Two lions are dining in the Middle East. One of them, Saddam Husayn, came noisily to the world's attention on August 2 when he bit off Kuwait and swallowed it in a simple four-hour gulp. Then, on October 13, the other lion, Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, much more quietly chewed up East Beirut, and thereby finished the main course of his 15-year Lebanese meal.
Connoisseurs of Middle East despots have long observed that Asad is a far more cunning politician than Saddam Husayn. He deploys violence only to gain a specific goal, not because he takes personal pleasure in it; in contrast, Saddam Husayn revels in cruelty and brutality. It therefore comes as no surprise that while the Iraqi aggression provoked a unique international coalition in opposition, the Syrian one was achieved without anyone in the outside world so much as registering a protest. This suggests that while Saddam Husayn's rude conquest of his small ally is likely to fail, Asad's careful and patient campaign to bring Lebanon under his control will almost surely succeed.
There is every reason to believe that his success in Lebanon will whet Asad's appetite for more. For this reason it is important, even in the midst of the Kuwait crisis, to broaden our attention to include events taking place a few hundred miles to the west and see how Hafiz al-Asad is exploiting this time of troubles to make far-reaching changes in the Levant.
Only by grasping the potential long-term significance of Asad's achievement in Lebanon can the U.S. government hope to formulate an intelligent policy. Things are changing quickly: Syrian and American soldiers are now standing side-by-side in Saudi Arabia; and Syrian voted on Thursday against an Arab League resolution condemning the United States. Is this newly-emerging partnership between the two countries a good idea?
In principle, there is no reason not to cooperate with the Asad regime. If we could ally with Stalin to fight Hitler, we can join Asad to fight Saddam Husayn. Despite their many differences, the two sides share a common purpose on the issue of the day, the need to dispose of Saddam Husayn. Indeed, the looming confrontation in the Persian Gulf is so important that nearly everything else in the region µ including the price of oil, the future of the Saudi monarchy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S.-Israel relations, and Greater Syria itself µ hinges on the outcome of that confrontation.
But there are potential problems too, having to do with the fact that American leaders tend to forget that a tactical alliance is not a strategic one. When the other government shares neither values nor goals with us the alliance must be seen as strictly limited to the areas of common interest. Unfortunately, Americans often imbue such relationships with romance and then find themselves making unnecessary concessions. Because of unrealistic expectations, Franklin Delano Roosevelt mistakenly accommodated Stalin and Richard Nixon did the same with both the USSR and the People's Republic of China. More recently, the Bush Administration kept trying to reach out to Saddam Husayn long after the Iranian threat to the region had ended.
The key to relations with Damascus, then, is to remember two points: Syrian trespasses in Lebanon and elsewhere are secondary to a strong coalition against Saddam Husayn; but that Asad's grizzly record makes him unfit to serve as anything more than a temporary and tactical ally of the United States.
Two well-known ideologies have long dominated the way Americans see the Middle East. Pan-Arab nationalism holds that Arabic speakers from Morocco to Iraq constitute a single nation and strives ultimately to bring all those countries together under one government. In contrast, Palestinian nationalism sees Palestine as a unit in its own right and therefore seeks to establish an independent Palestinian state.
There is also a third ideology in the Arab Middle East, one which has been no less important through the twentieth century, and that is Pan-Syrian nationalism. Pan-Syrian nationalists emphasize the role of a Syrian nation µ as distinct from an Arab or Palestinian one µ which they see extending (at a minimum) from the borders of Turkey to those of Saudi Arabia. This region, which is commonly known as Greater Syria, includes the Syrian republic, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. More ambitious versions of Greater Syria include also the Sinai Peninsula, parts of Turkey, Cyprus, and even Iraq.
From Biblical times until 1920, Syria always meant this large and irregular rectangle, among Middle Easterners and Westerners alike. An Egyptian writer of the early nineteenth century referred to a person born in El Arish (at the north of the Sinai Peninsula) as one of the Syrians; the American University of Beirut began its existence as the Syrian Protestant College; and so forth. While Greater Syria does describe a region that has considerable geographic and cultural cohesion, it has never formed the basis of a state, either in ancient or modern times.
The new, smaller territory by that name came into existence only after World War I, as the British and French carved up the Middle East to suit their purposes. In the process, they created all the states which today exist in the Levant. But, precisely because of the arbitrariness of those divisions, many of the indigenous peoples resisted them and sought more meaningful units.
Greater Syria was probably the single most attractive of those units and Pan-Syrian nationalism was the most powerful nationalist force in the Middle East until about 1950. King 'Abdullah of Jordan devoted his career to Greater Syria. A great many other politicians, including King Faysal of Iraq, Mufti Amin al-Husayni of Jerusalem, and the Pan-Arabist author George Antonius, endorsed this approach, as did a number of political parties. Greater Syria attracted favorable attention from such Westerners as Arnold Toynbee and Winston Churchill. In short, Pan-Syrian nationalism dominated the debate in that era much as Palestinian nationalism does today.
But then the ideology faded. By the time Hafiz al-Asad reached power almost exactly 20 years ago, in November 1970, Pan-Syrian nationalism was moribund. There was little reason to expect that Asad, a Pan-Arab nationalist since youth, would advance the antithetical notion of Greater Syria. But he did, for reasons having to do with the frustration of modern Syria, the evolution of Ba'th Party ideology, and Asad's sectarian background. In the process, he effectively abandoned the grandiose dream of ruling a single Arab polity from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, replacing it with the far more attainable goal of Greater Syria.
To achieve this goal, Asad does not rely on means so crude or objectionable as tearing down borders or annexing whole countries. He is too cunning for that. Quite the contrary, he engages in a subtle process of gaining influence by attracting a minimum of opposition; he particularly likes to do this by bending established institutions (such as the Lebanese parliament) to his will.
In operational terms, Asad has engaged in three distinct efforts to extend Syrian influence throughout Greater Syria. Toward Jordan, he has been content to make sure that King Husayn pays close attention to Syrian wishes and does nothing to harm its interests. Toward Israel, he pursues a two-pronged policy of standing up to the Jewish state militarily and seeking to dominate the Palestinian movement politically. Toward Lebanon, he patiently exploits opportunities created by ethnic and religious enmities gradually to take control over ever more territory. The most impressive thing is, he usually finds someone to invite him in µ to bite off another piece of Lebanon.
The feeling that Syria and Lebanon should be a single unit has inspired many efforts to unite their two polities since the French created modern Lebanon in 1920. Syrian politicians repeatedly called for Lebanon to be integrated into their own country. In 1926, for instance, the head of the Syrian state called for "Syrian unity with free access to the sea" µ meaning the absorption of Lebanon. Twenty years later, a Syrian diplomat declared that "Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan are separated by artificial borders."
But the desire for union was hardly one-way; many Lebanese also sought to join Syria. In 1923, a group of Lebanese Muslims called it "insane" to separate Lebanon from Syria and demanded "attachment to Syria on a centralized basis." A few years later, another group of Lebanese called for "a country that can vibrate our hearts" µ meaning union with Syria. But the most important such effort is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded in 1932 by a Lebanese and devoted primarily to making Lebanon and Syria a single country. Nearly sixty years later, the SSNP still exists and still works toward this end.
As with everything in Lebanon, attitudes toward union with Syria are heavily affected by religious affiliation. If Sunni Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians have been most eager to become Syrians, Maronites µ the Francophile Catholics on whose behalf the French administrators created an independent Lebanon in the first place µ were consistently the least pleased about the prospect of being incorporated into Muslim-dominated Syria.
Asad's campaign to gain control of Lebanon began soon after he took power. As early as August 1972 he announced that "Syria and Lebanon are a single country. We are more than brothers." With a touch more menace, his minister of information asserted in January 1975 that "Lebanon will not escape from the desired unity of Syria and Lebanon." But the real efforts to control Lebanon began only after the start of Lebanon's civil war in April 1975. Not only did Syrian politicians ratchet up their rhetoric ("Lebanon was part of Syria and we will recover it"); they also played the communal and ethnic game in Lebanon to their own advantage, making and breaking tactical alliances with Lebanese militias. One month, for example, they fought with the Maronites against their own Palestinian friends; the next month they cheerfully reversed course.
When even these maneuvers failed to win Asad hegemony in Lebanon, he in June 1976 dispatched the Syrian armed forces. To this day, some 40,000 Syrian troops remain stationed in Lebanon. By 1980 they held roughly two-thirds of Lebanon's territory. But however large and proficient, this military force could not pacify the entire country, for the Lebanese are heavily armed and well organized into militias. The one-third outside their control included Beirut and the Maronite enclave to the east and north of Beirut.
To fend off the Syrian enemy, Maronite leaders relied on a sequence of foreign allies in the early 1980s. France, the traditional protector, came first, followed by Israel and then the United States. When all these proved too weak-kneed to compete in Lebanon's vicious environment, the Maronites settled on an ally who was at least as tough as Asad: Saddam Husayn. The Baghdad connection became especially important in 1988, when the Iraq-Iran war ended. Freed from this life-and-death problem, Saddam Husayn found the time and resources to make life unpleasant for his old adversary, Hafiz al-Asad; and in Michel Aoun (pronounced AWN), the new Maronite strongman, he found a ruthless, violent, and audacious leader after his own heart.
Iraqi support for Aoun made it appear that the Syrians had finally met their match, and that Asad's dream of controlling all Lebanon might be delayed for many years. But then Saddam Husayn's invasion of Kuwait radically altered the equation. Facing an international expeditionary force at his southern border and a huge armada beyond, he could no longer continue his diversion in Lebanon.
Asad responded to Saddam Husayn's predicament like the chess master he is. First he dispatched troops to Saudi Arabia to blunt any criticism from his new-found Western allies. (It seems that Secretary of State James Baker indicated American acquiescence to a Syrian advance in Lebanon; but they may not have been necessary, for no Western power has lifted a finger for Lebanon since American and Israeli troops left the Beirut area in 1984 and 1985, respectively.) Then Asad sent tanks into Lebanon to crush the Maronite resistance once and for all. Bereft of outside support, Aoun's forces fell in a matter of days. The Syrians then asserted their control by committing atrocities similar to those committed by the Iraqis in Kuwait µ the way a Middle East lion seems to lick his chops.
With Aoun gone, Asad's endlessly patient effort to extend Greater Syria to Lebanon has achieved a signal victory. It appears that Asad has finally achieved his long-sought hegemony over Lebanon. He is not likely to relinquish this prize soon. One Lebanese was quoted saying of the Syrians a few days ago, "Our guests have come here to stay forever." He may be right.
That is not to say that Lebanon is pacified, for it is not and may not be for many years. The country remains heavily armed and Asad has many enemies, especially among the radical fundamentalist Shi'ites. Even so, it is difficult to see whence a powerful organized force will come to challenge his rule.
For now, the Syrian victory has relatively minor consequences. It does little to the already shattered cultural life of Beirut. It does not appreciably change the balance of power between Syria and Israel. It may mark a stage in ending the Lebanon civil war, but that war has gone on too long for anyone to predict that it will end soon. Moscow is not going to establish a new port in Beirut.
Nor does the victory in Lebanon mark a start of Syrian aggressiveness. The Syrian economy is shot and the Soviet and East European allies are no longer there as of old. Further, Saddam Husayn's conquest of Kuwait has cost Asad heavily vis-à-vis Jordan and the Palestinians. For five years, King Husayn had been an obedient neighbor, always careful not to antagonize Asad in word or deed. But now he fears Baghdad more than Damascus, and Jordan has become a faithful ally of Saddam Husayn. The many Palestinian groups based in Syrian-controlled territory or beholden to Asad have made a lightning switch to the Iraqi camp. Short-term, the invasion of Kuwait presents a mix of opportunities and dangers to Asad.
The rout of Aoun is significant in the longer term, however. After fifteen years of Pan-Syrian effort, it marks Asad's first solid achievement. Greater Syria has now moved from the realm of intention to reality. Coming at a moment when the future of the Middle East is very much in doubt, this suggests a more active role for Damascus. Should the Jordanian monarchy collapse or the country turn into an Iraqi and Israeli killing field, Asad will surely be right there, between two arch enemies, plotting to bring a second portion of Greater Syria under his rule. The same goes for the Palestinians. Should Saddam Husayn do badly in the months ahead, Asad will no doubt be looking for ways to bring them back under his control µ this time perhaps permanently.
For these reasons, Aoun's defeat represents far more than just another twist in Lebanon's endless civil war. It signals an important step toward the realization of one of the Middle East's oldest and most enduring nationalist ideologies. If things go the right way in the Persian Gulf and Asad's health keeps up, it may not be the last.