The Destruction of Syria: In Memory of Edward Said


Filiation and affiliation are useful Saidean concepts that can help shed light on the situation of Syria. Said elaborated these concepts in his essay «On Secular Criticism» 1. In this article, they will be made to travel from the realm of literature and into the politics of destruction in Syria. With those two concepts Said delineates his understanding of cultural belonging as based on a binary opposition between what he terms 1) filiation: biological generation, blood relations, and patriarchal family structures, (hence Oedipal, degenerative, murderous, and alienating) and 2) affiliation, a movement that attempts to overcome the impossibility of the filiative model, by exploring alternative human relations where the need for belonging takes on more viable possibilities. Affiliation attempts to overcome filiation by forging new human relations that are not based on blood relations, but that as Said demonstrates, often replicate many features of the filiative system. For Said, the dominant affiliative relations that govern institutions today have reproduced, in some of their aspects, strcutres that mimic filiation. As I will argue, in today's Syria we can delineate three types of social models that are competing for power. 1) Pure filiation: a structure that is at the heart of the dictatorial control of Assad, 2) mimetic affiliation: an emerging model that is rapidly gaining ground and is strongly present within Salafi and Islamist political groupings, and 3) explorative affiliation:  these  are  civilian  organizations  that  are  exploring  alternative modalities for community building with the aim of radical transformation of the political relationship between the individual and the group. This last group has displayed the weakest inclination to carry arms. Rather its operating modus attempts to build ideological formations organically, based less of theoretical pre-dispositions and more on practices of networks of people exploring new articulations of common political goals.

Said's model of filiation and affiliation is especially suitable to think about Syria for two main reasons. Firstly, these concepts focus our critical attention on the basic identity formations and sense of belonging that are structured into group dynamics. The second reason is that both filiation and affiliation are inherently political concepts, that go back to Roman practices of adoption in the preparation of young men in their political careers. I emphasize their political sense as it allows me to reject traditional ideas about politics where we often tend to separate between the political world of statesmen and the politics of the masses within the body of the state. Instead they shift the political focus towards examining the dialectics of the relationship between the individual citizen and the group by examining the types of authority that shape groups.

In the case of Syria, a nation that has been governed by a dictatorship for the past forty years, the purely filiative control over Syria has been clearly obvious at least since Bashar al- Assad inherited power in 2000. The inheritance of the office of the president legitimized itself through  recourse  to  a  clearly patriarchal  system  of  authority,  couple  with  the  notorious brutality of the Assad patriarch in his treatment of dissidence. The son inherited his father, and today outdoes him in the application of violence. Outside Syria's borders Assad (both father and son) affiliated himself with an international community in a game of machtpolitikk that was played with impressive skill. The ultimate goal of Assad's international maneuvering was to bolster his control over Syria, while the international community saw in him a capricious partner that needs to be sullenly handled to maintain the interests of Western powers, headed by the US, in the region.

Assad's regime of terror was based on the total control of the political space between citizens. He summarized the state apparatus with his own person. Any dealings with the state were ultimately reduced to Assad's patriarchal patronage of citizen's world. Assad acted like a tyrannical father. He played his children against one another, and they vied for favors by struggling to prove their loyalty to the regime. Different sects competed, the moneyed classes competed, and tribes competed, all for a chance to receive favors from the president or one of his aids. Those favors were in effect basic civil and political rights, like receiving basic healthcare for a sick family member, opening a business, and sometimes even connecting a remote village to the electricity network. Such basic rights and activities were linked to the body of the president, in the sense that only through the right connections at various levels in the Assad family pyramid, would a citizen or the head of a tribe be able to secure the basic needs of his dependents.

The history of Syrian dissidence to this type of political control is yet to be written, but the overcrowded Syrian jails and torture chambers testify to the stubbornness of the Syrians in fighting the dictatorial apparatus of corruption instated by the Assads. As Yassin Al-Haj Saleh's recollections of his sixteen years in jail inform us 2, the political makeup of the prisons reveals the existence of several political parties, from the far right Islamists to the far left Marxists. The decades-long and routine physical elimination of key opposition leaders, through arrests exile, or murder ensured that whatever emergent political constellations remained at a very rudimentary and underground level. In other words, at the start of the revolution, none of these political parties could claim to have any serious following among Syrian civilians. The so-called Damascus Declaration of 2005 is worthy of note here, as it was the first public outcry against the regime. Following the evacuation of the Syrian army from Lebanon and in a brave act of solidarity with the Lebanese people, 99 Syrian intellectuals signed a petition demanding the ending of the state of emergency and calling for the resignation of Assad. The aged Syrian intellectual Anton Makdissi was not satisfied with only signing a petition. He also wrote an open letter to the president, published in the biggest Arab daily, Al-Hayat, where he said:

«We have had enough of your loose speeches, sir. The interest of the people, the will of the people, the achievements of the people! Sir, the people have been absent a long time. Their will is paralyzed and limited to two goals: the one is personal, where the individual works day and night to feed his children and the second is public, where he is asked to say what is dictated, and to perform what is expected of him (to march in support of your regime). What has safeguarded this people from destruction is that they have accepted to live with this worsening condition like a sick man living with a chronic illness» 3.

Makdissi lost his job and died some months later. Others were jailed.

Since the break of the revolt, in March 2011, Bashar al-Assad is no longer the legitimate leader of the Republic of Syria. The resistance to his rule has, for the first time, extended itself far beyond membership to small and underground political parties. Instead of stepping down, he issued unambiguous slogans to counter the revolt: either Assad or we burn the country, Either Starvation or Surrender! Either you accept filiative politics, or else 4! However, affiliation is everywhere, even if not every type of affiliation we see in the Syrian landscape today is politically viable. By contrast, Assad is a corpse that belongs to a different age. He is propped up on his seat by international negligence and by allies that share his values. He is put on life-support by powers that are also filiative if one looks closely: Russia, Iran, China and even Israel all share a militant form of group-belonging that replicate filiative authority.

The outbreak of the Syrian revolution radically transformed the grounds for doing politics in Syria. This time it was the people, in the sense of an anonymous mass of disenfranchised civilians, from all walks of life, united behind one slogan: down with the regime. The people protested the continuation of filiative rule in Syria. Since then, they have produced many experiments in affiliative formations as can be seen in the tongue-in-cheek, resistance art of the town of Kafrnabel, in Mohammad al-Attar's theatrical attempts at examining examining alternative social formations in devastated areas in Syria, in the opening of a Syrian cultural center, Hamisch, in Istanbul for example, or even the formation of small civil groups that are attempting to find alternative means to educate the masses of children left without schools, and to provide women with vocational training. Such civil initiatives are exploring new ways to forge less hierarchical human relationships among the Syrian people. Those civilian groups are not militarily present in Syria today, except in limited numbers as part of the Free Syrian Army. By contrast, political Islam is militarily strong. It is also an affiliative formation that rejects Assad's pure filiation.

Salafi Islam is grassroots, and in that sense, it satisfies the prevalent Syrian need for affiliative membership into the body of the state. However it derives its legitimacy and potency from constructing a mythological idea of a shared Sunni identity. Such an identity suggests that the members belong to the same tribe, and that they are joined together by blood. The blood here is not a symbolic construction. The blood of people is flowing in the streets. That the majority of Syrians are Sunnis is being increasingly harnessed as the basis of political Islamist ideology. I call this political formation mimetic affiliation, in the way it reduces active political membership to the blood relations between Syrians, uncannily mimicking Assadi filiation. Certainly, the blood bath in Syria must be stopped at all cost; however, productive political membership cannot be based on blood alone. To rephrase: the Syrian sacrifice of life and livelihoods cannot form the basis of a viable political structure. The structure must derive its legitimacy from more productive links between people; and so far, Sunni Islamist military factions have emphasized the links of this blood (being the blood of the majority) with religious identity, thus summarizing the complex relations between Syrians to membership to this identity. Needless to say, not all Sunnis identify themselves with salafi Islam, and neither are all Syrians Sunni Muslims. It is here that the salafi political project shows its weaknesses and political failures. By violently excluding all those who refuse to affiliate with salafi politics, salafi Islam replicates the tyrannies of Assad's pure filiative rule. Assad's pure filiative elitism and the salafis' filiative, grassroots affiliation are serious dangers to the livelihood of the Syrian people and to the revolution in general. Yet one must not forget that in spite of its mimicry of filiation, salafi Islamism is an affiliative  framework. It is a response against the filiative model that Assad represents. Therefore I say, only a very limited minority supports the continuation of pure filiative rule in Syria. To assume as many in the West have done, that Assad's mandate over Syria can be continued is a dangerous mistake. The age of pure filiation is now over.

The destruction of Syria is on a scale that makes hope seem naïve.  Assad uses barrel bombs, scoops masses of civilians with bulldozers, tortures babies as young as one month old and throws entire families in jails and torture chambers. At least 140 thousand people dead with an average of 70 to 100 dead each day, 9 million have been displaced; more than 70% of the country lies in rubble. Around two hundred and fifty thousand people have been arrested and face extreme physical pain. The death of 11 thousand of them by torture and starvation has been thoroughly documented by the regime itself. Assad is also directly complicit in forming and providing support for Qaeda type organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). ISIS today is engaged in fierce battles with the Free Syrian Army in several regions in Syria. In short, the destruction of Syria we witness will take decades to mend, even if Assad steps down this very moment. «Yet better now than tomorrow, yesterday was better» 5.

When the rest of the world decided to avert its eyes from the Syrian tragedy, it confirmed in the minds of Syrians that the international community is complicit in destroying their country. In the age of globalization, where robust American hegemony is facing increasing pressure from Russia and China, the problem of Syria is often seen as the site through which international powers are fighting their wars. In Iraq or the Ukraine, this designation would have corresponded with reality. In Syria we witness the waning of American interest, not because they are unable, but rather because they are unwilling to intervene. Americans have previously tolerated and even depended upon the filiative regime of the Assads. The tasks assigned to Assad were as basic as the interrogation of Islamist suspects, and as complex as particular actions on the front of the Arab Israeli conflict. Assad's relationship to the Iranians was seen as both a threat to American interests, but also as a kind of diplomatic bridge that allowed Washington to negotiate with Tehran. The affiliative relationships that are emerging in Syria today are not conducive to American hegemony in the same way as Assad's filiative tyranny. American views on the Islamists are well known, and as for the more secular, or moderate, factions of the Syrian resistance, they are also not to the tastes of Americans. Such moderate factions are known to harbor animosity towards Israel, America's surrogate in the region.

America has systematically led the world away from the Syrian massacre. The handling of Assad's chemical weapons is telling. In the hesitation that led to the policing of chemical weapons in Syria, the US forged an agreement with Russia that in the words of Al-Haj Saleh «punished the weapon and renewed the mandate of the killer … continued at Geneva 2 where the regime is being instated as a crucial partner in any solution for Syria» 6. Obama's foreign policy is insisting that it does not care about Syria. The renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are also revealing. These talks aim to solidify the Zionist pathos of the state of Israel by candidly refusing to offer a new political vision to that conflict, at a time when Israel's next-door neighbor is facing a wholesale massacre. In the globalized world

order, the West has affiliated itself with dictatorial will to power to exploit and subjugate the masses of people, in Arab lands as well as elsewhere. It seems to us that Syria is the lesson where Arabs learn not to dare again raise their voice against a dictator. Such a lesson will be costly, and ominous, and will not end well to any of us.

This world order is revealing its unsustainability in Syria. Assad's killing hubris has been liberated from any international control and has ceased to even provide any kind of coherent political vision. The lack of political vision is as much a part of Assad's current war machine as it is part of the shy response of America and the West to the crisis. Syria recollects in catastrophic ways the legacy of Hitler, hell-bent on diabolic destruction of society, except that with Assad even the sick logic of Hitler's racist policies seems to be lacking.

On February 22, 2014, Jonas Gahr Støre, Norways' ex-foreign minister concluded his response to the crisis by proclaiming that Assad's is «not a partner, but he has, according to the law, control over Syria, and it is him we hold responsible. And this is why we should also continue to have contact with him» 7. In his interview, Støre excuses his paradoxical politics by pointing out that Norwegian Islamists have gone to fight in Syria. He claims that if we cut the line of communication with Assad, we will not be able to gain any intelligence about those Islamists. Yet Assad's intelligence apparatus no longer has control over the country, and unless those dozen or so men are captured in battle by the regime (from the several tens of thousands of fighters operating in Syria today), the regime can offer very little help, even if it sincerely wanted to do so. Støre who argues for continuing to treat Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria mentions that Assad used to change his kids¶ diapers. So between the diaper changes and the Islamist threat, Støre prefers to do business with the man with barrel bombs. The idea is that a regime change will bring a Taliban-like government to power.

This opinion is contrary to the facts, which clearly point out that so long Assad's corpse continues to decompose on the heads of the Syrian people, the threat of Islamism will inevitably grow, and Syria will turn into another Afghanistan. With Assad at the top, blood continues to dominate the scene. Islamism takes better root at the bottom. In Raqqa, where

ISIS is strongly present, its soldiers have attacked, kidnapped, and killed civilian activists, brutalized minorities, and enforced an extremely oppressive administration. In other areas, ISIS and other militant factions have become a serious threat to a civilian population fatigued with barrel bombs and starvation. The list of kidnappings and attempted assassinations of key figures like Father Paulo, Razan Zeytoune, Samira Khalil, Raed Fares and others is growing, beheadings of anonymous civilians is the order of the day, and the horrific treatment of some of the minorities living in Qaeda controlled areas show how bleak the situation has become.

In the West, the threat of Islamism was used to excuse a non-interventionist attitude to the crisis. Yet when the revolution started, Islamism was absent from the Syrian landscape. Islamism as a main military and political presence is increasing in direct proportion to the mounting scale of the massacre. For the Americans and the West in general, any supply of arms to the resistance was said to result in the strengthening of the more fundamentalist groups within the revolution. After three years, this policy seems to work contrary to Western expectations.

In the West, the view on Syria has been structured through a binary opposition between the regime and the Islamists. Such a binary refuses to bear any responsibility for how Western powers, led by the US and Israel play a role in the rise of Islamism in Syria. Today, the Islamists form a cluster of fiefdoms of considerable destructive force. Their increasing power impacted even Assad's rule, and turned him into no more than one chieftain among many on the Syrian landscape. The problem remains that explorative affiliations have not developed beyond rudimentary means. Such experimental groups lack basic means to defend themselves, let alone adequate weapons to counter the war machine of the regime. The challenge for the Syrians is the discovery of new and alternative means of association that eradicates filiative rule, in its pure and mimetic guises. The continued international isolation of Syrians is extremely detrimental to their ability to evolve and combat such guises.

For us who sit in the West, we are politically and ethically responsible for averting our eyes from the Syrian tragedy. Our behavior has aided Assad to stay in power, which in turn greatly strengthened Islamist control over the revolution. We owe it to Syria to question the wisdom of our politicians, and the need of our governments to maintain Assad in his seat. We cannot leave the matter to our politicians. We need to find new ways to look critically at global political affiliations and expose how our society contributes to the massacre of Syria, as a population and republic. I have suggested Said's filiation and affiliation as a starting point because I believe the day has come to take sides and forge new affiliations. Such affiliations must be explorative, for none of us today can claim to know in advance what the alternatives to a more equitable world order entail. Leaving the task up to a political world order led by American hegemony will have disastrous consequences, for Syria and for the world at large. Yet, standing idly by is what Hanna Arendt once termed the banality of evil 8.

  • 1. Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).
  • 2. Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Bil KhalasYa Shabab! 16 Aman Fi al-Sujun al-Suriyya [Salvation Guys! 16 years in Syrian Prisons] (Beirut, Dar Saqi, 2012).
  • 3. Quted in Elias Khoury, «Yabrud Wa Zikra Antun Maqdisi», Al-Quds al-Arabi, 25 Feb 2014
  • 4. These are translation of graffiti that can be found in many places in Syria today
  • 5. The Phrase is Yassin Al-Haj Saleh's
  • 6. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, «Introduction» in Surya: al-Khalas aw al-Kharab: Surya ala Muftaraq al-Turuq, ed. Yassin al-Haj Saleh (Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Research 2014)… 14
  • 7. Sidsel Wold og Stig Arild Pettersen, «Støre Snakker Ut Om Assad: Midtøstens Mest Interessant Samtalepartner», in NRK (Norge: NRK, 2014). «Jeg vilikke kale al-Assad en partner, men han er de makten some etter folkeretten har kontroll over Syria, og som vi nå må holde ansvarlig. Og som vi dermed også bør ha kontakt med».
  • 8. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, Viking Press, 1963).