State extermination, not a “dictatorial regime”

The Assad regime is much more than a mere dictatorship—understanding it, and its horrors, requires updating our conventional thinking about murderous states, argues Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 30 April, 2018]

To refer to the Assad regime in Syria as “dictatorial” is a great mistake—indeed, it is the mother of intellectual, political, ethical, and human rights-related errors perpetrated against Syrians at the international level. The Assadist state is based on extermination, not mere “repression,” and as such it is a universal problem rather than an exclusively Syrian one. To envisage the ruling regime in Syria as a dictatorship is to place it in a broad category applicable to many regimes in formerly colonized countries today, and in Europe itself less than two generations ago. This would normalize Assad’s rule; in fact compliment it; taking away its uniqueness in criminality, and preventing a necessary progression in political thought, at both the Syrian and global levels. Franco was a dictator, Bourguiba was a dictator, as was Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Tito, and countless others who ruled, or sought to rule, for life, excluding their opponents and restricting political plurality. Yet none of these figures worked to install ruling dynasties, or to make the state their private property, or to make “eternity”1—and the endless war against the future that it requires—a principal objective of their rule.

Eternity, dynasty, and the private state are crucial distinctions from dictatorship. Here, the state is not used to organize society politically. It is not a nationalist state practicing repression, but rather a state devoid of nationalism, dealing in political enslavement, or in a master-follower relationship; refusing to share power; crushing all conceivable objections to its eternity and dynasty with torrential violence. The etymological kinship in Arabic between eternity (al-abad) and extermination (al-ibada) makes it possible to imagine that eternity cannot be achieved without extermination; that is, without the murder and torture and humiliation of residents on a mass scale. Such, at any rate, is consistent with the path taken by the Assads père et fils. In the case of the father, tens of thousands were killed, arrested, and tortured, and thousands more were disappeared for two decades in Tadmor (Palmyra) prison in order that the subordination of those not jailed for a long time would be permanent.

“Eternity” became a political slogan in Syria in the 1980s, intimately bound up with massacres and extermination. By extermination, I mean the broadening of killing for the purpose of securing power over time, and of preventing change. Killing here is not punitive, nor even retributive; it is destructive and extirpative, aimed at enslaving those not yet killed and immortalizing the killers. The numbers of killed may be twenty or thirty thousand in the early 1980s, and half a million or six hundred thousand between 2011 and 2018, but what matters is less the precise number than the shock and destruction that enable the securing of private ownership of the state for a period of time with no visible end. This private ownership was indeed secure throughout the years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule, and for a decade after his death and the launch of dynastic rule. It appears Hafez’ competence at extermination was the ideal from which inspiration was drawn by his heir and the pillars of his rule since the first speech on 30 March 2011. The idea was that to secure the private state for thirty more years required taking the same path as the father.

The outcomes differed, and the number of victims and displaced, and the scale of destruction, were incomparably larger, because this time it was a grassroots revolution, pluralist in values and social components, rather than an armed confrontation instigating protests that remained limited in social and geographical scope. However, there is little doubt that the pillars of Bashar’s state are adherents of the Hafez tradition, rather than originators of their own one. Their aim is to destroy the revolutionaries and their social environments, and terrify society as a whole, so as to enjoy rule for another generation or two without inconvenience, and without politics, just as Hafez did before them. And the important thing to note is that the stopping of the killing at tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, as opposed to millions or tens of millions, is entirely arbitrary; nothing in the makeup of the regime prevents it. What can limit the number or increase it are the conditions surrounding the project of eternity. In the genocide literature, there’s a discussion around whether large exterminations are a result of premeditated intent (“intent” being a term used in the United Nations’ definition of genocide in the 1948 Convention), or instead are unplanned situations. I think a third dimension is missing from this discussion; one connected to the structure of the elite in the exterminating state, and their memory, and historical precedents, and political predispositions. It’s not necessary that there be a clear intention to exterminate in advance from the beginning, but the structure supports or makes certain tendencies more likely than others, benefiting in any case from available circumstances or from accidents of history. For example, the Russian-Chinese protection at the Security Council since the autumn of 2011, and the emergence of the jihadists, and the regime’s escaping of punishment after the chemical atrocity in Ghouta in August 2013, and many others besides. Were the Assad regime ever punished seriously for its crimes, that would have limited the extermination of its subjects. Immunity from punishment provides the most suitable conditions for extermination.

And perhaps it is clear from the foregoing that the structure that makes extermination most likely, benefiting from these encouraging (or non-constraining) international conditions, is one based on private state ownership, on dynasty, and on eternity.

While the dictatorial regime is a problem for its subjects, the exterminationist regime is a global problem, because its eternity-seeking structure contains nothing to stop it. It was asking a very great deal indeed of Syrians to resolve the problem of their regime of mass destruction, which enjoyed protection, killing them without consequence, using chemical weapons, and inventing new weapons with which to destroy yet more bodies, and bring down more buildings, such as barrel bombs. If the exterminationist regime is not stopped from outside, it is ready to kill all who stand in its way on the inside. This was the case with the Nazi regime, which could only be brought down with a broad international coalition.

It isn’t only that there’s no comparable opportunity to topple Assad’s rule, but rather that the world’s powers appear to prefer that it remains, if they don’t work actively to rehabilitate it as the Russians and Iranians do, with the tacit consent of the West.

Therefore, the world is in crisis. We have a global problem the world hasn’t resolved—indeed, one it has shielded and protected. A “space of exception” was accepted, in which killing occurs around the clock for months and years. As Giorgio Agamben elucidated in his analysis of the “state of exception,” it is not an exception to the norm; rather it is the exception that produces the norms, or that establishes the medieval possibilities arising today. The Syrian space of exception establishes, from today onward, global norms. For if Israel can be allowed to kill Palestinians demonstrating more peacefully than ever before, as it did on Nakba Day this year; and Sisi can show a fascist face so that Egypt doesn’t “become like Syria” (as is also openly said today of Jordan and Iran); then this is a sign that the Syrian exception has become a basis upon which new boundaries of power can be explored, in these countries and globally. To put it another way, after Syria, extermination has become a sovereign possibility in the world of states.

The optimal space of exception is, according to Agamben, the concentration camp, where “everything can happen” to the prisoners (Hannah Arendt). The Syrian equivalents of this are Tadmor prison in Hafez’ years and Saydnaya in his son Bashar’s. With the Tadmorization of Syria in the years after the revolution (see my article in Arabic: ‘The Tadmor tradition’) the space of exception spread across the country. When the concentration camp becomes an entire country, the world in its entirety becomes the country surrounding this camp. And just as Tadmor is useful in terrifying all Syrians, the Syrian space of exception is useful in terrifying the world, as the examples of Egypt, Iran, and Jordan demonstrate. We do not forget here that the Middle East is an extended space of exception from international law itself, based on a hierarchy of power with Israel at the top, and the ruling cliques of the Arab states beneath it. There is a structural resemblance between Assad’s “for eternity” and Israel’s “here to stay” slogans. But our eternity pertains to dynasty, not the “state of the Jewish people.” The eternal, exterminationist, dynastic, Assadist state has been one of the pillars of the Middle Eastern system since the 1970s. It is our local Israel.

Syria has shown, over seven years, that political thought in the world is in crisis; that it failed to respond to the challenge of the Syrian exception in an effective way, one that took part in stopping the killing and devastation, and promoted politics, or at least took notice of the annihilation and tried to revolutionize thought of the conditions of the state and democracy and the world, and the relationship between the composition of authority and time, and much more besides. There was rumination on traditional discourses about sovereignty, and about imperialism and “regime change,” and about intervention and non-intervention (without the slightest moral consistency regarding the latter: intervention by Western forces against parties other than the regime was fine, as was intervention by Russia, Iran, and their proxies in favor of the regime). At root, it is always assumed that the Assad regime is a dictatorship like any other in the worst case, or else a victim of an imperialist conspiracy. This is worse than a failure of reading; it is a failure of morals, and a failure of feeling.

It ought to have been in the nature of thinking about the Syrian exception that it led to fruitful developments in social theory and political thought, in the way that thinking about the Nazi concentration camps, and Nazism itself, and Stalinism, led to important advances of that kind (the Frankfurt school, Hannah Arendt, Foucault, Agamben). Perhaps today it is necessary to reconstruct emancipatory political thought around the present extermination regime as a paradigm of a globally-protected space of exception. Without thinking about the Syrian exception in the world, about the Syrian concentration camp in the country/world, we are unlikely to see new norms, new institutions, and new justice systems. Not one global institution has emerged in relation to the Syrian event. This is a sign of Syrians’ ostracization from the world; a sign that the world feels no need to change anything or introduce anything new on Syrians’ account.

Yet the world does feel that it’s in crisis, even if it’s confused about its origins. The international system is in a grave crisis because it refused to take note of the exceptionality of the Syrian situation, and thus was unable to deal with it in a manner demonstrating the effectiveness of the selfsame system. It tried to subjugate it to its conventional wisdom; a dictatorial regime in a sovereign state, the actions of which are perhaps condemned from time to time; and the results came out very bad: catastrophic for Syrians, and not good for anyone except candidates for the eternity/extermination complex, such as Iran and Russia.

The problem is that political thought in the world, and the international system, and the world, and the left (that is, those occupying the place of the alternative in the world; the beneficiaries to this day from the symbolic yields of this position in the absence of revolutionary competitors), are in crisis, and nobody wants to see that the Syrian space of exception, or the exterminationist state in Syria, are a fundamental headline of this crisis, if not indeed its essence.

As such, the future of the crisis is assured, no need to worry about that.

  • 1. As in the well-known rhyming (in Arabic) pro-regime slogan, “Our eternal leader/ Is the faithful Hafez al-Assad!”