Assad’s Killing Industry and the Role of Intellectuals

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Translated by Nadine Saliba

Published in L’Express  (here in Arabic)

21 March 2014

The worst estimates of incarceration and torture victims in the prisons of the Syrian regime put the number at around 3000. As of late August 2013, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) run by human rights activist and writer Razan Zaitouneh –a reliable organization that does not engage in exaggeration– spoke of 2,826 martyrs who died under torture in Syrian prisons. August 2013 is a significant date as it was revealed that up until then, 11,000 prisoners had been killed in Damascus alone, according to definitive information placed in the hands of the world in the third week of January of this year 1)Here is the report: http://static.guim.co.uk/ni/1390226674736/syria-report-execution-tort.pdf. That means that 12 Syrians were being killed daily in the prisons of the regime in Damascus! If victims continued to be produced at the same rate in the past six months ‒and there is nothing to suggest otherwise‒ it means that 1,960 added victims have been killed. As such, we get an aggregate number of nearly 13,000 people killed in the dungeons of the security agencies in the Syrian capital. Even after the whole world learned about these deaths, the regime’s agencies in Damascus killed Wissam Sara, son of prominent opposition figure Fayez Sara who is a member of the Syrian National Coalition, which participated in the Geneva Conference. Wissam (27 years old, and father of two) was active in relief efforts to help the displaced and the refugees. He had been detained by the regime for about two months when his family was informed of his death.

What about other Syrian cities? Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Deir ez-Zour and others? We know nothing. But we have no reason to assume that the killing is confined to Damascus alone. We will not risk an estimate however.

What is new in terms of the number of torture victims is not that it is much worse than the worst estimates, but that the figure itself and the pictures of the victims denote an organized, systematic killing industry, as the British newspaper the Guardian suggested on 21 January 2014. There is a systematic, calculating and disciplined thought process on how to kill detainees with the utmost care to cover up any real information about how they died. Families are usually told that their loved ones died of cardiac or respiratory causes. In addition, it is impossible to estimate the number of people who have been killed and buried in unknown locations without their families’ knowledge. Not to mention that there are about 15,000 Syrians still «forcibly disappeared» since the previous Assad war in the early 1980s.

It appears that the pictures of the 11,000 killed, which the public was not allowed to see, are all numbered and some of them have the victims’ names on them. There is information that a thousand or more of the victims were reduced to skeletons. This means they were subjected to acute and long-term starvation, which amounts to mass, patient and deliberate killing. The victims in all the pictures that were made available to the public had signs of intense torture, deep wounds, burns and tearing of chest or back muscles. Some of them had gouged eyes and signs of strangulation. Some information indicates that corpses are placed in bags and transported in special trucks by the hundreds to be buried in unknown locations. Families that happen to obtain the corpses of their loved ones are forced not to show the body and to sign a document stating that the victim died of a heart attack for example or at the hands of «armed terrorist gangs».

It is not a new development that this killing industry is complemented by a thriving industry of lies. Even before the revolution, we knew that the regime relies on two strategic agency-based complexes. The first complex consists of fear agencies (their Orwellian name is «security agencies») and its function is to prevent calling things by their name. The second complex consists of lie-fabricating agencies (their Orwellian name is the media) and its function is to call things by other than their name. Together, they separate Syrians from their actual living conditions and prevent them from naming and controlling them.

Those «security agencies» are the killing factories that have produced 11,000 deaths.

There are frequent testimonies by previous prisoners that the conditions in hospitals that some detainees are transferred to are even worse than the conditions in the security killing factories. There is also information that the military Tishrine Hospital located on the eastern side of Damascus and its medical, administrative and security team constitute a full-fledged partner in this industrial-scale killing that has been underway in Assad’s Syria for the past three years.

Let’s not forget however that the victims of torture and starvation are but a fraction of the total Syrian victims whose numbers exceeded 120,000 when the United Nations stopped counting last December. The VDC estimated the number of people that have died from the beginning of the revolution till the end of 2013 ‒excluding those killed from the regime’s side‒ at about 80,000. If the actual number of torture victims is three and a half times more than VDC’s estimates, does that mean that the total number of victims from the opposition’s side is over quarter of a million? And how much is the number of people who now have disabilities? Three or four times the number of total victims?

If we take into account that nearly 40 percent of Syrians (9,000,000) have been displaced from their homes and more than 10 percent of those (2,500,000) outside the country, and that between a quarter and a third of housing in Syria has been totally or partially destroyed, then we have the makings of a historical disaster on our hands, incomparable to anything we have seen in Syrian modern history or anywhere else in the world in the 21st century.

This horrific violence could have been avoided. It is no immutable destiny or historical inevitability or cultural specificity that necessitated what happened. Rather it is a direct result of decisions and human actions by specific people who have held in Syria, decades before and during the revolution, positions that give them unrivaled power. In Syria we call these people the «regime», a political, security and financial complex in which the Assad family occupies a central place. Since Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency from his father Hafez al-Assad at the turn of the century, the deep constitution of the regime has been to pass the presidency on to his son ‒whose name is also Hafez‒ and to maintain the Assad family rule. For the regime, the issue is one of absolute power, enormous wealth, exceptional influence and lasting immunity. After three years of the revolution and the multiple domestic and regional complications plaguing Syria, this political-security-financial complex has shown no serious willingness to negotiate and no intention to cede any measure of its absolute power. As negotiations were underway in Geneva between the regime and the opposition, the former was escalating its bombing of the historical city of Aleppo with barrel bombs and the same in the town of Darayya near Damascus. At the same time, the regime continues its siege of old neighborhoods in Homs, demanding the evacuation of some of their residents as a condition to facilitate the arrival of foodstuffs to these neighborhoods. It also persists in its siege of neighborhoods in Damascus, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, eastern Ghouta and the area that was hit with chemical weapons on August 21 and where 1,466 people died. The regime immediately laid siege to this area after it was forced to make a deal giving up its weapons of mass destruction to avoid a US-French punitive strike. The logical conclusion is that starvation has been used as an alternative weapon of mass destruction, perhaps less dramatic and with lesser consequences; nevertheless, it amounts to the ongoing killing of civilians by other means.

If the regime’s interests and instincts shed light on the motivations of this unrestrained brutality, intellectual and cultural climates in Syria and in the West have facilitated this systematic industrial killing and made it something acceptable or at least of little significance. The issue has to do with a culturalist tendency that has been dominant for over a generation. This tendency reduces macroscopic societies to the abstract concept of «culture». This concept is in turn reduced to fixed «mentalities», assumed to be especially embodied in religion in our societies, in Islam specifically and Sunni Islam in particular. As such, the Syrian regime is viewed either as a natural outcome of the ahistorical constitution of Syrian society ‒as a Muslim society‒ and so there is no reason to hold it responsible for what is happening. It might even be a victim of its subjects’ mental makeup. Or worse, the regime is viewed as a vanguard of «enlightenment, secularism and modernization» in an otherwise «dark, fanatic and traditional» society. In which case, it must be defended in the face of those opposing it. These characterizations are not only inaccurate but they are in fact politically constructed in the same context that gave birth to the killing industry itself. We understand them best if we think about them as expressions of a racist tendency known to dwell for a generation now in not only «culture» and «identity» but ethnicity and color. Racism is an ideology of class and not of identity, as Benedict Anderson argues, and it is closely linked to social privileges rather than cultural ones. Nearly three generations ago, a pseudo-ethnology justified the Nazi killing industry which claimed the lives of millions of Jews, gypsies and the mentally ill and handicapped. Today, a pseudo-science of mentality ‒a collective mentalogy so to speak‒ justifies the extermination of the poorest and most disadvantaged in Syria as they are described as «fanatic, obscurantists and terrorists».

This is the intellectual side of the killing industry of which three groups of ideologists partake. Ideologists of the «internal first world» within our country who adopt a colonialist position towards the general population, ideologists of the first world in the West who claim a «civilizing mission» and the heirs of the Leninist «transfer of consciousness» to oblivious classes unaware of their real interests at the hands of a political party that is the embodiment of «scientific consciousness». Is there a structural difference between transferring scientific consciousness to oblivious toiling classes and civilizing primitive populations? Are the colonized «primitives» different from the working class and underclass steeped in spontaneity and narrow demands? How are the British colonialists who used chemical weapons against Iraqis in the early 1930s or against Afghans during the same period worse than Assadist colonialists who used a more developed and lethal version of the same weapon against their wretched subjects in the summer of 2013? Or from Saddam Hussein’s regime which used chemical weapons against its Kurdish citizens more than quarter of a century ago?

Perhaps that explains the convergence of right-wing Westerners who were never critical of the colonialist project and continue to believe in the civilizing mission with communists of the «transferring scientific consciousness» type who are still nostalgic for the Soviet Union, no less a «prisonhouse of nations» than Tsarist Russia was in the words of Karl Marx.

It is not in concepts like tyranny, despotism or even totalitarianism that we find an explanatory model for the Assad regime. But rather in the concept of colonialism, and its most brutal models in particular. Models based on genocide as it manifested itself in the «new world» hundreds of years ago and in Russia between the two world wars.

In Syria, three years after a bitter struggle, some «rebels» fighting against the internal colonial system internalize its logic and exercise a colonial rule whose victims are the same victims of the Assad regime and its most radical opposition. I am talking about religious fascist groups ‒some of them suspected to have hidden ties with the Assad regime‒ that have their own version of the «civilizing mission» or «transferring consciousness», which they try to impose by force on a public they deem «infidel». Being labeled an unbeliever is the extreme form of devaluing human life and legitimating its destruction. It is the most effective justification for racism and genocide. What I want to say here is that there is a prominent cultural dimension to Assad’s killing industry and its derivatives which necessitates an effective cultural act to counter this industry and criminalize it. This is the responsibility of intellectuals before anyone else, Syrian intellectuals first but also intellectuals in France and everywhere else. If there is a culture and an ideology that justify killing and undermine the intellectual, symbolic and moral barricades that protect the lives of the poor and the weak, then any powerful party that feels the need to kill its adversaries and opponents will find in that culture and in that ideology a symbolic arsenal of weapons of mass extermination. No one will be safe if we do not undo this ideology, its factories and its cultural output.

French intellectuals are called upon to participate in this struggle against new forms of racism, colonialism and industrial killing. There is a serious problem when France’s intellectuals say only very little against Assad’s murderous regime and a bigger problem when these few, but important and honorable things, remain within the range of policy and human rights circles and do not reach the circles of culture, philosophy and moral reflection.

The «State of Barbarism» that Michel Seurat discussed nearly three decades ago surpasses itself today through an industry of killing and an industry of racist justifications to rationalize this killing. It is not without reclaiming Seurat and being re-inspired by his work that an ideology of liberation can face off against this super-barbarity and its intellectual defenders in Syria and around the world.

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Zuhour Mahmoud

A journalist based in Beirut with a focus on the Syrian conflict, gender issues in the Middle East and radical politics.

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