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.