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.

When the French took control of Syria after the First World War, they were fresh from colonizing experiences in Algeria and Tunisia, which had kindled hostility in them to Sunni Arab nationalism. In an effort to forestall a rise in Arab nationalism, the French granted autonomous status to Alawite-dominated Latakia and to Jabal Druze, making their inhabitants completely independent from the Sunni Arabs in Damascus, and answerable to the French only. The Alawites, the Druzes, and the other minorities also paid lower taxes than the majority Sunnis, while getting larger development subsidies from the French government. What is more, the French encouraged the recruitment of Alawites, Druzes, Kurds, and Circassians into their occupation force, the Troupes Speciales du Levant. (From then on the military became a popular career for poor rural Alawites bent on advancement in Syrian society.) The majority Sunni Arabs, for their part, were severely repressed. The Damascus region was treated as occupied territory and patrolled by tough Senegalese troops, with help from Alawites, Druzes, and Kurds. The Sunni Arabs felt besieged to a degree they had never experienced under the Ottoman Turks.

Sunni paramilitary groups responded by organizing brawls and uprisings against the French in the streets of Damascus. Arguably, not even British Palestine, with its periodic outbursts of communal violence between Arabs and Jews, was as tense and unstable a place as French Syria, whose two colliding forces—minority self-determination and Sunni pan-Arabism—were encouraged rather than restrained by French rule.

A myth persists about Syria, perpetuated in part by the American media, which seem to lack historical memory, and in part by supporters of Israel, who wish to distinguish starkly between the democracy of the Jewish state and the nondemocracy of Arab states. The myth is that Syria's Arab inhabitants have experience neither with democracy nor even with the rule of law. This is not true: Syria gave democracy a try, against enormous odds.

Patrick Seale, a British specialist, chronicles the postwar period in The Struggle for Syria. In July of 1947, soon after achieving full independence, and with France's divisive influence still strong, Syria held elections. The results were predictable for a country that had been created out of several rival political communities. The National Party, led by Shukri al-Quwatli, got more votes than any other group, but was able to form only a minority government. The majority of the ballots went to various independents representing sectarian interests. Beneath the surface the reality was even worse. "I look around me," wrote Habib Kahaleh, in Memoirs of a Deputy, "and see only a bundle of contradictions." Israel's humiliation of Arab armies in its 1948 War of Independence further weakened the democratically elected government. When the Syrian chief of staff, General Husni al-Za'im, staged a coup d'etat on March 30, 1949—the first of many military takeovers in the postcolonial Arab world—crowds danced in the streets of Damascus.

Za'im, like many Syrian leaders who were to follow him, was exhibitionistic and extravagant, and lacked a coherent strategy for reconciling the various local nationalisms of what used to be French Syria. He was soon overthrown and summarily executed. The next military regime held new national elections, but the vote was just as fractured as it had been in 1947, and this democratic experiment, too, collapsed into anarchy. The chaos ended in December of 1949, when Colonel Adib al-Shishakli seized power. It was the third coup of the year.

Shishakli's ability to restore order caused foreign observers to hail him as the Arab world's Ataturk, who would mold Syria into a nation on the Turkish model. But it was not to be. Shishakli publicly lamented in 1953 that Syria was merely "the current official name for that country which lies within the artificial frontiers drawn up by imperialism." Unfortunately for him, he was right. In 1954 Shishakli was overthrown. Once again the dislodging force came from various sectarian elements within and outside the military.

Meanwhile, an ideological solution to Syria's contradictions began to emerge. Ba'athism, from Ba'ath, Arabic for "renaissance," was started by two Syrian Arabs, one Christian and one Muslim. The movement appealed to a brand of patriotism both radical and secular, and sought to replace religion with socialism. Whether Ba'athism was capable of smoothing over sectarian divisions was tested in the fall of 1954, a few months after Shishakli's overthrow, when free parliamentary elections were held. The results corroborated earlier evidence that Western democracy was not necessarily the solution for the ills of Arab societies. Although the largest number of parliamentary seats again went to the tribal and sectarian independents, the biggest gains relative to the 1949 ballot were registered by the Ba'ath Party, which advocated a communist-style economic program and a pro-Soviet foreign policy.

Syria teetered on, with Egypt, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and the United States all interfering in its internal affairs. In January of 1958 the Syrians gave up. A delegation flew to Cairo and begged Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to annex Syria as part of a new union, the United Arab Republic. Shukri al-Quwatli, the Syrian President, reportedly complained thus to Nasser about the Syrian people: "Half claim the vocation of leader, a quarter believe they are prophets, and at least ten percent take themselves for gods."

The United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961, partly because non-Sunni Syrians increasingly resented the rule of Egypt's own Sunni Arabs. In 1963 the Ba'ath Party finally came to power in Damascus in a military coup. But more significant than its ideology was the ethnic makeup of the corps of officers now in control: because of the assiduous French recruitment of minorities—especially Alawites—into the Troupes Speciales du Levant, the Alawites had, without anyone's noticing, gradually taken over the military from within. Though Alawites constituted just 12 percent of the Syrian population, they now dominated the corps of young officers.

Another coup followed in 1966. But the coup of 1970, which brought an Alawite air-force officer, Hafez al-Assad, to power, was what finally ended the instability that had reigned in Syria since the advent of independence.

Assad has now remained in power for twenty-two years. Considering that Damascus saw twenty-one changes of government in the twenty-four years preceding his coup, Assad's permanence is impressive. It is still more impressive when one realizes that he belongs to Syria's most-hated ethnic group—the group that has historically been suspected by other Syrians of sympathizing with the French, the Christians, and even the Jews. Daniel Pipes, a Middle East historian, writes in Greater Syria, "An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries."

One rarely stated reason for the longevity of Assad's regime—which also applies to other Arab dictators who arose around the same time, like Muammar Qaddafi, in Libya, and Saddam Hussein, in Iraq—is his use of state-of-the-art electronic surveillance techniques and Soviet-bloc security advisers: powerful, sometimes lethal tools that had not been available to earlier dictators. (American diplomats familiar with Syria in the 1950s describe it as a charming banana republic, where the government's attempts at surveillance had an amateurish, comic-opera quality to them.) Assad's extraordinary skill as a leader is another reason why he has survived. For example, by patient trial and error over the past seventeen years, he has won for himself the role of de facto military overlord in Lebanon, thus effectively undoing the French crime of separating Lebanon from the Syrian motherland.

However, Assad's leadership ability notwithstanding, historical evidence suggests that the Assad era, like the rule of communists in Eastern Europe, is more a historical intermission than an indication of enduring national unity.

The city of Hama, a traditional bastion of Sunni Arab strength, is a case in point. In 1964 a revolt in Hama almost toppled the then current Ba'athist regime, top-heavy with Alawites. Finally, in February of 1982, the Sunni Arab Muslim Brotherhood took control of the city and murdered its Alawite-appointed officials. Sunni renegades had earlier massacred Alawite soldiers in Aleppo. The roots of this violence lay in age-old ethnic distrust, aggravated by Assad's support during the late 1970s of Maronite Christian militias in Lebanon, which Sunnis in Syria saw as yet another Alawite-Christian conspiracy against them. Assad reacted by sending 12,000 Alawite soldiers into Hama. They massacred as many as 30,000 Sunni Arab civilians and leveled much of the town. Hama in 1982 was proof that beneath the carapace of Assad's stable rule lay a seething region that was no closer to nationhood than it had been after the Turks left, or after the French left.

Assad, though only in his early sixties, has often been reported to be in ill health. However long he survives, Syria faces a day of reckoning when his control over the country weakens. Though the American media occupy themselves with Assad's current shift toward moderation—Syria's participation in the peace talks, its more civilized attitude toward Syrian Jews, and its seeming abstinence from anti-Western terrorism—the question remains: Given Syria's history up to this moment, do any of these policy changes really matter? Syria, it is to be remembered, is part of the same world as Yugoslavia: a former Ottoman territory that has yet to come to terms with the problems of post-Ottoman boundaries.

Future scenarios for Syria resemble those predicted for Yugoslavia during the Cold War years. From the standpoint of the present, the scenarios always seem implausible. But from the standpoint of historical process and precedent, they seem inevitable.

Syria will not remain the same. It could become bigger or smaller, but the chance that any territorial solution will prove truly workable is slim indeed. Some Middle East specialists mutter about the possibility that a future Alawite state will be carved out of Syria. Based in mountainous Latakia, it would be a refuge for Alawites after Assad passes from the scene and Muslim fundamentalists—Sunnis, that is—take over the government. This state would be supported not only by Lebanese Maronites but also by the Israeli Secret Service, which would see no contradiction in aiding former members of Assad's regime against a Sunni Arab government in Damascus. Some Syrians, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, look forward to the collapse of both Israel and Jordan and their reintegration into Syria, as they waited in the 1940s for the incorporation into Syria of the autonomous states in Latakia and Jabal Druze. Should Assad's death lead to chaos in Damascus, it is not out of the question that the region of Jabal Druze would break away from Syria and amalgamate itself with Jordan. Because Lebanon's current stability rests upon Syrian military domination there, a weakening of government institutions in Syria could result in a renewal of the Lebanese civil war.

What Syria deep down yearns for—what would assuage its insoluble contradictions—is to duplicate the process now under way in the Balkans. That is, it wishes to repeal the political results of the twentieth century—in Syria's case, the border arrangements made by Great Britain and France after the First World War. In the Balkans, of course, "repeal" means the fragmentation of a larger whole into its constituent parts, and that fragmentation is proceeding apace. In Syria it means the opposite: the reconstitution of the whole out of its constituent parts. Indeed, Syria wishes to return to a world where, as Daniel Pipes says, it could be subsumed into an even larger whole and become "a region that exists outside politics." This, after all, is what lies behind its calls for "Arab unity." And nothing of the sort will happen.

For the moment, then, Assad staves off the future. It is Assad, not Saddam Hussein or any other ruler, who defines the era in which the Middle East now lives. And Assad's passing may herald more chaos than a chaotic region has seen in decades.