In Ambiguities of Domination, political science professor Lisa Wedeen examined the Syrian regime’s rule of domination under then-president Hafez Al Assad.
She noted a dual role for Syrians: both propping up the regime’s propaganda and at the same time subverting its power via the symbols and rhetoric of everyday life and popular culture. This seminal work, published in 1999, a year before Al Assad junior took power, explained to outsiders the inner mechanisms of an authoritative regime. Its relevance is significant today under the shadow of Hafez’s son Bashar and with the fate of a blood-soaked Syria, now in ruins.
In a particularly powerful chapter entitled Acting As If, Wedeen writes: “Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.
According to Wedeen: “The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens ...”
Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummeled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him.
The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months, bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.
As world leaders discuss the merits of the Syrian opposition attending Geneva 2 peace talks without preconditions, they flip the narrative of the revolution. A narrative in which Mr Al Assad is upgraded from a brutal dictator that deserves no more than a cell at The Hague to a potential “partner” in the transitional peace process.
The latest demeaning analysis offered to Syrians is to act “as if” Mr Al Assad maintaining power would end the brutal war that was unleashed by Mr Al Assad himself. Governments act as if dragging the Syrian opposition to the negotiation table without any preconditions will result in a political solution to a raging war. World leaders act as if Mr Al Assad’s cooperation in dismantling his chemical weapon stockpiles is reducing the amount of bloodshed, even as the cluster bombs and scud missiles continue to fall onto civilian populations.
As the slated 2014 Syrian presidential election approaches, “Syrians will have their voices heard at the ballot box” is the current refrain of Assad loyalists. As if presidential elections can even be a possibility in a country where over seven million people are displaced. And Mr Al Assad himself acts as if his nomination is not even problematic, to say the least.
For what purpose is all of this acting “as if”? To save Syria from the very regime that created this catastrophe in the first place?
The act of “acting as if”, like the fable about the emperor and his non-existent clothes, twists lies into elaborate truths to the point where even well-intentioned people, including Syrians themselves, are left to wonder: “Should Assad stay?”
Faisal Al Yafai, writing in these pages, approaches the “unthinkable question” of Mr Al Assad remaining in power to save Syria, arguing “all of that could be worthwhile if it ends the conflict”. True, but the most important word in that sentence is “if”.
While Al Yafai rightly points out that no one has any good ideas to end the protracted bloody war, the idea of Mr Al Assad staying in power may just be the worst one.
Most Syrians are worn out by the gruelling violence that has taken a toll on all aspects of life. Most Syrians want peace and stability. If faced with a sincere choice – Mr Al Assad remaining in power in exchange for a ceasefire, the release of all political prisoners, opening humanitarian and medical aid corridors into Syria, and beginning the long process of refugee return – most Syrians would swallow the bitter pill and choose Mr Al Assad. This choice is the result of being left alone to fight two enemies armed by foreign forces with virtually no support. It is a choice of despair.
It is also an unfairly framed choice for one simple reason: Mr Al Assad will never uphold his end of the bargain. Syrian history, old and new, is a reminder of how the Assad regime deals with the people’s dissent. Both father and son have displayed their relentless tactics of retribution. (See Hama, 1982. Or Syria, 2011-2013.)
Making a judgement call based on the grim Syrian present – well over 100,000 dead, thousands in torture cells, millions of displaced and refugees, foreign fighters and extremists battling for foreign ideologies and agendas, mass destruction of cities, towns and villages, an out-of-touch political opposition that is corrupt and impotent, and millions of exhausted Syrians who just want it all to end now – is simply a convenient and careless cop-out.
It’s easy to look at this list of tragedies and claim that saving what’s left of Syria should be the only priority and argue that preconditions to the negotiations will only ensure more stalemate and bloodshed.
Merely glancing at the present is not only naive, it’s immoral. History tells a different story. Stories of mass murder and destruction 31 years ago in Hama, stories of thousands of torture and rape cases, stories of boys whose fingernails where ripped out because they wrote “freedom” on their school walls, stories of enforced policies of “Assad or we scorch the country”, and more recently “Kneel or starve”. Those stories document the despicable and undeniable truth of this regime.
We live in dark times when tyrants are hailed as saviours and martyrs are called terrorists.
History repeats itself – as Hama did before Daraa, and Hafez before Bashar. History also bears witness to the simple fact that sooner or later, every tyrant’s rule ends. In fact, tyrants have fallen over the centuries of our collective civilisation, on this very land called Syria.
Perhaps we will not be able to rejoice soon (or not even for decades) that the Assad regime is finally finished. That will not change one fact: asking for him or his regime to stay will not save lives. Instead, this decision will take more Syrian lives. Thousands more lives.
Deceptive options and skewed choices can be framed as powerful persuasions, as the “last hope” and the “moral choice”. These “solutions for the Syrian conflict” mock the Syrian people’s heavy sacrifices, bloody history, and desire for a peaceful future of freedom and dignity.
If the world has now decided to act “as if”, this complicit world should know that the Syrian people ended that charade 30 months ago. That was their unambiguous choice.
Beyond the dead, tortured, and displaced people; beyond the destroyed cities and scorched landscapes; beyond all what we have lost; does the world really expect Syrians to go back to acting “as if”? As if they loved the illegitimate leader in Damascus? As if the tyrant’s clothes were not soaked with the people’s blood? As if the lies had become the truth? As if history had never unfolded in the terrible ways it did?
As if nothing had happened at all?
Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer
On Twitter: @AmalHanano