Yassin al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.
“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.
Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.
From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.
By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since.
Saleh is now among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey as refugees. He travels the country helping to train Syrian writers and activists in exile, while writing and speaking about his country’s plight. As a leftist, he has also been a vociferous critic of a growing international consensus that has come to see the Syrian conflict in Bashar al-Assad’s terms as a fight against terrorism.
Our interview with Saleh is presented below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.