'No Way Out' For Syrian Regime, Prominent Dissident Says

May 10, 2011
Originally published on May 10, 2011 6:02 pm

The escalating crackdown that has meant an increasing number of deaths is not going to stop the Syrian people from continuing to protest against the regime of President Bashar Assad, a prominent Syrian writer and dissident tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

Yassin Haj Saleh, who was put in prison by the Assad regime and kept there for 16 years (1980-96), says "there is no way out" for Assad. "The regime must accept a political change in the direction of a multi-party" form of government.

"The general Syrian sentiment is that the government cannot be reformed" and that Assad and his supporters must go, Saleh added during a phone conversation from Syria. He says more than 8,000 people have reportedly been detained by authorities in recent weeks.

As for the regime's contention that there would be chaos in Syria if Assad stepped aside, Saleh called that "blackmail."

"This is the regime's game," he said, "they say 'it's either us or chaos ... either us or civil war.' I believe it's the party that's working" to foment chaos.

Here are two clips from their conversation. First, Robert asks about the regime's warnings regarding "chaos" (you'll hear an interpreter translating as Saleh speaks):

And second, Robert asks how much longer the protests can continue:

Much more from their conversation is due on today's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of their discussion to the top of this post.

Saleh blogs here.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, the European Union announced new sanctions against members of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's ruling Baathist Party, including his brother. And the E.U. warns that if President Assad doesn't end the cycle of violence and introduce genuine and comprehensive political reform, he could be targeted next.

BLOCK: Syrian dissidents are reportedly being rounded up around the country. One who is still at liberty is Yassin al-Haj Saleh. He is a writer and critic of the government who spent 16 years in prison. He now lives in Damascus.

SIEGEL: Now, I should explain that Mr. al-Haj Saleh understands English, but he'll be speaking in Arabic, and we have an interpreter on the line to translate.

And, first, Mr. al-Haj Saleh, do you have a good idea of how many Syrians have been detained by the authorities in this crackdown?

Mr. YASSIN HAJ SALEH (Writer): (Through translator) I have information that until four or five days ago, the number was 8,000 detainees. In the last week the number has gone up. There's talk of 250 detained in Banias in the last three or four days. And in another city, there's talk of 70 detained yesterday, or the day before.

We cannot be 100 percent sure of this information because communication is very poor. It's weak and monitored, and access to the Internet is difficult. But the number exceeds 8,000.

SIEGEL: We hear about the door-to-door searches that Syrian security forces are conducting. How have you been able to evade arrest?

Mr. HAJ SALEH: (Through translator) I left my house at the end of March and I'm trying to stay far away from the hands and the eyes of the authorities.

SIEGEL: Are you essentially in hiding ever since the end of March?

Mr. HAJ SALEH: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, since six weeks I am away from my home and away from any public place also.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about the claim of the Syrian government that these protesters are not only peaceful protestors, that there are armed men among them, that these are armed insurgents that they are opposing. Is there any truth at all to that claim?

Mr. HAJ SALEH: (Through translator) I doubt that entirely. The authorities haven't presented a documented story about that. They've presented individuals on government TV who have confessed that they are armed and have committed killings and destruction, but there is no single independent authority that can verify that.

The Syrian secret police is renowned for its cruelty and can obtain confessions by force. There are precedents in this area. It hasn't presented a reasonable explanation to date for the possibility that they're behind the presence of militants.

The situation is strange in Syria. Militant gangs are appearing suddenly, killing military people and civilians and spreading out exactly in the areas where the demonstrations are happening - in Deraa, Banias and Homs and other places. We also see them in other areas if demonstrations start to happen there.

SIEGEL: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday that in her view, Syria's government can still make reforms. Unlike Libya, she said, they have an opportunity - that is, the Syrians have an opportunity to bring about a reform agenda. I wonder if that's your view. And would protesters welcome any reforms by President Assad? Or is the number one reform they seek the ouster of President Assad?

Mr. HAJ SALEH: (Through translator) In the beginning, people were looking forward to true reforms, but the regime didn't suggest anything serious. The problem is not a legal one, where lifting the emergency law is sufficient. The problem is in the security structures, the structure of the security apparatus in Syria.

The problem is in the one-party system which has been in power for half a century. The problem is also in the existence of a president for life. In these regards, the authorities didn't suggest anything or make any promises at all. In the last few weeks, by not suggesting anything serious on the one hand and on the other hand going overboard with killings - we've had more than 800 people killed to date - it has started hearing slogans calling for actually toppling the government.

I believe that the general Syrian sentiment is that the government cannot be reformed and that it will step away from even the superficial promises it made if the internal and external pressures are lifted off of it.

SIEGEL: But you know what people in Europe and some in the United States say about the Assad regime. They say, take it away, remove it, and a country that doesn't have enough of a unifying force to it will break apart and different sects will vie with each other for power and it could be a bloody war like the one that raged in Lebanon for so many years. Are you concerned about that?

Mr. HAJ SALEH: (Through translator) Of course. However, it appears to me that this is the regime's game. They say it's either us or chaos, either us or civil war. I believe that the party is working in the direction of chaos and open conflict in Syria. It's the regime. It's not because of the nature of Syrian society, but because of the regime that is working towards that.

Mr. HAJ SALEH: This is, I think, sort of blackmailing the Syrian people and the international community.

SIEGEL: A sort of blackmail of the Syrian people, you're saying.

Just, before you go, I just want to ask you about your sense of the future. The Syrian president insists the crisis will be overcome, he can outlast the protesters. How long can this go on before Syrians stop coming out in large numbers, before they yield to the greater power of the regime?

Mr. HAJ SALEH: (Through translator) When the protests and the uprisings started 50 days ago, the Syrians knew what kind of regime they were protesting. The regime is oppressive and brutal and capable of killing many. And throughout these seven or eight weeks, that is indeed exactly what happened. In spite of that, the protests continue.

Three weeks ago, 20 were killed. Two weeks ago, 65 had been killed. And last week it was over 300. And in spite of that, the protests are continuing. I believe that there is no way out. The regime must accept a political change in the direction of a multi-party open system.

SIEGEL: Yassin al-Haj Saleh, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. HAJ SALEH: (Speaking foreign language) You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer. He writes for the Arabic language newspaper Al Hayat in London, and dissident former political prisoner in Syria. He spoke to us from Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.