Most eras throughout human history have been full of bloodshed and brutality, whilst only a few have been calm and peaceful. Arab and Islamic history is no exception, having certainly experienced its fair share of brutality.
The title of this article comes from a book by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani entitled “The Massacre of the Talibyeen [descendants of Ali Ibn Talib]”. This is a collection of articles about the battles fought by the ruling families during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphate eras. After observing the history of the al-Assad family era in Syria, from Hafez to Bashar, I cannot think of a more apt name for this bloody phase in Syria’s history than the “Massacre of the Syrians”.
With the bloody and inhumane killings, the “Massacre of the Syrians” continues unabated. This was a plan first initiated by Hafez al-Assad, whilst Bashar only wants to continue and amplify it. From the massacre of Hama to the massacres of Palmyra and Homs, the total death toll is larger in terms of magnitude and significance than any development or economic figures to emerge from Syria. From reading Arab or Islamic history, one would encounter many atrocities, whether in general history books detailing wars exchanged between states or political entities, or in those that depict the ordeals, calamities and sufferings within a single political regime. The most recent publication in this regard is the book entitled “The Encyclopedia of Torture” written by Abboud al-Shaliji, who collated material through extensive historical and cultural investigations. The book leaves the ordinary reader with a sense of pain due to the overwhelming account of injustice, torture and murder. However, the does not detail atrocities to the extent that the al-Assad regime has gone to, in terms of the horrors it carries out and the killing machine it operates against its own people.
Although the Arab and Islamic history books have no precedent to help us with this size of organized bloodshed that the Syrian state is exercising against its own citizens, other modern history books can give us explicit examples of political regimes killing their own people, most notably Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, surpassing the communist Stalin as the leading example, having claimed millions of lives. Likewise we can consider Mao Tse Tung’s massacres in China, and the 20th century also gives us other examples, although smaller, that fit in the same bloody context.
The history of the Russians, who support the leaders of the al-Assad regime in Syria, is full terms of committing massacres or defending them. In terms of committing massacres, the history of Soviet communism bears testament to this, and in terms of defending them, then we do not have to look much further than the Russian stance in defense of the Bosnian genocide after the breakup of the state of Yugoslavia. Perhaps, in evoking this history, we are provided with an answer to those who wonder: How can Russia bear all these crimes and how does it have the capacity to defend them? The modern history of China also testifies that it too has the ability and capacity to do so.
Among the significant differences between the massacres of the father and son in the al-Assad regime, one of the most notable is the media, its power and its strength. During the reign of Hafez al-Assad, the media did not have the capacity and proliferation as it does now, where technological developments can provide all you need in terms of pictures and video clips, sent directly from the scene of the events. When the massacre of Homs took place, the regime know that every Homs citizen could be a reporter through their mobile phone, which can capture images and video clips and send them to the world in seconds. Hence the regime sought to cut off all means of communication from the city.
When ordinary words are unable to explain sufferings, and when phrases fail to express anguish, many people resort to the creations of our authors and literature. Hence, we see how both the elite and the general public tend to recite the poems of late Syrian poet Nezar Qabbani, when simple words fail to depict and portray what is going on.
In the literary expression of human sufferings, poetry has profound strength, persistence, distinction and impact, and novels have a different sort of strength and a different impact. An eternal line of verse or a creative novel can have the same effect in terms of immortalizing pain and suffering, and can preserve crimes in people’s memory so that they are never forgotten. We can recall what was written by the female Chinese novelist Yung Chang about the modern history of pro-Assad China in her significant novel “Wild Swans”. We also remember was written in the Arab world by Abdul-Rahman Munif, firstly in his novel “East of the Mediterranean “, and then in his follow-up “Here and Now: Or East of the Mediterranean Once Again”. In these two novels, Munif offers a painful account of the Arab states that witnessed military and ideological coups in the mid-20th century. Although he did not name specific countries, his account of events is close to that of Syria and Iraq, more specifically the reign of the Baath Arab Socialist Party.
I’m not well acquainted with Russian literature and cannot recall a specific novel or poem to serve this particular context. However, I am certain that the authors who succeeded Tolstoy and Dostoevsky must have been able to produce many works about Stalin’s massacres.
Therefore, “a few claim that the history of the 20th century and the political thinking therein is a success story – whilst in fact the truth is the opposite because the 20th century was full of outbursts, tension, mass movements and mass killings” (Political Thought in the 20th Century: 1/15). We must surely re-evaluate history more carefully and patiently, in order to discover a new approach or a different vision to realize what is really going on. History has its ups and downs in accordance with a variety of elements and variables, and it is certain that history will not necessarily advance in a positive manner, as some believe, nor will it regress in the future as others like Bashar al-Assad may believe.
Arab states, most prominently in the Gulf region, alongside Turkey and Western powers, are seeking to form an international alliance named the “Friends of the Syrian People”. This aims to maintain the pressures mounted on the al-Assad regime; diplomatically through the UN or by returning to the Security Council, and politically by intensifying sanctions and isolating the regime. These countries should also follow the Gulf measures and expel the Syrian regime’s ambassadors. They should also support Turkey; Syria’s only neighbor able to create a buffer zone to protect the Syrian civilians. Likewise, it is now time for us all to recognize the Syrian National Council as the true representative of the Syrian people. The regime’s manner of conduct is becoming extremely violent with every passing day following the Russian-Chinese veto, and the daily death toll in Syria has doubled. The regime is not content with the use of the Shabiha and the military; it is now using heavy military equipment, shelling houses and neighborhoods with tanks and missiles. It is intimidating the residents of Homs by bringing its military vehicles closer to it, along the lines of what Bashar al-Assad’s father did when he carried out a massacre in Hama previously.
The al-Assad regime is tirelessly seeking to repeat history in Syria, yet it seems to be overlooking the fact that the logic of history is stronger than that of al-Assad and his regime.