Concepts of Nationalism, Unity, and the Arab Nation

Syria Table of Contents

Because it entails definition of where the national boundaries should be drawn, nationalism is a controversial concept for Syrians. Shortly after independence, most Syrians retained a strong ethnocentrism based on the city or region where they were born and grew up; they owed their first allegiance to their tribe, clan, or ethnic group, rather than to the new nation-state. Over the years, these forces have diminished, but not disappeared, and now nearly all Syrians manifest an intense patriotism, coupled with a strong desire for the recovery of what they feel are integral areas of Syria split off from the nation by French Mandate authorities. A small minority of Syrians, however, have not been assimilated into the Syrian identity. For example, beduin in eastern Syria feel a strong affinity for their neighbors in Iraq and Jordan, and some Christians and Druzes look for guidance to their coreligionists in Lebanon.

The Syrian government has never recognized the legality of Turkey's possession of Hatay Province, which was the Syrian province of Iskenderun until it was ceded to Turkey by France in 1939. Syrian maps still describe the Syrian-Turkish frontier at Iskenderun as a "temporary border." The Syrian attitude toward Lebanon is more ambivalent: Syria officially recognizes Lebanon's de jure existence but has refused to open formal diplomatic relations. Syria feels justified in exerting hegemony over Lebanon and ensuring that it remains a Syrian satellite. In fact, since 1976 Syria has virtually annexed parts of Lebanon. Finally, Syria views the recovery of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as a national priority. Syrian citizens support their government's policy toward these three areas almost unanimously.

Many Syrians advocate the more far-reaching goal of restoring Greater Syria. Adherents of this concept believe Syria should encompass the entire Levant, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel or Palestine. The Greater Syria concept was formulated in response to a centuries-old, and now quiescent, Middle Eastern dynamic in which Iraq and Egypt traditionally vied for dominance over the Arab heartland between the Euphrates and the Nile rivers. The Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), which is banned in Syria but has numerous surreptitious supporters, has made the quest for a Greater Syria the cornerstone of its ideology; the SSNP also includes Cyprus as a part of Greater Syria. Although it bears the word Syrian in its title, the SSNP was, ironically, actually established in Lebanon and has become a Syrian proxy force in that country.

At a broader level, Baath Party ideology reflects the viewpoint of many Syrian citizens in championing pan-Arab nationalism and proposing unification of all Arab countries into one Arab nation stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, transcending what are regarded as arbitrary and artificial borders drawn by Ottoman or European colonial rulers. However, this vision of Arab unity has not been limited to Baathists. Arab unity was the clarion call of most Arab nationalists during the struggles against European colonialism after World War I. Baathist ideology differs from this older sentiment in making socialism an integral element of pan-Arab nationalism.

Although most Syrians support pan-Arabism, some view it negatively. In many respects, the notion of pan-Arab nationalism contradicts Syrian nationalism because Syria would be subsumed in the larger entity and its identity subordinated to that of the new superstate. Aware of this paradox, Syrian officials reserve for Syria a special place in their utopian ideal as the "beating heart" of the Arab nation. However, Syrian religious minorities fear that extreme pan-Arab nationalism would entail Islamic fundamentalism because Islam is an important common denominator of many Arabs and a potential vehicle for uniting the Arab countries. Therefore, religious minorities, particularly Christians, have stridently resisted proposed unification with other Arab nations, while at the same time supporting the notion of a Greater Syria, which includes Lebanon and other areas with a large Christian population. Some minorities oppose unification; for example, Kurds and Assyrians in northeastern Syria have vivid memories of persecution in Iraq, from which they sought refuge in Syria, and naturally oppose being brought again under Iraqi jurisdiction.

Because using Islam as the defining criterion of Arabism is prejudicial to minorities, Syrians have instead emphasized the common cultural heritage of all Arabs. Specifically, the Arabic language is perceived as the root of Arab nationalism. Additionally, the nearly universal antipathy toward Zionism is another factor around which Arabs can rally, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

This secular rather than religious emphasis has succeeded to the extent that religious minorities have often been in the forefront of Arab nationalist drives. Nevertheless, much of the appeal of Arab nationalism among uneducated or rural citizens has a strong Islamic component. Such people look to an Arab nation that re-creates the Islamic empire, or Dar al Islam prescribed by the Quran and achieved under the Umayyad dynasty based in Damascus.

In any case, pan-Arab unity is a moot issue in Syria, an ideal rather than a practical policy. Syria's unification with Egypt in the UAR proved unpalatable to Syrian politicians. Although since 1980 Syria has been officially united with Libya and has studied merger with Jordan and Iraq, unification in these cases is simply a euphemism for what would be a regular alliance between autonomous nations elsewhere in the world. However, Syria has also been adept at wielding Arab unity as a propaganda weapon. When other Arab countries pressured Syria to improve relations with its enemy Iraq in 1986, it acquiesced in conducting negotiations but demanded complete and total unification. Iraq, as expected, rejected this proposal, giving Syria the moral high ground of appearing to favor pan-Arab unity.

More about the Government of Syria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress