering and organization.”
Second, the Syrian regime employed a key tool, sectarianism, to divide the population and prevent working-class solidarity, and further clamp down on political debate. Sectarianism became both omnipresent and yet a taboo topic. Saleh says that “sectarianism has distorted politics and rationality in ways that have precluded any possibility of public discussion of societal affairs.”
Though the “transformation of sectarianism into an essential tool of governance” is entirely the work of the regime, Saleh calls out Syrian intellectuals, whom he argues have refused to face the issue. This is disastrous, he contends, because “public debate,” would allow “for sectarianism to be defined, examined, and critically assessed, and would [make] it possible for society to overcome and free itself from it.”
Third, the regime uses a traditional “culture of poverty” discourse to deflect blame from its neoliberal economic policies and onto Syria’s masses. In Saleh’s words, “The new bourgeoisie see the people as backward, illiterate, ignorant fanatics who are responsible for their own living conditions, who are a function of attributes rooted in their beliefs.” This ruling-class ideology posits that “the conditions in which people live have nothing to do with social or political factors.”
Fourth, the chaos and violence of the counterrevolution have prevented debate and discussion on strategy for the uprising. Saleh laments that, with mass arrests and torture, sieges and bombing campaigns, political assessments have become a “luxury.” But he insists these discussions must be revived to chart any coherent path forward.
One of the most important contributions Saleh makes in rebuilding left political discourse in and on Syria is his challenge to the Islamophobic depictions of the country’s provincial workers and poor who revolted. Smeared as “traditional,” religious, and backwards by regime supporters from the first day of the uprising, these cities and towns had suffered the brunt of the Assad family’s neoliberal project. Saleh writes:
There is nothing traditional about this so-called “traditionalism”: it is incomprehensible outside of very particular political and economic circumstances that, in their outcomes, resemble the effects of colonialism.
These social environments were in a process of dissolution until the 1970s. However, the prolonged deterioration of economic conditions, the collapse of the public education system, and an imposed political quarantine all played a role in their isolation and were active engines for “traditionalizing” them.
Saleh thus shows the real problem is not the people, but the regime. Its neoliberal policies created the worst rates of poverty and inequality across the Middle East with 30 percent below the extreme poverty line and another 30 percent just above it.
The chasm between wealth and extreme poverty in Syria is even more pronounced today. Aerial photographs show neighboring towns in Syria, with pro-regime towns fully intact and boasting modern infrastructure, directly beside utterly destroyed rebellious towns whose decaying infrastructure is still visible.
Assad used this Islamophobic discourse against these provincial masses to justify and excuse his barbaric destruction of the country. He took advantage of the rise of Islamic fundamentalist organizations, which he helped create by releasing jihadists from his jails, to accomplish two aims: first, win a base of support among Alawites, Christians, and other religious minorities within the country; and second, gain the support of imperial powers like Russia and regional ones like Iran in the name of fighting Sunni jihadist terrorism.
Saleh also explains the emergence of the Islamic fundamentalist forces. “The issue is not with a self-identified eternal Islam,” he writes, “but with a newly manufactured Islam that has been molded in response to contemporary conditions and demands, in the same fashion as the major modern political ideologies.”
He roots their emergence not in the supposed traditionalism of provincial people, but in historical and material conditions. Those include the defeat of the secular left, neoliberalism, the destruction of the welfare state, its replacement by charities run by fundamentalist forces, and the increasing conflict between fundamentalist regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran that sponsor proxies throughout the region.
The essays in the book move from historical materialist accounts of the roots and politics of the revolution to its development, high points, and defeat. The essays, written over the course of this process, shift from the early optimism of 2011 to steely recognition of the setbacks over the last four years.
His first essay, “Revolution of the Common People,” written June 2011, is politically optimistic. He describes, in a manner similar to that of C. L. R. James describing the Haitian Revolution, the revolutionary hope of that moment: “For hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the Syrian popular uprising has been an extraordinary experience, ethically and politically: an experience of self-renewal and social change, an uprising to change ourselves and a revolution to change reality.”
Noting its transformative power and depth, Saleh says, “It will be very difficult to defeat the uprising.” He calls the uprising an “intifada,” likening the struggle of the Syrian masses to that of the Palestinians, a colonized population facing occupation and apartheid.
“The regime may be able to overcome the intifada by force,” he says, “but such a victory will only mark the first round in a longer struggle, one in which Syrians will already have recourse to a sophisticated memory of exceptional experiences, a source of support for them in any future rounds of their liberation struggle.”
But after this we see Saleh’s political horizons narrow in essays written later as the counterrevolution comes to dominate and the promise for democratic change across Syria wanes. Writing in September 2011, Saleh describes the start of the second stage of the uprising as characterized by “self-defense, desperation, and the survival instinct, rather than by considered estimation of the means through which issues of the general interest—and demands for democracy—might be introduced into the process of revolution.”
Saleh staunchly defends the right to take up arms and establish an armed wing as a means to protect the revolution. But he notes how the desperate nature of this battle began to make discussion and debate about strategy and tactics seem to be a luxury. The turn to desperate self-defense against the regime’s total war on the Syrian people sidelined the democratic organization, debate, and popular struggle that had been the hallmarks of the earlier stage of the revolution.
He shows how clarity about the revolution’s goals begins to fracture as Assad rains terror upon the population. The early confidence of self-emancipation gets transformed into desperate calls for international intervention. This transformation, he argues, set people on “a collision course with the [original] conscience of the Syrian uprising, which can be formulated in terms of three ‘No’s: no to violence, no to sectarianism, and no to outside military intervention.”
He places the blame for this primarily on the regime. The young leaders of the revolution who had assessed and coordinated demands and strategy at its start were already detained, shot, or killed under torture.
The later essays in the book, written amidst the impending victory of the counterrevolution, reflect the narrowed horizons of defeat. For example, he tends to exceptionalize the Syrian state as somehow more aberrant than others in the region, and calls for a return to a “healthy” nationalism as a solution to Syria’s crises.
Saleh writes: “For my part, I vote for the Syrian nation-state. I vote against the hypothetical erasure of the Sykes-Picot borders, and against the creeping feudal fragmentation as well.” He hopes for a “new form of Syrian nationalism” to counteract the counterrevolution’s fragmentation.
But, as Saleh himself recognizes, the Middle East is an interlocked prison house of peoples, and it is hard to see that any revolution could succeed within national boundaries without spreading to the rest of the region. Indeed, that was the hope of the Arab Spring in 2011. The uprisings showed the power of the Arab working classes to challenge tyrants in each nation state and inspire others to do the same, calling into question all the inherited colonial divisions with the hope of an entirely new democratic and egalitarian order in the Middle East and North Africa.
To stop this internationalist threat, the region’s ruling classes and tyrants used the existing state structures and national divisions to carry through their counterrevolutions. In such circumstances, the Left in Syria and regionally might be better served by the Arab Spring’s early internationalist aspirations, rather than hoping for a nationalist solution in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East. The struggle may begin in this or that nation-state but the end goal must be regional and indeed global.
Nevertheless, Saleh’s book is essential reading for those who stand in solidarity with the original aims of the Syrian Revolution. It has no pretensions to be the final word on the political questions it raises and the answers it provides. Instead, it opens up space for genuine discussion of history, the material roots of the uprising, the nature of the regime, its counterrevolutionary strategy, the reactionary nature of Islamic fundamentalist formations, and lessons and debates about those for the Left in organizing the next phase of the struggle in Syria and the Middle East.