The code to Damascus

To fathom why the bloody Syrian civil war shows no sign of abating, one has to understand the tribal mentality of the Arab region.

Salman Masalha || 
The code to Damascus

"What's going to happen in Syria?" I asked Fawaz, an exiled Syrian musician whom I met in Paris recently. "The truth is, I don't know," he responded succinctly. He didn't seem to be the type whose zest for life could be curbed by the horrors of the civil war in his homeland. When his home was damaged, he found shelter with dozens of other civilians in an old Turkish bathhouse in the Old City of Aleppo. There, in one corner of the building, he set up a studio for himself and decided to document traditional Syrian music. "I am a musician," he said. "That's my contribution to future generations, in the hope of better days to come."

About six months ago, when the shelling got closer, Fuaz made the final decision to leave. As he sees it, both the Syrian regime and opposition forces have the same mind-set. "It's not enough to rid oneself of the heads of the regime," he told me decisively. "You also need to get rid of the entire ruling mentality."

On his way out of Syria, he was witness to the destruction. "[Looking] through the car window, the destruction was apparent - dozens of kilometers of wrecked homes. It's impossible to put into words. You need to see it with your own eyes to realize the magnitude of the destruction in Syria."

In fact, among tribal and sectarian Arab dictatorships, no value is ascribed to the state or the people. In a place where tribal or sectarian loyalties are more important than any other affiliation, people have no sense of being part of a people or country. In a tribal state, the people can go to hell. Hundreds of thousands can lose their lives and millions can be uprooted from their homes, scattering in all directions. None of this makes an impression on the tribal leader. There is no room for soul-searching in such a tribal social structure, because it would be perceived as a sign of weakness. And that would ultimately result in a loss of the reins of power, along with a loss of tribal hegemony, the country and its resources.

Even the Arabic term "dawla" (meaning “dynasty") is derived from the tribal tradition, implying the decline of one tribe and the ascent of another. It always involved the mass slaughter of the members of the losing tribe and their allies.

Dictators of this kind live in perpetual fear. As a result, they entrust their key positions - both military and economic - to a limited tribal circle, including sons, brothers, uncles and cousins. The rout of the armies of another Arab dictator makes no impression. Such a dictator doesn't face the prospect of a state commission of inquiry. As long as he is alive, he will continue to proclaim victory and the defeat of "imperialistic” and “Zionist plots” to overthrow him.

That's how it was with Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad, who fled into hiding in his tribal region. The butcher of Damascus, President Bashar Assad, is a similar case. Hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, and millions of refugees, along with the total destruction of cities, does not move him in the slightest. That's because in the minds of such dictators, the principle of L'etat, c'est moi (“I am the state”) is set in stone. Or, as his followers would say, the choice is either Assad or eternal destruction.

The man at the helm of this tribal mafia is not going to change his ways. His entire existence is based on his imposition of terror. Any letup in this apparatus would spell an end to his regime, and could also spell his end in the more physical sense. Brutal suppression is an inherent aspect of such a regime and social structure.

As with other dictators like him, Assad agreed to forgo strategic chemical weaponry because he had a knife to his throat. Domestically, he portrays the step as a victory that foiled the imperialist plot against his anti-imperialist government.

In his view, remaining in power is more important than anything else - even more important than the Syrian republic or its citizens, whom he is killing without batting an eye. In the foreseeable future, we will be witness to new discourse in the Arab world, with everyone talking about the right of Syrian refugees to return to their homeland. I have my doubts over whether they can return to homes that are gone without a trace. This is the old Middle East, a glorious bad old Middle East.
Published: Opinions-Haaretz, Oct. 15, 2013

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