Syria's House of Borgia

Syria's House of Borgia

Nepotism. Brutality. Treachery. The Assads would be right at home in the world of the infamous Italian ruling family.

In a geostrategically located region riven by political upheaval and military conflict, providing an arena for competition between great powers, the members of a powerful ruling family had a reputation for ruthlessness and immorality. Their exotic ancestral roots and clannish and secretive modus operandi raised doubts about the legitimacy of their rule and played into the hands of rivals at home and abroad, encouraging family leaders to exercise brute force and deceit in order to maintain their hold on power.

But after years of betraying friends and co-opting adversaries, of switching regional alliances and playing one local competitor against the other while relying on the support of foreign powers, the cunning balancing act performed by this dynasty of political survivors proved to be an ineffective strategy to holding power for the one of its young descendants.

American television viewers may learn about the political downfall at the age of twenty-eight of Cesare Borgia, the (illegitimate) son of Pope Alexander VI (born Roderic Borgia), the founder of the infamous Italian House of Borgia, next year when they watch season II of The Borgias, the series that aired on Showtime in 2011 (British actor Jeremy Irons plays Pope Alexander VI).

And it is quite possible that Americans will also know in 2012 whether Syrian President Bashar Assad, the son of Hafiz Assad, the founder of the most notorious dynasty in the contemporary Levant will remain in charge in Damascus.

The Borgias, like the Medicis, the Sforzas and the other ruling families of Renaissance Italy helped foster a cultural environment that produced men of genius and some of the greatest works of art. By contrast, the Assads rule over Syria at a time when the country—and the entire Arab Middle East—experienced an overwhelming civilizational decay.

But while the Assads and other Levantine dynasties—the Jumbalatts, the Gemayels, the Chamouns—did not cultivate a Leonardo or a Michelangelo, they did embrace the kind of an approach to ruling states and conducting politics—including nepotism, brutality and treachery—that would be very familiar to the Borgias.

It is not surprising perhaps that the Borgias, who were Spanish (decried by their enemies as Marrani, reference to the Spanish Jews who publicly converted to Catholicism but continued to practice their old religion), and the Assads, members of the minority religious group, the Alawites, seen as a shadowy offshoot of Shiite Islam, would continue to feel as outsiders amongst many of their respective subjects—Syria’s Arab-Sunni majority and Italian Catholics—who suspected them of being alien and illegitimate interpolates.

That sense of political insecurity may explain why both the Assads and the Borgias never put their trust in anyone who was not a member of the family; and even when it came to the la famillia or the al 'a'ila, one never knew. Hence the conspiracy theories regarding the mysterious deaths of Giovanni Borgia and Basil el-Assad, the older sons and contenders to the thrones.

Moreover, alliances with local and regional players as well as with the great powers of the day were based on the one-night-stand rule, unprincipled and non-sentimental partnerships aimed at protecting the survival and advancing the interests of the two dynasties and the states they controlled.

Both Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia did their best to strengthen their family’s rule over the papacy and expand the influence of the Papal States on central and northern Italy—where they were trying to establish a principality in Romagna—that would compete with Venice and Naples for the control of the Italian peninsula. The strategy required turning of the strategically situated city-state of Florence into a client of Borgias and the forming of ad hoc coalitions with France, Spain and Austria, the great powers that were battling for influence in Italy.

The Assads’ strategic goal of controlling the Syrian state, by ruthlessly repressing potential rivals and achieving a dominant position in Greater Syria required achieving hegemony over neighboring Lebanon (by playing the rival sects there—Maronites, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze—against each other) and by exploiting the Palestinian issue to counterbalance the main regional threat, Israel, and its de facto ally, Jordan. Military alliances with regional and outside powers (the Soviet Union, Nasserist Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran) and occasionally tacit cooperation with Israel were some of the major components in a very complex strategy of survival.

Machiavelli, who as an official with the Florentine government had witnessed the death and destruction brought about by religious fanatics—or “armed prophets” as he described them—and who later served as a diplomat in Borgia’s court, reflected quite admiringly on Cesare’s political and military career in his classic study of statecraft, The Prince. He cited Cesare as an example of a leader who practiced politics not on the basis on wishful thinking and moralistic (Christian) virtues, but more like scientific experiments—dealing with political reality as it is and not as it ought to be. Playing a major role in influencing that reality is fortune (fortuna), which in the case of Cesare—the sudden death of Pope Alexander VI which ended of the Borgias’ control over the papacy—was responsible for his fall.

In answer to his own question of “whether it is better to be loved than feared,” Machiavelli did respond that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved and he warned that “too much mercy,” on the part of leaders, “allows disorders to go on, from which spring killings or depredations.” Cesare Borgia “was considered cruel” he recalled. Nonetheless, “that cruelty united Romagna and brought it peace and stability.”

But it would be wrong to caricature the Florentine diplomat and political philosopher as a cynical apologist for despotism, as a, well, Machiavellian. While not an advocate of modern liberal democratic principles, Machiavelli was a defender of traditional republican values of liberty and opposed any form of tyranny. He was not only interested in discovering the most effective ways of using political power but also focused on the ultimate goals of using that power—protecting the security and providing for the well-being of the leader’s subjects, envisioning Cesare as unifier of Italy as a powerful and prosperous state that will reward all its citizens.

So while Machiavelli may have sympathized with the Assads’ concerns about maintaining order in Syria and containing the threat of radical Islamists, he would probably find the dynasty’s latest saga quite distressing and raise questions about the “realism” of trying to secure the status-quo in Syria by killing its citizens and antagonizing a regional partner (Turkey) as well as leading global players (the US and the European Union) while placing all the diplomatic eggs in the Iranian basket.

“President Assad, I served with Cesare Borgia, I knew Cesare Borgia, Cesare Borgia was a friend of mine. President Assad, you're no Cesare Borgia,” Machiavelli would say, recalling that—as viewers of The Borgias will find out next year—Cesare, who was exiled to Spain, was killed during a military battle there, and predicting that Bashar will not be showing valor or courage any time soon.