"A Writhing Ghost of a Would-Be Nation"

Robert D. Kaplan has a knack for predicting geopolitical upheavals long before they occur, and he sent me an article he wrote for The Atlantic in 1993 where he did it again. This piece, called “Syria: Identity Crisis,” is a must-read.

His 1993 analysis of where Syria is likely heading largely lines up with my own in 2012. He starts by first explaining how Syria got the way it is now.

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.

Keep in mind that modern Syria is named after a much larger region within the Ottoman Empire that included a great deal more than the realm Bashar al-Assad currently rules. (The Nazi-like Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which is aligned with Assad and Hezbollah, seeks to recreate those older borders and conquer parts or all of Syria’s neighbors.)

Here’s Kaplan again, describing what happened when the British and French controlled the formerly Ottoman lands in the Levant after World War I.

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.

Syrians gave democracy a shot after the French left, but the country became one of the least stable in the entire world, with military coup following military coup as various factions jockeyed for power and none able to figure out how to unite everybody. Damascus had 21 different governments in 24 years. The only leader who has ever managed to hold modern Syria together was the Alawite Baathist Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, and he did so by creating a suffocatingly oppressive and, at times, ruthlessly violent Soviet-style police state with an Arab nationalist ideology.

So what’s likely to happen now that the system Hafez al-Assad created is coming down around his son’s ears? Will Syria revert to form and have something like another 21 governments during the next 24 years?

Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Let’s go back to Kaplan again, this time on the prospect of post-Assad Syria. He wrote this nineteen years ago. Some of it seems a bit off now, but most it is more relevant today than it was then. You should read the whole thing, but here’s the gist of it:

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.


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.

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