Battle for the Soul of Syria

Syrians are bucking their Arab-nationalist chains and roiling in the streets. They're in for the fight of their lives.

Earlier this year, as Tunisians and Egyptians clamored—and died—to depose their respective nations’ presidents-for-life, Syria’s dictator-MD, Bashar al-Assad, sat for a lengthy Wall Street Journal interview, boasting buoyantly of his regime’s endurance, revealing with an ophthalmologist’s eye the secrets of his popularity and his country’s stability. Syria will not go the way of Egypt and Tunisia, he bragged, because Syria has remained true to its Arab-nationalist engagements. Unflinchingly, it stands sentry against Zionist designs and American pressures, valiantly bucking the capitulations embraced all too avidly by other Arabs, bearing proudly the standard of Palestinian rejectionism. In the words of modern Syria’s poet laureate, Nizar Qabbani, in an age of surrender and abdication Syria has proven its mettle as the guardian of “Arab honor,” while

others dropped their last cloaks of decency../ jubilantly../ Then they danced/ and applauded themselves for having signed the peace of the cowards…/ For, nothing frightens them anymore, and nothing shames them anymore../ The vigor of dignity has run dry in their veins…

But not Syria! Not “Suurya al-Assad” (“the Lion’s Syria”) to use the phraseology of the regime’s minions. And Assad made sure his Wall Street Journal interviewers relayed this stirring poetry of his staying power: that intransigence begets eternal life, and Arab-nationalist bluster is a fine recipe for stability in a predatory Middle East. Besides, unlike Mubarak and the rest, Assad was close to his people (he lied with the chilling cynicism of an abusive parent), dreaming their dreams, upholding their aspirations, promoting their interests and seeking justice on their behalf. The key to Syria’s stability, he boasted, is that “you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people [… and] when there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have […] disturbance.”

Then “disturbance” came rattling Assad’s gates, from inside his citadel, in spite of his being ostensibly “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” To say that he might be eating his words today—a mere four months after having tossed them in the face of his skeptics—may be the understatement of the year. Not only have the regime’s Arab-nationalist affectations been bucked by the demonstrators, the roiling Syrian streets seemed as keen on affirming their diversity as they were intent on divorcing themselves from Assad’s stale narratives and demanding his departure.

Meeting in Antalya, Turkey earlier this month, a group of Syrian expats, academics, and exiled dissidents reaffirmed the desiderata of their besieged compatriots at home. Their Final Declaration came as follows:

Participants in the Syria Conference for Change affirm that the Syrian people are a composite of many ethnicities, including Arabs, Kurds, Chaldaeo-Assyrian, Circassians, Armenians, and others. The conference recognizes and asserts the legitimate and equal rights of all of these constitutive elements of Syrian identity, and demands their protection under a new Syrian constitution to be founded on the principles of civil state, pluralistic parliamentary democracy, and national unity.

No mention of the Golan Heights (conquered by Israel in 1967); no mention of the hallowed Arabness of Syria (the Assads’ favored trope of the past forty years); and no mention of Palestine (the mother of all Arab causes)! By shirking the obscene symbols, histrionics, and language that have kept in place a hated regime—and in the name of an abstract ideology that scorned diversity—Syrians seemed to be signaling their readiness for the post-Arab era beckoning at their doorsteps.

Although long overdue, this outcome was not unexpected. Even in 1955, at the pinnacle of Arab nationalist sentiment, Michel Aflaq—the Syrian-Christian founder and chief ideologue of the Arab Baath Party—bemoaned the weak appeal that Arabism had among early twentieth century Levantines—his fellow Syrians included. In his nationalist manifesto, For the Sake of Arab Resurrection, Aflaq wrote that seldom were the terms “Arab” or “Arab identity” part of the national consciousness or the political lexicon of Syrians, and rarely were such terms ever used in the Arabic language to foist a distinct Arabic identity upon the Syrian people. Indeed, claimed Aflaq, Syrian political leaderships during the 1930s made use of the term “Syrian” as a sort of talisman, to resolve the complexities of their region’s ethno-religious and racial mosaics. He admitted that “Syria was a term intended to bring together disparate Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and non-Arab minorities, under the single banner of a distinct ‘national identity’.” But as a committed Arabist, Aflaq rejected the legitimacy of the term “Syria” and claimed it to be “a strictly regional, not a national, designation.” To him, “Arab” was the choice term defining the crucible of identities that is Syria, and he preached an unforgiving, brutal, and coercive form of Arabism to enforce and normalize this view.

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