Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition is the title of a book I published in 1990 that traces the pan-Syrian movement from its origins in the mid-nineteenth century to the regime of Hafiz al-Assad. But with Assad's demise in 2000, and his succession by the barely-competent Bashar, Greater Syria has disappeared into the historical shadows. Indeed, two of the outstanding issues, Hatay and Lebanon, seem to be en route to being resolved.
Q: Why shouldn't the President be the one to mount an aggressive diplomacy, pick up the phone, call Assad of Syria and say, put an end to this, and start negotiating directly with the Syrians?
MR. SNOW: Because the track record stinks. I don't know if you remember all the old pictures of diplomats in the Reagan years going -- in the Carter, Reagan, and maybe even the early Bush years, the first Bush administration -- who knows, Clinton may have done it, too -- sitting around there drinking tea with Hafez al-Assad, the father, having to sit there for five, six, ten hours, listening to polite but long discourses on Greater Syria, and at the end of that, having gotten nothing.
Comments: (1) Snow has it just right, except the marathon sessions began even earlier, in the Nixon and Ford administrations, when Henry Kissinger so memorably fenced with the Syrian president.
(2) Although not expecting a lot of updates, I will post other prominent mentions of this concept as they occur. (July 19, 2006)
May 27, 2007 update: In a letter recently sent by the Al-Qaeda deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer (and intercepted by an unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence service), Zawahiri urges supporters to extend their jihad to other Middle Eastern countries. Specifically, he reiterates a goal first outlined two years ago, of an Islamic Greater Syria, consisting of Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.
Jan. 8, 2009 update: Speaking in Hebrew on Israeli television the Israeli Arab member of parliament Azmi Bishara stated: "I don't think there's a Palestinian nation. There's an Arab nation. I don't think there's a Palestinian nation. That's a colonial invention. Since when were there Palestinians? I think there's only an Arab nation. Until the end of the 19th century, Palestine was the southern part of Greater Syria."
Feb. 17, 2009 update: The Syrian Social Nationalist Party is one of the most consequential and malevolent of Middle Eastern political organizations. Founded in 1932, I explained in a scholarly 1988 article, "Radical Politics and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party," it
introduced a panoply of new ideas to the Middle East. These include the ideological party, complete political secularism, fascistic notions of leadership, and a dedication to pull down borders between states. The party drew in and influenced a generation of leaders in Lebanon and Syria. Its repeated challenges to the Lebanese state denigrated the prestige and status of the authorities. And its militia had a substantial role in the Lebanese civil war. Looking over a half century of turmoil, David Roberts notes that "the PPS has had a curiously pervasive influence through intrigue, murder and an ideology which rightly foresaw would be effective in the Levant."
In recent decades, however, the SSNP has degenerated into a client of the Syrian state, where is seems likely to remain for a while.
I mention it because its thuggery has just affected one well-known Western, Christopher Hitchens (with whom my public feud is now in abeyance). According to As'ad AbuKhalil, an academic at California State University, Stanislaus:
At the invitation of Hariri-Saudi group, Hitchens is visiting Lebanon. A source sent me this: "I dont know if you find this as news worthy or not, but Christopher Hitchens is currently in Beirut sponsored by the same group that owns that crap NOW Lebanon. He got in a few nights ago and surprisingly went out drinking. On his way out of the bar he saw an SSNP poster and wrote on it "Fuck the SSNP". There just happened to be some SSNP thugs near by--most likely asking people for their ID, and most likely to no avail--and saw him write on the poster and kicked his ass. He is still walking with a limp."
Feb. 18, 2009 update: The Guardian provides more detail on this incident than one needs at "Christopher Hitchens on Beirut attack: 'they kept coming. Six or seven at first'." May 1, 2009 update: Hitchens himself describes the incident at "The Swastika and the Cedar."
Oct. 14, 2009 update: Seemingly out of nowhere, Turki Al-Sudairi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh published two articles and gave an interview to Alarabiya.net suggesting that the solution to Lebanon's permanent unrest is to bring it under Syrian control. Sudairi emphasized that this is his personal opinion. For more details, see the MEMRI study linked above.
Oct. 15, 2009 update: A day later, Sudairi retracted his ideas in an article today titled "Yes, I Was Wrong in My Ideas and Statements."
Oct. 25, 2009 update: Again, out of nowhere, Mish'an Jabouri, a former Iraqi MP and owner of the Syria-based Ar-Ra'i television, is raising the Greater Syria dream, but this time its "Suraqiya" variant – a combination of Greater Syria and Iraq. (To see the video, click here.)
We support good relations between Syria and Iraq, but not between Syria and the [Nouri] al-Maliki government. We support good relations between Iraq and Syria regardless of who the ruler is, because we believe that this serves the people and their interests, and that it is a positive factor. Personally, I believe in the philosophy and notion of "Suraqiya" - Greater Syria and Iraq. This is what I dream about. Just like some people dream of Arab unity and others of Islamic unity, I adhere to the notion of Suraqiya.
Comment: Is this Bashshar al-Asad's idea? A new fantasy for the Syrian government to pursue?
Nov. 1, 2010 update: In a detailed historical study, "The 'Missing Dimension': Britain's Secret War against France in Syria and Lebanon, 1942–45 – Part II," Meir Zamir of Ben-Gurion University shows from newly uncovered documents that the British government was keen during World War II to establish a Greater Syria. Meir writes that, for London, "Restoring Greater Syria and uniting it with Iraq under British hegemony would solve two pressing issues: Iraq's instability in the face of internal and external threats, and the question of Palestine." For proof, see in particular Document 12, "British secret proposal (MacKereth) via Sulh to Jabri," and Document 85, "Quwatli–Shone secret agreement."
June 13, 2011 update: Ali Qanso of the SSNP has become a Lebanese minister of state.
July 29, 2011 update: In the course of an article in Ha'aretz about Druze students from the Golan Heights and studying in Syrian universities, it slips out that, just as they receive full scholarships from the Syrian government because they are considered citizens, so do students from Alexandretta benefit from this arrangement. Here is the key passage:
Like all Syrian citizens, the Druze residents of the Golan Heights are entitled to free academic studies in one of Syria's seven public universities. In many cases, they also receive funding for dorms, work permits, state health insurance and other benefits. They are exempt from entrance exams and from having to show an Israeli matriculation certificate - a situation which makes studies in Syrian particularly attractive for them. Almost all the Golan Druze enroll at the University of Damascus, the country's largest institution of higher learning and generally considered one of its best universities. They usually rent an apartment in the Bab Touma neighborhood, the city's old Christian Quarter, or in the Rukn al-Din neighborhood, where many foreign students live.
Quite a few of the Druze say they have formed good relations in particular with young people from the Alexandretta district, which was annexed to Turkey in 1939 and have a similar civil status in Syria.
May 31, 2014 update: "As Lebanon and Syria become one" avers Avi Issacharoff in the Times of Israel, implying that the incompetent Bashar has managed to pull off the trick that his brilliant father Hafez never achieved.
More than one million Syrian civilians live in Lebanon today. According to some estimates, the number has reached one-and-a-half million. Some are refugees from the civil war; others lived in Lebanon before the outbreak of anti-regime demonstrations in 2011. The changing make-up of the population in Lebanon, alongside the involvement of groups from both sides of the border in the fighting, underline the extent to which the borders between the two states are being erased as the war drags on.
It's hard to think of Lebanon as a sovereign, independent entity today. ... The fighting in Syria and Lebanon has become a religious war unconnected to country: Shiites against Sunnis, as if nothing has changed since the second half of the 7th century.
June 11, 2014 update: The organization that goes by the name of "The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham" (Arabic: لدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشاما) has intended to combine these two parts of the Fertile Crescent into a single whole since it took on this name at an unclear date a few years ago. Until today, that seemed like a remote dream.
Well, today ISIS took a giant step in this direction yesterday, when it eliminated the border controls at the al-Ya'rubiya crossing on the road between Mosul in Iraq and Qamishli in Syria.
The red marker indicates the Ya'rubiya crossing.
Comment: Until now, the Greater Syria project has had almost nothing to do with Islamism, so this achievement comes as a considerable surprise.
July 2, 2014 update: More on the erasure of the Syria-Iraq border. MEMRI reports (in a mailing that is not online):
On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released two new videos celebrating the effective erasure of the border between Iraq and Syria following the organization's recent military achievements in northern Iraq. The first video, titled "Breaking the Borders", 12 minutes in duration, shows footage of the symbolic tearing down of the border, carried out by ISIS fighters, as well as short speeches delivered by ISIS leaders at the scene. The second video shows a Chilean ISIS fighter identified as Abu Safiyya give a tour of the destroyed border Iraqi border outpost.
Jan. 3, 2015 update: On one level, the news that the government of Lebanon is about to impose visa restrictions on Syrians starting on Jan. 5 is hardly a surprise, given the massive influx, estimated at more than 1.1 million refugees, who have entered Lebanon in the past four years, amounting to about 20 percent of the total Lebanese population.
On another level, however, this is a major development. For nearly a century, since the emergence of Lebanon as an independent country, its governments have always deferred to the Syrian notion that Lebanon should be part of Syria by not antagonizing Damascus with border controls. Lebanese desperation and Assad regime weakness have now combined to change this equation. One does wonder, though, how the Assad regime will respond to this.
Curiously, this occurred just as the Syrian border with Iraq has disappeared. Ironically, then, the very central Syrian claim to Lebanon is failing while the peripheral Syrian claim to Iraq is flourishing.
Oct. 6, 2015 update: James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, notes the Russian overflight of Hatay, the Turkish province claimed by Syria's government, reviews the history of this province, and concludes with a question:
So can one conclude that the overflight was deliberate? A means of warning Turkey that if it does not behave on the Syrian issue, where it is deeply at odds with Russia and Assad, it might pay a high price one day? Perhaps.
What one can say with more certainty is that a rational military organization, knowing the history, would have given special warnings to its pilots and radar controllers to not violate Hatay airspace, in part to avoid generating articles like this one suspecting the worst. At minimum, it seems unlikely that such warnings were given.
More broadly, as Putin scrambles the deck with force in the Middle East, as he has done in Eastern Europe since 2008, the international community can no longer exclude any motivation for his actions.