After reading a recent post in the Economist ( Here ) I was prompted to do a little research on what constitutes “Syria”; I was aware that it was a very ancient country in concept, but what rocky roads had it travelled from palaeolithic time until the beginning of the Assad era in 1970?
Well, it turns out to be a lot more complex than I had imagined. Most of the detailed information here is taken from Gill, N. S. (1987) Syria: A Country Study; Ancient Syria Library of Congress. And (Cheating! My paper copy is 15th Edition and therefore missing the modern.) Syria: History Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 22 February 2013.
Ignoring ancient Syria and the times of the Romans, the country first appeared in my historical education as the location of much of the Crusading story, fact, myth or legend. In the 1950s and 60s in English primary schools, this story was heavily wrapped in romance, that of the “Lionheart” particularly and the evils of the Saracen. The political sub-plot was distinctly Christian in its viewpoint and the term “Islam” was never mentioned, although it could have been implied. In the 12th and 13th centuries the Crusader States, particularly that of Antioch were in firm control of much of the geographical area, and the region, commonly known as the Levant, was a rich trading route to Western Europe. By the beginning of the 16th century, however, the Ottoman Empire was firmly in control.
So the Caliphs made way for the Sultans and, again my boyhood memories from reading and from the classroom, required visions of Scimitars, wielded by huge Eunuchs, (no-one explained what they were!) Crafty Vizirs and Harems of diaphanous transparent cloth and luxuriously beautiful women, who could not possibly walk the streets so attired and therefore hid their modesty from prying eyes totally when they left the safety of the Seraglio. I am certain that all of those factors existed at times, however, the Ottoman Empire was a vast and very long-lived political entity and for 400 years held sway over Syria.
On discussing with well versed friends the origins of the first world war, we came to the conclusion that the reason for British fighting German in Belgium as a result of an Austrian dying by the hand of a Bosnian Serb was the withdrawal of the Ottoman influence from the Balkans; it had long served to extend an Levantine finger that effectively separated the Balkans from central Europe. That war itself, effectively ended the Ottoman Empire and in its break-up France and Britain appointed themselves overseers of those parts not included in modern Turkey. The British had influence in Palestine until the second world war, following which they did not cover themselves in glory with the creation of the modern state of Israel and the rump of Palestine,creating tensions that always appear when artificial boundaries are created on religious or racial grounds. (For further research try the partitioning of India to create Pakistan in 1947, the Kashmiri border is still at boiling point, or the partition of Ireland in 1922, “the troubles” still seethe below the surface.)
France gained control of Syria and Lebanon and it is here that we see why the modern country has needed a hand of steel to hold it together. The French realised that Syria was not a single racial or political entity suddenly freed of Ottoman domination; they therefore created a series of states under their mandate. These were, ( see map here) in the north, the huge, mostly desert sate of Aleppo, on the Mediterranean coast, a small Alawite state, capital in Latakia,, Lebanon, capital Beirut. The second large state was Damascus, covering all of the southern part of “Syria” apart from a Druze state in the far south east with its capital in As-Suwaida. Clearly, the French did not see “Syria” as an entity and respected the religious and racial tensions by partition.
However, the story as it unfolded is not as simple as the old history books ( inevitably written by the victors) make it seem; Initially there was an Emir Faisal, then a revolt by Sultan Al-Atrash, then the partitioning. Not as tidy as the books pretend.
Following the second world war, there was the Arab-Israeli war and I do not propose to discuss that in any detail, the Monk can do the follow-up on modern history as it is responsible for so many of our current problems, however, during my secondary schooling, the phrase “Golan Heights” was constantly heard on the Home Service news and I can assure you that I was not even around in 1948, much less at secondary school. This therefore brings us to 1970 and the rule of Assad. Seizing power in a bloodless coup following the “Corrective Movement” Hafez al-Assad was elected President on a 7 year term after The Provisional Regional Command of Assad's Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party nominated a 173-member legislature, with the Ba'ath tasking 87 of those seats and the remainder being given to minority representatives.
So, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath party appears... what of the Allawite, Sunni, Shia, the Druze, have politics taken over from religious divides, is this why Syria is different from Iraq or Iran? Why is it that the call of the Ba'ath throughout North Africa and the Levant never succeeded in “Arab Unity”? The closest to any “union” is reflected in that Libya is still Libya and I lost my small wagers that following Gadaffi's death, Tripolitania and Cyrenacia would re-appear. Why did Iraq not form a union with Syria in 1963? Why does Jordan still remain “apart”? The tensions between Israel and its neighbours are obvious, there are ancient religious differences, one must never think that Halal and Kosher have any similarity or that Abraham and Moses could stand on either side of any border.
Are we down to the petty sect-style differences of the various branches of Islam, is it really such a powerful divide that mentioning the Prophet (PBOHN) is allowed, if not encouraged, but mention his cousin and a civil war will break out. Were the French in their short-lived and badly managed mandate in fact correct in establishing Alawite and Druze states? The majority in most Middle eastern States, be it Sunni or Shia seem to be ruled by minority, almost high caste Muslim sects, how “Socialist” is that? If Syria continues to tear itself apart as it is currently doing, what will be left? Will the entire state be so fragmented that Lebanon takes over the northern Mediterranean coastline, Iraq occupies Alleppo, Jordan take the Druze and Palestine take over Damascus? I fear that the Israelis might have something to say about that, in fact, they might already be readying an armed intervention, we would be the last to know... After all, they developed their A-Bomb under US scrutiny without being discovered. So, is Syria to be the catalyst for the “Arab Spring” to blossom into a slightly blood-soaked summer, or is it simply the autumn of a state that has hung on since prehistoric times? We wait with interest.