After Bashar al-Assad, the deluge.
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.
Pan-Arabism — of which the post-World War II independent state of Syria claimed to constitute the "throbbing-heart" — became a substitute for Syria’s very weak national identity. Indeed, Syria’s self-styled "steadfast" hatred of Israel was a way for Syrians to escape their own internal contradictions. Those contradictions were born of the parochial interests of regionally based ethnic and sectarian groups: Sunni Arabs in the Damascus-Homs-Hama central corridor; heretical, Shiite-trending Alawites in the mountains of the northwest; Druze in the south, with their close tribal links to Jordan; and Kurds, Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Circassians in Aleppo.
Between 1947 and 1954, Syria held three national elections that all broke down more or less according to these regional and sectarian lines. After 21 changes of government in 24 years and a failed attempt to unify with Egypt, the Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. By ruling with utter ruthlessness, he kept the peace in Syria for three decades. To wit, when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rose up in Hama in 1982, he killed more than 20,000 Sunni Muslim civilians there in response, according to some estimates. Assad’s son, Bashar, who succeeded his father as Syria’s president a decade ago, has yet to make his bones in such a way. It is unclear whether the son is visionary enough to satisfy today’s protesters, or cruel enough like his father to stay in power. His regime’s survival may require stores of both attributes. A complicating factor is that to a much greater degree than his father, the son is trapped within a web of interest groups that include a corrupt business establishment and military and intelligence leaders averse to reform. So the political crisis in Syria will likely continue to build.
Syria at this moment in history constitutes a riddle. Is it, indeed, prone to civil conflict as the election results of the 1940s and 1950s indicate; or has the population quietly forged a national identity in the intervening decades, if only because of the common experience of living under an austere dictatorship? No Middle East expert can say for sure.
Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. Iraq is bordered by the strong states of Turkey and Iran in the north and east, and is separated from Saudi Arabia in the south and Syria and Jordan to the west by immense tracts of desert. Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater. That is because of the proximity of Syria’s major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already.
Remember that Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel are all geographically and historically part of Greater Syria, a reason that successive regimes in Damascus since 1946 never really accepted their legitimacy. The French drew Lebanon’s borders 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 had a concordat with the Vatican. Were an Alawite regime in Damascus to crumble, the Syria-Lebanon border could be effectively erased as Sunnis from both sides of the border united and Lebanon’s Shiites and Syria’s Alawites formed pockets of resistance. The post-colonial era in the Middle East would truly be closed, and we would be back to the vague borders of the Ottoman Empire.
What seems fanciful today may seem inevitable in the months and years ahead. Rather than face a "steadfast" and rejectionist, albeit predictable, state as the focal point of Arab resistance, Israel would henceforth face a Sunni Arab statelet from Damascus to Hama — one likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood — amid congeries of other fiefdoms. The unrest in Syria brings the Middle East perhaps to a precipice. Peaceful or not, the future of the region will be one of weakened central authority. Mesopotamia at least has a historic structure, with its three north-south oriented ethnic and sectarian entities. But Greater Syria is more of a hodgepodge.
For most of history, prior to the colonial era, Middle Eastern borders mattered far less than they do now, as cities like Aleppo in northern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq had more contact with each other than with the respective capitals of Damascus and Baghdad. The ruins of Hatra, southwest of Mosul in Iraq, a Silk Road nexus of trade and ideas that reached its peak in the second and third centuries A.D., attest to a past and possible future of more decentralized states that could succeed the tyrannical perversions of the modern nation-state system. Hatra’s remains reflect the eclectic mix of Assyrian, Hellenistic, Parthian, and Roman styles that set the stage for early Islamic architecture. Then there are the ruins of Dura-Europos, a Parthian caravan center founded in 300 B.C., halfway between Syria and Mesopotamia and known as the "Pompeii of the East." Frescoes from the synagogue at Dura-Europos grace the halls of the National Museum in Damascus. Both these sets of ruins have a vital political significance for the present, for they indicate a region without hardened borders that benefited from the free flow of trade and information.
But the transition away from absolutist rule in the Middle East to a world of commercially oriented, 21st-century caravan states will be longer, costlier, and messier than the post-1989 transitions in the Balkans — a more developed part of the Ottoman Empire than Greater Syria and Mesopotamia. The natural state of Mesopotamia was mirrored in the three Ottoman vilayets of Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad, and Shiite Basra. The natural state of Greater Syria beyond the constellation of city-states like Phoenicia, Aleppo, Damascus, and Jerusalem is more indistinct still.
European leaders in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were engrossed by the so-called Eastern Question: that is, the eruptions of instability and nationalist yearnings in the Balkans and the Middle East caused by the seemingly interminable, rotting-away death of the Ottoman Empire. The Eastern Question was eventually settled by the cataclysm of World War I, from which the modern Arab state system emerged. But a hundred years on, the durability of that post-Ottoman state system should not be taken for granted.