SD: You were jailed for sixteen years and harassed for your political positions. What is life like for you today in Damascus?
Al Haj Saleh: I live in comfortable conditions most of the times. I had only very few changes in my lifestyle since the start of the revolution up to now. I started moving around less, especially after Damascus was cut into pieces by checkpoints over the past few months. Generally, I have no special reasons to complain, and no general reasons to be satisfied.
SD: What are the core reasons for the lack of unity in the Syrian opposition today? What will it take to bring the opposition together as a coordinated force?
Al Haj Saleh: Syria is like Iraq in the days of Saddam and Libya in the days of Gaddafi. It is much more so than Tunisia and Egypt. This country was politically drained for decades. The regime used to cut the heads of all political figures, respected notables, and independent authorities of the social scene, as well as the cultural, economic and religious leaders, even in sports. The only political figures this country has produced over half a century of Baathist rule are subjects, flunkeys and dwarfs.
Besides, Syria is a complex society, even more complex than other Arab countries. The Assad regime depended on “divide and rule” strategy: it nurtured divisions by turning the different ethnic, religious and sectarian groups against each other. It did that also by creating yes-man political parties and other half-loyal opposition parties. It also did so by attracting dissidents with carrots and sticks, and sometimes by terrorizing them. Under these circumstances it is not easy for Syrians to emerge with effective [leadership] alternatives.
Before the revolution the political opposition formation was very small and scattered. After the revolution it widened and it became larger in size but less organized. Whenever the fall of the regime approaches I think that the size of this opposition formation will grow as well as its organization level. Therefore, what is good for the fall of the regime is also good for the emergence of a coherent alternative.
SD: Do you think the opposition abroad can lead a political transition in Syria?
Al Haj Saleh: Everything is moving in Syria and even the existing formations will need rebuilding after a while. The National Coalition also might need a restructuring after a time. And at the bottom of the Syrian National Council’s problem is the large and rapid expansion of its membership, with inadequate experience and capacity to correspond with this challenge.
In balancing the politics [of transition], I think the new Coalition must combine a staunch stance against the regime with openness and flexibility in accepting other groups political and social groups inside Syria. On top of that, mobilizing international support for the Syrian cause as much as possible.
SD: Do you see any hope for a ceasefire in Syria, after the failed truce over Eid al Adha? Do you think the UN has any hope of negotiating a solution?
Al Haj Saleh: Never. This is a regime of continuous war that never followed its promises or pacts, only with those who are stronger than itself. The regime of Hafez al-Assad and his heir didn’t show any respect to its Syrian subjects (or Lebanese, Palestinians, the weaker ones), and the father killed tens of thousands of Syrians (and thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians) decades ago.
And the son today is moving to break his father’s record, even surpass it. If you hear one day that the Assad regime agreed to a ceasefire and it committed to it seriously, it means that it became weaker than the revolution and it is about to fall.
This regime might also commit to a ceasefire if it was faced with a real international threat that if it didn’t do, it would face an end by a sweeping force. The United Nations must know this. Syrians call this regime a “gang” or “occupation force.” It would be well advised for the United Nations to comprehend what these words mean.
Whoever wants a serious negotiation with the regime must be stronger than the regime. And it will not recognize a political process, only if it is forced to. And [the world] cannot force it unless they break the regime’s monopoly of war and weapons. This is a painful reality for our country, which makes it a playground for a very violent and large scale battle. But this is our situation, and we need to acknowledge it with a very clear mind. Illusions about the Assad regime may be more costly and more painful than anything that’s happened until today.
SD: Does Russia have enough influence in Damascus to steer the key political players, in the regime and the opposition, toward a truce?
Al Haj Saleh: I don’t think that Russia can push the regime in a certain direction. If it abandons the regime it will weaken it even more, but its support to the regime doesn’t guarantee an important influence on it – especially since the regime is fighting for survival, it lacks any flexibility. This is a regime that either stays as it is or collapses, falls down completely. Therefore, even if it wanted to, Russia cannot find itself capable of influencing the regime, even to save it from itself.
Russia also has no influence on the opposition – who considers it an enemy, in fact. It might have an influence on a group of dissidents who are closer to the regime, but those have no influence on anything that is happening on the ground today.
Again, it is impossible to imagine a ceasefire with this regime. Only its collapse would offer Syrians the inner peace that they need it after 50 years of Ba’ath war regime.
SD: Is the growing influence of some Islamist militant groups, like Jabhat al Nusra, strengthening support for the regime?
Al Haj Saleh: I don’t see any manifestations for that, but it offered a very much needed excuse for the regime, about which it was talking in the beginning of this year even before the “Jabhat al-Nusra” appeared. And there is no doubt that it raises the threshold between some segments of the society and the revolution, especially among the minorities. We can tell that the appearance of Islamist groups in the revolution made the hesitant confirm his hesitation, including some political “dissidents”. It also pushed a wide public of educated middle class which was comfortable with the revolution when it was peaceful to pessimism and isolation. For those who were thinking about leaving the country, this nudged them to leave.
In the educated and politically active environments no one is comfortable with this development, but the motive to get rid of this regime might weigh higher on anything else for the majority of crowd who supports the revolution.
And I don’t know anyone who was with the revolution and changed ranks to side with the regime because of the appearance of these Islamist groups.
SD: How much support do you think the regime has left? What is keeping it going?
Al Haj Saleh: It appears to me that it still enjoys a big support among the Alawites, who pay the highest bill of blood to defend the regime. It has lower support among religious and sectarian minorities, who might prefer the regime, but not ready to sacrifice for its sake. It also enjoys the support of some segments of the religious Sunni population, those who have roles connected with the regime, such as Sheikh al-Bouti, and the main figures among the Qubaysiyyat and the Official Fatwas apparatus. Also, there’s support from the high class bourgeoisie of various backgrounds, who are united by the fact that they rose under this regime.
The secret of the regime’s survival is it supremacy with the tools of war, and the generous support it gets from very well known international powers, specially Iran and Russia. Also, it feels a certain immunity after killing more than 35,000 people until now, by to modest estimates, without facing anything more than just condemnation.
A valid question in this regard is how the revolution could continue all this time facing a regime which wages a war against it since the beginning, without having any considerable financial or military support from anyone. The answer to this question causes deep rooted anger for the majority of Syrians that they well be slaves with no considerations if this regime stays.
SD: What do you think the US and its allies need to do to help resolve the crisis in Syria?
Al Haj Saleh: The first point that they should get is that if the Syrian crisis takes long time, it will only feed extremism in Syrian society. That will not only harm Syrians, but also the surrounding region, and perhaps beyond. Therefore, the cornerstone of what can be a constructive western policy is to help Syrians to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad as soon as possible. And, in my opinion, it requires a combination of giving the armed opposition effective arms and disarming the regime.
Some might say why westerners would support toppling the Assad regime? They have a long term interest in the improvement of the political life in Syria as well as the Arab World. They also have interest in dealing with national elites that have legitimacy inside their societies before anything else.
After all, what is good for Syrians generally is bad for the jihadists; therefore it is less-bad for the West. We want Syria to be an independent country, whose policy is bound only to its people’s preferences and alignments.