Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

If the Wheels Fall Off, Does the Chariot Remain? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Members of the Free Syrian Army holding an opposition flag during a protest against President Bashar Assad in Bustan al-Qasr, a district in Aleppo December 28, 2012. (REUTERS)

A conversation once took place in ancient times between an Asian ruler named King Milinda and a Buddist sage named Nagasena. They were talking about the idea of the self, and how it is constructed.

The sage asked the king: “How did you come [here]: on foot, or on a mount?”

“I did not come, Sir, on foot, but on a chariot,” answered the king.

“If you have come on a chariot, then please explain to me what a chariot is.” Nagasena pondered, “Is the pole the chariot?”

“No, reverend Sir,” replied the king.

“Is then the axle the chariot?”

“No, reverend Sir.”

Nagasena continued, “Is it then the wheels, or the framework, or the flag-staff, or the yoke, or the reins, or the goadstick?”

The king again replied, “No, reverend Sir.”

Finally, Nagasena asked, “Then is this ‘chariot’ outside the combination of pole, axle, wheels, framework, flag-staff, yoke, reins, and goad?”

After much debate, both men concluded that any entity is dependent on the sum of its parts.

If the army falls apart, does the state remain? What about if the government also disintegrates, and the security situation deteriorates? What about if all the schools, universities, and airports were closed? What if the hospitals could no longer treat the wounded? What if the schools turned into prisons? What if gangs of thieves spread throughout the cities? What if thousands of people were being displaced every day, and in every direction? What if the people were starved of their basic needs? What if towns and villages became separated and detached from the center? More than this, we now see (Russian Foreign Minister) Sergey Lavrov talking with his hands stained with blood, and the more that he talks, the more Syrian blood is shed.

The Iranians and the Russians are talking about Syria as if what is happening there is a mere dispute between the Labour Party and the Conservatives in the British House of Commons. Yet in reality, their conversation is akin to that of King Milinda and Nagasena. Remember, this is the Syrian Arab Republic that the Iranians claim is the most important of their thirty-five provinces. Hence they are telling Russia’s President Putin that it is not important if Syria loses its wheels, framework, and axles, provided that at least something still remains among the wreckage.

But the chariot metaphor has not changed. The Buddhist sage told it to the king all those years ago because he wanted him to know how to rule his country. If just one wheel falls off the country ceases to function; it is dependent on all of its components. Without the wheel it can no longer move, neither forwards or backwards, not to the past and not to the future. It is stuck in the vacuum of the present, and can no longer administer its own affairs.

In its efforts to solve the problem, the Syrian regime has exhausted its horse with the whip. Instead of trying to fix its chariot’s faulty wheel, it has sought to beat its horse instead. Then, instead of noticing that the horse was in pain, the regime continued to look upon it with revulsion. Now, wheel after wheel has fallen off, and the chariot is no longer a chariot. More alarmingly, it is now beyond repair.

True wisdom is to prevent the disintegration of the chariot in the first place, for there is no chariot without wheels, no spirit without a body, and no state without unity. The real challenge lies in construction, not in destruction, in reconciliation rather than rejection, and in taking care of individual components so that the state entity does not fall apart.