The ´sheik´ of Syria´s rebellion ponders its obstacles (LA TIMES) By Alexandra Sandels DAMASCUS, Syria 04/04/12)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
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Yassin Haj Saleh sees outdated thinking and a lack of unity among the
opposition factions as hindering the overthrow of President Bashar
DAMASCUS, Syria ó He doesn´t have a cellphone and doesn´t use regular
phones. He avoids his home and mostly ventures out under cover of
night, a cap pulled low on his head to conceal his identity.
"For 11 months, I have not been in a public place, not in a
restaurant or a cafe," Yassin Haj Saleh, a former political prisoner,
said as he arrived at a previously agreed-upon rendezvous spot as
Despite his clandestine existence, Saleh is a prominent Syrian
dissident, a prolific writer and columnist with a wide following both
in print and on the Internet. One young opposition activist calls him
the "sheik" of Syria´s yearlong rebellion.
Unlike some high-profile Syrian dissident exiles featured in
opposition conferences abroad, Saleh spent 16 years imprisoned for
his views and has remained in Damascus, the capital, daily risking
"He´s got total credibility: He was in prison and is part of that
crowd still inside Syria, not living outside the country for 30
years," said Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East
Studies at the University of Oklahoma and writes an influential blog
Syria´s opposition includes many disparate currents, among them
secular liberals such as Saleh, Islamists, Kurdish nationalists, Web-
savvy youths and urban and rural guerrillas. While at odds on many
issues, they generally are united on one objective: the need to oust
the government of President Bashar Assad.
"The worst possibility for our country is that the regime stays in
power," Saleh, 51, said in an interview at a safe house
here. "Anything else is less bad."
Still, the opposition is a fractious network riven by internal
disputes. Last month, several prominent dissidents split from the
best-known umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, complaining
that it was a front for the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist
movement viewed warily by many secular Arabs.
Saleh, who describes the Syrian National Council´s overall
performance as "depressing," has reluctantly come to accept the
rebellion´s increasing militarization. But he bemoans the lack of a
centralized command structure and discipline among the proliferating
"None of us asked for it," Saleh said of the Free Syrian Army and
other factions that have taken up arms. "The problem is how to
organize these groups."
He believes the lack of unity and organization among armed factions
and political groups are obstacles to the revolt progressing faster,
as is a lack of "new" thinking.
What is most needed, he says, is fresh thinking about a dynamic,
grass-roots upheaval that emerged with a vitality that shocked him
and other longtime dissidents, both in Syria and outside. Too many
Syrian intellectuals, he said, are still shackled to Arab nationalism
and other Cold War-era ideas and political ideologies.
"It´s not a matter about living abroad and inside," said Saleh, a
dapper figure in a sweater and chinos, far from the image of the
harried, bedraggled man on the run. "It´s a matter of traditional
mentality that cannot deal with new facts and new generations and a
new sense of life."
Last spring, when the Syrian revolt was in its nascent, largely
protest, phase, Saleh was upbeat and declared that his country was
finally poised for a dramatic shift.
A year later, thousands have lost their lives in an uprising that has
morphed into armed insurrection with no end in sight, dismaying many
who preferred the path of peaceful revolution.
"In the first few months," Saleh acknowledged, "it was easier to have
a clear vision."
As the death toll soars, some activists in the Syrian capital have
become disillusioned, fearing a slide toward catastrophic civil war
and sectarian bloodletting. Saleh, however, remains an optimist,
while voicing deep fear of deepening divisions.
"After 11 months of killing, there is kind of a political refuge
being taken to God and to religion," he said.
He laments a "deep grudge" stoking sectarian enmities in Syria, long
a secular state where, under the Assad leadership, minorities were
tolerated even as political dissent was crushed.
While supporting continued mass protests, Saleh now thinks that
demonstrations alone are unlikely to topple a president backed by a
loyal security apparatus installed by his late father, Hafez Assad, a
ruthless practitioner of Middle East power politics.
"There is no chance it will be like in Tunisia," said Saleh,
referring to the North African nation where the inaugural "Arab
Spring" revolt chased longtime strongman Zine el Abidine ben Ali from
power, with minimal bloodshed. "It will be more violent and chaotic."
Saleh was imprisoned as a 19-year-old medical student, he says,
because of his membership in a communist group viewed as a threat by
Hafez Assad´s regime. He spent the last year of his imprisonment in
Syria´s notorious Tadmor prison.
"Books saved me physically and mentally," Saleh told Reason magazine
in a 2005 interview. He taught himself English while in prison. "If
it were not for the books, I would have most certainly been crushed.
Now I live on what I learned in prison."
He was released in 1996, when he was 35, and completed his medical
studies in Aleppo, but he never worked as a physician. He opted for
the life of writer and political dissident, a parlous existence in
the Assads´ Syria.
Facing censorship at home, Saleh found a forum in Arabic-language
media in neighboring Lebanon, always more open to freedom of
expression. Nowadays, he spends much of his time reading, writing and
on the Internet, where he is an avid email correspondent and Facebook
commentator. He writes a regular column in Al Hayat, a leading pan-
He sees no easy resolution of his country´s crisis, especially in the
face of the government´s relentless crackdown, the escalating
casualty count and the deep fissures that have opened up in Syrian
"The longer the revolution goes on," Saleh said, "the more divided
the people become."
Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J.
McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report. (Copyright © 2012 Los
Angeles Times 04/04/12)
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