In contemplating the situation in Syria over the last year, few things have left me quite as cold and sick with contempt as those people who have suddenly ‘discovered’, and announced, after a lifetime of confidently assuring us otherwise, that Bashar al-Assad is in fact a liar, a murderer and a tyrant after all. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan, who in recent years went quite out of his way to weave new ties with his fellow Kurd-persecutor in Damascus, now compares him to Hitler and bellows for his ouster as if he were the first man to have arrived at the thought. A number of influential Lebanese politicians such as Walid Jumblatt, who had been perfectly happy to make common cause with Assad’s proxies in that country’s ‘March 8 Alliance’, have overnight become champions of Syrian liberty (though one notices that Hizbullah, the self-styled ‘Islamic Resistance’, has not wavered in its courageous solidarity with the despot). Even Hamas, perhaps Assad’s most notorious ally, appears to be reconsidering its loyalties – what with its fellow Sunni Islamists at the forefront of the Syrian opposition, to say nothing of the thousands of Sunni corpses now decorating Syrian streets – and has begun withdrawing staff from its Damascus headquarters. The Lebanese academic Elias Muhanna, author of the Qifa Nabki blog, wrote in the New York Times last month about the “many Syrian intellectuals, journalists and ordinary citizens [who] have steadily migrated from the pro- to the anti-government camp” in recent months, and I confess it brings me more joy than I can begin to describe to see that all the detestable pseudo-dissidents and laptop-Leninists who for so long were excusing and enabling Assad’s crimes – not to mention the plain suckers who actually bought the Hizbullah rhetoric about standing for the ‘oppressed’ and ‘downtrodden’ – have at last been exposed in the light of broad day as the fools they always were.
But I’m afraid I can’t find it in me to summon the magnanimity of Muhanna, who writes of the bloggers now changing their mind about Assad that “a number of them have written compelling mea culpas”. How “compelling” can anything like this be? Or, to put the question another way, what exactly has taken them this long? Bashar al-Assad has always been a dictator, and a violent and imperialist one at that (on which more later). Most of the bloggers Muhanna cites claim that it was Assad’s Arabist pedigree that attracted them to him. But Assad has never been an Arabist. In his most recent speech of January 10th, he began by “salut[ing]” the crowd “in the name of pan-Arabism, which will continue to be a symbol of our identity and our haven in difficult times, as we will continue to be its heart beating with love and affection”. If this is the hand he’s betting on – a pose as the last remaining Arab nationalist; a Nasser with Yitzhak Rabin at the gates – then let’s by all means turn the cards over and see just how much they’re worth.
“Who, more than Syria, has offered to the Palestinian cause?” he asks us. Never mind that the largest Arab forces in both the 1948 and 1967 wars were the Egyptian ones1. Never mind that ever since the 1960s Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had forbidden attacks by the Palestinian feda’iyeen against Israel from Syrian soil (bravely proposing the use of south Lebanon for that purpose). Never mind that in 1976 the Syrian army upheld the spirit of Sykes-Picot by entering Beirut at the request of the Maronites against the Palestinians and their Arabist allies; an intervention that was to lead directly to the Tel al-Zaatar massacre of some 2,000 Palestinian refugees. Never mind that Assad père took every opportunity to divide the Palestinians and thus contain Yasser Arafat: creating and sponsoring, for example, the Syrian-Palestinian al-Sa’iqa militia, perhaps best known for assisting the Lebanese Amal gunmen in their war on the PLO in Lebanon’s refugee camps in the ‘80s. Never mind that the old man implicitly recognised Israel – the ultimate betrayal of the ‘67 Khartoum Resolution – by entering into peace negotiations, first in Madrid in 1991 and then in a series of later bilateral talks, in which he pressed for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights but made no mention of occupied Palestine or Lebanon2. Never mind these and innumerable other capitulations - they were, after all, before Bashar’s time.
What then has the ophthalmologist done for Arabism since inheriting the family dictatorship? Not so much as a pebble has been launched at Israel, neither by the Syrian army nor the Palestinians in Syria, the latter of whom continue to be forbidden from doing so. Assad fils has openly continued his father’s pursuit of a peace treaty, the most recent dialogue in 2008 only being interrupted by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu (the same obstacle, incidentally, that thwarted Hafez). At the same time, he has propagated the most rabid and fanatical strains of Islamism in his dealings with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas – which, again, constitutes a rank betrayal of Arabist principle, of which staunch secularism is supposed to be a sine qua non. As Assad is now discovering to his cost in Hama and half a dozen other cities, that omelette isn’t very easily turned back into an egg.
Yet Palestinians are by no means the only Arabs viewed by the Assads as expendable subordinates to the Syrian empire. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon lasted seven years longer than the Israeli one, and brought with it not only the daily humiliations of a foreign military presence but a choking apparatus of fascism and intimidation. Bashar sustained this near-annexation of the country (whose legitimacy as a sovereign entity has always been rejected by the Syrian right wing) until as recently as 2005, when over a million Lebanese took to the streets to protest the assassination of their Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, in which Syrian involvement of some kind was and still is almost universally suspected. And in many ways, the consequent Syrian withdrawal (which was accompanied by the equally ‘mysterious’ assassinations of renowned critics of the Assad regime such as the Syrian-Palestinian-Lebanese intellectual, and genuine Arabist, Samir Kassir) was an occurrence in name only. Lebanon’s conspicuous abstention last year in a Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s violence against protestors, as well as its voting against an Arab League decision to suspend Syria’s membership in the organisation, led the Beirut-based journalist Hanin Ghaddar to write that “Now we can officially say that Syria has two governments, the one in Damascus and the one in Beirut” (disclosure: I am soon to become a colleague of Ghaddar’s at NOW Lebanon, of which she is the managing editor). And even if the mukhabarrat, or secret police, have formally left, the streets of Beirut’s bohemian Hamra district are patrolled around the clock by the shabiha, or ‘ghosts’, of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an oafish satellite of the Assad regime that takes criticism of its leader extremely poorly, as these protesters discovered last August (and as Christopher Hitchens did in a different way in 2009). As well as a self-evident threat to Lebanese Arabs, this Damascus client is also anti-Arabist in the technical sense: at the time of its founding in the 1930s by the Syrian ultra-nationalist Antun Sa’adeh, the SSNP was a determined opponent of pan-Arabism on the sub-Hitlerite grounds that the Syrian “race” is not Arabic!3 Zionists, Islamists, tenth-rate racists – with whom else has Assad collaborated in his treason against the Arab nation?
Jihadists, as it turns out. Knowing as all imperialists do that in order to rule one must first divide, and fearful above all of the emergence of a democratic Iraq (what kind of precedent would that set?), when the American-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Assad was content to grant the use of his lengthy border with his eastern neighbour to the Bin Ladenists of what became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). According to Time’s Nicholas Blanford, “analysis of al-Qaeda documents seized by American troops in Sinjar in northern Iraq [in 2006] suggested that 90% of foreign fighters entering Iraq came from Syria”. This was of course being done in the full knowledge that his ally in Tehran was financing the other side of the civil war (the Shia ranks of Muqtada al-Sadr’s ‘Mehdi Army’) on the Kissingerian principle that neither party should be permitted to win. In so doing, the great pan-Arabist contributed far more than Bush or Blair ever did to the appalling Iraqi civilian death toll (if it should turn out that it was indeed al-Qaeda behind the recent suicide bombings in Damascus, as the regime claims, it would only be an instance of the famous causal relation between reaping and sowing).
Yet, as events since 2011 have made plainer than ever, to no Arab people is Assad a greater enemy than to the Syrians themselves. Of course, we didn’t need the ‘Arab Spring’ to tell us this – take the following description of the country by Kassir in 2004:
Suffocated for forty years under a dictatorship that, although less bloodthirsty than Iraq’s, has still brutally run it into the ground, systematically bled dry by powerful mafias, and weakened by a culture of fear, Syria is now in a position almost without equivalent in the Arab world – apart perhaps from Libya, although it doesn’t have Libya’s oil – in that it combines the corruption of the former Soviet republics with a Chinese-style closed police state.4
To this abysmal record we can now add the slaughter of well over 5,000 Syrian men, women and children (and counting). What else needs to be said, other than to ask how a mass-murderer of Arabs dares to pose as the bastion and beau idéal of the Arab cause?
If Arabs are ever to ‘unite’ in any meaningful way, it will take a radical political and ideological re-think. The ‘unity’ and ‘liberty’ of the old Ba’athist slogans will not be found in the junk race theories of ethnic chauvinists; nor the petty sectarianisms of mediaeval mythologies; nor indeed the corruption and stagnation of self-interested dictators, monarchs and tribal chieftains. If the ‘Arab Spring’ is able to achieve any approximation of its promise of emancipation, it will not be by emulating but by categorically rejecting the example of Bashar al-Assad.
1 Bregman, A., El-Tahri, J., The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998), pp. 38, 69
2 Ibid., pp. 256-272
3 Kassir, S., Beirut (2010 edition, first published 2003 in French), p. 486
4 Kassir, S., Being Arab (2006 edition, first published 2004 in French), p. 20