Syria’s Battle for History

James Denseiow

A famous phrase suggests that history is what is written by the victors. Syria’s war is almost ten years old and gone are the days when Assad’s future was in jeopardy. Indeed, despite the country’s ruined infrastructure and worsening economy last week saw the opening of a lavish museum in the coastal city of Latakia in memory of Bassel al-Assad, who died in a car crash in 1994.

Bassel was famously the heir apparent and was expected to take the Presidency on his father’s death. Instead an accident with a sports car suddenly sparked a rushed ascendancy to power for Bashar al-Assad. Bashar was seen by many initially as a reformist but the ‘Damascus Spring’ of opening up of freedoms was quickly followed by the ‘Damascus Winter’ and the road to the civil war of 2011.

The museum is reported to be 350 square metres with an additional garden of 8,000 square metres. It displays Bassel’s belongings as well as a collection of 60 pictures, trophies and medals belonging to him. The museum opening formed part of commemorative activities to mark the 50-year anniversary of Assad family rule

Such glitz and glamor are in stark contrast to those 80 per cent of Syrians who are currently impoverished. Hit by the perfect storm of war, pandemic and sanctions, the currency has largely collapsed fanning inflation, forcing families to cut back on meat and even fresh fruit. The cost of an average family shop is 90 per cent higher than it was six months ago, according to the UN.

Yet this contrast is evidence of exactly the kind of political power that dominates Syria today. There is no issue with a choice between memorialising a member of the ruling family to the cost of millions whilst the majority of the country go poor. It suggests that Syrians themselves are almost temporary actors on a stage in which Assad rule is permanent.

Few things speak of permanency than the brick and mortar of imposing memorials to a country’s history. Museums and what they display and the stories they tell are critical markers for the identity of a nation. They should be seen as instruments of power, but of power exercised over a longer time. Think of the tens of thousands of school children who will make their way to the museum in months ahead and how that number will rise into the millions over the years. Whilst the Crusader castles of old continue to crumble, these modern castles of identity will be kept pristine despite the rubble that dominates Syria’s cities.

Visitors to the museum will see and remember the Assad family as part of the fabric of the State, not humans who leadership require legitimacy based on anything practical but rather immovable and eternal almost deity like figures. In a sense museums such as these are part of the fight to prevent future civil uprisings emerging in the Syria of tomorrow by suggesting that the natural order of things dictates rule by the Assad family and to even think otherwise runs counter to it.

Meanwhile, the debate over reconstruction in Syria has somewhat stalled at a global level, but there was an important moment when Russia earlier this month signed 8 memoranda of understanding on energy, customs and education with Damascus and allocated $1 billion towards reconstruction.

Seeing the ordering of reconstruction will be more evidence as to what levers of power are considered most valuable by the Regime. Will it be housing and sanitation or instead tombs, memorials, statues or even more museums? The country is already dominated – in Regime controlled areas -by pictures of the leadership both those alive or dead. A trend of the powerful to mark their deaths as symbols of the rule of the present is not unique to Syria and a short trip south to the Pyramids can remind people of an even larger scale of commemoration from the past, yet for this to happen in the 21st century is a reminder of the political formaldehyde that embalms the sclerotic and catastrophic leadership of the current President in Damascus and explains the country’s current devastating malaise.

by : jamse danselow