Dynasty: Former president Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar have ruled Syria for 50 years

Endless tragedy of blood and sand

Syria’s civil war is the latest grisly chapter in more than a millennium of conflict

To make tense hours pass more quickly during the 2004-2008 war in Baghdad, I used to wonder what to order when I was able to return to the bar of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo.

I asked myself the same thing last time I was in Syria, visiting rebels in the north during an aerial bombing campaign in the summer of 2012. But by then I had a family, Aleppo was more or less besieged, and as my own location near Idlib was dicey enough I did not try claim that brandy (Armenian, usually) and soda. Now it is too late.

The Baron hosted Gertrude Bell, King Farouk and Charles Lindbergh; I remember T.E. Lawrence’s bill in a small vitrine in the lobby. When this latest war began, the hotel took in refugees. Its owner, a grandson of the founder, used to be identifiable by an ageing, well-made suit and a dark grey fedora hat. Many an Aleppine Armenian of a certain vintage dressed that way. Now the old man is dead. His survivors are outside Syria and don’t want to come back.

T.E. Lawrence’s bar bill at the Baron’s Hotel

The old Aleppo itself may never come back. Nor may the old Syria. But perhaps it never really left. Tamerlane’s Indian war elephants may have been replaced by Russian cluster bombs, but in this bruised country not everything has changed.

Looking, the other day, for notebooks from various times spent in Syria, I found a stack of index cards. I don’t remember when or why I’d written a list of the 40-odd powers that have ruled Damascus since 635AD, when the Muslim army of the great Khalid bin Walid took it from the Byzantines. The Ottomans ruled Syria longest. They seized Damascus in 1516 and lost it in 1918, when the 3rd Australian Light Horse — lately of Gallipoli, and recently issued with swords for the coming fight — rode in. The year of the shortest regimes was 1949, when there were four: first, the brief republic that had in 1946 attained independence from the French, then three military coups.

Two things are striking about the list. First is its length: stripping out the Ottomans, there is a more or less wholesale change of sovereign power every 30 years or so for more than a millennium. Second is how foreign they all are. Right up to the end of the French Mandate, perhaps only Nur al Din (d. 1174), mentor of the Kurd Saladin, could be said to have been local to Syria – and his father was a Seljuk Turk. Most, excepting the Mongols but including Tamerlane and those who followed him, were Turks of one kind or another.

The Mamluks, who ruled off and on from 1260 until the Ottomans came, were slave soldiers taken as children from Christian families, mostly from Turkic tribes until the late fourteenth century, when they started to come from Circassia. These lands on Russia’s Black Sea coast for centuries provided the favoured slave girls — flaxen-haired, blue- or green-eyed — of harems throughout Islam, birthing countless sultans, caliphs and amirs. “The Circassians are poor,” wrote Voltaire, “and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade.”

Russia’s current hegemony in Syria has more modern roots. Moscow supported Syrian elements against the USSR’s French and British allies as early as 1944. Then, with independence in 1946, the Soviets helped to build the Syrian Arab Army, Assad’s regular troops today. By the time of Suez in 1956, Soviet military and other assistance to Syria neared $100 million a year. A young Hafez al-Assad trained in MiGs in the USSR and at the time of his own coup in 1970 was on the pro-Soviet side of a split in the Syrian Baath party. He signed the port of Tartus over to the Russian navy in 1971 and a member of the Wagner Group seeking a haircut in Aleppo today will likely see the same flaking signs in Cyrillic that I used to see outside barbers’ shops in that city. Dreary as Assad’s Syria was before this war, I always loved it for being a place where you could smoke while watching a movie, seeing a dentist, or being shaved — perhaps, with hindsight, a state of affairs more Russian than Arab.

Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad is 55 and the family dynasty, now in its fiftieth year, is already longer-lived than most ruling powers in Syrian history. Theirs is the first Arab dynasty to rule in Damascus since 750AD, and the first indigenous Syrian dynasty ever.

Almost as new is Iran’s important role. “Syria”, of course, never existed until the post-Ottoman carve-up following the Great War, so any precedent must be in terms of Persian and Arab, Sunni and Shia. But from the ninth to the twenty-first century, the Persians and those who look to the Imam Ali had essentially no say in the affairs of Al Sham, as the Arabs knew Syria.

Divided country: The magnificent Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

When the Muslim armies first burst out of Arabia following the Prophet’s death in 632AD, Persia and the Roman empire of Byzantium stood as twin, half-doddering giants, sapped by four centuries of warfare and separated by a border following the Euphrates from northern Syria through Iraq.

The Prophet’s death was followed by the brief period of unity, imperial expansion, and Muslim piety known as the Rightly Guided caliphate, based at Medina.

Then, in 650AD the caliphate was seized by the Banu Umayya family from Mecca. The Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, was murdered, and the Umayyads moved the capital to worldly Damascus — though it would be another thousand years until Syria truly felt Arab and Muslim. As recently as the middle of the last century Syria was still a quarter Christian. From a stern Islamic perspective, the days of the Damascus caliphate, 661-750AD, are remembered as a wine-soaked enormity. The call for offensive jihad, for extending the rule of the Prophet’s word over the kafir wherever he could be found, was the only Muslim prerogative that the Umayyads took seriously.

Refugee camp in Idlib province

The Umayyad caliphate stretched from Damascus to Morocco and Sindh. When the Damascus caliphate fell, it was Persia that brought it down. Armies under black flags marched out of Khorasan, Iran’s Central Asian hinterland, and the last of the Umayyads eventually fled to Spain. The famous mini-caliphate there was essentially the Damascus caliphate writ smaller.

The Persians based their own caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad, the new capital of Islam. It was at Baghdad that Muslim rulers could rediscover the treasures of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen, and eventually pass these back to the West to fuel the Renaissance and all that followed. In the late ninth century twilight of Abbasid power, another story emerged, fairly minor until recently: the Shia zealots known as the Qarmatians, who ensconced themselves in the coastal range south of Latakia.

With their Shia reverence for the Imam Ali, they eventually became known as Alawites. Close-knit in their mountains, they would provide their son and cousin Hafez al-Assad with the core of his power. When in 2012 a largely Sunni country rose against them, the Alawites turned to Shia Iran. Iran, “the West”, the Turks, and even Russia: the four main actors in the tragedy of contemporary Syria have ever been playing in what President Trump called its “long bloodstained sand”.

More than most places, Syria has been some big things. Singular prize possession of the Roman empire, rich, sultry, and quiescent; birthplace of Christianity; high point of Arab accomplishment; locus of Crusade and anti-Crusade which brought Europe and the Near East back into an intercourse broken for half a millennium by the Muslim conquests.

It was also the twentieth-century homeland of the beguiling idea, fostered by Lawrence, of an Arab nation; it was the crèche of Baathism, the Arab national-socialism that produced Saddam and the Assads. Syria, more than any other country except perhaps Iraq, is where what we call East and West have met, mixed and clashed the most. Indeed, the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was built upon the Byzantine basilica of John the Baptist, itself on the site of the city’s Roman temple to Jupiter, under which lay the old temple to the local god Hadad.

I remember it best at Dura Europos, the famous archaeological site near the Euphrates in north-east Syria. I drove there with a local fellow I had met in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter in Damascus’s Old City. That part of the north-east was a sensitive place to travel, close to the Iraq border, near Syria’s restive Kurds, and home to the Syrian nuclear programme that the Israelis destroyed from the air a year later, in 2007. As we drove east we picked up a mukhabarat “tail”. We stopped at the camp — white plastic chairs, Japanese pickup, low smoky fire, thin goats — of a Bedouin, to stretch our legs. Like many of his ilk, he found these nearby modern borders inconvenient.

At Dura Europos the landscape is flat and brown, with little to see but the ancient city’s long walls. Its treasures are unprepossessing: mostly lines of stones or fragments in the dirt, ankle- or hip-high, where the archaeologists, starting with the French in the 1920s, have worked. As the sun went down you could sit high on the mellowed walls, 25 feet above the plain, and think about the ghosts of empires. Today, after Islamic State, aerial photographs show a pocked moonscape, archaeology of a far more informal kind.

The Seleucids, Alexander’s heirs in western Asia, had founded Dura at the turn of the fourth century BC as a link on the Euphrates between their two great possessions, Syria and Iraq. As the Parthians and then the Sasanians rose in Iran it became a frontier bulwark, changing hands frequently until it was razed by Shapur I in 256AD.

On the day that the mighty Persian breached the city walls, you might have sought divine succour in many ways. You could have worshipped at a temple dedicated to Zeus, or one honoring the Persian sun-god Mithra, promoted by the emperor in Rome and beloved by the legions from Northumbria to the banks of the Orontes. You could have prayed at a temple to Artemis, the city’s deity whether the rulers were Greek, Parthian or Roman. There was a temple to the local love goddess Atargatis, and one paying homage to the moon and sun gods of Palmyra.

There were two places where you could not have worshipped that morning, because they were near the city walls and the defenders had piled sand against them. One was a quiet house containing a church for the god-man Jesus Christ, half a century before the empire turned to Him. Nearby, they also prayed in a synagogue — but this synagogue had graven images on its walls, an unorthodoxy picked up from the Persian neighbours, who now were at the gates. Excavated from the defenders’ sand, the painted walls of Dura’s little synagogue are now in the museum at Damascus, where they were safe from Islamic State. The little house-church of the Christians has been at Yale since 1930. Like Pompei, Dura’s synagogue and church had been saved by the agent of their destruction.

The last redoubt of Syria’s revolution today is the north-western province of Idlib. Perhaps a million refugees cram its 2,300 square miles, and the Turks have returned, tenuously keeping the Russians, Assad and the Iranians at bay.

Revolution is the wrong word for Syria’s conflict. It has been a civil war since Islamic State exploded in the east of the country in 2014 and allied with Assad to crush the secular rebellion. But this war began as a revolt by the 60 per cent of Syrians who are Sunni and Arab against the Assad family and the Alawites, who represented perhaps 12 per cent of the country — somewhat less in proportion than the Afrikaaners of F.W. de Klerk’s South Africa, or the Sunnis of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Statue of Saladin’s shadow, Damascus

But Assad’s father, Hafez, had learned an important lesson in 1982 when the Sunni city of Hama, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, rebelled. Assad more or less razed the place, killing, most likely, a few tens of thousands and scattering many of the rest. With the “Hama rules”, as they are called in Syria, established, quiet followed for decades in a cowed land. When Arab Spring protests appeared on Syrian streets in 2011, Bashar followed his father’s recipe. The repression turned peaceful protests into a nationwide uprising, which by 2012 flowered into revolution — or so it seemed.

I travelled to Idlib in 2012 to see what the revolution looked like. Syria was no Yemen or Afghanistan. It was a second-world country, secular in outlook, Mediterranean, looking to the West and modernity: Turkey, not Libya. The 2012 revolution, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, had begun as a democratic cry against the tyranny of a shopworn and corrupt autocracy, but with something else too: an identitarian element, for the large Sunni majority.

In mid-2012, the revolution was winning in the south, by Jordan, in the north along the Turkish border, in the western belt up against the Lebanese border. Even Aleppo, parts of Damascus, and the Alawite port of Latakia had their hands full. So what might a new Syria look like? Idlib was the place to see. Its central limestone massif, the Jebel al Zawiye, was home to some of the more rural and conservative Sunnis in Syria, who for decades had been hard for Damascus to control. The farmers, teachers, shopkeepers and runaway conscripts here had recently liberated a swathe of villages from Assad. What did their nascent administration look like?

With some phone calls from New York, I arranged to be embedded with a small group of rebels. I met my new friends in Antioch, the former capital of Roman Syria and then one of the world’s juicier centers of revolutionary flotsam: spies from many countries, convalescing rebels, self-appointed spokesmen and leaders of some coming new Jerusalem; profiteers, journalists, gunrunners and the like. Antioch’s decadence had been legendary. When Paul was converting on his road to Damascus, in Antioch they celebrated Aphrodite and Bacchus in month-long rites known as the Orgies, where, it is said, courtesans swarmed in public in basins filled with limpid water.

One muddy dawn we slipped from Turkey over a border amongst tilled fields. We met a vehicle in an olive grove, and spent a day navigating past Assad-held towns and avoiding a couple of new al-Qaeda checkpoints, their black flags flying. We made it safely up into the hill country of the Jebel, and to the village that my companions had reoccupied a week before.

The Russian and Iranian “blank cheque” to Assad was revving up in earnest. The rebels could handle the Iranian fighters, mostly. Russia’s role was largely a matter of supporting Assad’s down-at-heel airpower, and this was a different story. It was the year of the barrel bombs, and nothing I had seen elsewhere prepared me for that daily terror. Mortars and other artillery and small arms went on every day, but there is a different depth in the percussion of a barrel bomb, something you feel in your teeth. The Russian-made jets and helicopters had impunity, and, depending which way the winds were blowing, to see or hear them first was sometimes worse than the sound of the exploding ordnance.

These sinister insects of the sky were all that really kept Assad afloat, in those days when his Alawites, with some Christian allies long favoured by the minority regime, outnumbered three-to-one, were losing on the ground. The numbers of aircraft were small — a hundred or two, as I recall, at the sharp end of the spear — and they had only three airstrips.

A tiny investment would likely tip the balance, or so I was to conclude at the time: a few dozen hits by the rebels with shoulder-fired missiles like those that won the 1980s war in Afghanistan, a few deniable explosions on shabby runways the world had never heard of. Not much, then, for the strategic payoff and to avoid the horrifying costs since paid.

While the rebels I was bunked in with set off on daily forays to buy weapons from Assad’s soldiers, or try to take on an Assad tank or join neighbours in a hopelessly brave attack on some town nearby, I wandered the countryside on the back of a motorbike. It was Ramadan. Vegetables, mutton, goat and yogurt were plentiful when the sun went down, and I came home with a large jar of delicious olives.

The massif is home to countless dead cities, as they are known: Roman towns, villages, estates and villas. The builders had little wood and made everything of limestone, so much of it still stands. There are ancient churches, and everywhere the near-pristine remnants of the jahiliyyah, the time of ignorance before Islam came. The Sunnis of the Jebel loved their ancient churches, and survived Ramadan on a daytime diet of Assad’s tobacco. Their women wore veils or not, no one cared. Talk is easy, but even the Muslim Brothers — few, but scary, weapons always at hand — said they looked forward to a real parliament. The more bookish locals swept the scorched-out schools and started to teach the children once more, with no breath of a madrassah anywhere.

Reprisals against the Alawites? An insulting suggestion. When al-Qaeda cells, with cash and shiny weapons, tried to set up checkpoints, the Jebelis would take them on. Israel? “Always our friend against Assad.” It was summer in a secular revolution.

A year later, and not far to the east, Islamic State erupted. They set up their capital in Raqqa: deep inside the land of Assad and Putin, halfway on the road from Aleppo to Anbar. The revolution, with a vicious new front, was doomed. The kafir tax and the slave markets were back, under lights from the electricity Assad supplied in return for Islamic State’s oil. And the digging, now hideous, resumed at Dura Europos, where Valerian’s legions had piled the sand against the walls.

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