Opinion |

Horrified by Idlib? The Assad Clan Has Been Practicing Terror in the Open for Decades

The Syria of blood, fire and terror we know today isn’t a new catastrophe. This was the country of my childhood, and that I and millions of others have fled.

Akil Marceau
Akil Marceau
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A Syrian mourns as members of the Syrian civil defense volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, and people search for survivors from the rubble following reported air-strikes on the rebel-held town of Saqba, in Eastern Ghouta, on April 4, 2017.
Syrians search for survivors following reported air-strikes in Saqba on April 4, 2017.Credit: AFP PHOTO / AMER ALMOHIBANY
Akil Marceau
Akil Marceau

The zero sum result of the algebraic negotiations that the UN has engaged in – Geneva 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 - regarding Syria is nothing if not a mathematical calculation in absurdity and cruelty.

The Syrian tragedy, six years on, is now part of our global daily diet. Not a day goes by without the international media reminding us of this war and its horror, most recently with the chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib. More than 320,000 people have died and half the population are either refugees or displaced. News junkies for catastrophe, but helpless, we spout our opinions on this catastrophe that embodies the failure of the West and this body still referred to as the International Community.

The bloody art of dictatorship and international impunity

The Obama Administration threatened military intervention against the Syrian regime if chemical weapons were used against the civilian population. The same threat was repeated from both London and Paris. As we know, the regime did indeed utilize such weapons for the first time in 2012. The impunity offered by the international community has seen not only the Syrian regime continuing to use banned weapons but their use is now also exploited by the jihadists.

Like everyone else, I look on, horrified. I accumulate the layers of pain that together play on my own memories: a whirlwind of distant images buffeting me in this storm, overlapping, blurring, and mixing yesterday’s realities with today’s.

Syrian children wait to receive treatment after reported air strikes in Douma on April 4, 2017. Credit: And Doumany, AFP

The Syria we know today, made up of blood, fire and terror, has existed for decades. This was the country of my childhood. True to form, the Middle East is still floundering and, years later, has no prospects for a brighter future.

When I left Syria more than thirty years ago, the Syrian dictator Hafez Al-Assad ruled the country as a two-man team, with his brother in toe. Today Bashar and his brother Maher imitate their father, inciting blood and destruction, even if not with the same finesse in the art of dictatorship as their elders. In the Assad clan, the exercise of power and terror is a family business.

Damascus neighborhoods: Worlds of their own

I loved my Kurdish neighbourhood in Damascus. Its history can be traced back to Saladin and the twelfth century. Perched on Mount Qassyion and with its winding alleys, it overlooks the city. The deep-rooted attachment and affection that ties people to their neighborhoods pre-dates the Assad clan and arrival of the Ba'th party. Nobody could take it away from us, despite the regular hold-ups and coup d’etats. In Damascus, neighborhood identity was strong. Each was rich in its own culinary specialities, traditions, myths and legends. Each neighbourhood possessed its own collective memory, making it a world unto itself.

In the Old City, behind the great Omeyyad mosque, Bab Touma (Saint Thomas) was the Christian stronghold. The Jewish quarter was commonly referred to "Hay al-Yahud", and its great families, the Farhi, Stambouli and Liniado, were for generations part of the local landscape, providing bankers and advisers to the various governors who succeeded one another over the last centuries. The Ala Rachi, Bozo and Kurdi families, mirrored them in my own neighbourhood, at the other end of town.

In my neighbourhood of Akrad (the Arabic plural for Kurd), traditional houses were built around courtyards with almost always a cooling fountain within their walls. These classic Levantine houses managed to resist the Soviet-style buildings that were beginning to invade the city and its well-tendered fruit orchards. If the Syrian army was trained by the Russian generals, the Syrian cement factories were managed by engineers from the Soviet Bloc.

At nightfall, the houses on the Akrad hillside appeared as stars rising above the city. Nevertheless, in this stifling political climate, moments of pleasure were rare; the human warmth shared by people in the community was real.

The Assad Library, the Assad Bridge, the Assad Garden

To walk to my high school at the foot of the hill I had to face, time and time again, and this to my utter disgust, the portrait of General Hafez al-Assad. He’s in his general's uniform on the Golan Heights. Though a defeat against Israel, here in the Middle East, the land of Gilgamesh and other legends, truth is easily transformed from a crushing setback into an absolute victory. He’s also wearing a suit-and-tie, playing the father-of-the-nation, with the young Bashar and his elder brother, Bassel, the crown prince, on his knees.

Pro-government supporters at a gathering in Aleppo, Syria on Jan. 19, 2017.Credit: Hassan Ammar, AP

Bassel, the elder son and virile playboy, is always portrayed in military uniform and Ray-Bans. He was the designated successor in the Hereditary Republic of the Assad clan. But fate, despite the wishes and the will of the father-dictator, had him killed at the wheel of his Porsche on the road to the airport – a road now under the control of the jihadists.

All the important monuments and squares were named after the "leader": the National Assad Library, the Assad Bridge, the Assad Garden, statues of Assad on all the squares and main cross-roads. He was omnipresent, following us into our dreams, turning them into nightmares. The many secret service agencies, the famous Moukhabrat, monitored even the smallest gesture and activity. In terms of variety and quantity, only French cheese can challenge the Syrian Mukhabrats, and only the North Korean Kim Clan can beat the Assads for length of reign.

Kalashnikovs in high school

Under the dictatorship there was no logic. I studied for my Baccalaureate, a remnant of the French Mandate’s education system. I also had obligatory military training lessons. From beret-to-boots, we wore the obligatory military uniform to school every day. Military theory was taught by our military instructor who was the real boss at our high school. We were also taken on a school trip up to the Israeli border, to Quneitra, for shooting sessions. Back in the school courtyard and under the terrifying gaze of the instructor and his stopwatch, each student had to dismantle and reassemble a Kalashnikov.

Today in my Parisian neighbourhood some thirty-two years later, I find this both absurd and Kafkaesque: a high school that operates like a military barracks; students belonging to the "Revolutionary Youth" wing of the Ba'ath Party who, after a summer’s parachuting course, return with pistols in their belts, terrorizing the other students and rewarded with 20 bonus points to boost their Baccalaureate score.

Palestinian students could, in theory, also benefit from this favouritism. However, even with this bonus the government kept them out of university. For decades the Palestinians were kept in total misery, living in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Damascus suburbs. They went on to join the various factions allied to Syria in Lebanon, often waging war between themselves and rarely against Israel, while doing their best to get their hands on the petrodollars handed out by the Gulf States. Syria did not have much oil, but it did profit from rent on terrorism, exporting it to neighboring countries. The rich Gulf States settled the bills of their brother-country, paying it to defend their "Arab honor" against Israel. Today, Iran has taken on this role, bankrolling the regime. As for the former Gulf "brothers", ironically, their petrodollars now finance and arm the Islamist factions.

A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4Credit: AMMAR ABDULLAH/REUTERS

I was the Kurd in my communist cell

Multiple worlds and ancient civilizations were juxtaposed in the Syria of my childhood. Multiple religions, denominations and ethnic groups as well. I was the Kurd in my communist cell, along with the Druze and the Christian. The Jew, forced to leave the country after the creation of the State of Israel and the rise of pan-Arab aggressive nationalism, no longer had his place. Our movement both opposed the regime and was a dissident of official Moscow-linked communism. This dual protest, offered me the perfect conditions to express my revolt and anger as a young person from a minority. All this, before my disillusionment and the long period of loneliness that followed.

In a predominantly Arab Sunni country, the only political option open for minorities was to defend oneself was behind left-wing barricades. The great historian Eric Hobsbawm concluded that the minority Jews leaned “naturally” to the left in the context of the Second World War and the rise of Nazism. The founders of the Ba'ath Party in the 1940s were themselves inspired by Nazi ideology. Influenced by the German philosopher Ficht, they were great admirers of Nazism. To "settle" the Kurdish problem in Syria, the head of intelligence in the Kurdish region launched a “final solution”, implementing his “study” - a direct copy of Mein Kampf.

Like Jerusalem and Istanbul, in Damascus the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, Kurdish and Circassian quarters lived nonchalantly side by side. We shared the same fears and anxieties, the same body language, the same codes of communication. That bound us together and was the basis of our Syrian-ness.

R&R after a recent slaughter

When electricity was cut in our neighborhood we all understood the reason: the president's brother had come to "visit" his favourite television presenter. We knew Rafaat al-Assad, Bashar's uncle, was unwinding and decompressing after a recent slaughter. He wielded the "stick" of power at the head of the all-powerful Defense Brigade, terrorizing the whole country. He plundered and bulldozed entire districts of Hama and Aleppo from 1979 to 1982.

The Ba’ath Party took power in 1963 and since then a single party has dominated Syria. Society has remained locked behind a wall of silence, composed of different unions: The Workers Union, The Peasants Union, The Students Union and The Youth Union. They were the only "civil society" organizations authorized to operate.

A poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad at a protest outside Syria's embassy in Bucharest, Romania, March 17, 2017. Credit: Vadim Ghirda/AP

In 1984, the year I passed my Baccalaureate, Hafez Al-Assad fell seriously ill and the regime with him. Distraught, it intensified its repression. Waves of arrests took place at an infernal rhythm and the country operated as a single prison. Rumors circulated that in Damascus political prisoners were piled half-alive on top of each other, filling the prison cellars of "Mezzeh", "Palestine" and "Bab Touma", to name just a few. More than a thousand political prisoners had already been massacred in Palmyra, enough to feed the rumor mill and turn the population paranoid.

Panic affected the first family’s circle: the President’s notorious brother was sent into exile, accused of fomenting a coup. He left with his pockets stuffed with billions of dollars. Even today, he continues to plot coups d'états against his nephew - the current president - broadcasting from his London-based television station, settled in his golden exile in Paris and enjoying the beaches of Marbella.

When I took the road to exile that same year, fleeing the guarantee of a short life in prison, I could not imagine that millions of Syrians would, a few decades later, be taking the same path.

However, I knew that in the Muslim world, Islam would need to be reformed. Its elder-sister religions had evolved through centuries of reform, gaining in wisdom and maturity thanks to the Enlightenment. The alternative: the same authoritarian and dictatorial models would continue to reproduce and oriental despotism would continue to rage.

It is only now that Muslim world has begun its difficult and violent journey into modernity. The two branches of Islam are still waging war, conducting mass killings reminiscent of the Catholic-Protestant St Bartholomew Day massacres.

It is not only out of moral duty, but because we live in a global, interconnected world that the West must come to the aid of the Middle East. It is in the West’s self-interest to do so.

Akil Marceau graduated in history and humanitarian law and has worked for French media outlets and the Japanese NHK television network. He is a researcher and former director of the Representation of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Paris.

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