This is the original and unabridged version of a piece published on RS21 entitled ‘Review: ‘The Impossible Revolution’ in Syria‘. As their work is relevant to the topic, I’ve chosen to embed some of The Irrelevant Arabs’ podcasts in this piece. For more information, you can find them on Patreon, SoundCloud, Twitter, Facebook, PlayerFM and iTunes.
Barely a year after the start of the Syrian revolution, in May of 2012, the intellectual and dissident Yassin Al-Haj Saleh was hiding somewhere in Damascus and writing an essay entitled ‘the rise of militant nihilism’.
He had good reasons to be hiding. In addition to facing the same risks as any anti-Assad activist and protester, Al-Haj Saleh had spent 16 years in prison for belonging to an opposition communist party. In this essay, he warns that the brutalized society that is Syria under the Assad regime would soon develop “a widespread feeling that they have been left to their own devices, and that the world is indifferent to them, if not actively conspiring against them.”
Over four years later, on December 13, 2016, a local English teacher from then-besieged Eastern Aleppo, just moments before the city’s fall to the Assad regime and Iran’s sectarian proxies, recorded himself saying that “the world doesn’t like freedom. Don’t believe that you are free people in your countries anymore. No. This world doesn’t want freedom.” Mr Alhamdo, as he was known to his students, echoed Al-Haj Saleh and his assessment in 2015 that “before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream Western left needs to help themselves.” To Syrians who felt betrayed by the world and its lack of sustained solidarity, the rest of us were not free either. To free ourselves, we had to actively seek to learn what pre-2011 Syria was like in order to understand why Syrians took to the streets, and we had to acknowledge the brutality of the regime in its entirety to understand why many Syrians felt like they had no choice but to believe in revolution.
Today, when many picture the ‘global civil war’, to use Al-Haj Saleh’s term, in Syria, they picture the black banner of Jihadis, the symbol of “a socially enraged and deprived demographic that lacks any positive ties to Syrian territory and society” and which found a home in a violent Salafist interpretation of Sunni Islam. But the warning was there, from the very beginning. There were many who screamed to the world that an abandoned and brutalized society will produce ‘militant nihilism’ – Al-Haj Saleh was merely one of them. And yet, with all the obsession this phenomenon has garnered, the Left has largely abandoned any sober analysis which acknowledges the nature of the vacuum that creates militant nihilism and instead embraced a ‘war on terror’ narrative masquerading as geopolitical analysis. It is scarcely different “from the sort of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, Zionist vitriol that Beltway think tanks […] commonly produce”, to quote Palestinian activist Ramah Kudaimi.
The aforementioned essay is one of 10 essays, selected from nearly 380 pieces, that appear in the newly released book ‘The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy’ published by Hurst, Al-Haj Saleh’s first publication in English. That such a central figure to leftwing Syrian thought had to wait until 2017 to see his work in English should give us all some pause. He wrote these essays while hiding from both the Assad regime (in Damascus) and ISIS (in Raqqa, his city of origin) as well as in rebel-held Ghouta. His brother Firas was kidnapped by ISIS in Raqqa for organizing an anti-ISIS protest. His wife, the great activist Samira Al Khalil, who was herself in prison for four years for belonging to a different communist party, was kidnapped by the rebel group Jaysh Al Islam in Ghouta in December of 2013, along with Razan Zeitouneh, Wa’el Hamada and Nazim Hamadi. All remain missing to this day.
So when Al-Haj Saleh speaks of nihilism, we can say that he speaks from experience. The ‘Jihadi’ variety, he argues in The Impossible Revolution, is a ‘natural’ reaction to the institutionalized humiliation symbolized by the practices of the Shabbiha, the notorious Assadist thugs, themselves born out of economic misery, who brutally repressed protesters in the early months of the uprising. Al-Haj Saleh understands the Shabbiha phenomenon as “the political unconscious of the regime” which ought to be both feared and understood as they embody one of the ways the Assad regime has always sought to promote and benefit from sectarianism (Shabbiha men – always men – were historically part of the Alawite sect of Islam, the same sect to which the Assad family belongs) as well as, obviously, state tyranny.
It is in this context that the Syrian-British writer Rana Kabbani described Western writers sympathetic to the Assad regime as ‘Shabbiha of the pen’. They participate in stripping away dignity from a repeatedly humiliated people while anti-Assad Syrian journalists faced enforced disappearances, torture, exile or death.
But the term is also specifically Syrian. Al-Haj Saleh describes Al Qaeda as “the Shabbiha of Islam who represent its absolute, world-rejecting, extremely zealous and nihilistic form”. In other words, one can describe the Shabbiha as a counter-revolutionary and “a fascist phenomenon that works hard to maintain its privilege”. This understanding also comes with a warning in the form of a question. Al-Haj Saleh asks, in October of 2012, if it is possible for the revolution “to face the absolute, existential-nihilistic war of Assad without itself acquiring a nihilistic outlook?” The answer back then was a crucial ‘not yet’ as the inherent justness of the cause prevented militant nihilism from growing.
The questions asked in this book are questions that are seldom asked outside of Syrian circles and that, again, despite the countless polemics on the Left regarding Syria. In ‘the danger of a state of nature’, written in Damascus in September 2011, Al-Haj Saleh asks: “What do arms, religiosity, and the request for international protection have in common?” To which he answers: “A predisposition towards shelter.” When phrased like that it seems like an obvious and all-too-human reaction to a horrifying reality. Indeed, economic misery coupled with political repression and institutionalized savagery feeds into the narrative of religious extremism. “Under such conditions,” he writes, “conscience is a luxury, and so are culture and politics.”
That rebellious Syrians have continued to believe in such cruelly-absent ideas is a victory of the revolution in itself. Syrians in rebel-held areas have stood in solidarity with Palestinians under Zionist occupation and others have held elections. Some are launching green initiatives and others, especially women (see here, here, here and here), often work tirelessly as community organizers with little to no recognition. We’ve seen the ever-growing Nusra Front tear down the adopted flag of the revolution and raise their own only to see protesters raise it back again.
That being said, there is no denying that Syria’s reality today looks bleak. Many, if not most, of those that took to the streets in 2011 are now in prison, forcibly disappeared, internally displaced, dead or in exile. Activists, intellectuals, artists and community organizers, those that found a space, despite everything, to express themselves and steer the revolution’s ships through ever-changing seas, have themselves become overwhelmed by the combination of the regime’s savagery, the world’s indifference, the so-called ‘official’ opposition’s opportunism and the Jihadis’ authoritarianism – the latter increasingly looking like the regime they supposedly oppose.
In addition, those who survived and found relative safety often express survivor’s guilt. When we learned that the famous Palestinian-Syrian open web activist Bassel Khartabil Safadi was confirmed to have been executed by the Assad regime shortly after being taken from Adra prison in October of 2015, a close friend, himself Palestinian-Syrian, was overwhelmed with guilt like so many who left after 2011. He left before the revolution, but is in exile nonetheless. His life is ‘stable’ but he felt that “normal for me should be what’s normal for Syrians.” Normality for many Syrians, even those more fortunate than others, only exists as an idea to aspire to rather than something that exists ‘in the real world’.
In September of 2011, Al-Haj Saleh wrote that these transformations – then still in their infancy – had not yet decided the future of the country, but we can no longer remain as optimistic today. The lessons brought about by the Syrian revolution, its repression and the subsequent civil and regional wars have yet to be learned. This affects us all as the world becomes ‘progressively Syrianized’, a term by which Al-Haj Saleh meant that Syria is the world because the whole world is in Syria, and that the Syrian struggle revealed that “the world is sick, and its sickness is aggravating our sicknesses, both inherited and acquired”. Syria’s reality reflects our present cynicism.
Today, the fate of the country is being decided by non-Syrians, whether by the ironically-named ‘Friends of Syria’ countries – Turkey in particular – or by Iran and Russia. To quote one recently interviewed rebel: “Rebel factions were pieces on a chessboard. The board is in Turkey, Trump is on one side, and Putin is on the other.” He could have added Iran and its sectarian proxies, of which Hezbollah is the most powerful, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel. In comparison, Syrians have little say in the future of their own country.
Internal and external enemies are what made the Syrian Revolution ‘impossible’. I’ve heard activists who participated in the initial phase of the revolution say in 2017 that they don’t understand how they believed they could win. The revolution felt surreal, a phenomenon that most didn‘t feel was possible in Assad‘s ‘kingdom of silence‘, to use Riad Al-Turk’s phrasing. It was, Al-Haj Saleh declares, “an experience of self-renewal and social change, an uprising to change ourselves and a revolution to change reality.” That is how we must understand it.
But the regime did not go away. It is much weaker today, and highly dependent on foreign sponsors for its survival, but it still stands. Its chief advantage was always its monopoly on violence, and in particular its unchallenged air force – not unlike Israel and its armed opponents. As for why the regime was ready to do everything to stay in power, we must look at the roots of Syrian Fascism. To that end, Al-Haj Saleh penned an essay dated to April 2012 and dedicated to Hamza Al-Khatib, the 13-year old boy who was arrested by the regime in April of 2011 during a protest and tortured to death a month later.
Syrian Fascism, Al-Haj Saleh proposed, has three possible “social and cultural structures that nurtured, justified, or enabled the development of this appalling violence”: Absolute Arabism, Sectarianism and the New Bourgeoisie. This specifically Syrian version of Fascism could only be understood if all three are taken into account.
The first aspect, Absolute Arabism, “laid the foundation for a nationalistic assimilation that failed at assimilating anyone”, notably affecting an estimated 120,000 Syrian Kurds deprived of citizenship for five decades. It also had the particularity of prohibiting and criminalizing internal dissent while isolating Syrians from an aggressive and conspiring ‘outer world’.
The West, Al-Haj Saleh emphasizes, is no innocent bystander in its spread. It has fed the narrative of both the Iraqi and Syrian versions of Baathism. “Israel facilitated the militarization of thought and of public life in our countries” and while “there is no doubt that Assad’s Baathist regime exploited the Palestinian cause”, we cannot ignore the fact that “Israeli colonialism gave its claims real foundation”. This gave legitimacy to Military Intelligence Branch 235 to become known as the Palestine Branch and it gave fuel for Hezbollah to portray its counter-revolutionary role as a fight against imperialism and Zionism, symbolized by Hassan Nasrallah‘s “The road to Jerusalem passes through Aleppo”.
The combination of abstraction, hostility to change and ideological stagnation ‘devolved’ into what Al-Haj Saleh described as sultanic-style dynastic rule, or simply neo-sultanic. This sheds light on some of the slogans used by Assadist loyalists such as ‘Assad or we burn the country’, or ‘Assad or no one’, slogans that have in turn been adapted by some of the Salafist groups (Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh Al Islam, was once filmed declaring ‘al-Islam or no one’). We see the desire of some Jihadis to replace, in Al-Haj Saleh’s words, one Syrian minority with another Syrian minority. This is partially explained by the regime’s long history of using sectarianism to its advantage, making it relatively easy for it to portray its role as protectors of religious minorities – despite the countless Christian, Alawite and Druze activists that it has arrested/exiled/tortured/killed – dressed in ‘modernist’ language. “The extensive reproduction and reinforcement of inherited social divisions has always served the regime’s interest”, Al-Haj Saleh explains. This also meant that four decades of regime-imposed sectarianism created “real obstacles to a general Syrian rapprochement and to the ability to fashion an inclusive Syrian nation.” Sectarianism’s most notorious product are the Shabbiha themselves.
This worldview turns Syrians into subjects of an unaccountable elite, centered around the figure of Bashar al Assad and his family, and which is willing to do absolutely anything to remain in power. These people, those ‘over there’, those who do not matter to ‘useful Syria’, to ‘Assad’s Syria’, are regularly portrayed in dehumanizing terms. One person in a TV talk show on April 12th, 2012 said they “breed like rabbits and live in filthy slums and distort the civilized public appearance of the country”. “The new bourgeoisie,” Al-Haj Saleh wrote in 2012, “see the people as backward, illiterate, ignorant fanatics who are responsible for their own living conditions” rather than the “tyranny of a corrupt junta”. One can see this elitist disgust towards the poorer, rebellious Other in a tweet by Leith Fadel, the Editor-In-Chief of the influential pro-regime ‘Al Masdar News’, in which he describes people from Idlib and Dara’a as “the dirtiest people in Syria“, before adding that they “should be exiled to Saudi Arabia“.
In Marxist terms, ‘modernism’ allows the New Bourgeoisie to “take the offensive in their struggle to gain hegemony […] to the exclusion of the general public”. This New Bourgeoisie found additional reasons to stick to the regime once Bashar took office and implemented neo-Liberal ‘reforms’ “through advantageous access to contracts, deals, projects, and public resources”, displacing the old bourgeoisie in the process. Al-Haj Saleh elaborates: “The liberal transformation legitimised a de facto metamorphosis that allowed […] the ‘sons of the big officials’ (as we call them in Syria) along with their cronies to move to the forefront of a new bourgeoisie”. This New Bourgeoisie feels that it has no future independent of the regime because its wealth is dependent on that very same regime.
Incidentally, this is why Western Fascists adore Assad. Americans seem to have only started noticing this trend when former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke sent a number of tweets a few months ago portraying Assad as a warrior against barbarism (Duke visited and praised Assad in 2005). Many White Supremacists who attended the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville also expressed support for the Assad regime. Anthime Gionet, an Alt-Right online troll with a large following, was filmed at the rally praising Assad for ‘fighting the globalists’ while wearing a ‘Bashar’s Barrel Delivery’ shirt – barrel bombs are the regime’s most notorious instruments of indiscriminate mass murder. James Fields, the man who drove his car into protesters and killed Heather Heyer, had a photo of Assad in sunglasses with the word ‘Undefeated’ on his Facebook profile.
But in Europe, this was true for years. The Assad regime has received and/or been praised by Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s Front National and Les Republicains, the UK’s BNP, Italy’s Forza Nuova and Casa Pound as well ultranationalists from Hungary, Poland and Belgium, among others. The Lebanese political scientist Ziad Majed argues that the Western Far Right views Assad as a ‘White’ strongman imposing orders on non-white natives of an inferior race. They, in other words, view Syria through explicitly civilizational and racial discourse. David Duke’s Syrian-Australian admirer and conspiracy theory aficionado Maram Susli, who goes by the Twitter handle ‘Partisan Girl’, once called me a ‘Self-Hating Levantine’ for saying that I’m a Lebanese Arab (the superior ‘Levantine’ being opposed to the inferior ‘Arab’). Arabs, and particularly Sunni Muslim Arabs, the group to which most Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe belong, have dominated the imagination of European Fascism in recent years.
Although almost entirely focused on Syria, The Impossible Revolution can help us understand these dynamics, and much more. Al-Haj Saleh manages to detach himself. This is a habit, one imagines, developed over 16 years of prison. He recently said that, in prison, he “became immune to despair.” This allows him to analyze the society he belongs to for what it is, with its challenges and its potential. He views the Syrian story as a human story, one with real people dealing with the forces of history and with ongoing dynamics. “For about four decades now”, Al-Haj Saleh writes, “Syrian society has been without a sense of historical purpose or a ‘project’ that could unite the people and align their expectations […] Today, not only is the project devoid of any national or humane aspects: it is a killing machine.” The machine has no other impulses other than self-preservation at all costs. As long as that is Syria’s reality, the country’s rebellious and progressive souls will continue to be overwhelmed by the weight of terror and grief, tyranny and survival. And the world will continue to become “progressively Syrianized”, to the benefit of reactionary forces, on both the Right and the Left, everywhere.
This is what Al-Haj Saleh proposes in The Impossible Revolution. It is a book that is worthy of the subject it studies: the Syrian Revolution, that deeply (and shamefully) misunderstood phenomenon that has undoubtedly impacted our world like no other in recent years. The reader may come out of it having more questions than at the start, but that would only be because the range of concepts engaged by Al-Haj Saleh are worthy of further investigation. As the story of Syria expands beyond its historical borders, its characters bring with them their personal and collective experiences and impact our lives. Refugees like Al-Haj Saleh, Syrians and non-Syrians, they who are so relentlessly demonized and betrayed by a cowardly world ill-at-ease with its own identity crises, are forcing us to reconsider our blind allegiance to a nation-centric worldview in favor of one of transnational solidarity.