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Pan-Syrian ambitions can't justify occupation of Lebanon

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted March 7, 2005

Syria's supporters are readily enflamed and poised for rhetorical attacks when anyone dares to contradict their spin on history. However, like it or not, Syria's revisionist history fails to justify its sense of entitlement, seizure of Lebanon and oppression of the Lebanese people. Given the dynamic power of freedom that is resonating throughout the Middle East, sooner or later Syria will be forced to altogether withdraw from Lebanon. And frankly, those that support Syria in its failed policies are not only bucking the irresistible tide of freedom, they're defending the indefensible -- specifically, the systematic abuse of the Lebanese people. The Lebanese who are diligently fighting for their freedom represent both Christian and Muslim groups that are no longer willing to endure stifling Syrian rule.

"Pan-Syrian History", "Greater Syria" and "Syrian nationalism" are key concepts that are inexorably intertwined and speak to the ideological reasons why Syria feels compelled to reconstitute the Syria of old. In his recent speech, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that he would withdraw his nation's forces to the border in a "two-stage pullback", with troops first redeployed to the Bekaa Valley and later moved to the Syrian border. But, as noted by the US State Department, "President Assad's announcement is not enough… As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal -- no halfhearted measures." Despite Bashar al-Assad's stance that Syria is now in complete compliance with the Taef Accord and UN resolution 1559, his words are essentially poppycock. Syria's ongoing occupation of Lebanon is untenable, particularly as viewed by a savvy and disapproving international community that is closely watching events unfold.

Are the Syrians continuing to jerk our chain? Of course! And they're exhibiting minimal cooperation despite the lip service paid by al-Assad. Ideological reasons aside, there are myriad economic, political and strategic reasons for the Syrians to resist international demands for immediate and complete withdrawal of their troops from Lebanon, including Syria's taxation of the Lebanese to fill Syrian coffers, and the presence of over a million Syrian workers that were moved into Lebanon for the purpose of milking the economy of that small but entrepreneurial nation. Not surprisingly, there are indications that thousands of Syrian workers are fleeing Lebanon in light of growing anti-Syrian sentiments. Syria's first entry into Lebanon, and the concomitant abuses, first started in 1975 pursuant to the flow of Palestinian refugees and the PLO into Lebanon, and the resulting Lebanese civil-war that promptly ensued. By 1990, the vast majority of Lebanon was under Syrian control. With considerable pressure ratcheting up, the Syrians are now agreeing to move most of their 14,000 troops and intelligence agents out of Lebanon, except for about 3,000 to be ensconced in the Bekaa Valley that is said to harbor a hotbed of terrorist activities. Moreover, there have been ongoing reports that WMDs previously held by Saddam Hussein were moved to the Bekaa region. As to the latter, whether true or not remains to be determined.

Syria's arrogant sense of entitlement to Lebanon exists by dint of an ideology that calls for the resurrection of "Greater Syria" that was once comprised of Syria, Lebanon, Israel (Palestine) and Jordan. Journalist George Will got it right when he referred to this particular political and cultural ideology as "myth", which will be examined later in this piece. In any event, there is no justification for what Syria has done to Lebanon, in what amounts to a power-grab. The Syrians are not going to let go of Lebanon easily -- Too much is at stake including wealth squeezed from the Lebanese economy, strategic advantages such as a border shared with Israel conducive to strikes in the north of Israel, and a staging ground for an array of unsavory activities including transnational terrorism, drug running and weapons sales. And an occupied Lebanon provides Syria with boasting rights vis-à-vis concrete progress on the re-creation of a "Greater Syria." Of significant concern is Syria's entrenched relationship with proxy terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which will do dirty work for that rogue regime such as intimidating and attacking opponents of Syria in Lebanon and elsewhere. It would be fair to call the ruling clan of Syria a bunch of thugs.

That being said, Syria's dream of attaining a "Greater Syria" is rather consonant with the pattern of the Middle East. For instance, Kuwait was ostensibly "Greater Iraq", portions of Iraq are "Greater Iran" and the up-and-coming state of Palestine would like nothing better than to gobble up Israel and incorporate its lands into a more extensive Palestine. The nations of the Middle East have a tendency to espouse a particular slant on history that permits them -- at least from their own perspectives -- to declare dibs on nearby territories. As cited by scholar Daniel Pipes in his book, "Greater Syria -- The History of an Ambition", leaders in the Middle East are known to make "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." And the author goes on to offer "an explanation for Damascus's turn toward Pan-Syrianism under Hafiz al-Asad (father of Bashar al-Assad), inferring this [was] primarily the result of domestic factors."

And in that same book, Pipes speaks of his own evaluation of the "Greater Syria" mindset: "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'. Pan-Syrianism has force to the extent that it reflects sectarian sentiment or raison d'état, but there is no Greater Syrian nation."

Moreover, in his 1990 article entitled "Greater Syria: Another Lion Roars in the Middle East", Daniel Pipes offers up other salient insights on Pan-Syrian nationalism in the overall context of the Middle East, stating:" 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 -- as distinct from an Arab or Palestinian one -- 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."

The crucial point is this: "Greater Syria" was simply a region, not a polity, not an organized nation state having one specific form of government. And that undermines this notion of Pan-Syrian nationalism, which is predicated upon a Syrian nation that was sliced up by colonial powers and destined to be reconstituted. Besides, the concept of Syria, as a sort of motherland reclaiming its past, is not going to wash in today's world, especially when you have a nation such as Lebanon that's assiduously seeking to reclaim its sovereignty. George Will may have been blunt, but he was certainly accurate in his overall assessment. The ideology of a "Greater Syria", and all the baggage that goes with it, indeed comes across as pure bunk, or, as Pipes notes, as "quirky", "bizarre" and even "thwarted idealism twisted into a doctrine of total escape." Worse than the aforesaid, it offends the sensibilities of freedom loving peoples. Given international pressures and the stalwart position of many Lebanese, the occupation of Lebanon will ultimately become unsustainable for Syria. Viva La Revolucion brought about by President Bush.

Clearly, there were several lands within the region of "Greater Syria", such as seen in Lebanon -- or more precisely Mount Lebanon -- whose people managed to maintain a distinct communal identity over hundreds of years or even longer. Doesn't that further challenge the inane ideology of the Syrians? The word Lebanon has been around for the past 4000 years, and originally referred to the mountains of Lebanon that produced cedar and metal. The Ottoman Empire, from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century, occupied the Middle East and ruled Lebanon through local leaders, permitting the Lebanese a sense of autonomy that was already conducive to their culture. In 1920, France established Greater Lebanon with its present borders. In 1943, Lebanon formed its first independent democratic government and changed the constitution, which effectively brought the French mandate to an end. Of note, the Christian Maronites of Mount Lebanon, which date back to the fifth century, were pivotal in developing the national ethos of Lebanon.

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.

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