In the course of the past two weeks of its Syrian rampage, the Islamic State (IS) has bulldozed the 1,600-year-old Church of Saint Elian in al-Qaryatayn and blown up the 2,000-year-old temples of Baal Shamin and Bel in Palmyra.
Syria’s heritage illustrates the history of civilization from the Sumerians of 4,000 BC to the end of Ottoman control in 1918. Its universal significance provoked leading French archeologist Andre Parrot’s comment: “Every person has two homelands. His own and Syria.”
For Syrians themselves, these sites provided a palpable link to the past and, it seemed, to the future too, for they once assumed that their distant descendants would also marvel at them. Such monuments were references held in common, regardless of sect or politics. Like Stonehenge or Westminster Abbey, they provided a focus for nationalist pride and belonging. Naturally, they would have been central to any future tourism industry. Now they are vanishing.
The potential future looked very different until very recently. The popular revolution of 2011 announced a new age of civic activism and fearless creativity, but the regime’s savage repression led inevitably to the revolution’s militarization and then war.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s scorched earth policy — artillery barrages, barrel bombs and starvation sieges on residential neighborhoods — has displaced more than half the population. About 4 million people have fled Syria, subsisting in the most dire conditions. Traumatization, the world’s failure to properly arm the Free Syrian Army and the West’s refusal to act when al-Assad used sarin gas, handed the reins to various militant groups.
Four years in, Syria is prey to division, nihilism and competing totalitarianisms. A third of the country is split between Kurds, the Free Syrian Army and either moderate or extreme Muslim-nationalist groups. The rest is divided between what leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh calls “bearded” and “necktie” fascism. With the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, in which the great powers decided how to divide the lands of the crumbling Ottoman empire, Syria’s borders were redrawn by imperialists to manifest an inherently unjust order; today’s partition scenarios look even worse.
IS — the bearded fascists — control about half the land, though much of this is desert. Its assault on Syrian culture fits its anti-national ideology.
“Syria is not for the Syrians,” IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said, “and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.”
As for the “necktie,” al-Assad controls 17 percent of the land and almost half of the remaining population. Though his rhetoric is nationalist (and sectarian), his forces have destroyed national infrastructure and heritage including the historic mosques in Aleppo and Daraa. Running low on Syrian manpower, al-Assad’s war effort is increasingly managed by Iran, another power pushing for partition.
In recent negotiations over the besieged town of al-Zabadani, Iran demanded a Sunni-Shiite population exchange. It seems Assad and the Iranians aim to retrench in an area stretching from the coast through Homs along the Lebanese border to Damascus — their version of what the French occupiers called la Syrie utile. The cleansing of strategic zones — currently al-Zabadani and the Damascus suburbs — is part of this plan.
The land under Syrian feet is dissolving. The latest destruction symbolizes a total rupture with the country’s past and presumed future. A people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation instead.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road from Damascus, a novel.
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