Hazem Saghieh

Hafez al-Assad…Is Very Much Alive In This Damned War

Combatants, victims, those impacted, and observers monitoring its developments are not the only ones present in war. Figures or symbols summoned for this or that reason also make their presence felt. In religious wars, for example, prophets, messengers, martyrs who died defending the faith, and divine symbols are called upon to attend fierce battles. In wars between nations, historic national heroes or symbols, be they real or imagined, are invoked. Thus, the life of war has room for a lot of death and many corpses, historians or those who simply remember can identify events of the distant past that resemble the developments of the conflict, as well as individuals from this past who resemble the course of the war or whose experiences or positions can help us understand it.

In this sense, we can say that the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is very much alive and playing an active role in this criminal war on the Gaza Strip, where a long line of invisible criminals stand behind the visible criminal, Israel.

He is alive in many different senses of the word. The simplest manifestation of his presence may have been in what Hossein Abdollahian recently reminded us of in his speech at the United Nations. The Iranian Foreign Minister, when he affirmed that Hamas was prepared to hand over the Israeli hostages to Iran, brought to mind Assad's approach in 1980s Lebanon, where foreign nationals were kidnapped in Beirut and their countries would then negotiate their release with Damascus and Tehran. If the kidnapped individual was freed, the first thing they would do was thank “his excellency the militant President,” Hafez al-Assad.

Another angle of the Gaza war also reminds us of the man. If it is true that this war is the explosive outcome of a long history of obstructing politics and diplomatic efforts, as well as thwarting settlements, then it is also true that, for decades, Assad diligently and tirelessly worked to close off any path toward peace or compromise in the region. He was a son of the party that foiled Habib Bourguiba’s attempt to set the region on this course in the mid-sixties, and he was at the helm of this same party when it led the charge in defaming the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords as early as 1978. He also led the push to topple the Lebanese-Israeli May 17 agreement, he was at the forefront of the successful effort to undercut the Jordanian-Palestinian peace process of the mid-eighties, and in the nineties, alongside Iran and Israeli fanatics, he turned the Palestinian-Israeli Oslo agreement into a corpse.

Moreover, Assad is also a luminary of the school of deflecting attention from oneself and diverting it towards Palestine. An extensive rhetorical and conceptual repertoire is deployed to this end. Some of his opponents and victims fall into its trap, presenting elaborate illustrations of our eternal battle with “imperialism and Zionism” and taking us all back to a distant past whose heroes were Balfour, Sykes, Picot, and their colleagues.

In light of this methodical and vociferous focus on the direct and visible criminal, Israel, many of the indirect criminals continue to commit their crimes, not only against their own people but also against Palestinians.

All of this takes us back to the lessons that the Assad school turned into a golden science, especially muddling borders, violating countries' national sovereignty, and transforming militias into armies, all in the name of the cause that only Assad’s Syria avoids fighting and paying the price for.

However, the most significant element of Assad's legacy - and it is very present and weighing heavily on the current war - is the strategy that gave Hafez al-Assad his reputation for extraordinary and unprecedented “strategic genius.” The late president was known to minimize his involvement in confronting Israel and the United States, taking only carefully calibrated risks and leaving maximal and open-ended engagement to the “arenas” of his brothers in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. After the Hezbollah Secretary-General's speech on Friday, it seems that he has declared himself a distinguished student of this principle, except that the roles have been reversed. After the leadership of the “Resistance Axis” was transferred from Damascus to the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon became the scene of calibrated minimal involvement, while other “arenas” have become the scene of open-ended maximal engagement. This is especially true for Syria, whose east, south, and airports are coming under regular attack. It is indicative that the speech was brimming with references to "Iraqi factions" and bountiful promises regarding the role that Yemeni Houthis will play in this fateful conflict. The day will come, eventually, when Houthi missiles hit their targets.

Meanwhile, the slaughter in Gaza continues unabated, and we declare that God has blessed us with great and immortal leaders that we, ordinary people that can die and be killed, do not deserve.