Syria: The history of a name

As Eyal Zisser rightly noted in a recent e-International Relations essay, all forecasts of an impending collapse of the Alawite order in Damascus seem to have been frustrated by Syrian realities that have befuddled and outwitted experts, diplomats and policymakers over the past few years.

portrait Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
portrait Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Eyal Zisser rightly noted in a recent e-International Relations essay, all forecasts of an impending collapse of the Alawite order in Damascus seem to have been frustrated by Syrian realities that have befuddled and outwitted experts, diplomats and policymakers over the past few years.
Those who predicted a Tunisian model for Syria, with its speedy (and almost bloodless) dethroning of a loathed kleptocracy, soon switched toward a possible Egyptian outcome, where a weary geriatric despot yielded to the will of the people and ceded the presidency with nary a whimper, in a matter of days. Then came the Libyan debacle, with its delusional philosopher-king holding fast to his reins, vowing to “not go gently into that good night” and opting to drag a country of his own making into a vicious tribal fight – a conflagration from which Libya is still trying to recover.
But Syria did not go the way of Libya as predicted, nor did Muammar Gaddafi’s fate find Bashar Assad – an inarticulate man of few words, a wretch with a lisp, but a cool-headed, cruel operator who always delivered what he promised and always promised what he meant.
By comparison, today’s Syria is a combination of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – on steroids. It is also none of the above. Instead, Syria is a cruel dictator skillfully clinging to power; it is the minor realm of a petty, wily despot, manipulating a superpower and bilking the leader of the Free World with exquisite craft, art and skill; it is a raging civil war poised to consume the entire region, likely to entangle Iran and Israel, and ultimately lead to the dismemberment not only of Syria, but of neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, and possibly even Jordan.
Finally, the Syria conundrum is a challenge met with an awesome but reluctant superpower issuing ultimatums but then repealing them, drawing red lines but then erasing them, firing “shots across the bow” but then reassuring the Syrian corsair that America’s response will be “unbelievably small [and] limited.”
AT THE root of America’s mystifying inability to articulate a coherent and resolute policy towards Syria are perhaps failures of interpretation and analysis that have defined the past century of American academic and popular attitudes vis-à-vis the Middle East. Already in January 2011, during the early days of the misnamed and illdefined “Arab Spring,” foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan was warning American observers against naming things “Arab” and “Spring-like” in a modern Middle East that still eluded easy, monochromatic labels.
“As the situation evolves in Tunis,” then wrote Kaplan in The New York Times, “and as we watch other Arab capitals expectantly, we would do well to focus less on what unites these places than on what divides them... The more we focus on the particularities of each place, the less surprised we will be by political developments.”
And so Kaplan’s admonition came to pass; the Arabs’ anticipated vernal equinox yielded to the chill and twilight of a long winter solstice, and the so-called Arab Spring’s most fervent “daydream believer” from among America’s elite analysts finally came to terms with the realities of the Middle East: Syria, a reflection of the region as a whole, is a bevy of “pluralistic societies,” conceded Thomas Friedman; it is “mixtures of tribes and religious sects...[including] Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and Turks,” which, save for rule by brute force, cannot be justly governed nor peaceably brought together without recognition of their diversity and valorization of their discrete identities.
The Middle East is a mosaic of languages, national churches, sects and tribes all in a rule-or-die struggle for survival. It is, therefore, perhaps not unreasonable to look at Assad’s maneuverings, vile and bloody as they may be, from the purview of a minoritarian’s instinct for self-preservation.
ALREADY IN 1936, cautioning French Mandatory authorities against contemplating the notion of folding an autonomous State of the Alawites into an envisioned larger “Syrian Union,” Suleiman al-Assad, grandfather of the embattled president of today’s Syria, wrote to then French prime minister Léon Blum, urging him to protect the rights of Alawites and other minorities in the Levant.
“We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality,” he noted. The Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930, he reminded Blum, did not prevent the slaughter of the Assyrians.
The elder Assad wondered “if French leaders want[ed] the Muslims to have control over the Alawi throw them into misery? The Alawis refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria, because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, [and this] will only mean the enslavement of the Alawite people and the exposure of the minorities to the dangers of death and annihilation..... The Alawi people appeal to the French government... and request...a guarantee of their freedom and independence within their small territory.”
Cruel as the younger Assad may be in the practice of his craft, his keen sense of history is undeniable. Memories run deep in the Middle East, especially among persecuted minorities. A mere generation ago, Alawi girls in a Syria still dominated by Sunni Arabs were being sold into bondage, made to slave in the households of urban Sunni notables. This is not the kind of humiliation – if it can indeed be described as mere humiliation – that the Alawites would want revisited in our time, whatever the settlement of the Syrian morass may end up looking like.
And so, whether in analysis, in vision or in policy, approaching Syria today without heeding its history and without casting a gaze over each of its communities’ peculiar sense of their traumas and memories, is naive and dangerous.
SULEIMAN AL-ASSAD’s warnings in 1936 have certainly not eluded his grandson today as he continues to mercilessly dispatch Syrians to their death. “Be a wolf or be eaten by wolves” is an Arabic adage that Bashar Assad cannot afford not living by; it is a lesson that he and the children of his abominated community have learned all too well. Without this history retold, and without minority narratives remembered and memorialized (and even valorized by heedless majorities), precious little will maintain modern Syria in its current configuration, and less still will dissuade Assad from pursuing his current policy of consolidating an impending Alawite rump state – an entity with an administrative precedent during Ottoman times, when it marked the northern limits of the Vilayet of Beirut, and one with a more recent autonomous personality, under French Mandate, until 1944.
It is important to remember, as Assad surely must, that modern Syria – as a concept, as a name and as a geographic entity – is the outcome of European fancy, European geography and European conceptions of the Eastern Mediterranean. Isabel Burton, wife of famed British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, summed up the ethnic conundrum of Damascus (in her times an Ottoman vilayet, and not the capital of today’s Syria) as “various religions and sects [living] together more or less, and [practicing] their conflicting worships in close proximity.”
Burton noted that, “Outwardly, you do not see much, but in their hearts [the inhabitant of the State of Damascus] hate one another. The Sunnites excommunicate the Shiahs, and both hate the Druse; all detest the Ansariyyehs [Alawites]; the Maronites do not love anybody but themselves, and are duly abhorred by all; the Greek Orthodox abominate the Greek Catholics and the Latins; all despise the Jews.”
Writing along those same lines in 1907, another British traveler, Gertrude Bell, noted that Syria was “merely a geographical term corresponding to no national sentiment.” This view was echoed by many Levantine contemporaries of Bell, most of whom maintain that there has never been a distinct Syrian society historically speaking; that what Europeans referred to as Syria had always been a bevy of disparate groups and loose geographic entities brought together by conquest and ruled forcibly through terror and tyranny; in sum, “a society based on a despotism of brutal force modeled on that of the ruler.”
Only “Europeanized Syrians” – that is to say Arabic-speaking urban Christians and Jews – who were familiar with the languages and concepts of Europe, began describing the lands of their birth collectively as Syria, and began viewing themselves as Syrians, to be distinguished from Turks, Arabs or Ottomans.
STILL, THIS European concept of Syria is similar to the way one may refer to something approximating “the Balkans,” or “the Alps,” or “the Mediterranean.” Eyebrows would be raised in discontent should analysts in our time venture to write about the Alps as some concrete, coherent political entity. Yet, this is the kind of discourse dominating the debate on Syria, the finality of Syria and the uniformity of Syria. But in their majority, the Syrians themselves, whether cut from Assad’s parochial cloth or ill-disposed to it, do recognize the diverse nature of their besieged country and have shown themselves to be keen on maintaining, protecting and enshrining that diversity through constitutional safeguards.
Approaching a solution to the Syrian conundrum does not entail spouting expressions of moral outrage when banned weapons are deployed, nor does it mean issuing threats of retribution when chemical agents are rained upon civilian neighborhoods. A solution comes from an honest acknowledgment of Syria’s past, a genuine recognition of its diversity and a sincere pledge to observe the aspirations, respect the apprehensions, and commit to the protection of its minority populations.
A roadmap for this future of Syria does already exist. At the outset of the Syrian uprisings, long before foreign jihadis came to sully what had begun as a noble enterprise, a group of Syrian dissidents met in Antalya-Turkey, and issued a memorable statement reflecting the true face of their nation and charting its brighter future.
“We, participants in the Syria Conference for Change,” began the Antalya Declaration, “affirm that the Syrian people are a composite of many ethnicities, including Arabs, Kurds, Chaldaeo-Assyrians, Circassians, Armenians and others. The conference recognizes and asserts the legitimate and equal rights of all of these constitutive elements of Syrian identity, and demands their protection under a new Syrian constitution to be founded on the principles of civil state, pluralistic parliamentary democracy and national unity.”
Unfortunately the Antalya Declaration fell on the deaf ears of a heedless world in 2011. It became a dead letter.
It can still be revived, but this would take more than empty slogans and feckless posturing by a reluctant superpower. A new Syria in the image of Antalya will take resolve, moral clarity, courage and true leadership in a world awash in politicians but bereft of leaders.
The author is an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, Arabic and Hebrew in Boston College’s Dept. of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures, and senior editor-in-chief of The Levantine Review.