Fouad Ajami: The Fall of the House of Assad

Roundup: Historians' Take

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-chair of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Bashar, son of Hafez Assad, has a son by the name of Hafez. But as the defiance and bloodletting in Syria would seem to suggest, Bashar needn’t worry about training his son for future rulership. The house that Hafez Assad built, some four decades ago, is not destined to last.

Dynasties are, of course, made, not born. The far-flung Ottoman Empire, one of the greatest Eurasian powers, emerged out of the labor and talent of Osman, an obscure early-14th-century chieftain, a warrior among many on the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire. So beguiling was the advance of this Ottoman dominion that a legend of Osman’s greatness would be spun by later generations: it was claimed that he was related to Noah through 52 generations. The present ennobles the past, and greatness is invariably in proportion to distance from the men—and the first settings—of great undertakings.

The great North African historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), perhaps the world’s first sociologist, left behind some firm notions about dynasties: they rise, they beget kingdoms, then they decay, like all "created things." Ibn Khaldun was rather specific: glory and prestige are gained and lost within four successive generations. The "builder of a family’s glory knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last." The son who inherits his mantle had contact with his father and will have learned some lessons from him. "However, he is inferior to him in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application." The third generation imitates the ancestors. The fourth loses it all, as its members begin to think that this glory is their due, given them by virtue of their descent, and not something that "resulted from group effort and individual qualities."

Arabs are firm believers in nasab, inherited merit passed on from father to son, a nobility of the blood. No wonder that Hafez Assad was ambivalent about his beginnings...

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