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Introduction: A Neglected Topic
from Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition

Her Majesty's Government has stated that it considers Syria to be the military key of Asiatic Turkey.
— Lord Palmerston, 1840[1]

On first entering Syria, the observant traveler will probably be startled to go through passport control and notice a military map of Syria on the wall, for this map contains several anomalies. It shows the Golan Heights under Syrian control, though they have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Syria's boundaries with Lebanon and Jordan appear not as international borders but as something called "regional" borders. Israel does not even exist; instead, there is a state called Palestine. And Palestine is separated from Syria by a line designated a "temporary" border". Finally, the province of Hatay, a part of Turkey since 1939, appears to be included in Syria; only on close inspection can one see the "temporary" border between it and Syria.[2]

The many inaccuracies on this map reflect the Syrian rulers' profound unwillingness to accept the actual size and shape of the country they administer. They remember that until 1920, "Syria" referred to a region much larger than the Syrian Arab Republic of today, a region that stretched from the borders of Anatolia to those of Egypt, from the edge of Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea. In terms of today's states, the Syria of old comprised Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, plus the Gaza Strip and Alexandretta. This larger land, known since 1920 as Greater Syria, is what they dream of reclaiming.

Pan-Syrianism -- the intention to piece together a Greater Syrian nation -- is not a new phenomenon but has strongly influenced politics in the Middle East since 1918. The division of Greater Syria after World War I proved one of the worst of many political traumas experienced in the Middle East at that time. Pan-Syrianism explains many of the conflicting aspirations among Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians; it lies behind much of the volatility of public life in Jordan and Syria; and it partially accounts for the Lebanese civil war and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The goal of piecing Syria's parts together drove Jordanian foreign policy for over two decades, and it had nearly as great a role in Iraq. The future of the West Bank is bound up with this dream. Pan-Syrianism helps comprehend complex interactions between Pan-Arabists, Palestinian nationalists, and state authorities.

The party that has advocated Greater Syria since 1932, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)[3], has had profound political importance in the twentieth-century history of the two states where it has been most active, Lebanon and Syria. As the first political party fully to embrace radical secular ideals, it incubated virtually every radical group in those countries, with particularly great impact on the Ba`th Party. The SSNP offered the minorities, especially the Greek Orthodox Christians, a vehicle for political action and caused several of Lebanon's worst political crises. Its ideology influenced the development of Pan-Arabism (or Arab nationalism) and defined inter-Arab relations in the Levant region. Leading intellectuals such as Abu Khaldun Sati` al-Husri and Kamal Junbalat devoted considerable energy to combating Pan-Syrianism.[4]

Finally -- and this may mark the apogee of its influence -- the government of Hafiz al-Asad adopted Pan-Syrian ideas and made them Syrian state policy. Circumstantial evidence strongly indicates that the Syrian government has since 1974 made Greater Syria the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Thus, in addition to offering an important new perspective on the events of decades past, the study of Pan-Syrianism provides a tool for understanding the policies of the Asad regime.

Despite its critical role through the twentieth century, Pan-Syrianism receives little attention. Observers tend to view it as an aberration or a historical curiosity -- and therefore as a matter of little consequence. Over a period of four decades, for example, The Economist has called two of Pan-Syrianism's most prominent exponents, the SSNP and King `Abdallah of Jordan, many names. In 1947, `Abdallah's plans were dismissed as "wishful thoughts." In 1962, the SSNP was "an activist right-wing movement of a slightly dotty kind"; it was deemed on the "lunatic fringe," "farcical," and "idiotic." By 1985, it had become "an odd little organisation."[5] Asad's efforts to build Greater Syria fare no better; The Washington Post has termed them a "fantasy."[6]

Editorialists are not alone in the harsh assessment of Pan-Syrianism. Most historical accounts refer to Pan-Syrianism in passing, seeing it as a quirky, inconsequential dead end. Michael C. Hudson, a scholar of Lebanese politics, called the SSNP's politics "bizarre" and its ideology "thwarted idealism twisted into a doctrine of total escape."[7] A Lebanese minister of information waved away the Fertile Crescent scheme as "stillborn."[8] Robert M. Haddad dismissed its more distant ambitions as a "hallucination."[9]

Two reasons explain why Pan-Syrianism fails to attract the serious attention it deserves. First, its adherents have a well-earned reputation for ludicrous impracticality. `Abdallah hawked a plan no one bought for so many years that both he and it became pathetic. From its founding in 1932 until the present time, the SSNP has fallen short in virtually everything it attempted. Quixotic conspiracies, foiled coup attempts, and a despised ideology won it a reputation for not being serious.

But while it is true that most efforts to unite Greater Syria have failed, this does not in itself render Pan-Syrianism unimportant. Failure to achieve objectives is not the main measure of an ideology's importance; were this so, many historically powerful ideologies, including Pan-Turkish nationalism, Pan-Slavic nationalism, and even Nazism, would also have to be deemed insignificant. Closer to the case at hand, Pan-Arabism has failed perhaps even more thoroughly, yet no one disparages its role.

Indeed, fascination with radical Pan-Arabism (the ideology that calls for a single Arab state from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf) is a second reason for the neglect of Pan-Syrianism. A sequence of dramatic events -- the founding of the Arab League, the rise of Jamal `Abd an-Nasir, the formation of the United Arab Republic -- caused scholars and politicians alike to dwell on the proposed Arab nation, to the virtual exclusion of the Greater Syrian nation. There would seem to be five hundred books on the topic of Pan-Arabism for each one on Pan-Syrianism; and the radio of political speeches must be on the order of thousands to one. It is not my intent to deny the importance of Pan-Arabism, which has indeed been a central feature of Middle East politics; but Pan-Arabism has had no monopoly and has never (with the near exception of 1958-1960) excluded a role for Pan-Syrianism.

The Pan-Arabist effort looms so large, it expropriates many of the central events in Pan-Syrian history. Several examples illustrate this. Although the anonymous placards that appeared in major cities of Syria in 1880 were the first public expressions of Pan-Syrianism, historians typically interpret them as Pan-Arabist[10] or even as Lebanese separatist.[11] The rebellion against the Turks in World Was I, now invariably called the Arab Revolt, was often referred to as the Syrian revolt by its leader, Prince Faysal.[12] Further, this British ploy contained few nationalist ideas until the rebels came into contact with the Pan-Syrianists. Despite the specifically Pan-Syrian focus of the General Syrian Congress of 1919-20, it is routinely presented as a Pan-Arab gathering; one account goes so far as to change its name to the "Arab National Congress."[13] Muhammad Y. Muslih preempts the Syrian Kingdom of 1920, turning it into "the first experiment in the bewildering dream of Arab unity."[14]

Even more egregious is Christopher Sykes's statement that in the 1920s, "Arab nationalism was fixed on the dream of a Greater Syria";[15] this is as nonsensical as saying that German nationalists aspired to a strong Austria. In her otherwise excellent biography of King `Abdallah, Mary C. Wilson almost entirely ignores the role of Pan-Syrian ideology, preferring to interpret the king's expansionary plans solely in the light of "the structure of Transjordan."[16] Perhaps most outlandish is Philip S. Khoury's referring to the standard Pan-Syrian name for Palestine, Southern Syria, as a term "often preferred" by radical pan-Arabists, a sleight of hand that allows him completely to ignore Pan-Syrianism.[17]

As possibly the most disregarded topic of Middle East history in the twentieth century, Pan-Syrianism cries out for investigation; my goal is to begin to recall this topic from its neglect. The pages that follow are a first step toward setting the record straight.

The topic is richly documented. Faysal's Syrian kingdom attracted great attention because of its epochal nature; `Abdallah, a voluble man, widely promoted his Greater Syria plan for thirty years; and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party is a party of intellectuals whose organization and membership have produced voluminous materials. The Asad government has clearly shown its intentions in word and deed. There is nothing secret about Greater Syria.

At the same time, open discussion of Greater Syria ended several decades ago, and the whole subject has gone into abeyance. It is hard now to picture the vividness of the debate over Greater Syria in the interwar period and beyond; perhaps the way to conjure up the role of Pan-Syrian nationalism, then, is to compare it with Palestinian nationalism more recently. Both causes excited wide attention and profoundly influenced the politics of the Middle East, yet all the brouhaha brought neither one closer to realization.

Chapter 1 provides background information on three subjects: what Greater Syria is, what happened to it in the aftermath of World War I, and how Pan-Syrianism emerged as a political ideology. Chapter 2 records the history of Pan-Syrian efforts from 1920 to 1973, and Chapter 3 continues this account from 1974 to 1988. The earlier period was characterized by leaders making claims on each other -- Palestinian on Transjordanian, Transjordanian on Syrian, Syrian on Lebanese, and so forth; in the recent period, Syrians made almost all the claims. Earlier, all efforts but one failed; in contrast, recent Syrian efforts have succeeded quite handsomely. Chapter 4 offers an explanation for Damascus's turn toward Pan-Syrianism under Hafiz al-Asad, interpreting this primarily as the result of domestic factors.

A few words on methods used in this study:

Widespread doubt about the importance of Pan-Syrianism prompts me to buttress my inquiry with a very extensive factual base. Accordingly, the following text -- and Chapters 2 and 3 especially -- includes a great number of examples and direct quotations.

Believing that religious lines -- not party politics, ideology, or geography -- delineate the most basic and abiding political divisions in the Greater Syria region, this account emphasizes communal affiliations. To ignore or deemphasize religion is to miss the most characteristic quality of Syrian politics. In contrast, government institutions, ideological parties, and the other trappings of modern politics sit lightly. The Ba`th Party, as Stanley F. Redd has rightly observed, has become "a clan masquerading as a political party";[18] and the same applies to much of the rest of the Western overlay in public life.

But using religious labels to identify political groups raises two possibly misunderstandings. First, I am not implying that the policy advocated by a communal group derives from its theology; rather, religion is only one factor in a complex mix. That Maronites seek a separate state and the Greek Orthodox sympathize with Pan-Arabism results much less from their credos than from the fact that the former are geographically concentrated and the latter are dispersed. The `Alawi-Sunni confrontation that shaped Syrian politics from the mid-1960s culminated centuries of conflict, economic and social as well as religious.

Second, although the members of a religious community usually hold a common position, they are never unanimous. Personal temperament, ideology, economics, and geography also influence an individual's outlook. Contrary to their communities' stands, some Christian Lebanese advocate close links between their country and Syria, while some Muslim Lebanese resist these. Although the impact of such dissidents tends to be small, the characterization of a community's stand must not be understood to apply to all its members.

Similarly, care must be taken not to equate the actions of the government with the views of its citizenry. All too often one reads about "Syria" doing this or "Egypt" doing that, whereas what is meant is "the rulers of Syria" or "the government of Egypt." Authoritarian states require special caution; but even where democracy prevails, it is wise to distinguish the authorities from the citizenry.

About the intricacy of this subject: The Japanese fondly believe that their culture is incomprehensible to outsiders, and it is indeed very subtle and diverse. But it can seem almost like child's play compared to a small country like Lebanon, for Japan is nearly one homogeneous whole, while the Levant consists of an extraordinary variety of peoples and cultures. The adjective Levantine applies well to the political realm, for the area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean involves intricacies on many levels.

There is Syria and Greater Syria, Mount Lebanon and Greater Lebanon, Transjordan and Jordan. Alexandretta and Hatay are the same place, as are the West Bank and Judea and Samaria. The Parti Populaire Syrien and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party are the same organization,[19] while Pan-Syrianism and Syrian nationalism are the same ideology.[20] Rivalries abound: French and British, European and Middle Eastern, Sunni and Shi`i, Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and Christian, Sunni and non-Sunni, Hashimi and Sa`udi, Faysal and `Abdallah, monarchist and republican, Pan-Syrianist and Pan-Arabist.

These intricacies inhere in the subject. As British prime minister David Lloyd George wrote about the negotiations that followed World War I:

In some respects the settlement of the Turkish Empire presented greater difficulties than that of any other enemy country. There was a greater variety of races and religions to be dealt with. They were more hopelessly intermingled without any trace or hope of merger. There were historical complications which had never been unraveled. There were the jealousies of Powers, each of them with real or imaginary interests -- historical, religious, financial or territorial -- in some corner of this dilapidated Empire. There was a wilderness of decay and ruin.[21]

A word on the negative tone of this study. Tension, problem, conflict, and similar words fill the pages. With such a gloomy text, an author has to question whether his approach is overly pessimistic. Reflecting on this question brings me to the conclusion that the twentieth-century history of the Levant calls for this tone. Lloyd George's literal "wilderness of decay and ruin" disappeared in the years after World War I, only to be replaced by its political equivalent. A wide range of fundamental disagreements and deeply unsettled identities characterizes the political life of Greater Syria. It has been one of the most consistently volatile regions in the world. An author must contend with these facts.

On a personal note, my immersion in Pan-Syrian history and my efforts to bring attention to it in no sense imply an endorsement of the ideology. Quite the contrary. I am convinced that there is no such thing as a Syrian nation. (Nor, for that matter, is there an Arab nation.) The strong communal identities of the residents repudiate such an affiliation, as does the absence of a Syrian polity at any time in the region's long history. Egypt fits the definition of a nation; Greater Syria never has and never will. My views roughly correspond to those of William Yale, a member of the American commission sent to ascertain Syrian opinion in 1919, who noted that "the Moslems of Palestine and Syria have been united on a program which superficially has every sign of being Syrian nationalism, but which is basically Islamic."[22] Pan-Syrianism has force to the extent that it reflects sectarian sentiment or raison d'tat, but there is no Greater Syrian nation.

[1] Letter from Lord Palmerston to M. Thiers, Dated Foreign Office, August 31, 1840 (London: T. Brettell, 1840), p. 5. Benjamin Disraeli wrote, in parallel, "Lebanon is the key of Syria." Tancred, or The New Crusade (London: Longmans, Green, 1847), pp. 368, 446. also Isabel Burton, 1.110
[2] Maps of Syria (Damascus: Idarat al-Maslaha al-`Askariya, 1971 and 1977). Although these are official maps of the Syrian armed forces, they are propaganda maps. The Syrian forces would find themselves in enormous trouble if they acted as though Israel did not exist and Alexandretta and the Golan Heights were still under Syrian rule.
[3] The party has gone by a variety of names; for simplicity's sake, only Syrian Social Nationalist Party will be used here.
[4] Kamal Junbalat, Adwa' `ala Haqiqat al-Qadiya al-Qawmiya al-Ijtima`iya as-Suriya (Beirut, n.d.); Abu Khaldun Sati` al-Husri, Al-`Uruba bayn Du`atiha wa Mu`aridiha (Beirut: Dar al-`Ilm li'l-Malayin, 1952); idem, Difa` `an al-`Uruba, 2d ed. (Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-`Arabiya, 1985).
[5] The Economist, 10 May 1947, 6 January 1962, 10 August 1985.
[6] The Washington Post, 23 December 1977.
[7] Michael C. Hudson, The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 169.
[8] Philippe Boulos, Lebanese Minister of Information, Radio Lebanon, January 1962. Text in Le Liban face e l'Ouragan (n.p., n.d.), p. 18. The Fertile Crescent plan would join Iraq with Greater Syria in one state.
[9] Robert M. Haddad, "Eastern Christianity in Contemporary Arab Society," in Kail C. Ellis, ed., The Vatican and the Middle East (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p. 212.
[10] George Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1939), pp. 81-91; or A. L. Tibawi, A Modern History of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine (London: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 163-67.
[11] Zeine N. Zeine, The Emergence of Aran Nationalism (Beirut: Khayats, 1966), pp. 59-67.
[12] Memorandum to the Supreme Council at the Paris Peace Conference, 1 January 1919. Text in J. C. Hurewitz, ed., The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, 2d ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975-79), Vol. 2, p. 131. By similar token, more than thirty years later, Prince `Abdallah held that "we left the Hijaz for the sake of Syria and Palestine." Minutes of a meeting on 28 November 1950, in `Abdallah ibn al-Husayn, At-Takmila, in Al-Athar al-Kamila li'l-Malik `Abdallah ibn al-Husayn (Beirut: Ad-Dar al-Muttahida li'n-Nashr, 1976), p. 270
[13] Jon Kimche, Palestine or Israel (London, Secker and Warburg, 1973), p. 184.
[14] Muhammad Y. Muslih, The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 132.
[15] Christopher Sykes, Crossroads to Israel (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1965), p. 376.
[16] Mary C. Wilson, King Abdullah, Britain and the Making of Jordan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 101.
[17] Philip S. Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 464. On p. 525, Khoury explains the appeal of the SSNP without any reference to its Pan-Syrian ideology.
[18] Stanley F. Reed III, "Dateline Syria: Fin de Regime?" Foreign Policy 39 (Summer 1980): 185. Earlier, Eric Rouleau observed that the Ba`th, even in power, "continues to behave more like an occult sect than a political party." See Eric Rouleau, "The Syrian Enigma: What Is the Baath?" New Left Review, no. 45 (1967): 54.
[19] These are all too often seen as different. For a surprising example, see Moshe Ma'oz, Asad, The Sphinx of Damascus: A Political Biography (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988), p. 114.
[20] Because of the many meanings of the term "Syria," Syrian nationalism refers to support for either Greater Syria or the Republic of Syria. Pan-Syrian nationalism (or simply Pan-Syrianism) refers only to Greater Syria and will therefore be employed here.
[21] David Lloyd George, Memoirs of the Peace Conference (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1939), pp. 649-50.
[22] William Yale, "Strong National Feeling," about 1 July 1919, in the Lybyer Papers. Quoted in Harry N. Howard, The King-Crane Commission: An American Inquiry in the Middle East (Beirut: Khayat's, 1963), p. 114. Another skeptic, Robert de Beauplan, wrote that "the nationalists affirm the reality of the Syrian nation, but it is a myth." O va la Syrie: Le Mandat sous les Cdres (Paris: ditions Jules Tallandier, 1929), p. 32.


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