Greater Syria and the Challenge to Syrian Nationalism

Map of Greater Syria

Map of Greater SyriaSyria faces challenges to its geopolitical integrity beyond those posed by its religious and linguistic diversity. Like Iraq, it owes its statehood and geographical boundaries largely to the actions of European imperial powers in the early 20th century. Modern Syria essentially covers the area grabbed by France from the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The territory was officially awarded to France as a “mandate” by the League of Nations, with the provision that it would be prepared for eventual independence. French control, however, had already been as promised in a secret British-French war-time agreement—infuriating Britain’s Arab allies, who had cleared Ottoman forces out of most of the region during the conflict. As can be seen in the maps, the British-French partition ignored the Ottoman Empire’s administrative districts.Map of Ottoman Syria

France’s Syrian mandate was larger than the modern country of Syria, including Lebanon as well as the Turkish province of Hatay. French authorities immediately began rearranging the geopolitical blocks of their new land, creating statelets based in part on religion. The Alawite area came to be governed separately, as did the Jabel Druze—Mountain of the Druze—in the south. France was especially keen to establish political space for the largest Christian group, the Maronites. The Ottoman Empire had previously allowed the Maronite region a degree of autonomy as the “Mutasarrifiyet of Mount Lebanon.” French authorities expanded this area, creating a Greater Lebanon that encompassed Shia, Sunni, and Druze districts but retained a Christian majority.Map of French Syria

The division of French Syria was not locally popular, nor were French policies. Anger at imperial rule erupted in the Druze-led Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927. France prevailed, but agreed afterward to amalgamate Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawite state, and the Druze zone into a single entity. In 1936 Paris promised eventual independence for Syria, which was realized in 1944. In the late 1930s, France also yielded to pressure from Ankara and relinquished Alexandretta (Hatay) in the northwest, which Turkey annexed in 1939. The Syrian government has never accepted this loss, regarding—and mapping—this area as unredeemed territory. Greater Lebanon also remained outside the control of Damascus, gaining its own sovereignty a year earlier than Syria itself. Many Lebanese Muslims objected, and some still demand unification with Syria. Syria, in turn, thinks of Lebanon as a client state, and Syrian troops militarily occupied much of the country during and after the Lebanese Civil War (from 1976 to 2005).Map of Syria's territorial losses

More extreme Syrian nationalist aspirations extend well beyond Lebanon and Hatay. Advocates of a Greater Syria dream of uniting all of the historically Arabic-speaking lands of the eastern Mediterranean. The broadest claims, with the maximal ideological justifications, are advanced by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The SSNP has designs on a vast territory, encompassing not just the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, but also all of Iraq and significant parts of Iran and Turkey. As is detailed on its website:

“[Syria] has distinct natural boundaries and extends from the Taurus range in the northwest and the Zagros mountains in the northeast to the Suez canal and the Red Sea in the south and includes the Sinai peninsula and the gulf of Aqaba, and from the Syrian sea in the west, including the island of Cyprus, to the arch of the Arabian desert and the Persian gulf in the east.”

Even the eastern Mediterranean itself, the SSNP insists, is rightly called the “Syrian Sea.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded in 1932 by the Lebanese-born Christian politician Antun Saadeh, is a secularist and stridently nationalist organization. Long outlawed in Syria, the SSNP was legalized in a symbolic liberalization move in 2005 and now forms the second-largest political party in the country, with an estimated 100,000 members. Long a political player in Lebanon, the SSNP is now affiliated with the anti-Western, pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance. It is usually classified as a far-right organization. A recent article in Canada’s anti-extremist website The Propagandist refers to it as an “unambiguously fascist party.” Political gadfly Christopher Hitchens agrees, arguing that a better name for the organization would be the “Syrian National Socialist party,” reflecting its Nazi proclivities. In 2009, Hitchens was attacked by SSNP toughs in Beirut after he defaced one of the party’s swastika-like banners.

As unsavory as the SSNP may be, it deviates from traditional “national socialism” in several regards. Most importantly, it eschews racialist thinking, and even denies the significance of ethnicity in the formation of the Syrian nation. Instead, it foregrounds geography, arguing that a long history of living together within the same naturally bounded space has melded the various peoples of the region into a single nationality.  As explained by Saadeh, the party’s founder:

“The Syrian nation denotes this society which possesses organic unity. Though of mixed origins, this society has come to constitute a single society living in a distinguished environment known historically as Syria or the Fertile Crescent. The common stocks, Canaanites, Chaldeans, Arameans, Assyrians, Amorites, Hiffites [sic], Metanni and Akkadians etc…whose blending is an indisputable historical fact constitute the ethnic-historical-cultural basis of Syria’s unity whereas the Syrian Fertile Crescent constitutes the geographic-economic-strategic basis of this unity.”

Saadeh’s inclusive attitude toward minority groups had it limits, however. While he opined that “immigrant” groups such as the Circassians and Armenians would fully assimilate into the Syrian nation, he expressly excluded Jews from this category. His statements on this issue reflect virulent anti-Semitism:

“But there is one large settlement which can not in any respect be reconciled to the principle of Syrian nationalism, and that is the Jewish settlement. It is a dangerous settlement which can never be assimilated because it consists of a people that, although it has mixed with many other peoples, has remained a heterogeneous mixture, not a nation, with strange stagnant beliefs and aims of its own, essentially incompatible with Syrian rights and sovereignty ideals. It is the duty of the Syrian Social Nationalists to repulse the immigration of this people with all their might.”

All things considered, the Syrian geopolitical environment reveals—yet again—the inadequacy of the standard model of global politics, where all sovereign countries are assumed to be nation-states. The Syrian state may be relatively strong, but the Syrian nation is a tenuous affair, deeply contested by multiple parties with sharply contrasting visions.

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Syria’s Ethno-Religious Complexity – and Potential Turmoil

Map of Languages in Syria

Map of Languages in SyriaMost Americans would be surprised to learn of the ethnic and religious diversity that exists in present-day Syria. Standard references sources give an impression of clear domination by Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims. The CIA World Factbook summarizes Syria’s cultural make-up as follows:

“Ethnic Groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%. Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%, Christian (various denominations) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo).”

Map of Religion in Syria

In fact, Sunni Arabs are not as demographically dominant as they might seem. To begin with, the basic numbers are disputed; Alawites, as discussed in a previous post, may constitute as much as twenty percent of Syria’s population. The Sunni population also includes many non-Arabic speakers, including most Kurds–and the Kurdish population may form fifteen or even twenty percent of the total, according to Kurdish websites. Christian numbers are also likely under-reported, as they seldom include the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees living in the country. The Arab Sunni population itself, moreover, is internally divided. Arab Syrians speak widely divergent dialects that most linguists regard as separate languages. As the language map shows, the Arabic dialects of eastern Syria are related not to those of western Syria but rather to those of Iraq.

Map of Arabic Dialects in Syria

Grouping the heterodox Alawites and Druze as “other Muslim” also understates Syria’s diversity. As recounted in the previous Geocurrents post, many Muslims – perhaps most – do not reckon Alawites as members of the community of the faithful. The Islamic standing of the Druze religion is still more questionable, as the Druze generally regard Jethro (father-in-law of Moses) rather than Mohammed as their main prophet. But the Druze conceal their beliefs so extensively—even from the bulk of their own population—that it is difficult to say what they actually believe. Syria’s half-million strong Druze community may constitute only two and a half percent of the country’s population, but the Druze have long formed a politically capable and militarily potent congregation. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The Druze always played a far more important role in Syrian politics than its comparatively small population would suggest.”

The ethno-religious complexity of Syria has long challenged the country’s government. Under the rule of military strongman Adib Shishakli in the early 1950s, “Syrianization” campaigns sought to aggressively meld the population into a single ethnicity/nationality, provoking clashes between the national army and Druze militias. Partly as a result, non-Sunni Arabic speakers gravitated to the Baath Party, whose brand of Arab Nationalism encompassed most minority groups – with the notable exception of the non-Arab Kurds* (see the earlier Geocurrents post). Under the current Baathist regime, the Sunni majority has generally co-existed peacefully with Christians, Druze, and Alawites. According to the government, such concord demands the harsh repression of an autocratic government. In a March 30, 2011 speech, President Bashir al-Assad blamed outside agitators, particularly Israelis, for the current unrest, insinuating that the fall of his government would unleash a sectarian bloodbath. Considering events in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, such forebodings are being taken seriously in the White House. David Lesch argues that “the Obama administration wants [Assad] to stay in power even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.” (Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, is urging much stronger punitive action against the Assad regime.)

It is difficult to find information on the position of Syria’s minorities in the current struggle. According to one recent report, “The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group, a key player in organizing the protests, appealed to the Druze of Syria to join the protests against the Syrian Regime.” Another source notes that the controversial Lebanese Druze politician Wiam Wahhab “implored his Syrian co-religionists to remain loyal to Bashar al Assad ….

‘[T]he Syrian regime must not be tampered with since in the event of Assad’s downfall the whole region might drift into utter destruction for the next 100 years,’ he said.” Wahab’s efforts might indicate that support for Assad is teetering among the Druze population.

* Syria’s Kurdish-speaking Yezidis have been especially victimized.

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The Heterodox Zone

Yesterday’s post included a map of religious communities in northern Iraq, based on a larger map by Mehrdad Izady, generated as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project (http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/). As Izady’s maps show, northern Iraq is part of a larger region of striking religious diversity, highlighted on the map above. This area has no established name, and appears (to my knowledge) on no other maps, yet its delineation is essential for making sense of Middle Eastern politics, cultural dynamics, and history. In an attempt to bring this area to broader attention, I dub it “the Heterodox Zone,” a term that I picked up years ago in a casual conversation with the Turkish scholar Hakan Altinay.

The most distinctive faiths of the Heterodox Zone are three, grouped together by Mehrdad Izady under the rubric of Yazdanism or “the cults of angels.” These include the Yazidi religion, the faith of the Shabaks (who number some 60,000 in northern Iraq), and the religion of Yarsan (or Ahl-e Haqq), which counts up to one million adherents in Iranian Kurdistan. Izady considers all three to be survivals of the pre-Islamic Kurdish religion.

Less distinctive but far more prevalent is Alevism, a faith concentrated in eastern Turkey. Adherents of Alevism may number as many as 20 million. Although their religion is conventionally considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alevis do not worship in mosques. They interpret the Quran on a strictly allegorical basis, and have no problem with alcohol. Alevism is also associated with the Kurds, but it is followed more extensively by the almost invisible Zaza people (speakers of the Zazaki language), who live to the north of the Kurdish language zone in eastern Turkey.

Distinctive religious communities extend through the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean. As many as three million people are ‘Alawis (or Alawites), a minority group that has the distinction of essentially running Syria. Another Shiite offshoot, the Alawite faith traditionally includes such non-Muslims beliefs as the transmigration of souls. (Some reports, however, claim that Alawite ideas and practices are gradually approaching those of orthodox Islam.) In the Druze religion, which has somewhere between 750,000 and two million followers, ideas and practices have diverged so far from the Islamic faith that the Druze are almost never considered Muslims. What exactly those beliefs are is difficult say, however, as the Druze keep their core beliefs secret not only from outsiders, but even from their own rank-and-file; only a select group is allowed access to the faith’s esoteric teachings.

Such groups by no means account for all of the religious diversity of the Heterodox Zone. Christianity is present as well, represented by many distinctive sects. Lebanon alone counts 10 politically recognized Christian groups. (Lebanese politics are organized on a confessional basis around the following religious communities: Sunni Muslim, Twelver Shiite Muslim, Isma’ili Shiite Muslim, Alawite, Druze, Maronite [Catholic], Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Christian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant Christian, and Jewish). The Heterodox zone also extends into northern Israel, where one finds not only Druze and Christian communities, but also the ancient Jewish offshoot sect of the Samaritans (who today number only 712).

The Heterodox Zone is associated with mountains and rugged terrain. That is to be expected; rough topography has often provided niches for minor languages as well as religions – social phenomena whose survival historically required a degree of shelter from the authority of states and their dominant societies. In the modern world, such zones of refuge are coming under pressure from larger and more intrusive politico-cultural formations. That is certainly true of the Heterodox Zone. In Iraq, Sunni extremists are now targeting the minority faiths, attacking their followers and forcing them to flee. Will autonomous Kurdistan offer adequate refuge? That remains to be seen.

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