The empire is a pre-modern form of governance that preceded the emergence of the nation state. That is why empires that persisted in modern times were always backwards and incapable of achieving progress.
Imperialist expansions and external hegemony do not reflect any progress inside the center of the empire, where corruption and decline can be seen on all levels. In those empires, the army becomes the most important entity and a sizable portion of the state’s money is allocated to military institutions, whose senior members enjoy unmatched influence. Therefore, there is no place for democracy.
Empires always collapse as a result of the intertwining between the internal and the external, the metropolis and the colonies. That is why their downfall is always triggered by regional or international wars. The Portuguese empire might be the only exception since its demise was triggered by a pro-democracy coup. On the other hand, the Ottoman and Habsburg empires fell after World War One, the Nazi empire after World War Two, and the Soviet empire after the Cold War.
The fall of empires is in no way similar to the toppling of a regime to be replaced by another since the first is accompanied by drastic changes in the world map. Look at how many nation states resulted from the fall of the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires and how many republics emerged from the Soviet Union. Portugal was saved from this destiny because after withdrawing from its African colonies, it was able to embrace democracy and its people managed to preserve their unity.
As established and planned by late president Hafez al-Assad, Syria has many of the characteristics of an empire and the revolution is playing the role of those regional or international wars that eventually topple empires. This was more or less what happened in Iraq when the war with Iran followed by the invasion of Kuwait put an end Saddam Hussein’s empire.
In other words, the Syrian revolution is endowed with an epical and heroic aura because it is doing what the most powerful of international coalitions might not have done. For Syria to turn from an empire into democratic republic is not an easy matter. It is a blood-drenched confrontation with history and geography and an entire body of lies.
The writer is a columnist at the London-based al-Hayat, where this article was published on Oct. 2, 2012