The Enigma of the Syrian Nation

March 11, 2013 Topic: History Region: Syria

The Enigma of the Syrian Nation

Syrian identity was an alien idea until the twentieth century.


Much is often said about the artificiality of the modern Middle Eastern state-system, particularly Syria. Often highlighted are the region’s current “republics” as the outcome of Anglo-French colonial fancy: “contrived points on a map” in Fouad Ajami’s telling, joining together disparate peoples, fractious ethnic groups, apprehensive confessional communities and distinct autonomous provinces—into uneasy, compulsory and ultimately unhappy matrimony. This picture of Western intrusions and failed cartography is not entirely off-kilter. Yet this restive Syria protruding out of the sad canvas of the modern Middle East remains an entity that influential pundits insist on defending and preserving in its current form.

In Syria (and for that matter Iraq), more so than in neighboring Lebanon and Egypt, there has never been a uniquely Syrian territorial identity nor a Syrian entity as such. Indeed, in what became Syria in 1936—out of the carved out Ottoman Vilayets (or States) of Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus—there was great difficulty accommodating the transition from distinct administrative units to a cohesive territorial state. Moreover, prior to Syrian independence in 1946, there had been very little in terms of national history, territorial attachment, Syrian identity and a distinct “Syrian” ethos associated with today’s modern Syrian Arab Republic. In fact, up until 1946, no such Syrian entity existed in literature, historiography or even popular expression.


There had, of course, always been a “Syria,” from classical antiquity until Ottoman times. But this was at best a loose toponymic designation; a purely topographic concept and an amorphous one at that, strictly confined to European geographic usage and European obsessions with the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the name “Syria” is widely believed to be of Greek, not Syrian, nor even Arab provenance. “Syria” is arguably, at least in Classical Greek usage, a referent to the place-name of those “speakers of Syrian”—or in modern times “Syriac”; a dialect of Middle Aramaic prevalent throughout Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, and widely spoken until at least the eighth century of our era.

Arabs and the Arab nationalists who have ruled Syria since independence are newcomers to this name, and can only lay claim to it through semantic trickery and verbal embellishment. “Shaam” is the name that Arabs bestowed on Syria beginning in the seventh century—that is to say, “Shaam,” or “the North” in Southern Arabian languages, as opposed to “Yemen,” or “the South” from an Arab’s geographic angle. Even to this day, most users of Arabic opt for the term “Shaam” in reference to the country of Syria and its capital city Damascus—even as the Arabized form of the noun “Syria” (Suriyya) remains the official country name.

Likewise, Syrian identity, or a sense of Syrian-ness, had been alien to the Arabs of Syria, at least until the early twentieth century. Conversely, there had been a strong bent toward Syrian-ness among Levantine Christian expats in the New World, fleeing the vagaries and injustices of the late Ottoman period. But the Syria that emerges from the writings of those émigrés was distinctly Christian, separate from the inchoate Arab nationalist concepts being sputtered in the early twentieth century. Indeed the term “Syria” that those Levantine Christians were using in their literary works, correspondence, and political writings, issued from the language and intellectual heritage of their pre-modern national churches, which were essentially “Syrian Churches” whose languages were Syriac.

As this distinct Syrian-ness began evolving and expanding politically in the early twentieth century, its exponents went to great lengths distinguishing the concept being Syrian from the nascent idea of being Arab. One such advocate of Syrian identity, Antun Saadé (1904-1949), wrote that

the Syrians have done away with the myth that they are Easterners [read, Arabs], and that their destiny is somehow linked to the destiny of the [Arab] peoples. We, the Syrians are not [Arabs…, we] are the fountainhead of Mediterranean culture and the custodians of the civilization of that sea, which we have transformed into a Syrian sea, whose roads were traversed by our ships, and to whose distant shores we carried our culture, our inventions, and our discoveries.

This laid the foundations of the conceptual, geographic, and cultural notion of “Syria” and “Syrian people” as a crucible of cultures that cannot be folded into a larger “Arab” ethnos without oversimplifying and misleading.

Add to these semantic and conceptual complexities the ethno-religious and cultural patchwork of what became the Syrian Republic in 1946, and the plot thickens. When the current Syrian state came into being, and later became independent, it was already a deeply divided entity, beset by deep-seated ethnic apprehensions, religious differences, sectarian animosities, chronic instability and failed interpretations of the territorial state. In a sense, Syria was bound to disintegrate and its contrived unity was predestined to come undone. The intransigence of the Baath Party, and the cruelty of the Assad family who ruled under its auspices—tenuous as their own Arabist credentials might have been—simply prolonged the afflictions of this unsettled mosaic. The dissolution of the Syrian entity was a matter of when, not what, why, or how.

Seeing the Future through the Past

Historians are at their best when they avoid forecasting future events: “I never make predictions” famously said eminent Oxford historian Charles Issawi, “especially about the future!” Not unwise cautionary words for those trained to excavate the past and draw lessons for their times. But as is often the case with antsy students of history, there is no greater thrill than the vernal temptation to disregard the good sense of elders and err on the side of brashness.

In the midst of Syria’s descent into civil war through 2011 and early 2012, in a series of essays in these spaces, I wrote of the inevitable breakup of the current Syrian state into smaller ethnic entities. The essays were based on informed readings of Syria’s recent history, peering into a fragmented past to illuminate an unfolding disintegration. Indeed for those willing to read the signs, Syria’s current turbulent days were written in its not too distant yesterdays.

Today, informed commentators are finally coming around to the inevitability of some kind of dissolution. In a telling piece titled “The Country Formerly Known as Syria,” The Economist recently conceded that there is little to suggest that, when the guns will have stopped and the dust has settled, Syria’s political and geographic configuration will go back to its status quo ante.

Today a political order is needed to manage the multiple identities of the Middle East—Syria included. It must not impugn them, suppress them or pretend they don't exist. Orientalists, Arabists in particular, should stop railing against the pre-modern heritage of the region. They would serve their fields by admitting that tribal, sectarian, and ethnic identities matter in the Middle East, trump all others, and deserve consideration in any thoughtful reflection on the region’s troubles. Absent that, no sense of meaningful civic identities, or genuine "citizenship" can ever develop, and Syria will prove a mere passageway to the impending unraveling of other Middle Eastern states.

Franck Salameh is an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, Arabic and Hebrew at Boston College and the author of Language, Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010).