Perpectives: What is your interpretation of the current state of affairs in Syria, nine months into the revolution?
SALEH: Currently, we are looking at what might be called the rise of a new political actor - the people - best defined as the actor that “wants to bring down the regime”. In our country as in all Arab states, politics has been a question of elites, of struggles between elites, civil or military, secular or religious, in which victory generally goes to the best-armed side. Things are different today. Now there is a new player that has been formed by the revolution. It is isolated and by-and-large unarmed. It is much weaker militarily than the regime it seeks to depose is - and is on average, younger than the country’s political elites. Nevertheless, it has turned out to be far more determined, stubborn and inventive than anyone anticipated.
I view the Syrian revolution as an experiment in the creation of a people, of a new evolutionary stage in politics and governance, though one that may have to pass through many trials and horrors and we should not expect a new political dispensation to emerge fully formed after the revolution. In historical terms the revolution is the process by which and through which the “people” takes shape, though this will face the daunting challenge of placating the fears of minorities and guaranteeing the unity of Syrians and Syria itself.
Perpectives: How do you explain the silence of large sections of the Syrian population in the face of events currently taking place in the country?
SALEH: For decades now it has been official policy to drive the majority of the population away from politics, to dissuade them from taking an active, independent interest in public affairs, and to foster widespread political apathy. Simultaneously, any independent political or civil organizations that might attract the support of Syrians have been stamped on. All initiatives by the political and civil opposition were crushed, bequeathing a ubiquitous and profound sense of fear and inadequacy to those that came after them. My generation of political activists lost its ability to be enterprising and its self-confidence. Furthermore, the regime worked for many years to instill sectarian divisions in the population and a crisis of national identity, to the extent that Syrians became more afraid of each other than of the sinister apparatus of state.
There are sections of the Syrian middle class - in industry, trade and the professions - who enjoy a reasonable income and who privilege stability and security over anything else so long as their agreeable lifestyle continues. In my estimation it is these factors, exacerbated by a lack of confidence in the self and “the other” and a fear and mistrust of what the future will bring, that explains why people keep silent.
Perpectives: Why do these groups remain neutral about current events?
SALEH: Their neutrality springs from the causes I have just mentioned. They want something guaranteed and it’s simply not there. In today’s Syria there are no guarantees. These people are worried that the regime will regain control and revenge itself on them, plus they have concerns about their interests. If the revolution is victorious they have nothing to fear but at the same time, they have nothing to win. The fact that, nine months into the revolution, the outcome remains unclear, means they prefer to sit on the fence. I’m sure they fear the threat of civil war, as well.
Nevertheless, their neutrality is not stable. They are tense and uncertain and some of them may side with the revolution if it becomes obvious that the regime will fall.
Perpectives: Do you fear the possibility of sectarian conflict breaking out in the event of the regime’s fall?
SALEH: I’m worried about the former employees of the regime. The current heads of the security services may very well reform themselves into a mafia-type organization after the collapse of the regime and continue to practice the violence, theft and discrimination at which they are so adept.
I’m also concerned about sectarian revenge attacks, but it seems highly unlikely. For three quarters of a year of revolution, Syrian society has maintained a blameless image and, despite attempts by the regime’s security agencies to incite sectarian tension, it has been very limited, remarkably so. In fact the revolution has demonstrated a deep awareness of the issue and has made great efforts both to avoid it and warn against it.
At the same time, Syria is created from the same divisive clay as Lebanon and it is not immune from the threat of sectarian strife. Everything depends on how things develop from here and the manner in which the regime falls. The longer the revolution goes on, the lower the economy sinks, the further the state unravels and the greater the possibility of outside intervention, the more likely it is that the regime will dissolve into many and diverse sectarian conflicts.
Perpectives: For some weeks now the numbers of deserting army conscripts and security troops has risen and military operations against security and secret service installations have taken place. Is this an indicator that the revolution is transforming from a peaceful movement and militarizing?
SALEH: The deserters are part of the revolution. They have refused to open fire on their fellow citizens, knowing that they will be shot themselves for disobeying orders. If the regime gets hold of them their fate will be imprisonment and an ignominious death. In my opinion, therefore, it’s incorrect to talk about a supposed contradiction between their military capabilities and the undeniably peaceful nature of the popular protests. In most cases they have limited their activities to protecting the demonstrations, to providing a deterrent of sorts against the regime’s repressive troops. Some of the demonstrations you see on television would not have been possible if they hadn’t received a degree of protection from the Syrian Free Army.
The intention is that the Syrian Free Army’s capabilities be put at the disposal of the peaceful protests as a safeguard, not that they work against them or at their expense. The revolution has clearly demonstrated its profoundly peaceful nature through the call for a general strike on December 11. The initial response was encouraging, even if it went unheeded in some quarters. The Syrian people are experimenting with a variety of resistance strategies: there’s no reason to limit themselves. In my view, calling on members of the Syrian Free Army not to resist when they are attacked makes no sense. For a start, that’s not humanly possible, and furthermore, it’s their duty to give the demonstrations and the civilian population as much protection as they can. As for demands that they should join the peaceful demonstrations, that’s either ignorance or stupidity: it was never the point.
Perpectives: To date the regime has made no significant concessions despite internal, regional and international pressure being brought to bear on it. How do you interpret this?
SALEH: Pride and arrogance. I’ve already mentioned that the regime managed to crush all manifestations of civil and political independence in Syria. It is accustomed to having total control of executive power, total control of the media and the dissemination of information, total control of national resources and a monopoly over contacts with the outside world. Its infrastructure has calcified over the decades and it will not allow partners or political opponents, nor will it countenance negotiation. It defends its privileged position by force, which has led to a sharp decline in the political, intellectual and moral standards of governance. If it loses its monopoly over violence, information and wealth, it loses its weight. It would be irrelevant in an open public forum, in a competitive political market. Its calcified structure means that it fears any genuine concession to those it governs might bring the whole edifice crashing down.
The revolution is aimed squarely at the political regime itself, not at any specific policy or practice. This leaves the regime with no room to manoeuvre. It cannot seriously countenance effective Arab monitors or withdraw its army from the cities. If it stops the slaughter it will fall in a matter of days or weeks.
Perpectives: If regional and international pressure proves ineffective what is the likelihood that the opposition, in the form of the Syrian National Council, will enter into dialogue with the regime? What would its demands be in that event? What alternatives are open to the opposition?
SALEH: I believe that the Syrian National Council as a body, and a large number of those who have participated in the revolution, have burnt their bridges. Either the regime falls or it’s prison, the grave or exile. We’re engaged in a revolution and when you’re in a revolution you can’t hold onto your hope of a way back.
Then there’s the question of who you would have a dialogue with. With murderers? With individuals whose humanity, politics and patriotism is of the very lowest order? People whose hands are stained with the blood of Syrians and stolen money and who never stop lying?
The declared position of the opposition is that they will never negotiate with the regime over a transition to a democratic Syria, nor enter into any form of dialogue. Yet it seems to me that even that position is pretty redundant, because the reasons that make dialogue impossible, also rule out negotiation over a transition.
The alternative is revolution: ensuring its survival and expansion, diversifying strategies of resistance, isolating the regime and cutting off its sources of material and media support. I think the opposition and the Syrian National Council are closer than ever before to carrying out direct acts of revolution.
The longer it takes and the greater the interest of international forces in the situation, the harder the choices. The situation in Syria is difficult and complex and the opposition has to work resolutely and tirelessly in a regional and international arena that more than ever before resembles a jungle.
Perpectives: What is your evaluation of the Arab League’s role in the Syrian crisis? Have its pressures and sanctions against the regime succeeded in weakening it or hastening its end? Do you anticipate the League escalating matters and imposing a demilitarized zone?
SALEH: The Arab League is a useful tool for isolating the regime and one of the political battlefields on which it can be fought. We shouldn’t rely on the League, in my view, but at the same time we mustn’t cut our links with it or actively oppose it. The same goes for the United Nations. We want to be constantly trying to influence these bodies for the benefit of the revolution and use them to isolate and weaken the regime.
I cannot predict what might happen, but I believe the Arab League is in a state of confusion, as are the major international players, even if they don’t seem to be. The Arab states have no desire to see the Syrian crisis become an international issue because of the political, humanitarian and strategic consequences they will have to shoulder as a result. The wider international community, though much more effective, has no desire to intervene in what is a highly complex situation, both internally and regionally, and one which holds out few obvious benefits. For these reasons, and contrary to the prevailing mood in some revolutionary circles, I favor working on the revolution from within, avoiding issues of international protection, demilitarized zones, no-fly zones and safe passages. The revolution as a whole is continuing and moving forward even though there is acute suffering here and there and impatience in those places that are most exposed to the savagery of the regime. Instead of worrying about international protection and the like, we need to focus our efforts on providing aid to these areas, developing strategies of resistance and ensuring the continuity of our struggle. At the end of the day, no Arab or international organization would care about Syria if the Syrians themselves hadn’t kept the torch of revolution burning for nine long months in the face of one of the world’s most brutal political regimes.
Perpectives: And what of the roles played by Syria’s neighbors, Iran and Turkey in particular?
SALEH: Iran is an ally of the regime. Its regime is structured similarly to the Syrian one. Its links with our country are designed to strengthen its regional and international influence and entrench its power internally, but in doing so it has won the enmity of the Syrian people. Syrians have an extremely negative view of Iran these days whereas before the revolution they were either positive about it or indifferent.
Turkey was once a friend to Syria and is now an opponent of the regime. I suspect it has realized that a black-and-white attitude towards your neighbors is the wrong approach in political environment as treacherous as the Middle East. The Turkish regime is more open and democratic but it appears to be far from certain of its course. It fears the material, political and strategic cost of getting embroiled in the issue yet it cannot ignore what is taking place in a country with which it shares extensive borders and many interests. Faced with this dilemma it favors a coordinated Arab response. Besides this, it opposes the Syrian regime with nothing more than words.
The interview was conducted by Hussein Yaakoub on December 20, 2011.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.