Syria’s endless crisis

by Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


Francisco Franco was a dictator. Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Josip Brosz Tito and countless others were known as dictators. They stayed in power for life or strove for it, they eliminated their opponents and restricted political pluralism. Yet none of these figures worked to install ruling dynasties, or to make the state their private property, real estate indeed, or to make “eternity”—and the endless war against the future that it requires—a principal objective of their rule.

The Assadist state in Syria has been based on extermination, not mere “repression,” of its people ever since Hafez al-Asad came to power in 1970. As such it is a universal problem rather than an exclusively Syrian one. To envisage the ruling regime in Syria as a dictatorship is to place it in a broad category applicable to many regimes in formerly colonized countries today, and in Europe itself less than two generations ago. This would normalize Assad’s rule; in fact compliment it; taking away its uniqueness in criminality, and preventing a necessary progression in political thought, at both the Syrian and global levels.

Eternity, dynastic rule, and the privatized state are what distinguishes contemporary Syria from other dictatorships. Here, the state is not used to align society politically. It is not a nationalist state practicing repression, but rather a state devoid of nationalism, dealing in political enslavement, or in a master-follower relationship; refusing to share power; crushing all conceivable objections to its eternity and dynasty with extreme violence. The etymological kinship in Arabic between eternity (abad) and extermination (ibada) makes it possible to imagine that eternity cannot be achieved without extermination. Such, at any rate, is consistent with the path taken by the Assads père et fils. In the case of the father, tens of thousands were killed, arrested, and tortured, and thousands more were disappeared for two decades in Tadmor (Palmyra) prison in order that the subordination of those not jailed for a long time would be permanent.

“Eternity” became a political slogan in Syria in the 1980s, in powerful connection with rampant massacres and extermination. By extermination, I mean the broadening of killing for the purpose of securing power over time, and of preventing change. Killing here is not punitive, nor even retributive; it is extirpative, aimed at enslaving those not yet killed and eternalizing the rule of the dynasty. The numbers of killed may be twenty or thirty thousand by the early 1980s, and six hundred thousand between 2011 and 2019, but what matters is less the precise number than the shock and destruction that enable the securing of private ownership of the state for a period of time with no visible end. This private ownership was indeed secure throughout the years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule, and for a decade after his death and the launch of dynastic rule.

The outcomes of father’s and son’s rules differed, and the number of victims and displaced, and the scale of destruction, were incomparably larger under the son. In 2011 it was a nation-wide grassroots revolution, pluralist in values and social components, and initially peaceful. However, there is little doubt that Bashar’s state is adherent of the Hafez tradition, rather than originators of their own one. Their aim is to destroy the revolutionaries and their social environments, and terrify society as a whole, so as to enjoy rule for generations without interruption, and without politics, just as Hafez did before them.

Moreover, killing tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, as opposed to millions or tens of millions, is entirely contingent; nothing in the makeup of the regime stops it at the lower numbers. What can limit the number or increase it are the conditions surrounding the project of eternity. In the genocide literature, there’s a discussion around whether large exterminations are a result of premeditated intent (“intent” being a term used in the United Nations’ definition of genocide in the 1948 Convention), or instead are unplanned situations. I think a third dimension is missing from this discussion; one connected to the structure of the elite in the exterminating state, their memory, historical precedents, and political predispositions. It’s not necessary that there be a clear intention to exterminate in advance from the beginning, but the structure supports or makes certain tendencies more likely than others, benefiting in any case from available circumstances or from accidents of history. For example, the Russian-Chinese protection at the Security Council since the autumn of 2011, and the emergence of the jihadists, and the regime’s escaping of punishment after the chemical massacre in Ghouta in August 2013, and many others besides. Were the Assad regime ever punished seriously for its crimes, that would have limited the extermination of its subjects. Immunity from punishment provides the most suitable conditions for extermination.

While the dictatorial regime is a problem for its subjects, the exterminationist regime is a global problem, because its eternity-seeking structure contains nothing to stop it. It was asking a very great deal indeed of Syrians to resolve the problem of their regime of mass destruction, given how much international support and indifference it enjoyed. It isn’t only that there’s no prospect of toppling Assad’s rule, but rather that the world’s powers appear to prefer that it remains.

The world is in crisis. We have a global problem the world hasn’t resolved—indeed, one it has shielded and protected. A “space of exception” was accepted in Syria, in which killing occurs around the clock for months and years. As Giorgio Agamben elucidated in his analysis of the “state of exception,” it is not an exception to the norm; rather it is the exception that produces the norms, or that establishes the possibilities arising today. The Syrian space of exception has already established global norms. If Israel allows itself to kill Palestinians demonstrating peacefully, as it did on al-‘Ard (Land) Day in 2018 with impunity; and if Sisi of Egypt shows a fascist face and execute more young Egyptians, so that Egypt doesn’t “become like Syria” (as is also openly said today of Jordan and Iran); then this is a sign that the Syrian exception has become a basis upon which new boundaries of power can be explored, in these countries and globally. To put it another way, after Syria, extermination has become a sovereign possibility in the world of states.

The optimal space of exception is, according to Agamben, the concentration camp, where “everything can happen.” The Syrian equivalents of this are Tadmor prison in Hafez’ years and Saydnaya in his son Bashar’s. With the Tadmorization of Syria in the last eight years the space of exception has spread across the country. When the concentration camp becomes an entire country, the world in its entirety becomes the country surrounding this camp. And just as Tadmor is useful in terrifying all Syrians, the Syrian space of exception is useful in terrifying the world, as the examples of Egypt, Iran, and Jordan demonstrate. Let us not forget here that the Middle East is an extended space of exception from international law itself, based on a hierarchy of power with Israel at the top, and the ruling cliques of the Arab states just beneath it. There is a structural resemblance between Assad’s “for eternity” and Israel’s “here to stay” slogans. But our eternity pertains to dynasty, not the state of the Syrian people.

Syria has shown, over eight years, that political thought in the world is in crisis; that it failed to respond to the challenge of the Syrian exception in an effective way, one that took part in stopping the killing and devastation, and promoted politics, or at least took notice of the annihilation and tried to revolutionize thought of the conditions of the state and democracy and the world. There was rumination on traditional discourses about sovereignty, about imperialism and “regime change,” and about intervention and non-intervention (without the slightest moral consistency regarding the latter: intervention by Western forces against parties other than the regime was fine, as was intervention by Russia, Iran, and their proxies in favor of the regime). At root, it is always assumed that the Assad regime is a dictatorship like any other in the worst case, or else a victim of an imperialist conspiracy. This is worse than a failure of analysis; it is an ethical failure, and a failure of feeling.

It ought to have been in the nature of thinking about the Syrian exception that it led to fruitful developments in social theory and political thought, in the way that thinking about the Nazi concentration camps, and Nazism itself, and Stalinism, led to important advances of that kind, e.g. the Frankfurt school, or Arendt’s and Agamben’s interventions. Today there is an urgent need to reconstruct emancipatory political thought around the present extermination regime as a paradigm of a globally-protected space of exception. Without thinking about the Syrian exception, about the Syrian concentration camp, in the country and the world at large, we are unlikely to see new norms, new institutions, and new systems of justice. Not one global institution has emerged in relation to the Syrian event. This is a sign of Syrians’ ostracization from the world; a sign that the world feels no need to change anything or introduce anything new on Syrians’ account.

Yet the world does feel that it’s in crisis, even if it’s confused about its origins. The international system is in a grave crisis because it refused to take note of the exceptionality of the Syrian situation, and thus was unable to deal with it in a manner demonstrating its effectiveness. The problem is that political thought in the world, and the international system, and the world, and the nominal left, are in crisis, and nobody wants to see that the Syrian space of exception, or the exterminationist state in Syria, are a fundamental headline of this crisis, if not indeed its essence.

As such, the future of the crisis is assured, no need to worry about that.



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