Forgotten is our peculiar urban folklore, yesteryear’s spontaneous fun of small Israeli kids rapidly rolling off their tongues the names of assorted Syrian tyrants. This singsong accompanied sidewalk games and was a staple of silly summertime tongue-twister contests.
Nobody then remotely believed that riots and havoc in neighboring autocracies could betoken the rise of democracy in the Arab-speaking sphere.
But for too long we’ve lost touch with our not-so-distant past, a time when recurrent “Arab Springs” were once announced with dizzying frequency. In Syria especially they followed in furious succession until, in 1970, one Hafez Assad proclaimed the longest-lasting self-styled spring and actually managed to pass on control of the abundant Damascene sunshine and blossoms to his son, Bashar.
Both Assads’ nastiness and penchant for massacres were hardly unique in their country. Syria spawned carnage and “popular uprisings” a dime a dozen. Only the durability of Assad-dynasty despotism was unusual.
Nonetheless, now – having learned to view the world through the tinted lenses of hypocrite Europe and bedazzled America – we, too, fall for the “budding democracy” babble.
But back in the less-blinkered day, our assessments were more clear-headed. Never would we ascribe high-mindedness to Syrian power-grabbers. Rather than be wowed, we laughed. Incomparable satirist Shai K.(Shaikeh) Ophir popularized a sidesplitting routine consisting of a roll-call of Syrian tyrants going back to 1948. He recited them with what in hindsight appears like a forerunner of fast-paced rapper-style chants.
It was so all the rage that little pigtailed girls skipped rope and did hopscotch stunts while rhythmically intoning a sequence of rhyming names like Adib Shishakli and Shukri al-Quwatli. For a while, these were basic fare at Israeli playgrounds.
Ophir’s register of names began with Husni Za’im, who led the Syrian army’s attack on newborn Israel in 1948 and then overthrew president Shukri al-Quwatli and imprisoned him. Za’im’s reign, alas, lasted merely four-and-a-half months. He was summarily executed by his deposer Sami Hinnawi. But before Hinnawi could get comfortable in the boss’s seat, he was unseated by Adib Shishakli and assassinated in 1950. All three coups occurred during 1949.
Shishakli refused to allow the integration of Palestinian refugees into Syrian society, and he shelled Druse villages to quell their resistance (a common practice by Syrian conventions). He was toppled in 1954 and ultimately assassinated in his Brazilian supposed safe-haven.
Next came caretaker president Hashim al- Attassi, who already had behind him two stints in power as president and two as prime minister. In 1955 he was replaced by that old favorite, Shukri al-Quwatli.
Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 governments and four florid constitutions.
In 1958 al-Quwatli amalgamated Syria with Egypt, forming the United Arab Republic. Formally Syria’s president was Egyptian Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whose 1956 defeat catapulted him to the status of a pan-Arab hero. Within a few weeks, al-Quwatli was betrayed, and his Damascus power base was usurped by Salah Bitar and Akram al-Hawrani. The latter was Nasser’s Syrian deputy, until they began to bicker. By 1959, al- Hawrani had to flee Syria.
In 1961 Abdel-Karim al-Nahlawi overthrew Nasser’s men in Damascus, and Syria became a separate entity once again, a fact that didn’t discourage Egypt from exploiting the UAR epithet till 1971.
Syria was now a Ba’ath stronghold, but different factions within that party battled each other with vengeance –literally. Nazim al-Qudsi was Syria’s first post-UAR president. Upon his removal, Luwai al-Attassi presided for four months till Amin al-Hafiz replaced him, ruling the roost from mid-1964 to early 1966, when Salah Jadid ousted Hafiz.
It’s roughly here that Ophir’s long lampoon ends, replete with many more names than mentioned above. In time, Jadid was booted out by Hafez Assad, and the epilogue is now unfolding before our credulous eyes.
Suffice it to note that the miscellaneous short-lived dictatorships served the interests of incompatible components of what’s misguidedly known as the Syrian nation. They all waxed ecstatic about democratic and reformist virtues.
Way back, though, no Israeli was naïve enough to take any of the ornate rhetoric seriously. Today, intellectually indolent molders of public opinion – smugly dismissive of the lessons of history – not only fall for the fallacy but excitedly hype it.
It’s little wonder that most of the international community has lost sight of what Syria was and still is. In the mix feature ignorance and fatigue, along with lots of economic and geopolitical interests. It was expedient for the world to turn a blind eye to truth. For us here, however, it was nothing but unimaginable folly. We should know better – if only because of proximity and because our self-preservation concerns behoove us not to disregard reality.
But Hafez Assad’s Yom Kippur War record, sponsorship of terror and patronage of Hezbollah were obstinately overlooked. Israeli governments hankered after a deal with the same Assad who, when he served as defense minister in 1966, addressed Israelis and blustered belligerently: “We shall never call for nor accept peace. We shall only accept war. We have resolved to drench this land with your blood, to oust you aggressors, to throw you into the sea.”
Assad never took back these words nor so much as pretended to have softened. Unsurprisingly, White House residents and perfidious Europeans pressured little unloved Israel to indulge the Damascus despot by inordinately imperiling the Jewish state’s survival prospects.
Predictably, Israel’s own priests of pragmatism rushed with alacrity to ingratiate themselves and decree that by ceding the Golan to benign Syrian rule, we’d be blessed with blissful coexistence.
This encapsulated the homegrown omniscients’ dalliance with Assad-the-father. Staggeringly, their enthusiasm for concessions soared after he went the way of all flesh and his son inherited the blood-stained Assad mantle.
Our in-house experts uncannily perceived the agreeable aspect of Bashar, the lanky ophthalmologist with a supposed Western orientation. Bashar, we were tirelessly preached to by retreat-promoters, looks less totalitarian than his dad. He’s just the gawky guy next door who might make a nifty neighbor if we only try hard enough to win him over.
Yet, confoundingly, life refuses to mesh with established Israeli wishful thinking. Much to the embarrassment of our indefatigable deal-peddlers, Bashar’s own citizenry is exceedingly less mesmerized by him than his Israeli boosters were until quite recently.
There’s no getting away from the fact that paying off dictators to secure a semblance of accommodation is a losing proposition, because eventually dictators disappear. With them vanishes the peace we’re required to fork out for. There’s no Better Business Bureau or Customer Service to refund Israel’s hefty, tangible and eminently risky investment in land-for-peace fantasies.
Thank heaven the Golan is still ours – a buffer between our small sliver of a state and the Syrian mayhem. Imagine our misfortune if Assad’s tanks were parked on the shores of Lake Kinneret.
Those who insistently brainwashed us that this is what’s prescribed for our national well-being should atone for their sins by memorizing Ophir’s skit and performing it daily in central city squares. Our street corners should again resonate with cadenced renditions of “Adib Shishakli and Shukri al-Quwatli….”
Hopscotch and jump-rope are optional.