Magazine article Newsweek International

The Lost Bequest of Hafez Assad

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Lost Bequest of Hafez Assad

Article excerpt

Byline: Fouad Ajami

Modern Syria was made by a cruel strongman. His son, also cruel, is a man of straw.

Bashar, son of Hafez Assad, has a son by the name of Hafez. But as the defiance and bloodletting in Syria would seem to suggest, Bashar needn't worry about training his son for future rulership. The house that Hafez Assad built, some four decades ago, is not destined to last.

Dynasties are, of course, made, not born. The far-flung Ottoman Empire, one of the greatest Eurasian powers, emerged out of the labor and talent of Osman, an obscure early-14th-century chieftain, a warrior among many on the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire. So beguiling was the advance of this Ottoman dominion that a legend of Osman's greatness would be spun by later generations: it was claimed that he was related to Noah through 52 generations. The present ennobles the past, and greatness is invariably in proportion to distance from the men--and the first settings--of great undertakings.

The great North African historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), perhaps the world's first sociologist, left behind some firm notions about dynasties: they rise, they beget kingdoms, then they decay, like all "created things." Ibn Khaldun was rather specific: glory and prestige are gained and lost within four successive generations. The "builder of a family's glory knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last." The son who inherits his mantle had contact with his father and will have learned some lessons from him. "However, he is inferior to him in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application." The third generation imitates the ancestors. The fourth loses it all, as its members begin to think that this glory is their due, given them by virtue of their descent, and not something that "resulted from group effort and individual qualities."

Arabs are firm believers in nasab, inherited merit passed on from father to son, a nobility of the blood. No wonder that Hafez Assad was ambivalent about his beginnings. In 1980, before a gathering of learned notables, the ruler, then a decade in power, recounted the adversity of his childhood. He recalled that at one point in his boyhood he had to quit school temporarily because his father couldn't scrape together the modest tuition. "But we are not commoners. On the contrary, my father was a half aga." The title "aga," a modest one in Ottoman parlance, signified a chief, a man of some standing or means. On another occasion, in the same year, speaking to a peasant syndicate, Hafez Assad would tell them he was in truth one of them. "I am first and last a peasant and the son of a peasant. To lie amid the spikes of grain on the threshing floor is, in my eyes, worth all the palaces in this world."

He had pined to leave that poverty; he had come down from his mountain village to the port town of Latakia, on the Mediterranean, to get a secondary-school education; he had made it to the military academy, and the uniform had given him all that was now his. But he was then in the midst of a vicious sectarian war against the Muslim Brotherhood, with their power in the souks and the mosques of Hama and Aleppo and Damascus. For the Sunni artisans in the warrens of these old cities, the presidency of a peasant--and an Alawite peasant at that, hailing from an esoteric mountain sect beyond the pale of Islam--was a violation of the natural order of things. Syria took pride in its place in Islam. Damascus was the seat of the first Arab kingdom, the first stop the desert warriors from the Hejaz made when they came out of the Arabian Peninsula. In the telling, the Prophet Muhammad favored this realm. He had seen Damascus from the hills above it, and the fabled Ghouta, the gardens and orchards that once circled this city. The prophet, bewitched by his view of Damascus, it is proudly recounted by the Damascenes, had refused to enter the city; it was paradise, he said, and he feared he would be denied paradise in the afterlife were he to enter it in his lifetime. …

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