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“Continuous Insanity”: Syrian Dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh on 12 Years of War & Earthquake Relief

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As the death toll tops 17,000 in Turkey and Syria from Monday’s twin earthquakes, we look at the situation in Syria, where 12 years of brutal war have left the country’s institutions in tatters, further complicating aid efforts. Syrian writer, dissident and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh describes how the war has killed about 2% of Syrians and displaced 7 million more, or about a third of the population. He is author of the book “The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.”

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StoryFeb 16, 2023Syria Faces “Nightmare Situation” as Aid Stalls Amid Sanctions and Earthquake Death Toll Keeps Rising
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As the death toll tops 17,000 in Turkey and Syria from Monday’s twin earthquakes, we continue to look at the situation in Syria after almost 12 years of devastating war. We go now to Berlin, Germany, where we’re joined by Yassin al-Haj Saleh. He’s a Syrian writer, dissident, former political prisoner, author of the book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Yassin. If you can talk about this absolute catastrophe in both Syria and in Turkey, that is packed full of hundreds of thousands of refugees, millions of people affected? We don’t, finally, know the death toll at all. What you feel it’s most important for people to understand, that have gone through a political earthquake, if you will, particularly in Syria with all of these years of war?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

So, as you said, it is 12 years of struggle in Syria. It didn’t start as a war. Originally it was peaceful uprising, then armed and peaceful. Then it became chaotic situation with many original international powers intervening in the country. But it was dealt usually like a natural catastrophe, without accountability, without holding the big criminals responsible for what they have done.

So, now when a real natural catastrophe has come, the destroyed infrastructure and the threshold of international response to the catastrophe is so high, to the degree that, as your report mentioned, three days after the earthquake, some U.N. aid has finally come into the country. And it is not clear that it is related to the search and rescue activities, which is the most vital now. With every hour, things will become worse.

So, I mean, this is — you cannot isolate this from politics. For long years, Syria was not dealt with in a responsible way, in a way that defend the victims. And now it is still going the same way. The international activities are oriented towards — mostly towards Turkey, and the area hit in Syria, which is northwestern, is hardly receiving any help.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yassin, could you speak about what some of the difficulties are in providing this aid? I mean, effectively, at this point, Syria has been partitioned, with all the different countries that have participated, that have intervened and that have occupied Syria in these last 12 years. If you could just explain what has happened in Syria in these last years?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: So, it was a great moment of courage and of — it was a revolution. It was an uprising for freedom and for democracy and for justice. These 12 years are a time of extremes, actually — extreme courage, extreme solidarity, extreme cooperation, extreme sacrifice, but also extreme crimes, torture, rape, destruction, genocide, that way, with at least 400,000 — I guess it is even more, the casualties — which is close to 2% of the population. You know that 7 millions are displaced externally, which is close to 30% of the population. So, if we compare this to the U.S., I guess it is like displacing 100 millions of the Americans and killing some 5 or 6 millions. So it is huge, unprecedented, and in a small country — Syria is not that big a country.

But you see that it is we have — during these years, we have the U.S., we have Russia, we have Iran, we have Turkey, and we have Israel, before all and all the same time. At the same time, Syrians are scattered in 126 countries, according to a recent — rather recent report by the Human Rights Watch. So, in a way, you can say that the world is in Syria during these 12 years, and Syria is in the world. And that’s why I always say that Syria is a microcosm. Syria is something that tells the world very important things about its structure and about its future.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you elaborate on that? Why do you think Syria is a microcosm of the world? And also, the fact that Syria continues to be — the war in Syria continues to be referred to as a civil war, despite the fact, as you’ve said, that these, minimally, five countries have been very actively involved in the war for many years?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Yeah. This is not to mention many substate actors, like Hezbollah, like many militias from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, with the sponsorship of the government of Tehran, and also not to mention many Sunni jihadi organizations hailing from dozens of countries, in their heyday — now they are on decline, fortunately. So, it is microcosm because it — Syria is a microcosm because what has been happening in the country is related to international global structures — I mean, issues of Islamophobia, issues of terrorism and the “war on terror,” issues of — you know that the Middle East is the most internationalized region in the world. I think so. So, we have all these parties with high stakes in the country. At the same time, when you see that almost 30% of the population are pushed to neighboring and to faraway countries, so it is globalized. So, in a way, we can say that the world is a macro Syria.

And I believe that the Russian invasion to Ukraine wouldn’t have been possible without this, without actually accepting and tolerating the intervention in Syria. Syria is not a neighboring country. Historically, Russia intervened in neighboring areas close to Russia proper. But in Syria, Putin saw that, well, if he can have an outpost overseas in Syria, which is not a neighboring country to Russia, so, it is OK. No one condemned it. Not the U.S., not the European Union, not the U.N. condemned the Russian intervention in Syria. And so, I think this was a very dangerous message to the Russian regime that it is OK for them to do whatever they want in their neighoring — in their back garden, so to speak.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could, Yassin, talk about how the “war on terror” has impacted the way the war has unfolded? And talk about your own personal story, which we have had you on before talking about, about your wife, Samira, and what happened. I think this all is a part of one narrative.

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Well, what link these — that painful thing, that personal, extremely painful thing, and the global situation is the priorities of the most powerful. You know that in the past, up to maybe 1990s, there were different diagnoses of political evil. So, maybe political evil was colonialism, maybe genocides, wars of aggression, state tyranny and torture states, like the one we have in Syria for six years. By the way, in March, it will be the 12th anniversary of the Syria uprising and the 60th anniversary of the Baath Party rule in the country. I mean, we’ve been for 60 years without any political life.

So, now the diagnosis of political evil shifted to terror, since September 2001 in the U.S. Even before, in my opinion, a decade before, the political evil is terror, no longer aggression, no longer war, no longer colonialism, no longer settler colonialism, no longer genocides. So, the priority of the powerful is the most powerful priority now, and it is imposed on the whole world, actually. The worst about it is that it leads to securitization of politics and to more evil ones of those who are involved in security, which is, in my country and in the world, those who are busying themselves in killing people and torturing them and raping them and making their life hell. So, this priority built sort of a common ground between the U.S. administrations and the regime, the Syrian regime. And actually, it has empowered all those who were already powerful, and weakened those popular movements and individuals and activists and those who struggle for human rights and for democracy — weakened, and they were already weak, especially in countries like Syria.

So, I mean, this prioritizing has sacrificed Syria and make the country in this unspeakable condition. My wife and my friends and my brother, actually, and so many of my acquaintances and friends were among the ones who were lost in an extremely insane situation, and a toleration of the international community to this insane situation for thousands of days. It is now almost 5,000 days of this continuous insanity.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask what you think, Yassin, about the Biden administration so far refusing calls to lift sanctions on Syria. The State Department says it’s partnering with NGOs in Syria, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken has confirmed there has been no diplomatic contact between the two countries since the earthquakes. This is what he said.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: With regard to Syria, I’m not aware of any contacts between the United States government and the Syrian government in recent days since the earthquake.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are your thoughts on this? I mean, you yourself have been imprisoned under Bashar al-Assad’s father. You were arrested for being communist in Syria, held for 16 years a prisoner. Now his son rules. Your thoughts about what should happen right now?

YASSIN AL-HAJ SALEH: Look, when I was in jail in 19 — all 1980s and more than half of 1990s, there was sanctions against the Assad regime, the père, at the time, Hafez. After an assault or a bomb — I guess it was put in an Israeli plane in 1986 or 1987, as we were in the jail at the time, and we were impacted by it, actually. And even our families were impacted, and we were impacted. I was a smoker at that time, just to give one example, and we didn’t have cigarettes. We didn’t have even to choose, you know, sanity — sorry, I don’t remember the word in English. So, we lacked so many things in jail.

Now my position about sanctions is the same. I want my people to live in a better condition. I don’t approve of the sanctions. I know that the Assad regime will benefit very much by lifting the sanctions, and, of course, I am ambivalent about this. I don’t want — they are extremely corrupt, and they will steal most of the aid. There are already reports about this, by the way. So, but at the same time, I don’t want my people to starve and to be humiliated by hunger and by dire needs, as it has been happening all the time. So I find myself in a not very good position, actually. As I have just said, I am ambivalent. I want the country, the people of the country, to — not to suffer from oppression and from starvation, but I’m afraid this will be great for the regime, which is, however — I mean, if the regime is still there, because there are powerful supporters of it, and there were weak, very weak, challengers. It is us. And for genocidal regime, we don’t have one example of a genocidal regime that was toppled by its people. When it’s OK to gas your people with sarin and with chlorine and barrel bombs and industrial torture, well, it is not up to the people to change their conditions. And we don’t hope any help. It is too late, and I don’t expect any help. So, well, I am for lifting the sanction. I don’t know if there’s a very smart way to do it without benefiting the regime. So, yeah, I’m sorry I cannot say a clear-cut answer to this, because, I mean, our enemy, which is ruling the country, will benefit from it, but I hope that the people will benefit from it a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yassin, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, dissident and former political prisoner, was jailed in Syria from 1980 to 1996. His wife was kidnapped, Samira, along with three others in 2013, has never been seen again. Yassin’s book includes The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, as the U.N. secretary-general calls for the war in Ukraine to end, we’ll speak with a Russian journalist whose news outlet, Meduza, was recently outlawed by the Russian government. Stay with us.

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