Assad Dynasty Crumbles

Syrians were sold the false bill of Arab nationalism. Why the myth is ending.

 Perhaps The Tempest’s “past as prologue” is not an unfair depiction of Syria’s turbulent present days, and its future days to come. In 1972, Syrian-born poet Ali Ahmad Said (known to the world by his penname “Adonis”) was already lamenting Syria’s fractured nature, and in his own way, seemed to be predicting today’s upheavals and heralding the dissolution of the Syrian Arab Republic. Through most of his poetic and political writings, Adonis called on his countrymen to renounce Arabism, celebrate their cultural and ethnic diversity, “bury the ignoble face of Arab history,” and lay to rest its dull heritage and rigid traditions.[1] Even his penname, Adonis, borrowed from Phoenician and Greek mythology, was adopted as a challenge to Arabist pieties, as advocacy for death and renewal, and as a way of slaying all elements of a previous existence and engaging new, dynamic, regenerated identities. “The magic of Arab culture has ended [… and] I am puzzled, my country,” wrote Adonis in A Lull Between the Ashes and the Roses:

For, each time I see you, you will have donned a different form, / […] Are you a graveyard or a rose? / I see you as children, dragging / their entrails behind them, resigned, bowing obediently / before their shackles, wearing / for each crack of the whip a corresponding skin… […] You have killed me, you have killed my songs / Are you a bloodbath / or a revolution? / I am puzzled, my country, for each time I see you, you will have donned a different form… […] / … and I chant my own calamity, and I can no longer see myself save as a man on the fringes of history, teetering on a razor’s edge / I should hope to begin a new beginning, but where? From where? How shall I describe myself and in which of my languages must I speak? For, this [Arabic] language that suckles me, also cheats and betrays me / I shall embalm and purify her, and resurrect myself on the edge of a time that has passed, walking on the edge of a time that is yet to come.[2]

This is the legacy of Arab nationalism in Syria; a legacy defined by despondency, servitude, suppression, and tragedy. Adonis spoke of his perplexity at the rigidity and narrowness of this sort of culture and history in modern Syria—and perhaps even at the ambiguities of the “Arab world” at large. He indicted the language, cultural assumptions, and political traditions of Arab nationalism. Adonis’s point of reference was the ruthless Baathist Syria of Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad, the country’s current (embattled) dictator. And so, the funereal qualities of Adonis’s themes were reflections on the despair, hopelessness, and isolation engendered by an Arab nationalism depicted as a form of “cultural pollution”: a jingoistic ethos as it were, that rejected diversity, negated the “other,” and denied the legitimacy of the “other” in language, temperament, and social habits.[3] Syria’s Arab nationalist political culture, claimed Adonis, was one “completely closed on itself,” incompatible with the country’s checkered history, and ill-disposed to the Middle East’s rich, textured layers of identities.[4]

The irony of it all is that both Adonis and the Assads of Syria are shorn of the same minoritarian cloth. Both are children of the Levantine catacombs, issuing from the same hated, hunted, heretical Alawite community, victims of centuries of brute oppression and persecution by mainstream Sunni Islam—and more recently by way of Sunni Islam’s modern Arab nationalist incarnation. But while Adonis sought to remedy his minoritarian status by advocating for an expansive, spacious conception of identity—celebrating diversity as opposed to Arabist conformism—the Assads co-opted the dominant “Arab” identity of their former executioners, turning Arabism into their armor of minority self-rule and a shrine for their self-preservation.

Adonis was born in 1930, in the Alawite village of Qassabin. A secluded hamlet nestled between the Levantine port-city of Latakieh—the ancient Greco-Roman Laodicea—and the highest point in the Alawite Mountains, Qassabin was a natural extension of the nearby Lebanon mountain range. Like his Alawite birthplace, dangling on the edge of an ancient Phoenician promontory wading deep into the Mediterranean Sea, Adonis was the outcome of a conflation of geographic, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic elements; a mishmash of traditions and historical memories. Given this background, the intellectual and political trajectory of Adonis, eluding Arabism, was perhaps easy to foretell.

But so was Hafez al-Assad born in 1930, in the confines of the same Alawite Mountains, to a family steeped in overt antipathies toward Arabism and Arab nationalism. Indeed, Hafez al-Assad’s father, Suleiman al-Assad, was among a number of Alawite notables who, until 1944, had feverishly lobbied the French Mandatory authorities against attaching the autonomous State of the Alawites (which the French had established in 1920) to a projected Syrian Republic. The Syrians were too ethnically fragmented to merit a single unitary state, argued the Alawites of the early twentieth century. In a June 1936 memorandum addressed to the cabinet of French Prime Minister Léon Blum, Suleiman al-Assad held that any future united Arab Syrian entity would put in place a regime dominated by fanaticism and intolerance toward non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities:

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