L’Internationale, 19 January 2015
In the early days of this year, Dae’sh (ISIS) seized our family house in Raqqa. This fascist organization forced a relative who was living in the house to leave and appropriated everything within it (beds, carpets, kitchen utensils, cupboards…) – all was given to “mujahids” from Tajikistan. Dae’sh seized other houses in the city as well, and gave them to foreign settlers. The building that houses the headquarters of the authority they created to seize private properties was itself appropriated from a family that is now dwelling in Turkey as refugees. Confiscated houses are considered enemies’ property.
The confiscation of private properties and public resources is a constituent aspect of Da’esh’s settler colonialist mentality, part of a comprehensive social and demographic engineering project that aims to build a state from scratch and to call into being the appropriate population. That is why it favors imported people who are separated from their original environments and traditions over local people who are deeply rooted in their surroundings. Deporting native people or delocalizing them, on the one hand, or re-forming them as fanatic outsiders who are hostile to their community and their own past, on the other, are both means by which Dae’sh deals with locals under the aspect of a foreign colonizing power.
Ethnic cleansing is another face of their racist policies. The Ezidis of Iraq were perhaps the most internationally visible victims in this regard, but a similar fate befell all sectors of the population not affiliated with Da’esh. The social system of Da’esh is composed of muhajireen (immigrants – imported settlers), Ansar (supporters – the locals who are siding with Da’esh), and then “the Muslim people in general’’ – the majority that is watched over, punished, looted, and killed when they resist. Non-Muslims are simply nonexistent. Other key aspects of Daesh’s policies are the use of massacres and spectacular killings in order to break the resistance of the locals. Last but not least is the consistently fascist method of linking education and war, in this case harnessing the educational system to the eternal religious war to which Da’esh aspires. War is not what Da’esh does; it is what Da’esh is.
The confiscation of lands, public resources, and private property is nothing new in Syria. The history of this practice parallels the history of the Ba’athist regime, which has been in power since 1963. Nationalization for “reasons of public interest” has always mingled with private appropriations. For about a decade, there was a “progressive” element to this nationalization, especially with respect to land reform in rural areas. But this progressive element disappeared completely in 1970s, when the “nation” itself was confiscated and enslaved, with the seizure of power by Hafez al-Assad. Over the past 44 years, expropriations have played a key role in the consequent formation of a new “state bourgeoisie,” with huge fortunes accumulating through the proprietary control and use of the state apparatus.
Since the early days of Ba’thist rule, native Damascenes used to tell jokes about “socialist comrades” who helped themselves generously to the best houses in al-Maliki and Abu Rummana, the most prestigious neighborhoods in the capital at that time. In the name of workers and peasants, the new rulers of the country – military and civilian – were busy occupying the positions of those they had overthrown from power.
Throughout the period of Hafez al-Assad’s rule (1970-2000), and even more under his son Bashar, urbanization plans were coupled with enabling the state bourgeoisie to seize land cheaply. This land was rapidly transformed into residential areas, and prices rose exponentially in a short time. In Damascus, people distinguish among three areas within the al-Mazze district: Mazze Autostrad and Mazze Villas, the old Mazze, and Mazze 86. The first are clean, well-organized neighborhoods for the new upper middle class. The second is poorly serviced and inhabited mostly by the indigenous residents of this formerly agricultural suburb of Damascus, who were subsequently pushed backward toward invisibility. The mountainous Mazze 86 is inhabited mostly by Alawis who once served as soldiers in the Defense Brigades. Headed by Hafez’s brother Rif’at Assad between 1970 and 1984, the Brigades’ function was to protect the regime. The population of this neighborhood is mostly poor, but the regime still relies upon many of its residents as agents of oppression. In 2012, the Assadis brought in bulldozers to demolish what remained of the Mazze cactus orchards, in an effort to crush the resistance of the local community during the second year of the revolution.
Kafr Sousa, another district in Damascus, is characterized by the same tripartite social division, though in a slightly different way. First, there is a modern, clean, well-organized sector, with high apartment towers inhabited by the upper strata of the new bourgeoisie – indeed, the first major mall in Damascus appeared among these towers a few years before the revolution. Second, and not far from this bourgeois compound, there is district with a dominant sectarian character that contains multiple security headquarters. Third, there is a deteriorating, poorly-serviced and virtually invisible sector that is inhabited by the original native population and others of the same social level. Needless to say, it was in this last sector that gatherings of peaceful protesters took place in 2011 and 2012.
During those two years, it was common for locals in the Damascene districts of Mazze, Darayya, Mou’addamiya, Kafr Sousa, and Barzeh to express their revolutionary motivations using a very Palestinian language: Restore the usurped land!
During the first months of the revolution in the city of Hama, the matter of expropriated properties was among the issues that the regime promised the people it would reconsider. There was a history: In February of 1982, the city was demolished, its population was crushed, and houses and properties were looted for nearly a month.
Earlier, during the 1970s, an “Arab belt” in the northeastern part of the country was established through the confiscation of land held by Kurdish villagers in order to settle Arab villagers from Raqqa province, whose villages had been flooded by the lake produced by the construction of a dam on the Euphrates. Behind this solution to the problem of the flooded villages was a chauvinist plan to weaken the Kurdish component of the Syrian population, to separate the Syrian Kurds from the Kurds of Turkey, and to contain Kurdish political movements in Hassake province.
Expropriation of private properties was always coupled with the confiscation of public space. It was impossible for Syrians to hold public meetings even in private places; equally impossible was the expression of one’s opinion in public. Streets and squares are and have long been quite literally occupied by photos of Bashar and his father. Confiscation of public space peaked when Bashar inherited the position of his father, Hafez, in 2000. A young, ferocious dynasty had begun, and so the whole country became, in effect, a possession of this dynasty and its followers.
This is why Syria is different from all the Arab countries. It is not like the four “republics” where revolutions erupted, each of which achieved something important whatever their respective outcomes might be by shutting down projects for hereditary rule that were underway in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Neither is Syria an established Kingdom like those in the Gulf, or Morocco and Jordan, the ruling dynasties of which are of a piece with the emergence of each country as a contemporary territorial state. This is a central point for anyone who wants to understand the secret behind the massive violence the Assadis have practiced in the last four years, which comes out of the fusion of rule and ownership, power and property, out of the emergence of a new class that governs through massacres and mass killing. Bashar himself, his wife Asma, his brother Maher, and his cousin Rami Makhlouf – these are key names within the bloodthirsty elite.
It seems that reconstruction plans being contemplated today are built along lines compatible with expropriation and the full control of city centers. Urban planning is everywhere a tool of political and economic control, but in Syria it is coupled with a brutal savagery that mirrors the juvenility of both the dynasty and the class.
In the last decade before the revolution, it was already clear that Syrian society was being shaped into two distinct “nations,” or two separate social, political and cultural sectors. The first is modern and well-organized, with its own neighborhoods, gated communities, high-level schools for children, its own means of transport and exclusive places of entertainment. Its inhabitants make frequent journeys to other countries, especially Europe and the US. Many members of this “nation” know a lot about the suburbs of Paris and London, for example, but almost nothing about the impoverished suburbs of Damascus, to say nothing of peripheral Raqqa and Hassake. This “civilized nation” has produced its art and artists, its intellectuals and their culturalist ideologies, its glossy media. But its most interesting feature is its Western or “first world” guests: writers, journalists and media people who pass pleasant hours in the company of Bashar, his advisers, his security officers, and some organic intellectuals of his “nation.” These guests reside for weeks or months in luxury hotels at the expense of the Syrian people, and in this fashion become “experts on the Middle East.” They write reports, articles, or books on Syria and the region, portraying Bashar, his elegant Lady Macbeth, and their truculent gang as a modernist elite in a backward country. Many of them – including Robert Fisk, David Leach, Patrick Cockburn, and the late Patrick Seale – never met grassroots activists or visited an impoverished neighborhood.
Massacre is the political method this class uses to deal with popular revolt. Warplane bombardments, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, Scud missiles, and murder under torture in the security headquarters: these are the tools of the political education of the masses, who are described as “scum”, “rabble,” and “backward.”
Da’esh is building on a tradition already laid down by two generations. If the extent of violence and brutality that the regime has already reached is possible, why should Da’esh’s savageries not also be possible? Only a few days ago, an activist who was lucky enough to spend only one month in a Da’esh prison published an article about what he saw there: during a horrific session in which a fellow prisoner was tortured, the tormentors yelled at their broken victim: “Oh, you pimp! This is only one quarter of what we suffered in Seidnaya!”
Seidnaya is Bashar’s factory of torturers and tortured. This prison is a modernization, à la Bashar, of the Tadmur (Palmyra) prison of his father’s day. The function of both is the mass production and reproduction of terror, the essence of bondage under the Assads. The strategy of their “modernist” slaveholding elite when facing the slaves’ revolt is the “Palmyrization” of Syria as a whole.