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The Syrian Regime Intellectual and the Process of Disintegration

The Syrian Regime Intellectual and the Process of Disintegration

Wednesday, 20 May, 2020 - 09:15

It would be a mistake to read the past according to the present, just as it is a mistake to read the present according to the past. For one would think, based on the role played nowadays by Bahjat Sulaiman or Bouthaina Shaaban, the Syrian Baath Party had never been on good terms with intellectuals.


This is not the case. For the party was founded by two school teachers (Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar), and a third teacher claimed himself a founder (Zaki al-Arsuzi); it counted many intellectuals amongst its ranks. Jamal Atassi, Abdallah Abd al-Daem, Badi Al Kasm, Sami Al Jundi, Sami Al Droubi, Abed al-Kareem Zohour, Mutaa Safadi, Elias Farah and others entered public life as Baathists. Intellectuals a calibre above, like Yasin al-Hafiz and George Tarabish, found, at the time, that they could join the Baath Party. They were prominent figures of the cultural history of Syria and the Arab world: they studied during the period of the French Mandate which granted them the opportunity to oppose it. They inherited their parents’ aspirations for some kind of Arab unity, but they were also influenced, to a degree or another, by the trends of contemporary thought of the time, such as Marxism, Existentialism, and contemporary schools of thought in philosophy, psychology and literary-criticism that were popular at the time...


This gradually ceased to exist. Those who recall the plight of the relationship between Russian Communist intellectuals and artists and their party after it had come to power know the reason for the rupture: there is no room for intellectuals in one-party states. Their ideas, most of which they had gotten from their party, become forbidden dreams and justification for pursuit by the censors and jailers, and they may be sent to asylums.


In Syria, there was an extra component. The Party itself, as a body, does not exist anymore. The networks of patronage based on kinship and sectarian affiliation have swallowed it up, and nothing remained of it but its name. In Saddam’s Iraq something similar happened as well, but the party’s erosion was slower there. With that, Baathists in both countries are no longer Baathists. “Comrade” Ali Hassan al-Majid attacked the Shiites in southern Iraq with a banner reading “no Shiite after today” raised on his tank, and before him, “comrade” Rifaat al-Assad attacked the Sunnis of Hama because he saw in their Sunnism a threat to the Alawite's grip on power.


Why the reminder of a reality that Syrians know well?


Last week, something happened that is as unusual as it is indicative.


Bahjat Sulaiman, a security man, was the first of hundreds of Syrian (and Arab) “journalists and intellectuals” to endorse an open letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and media officials in Moscow. The sender is bad enough, so is the receiver, but the message is nevertheless the worst of all. These “journalists and intellectuals” declared their dissatisfaction with the "abuse and slander" directed at President Bashar al-Assad by the Russian media. The signatories to the statement-message were cautious and stressed that they had not been calling on the Russians to silence dissent or curtail freedoms; for they are "journalists and intellectuals" who would never do that. In truth, this is precisely what they did. They stressed to their great allies, "the necessity of not repeating what happened, avoiding misuse of your platforms by some (...) and attacking President Assad without having mentioned other Arab leaders."


The essence of what they demanded was silencing dissent and the curtailment of freedom.


This was perhaps the regime’s most major official intervention on the cultural or intellectual scene in the past few years: repress, oh Russian comrades! With that, as well as the letter’s betrayal of its supposed “journalist-intellectual” self and its pedantic adoption of intelligence-agencies’ rhetoric, it has nonetheless gone astray: the regime of President Vladimir Putin does not need advice on the benefits of repression, as its record with the Russian press is well-known. Syrian and Arab “journalists and intellectuals” sold their ice in Haret el-Sakkain; their pedantry went as far as informing Putin about his interests!


In truth, and this should be obvious, Moscow’s political considerations are the issue; thus, this is where the Syrian comrades ought to devote their efforts. Even the issue of corruption becomes subject to interpretation, as it cannot be judged in itself and in isolation of Moscow’s deep decisions. In other words, even accusing Assad of corruption could be explained, in light of suitable political conditions, as praise, or at least an understatement. For the man behind the deaths of a substantial portion of his people and uprooting around half the population, either from their homes or their county, is being described as “corrupt”. This is excessively kind (it resembles the kindness entailed in the “critique” of Assad that identifies him as a neo-liberal).


This brings us back to the painful reality that those who signed the letter-statement are not Baathists, intellectuals or journalists. However, before all of this, they know nothing about anything; otherwise, they would not have added their names to such a statement-letter in the first place. It is the natural outcome of a culture that serves such a regime, given what we witnessed, with Syria’s destruction, which was the natural outcome of a regime that serves such a culture.


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