Global Security Series: Syria, a Country of Multiple Identities

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

Syrian FlagCTU’s Global Security Series offers background and analysis on issues related to U.S. national security and homeland security. In Dr. Morag’s second post covering Syria, he provides a brief overview of the country’s political history – from the creation of the French Mandate of Syria in 1920, through independence in 1946, to present day.

As noted in last week’s post, prior to the creation of the boundaries of the Syrian state by agreement between the French and the British during the First World War, Syria had never been an actual country. It is important to note, however, that it was a geographic concept for many centuries, but “Syria” as a geographic term encompassed an area far larger than the boundaries of the Syrian state. Since Syria did not have a history as an independent country, and Syrians were also Arabs, it meant Syrians who were opposed to French rule were Arab nationalists rather than Syrian nationalists. Their goal was to expel the British, French, and other European colonial powers from the Middle East and North Africa and to unite all the Arab lands from Morocco to Iraq in one independent Arab state. This goal was based on the argument that, since all Arabs shared the same language and culture (which may or may not be true depending on how one defines the day-to-day spoken language and culture), they constituted one nation that deserved to have its own independent state. 

This form of nationalism is also known as pan-Arabism because it focused on uniting all the Arab peoples divided by colonial borders. The concept of pan-Arabism survived for several decades and was highly popular; but it proved impossible to truly unite Arabs into one country.  Some Arab societies, and Egypt is probably the best example of this, had their own history of being independent that no only pre-dated the creation of European colonies in the Middle East, but also predated the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest of the Middle East – meaning they had a much firmer basis for developing a separate identity. Syrians, on the other hand, never really thought of themselves as Syrian because that concept did not really exist. Instead, they focused on their Arab identity – something they shared with others in the region. 

Consequently, Syrians under French rule focused on getting the French out and uniting Syria with other Arab lands in a common Arab nation-state. In fact, many years after achieving independence, Syria briefly united with Egypt (1958-1961) to create a common country: the United Arab Republic. This union collapsed after less than four years chiefly because the Egyptians treated Syria as a colony of Egypt rather than as an equal partner.  After the outbreak of the Second World War and the conquest of France by Nazi Germany in 1940, French overseas territories came under the rule of the French collaborationist government in Vichy and these lands thus became enemy territory as far as the Allies were concerned. In 1941, the British, along with their Free-French allies, conquered Syria and Lebanon. The British promised the people in these colonies that they would be granted independence and these two countries achieved full independence upon the withdrawal of all French forces in 1946. Both countries consisted of a jumble of different ethnic and religious groups, so most Syrians had no real sense of why an independent Syrian state should exist as opposed to an independent Arab state encompassing additional Arab lands.  To further complicate matters, under French rule certain minority groups like the Alawis and the Druze had been given important positions of leadership in the French-run military and government administration. As a result, they were better-placed to dominate the country’s Sunni-Muslim majority upon the granting of independence. 

After a short period of a corrupt and unstable democratic government, and after the Syrian military’s defeat at the hands of the newly-created State of Israel during that country’s War of Independence, a Syrian colonel named Husni al-Zaim staged a coup d’etat (military takeover) of Syria.  Between 1949 and 1963, Syria was ruled by a series of military dictators until March 1963 when another coup was staged that brought Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’ath (renaissance) party to power.  That regime has remained in power to this day and is led by Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father after his death in 2000. The Assad regime was dominated by the President’s Alawi ethnic and religious community in alliance with other minority groups such as the Druze and Christian communities, which are briefly described in last week’s post. Since Syria was now directly ruled by minority groups, the regime became an even stronger proponent of pan-Arabism. This was, in part, so these minority groups could only hope to be seen as legitimate leaders of the country by the Sunni-Muslim majority. The intention was to portray themselves as Arabs fighting for a united Arab state where one’s ethnic or religious background would not matter (as long as one was a proud Arab) opposed to members of minority groups dominating the majority population of Syria.  This was also one of the reasons that Syria saw itself as a leader in the struggle against Israel. Israel’s existence was seen as preventing the unification of the Arabs and being an enemy of Israel made Arab leaders appear more legitimate and popular among their people. 

The regime created by Hafez al-Assad and then bequeathed to his son Bashar, the present leader of the country, is based on firm control of the military. Lower-ranking officers are shifted from one command to another in quick succession to prevent them from developing a loyal base of soldiers that might follow these lower-ranking officers in a coup attempt. Senior officers were given virtually no direct control over lower-ranking officers so that senior officers would not be able to effectively command larger forces and thus challenge the regime. The Assad regime also encouraged competition between officers, thus making it difficult to form alliances between army officers.  All of these measures proved very effective in preventing challenges to the regime from the army, but they came at a price – they made the Syrian army weak and militarily ineffective. The Ba’ath party, which ostensibly, ruled Syria, was in fact an empty shell and the regime was primarily dependent on the support of the Alawi community whose members were put in key positions in the military; along with other minority groups.  The most senior and sensitive positions were given to Hafez al-Assad’s family members, followed by other members of his tribe, before passed lower down the totem pole to other members of his Alawi ethnic community. Thus, the regime relied on the loyalty of family, tribe and ethnic community for its continued existence and leveraged the fear that other ethnic-religious minorities had of the collapse of Assad rule and the rise of the Sunni majority.  Over the years, the regime was also able to co-opt prominent Sunnis, particularly in the business community, who benefited from the Assad regime.

Now, the civil war presently gripping the country threatens to topple this minority-based regime.  We will come back to the issue of the present conflict in Syria towards the end of this month. In the meantime, we will look at Syria’s regional role in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as Syria’s alliance with Iran, to better understand why Syria is important to the region.

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