'global civil war' in Syria, 'militant nihilism', 'the Shabbiha of Islam', ‘Assad or we burn the country’, Friends of Syria, Internal and external enemies, Joey Ayoub, sultanic-style dynastic rule, Syrian Fascism, the bleak reality of Syria, The impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, the Syrian revolution, Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Review: ‘The Impossible Revolution’ in Syria
Lebanese writer Joey Ayoub reviews Yassin Al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.
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. Al-Haj Saleh had spent 16 years in prison for belonging to an opposition communist party. In the essay, he warns that his brutalized society 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’.
Four years later, on 13 December 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 who, in 2015, wrote 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, the rest of us were not free either. To free ourselves, we had to understand the nature of the regime to understand why many Syrians felt like they had no choice but to believe in revolution.
Today, when many picture the ‘global civil war’ in Syria, to use Al-Haj Saleh’s term, they picture the black banner, 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 always there. There were many who screamed that an abandoned and brutalised society will produce ‘militant nihilism’. Despite all the obsession this phenomenon has garnered, the left has largely abandoned any radical analysis of the nature of the vacuum that creates militant nihilism, instead embracing the ‘war on terror’ narrative masquerading as geopolitical analysis. It is scarcely different, to quote one Palestinian activist, ‘from the sort of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, Zionist vitriol that Beltway think tanks […] commonly produce’.
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 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, is a ‘natural’ reaction to a widespread institutionalized humiliation symbolized by the practices of the Shabbiha, the notorious Assadist gangs, themselves born out of economic misery, who brutally repressed protesters in the early months of the uprising. He interprets the Shabbihaphenomenon 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.
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 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 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 despite the countless Syria-related polemics on the Left. 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, often work tirelessly as community organizers with little to no recognition (see here, here, here and here). We’ve seen the ever-growing Nusra Front bring 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.
In September of 2011, Al-Haj Saleh wrote that these transformations 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 is meant that Syria is the world because the whole world is in Syria. It also means that ‘the world is sick, and its sickness is aggravating our sicknesses, both inherited and acquired’. Syria’s reality reflects our cynical world.
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. 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.’
But the regime did not go away. It is much weaker and dependent today, but it still stands. Its chief advantage was always its monopoly on violence through 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.
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, the New Bourgeoisie and Sectarianism. This specifically Syrian version of fascism could only be understood if all three are taken into account.
Let’s look at two of them. 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 emphasises, 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 fuel for Hezbollah to portray its counter-revolutionary role as a fight against imperialism and Zionism, symbolized by Nasrallah‘s ‘the road to Jerusalem passes through Aleppo’, and for the Assad regime to name its notorious Military Intelligence Branch 235 ‘the Palestine Branch’.
The combination of abstraction, hostility to change and ideological stagnation ‘devolved’ into what Al-Haj Saleh described as sultanic-style dynastic rule. This sheds light on slogans used by Assadist loyalists such as ‘Assad or we burn the country’, or ‘Assad or no one’. 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, who do not matter to ‘useful Syria’, to ‘Assad’s Syria’, are regularly portrayed in dehumanizing terms. One person in a TV talk show in April 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 writes, ‘see the people as backward, illiterate, ignorant fanatics who are responsible for their own living conditions’ rather than as victims of 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 an influential pro-regime outlet, 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 neoliberal ‘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’ […] along with their cronies to move to the forefront of a new bourgeoisie’.
Incidentally, this is why Western fascists adore Assad. Many Americans have only started noticing this trend because former KKK leader David Duke sent a number of tweets some months ago glorifying Assad. Many white supremacists who attended the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville also expressed support for the Assad regime. Alt-Right troll Anthime Gionet was filmed at the rally praising Assad for ‘fighting the globalists’ and James Fields, who drove his car into protesters and killed Heather Heyer, had a photo of Assad 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 analyst Ziad Majed argues that Assad is viewed as a ‘white’ strongman imposing order on non-white natives. In other words, Syria is viewed through an explicitly civilisational and racist discourse. Duke’s Syrian-Australian admirer 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, comprising most Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Fortress Europe, have dominated the imagination of European fascism in recent years.
The Impossible Revolution can help us understand these dynamics, and much more. Al-Haj Saleh manages to detach himself, a habit developed in prison, where he became ‘immune to despair’. This allows him to analyze the society he belongs to for what it is: a human story. ‘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.’ As long as that is Syria’s reality, the country’s rebellious souls will continue to be overwhelmed by the weight of terror and grief, benefiting reactionary forces on both the Right and the Left, in our ‘progressively Syrianized’ world. 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, are forcing us to reconsider our blind allegiance to a nation-centric worldview in favor of one of transnational solidarity.
Joey Ayoub is a Lebanese writer who focuses on Syria, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. He has an MA from SOAS, University of London and is now doing his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. He runs the blog ‘Hummus For Thought’.