The Fall of Beit Assad

Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad waves as she stands under a portrait of her husband Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (R) and his late father and former president Hafez Al-Assad, in Damascus 15 May 2006

In 2009, while in Damascus reporting on the Iraqi refugee crisis, I stumbled upon an inspiring quest to restore Beit Farhi, the ancestral home of the Farhi clan, one of the most influential Jewish families in the Ottoman empire. It was mounted by Hakam Roukbti, a Syrian architect, and his Dutch wife, Shirley Dijksma, and it was refreshing to see the passion and attention to detail that informed their work. The revival of Farhi house, Roukbti told me, “is very important, not just for Syria’s Jews but for all Syrians.”

It was Raphael Farhi who, in the mid-19th century, served as the financial adviser to the sultanate and it was the subterranean vaults of Farhi house that held the gold that backed the imperial coin. Not only is the 25,000-square-foot palace a jewel of Ottoman-era Islamic architecture and design, it is an icon of the profoundly multicultural Greater Syria, where Jews, Christians and Muslims occupied positions of authority in tandem with each other. Here it seemed, on Al-Amin Street, a few hundred yards east of the main souk, was an artifact of religious tolerance that made the Levant such a dynamic and liquid market for trade, culture and social mobility.

I think about Beit Farhi every time I read about the decaying fortunes of another powerful Syrian clan. If recent news reports are anything to go by, it is likely a matter of weeks, or even days, before Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad is carried out, feet first, from the imperial bunker. The whiff of a violent denouement now clings to Assad like gangrene to an undressed wound. This week, assassins killed Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy chief of staff of the military. Next week, perhaps, it will be his younger brother, Maher, the despised head of the family’s praetorian guard.

The question is: what comes after the fall of Beit Assad? Using recent history as a benchmark, it is likely to be replaced by a coalition of political movements, from the secular to the religious, with Sunni Islamist groups as the dominant current. As in Iraq, where an underground Shia socio-political network managed to sustain itself despite years of persecution under Saddam Hussein, we are likely to be surprised at how well faith-based patronage systems survived the oppression of the Assads, the political consequences of which would be profound.

Syrian identity, a mosaic of ethnic and religious associations that includes Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, and Armenian and Chaldean Christians, as well as the majority Sunni and minority Shiite communities and their derivative sects, will be sorely tested. Reprisals are inevitable. It will be incumbent on the international community to work with the successor regime to at least limit their scale of excess.

Little is known about the inchoate insurgency that is on the brink of taking down the Assad dynasty. As it makes the wrenching transition from rebel movement to revolutionary government, it is pleasant to think its leaders may share the same instincts that impelled Roukbti and Dijksma to resurrect Beit Farhi. Syrian civilization, after all, is among the richest in all humanity and it precedes Abrahamic monotheism by many centuries. It owes its sizable contributions to a panoply of races, ethnicities and faiths, most of which coexisted more or less peaceably with each other. Hopefully, the next Syrian leadership will mark the country’s tradition of ecumenicalism as its reference point for governing rather than give in to endless cycles of sectarian violence and the ruinous score-settling that follows.

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