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The Impossible Revolution: A Syrian Dissident on How a Fight Against a Dictator Became a Proxy War

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In Syria, the evacuation of rebels and civilians from eastern Aleppo has resumed, after thousands were left stranded on Wednesday amid heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. Syrian government forces said they expected the last of the evacuees to board buses within the coming hours, leaving the Syrian Army to take total control of the city, which has been devastated by months of heavy bombing and siege warfare. We speak to Syrian dissident and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who lives in exile in Turkey. His wife, Samira Khalil, disappeared three years ago along with the prominent human rights attorney Razan Zaitouneh. Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s forthcoming book is titled "The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy."

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Syria, the evacuation of rebels and civilians from eastern Aleppo have resumed, after thousands were left stranded on Wednesday amid heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. Syrian government forces said they expected the last of the evacuees to board buses within the coming hours, leaving Syria’s army to take control of the city, which has been devastated by months of heavy bombing and siege warfare.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Syria, we go to Istanbul, Turkey, where we’re joined by Yassin al-Haj Saleh. He’s a Syrian writer, dissident, former political prisoner in Syria. His forthcoming book is titled The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

Yassin, thank you so much for joining us from Istanbul. I wanted to start by asking you your response to the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on Monday.

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, I have a sense of déjà vu. We’ve seen or we’ve read about this in the 19th century, when Russia was the pillar of reactionarism and etatism in Europe, and now it is playing the same role in Syria and in a wider region. Assassination was always an integral part of the realpolitiks of elites like the one ruling in Russia. It didn’t come from another world.

Let’s just notice that the young policeman, Turkish policeman, that assassinated the ambassador is not a jihadi. He’s—maybe he’s a Muslim, a believer, who felt insulted by what the Russians has been doing in Syria, and especially in Aleppo, in the last few weeks. When he shouted, "Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!" he was just identifying with those people that he most probably saw being killed, humiliated and forcibly displaced—it is not an evacuation, as your report said—displaced from their city, the local population. And he felt that he can take justice with his hands. Of course, this is—this cannot be justified, but this doesn’t stem—doesn’t come to us from a world different from that the forced displacement and killing of people in Aleppo comes from.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask you, Yassin, also about the fact that you’ve said that the U.S. and Russia have played active roles in guaranteeing the failure of any political resolution to the war in Syria. Now, given that, what is your assessment of Russia hosting these talks between Iran, Turkey, and, of course, in which Russia itself is involved? Do you see that as perhaps creating the possibility of an enduring ceasefire, which might lead to talks to resolve the war in Syria?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: No, not at all. It is a continuation of the war in Aleppo and in Syria with different—by different means. It is, again, the failure of politics. Yeah, and you know Russia is part of the powers that are supporting the Assad regime. So how could Russia be—host a meeting to—for a peace process or peace—political solution in Syria? It is something unbelievable.

And I think it is something related to crisis management method, not to politics. Crisis management method is a degenerate form of politics. It is an elitist method that was developed by the Americans in relation to the Palestinian cause, and we know the fate of the peace process in Palestine.

In Syria, we are walking on the same path to a situation with—that the conditions of eternal war will be created. And with the Russians, with the Iranians, with the Shia sectarian militias reoccupying Aleppo now. I think we are seeing a situation that will put an end to any political solution. It is not the beginning; it is the end. It is a step further in putting an end to any political—any hopes for a political solution in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Yassin al-Haj Saleh, can you explain further why you believe the United States is making impossible any kind of conflict resolution or ceasefire or solution in Syria?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: The U.S. was a partner of Russia in the chemical deal in September 2013. And I think, from that time, that the message that we got as Syrian democrats, as Syrian opposition people, is that we are left at the mercy of a brutal junta and its allies. The regime gained something from that deal, which is to stay in power, which is—the regime. The real constitution of the regime is to stay in power forever. And the Russians gained something as to save a client regime. The Americans gained something as to disarm the regime from its chemical weapons. The Israelis, from whom the inspiration of that deal came, gained something as—it is, again, to disarm the regime of its WMDs.

But who lost everything? There was the people who, only three weeks before that sordid deal, lost 1,466 people. And the killer was given a renewed license to kill them with other means—with barrel bombs, with warplanes, with—even with chlorine gas and chemical weapons.

So, in this way, chances for a political solution were extremely dissipated. And there were no pressure; from that time, the Assad regime felt that it will not face any real pressures from the U.S. or any other power. And that’s why the regime, in six years, conceded nothing of its real power to any opposition figures, not 2 percent of its real power. You cannot achieve political solution when the regime is given license to go on its killing business and facing no pressure at all.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Yassin, some people have expressed concerns about who now constitutes the opposition fighting the Assad regime in Syria. And you’ve talked about the three stages that this uprising has gone through, the three stages of the revolt against Assad, which began in 2011. Could you talk about what those three stages are and how the opposition has been transformed in that time?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, now we are after around six years of the uprising. I can differentiate between three stages. And maybe after Aleppo, there is a fourth stage that I cannot say anything about it now.

The first stage is the revolution proper. It covers the year 2011 and 2012, maybe the first two or three months of the year 2013. The opposition was formed of FSA, Free Syrian Army, local people or defectors from the Army fighting against the regime, defending their local communities, local towns or neighborhoods. And it was Syrians versus Syrians. I mean, it was our civil war. Actually, our civil war ended in 2013, in my opinion. It began maybe in September or October of 2011, because there was a peaceful period of the revolution; then, peaceful and armed, up to June 2012; then, only armed struggle, but still Syrian against Syrian, up to the intervention of Hezbollah, the open intervention of Hezbollah, and up to the ascendance of Daesh in—both of them appeared in April 2013.

So, at this time, in spring, early spring, 2013, began the second stage with the Sunni-Shia struggle in Syria, represented by the Salafi jihadis, the Sunnis, Salafi jihadi organizations, and by Hezbollah and other Shia militias who came from Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, Lebanon and from Iran.

This second stage ended, in my opinion, in September 2014, when the Americans intervened, after Daesh occupied Mosul and Iraq, and then, a year later, the Russians also intervened. So, this is the beginning of the third stage, the imperialist stage, where the two superpowers became the main actors in Syria.

So, now, when people or when your report says something about the victory of Bashar al-Assad, it’s not a victory of Bashar al-Assad; it’s a victory of Iran and Russia. And it is not a victory for the Syrian Army; it is for Hezbollah and for sectarian Shia militia in Aleppo, and with the local people displaced.

In the first stage, the opposition was made of the FSA with a relation with a political opposition who were—who fought against the regime for a whole generation—I mean, my generation, in the 1980s, where you know that tens of thousands of Syrians were killed and arrested and tortured. Then, the second stage—in the second stage, 2013 and 2014, the mass exodus of Syrians and the mass killing.

And the fourth stage, it is now this chaotic situation with a global—Syria is a globalized country. And the Syrian opposition is weakened. We have still some FSA groups, but they are weakened and sidelined. And we need now, in my opinion, a different dynamic for inclusion, for reconciliation, for moderation, that—and this requires real and substantial change in the political environment in Syria, something that cannot be achieved while Bashar al-Assad is still in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Yassin, I wanted to ask you about your own history. You mentioned being a dissident in Syria. You were arrested and imprisoned under Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Can you talk about where you fit into the resistance today? And also talk about the terrible loss of your wife, who was kidnapped several years ago along with the prominent Syrian lawyer and human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh.

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: What I want to say is that our struggle hasn’t begun five or six years ago. It is going for two generations now. We were young—I was less than 20 when I was arrested, and stayed in prison for 16 years. And my colleagues were in hundreds and in thousands. And as I have just said, 16—I’m sorry—tens of thousands were killed and tortured and humiliated.

So, it was—I found myself naturally part of this second wave of struggle for democracy, for freedom and for justice in my country. And I lived in hiding in Damascus for two years, from the beginning of the revolution, and I participated in many activities and tried to be part of this unique and great uprising of—great struggle of Syrians for change, for real change.

Samira, my wife, herself was a former political prisoner. She stayed in—she was arrested for four years and tortured. And we worked together, Samira, Razan and I, in Douma in 2013. I left them to Raqqa. I’m a native of the city of Raqqa, which is controlled now by Daesh, and lived there, again in hiding, for a while. It was impossible that Samira accompany me in my hard and dangerous trip.

And she stayed, and then Samira and Razan were joined by Wael, who is Razan’s husband, and Nazem Hamadi, who’s a poet and human rights activist. And they were abducted by Jaysh al-Islam, a Salafi military formation, in Douma in December 2013. We have some concrete information about the culprits, but we don’t have, I’m sorry to say, any trustworthy information about the fate of the four for the last three years and 13 days.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we conclude, Yassin, could you say something about what you think the U.S. should be doing now, as far as what’s going on in Syria?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: First of all, maybe they should stop giving priority to the war on terror, on our struggle for justice and for freedom. This big narrative now in the world, that of the war of terror, is good for elites. It is good for people like Bashar al-Assad, like Putin, like Netanyahu, like Khamenei. It is very bad for people, not only in our country, even in the West. War on terror is, in that way, war on democracy. And it cannot be a real basis for struggle, for freedom and for justice. So this is the first thing.

Second thing may be—actually, my hopes are very limited when it comes to the U.S. role in Syria or in the Middle East. But I hope they realize at last that there should be another method apart from crisis management: real negotiations and politics that—a policy that is not isolated from issues of justice and freedom and democracy, because the longer we adopt this method in Syria, in Palestine, in the Middle East, things will go far worse. And I don’t know any example of success of the war on terror. It only breeds more terror and more—more blood, more violence and more dictatorships, like the Assad regimes and the likes, in our region.

AMY GOODMAN: And as we wrap up, in 30 seconds, you’ve said you’ve been shocked by the left’s response to Syria. Can you explain?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Sorry? I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, you’ve said you’ve been shocked by the left’s response to Syria. Can you explain?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: I always thought that our cause is clear: We’ve been struggling for democracy for two generations. We paid heavy price for it. And I thought people will—they’ll side with our struggle, they’ll understand us, and they will never find excuses for a very brutal regime like Bashar al-Assad. The problem is that—

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just lost Yassin al-Haj Saleh, our satellite connection to Istanbul, but we’ll continue the conversation at a future point. Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, dissident, former political prisoner. Forthcoming book is called The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we come home to an appeal by the son of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader, to be pardoned posthumously by President Obama. Stay with us.

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