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Book review: The Impossible Revolution

Book review: The Impossible Revolution – Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

By Ani White.

As sectarianism and the far-right rear their heads internationally, it’s easy to forget the optimism of 2011. Those seeking to understand this trajectory must read Syrian revolutionary Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s essay collection The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

A foreword by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-wrote the excellent work Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, explains why this work is so essential:

" 'They simply do not see us', [Yassin al-Haj Saleh] laments. If we don't see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don't hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running counter to all evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known."

For many ‘anti-imperialists’, this disengagement is a matter of maintaining a clear ideology. Given the focus on the USA as the Great Satan, a situation where the USA’s role is marginal, where a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ regime perpetrates mass slaughter with the support of the Russian and Iranian regimes, is ideologically inconvenient. The retreat into conspiracy theory (depicting revolutionaries as foreign agents) serves to warp reality so it stays consistent with ideology.

Although this ideology claims the mantle of anti-imperialism, its proponents see people exactly as empires do; pawns on a global chessboard. To regain our revolutionary conscience, ‘anti-imperialists’ must learn from the ground up, through an allegiance with people rather than states. As a Syrian communist partisan of the revolution, Saleh’s work is crucial in this rethinking of the world.

Having spent 16 years in prison for his political activities, Saleh is an implacable opponent of the regime – yet as the so-called ‘conscience of the revolution’, he is also a thoughtful opponent, raising challenging questions for all who read. Most of the essays in this collection were written during 2011, capturing the spirit of the moment. Yet right from the start, Saleh also delves deeper into historical and structural questions to explain driving factors in the revolution. Later essays, from 2012-2015, provide perhaps the most significant sustained analysis of the revolution’s tragic collapse available in English.

Saleh’s analysis is both educational on the Syrian situation specifically, and a master-class in structural analysis generally. An early essay outlines the class composition of Syrian society. Saleh identifies a 'new bourgeoisie' that is the base of the Assads’ dictatorship; the loyal intellectuals of the 'Syrian Arab Republic', who offer superficial opposition without questioning the fundamentals of Assad's rule; an urban middle class, and a poor rural majority, who together formed the base of the revolution. Saleh suggests that the middle class and poor were united by an experience of work, in contrast to those who prosper without working. This gulf widened during the early 2000s, with the introduction of neoliberal reforms.

To explain how the Assads have maintained power, Saleh often returns to Assad Sr’s development of a brutal security apparatus, and an ideological apparatus centring on Assad himself. This fiefdom was inherited by his son. Saleh argues that this is a fascist state apparatus, a characterisation that is worth thinking through given the international rise of the far right, many in fact exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis.

It is commonly asserted that the Syrian revolution is discredited by sectarianism. In particular, the Sunni majority is often depicted as too sectarian to govern. Although it is a dangerous simplification, this view has a ring of truth as confusing sectarian warfare fills the nightly news: as Saleh grimly notes in his final essay, Syria's war "promises to be an ideal specimen for the study of sectarianism." In this disquieting spirit, the later essays consider the problem in detail.

Saleh famously distinguishes between the ‘neck-tie fascists’ of the regime and the ‘long-beard fascists’ of political Islam, indicating the way Syrians are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he avoids the common simplification that ‘both sides/all sides are equally bad.’ He centrally contends that sectarianism is a political tool, not a matter of ancient identity. More specifically, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the Assadist regime itself.

Saleh’s final essay, the longest in the collection, roots modern sectarianism in the Assadist ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ This state opportunistically fosters sectarianism in various ways, all preserving a dictatorial power structure. Firstly, the 'neo-Sultanic state' fosters sectarianism with the elevation of Alawites, an Islamic sect of which the ‘Sultans’ (Assads) are members. Secondly, while the repressive apparatus (or ‘inner state’) is sectarian, the ideological apparatus (or ‘outer state’) maintains a kind of hollow secularism that represses discussion of sectarianism. Thirdly, the development of a corrupt ‘clientelism’ (bribes, favours for friends, and other forms of cronyism) that favours some sects over others.
Saleh argues that sectarianism is ultimately about class, providing cultural justifications for material hierarchies. In Syria specifically, the Sunni majority is dispossessed, and their poverty is blamed on their cultural ignorance.

In this repressive context, devoid of a common civil society, it is remarkable that the 2011 revolution saw such a flowering of non-sectarian sentiment. Slogans such as ‘Sunnis and Alawis are One’ defied the Balkanisation of communities fostered under the Assad regime.
To undercut the legitimacy of the uprising, Assad’s regime set out to stoke sectarianism. The regime carried out massacres targeting Sunnis well before the revolutionaries armed themselves, and infamously released many Salafists from jail.

Saleh refers to the growth of political Islam in this context as a kind of ‘militant nihilism’ – seeing the whole world as corrupted, withdrawing into an abstracted mental space that justifies all manner of cleansing violence. Nonetheless, Saleh maintains that this is only a defensive posture given the besieged and isolated position of the Sunni majority (note that this analysis does not apply to ISIS, who are essentially an occupying power not borne of the revolution).

With the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many observers have returned to the confirmation bias which says Sunni Arabs are too backwards to govern, too easily forgetting what 2011 illuminated. While discussing the many sectarian ‘fiefdoms’ developing by 2013, Saleh clarifies: “The fall of the regime would not mean an end to the process of ‘feudalization’ – but there is no hope of stopping this feudalization without overthrowing the regime.”

Saleh promotes a democratic Syrian nationalism, as an alternative to both Assad’s Syria and an Islamic state.

This progressive nationalism is worth considering critically. Saleh suggests that only the revolutionaries truly adhere to the ideal of ‘Syria’, often implying their enemies are not truly Syrian (whether by citizenship or philosophy). Assad's regime is regularly compared to a colonial regime, and Islamists are depicted as fundamentally more international than local. These are compelling points, and everyone can probably agree that tensions internal to Syria have been exploited by various international actors. At one point Saleh suggests in passing that the ‘central bourgeoisie’ could also be considered an ‘external bourgeoisie’ due to its international trade. However, identifying the revolution with ‘Syria’ and counter-revolutionary enemies with ‘foreignness’ seems surprisingly Manichean for such a sophisticated thinker (and an ironic inversion of the Assadist propaganda that all rebels are foreign agents). Even if international forces exploit divisions in Syrian society, that doesn’t mean that all enemies come from outside Syrian society. Some may also question Saleh's position on the Kurdish national question, apparently believing that a liberated Syria should include Kurdish territory under a single nation (though recognising linguistic and cultural rights), in contrast to the secessionist position held by the Kurdish leadership.

Conversely, Saleh's nationalism is far from an unthinking adherence; rejecting the stifling culture of the Assad regime, he calls for the development of a pluralist Republican intellectual culture. Saleh's nationalism is more Gramscian then jingoistic, seeking the development of a new civil society, and his ‘Syria’ is aspirational. For Saleh and other Syrian revolutionaries, 'Free Syria' holds the promise of a unity based on common citizenship rather than Balkanised sects. This vision stands in stark contrast to the Assadist form of 'Modernization', which treats the Sunni majority as children to be managed for their own good, rather than democratic subjects.

The Impossible Revolution is essential reading for anyone considering social transformation in the 21st Century. It should be read along with Burning Country (reviewed here).
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