- By Robert D. KaplanRobert D. Kaplan is the author of Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior advisor at the Eurasia Group.
The late Princeton scholar Philip K. Hitti called Greater Syria — the historical antecedent of the modern republic — "the largest small country on the map, microscopic in size but cosmic in influence," encompassing in its geography, at the confluence of Europe, Asia, and Africa, "the history of the civilized world in a miniature form." This is not an exaggeration, and because it is not, the current unrest in Syria is far more important than unrest we have seen anywhere in the Middle East.
"Syria" was the 19th-century Ottoman-era term for a region that stretched from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in the north to the Arabian Desert in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Mesopotamia in the east. Present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, western Iraq, and southern Turkey were all included in this vast area. In other words, the concept of "Syria" was not linked to any specific national sentiment. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I led to Greater Syria being carved into a half-dozen states. Although territory had been cut away on all sides, the rump French mandate of "Syria" that came into existence, nevertheless, contained not only every warring sect and regional and tribal interest, but also the spiritual headquarters in the capital Damascus of the pan-Arab movement, whose aim was to erase all the state borders that the Europeans had just created.