Commentary Magazine


Palestine for the Syrians?

During a meeting with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1976, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad referred to Palestine as a region of Syria, as Southern Syria. He then told the Palestinians: “You do not represent Palestine as much as we do. Do not forget one thing: there is no Palestinian people, no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria! You are an integral part of the Syrian people and Palestine is an integral part of Syria. Therefore it is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the real representatives of the Palestinian people.”

Although unusual in its candor, this outburst exemplifies a long tradition in Syrian politics, and one that has gained rather than lost importance in recent years. The Assad government presents itself not just as an Arab state with an interest in protecting the rights of Palestinians, but as the rightful ruler of the land that Israel controls. Since, according to this view, the existing republic of Syria is but a truncated part of the Syrian lands, the government in Damascus has a duty to recover and unite all other Syrian regions, including Palestine, under its control.

The growth in Syrian military capabilities in recent years makes these ambitions a major source of instability throughout the Middle East. Indeed, the Syrian claim to “Southern Syria” has become central to the Arab-Israel conflict; on account of it, Syria has become the principal opponent not only of Israel but also, paradoxically, of the PLO. Damascus is likely to retain this role for many years, certainly as long as Hafez al-Assad lives and probably longer.

When Assad uses the term Southern Syria, he implicitly harks back to the old meaning of the name “Syria.” Historically, “Syria” (Suriya or Sham in Arabic) refers to a region far larger than the Syrian Arab Republic of today. At a minimum, the territory known as Syria up until World War I stretched from Anatolia to Egypt, and from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea. In terms of today’s political geography, it comprised the whole of four states—Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon—as well as the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and substantial portions of southeastern Turkey. This territory, to distinguish it from the present Syrian state, is now generally known as Greater Syria. Pan-Syrianism is the ideology that justifies Greater Syria.

The term Greater Syria conjures up a cultural and geographical unit, not a political entity. Like Scandinavia or New England, Greater Syria is an abstraction. It has never assumed political form; indeed, no one has even tried to establish a Greater Syrian state as such. The last time the whole area was ruled from Damascus was during the Umayyad dynasty, which fell in the year 750 C.E. But when the British, aided by the Arab forces of the Hashemite Prince Faysal, conquered the area of Greater Syria during World War I, the possibility of achieving Syrian unity came to the fore.

Palestine, or “Southern Syria,” was a primary focus of the drive for unity.1 Indeed, from the moment Prince Faysal set up a government in Damascus in October 1918, he stressed that Palestine was a part of Syria. At the Paris Peace Conference, where after the war the British, French, and Americans sorted out their interests, Faysal called Palestine his “right hand” and promised to work for it as he would for Syria and Iraq. “I assure you, according to the wishes of its people, Palestine will be a part of Syria.” Three months later, Faysal wrote General Edmund Allenby that Palestine “is an inseperable [sic] part of Syria.”

Faysal was hardly alone in this view. His rival, Shukri Ghanim, an advocate of French rule in Syria, declared Palestine “incontestably the southern portion of our country.” Two General Syrian Congresses identified Palestine by name as an integral part of Syria. The first called for “no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine”; the second unanimously proclaimed “the complete and unconditional independence of our country Syria, including Palestine, within its natural boundaries.” Faysal sent agents to Palestine to boost his standing there, and Damascus became a major center of anti-Zionist rhetoric and activity.

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Significantly, the view of Palestine as Southern Syria was not limited to Syrians; from the end of 1918, almost all the Arabs of Palestine agreed on this point. Their enthusiasm for union with Syria greatly enhanced the legitimacy of the concept and did much to make it endure.

The three main political organizations in Palestine—the Arab Club, the Literary Club, and the Muslim-Christian Association (revealingly, none mentioned Palestine in its name)—all worked for union with Syria. The first two went the farthest, calling outright for rule by Prince Faysal. Amin al-Husayni was president of the Arab Club; the extremism which later made him notorious as the Mufti of Jerusalem (and an ally of Hitler) already showed itself in 1920, when he instigated riots on behalf of union with Syria. A member of the Arab Club, Kamil al-Budayri, co-edited from September 1919 the newspaper Suriya al-Janubiya (“Southern Syria”) which advocated Palestine’s incorporation into Greater Syria.

Even the Muslim-Christian Association, an organization of traditional leaders, men who could expect to rule if Palestine became independent, demanded incorporation within Greater Syria. Its president insisted that “Palestine or Southern Syria—an integral part of the one and indivisible Syria—must not in any case or for any pretext be detached.” In early 1919, drawing up demands for the Paris Peace Conference, the Muslim-Christian Association declared that Palestine, a “part of Arab Syria,” was permanently connected to Syria through “national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic, and geographical bonds,” and resolved that “Southern Syria or Palestine should not be separated from the independent Arab Syrian government.” Musa Kazim al-Husayni, head of the Jerusalem Town Council (in effect, mayor), told a Zionist interlocutor in October 1919: “We demand no separation from Syria.” The slogan heard everywhere in 1918-19 was: “Unity, Unity, From the Taurus [mountains in Turkey] to Rafah [in Gaza], Unity, Unity.”

Palestinian interest in Pan-Syrian unity peaked during the early months of 1920. One speaker at the General Palestinian Congress suggested that Palestine stood in relation to Syria as Alsace-Lorraine to France. The Congress passed four resolutions. The first of them noted that “it never occurred to the peoples of Northern and Coastal Syria that Southern Syria (or Palestine) is anything but a part of Syria.” The second called for an economic boycott of the Zionists in “all three parts of Syria” (meaning French Syria, Mt. Lebanon, and the Palestine Mandate). The third and fourth resolutions called for Palestine “not to be divided from Syria” and for “the independence of Syria within its natural borders.”

The crowning of Faysal as King of Syria in March 1920 elicited great enthusiasm among the Arabs of Palestine. Participants in a mass demonstration in Jerusalem carried pictures of Faysal and called for unity with Syria. Amin al-Husayni, just back from Damascus, incited the crowds with (false) news that the British government had recognized Faysal as ruler of Palestine as well as Syria.

Why did Palestinians accept submission to Damascus? In large part because this was an aspect of their traditional identity; also, because they thought they would gain from the connection. The Palestinians regarded Faysal as the only Arab leader capable of resisting the Jewish influx into Palestine; as a group of Palestinian expatriates observed, “If Syria and Palestine remain united, we will never be enslaved by the Jewish yoke.”

But in April 1920 Britain and France disregarded these sentiments and divided Greater Syria between them. Then they subdivided their territories: the British part became Palestine and Transjordan; the French part became Lebanon, Syria, and several smaller units.

Although the advocates of Greater Syria had lost, they did not give up. For years to come, interest in union between Syria and Palestine remained strong on both sides. But Syrian nationalists had to contend with their new French masters and could do little about their southern ambitions. Activity on this front therefore abated for some time, to emerge again only in 1936-39, with the Arab revolt in Palestine.

The revolt captured the imagination of Syrians. Damascus sponsored a 300-man unit, “The General Command of the Arab Revolt in Southern Syria (Palestine),” that fought alongside Palestinian Arabs in 1936. In return for Syrian backing, one of the leaders of the revolt, ‘Arif ‘Abd ar-Raziq, called himself “Commander-in-Chief of the Rebels in Southern Syria.” Under Syrian pressure in 1938, the “Bureau of the Arab Revolt in Palestine” changed the “Palestine” in its name to “Southern Syria.”

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It cannot be said, however, that Palestinian interest in Syria remained as strong as Syrian interest in Palestine. When news of the April 1920 British-French agreement first reached Palestine, it prompted a flood of protests calling for a united Syria from Turkey to the Sinai Peninsula; but after the French took Damascus in July 1920, the attraction of a Syrian connection disappeared. Palestinian leaders now recognized that they were on their own against the British and the Zionists. Musa Kazim al-Husayni made this point only days after Faysal fell: “After the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine.”

As this remarkably frank statement indicates, tactical considerations had much to do with the rapid collapse of Pan-Syrian sentiment and its replacement by a nascent Palestinian separatism. At the time, the idea of making Palestine a political unit exercised limited appeal among the Arab residents, but it allowed Palestinian leaders to present themselves to the British as equals of the Zionists.

Many years were to pass, however, before Palestine meant as much to most Palestinians as did Southern Syria. Two Palestinian legations meeting with Winston Churchill in 1921 demanded that Palestine not be separated from the neighboring Arab sister-states, and the Fourth Arab Palestine Congress called for a Palestinian delegate to be sent to the League of Nations to lobby for unity with Syria. The Fifth Congress heard that “the inhabitants of Southern Syria see themselves and their land as an inseparable part of the rest of Syria”; and the executive committee of the 1924 Palestine Arab Congress referred to “the one country of Syria” and called Palestine “Southern Syria.”

Faysal’s dream of kingship over Greater Syria retained its force in Palestine for years. Palestinians mourning Faysal’s death in September 1933, and marking its anniversary a year later, took the occasion to recall their hopes for his kingdom. And even afterward, the goal of Greater Syria continued to find a wide audience; groups of Palestinian exiles were among its most enthusiastic supporters. (The Palestine National League of New York asserted in 1922 that “the Palestinians ask only to be left alone with their fellow Syrians to develop the resources of their province which has been an integral part of Syria for two thousand years.”) Even George Antonius, the leading Palestinian theorist of Pan-Arab nationalism, argued in a meeting with David Ben-Gurion in 1936 that “there was no natural barrier between Palestine and Syria, and there was no difference between their inhabitants.” Such support among Palestinians helped legitimate Syrian claims.

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As the European exit from Syria and Palestine loomed in the 1940’s, Syrian hopes of absorbing Southern Syria increased. The Syrian premier, Sa’dallah al-Jabiri, declared in September 1944 that “the Syrian problem concerns four regions: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan.” Faris al-Khuri, Syria’s delegate to the United Nations, called for the union of Palestine with his country on the grounds of racial, cultural, and historical ties. A spokesman for the Syrian legation in Washington stated in 1946 that “Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan are separated by artificial borders.”

The United Nations decision in November 1947 to partition Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state led to riots in Damascus and Aleppo. Soon thereafter, Syrians organized volunteer forces to fight the Zionists, under the same army officer who had led the Syrian fighters in Palestine in 1936. These troops began infiltrating Palestine in January 1948, five months before the British left, and quickly took control of territory in the northern part of the country. When the British finally evacuated and the state of Israel was declared in May 1948, regular Syrian forces invaded. Significantly, the small areas they won were quickly incorporated into Syria itself rather than being administered as part of Palestine (as Egypt did with its Gaza conquests from 1948 to 1967).

The Arab failure to destroy Israel was a blow to Greater Syrian aspirations, but it did not eliminate them. The attitude that Palestine belonged to Syria reemerged during the Armistice Conference of 1949, when a Syrian delegate announced that “there is no international border between Israel and Syria. There was a political border between Syria and Palestine. We have to sign an armistice agreement not on the basis of a political border, but on the basis of an armistice line.” To this day, indeed, maps of the Syrian armed forces show no international border between Syria and Israel, only a “temporary” border separating Syria from a region called Palestine.

Nevertheless, the idea of joining Palestine to Greater Syria was muted after Israel’s creation. Syrian regimes were exceptionally unstable and weak between 1949 and 1970, and in no position to pursue irredentist claims. Then, too, Israel’s strength of arms discouraged military confrontation. Finally, the period between 1956 and 1967 marked the heyday of Pan-Arabism, a time when all eyes were on Egyptian President Nasser and his program of Arab unification; the more modest aims of Greater Syria were nearly forgotten.

Syria’s claims to its southern region were, to be sure, vented from time to time during those years, particularly at the United Nations. In 1956, the General Assembly was told “that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria.” During the Six-Day War of June 1967, Syria’s delegate to the Security Council declared that it was Syria “from which Palestine was severed and from the territory of which Israel was created.” Such assertions were also heard in private discussions.

But effectively the claim to Southern Syria appeared dead. This was true for Palestinians as well, among whom the view of Palestine as a region of Greater Syria weakened. Palestine came to be seen either as a potentially independent polity or as a province of a united Arab world; the intermediate level of incorporation within Greater Syria seemed to have disappeared for good.

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But it had not. Hafez al-Assad rose to power in 1970. He established a powerful police state, ending the era of domestic instability and foreign weakness. Under Assad, Syria became a predator. And Assad had room to experiment ideologically, for with the passage of years Pan-Arabism had become discredited by events: the failure of Syria’s 1958-61 union with Egypt, the war in Yemen, and the Arabs’ 1967 military debacle at the hands of Israel.

One factor, however—Israel’s military strength—remained unchanged after Assad came to power in 1970. So he developed a new approach: recognizing that Israel was not going to be destroyed in battle, the Syrian leader targeted the fractured Palestinian movement instead. The concept of Southern Syria became a tool to be employed in a strategy to claim Syrian leadership of the Palestinian cause.

True, Assad does on occasion bellow directly against Israel; earlier this year, for instance, he threatened that if Israel were to annex the Golan Heights, “we will work to put the Golan in the middle of Syria and not on its borders.” But for the most part the Syrian regime invokes the rhetoric of Greater Syria not in order to confront Israel but to assert its right to control those parts of Palestine not under Israeli rule. This places Damascus in direct conflict with the PLO (as well as with the Jordanian government).

Assad’s assault on the PLO forms the heart of his strategy to stay in the conflict with Israel. His attacks take two complementary forms: verbal claims and financial and military manipulation. Words justify Syrian expansion; force backs up the rhetoric.

In 1976 Assad broached an argument that he still uses: the PLO no longer acts in the best interests of the Palestinian people. PLO delinquency is ascribed to a variety of problems: loss of purpose (“I cannot imagine what the connection is between the fighting of Palestinians in the highest mountains of Lebanon and the liberation of Palestine”); treachery (“Arafat acceded to becoming a U.S. tool against Palestine and Palestinian rights”); and cowardice (“Arafat and his supporters actually wanted to leave Beirut on the first days of the [1982] war. We told them we were against their departure and advised them to stay and resist”). But whatever the cause, the PLO by its misbehavior is held to have forfeited its right to lead the Palestinian movement or to claim the territory of Palestine.

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Next, the Assad government asserts that it, rather than Jordan, Egypt, or some other state, deserves to inherit the PLO rule. Three complementary reasons support this claim: devotion to Palestine, correct strategy, and geographical ties.

First, as the self-proclaimed “heart, mind, shield, and sword” of Palestine and “the main state of confrontation,” Syria is the natural leader of the struggle againt Israel. Radio Damascus can wax poetic on this subject, referring to Syria as “the defender of the Palestinian issue, the shelter of the Palestinian revolution, the refuge of the Palestinian strugglers, the lungs with which the Palestinian resistance breathes, and the arena which lovingly opens its doors, heart, and capabilities to the sons of the Palestinian people.” It declares that “Syria will do everything possible to protect its self-defense, because to a great extent its self-defense embodies the entire Arab defense.” Past, present, and anticipated sacrifices entitle Syria to a decisive role. “How can the Palestine question not be ours,” Assad asks, “even though we are placing all of this country’s human, military, economic, and political resources at the service of this question?”

Second, alone of the front-line states, Syria has the right strategy. While other governments have one by one betrayed the Palestinian cause by accepting Israel’s existence, Syria has remained resolute. Assad takes credit for preventing the PLO itself from recognizing Israel: “Had it not been for Syria, the PLO would have agreed to the Camp David plan.”

Third, and most important, Syrian leaders and (the state-run) media reiterate that Palestine is geographically part of Syria. Assad likes to startle Western visitors by telling them that “Jesus Christ was a Syrian Jew.” In a major speech in March 1974, he relaunched the “Palestine is Southern Syria” campaign, stating that “Palestine is not only a part of the Arab nation, but a principal part of Southern Syria.” (The less principal part, clearly, is Jordan.)

The claim has been expressed many times since. A Damascus newspaper noted in 1976, on the eve of a visit to Damascus by the President of Lebanon, that the two leaders would “examine new ties between Lebanon and its sister Syria, both those states’ ties with Jordan, as well as the ties of all these with Palestine.” The paper also suggested the creation of a federal state for all four, with one army and one cabinet. A few months later, another newspaper spoke of “the southern portion, that is Palestine, [that] was severed from this steadfast country.” A Baath party official stated in May 1978 that “the question of Palestine is strictly a Syrian issue and [only secondly] an Arab security issue.” In March 1980, the Syrian prime minister declared in an interview that “to Syria, the Palestine question is not just the issue of a fraternal people but a Syrian issue.” And so on, and on.

Often, when addressing a foreign audience, Syrian leaders like to invoke the history of Greater Syria and its divisions. Just before President François Mitterrand arrived in Syria in November 1984, Assad bitterly recalled that “when France entered our countries they were united; when it left, they were disunited.” American officials have gotten an earful too. Henry Kissinger recounts that when he visited Damascus as Secretary of State in February 1974, Deputy Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam “could not forgo the opportunity to explain that historically Palestine had been part of Syria.”

Operationally, the claim to Palestine affects Syrian relations with both Jordan and the PLO. Thus, according to Jordanian sources, in July 1980 the Syrian foreign minister insisted that his government be included, along with Jordan and the PLO, on a committee dealing with the affairs of the “occupied homeland” in Palestine. When it comes to the PLO, much of the debate is conducted in code. The PLO asserts a right to “independent decision-making” on the basis of its national autonomy, Damascus denies this right on the basis of Syrian or Arab nationalism; in fact, they are arguing over the PLO’s right to act contrary to Syrian wishes. For example, Khalil al-Wazir, a leading PLO official, stated in August 1985 that “the Syrian regime wants to seize the independent Palestinian decision-making power. This is Syria’s main obsession because we refuse to be under its control and hegemony and because we say no to it.” Arafat has claimed that Damascus “stabbed the Palestinian revolution in the back, tried to confiscate its arms and offices, and is trying to confiscate the revolution itself.” A pro-PLO writer observes accurately: “Some say that the Syrian leaders want to revive the Greater Syria plan, provided it is ‘made in Damascus’—having always rejected it in the past when it was ‘made in Amman’ or ‘made in Baghdad.’ ”

For his part, Assad has accused the PLO of “concocting a plot through the slogan of independent Palestinian decision-making,” and a Damascus newspaper editor threatened to “amputate the fingers of whoever exercises decision-making contrary to [the Syrian] course. We will not tolerate freedom to commit treason or to sell out the cause. Palestine is Southern Syria.”

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This barrage of words is supported by ambitious efforts by Damascus to control Palestinian organizations. The PLO is weak and fractured, and Assad has taken full advantage of the opportunities thus created.

In the mid-1960’s, to keep a finger in the budding Palestinian separatist movement, Damascus aided Yasir Arafat’s Fatah. When Arafat reduced his dependence on Syria by winning support from Egypt, Damascus countered by helping the Palestine Liberation Front, led by a former engineering officer in the Syrian army, Ahmad Jibril. This small organization, which later became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), has continued to work closely with the Syrian government. Assad has also sponsored parts of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) since its establishment in 1964. Ostensibly the conventional military wing of the PLO, the PLA’s three brigades have actually been directly controlled by Arab governments, two by Syria and one by Egypt.

But Syria’s main Palestinian vehicle has been As-Sa’iqa. Established in December 1968 to amalgamate the Palestinian organizations sponsored by Syria, it soon became the second largest group in the PLO. From 1970 until his assassination in 1979, Sa’iqa was run by Zuhayr Muhsin, a long-term member of the Syrian Baath party and ally of Hafez al-Assad.

To assure complete control over Sa’iqa, Damascus staffed it with members of the Syrian Baath party. Many of Sa’iqa’s troops were Syrian citizens who signed up after finishing their regular tour of duty. Indeed, Syrians make up about 50 percent of Sa’iqa’s soldiers and 75 percent of the officers. Sa’iqa’s equipment is almost all provided by the Syrian army, and some of Sa’iqa’s training takes place at the Political Officers’ Training School, with Syrian army instructors teaching guerrilla tactics and the handling of anti-aircraft equipment. Needless to say, the Syrian government foots the whole of Sa’iqa’s expenses. Sa’iqa acts as Syria’s agent within the Palestinian movement, and its aims are identical with those of Damascus. Sa’iqa’s activities in the Middle East and Western Europe are authorized, and probably planned, by Syrian military intelligence units.

In March 1975 Assad proposed “to establish a single Syrian-Palestinian political leadership [and] military command.” Arafat refused this offer, rightly understanding it as a veiled attempt to dominate the PLO. A similar offer in 1982 was again turned down. In 1976, to this same end, Assad sent troops against the PLO in Lebanon. The total obedience of the PFLP-GC, the PLA brigades, and Sa’iqa to the Syrian government became apparent in that campaign when they fought with Syria against Arafat’s PLO. The PLA played an especially prominent role in this fighting: in effect, the uniformed military arm of the PLO was at war with the rest of the organization.

The Syrian government has often manhandled Palestinian leaders who defied its wishes. When a 1966 effort to subject Fatah to Syrian control failed, Arafat and the entire Fatah leadership were thrown in a Syrian jail for over a month. George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was jailed for seven months in 1968. In 1983 Arafat was taken to the Damascus airport and forced onto a plane.

Arafat’s wing of the PLO has been attacked on a number of occasions. During the summer of 1981 a number of actions were directed against his followers to bring them under the Syrian thumb. With greater success, Assad caused a split in Fatah in May 1983 when Arafat insisted on pursuing policies of which he disapproved. Assad dominated the anti-Arafat faction that was organized in Damascus in 1985 as the Palestinian National Salvation Front (PNSF). Either Abu Nidal or the PNSF assassinated a number of Arafat’s men in Europe, including Na’im Khadir in Brussels, Majid Abu Sharar in Rome, and Issam Sartawi in Lisbon. A Palestinian with close ties to Arafat who edited an anti-Syrian weekly in Athens was shot three times from a yard away as he left his apartment building in September 1985. Two Palestinian groups based in Damascus claimed responsibility for the March 1986 assassination of Zafir al-Masri, the newly appointed mayor of Nablus; in the West Bank itself, however, many residents accused Syrian operatives directly of the crime.

The shooting of Fahd al-Qawasma, a former mayor of Hebron and current member of the PLO executive committee, prompted a revealing comment from Arafat. Addressing the dead man at his burial, he said: “The Zionists in the occupied territories tried to kill you, and when they failed, they deported you. However, the Arab Zionists represented by the rulers of Damascus thought this was insufficient, so you fell as a martyr.”

Damascus also does everything possible to foil Palestinian acceptance of a mini-state on the West Bank. The reason is obvious: such a polity, surrounded by Jordan and Israel, would be beyond Syria’s reach and could not easily be dominated by it. The more the PLO shows interest in a West Bank solution, the greater the competition between it and the Syrian regime.

The effort of Damascus to arrogate to itself the Arab claim to Palestine mostly takes rhetorical and military forms. But in one case at least, it also takes a legal form. Syrian law permits a cash substitute for military service—but only to Syrian nationals living outside Syria. A decree of October 1984 specifies that this law also “shall be applied to Palestinian Arabs who, under the laws in force, are considered as Syrians.” Thus, a Palestinian living in Jordan is legally considered under obligation to serve in the Syrian armed forces unless he pays his way out.

Palestinian leaders dependent on Syria must endorse the Greater Syria idea. Zuhayr Muhsin of Sa’iqa has done so without reservation: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. . . . We are one people. Only for political reasons do we underline our Palestinian identity. . . . Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity is there only for tactical reasons.” It is noteworthy that Sa’iqa does not mention Palestine in its name; it argues that Palestine should not be independent, but part of a larger Arab unit led by Syria. The Palestinian radio station in Damascus announced in June 1983 that Syria and Palestine share the same destiny because they are both part of Greater Syria, the one being Northern Syria, the other Southern Syria.

Most explicit and remarkable are the statements by Sabri Khalil al-Banna, known as Abu Nidal, the extremist Palestinian leader who depends on Syrian support. Although ostensibly a Palestinian separatist, Banna repeatedly states that “Palestine belongs to Syria. Like Lebanon it will be part and parcel of it.” His reasoning goes as follows:

I am an ardent believer in the Greater Syrian state. . . . We [Palestinians] are Syrian citizens. For us, Syria is the mother nation, it is history, society, community, geography. Until recently, half of Lebanon was a region of Syria. As you see, we are true Syrian citizens. I myself have Syrian parents. . . . Greater Syria consists of Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. A state like Jordan did not exist in Arab history prior to the 20’s. Geographically seen, Greater Syria covers the territory from the Turkish border in the north to the whole of Palestine in the south.

It is extremely unlikely that these views express Muhsin’s or Banna’s true feelings; all the more impressive, then, that the Syrian government succeeds in making these men support its ambitions.

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The cause of Greater Syria is not the only basis for the Syrian government’s involvement in the affairs of Palestine. Pan-Arab nationalism (which holds that all Arabic-speaking people form a nation) is one factor; Pan-Islamic solidarity is another; and some Syrians undoubtedly feel a genuine humanitarian interest in the Arabs of Palestine. All these motives have at times, especially in the 1950’s and 60’s, assumed more importance than the urge to build Greater Syria. But the most enduring motive since World War I, and certainly the most powerful force in the Assad era, has been the view that Palestine is Southern Syria and belongs under Damascus’s control.

Of what significance is this view? Does it amount to anything more than a futile dream? After all, military realities make it clear that Assad has little chance of destroying Israel. And even if he did, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and the other Arab states would then contest his victory, while the PLO would continue to agitate for Palestinian separatism. The claim to Southern Syria, then, is likely to remain permanently unfulfilled. For this reason, some have concluded that it is of no importance.

But this overlooks the many ways that the claim does influence Damascus’s behavior. The cause of Southern Syria helps to explain the extremely bellicose tone that has marked Syrian relations with Zionism through the 20th century. The irredentist desire to incorporate Palestine into Syria has deep roots, and there is therefore in Syria a wider popular base of support for anti-Zionism than in any other Arab country. The Syrians’ view of Palestine as part of their own country distinguishes them from other Arabic-speaking peoples (such as the Egyptians) for whom Palestine is an important and closely related area, but nonetheless a foreign one. To put this in more familiar terms, Egyptians see Palestine as Germans see Austria, while Syrians see it as West Germans see East Germany. This difference accounts for the special Syrian animosity toward Israel, for Syria’s leading role in the Arab-Israel conflict, and for the intensity of popular Syrian anti-Zionism.

Assad, the self-appointed guardian of Arab militancy, has led efforts to block Arab peace with Israel. He has energetically committed Syria to a course of military challenge by stifling internal dissent, forming a tight alliance with the Soviet Union, and developing the most powerful military machine in the Arab Middle East. The current Syrian effort to attain “strategic parity” with Israel suggests that Assad is ready to go it alone, if necessary, without relying on assistance from other Arab states.

As we have seen, the claim to Southern Syria also leads to bitter competition with the PLO. If, as Assad believes, Palestine should be under the control of Damascus, there is no room for an independent Palestinian movement. And, indeed, no other Arab state tries to dominate the PLO as does Syria.

One frequently overlooked implication of the claim to Southern Syria concerns the Golan Heights. The Jordanian and Egyptian governments have indicated a willingness to live in peace with Israel once the territory they lost in 1967 is retrieved; not so the Syrian regime. Assad has clearly stated that he will not quit the fight upon recovery of the Golan Heights. For example, he told the PLO in 1981 that “Syria wants Palestine as much as it wants the Golan. . . . We want Palestine first and the Golan second.” Along similar lines, the Syrian foreign minister has said of the Golan that “for us it is like any part of Palestine.” This attitude trips up all would-be negotiators between Syria and Israel.

Finally, the domestic popularity of the campaign to control Southern Syria means that Assad does not find himself under the sort of pressure that caused Anwar Sadat, King Hussein, and other Arab leaders to seek accommodation with Israel. Again the German analogy fits; just as four decades of separation have not dimmed West Germany’s interest in East Germany, so does Syrian interest in Palestine burn strongly. Accordingly, the Syrian government is unlikely at any time in the foreseeable future to acknowledge the permanency of Israel’s existence. The simple fact is, Damascus is not ready for negotiations.

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Americans tend not to appreciate this fact. No matter how many times Assad declares his views on Palestine as Southern Syria, these are too radical, too nakedly aggressive, and too out of line with our expectations to be accepted by most U.S. officials, journalists, and scholars. (Henry Kissinger is a notable exception, having concluded from his 1974 shuttle efforts that “Syrians considered Palestine part of ‘Greater Syria.’ ”) Instead, the American foreign-policy elite favors its own interpretation: that Assad is trying to extricate himself from the Palestine imbroglio, that he has no long-term interest in fighting Israel, that he is merely intent on regaining the lands lost in 1967 (so that he can concentrate on economic development, political reconciliation, and the like). Assad’s grandiose claims are dismissed as “Arab rhetoric”—which the cognoscenti wink at and declare unimportant;2 his huge military build-up is deemed defensive in nature; and his ties to the Soviet Union are seen as transitory and weak.

Such views are conducive to U.S. peace initiatives, to be sure. Unfortunately, they happen to be wrong.

The United States cannot mitigate Syrian claims on Israel, much less bring about peace between the two countries. What, then, can we do? We can begin by taking Syrian irredentism seriously and firmly stating our opposition to it. We can help establish confidence-building measures between Syria and Israel and can provide good offices when these are requested. But the real help the United States can provide is military. To the extent that U.S. policy seeks to defuse Syrian-Israeli hostility, it must aim at dissuading the Assad regime or its successors from using force; and this is done by raising the costs of aggression. The United States needs to remind the Syrian leaders repeatedly that the balance of forces will not be allowed to deteriorate, and should help see to it that it does not. Vigilance and strength, not roseate views of Syrian intentions, will compel Damascus to desist from pursuing the dangerous dream of Southern Syria.

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Footnotes

1 Palestine had been called Southern Syria first in French, then in other languages, including Arabic. The 1840 Convention of London termed the area around Akko “the southern part of Syria,” and the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (published in 1911) explains that Palestine “may be said generally to denote the southern third of the province of Syria.” These examples could be multiplied a thousandfold.

2 There is nothing inherently rhetorical about Arabic political language. Moderate leaders like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hassan of Morocco speak no differently from American statesmen. That Muammar al-Qaddafi sounds like Lyndon LaRouche and Hafez al-Assad resembles the American Communist leader Gus Hall reflects on their politics, not their language. To deprecate the sincere words of Arab leaders is to impose a double standard on them, and to be guilty of racism.

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