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Syria’s merciless history

'The Syrian Rebellion,' by Fouad Ajami, is an unflinching book that doesn't offer much hope

If anything proves the absence of a civic religion of nationalism in the Arab world it is the bloody mayhem now coursing through the Maghreb and the Middle East, right up to the western centers of Asian Islam at the trembling lips of old Russia. Even more impoverished is the hyperbolic notion of pan-Arabism, although ritual words are still expended on its behalf in that there is a 22-member cross-purposed League of Arab States including “Palestine,” Djibouti, Comoros and Sudan — the last being a genocidal desert-entity halved by civil war but otherwise under the diplomatic protection of Arab states. The last tangible phantasm of Pan-Arabism, however, made its debut in 1958 as the United Arab Republic, which combined Syria, Egypt and Yemen until the curtain came down in 1961 due to the fact that these countries had virtually nothing in common save their language. Oh, yes, they also hated each other. The Six Day War actually exhausted the idea. Nonetheless, as Elie Kedourie wrote, even if “there was no visible leader to take up the banner of Pan-Arabism, the doctrine, radical in its rhetoric and divisive in its application, still remained the staple of Arab political discourse.” This is one of those cases of classic political self-deception.

Damascus had been, along with Baghdad, the center in which the western phenomenon of nationalism was actually birthed among the Arabs in the nineteenth century. No surprise: here was a concentrated variety of always-nervous Christians, Arab intellectuals literate in European languages, and emancipated Jews breathing the air of 1848. Ironically, even the governing Ottomans played a role in the ideological emancipation of those over whom they ruled. The Turkish nargile, for example, welcomed women into the conversant cafes of cosmopolitan Araby as the cigarette later paved the way for women in Paris. Or vise versa. In any case, Islam turned out to be part of the soft underbelly of sultanic rule in that its religious undertones and overtones alienated both churchgoer and modernizer. Insofar as the union of modernization and liberalization turned out everywhere else to be rooted in a tolerant nation-state, however, it is no surprise that Syria’s successes have been limited to more or less successful tyrannies. But even a tyranny does not last forever, especially if its underbelly is inter-group hatred and brutality which Syria’s certainly was. The Assad clan — first Hafez, pappa; second, Bashaar — has ruled in this way for four decades.

Neighboring Syria and Iraq have similar structural demographic profiles, although the ruling small minority of Alawites in the former is entirely absent from the latter, while Christian sects vary from one country to the other. Shiites numerically predominate in both Lebanon, to Syria’s west and south; and in Iraq, to its east. But you can count them on one hand in Syria. Each of these three states is a jumble of jealous and zealous groups and grouplets which, one is tempted to say, destines them to chaos. No QED needed here. Michel Aflaq, the first attractive personality named in what I am certain will be Fouad Ajami’s contemporary classic “The Syrian Rebellion,” was a paradigmatic dreamer-intellectual — but not without the stern discipline to rouse both thinker and crowd, upending feudalism, Nasserism and the remnants of an ethno-denominational confederation evocative of cartographical Europe before the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. He, Greek Orthodox by creed, and another comrade, Ajami narrates, made a stab at a real nation by founding the Syrian Ba’ath, as others made a Ba’ath revolution in Iraq. Hopeless, hopeless were their premises and promises. In the end, no liberty, no real socialism, no religious tolerance. God draws blood every time.

'The Syrian Rebellion,' by Fouad Ajami
‘The Syrian Rebellion,’ by Fouad Ajami

In Iraq, as in Syria over the last decades, a small minority — “narrowly-based state elites,” he called them in “The Arab Predicament” (1981) — governed, and cruelly. Both regimes were made up of jailers and killers, unconsciously competitive at their work. In the last months, the Syrian version, more audacious, more obvious, came out on top in this bloody competition. And, at last look, no one really tried to stop these Arabs from killing each other. Salut to George Bush who tried with some success to bring down the Sunni homicide machine in Iraq, only to have it rise up again in periodic butchery of Shiite pilgrims — ironically in a Shiite-dominated country under a Shiite regime with an enormous Shiite neighbor in Iran. The bitter fact is that “only yesterday” was the bloodiest day of the year. An unreliable count — unreliable on the low side — put the death toll at 100 and the wounded and maimed at 300 in a procession of bombings and other attacks across Iraq. The New York Times, oh, so sensitive to casting aspersions on any group, failed to note that the mass homicide was carried out by Sunnis. One thing we do know is that it wasn’t Chabad.

Of course, we are now dealing with contemporary history, which is an exacting discipline, so exacting that many writers are content to deal with their subjects as journalism. But Ajami, aspiring to a comprehensive understanding of the chaotics of Arab politics, has now for three decades been writing a chronicle of the present. It is remarkable, incidental details aside, how unchanging the realities are — and how brutal. Ajami is among the rare Arab and Arab-descendant scholars who do not flinch from the depressing truth. Contrast Ajami, for example, with Edward Said’s life back-up, Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University — where such doctrine is part of the syllabus — and his views on Pan-Arab nationalism, namely that “its continued existence (as revealed for example during Arab summit meetings and in the functioning of the Arab League) is evidence that the bonds of Arabism are still important today.” Now, “today” then was after the Gulf War. Today’s “today” is after the misnamed “Arab Spring.” This is pathetic. No Arab summit meeting has ever achieved anything, save the one time after the 1967 Six Day War when, at Colonel Qaddafi’s initiative, the powers big and small proclaimed in Khartoum that there was to be “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.” Every Arab state followed the nutcase leader. Big achievement.

Nearly every regime in the Arab League is now lined up against Syria, but not because it is waging a uniquely savage war, and not even because this savage war is aimed at fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims. The cosmic sin is that the targets of this mayhem are Sunni Arabs, a majority in the country and a majority in the universe of Muslims worldwide. The offenders are not even authentic Shiites but Alawites who, Ajami makes clear, constitute an idiosyncratic Muslim sect which other Muslims say isn’t authentically Muslim. Musa al-Sadr, a learned Shiite cleric who disappeared in the desert vastness of the aforementioned colonel and about whom Ajami wrote “The Vanished Imam,” did welcome them to the broader faith. But no number of Shiite scholars could persuade the Islamic mainstream. Nonetheless, Syria does have allies. The first of them, outside the Arab League, is Iran, for which Syria did favors in Tehran’s remote war against Israel. As everybody has pointed out, Syria is Iran’s frontline with the Jewish State. Poor Lebanon: ethnically and religiously riven, the country’s Shiites are mobilized primarily against, yes, Israel. But Assad needs Hezbollah and also arms it. When he is gone, Hassan Nasrallah will have lost his transfer agent. Still, he has weapons aplenty — enough to wage war over Lebanon’s southern border. And to wage civil war in his own country, which has known such war before. Maybe, God willing, the blood flowing through Iraq’s streets will keep it from troubling with its neighbors.

Ajami makes a corrosive case against President Obama and his “speak vaguely” and “do little” foreign policy. As I read “The Syrian Rebellion,” its author attributes to the president an ignorance of history, equivocation almost as a high ideal, dispassion in the face of bloody circumstance. Do not alarm the public. Be cool. How could it have been otherwise when, in his maiden speech to and about the Middle East in Cairo during June of 2009, his words were so assured and reassuring: culture, science even, diplomacy, tolerance, peace, the Islamic marvel. The only chastising sentiments were towards America and the West, ourselves. The fact is, moreover, that in subsequent months and into 2011 the president aspired to be Hafez Assad’s inamorato, so to speak, and Hillary Clinton his inamorata. The two and their diplomatic cohort, save for Dennis Ross, seemed to believe that they could disentangle Assad from his history, his family, his psychological rearing, his fear of the Sunnis, his hatred of the Jews. What his charms are it is difficult to ascertain, although Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, found enough to publish in her magazine last year a feature about his chic wife, “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies” whose “mission was to put a modern face on her husband’s regime.” Ms. Wintour recently hosted a fashionable fundraiser in New York for the president.

This is an unflinching book. It does not really offer much hope, although there are almost as coda a few stirring portraits of quietly heroic women and men ready to continue the fight. Ajami ends with his desire.

One thing is certain, the people of Syria have shown their determination in the face of merciless terror. The bonds between them and their rulers have been severed. Amid the suffering, Syrians stubbornly recall a better country. May they know the grace of the normalcy that has eluded them for so long.

His Conradian prose — English is Ajami’s fourth language — both in narrative and in argument, almost persuades me, although “Nostromo,” Conrad’s greatest novel, turns virtue on its head. But this is history, and it has no mercy and it gives no grace.

About the Author
Martin Peretz was editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1974 to 2011