International and Arab News
Syria’s Idea, from Unity to Freedom
Syria’s Idea, from Unity to Freedom
Syria has historically been associated with the idea of unity- just as Algeria has been associated with the idea of revolution, Palestine with resistance, and Lebanon with freedom. The late Algerian President, Ahmed Ben Bella, is said to have claimed, when the Syrians welcoming him in Damascus chanted: “Unity, unity” during his visit there, that the country was intoxicated by unity.
Syria, in its nominal present form, is the result of the unity of the states established by the French mandate. The political consciousness of the many nationalist intellectuals Syria has produced over the past century revolved around unity. Some of their critics saw this as an aggrandizement of Syria through the “reclamation” of Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. Unity with Iraq was a hot topic in 1950s Syria. At the end of that decade, Syria dissolved itself into a larger, united state that brought it together with Egypt.
The centrality of unity has rendered this country terrifying to its neighbors, who are horrified at the prospect, as well as great powers, who had assumed that the world, in its current configuration of states, was stable. This centrality also compelled isolation enthusiasts to dub Damascus “the beating heart of Arabism.” The scourge of Baathist rule that emerged in 1963 was justified as a response to the 1961 secession from Egypt that was needed to reestablish unity. The goal of reestablishing unity obviously never materialized, but the predictable implications of armies and security forces advocating nationalism did. After a while, the military-security establishment born out of this obsession with unity swallowed its father, taking an independent trajectory that needs neither ideologies nor ideologues.
Nothing links Syria with this concept any longer. Toxicity and frivolity have left the concept totally chewed up: “the beating heart of pan-Arabism” now pumps Captagon and things of that sort. The Assad regime, with its exceptionally vicious butchery, has left the country itself in need of unity to bring the many different spheres of influence that make up its territory together and retrieve the millions of its former inhabitants scattered inside the country and across the globe.
However, new ideas that the Russian war on Ukraine brings to mind have begun latching on to Syrians. This recollection came in two forms: some recalled the regime and the old idea of unity, likening the relationship between Russia and Ukraine to that between Syria and Lebanon. As for those who remembered the Syrian people and the post-unity era, they were shocked by the all too familiar pain, scorched earth, demolished cities, and weapons that both Syrians and Ukrainians know well.
The new Syrianism, because the people dared to confront this terrifying regime, represents standing up to tyranny. It also represents discovering the world and its potential after an extended period of isolation governed by and enforced in light of a security regime and the idea of unity. The harsh and widespread experience of becoming a refugee left those forced to flee their homes feeling like they had been let out of a bottle: the suffering that comes with experimentation, failure, and engaging with values and relationships that Syrians had been forbidden from for decades, including justice, the rule of law, gender equality, and freedom of expression and movement… And in their many host countries, the idea of a new Syria took its position in opposition to nationalist and populist fanaticism, while Syrians represented the victims of this fanaticism. This reality contrasts sharply with the image that the old Syria, the Syria of unity, wanted to convey.
Syria has become a rock thrown into the over-extended pool of stagnation our region is drowning in, a rock that terrifies those clinging to power after it once terrified the region’s peoples. It reassures the neighboring peoples who want to see a different future after having reassured only their oppressors previously.
Nevertheless, Syria’s new idea is brimming with bitterness. Besides the viciousness of the regime and living in exile, the consensus around the new idea remains weak among Syrians. As for the reaction of the world to their hardships, it fluctuates between lukewarm and cold, cynicism and impotence. In any case, the world looked upon Aleppo from the Kyiv balcony. Additionally, troubled neighbors often have in mind the Syria of unity when it is the emerging image of freedom they are looking at. Some of the Lebanese, for example, are still incapable of distinguishing the new image of Syrianism from the security-service agent image of old. Thus, you see them choose one of two behaviors: either cruelty with Syrians as revenge for the legacy of its terrifying security officers or going along with the security officer because he is, as the Lebanese remember him, a terrifying being. Some Palestinians entrenched Syria’s affiliation with the idea of unity, ignoring the great debt they owe the Syrian people, who had always been immersed in the liberation of Palestine.
Still, the bitterness that stems from the impossibility of unifying the nation while preserving the path of freedom is strongest: Either the crystallization of the new Syrian idea outside its borders or a nation where freedoms are trampled on.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, speculating about the outcome of this metamorphosis is difficult. For an idea to crystalize outside of the country it is intended for after a massive calamity, it would necessarily be accompanied by a lot of conflicts, schisms, and hardships.
However, we can be certain that pursuing this change requires a parallel transformative process that involves radical and painful reassessments of the narrative of the country’s history and the values that emerged during the era of insolation. A final settlement of accounts with the idea of a Syria of unity would inevitably be at the forefront of such a reassessment.