Postcolonial governments have often seemed condemned to repeat the sins of the imperialists they replaced, a sad irony that has been especially pronounced in the Middle East. The British in 1920, for instance, pioneered the use of poison gas against civilians in order to subdue a tribal revolt in Iraq. The last known deployment of chemical weapons for mass murder was again in Iraq, in 1988, when Saddam Hussein gassed his fellow citizens during the notorious Anfal campaign against the Kurds.
Syria, too, has experienced sinister symmetries. Soon after France grabbed the territory as a share of its spoils from World War I, an insurrection among the proud Druze of the Houran region in the south quickly spread elsewhere. The colonial government countered this challenge with a mix of sweet propaganda and extreme violence. Depicting their foes as sectarian fanatics, the French posed as patrons of progress and as the noble guarantors of peace between Syria’s diverse sects. Yet they also worked hard to sharpen the schism they warned of. Arming and empowering favored groups, they brutalized others with summary executions, the burning of crops, and the razing of villages.
The counterinsurgency culminated with a brazen demonstration of destructive power that effectively terrorized Syria’s propertied class into submission. In October 1925 French artillery and aircraft bombarded Damascus for two days, leaving 1,500 dead and much of the Syrian capital in ruins; the large, incongruously grid-patterned section of the Old City known simply as al-Hariqa—The Fire—today serves as a memorial to that conflagration. In May 1945, French forces again shelled Damascus indiscriminately, killing more than six hundred people in what proved a vain attempt to reassert control following the end of World War II.
The regime built under the Assad clan, whose godfather, Hafez Assad, Syria’s then minister of defense, seized power in 1970 and held it for three decades until his son Bashar’s succession, has followed these unfortunate examples. Like France’s colonial governors the Assads have posed as defenders of a modern secular state. They have called their opponents sectarian extremists, even as their favoritism toward some parts of Syria’s complex ethnic and religious mosaic—particularly their own minority Alawite sect—and punishment of others, such as the 10 percent Kurdish minority, have enflamed communal resentment. The striking viciousness and scale of state repression, enforced by seventeen competing intelligence agencies whose upper ranks are dominated by Alawites, have been excused as a necessary bulwark against threats to national unity.
Just like the French, too, the Assads have made a practice of training heavy artillery on densely populated areas. In 1982, responding to a budding Sunni Muslim insurgency that included terror attacks against Alawite soldiers, an army brigade commanded by Hafez Assad’s brother sealed off Syria’s then…
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