Of Mice and Men
Afew months ago, I was asked to update the Historical Dictionary of Syria, a task that immersed me in passages of Syria’s recent political history. It was a relief to escape the media frenzy over the tragic events in Duma, and the subsequent American response, but Syria’s recent past is often just as violent and tragic. For weeks now, I have frequently felt I am exploring sequels to John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, unknown sequels that are often far more dramatic in their twists and turns than anything America’s 1930’s could have inspired. A recurrent theme is how 1963 changed everything. Numerous are the ‘men’ who built themselves winter homes, homes that appeared safe and secure, only for these to be suddenly razed. The forces of destruction were unleashed by a system that was incrementally and systematically after raw power. By 1970, this process of crowning and eliminating was complete, and those who found themselves homeless are the mice of Steinbeck’s story, and a biographical note in Syria’s Historical Dictionary.
Regardless of your background and motive, building a home in Syria’s post-1963 political domain amounted to engaging in high-stakes gambling. This is one of the few aspects of these stories that helps me come to terms with how they ended. All these figures must have known that to be involved in Syria’s army or politics (or both) was a very dangerous game with potentially very serious consequences. Even the ‘technocrats’ who worked along with these politicians were treading on dangerous ground. What is fascinating is to focus on the moment it became clear that they didn’t have a winning hand.
First, there are those who simply opted to exit. Suicide is not an uncommon ending in Syria’s post-1963 political world. Yes, there are many who firmly believe that these suicides were actually disguised assassinations. Yet, since I am inherently allergic to conspiracy theories, especially since they utterly lack evidence confirming them, in my mind these were simply men who committed suicide after realising that they had been (or were very close to being) evicted from their homes. Abd al-Karim al-Jundi (1932–1969), from the north-western town of al-Salamiya, is reported to have committed suicide while on the phone with Ali Zaza. His final words being, “Tell Hafiz [al-Asad] I am leaving Syria for him.” I wonder if the memory of this event came back to al-Asad when he was informed that Mahmud al-Zuʿbi (1935–2000), the man who had served as his prime minister for nearly thirteen years, had also committed suicide? It is clearly impossible to predict who will lose his calm and why. Ghazi Kanʿan (1942–2005), the man who was once feared by the strongest figures in Lebanon, the man with whom one phone call could change the lives of hundreds, decided one Wednesday afternoon that to press the eject button himself was far more dignified than what the forces of elimination had planned for him. It is almost eerily tragic how the exit of these men would frequently be followed by the exit of a close relative. Jundi’s suicide was followed by the suicide of his wife, Zuʿbi’s by the death of his son Humam, allegedly by an overdose and, nearly a year after Kaʿan’s suicide, his brother too committed suicide.
Then there are those who blinked, who at the very last second froze rather than make the decision to depart in ‘dignity’. This is a much larger list that includes figures like Salah Jadid, the idealist from the beautiful mountainous village of Duwayr Baʿbdah where on clear days, even the sea is visible; Nur al-DIn al-Atasi, Ibrahim Makhus, and Yusuf Zuʿayin; the three ‘doctors’ of the Baʿth leadership who were all, like Jadid, unable to bring themselves to the clarity that Hafiz al-Asad had — specifically, that this was an existential battle that would not show respect for friendship (all had known each other for decades), communal allegiance (both Jadid and Makhus were Alawites like Asad), or to ideological convictions (all were firm believers in the principles of the Baʿth). On the 16th November 1970, Asad sent the head of military police, Ali al-Madani, from the hardcore Sunni town of Hama, to arrest all of them. The list of those arrested is far longer than is mentioned in most books documenting this event. There were of course some who managed to escape, like Makhus to Algeria and (earlier) Muhammad Imran to Lebanon, but in the end, even Jordanian members of the National Leadership, such as Hakim al-Fayez and Dafi al-Jamʿani, figures whose only crime was to vocalise their support to Atasi rather than Asad, found themselves in prison for at least twenty years. By the early nineties, when Asad decided to release these prisoners, some like Jadid had already died, and others were on the border of death. There are always exceptions, no doubt, especially when fate seems to intervene in inexplicable ways. Yusuf Zuʿayin was diagnosed in 1981 with a terminal brain tumour, and subsequently released only for him to be operated on in the UK and go on to live in the shadows in Prague and later Stockholm until 2013.
We must also speak of those who ran away, those who realised that they were about to be killed or arrested, and so got into a car and headed to the border. Many would find out that departing Syria was by no means the end of the story. Some chose to live in Lebanon, where they were drugged and kidnapped, only to wake up in a prison in Mazzah. Others, like Muhammed Imran (1922–1972), were assassinated in Beirut, perhaps because kidnapping him proved too risky. The numerous figures who left Syria after 2011 must live in fear that the countries they chose to abide in, like Qatar, Jordan, or Kuwait would one day restore their relations with the Syrian regime and send them on a one-way journey to Damascus. Of these, Asʿad Mustafa comes back to me, a man that I knew well as the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, during the days I was working for UNDP and trying to launch a microfinance programme in rural Syria. During our meetings, I would consistently get the feeling that this man did not quite fit in the system he was obligated to defend. Perhaps Mustafa felt this too when he finally decided to ‘defect’. I find myself wondering if he and others like him regret their decision, but the only other viable option to Mustafa and many others was to remain silent and disappear into the shadows; a very difficult art mastered only by a few.
The option of ‘living in the shadows’ is by far the most intriguing to me, perhaps because it includes some of the most interesting political figures that Syria has produced in its recent past. These figures rose to high prominence, but never lost sight of the fact that in post-1963 Syria they were, in essence, metaphorical mice, the mice of Steinbeck’s story, and hence when the forces of elimination came after them, they simply faded. Fading is an art that was mastered by figures like Naji Jamil, the head of the air force and Asad’s right hand in the early 70s. Suddenly, it became clear that Jamil had lost favour. For more than thirty years, Jamil became invisible — a true master of the art of fading. So, too, was the case with a far more prominent figure, an Alawite officer who stayed loyal to Hafiz al-Asad throughout all the major crises of the 70s and 80s, and yet, possibly because he vocalised his objection to Hafiz al-Asad’s decision to groom his son rather than his comrades as his successor, Ali Haydar suddenly lost favour. Today, the man who is approaching his nineties can be at times seen sipping tea at the Four Seasons coffee shop, his face barely visible behind the smoke clouds of cigars and waterpipes. A more recent member of this category is Faruq al-Sharʿ, one of the few men who managed to remain as important to Asad the Son as he was to Asad the Father, who faded away in 2011. In an interview with al-Hayat, Lakhdar Brahimi once mentioned that during one of the visits he made to Syria as the UN/Arab League envoy, he asked repeatedly to see al-Sharʿ, not only because he wanted to hear his views on what was taking place, but also because he regarded him as a friend. Finally, according to Brahimi, he received a phone call from al-Sharʿ in which he apologised for not being able to meet him in person. Sharʿ, like Haydar and Jamil before him, no doubt understood all along that no matter how important his position was, all of this, in the final analysis, could be stripped down to moments. A day arrived when the very man who once negotiated with Clinton and Rabin in the White House was unable to leave his own house without permission. But here too, history can be full of surprises. Those who ‘fade well’, can suddenly and unexpectedly come back to play a role at times far more significant than the role they played prior to their calculated disappearance. We saw this in Iraq where Adnan al-Pachachi, once a prominent civil servant in royal Hashmite Iraq, survived decades of ruthless coup d’etats and Baʿth rule, only to suddenly find himself a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that he would be offered the presidency of Iraq at the age of 80, and that he would decline. Regardless though of where Syria’s faded figures will end up, it is clear that what began in 1963, this phase of raw and graphic power, has far from ended.
*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.