Syria: Identity Crisis

Hafez-al Assad has so far prevented the Balkanization of his country, but he can't last forever

On my first visit to Syria, in the 1970s, a tourist-information official at Damascus airport handed me a map on which not only the Israeli-held Golan Heights but also the Hatay region around the ancient city of Antioch were depicted as part of the country. Wanting to see Antioch, I asked the official about tours there. His reply and apologetic tone gave me pause: "Unfortunately, sir, for the time being it is not possible; maybe in a few months."

Located at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, the Hatay is a 2,000-square-mile area where Arabs and Armenians once slightly outnumbered Turks. In July of 1938 the Turkish army moved in, forcing many of the Arabs and Armenians to flee, and preparing the way for the Turkish government to annex the region. The French, who held the mandate for Syria, did not protest, and the occupied population could not. Thinking about this history in terms of the tourist official's sheepishness has since led me to wonder, How could the Syrians ever acknowledge the 1967 loss of the Golan Heights when they don't really accept an older loss—one that, unlike the Golan Heights, has long been officially recognized by the world community?

The answer is simply that they can't. As the example of the Hatay suggests, the loss of the Golan Heights was merely the latest of several territorial truncations that underpin an explosive and unmentionable historical reality: that Syria—whose population, like Lebanon's, is a hodgepodge of feuding Middle Eastern minorities—has always been more identifiable as a region of the Ottoman Empire than as a nation in the post-Ottoman era. The psychology of Syria's internal politics, a realm whose violence and austere perversity continue to baffle the West, is bound up in the question of Syria's national identity. The identity question is important: events inside Syria reverberate throughout the Middle East.

The word "SYRIA" is derived from the Semitic Siryon, which appears in Deuteronomy in reference to Mount Hermon, which straddles the current frontiers of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. From the early nineteenth century until the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman sultanate collapsed, the region that European travelers called Syria stretched from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in the north to Egypt and the Arabian Desert in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Mesopotamia in the east. Present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, western Iraq, and southern Turkey were all part of this vast area. Syria was not linked to any specific national sentiment.

What sentiment did exist was pan-Arab. Indeed, the nineteenth-century Syrian cities of Damascus and Beirut, with their secret cultural and political societies, engendered the First World War Arab revolt against the Turks. But the revolt, although it freed Arabia from outside control, only complicated matters for Syria, whose proximity to Europe left it particularly vulnerable to foreign exploitation.

Anglo-French rivalry for spoils resulted in a division of Syria into six zones. A sliver of northern Syria became part of a new Turkish state, which was being carved out of the old Ottoman sultanate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (This area was separate from the Hatay, whose annexation would come later.) Syria's eastern desert became part of a new British mandate: Iraq. Southern Syria, too, was soon controlled by the British, who created two additional territories: a mandate in Palestine and a kingdom in Transjordan, the latter ruled by Britain's First World War ally Abdullah, a son of the Sharif of Mecca. The French got the territory that was left over, which they in turn subdivided into Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanon's borders were drawn so as to bring a large population of mainly Sunni Muslims under the domination of Maronite Christians, who were allied with France, spoke French, and though not exactly Catholic had a concordat with the Holy See in Rome. Syria, Lebanon's neighbor, was a writhing ghost of a would-be nation. Although territory had been cut away on all sides, Syria still contained not only every warring sect and religion and parochial tribal interest but also the headquarters, in Damascus, of the pan-Arabist movement, whose aim was to erase all the borders that the Europeans had just created. Thus, although it was more compact than the sprawling pre-war region called Syria, the new French mandate with that name had even fewer unifying threads. Freya Stark, a British diplomat, said of the French mandate, "I haven't yet come across one spark of national feeling: it is all sects and hatreds and religions."

Each of Syria's sects and religions was—as it largely still is—concentrated in a specific geographical area. In the center was Damascus, which together with the cities of Homs and Hama constituted the heartland of the Sunni Arab majority. In the south was Jabal Druze ("Druze Mountain"), where lived a remote community of heterodox Muslims who were resistant to Damascene rule and had close links across the border with Transjordan. In the north was Aleppo, a cosmopolitan bazaar and trading center containing large numbers of Kurds, Arab Christians, Armenians, Circassians, and Jews, all of whom felt allegiance more to Mosul and Baghdad (both now in Iraq) than to Damascus. And in the west, contiguous to Lebanon, was the mountain stronghold of Latakia, dominated by the Alawites, the most oppressed and recalcitrant of French Syria's Arab minorities, who were destined to have a dramatic effect on postcolonial Syria.

The Alawites, along with the Druzes and the Isma'ilis (still another Muslim sect in Syria), are remnants of a wave of Shi'ism which swept over the region a thousand years ago. The term "Alawite" means "follower of Ali," the martyred son-in-law of Mohammed who is venerated by millions of Shi'ites in Iran and elsewhere. Yet the Alawites' resemblance to the Shi'ites constitutes the least of their heresies in the eyes of Syria's majority Sunni Arabs; far more serious is the Alawite doctrine's affinity with Phoenician paganism—and also with Christianity. Alawites celebrate many Christian festivals, including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and their religious ceremonies make use of bread and wine.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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