This piece was published at the Guardian.
In the last week of its Syrian rampage, ISIS bulldozed the 1500-year-old monastery of Mar Elian in al-Qaryatain and blew up the 2000-year-old temples of Baalshamin and Bel in Palmyra.
Syria’s heritage illustrates civilisational history from the Sumerians to the Ottomans. Its universal significance provoked 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 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.
Very recently the potential future looked very different. 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 militarisation, and then war.
Assad’s scorched earth – artillery barrages, barrel bombs and starvation sieges on residential neighbourhoods – has displaced over half the population. Four million are outside, subsisting in the direst conditions. Traumatisation, the world’s failure to properly arm the Free Army, and the West’s refusal to act when Assad used sarin gas, handed the reins to various Islamists.
Four years in, Syria is prey to division, nihilism, and competing totalitarianisms. A third of the country is split between Kurds, the Free Army and either moderate or extreme Islamic-nationalist groups. The rest is divided between what leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh calls ‘bearded’ and ‘necktie’ fascism. Syria’s Sykes-Picot borders were drawn by imperialists to manifest an inherently unjust order; today’s partition scenarios look even worse.
ISIS – the bearded fascists – control about half the land, though much of this is desert. Their assault on Syrian culture fits their anti-national ideology. “Syria is not for the Syrians,” says ISIS ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.”
As for the ‘necktie’ – Bashaar al-Assad controls 17% 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 Deraa. Running low on Syrian manpower, Assad’s war effort is increasingly managed by Iran, another power pushing for partition. In recent negotiations over the besieged town of Zabadani, Iran demanded a Sunni-Shia 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 Zabadani and the Damascus suburbs – is part of this plan.
The land under Syrian feet is dissolving. The latest destruction symbolises a total rupture with the country’s past and presumed future. A people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation instead.