When the situation began to palpably deteriorate for the Assads of Syria, one question kept circulating with more frenzy than all others: Did it have to be this way for the family?
It seemed like Bashar had an assortment of options at his disposal that could have helped him avoid the unenviable fate that is now staring him in the face. He could have delivered swift justice for the children of Dara’, for starters. He could have reined in his shabiha, depended less on military solutions, opted for more dramatic reform politics… He had the state, the security apparatus, the army, the commercial classes, the Christians and Alawites, Aleppo and Damascus, and, for a while there, even Obama.
Bashar, the story went, could have played it differently and come out the victor. In fact, as Bassem Haddad penned it in MERIP, Bashar could have played it differently way before the uprising.
But then, that’s not how the Assads came to rule Syria. Its not that they were lulled into a false sense of infallibility after 42 years of reign, although the cards certainly appeared well stacked on their side of the deck. It’s that, for them, to lose even a bit of grip on power meant to lose grip over all of it. The nature of this family’s sway is not just the nature of Hafez Assad and his kin, it is the stuff of centuries’ long Alawite wretchedness under Sunni rule. However successful this community has been in joining mainstream life, however eager the Assads have been to subsume their identity in a larger Arab nationalist one, the dichotomies that had long crisscrossed Syrian society were not erased so much as they were papered over by a thick veneer of Ba’athism, cooptation of the Sunni sect and pseudo-secular policies. That’s why Assad, very soon after the uprising, decided to turn the fight into a sectarian conflict: he knew Syrian earth was fertile ground for his strategy.
A few months ago, I heard it said by sources close to the palace that when Bashar early on pondered the possibilities of give and take with some opposition figures, his maternal uncle Mohammad Makhlouf, the grand patriarch after Hafez, made it clear that the President had it all mixed up in his head: it was the family that presided over the country, and the family forbade any such discussions.
And when the regime finally gave way on the presence of foreign observers on Syrian soil and on reforms, cosmetic though they were, it was largely due to Russian insistence. As usual, no amount of internal pressures impels the Assads to deal; only foreign ones push their buttons that way.
One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, we shall learn much about what really went on in the Assad household. But, hard as it is to believe in the midst of this turmoil, friends of the family tell of exit negotiations running round the clock for weeks now. Whichever way it goes for the Assads—a retreat to their Alawite enclave and/or an engineered exit through a pre-arranged handover to old-time allies like Mnaf Tlass, or even an overplayed hand that ends in tragedy for them, much like the tragedies visited upon many Syrians since the revolt…-- their era is all but rubble.
Not surprisingly, the doomsday scenarios for both Syria and the Levant abound. Veteran journalist Helena Cobban can see a breakup of postcolonial systems through missteps and miscalculations if not outright intent. Others predict, at the least, chaos for Syria for years to come.
When considering the future, it might be useful to note that, so far, not a single regional or international power has shown a stomach for a complete retooling of the postcolonial setup. In the current tumult, there are no signs of grand designs, just makeshift strategies and tactics made on the run. We forget that the effective cover given to Bashar over the past year and a half did not come only courtesy of Russia. Had the West resolved to dislodge him outright or wreak havoc on the country and the area beyond, it would have long ago abandoned the United Nations as the primary conduit of policy. Instead, a gradual tightening of the noose was deemed safer in the long run, while an enfeebled Syria had already begun to twist regional adversaries Hezbollah and Iran in knots.
To cite the Lebanese precedent by way of a preview of Syria’s own civil strife is to misunderstand it. Lebanon lit up for 17 years not because it was so precious, but because it was not. The neighbors and a medley of other encroachers were happy to fight their little wars over it for so long because they could afford to without much consequence to them, and because, well, the Lebanese themselves did not quite mind it so much.
You might, right about now, want to shoot Iraq my way. But you’d be too quick to the trigger. The mosaic of unnerved sects aside, there is not much in that country’s recent experience that is comparable to Syria’s. The US invaded Iraq--perhaps the most inept imperial venture of modern times—resulting in a catastrophic loss to the region’s Sunni dominions. While Iran wanted to ensure US failure, Arab Sunni monarchies wanted to undercut Shiite ascendance in this vital environ. Syria itself wanted in, if only to keep the disturbingly combative Bush administration at bay. The makings of a civil war were all there. And yet, as battered and dysfunctional as Iraq is today, it is still holding on to its collective self for dear life, ten years after the American invasion.
Moreover, the Middle East has become palpably more unpredictable since the Arab revolts. In this explosive environment, Syria is a coveted prize; in bits it’s a powder keg. Those competing for it, therefore, would like to keep it intact, not break it into warring pieces precisely because its dismantlement may well mean the collapse of the Fertile Crescent as the West conceived it after World War I.
True, we could be witnessing the inevitable withering of that imposed arrangement, the final chapter in a crisis of legitimacy (or is it illegitimacy?) that has characterized nearly a century of artificial political geographies. One by one, they might fall: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, shards hitting Turkey, Eastern Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Bahrain, Kuwait… Certainly, the sheer velocity of collisions inside Syria might prove too overwhelming for a society forced to battle so many of its own sectarian demons. However, because conflicting interests are, by a collapsing Syria, similarly threatened, the bet is that the combined effort will be towards saving it.
The Assads, some insist, would like the end of them to be the end of Syria itself. Perhaps, but they don’t necessarily have the critical mass to make of this nightmare a reality. Iran might lend a hand, but why would it, with such high stakes, at a minimum, in precarious Iraq?
There is, of course, Israel. But, again, Israel, pre-Arab revolts, may have judged that it would thrive best in the midst of a strife-riven Levant, but one of its own making, where it acts as puppeteer, not a dangerously uncontrollable one of which it might yet become a casualty. Besides, why light up the area when a weakened Syria, much like a weakened Iraq, will very likely spend years trying to sort itself out. And, dare we suggest that a domesticated Sunni-dominated polity might offer up borders just as quiet as the Assads have kept them since 1973.
Which brings us to Hezbollah. It is undeniable that without the breathing space, the logistical routes and the underground support long extended by Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah would be left perilously exposed in any future faceoff with Israel. Equally, however, a turbulent Syria that is home to all manner of Salafi radicalism and free for all conspiracies would sap the energies of a Shiite force coerced into navigating in a sea of hostile Sunnis. While, ironically, it would no longer have to defend its armed status in either scenario, its critical positioning as a resistance movement would be dealt a crippling blow under both.
In truth, Hezbollah’s discomforts did not start with those of the Assads. In a way, the organization has been too successful for its own good. For the Shiites of Lebanon, it has provided first and foremost protection and relevance. But more critically, for Iran and Syria, this powerhouse’s unique talent for multitasking has been a boon on too many fronts to count. And it goes without saying that, in that thick portfolio of achievements, 2000 and 2006 stand out. To kick an occupying Israeli army out of Arab land and years later deny it its standard devastating military victory was the stuff of fiction before the arrival of this party of God. These feats were more than enough to stretch the movement’s appeal beyond sect and country. More than that, they helped it hold on to its many potentially combustible identities.
But Hezbollah’s juggling act, ever since Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, and Syria’s retreat from Lebanon itself in 2005, has grown progressively trickier. Its burgeoning reach, which took it to the pinnacle of Lebanon’s sectarian politics and from there to the center of a notoriously prickly Arab playing field, made the challenge all the more herculean and consequential for the party’s standing.
Back in early 2010, right after Hezbollah issued a new manifesto, which was designed to reconcile its evolving commitments, I wrote:
From occupation to liberation, from the wretched earth of downtrodden Shiism to the heights of sectarian power, from the womb of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran to the warm bosom of warring Lebanon; from resistance, pure and simple, to the infinitely trickier threesome of resistance, deterrence and governance: this has been the journey of Hezbollah over the past two decades. It’s a movement that’s been there, done that, and the manifesto is meant to reflect the wisdom it has acquired along the way.
…It would like to believe that there is no friction between the demands of armed resistance and the imperatives of political governance. And so long as the threat of Israel and the frailty of Lebanon continue to offer the pretext and Syria and Iran continue to give cover, this marriage, peaceful or not, will last.
And, lately, it has not been that peaceful for Hezbollah. Corruption scandals, rampant drug dealing and protection rackets in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs, intelligence breakdowns in its previously impenetrable ranks and high pitched confessional bickering have taken their toll on the party.
To boot, Syria’s Assad, remarkably, is falling, further pressing this feisty member of the Syrian-Iranian rejectionist axis to contend with its quarrelsome identities.
Criticism of the organization picked up very soon after Syria itself went up in arms. It was attacked, even by some longtime admirers, for its unwavering support for the Assads, as if it had any choice, or more bluntly still, as if it had any other preference. Hypocrisy was the charge. After all, they asked, what made the revolt against Mubarak or the khalifas of Bahrain so easy to condone and against Assad so easy to condemn?
On its face, the question seems unbearably rhetorical and too stupid to ask. But that’s largely a reflection of the mess the revolts have caused for the old Arab politics. So long as the Arab people, wherever they resided, stayed quiet, the many faces of liberation could lurk just as quietly under deep garb. In pursuit of human dignity and justice, the struggle for Palestine would suffice. And if the people revolted solely against unfriendly despots, all the better—and all the more proof of the singularity of the Palestinian cause. But once Syrians erupted in the name of deliverance, realpolitik was sure to trump principle--as it always has and always will, when core interests are at risk.
In the final analysis, in all fairness to it, Hezbollah has never been about democracy, or pluralism, or whatever other flavor-of-the-day ideal… The plain fact is that this liberation movement was born single-issue and single-sect, and now both are under serious threat.
Sure, Hezbollah and the Assads could have played everything differently, but only if they were different themselves.
In the end, then, it had to be this way for them.