In Arab mythology, the al-Sada bird, or death owl, emerges from the body of a murdered man and shrieks until someone takes revenge. “Today there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of al-Sada birds crying out for revenge all over Syrian skies,” writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh in “The Destiny of the Syrian Revolution,” one of ten essays in his collection The Impossible Revolution. Extreme violence, including the incarceration and torture of teenagers, characterized the Syrian regime’s response to the street protests that erupted in 2011. As the uprising morphed into civil war, rebels also jailed their enemies, adopting methods of abuse and killing they had learned in the regime’s prisons. Malevolent spirits, or jinn, hover. Nearly half a million Syrians are believed to have lost their lives in six years of conflict.
Saleh, one of the country’s best-known dissident intellectuals, now lives in Berlin and has battled to distance himself from the ghouls who haunt Syria’s ruined cities. “Where is cool-headed, clear thinking to be found, in a world of al-Sada, jinn, and ghosts?” he asks. One might say it is to be found in the pages of his book, where he examines the origins of the violence, delves into the ideology of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled the country since 1963, methodically dissects the phases of the revolution, and charts the lurch into sectarianism. Only in the introduction does he write about his own life, which is a shame, because his experience helps us understand why the revolution in Syria failed.
Born in Syria’s sixth-largest city, Raqqa, in 1961, Saleh joined the Syrian Communist Party while studying in Aleppo. Arrested for opposing President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, he spent sixteen years in prison. Four years after his release in 1996, he met and married Samira al-Khalil, another former political prisoner. She shared his passion for political change; the revolution enabled the couple to live out their beliefs.
Saleh wrote the first of these essays in March 2011, while participating in street protests, and later ones while on the run. Saleh and al-Khalil spent several months in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, working with the human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, the founder of the Violations Documentation Center, which chronicled abuses committed by all sides. Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish money started to come in for certain rebel groups, including Salafi jihadists whose violent religiosity had previously been almost unknown in Syria. Saleh thought about a saying attributed to Ho Chi Minh: “If you want to destroy a revolution, shower it with money!” Al-Khalil got on with practical work, founding two women’s centers in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Saleh fled to Turkey in October 2013, hoping that al-Khalil…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.