Josef Olmert
Last updated: 6 December, 2016

“Greater Syria is in turmoil, and the outcome is still not clear”

Few are the political ideologies that have endured more than a century of turbulence in the Middle East and still manage to look relevant (though not necessarily in their original version). The idea of ‘’Greater Syria’’ is one of them, writes Professor Josef Olmert. While Iraq and Syria are in a state of disintegration and civil war, and Lebanon in its usual “on the brink” of conflict, a new geopolitical reality is taking shape in a region where questions of identity, statehood and majority-minority relations have always been key for political stability. These questions have been the fundamental cause for the emergence of the concept of “Greater Syria” in the first place, and the fact that they are as valid and unresolved today, may explain the latest twist in the story.

The idea of “Greater Syria” originated in the 1860s as a result of the bloody Lebanese-Syrian civil war of 1840-1861, resulting in Christian intellectuals raising the question of identity – how could people of all religious denominations live side by side in their shared and native homeland, and not fight and kill each other? Some answers were given, one of them was the idea that there was a “Natural”, “Historic”, “Greater” Syrian homeland, encompassing the current territories of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, a land which has its distinct historic and cultural characteristics, different from the rest of the Arab-Islamic dominated Middle East, a land in which people of all denominations could develop their common ethnic heritage, thus overcoming the barrier of religion. 

On 8 March 1920, Arab Nationalists declared Faysal, the Hashemite son of Sharif Hussein, as King of Greater Syria, a declaration which stayed on paper with the application of the mandatory system, the creation of Lebanon, and the division of the region between France and Britain. However, the idea never lost its attraction. Both wings of the Hashemite family, King Abdallah in Jordan and the Iraqi branch of the family pursued the ambition, and then in the early 1930s the idea finally became structured through a comprehensive ideological framework with the rise of the political party which espoused and advanced the cause, namely the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, under the charismatic leadership of the former immigrant to Brazil, the Greek Orthodox Christian Antun Sa’ade (1904-1949).

The main element of Sa’ade’s teaching was that nationalism is an eternal feature of human history, influenced and shaped by geography, and in that case, this is Syrian Nationalism; created, shaped and maintained from time immemorial by the particular geopolitical conditions of the vast area of “Greater Syria”, which was so different than other Arabic-speaking areas of the Middle East, such as Northern Africa, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. Sa’ade was a very influential intellectual, and by far the more important intellectual/politician to be influenced by him was the founder of the Baa’th Party, Michel Aflaq, who came up with a comprehensive Pan-Arab ideology, according to which Arab Nationalism was eternal. This element of eternity is pure Sa’ade.  

Sa’ade himself was executed in Lebanon in July 1949, charged with treason for his call for reintegration of Lebanon into Syria, his followers were persecuted there, and were outlawed also in Syria under the Baa’th, where no dissenting voice of any kind was allowed for many years. Things changed sometime in the 1970s when the Assad-Alawite-Baa’th regime started expressing Syria’s regional policies in terms which were borrowed from the old Sa’ade textbook, especially when referring to the Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976, and since then the Syrian Social Nationalist Party become a favorite of the Assad regime. However, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party has never managed to develop into a real non-sectarian party, and the Assad policy in regional affairs, while considered by some observers as a search for hegemony in the geopolitical environment of “Greater Syria”, was basically a defensive strategy on behalf of the Alawite community in Syria, using Pan-Arab Baa’thist slogans, alongside Syrian Social Nationalist Party motives.  

Here is a point of historic irony: both Syrian Social Nationalist Party and Ba’th Party claims to be supra-communal, nationalist parties were false. They have always been the political voice of sectarianism. The events of 2011 and onwards proved that that was not enough, and political legitimacy required more than brutal military dictatorship based on only one community.

Iraq started its internal disintegration in 2003 with the American invasion, which put an end to the Saddam Sunni regime, allowing for the first time in history the establishment of a Shi’ite dominated regime in Baghdad. Add to that, the growing dominance of Hizballah, the Shi’ite Lebanese stooge of Iran in the crisis-prone Lebanon, and we get the latest twist in the on-going saga of the politics of “Greater Syria”.

This is the story of the emerging Pax Iranica, or the Shi’ite Crescent as it is called by Sunni adversaries of the Iranian regime. Iran is the dominant supporter of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, the main regional backer of Assad in Syria, and the force behind Hizballah. Never before in modern Arab history was one power in such a prominent position of political influence in the geopolitical sphere of “Greater Syria”. What makes it so special, is the fact that this power is not an Arab country, but Iran, a non-Arab actor, a state of affairs which is a dramatic indication of the collapse of the Arab state system as we have known it since the end of World War I. It also signals the replacement of Arab politics with Islamic politics; Iran being the Shi’ite Muslim power, poised against the Sunni Muslim states.  

This is the source of power for the Iranians, leading a Shi’ite and Shi’ite-oriented coalition (the Alawites are not Shi’ites), but also its vulnerability. The Shi’ites are altogether a minority and there is a big elephant in the room, a power competing with Iran over ascendancy, and this is Turkey of the AKP and President Erdogan. Again, not an Arab power but a Sunni Muslim regional giant, which is striving to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of Syria and Iraq and the weakness of Saudi Arabia. Erdogan openly talks about Mosul and Aleppo as Turkish spheres of interest, promoting the claims of the Turkmen Sunni minorities in Syria and Iraq, and clearly positioning Turkey as the defender of Sunnis, though not the Sunni Kurds.  

Stormy days are ahead of us. Greater Syria is in turmoil, and the outcome is still not clear. Pax Iranica may still be another of the failed attempts to create one dominant political power in a region that is plagued by chronic sectarianism.