Assad and the post-eternity era

Assad and no other. Assad is no one. He is a nebulous being soaked in blood and trampling on corpses, a man who claims to be president of a republic that no longer exists, writes Elias Khoury in his essay

By Elias Khoury

Since the beginning of the popular rebellion in Syria in March 2011, supporters of the Assad regime – known in local parlance as "Shabbiha" – have peddled two slogans. The first was "Assad or we burn down the nation" – a statement followed up by actions. The streets of Syria's towns and villages filled with corpses in the ensuing plunder and pillage.

The regime began burning down the country even before the opposition had fired its first shot. When peaceful activists such as Ghiath Matar handed flowers to soldiers, the regime's response was to hand over the young man's battered corpse to his family. Its response to peaceful demonstrations in Deraa was to torture 14-year-old Hamza Al-Khatib to death, and in Hama to cut out the larynx of folk singer Ibrahim Qashush and throw his corpse into the Orontes.

Never before were tanks deployed in such a way to crush demonstrations; never before did a  ruling power employ such violence as the regime of Assad Junior, who clearly views the 1982 Hama massacre, the paralysis of Syrian society and the liquidation of the opposition in the notoriously harsh Palmyra prison as the true legacy of his father.

The aftermath of the Syrian Air Force's bombardment of the city of Aleppo with barrel bombs (photo: Getty Images)
"Assad or we burn down the nation": since the start of the uprising in Syria three years ago, Assad supporters have not only used this slogan as a rallying call, but have also acted on it, razing cities and towns and scattering their inhabitants across the region

To teach the people a lesson for all eternity

There can be no justification for the barbarism with which the regime is burning down the country, because not only has this completely excessive violence served to crush demonstrations and suffocate protest, it also seeks to teach the Syrian people a lesson it will not forget "for all eternity".

Eternity, as we know, is the aim of all those fanatical about power and the weakness of all despots. It was delusion that caused Emperor Caligula to proclaim that he wanted to hold the moon in his hands – in a play by Albert Camus at least – and in a stage play by Eugène Ionesco, as the king lies on his deathbed, his final wish is immortality.

But the despotic fantasy of President Assad Senior surpassed that of all his predecessors: at some point, the adulatory banners were no longer emblazoned with the words "Assad forever", but with the slogan "President forever and the time thereafter".

I could never have imagined what this "time thereafter" might look like. It is only now, when I see how Bashar al-Assad is putting his father's concept of eternity into practice – by ordering the burning and destruction of Syria, and following on from this "eternity" by standing yet again for election in order to perpetuate governance of the smouldering ruins – do I understand what could have been meant by this. "Assad or we burn down the nation".

The Shabbiha militia, their Russian and Iranian allies and other gangs loyal to them have already achieved this goal. Not only that, they have also enticed Islamist groups into the country that treat the Syrian people as arbitrarily and recklessly as they do themselves.

Caricature of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (photo: screenshot from Twitter)
Assad and no other: a man of many faces, yet always the same man no matter what the guise. This week, in an election widely dismissed as a farce, President Bashar al-Assad was "re-elected" for another seven-year term

"Assad or we burn down the nation"

It is absolutely essential to fathom the latter phenomenon more thoroughly. After all, one day we will want to know how things could have come to this in Syria, and at some point the leadership of the opposition and the Free Syrian Army must also be called to account for the fact that such gangs were able to enter the country. However, that is not to say that we should mask the role of petrodollars from the Gulf, the base motives for the stance of the West and the vulgar motives of those in Syria who banked on the West throwing its weight behind their nation's battle for freedom.

So this was apparently the alternative: Assad or the nation will be burned to the ground. Well, the nation has been burned to the ground and its population dispersed, so for what do we need Assad now? After all, "or" means that it would have to burn because Assad was no longer tenable as ruler. But the regime obviously has its own appreciation of grammar.

And so, the despotism continued and peddled yet another slogan: "Assad or no one!" For if "forever" means burning Syria to the ground, then the ensuing era must be something that only a sick brain could conceive. Now it's about more than just bloodshed; now there is just one more goal: endless revenge on the slave that dared to oppose his master. The unreserved support that the regime continues to receive from outside its borders has made it possible for it to put this second slogan into practice.

But here too, the tragic Syrian reality led to a modification: the conjunction "or" was simply replaced with an "and". "Assad AND no one" is the actual principle by which the regime is conducting itself, for this is not a choice between "Mr President" (along the lines of Asturias' novel about despotism in South America) and a vacuum, or more precisely a "no one". In actual fact, the president himself is this no one. In a ravaged nation still ringing from the racket of deadly barrel bombs, Bashar al-Assad has had himself re-elected to the post of president. He will be able to call himself president for a further seven years, or so he believes at least. But who is this man really?

Elias Khoury (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Elias Khoury (pictured above) is a leading contemporary Arab intellectual

The post-eternity era

Is he the chairman of the Syrian Ba'ath Party, for which he gets fundamentalist militia from Iraq or Lebanon to fight? Is he a steadfast leader who agrees to surrender his chemical weapons in order to remain in power? Is he a hero who keeps memories of the Syrian massacre of Tell az-Zaatar alive by allowing people in the Yarmouk Camp to starve? Or is he the hero of the Golan Heights, where no shot has been fired for four decades? Is he supreme commander of an army led by Iranian Revolutionary Guards? Has he forgotten the legacy of his father, who had Syria meddling all over the region, even if the human cost to the nation was enormous, and has he instead made Syria into a playground for anyone and everyone from abroad? Is this man now ruling over the ruins of his nation, or is he himself already a part of those ruins and is he just paying protection money to the new rulers of Syria?

Assad and no other. Assad is no one. He is a nebulous being soaked in blood and trampling on corpses, a man who claims to be president of a republic that no longer exists.

This is what it is like, the post-eternity era that his vassals once promised us on jubilant banners at the gates of Tripoli, that ancient Lebanese city of affliction and slaughter that still pays with the blood of its inhabitants for the fact that Assad rules for eternity and thereafter.

Elias Khoury

© 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/