Ladies and Gentlemen:
It gives me great pleasure to be with you in beautiful British Colombia. I would really like to thank the Arab Youth Association for giving me the opportunity to visit this University and speak to you.
As you probably know, the negotiations' fever is heating up in the Middle East on bilateral and multi-lateral fronts. The PLO and Israel are getting ready to implement the "Jericho-Gaza First" agreement. Given all this, an astute observer cannot but wonder and ask aloud: is the Middle East conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since the early Nineteen hundreds finally ending? Can we believe that we will now have peace and the children of the Middle East will live in
harmony? The answers will depend on one's frame of reference, definitions and sense of history.
If we view this conflict as one between Israel and the political entities with whom it is negotiating: the PLO, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, then one can assume that peace is on its way. If, on the other hand, the conflict is not between political states as such, then we have a problem and the ongoing peace process will have to be seriously re-examined.
The ongoing process is dealing with the effects of a serious conflict but not with the cause. It leaves out a fundamental question? Why did we have this conflict in the first place? What are the true causes? Can we, in our most genuine desire for peace, ignore the issues that lead to war? Most importantly, are these issues of a nature that could be ignored?
The title I chose: "The Syrian Fertile Crescent and the Pax Israelana" might seem strange to you, and the terms of reference alien to your vocabulary. I believe that understanding the concept of the Fertile Crescent and what it implies, and understanding Israeli strategic objectives and what they entail, will shed a new light on the issues at hand.
The Syrian Fertile Crescent, or Geographic Syria, is that part of Western Asia surrounded by the Mediterranean from the West, Turkey from the North, Iran from the East, and Arabia from the South. Today this area is politically divided into a number of states that include Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, occupied Palestine, currently known as the state of Israel, Kuwait, and Cyprus, and its people are labelled accordingly.
This geographic area has been the natural playground for multitudes of people since time immemorial. They came from the South and from the North. They came from the Mediterranean Islands and from the East. They coexisted and they fought. They built empires that dominated the old world, and they invited the wrath of invading empires that levelled their cities and laid their civilizations to waste.
This Fertile Crescent was the birth place of the Sumerians, the Akadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Caldeaens, the Canaanites, the Phoenicians and many others. It was the seat of consecutive Arab empires in Damascus and Baghdad. Its history, like that of most other nations, is one of recession and expansion. At times, it dazzled the world with new waves of discovery that changed the courses of human knowledge. At times, it slumbered, under occupation, into deep cultural hibernation.
Dr. A. Vorboose, founder of the Chair of Syrian Studies at the University of Chicago, delivered a lecture titled "The Syrian influence on Western Civilizations" in Ottawa, Canada in 1980. In it, he described in awe his discoveries during a span of 34 years in which he combed close to 40,000 manuscripts hidden in Syrian monasteries from Sinai to Iraq, and from Lebanon to Northern Syria. He described the contents of 200,000 pages of manuscripts in Aramaic and Syriac that have never been seen before. They cover spirituality, philology, music, mysticism, medicine, history, economy and sciences. He concluded by saying that "historic research will always be lacking until it takes the Syrian influence and contribution into account."
Since time immemorial, these waves of people have mixed to form, what until the beginning of this century, was known as the Syrian people. To the Arabs, they were called the Inhabitants of "Bilad Ash-Sham." To Latin Americans, they were Syrios; to North Americans, they were simply the Syrians. The current divisions, imposed upon Syria starting in 1916, have created new names and confused identities. Unfortunately, there are many authors who insist on those divisions and deny the people of the Syrian Fertile Crescent their true national identity.
One such author is Daniel Pipes, the author of "Greater Syria, the History of an Ambition," published by Oxford in 1988. The 240 page volume is dedicated to prove that "There is no such thing as a Syrian Nation." It also attempts to dictate the future by stating, with finality, that: "Greater Syria does not fit the definition of a nation, it never has, and never will."
It is not our purpose today to dissect Pipes' conclusions. But it is striking that someone will go to such lengths to prove that something does not exist while pointing at it. For while Pipes insists in the introduction to his book that there is no such a thing as a Syrian Nation, he says on page 28:
"The division of Syria into two mandates, British and French was followed during the next three years by the creation of yet another six boundaries. Though exceedingly complex, the divisions of 1920 to 1932 bear close attention, for a number of them remain in place to the present. Decisions taken on the spur of the moment for fleeting imperial interests endured long after the collapse of the European empires; indeed the careless, arbitrary nature of these divisions continues to burden politics in historic Syria. With the exception of Lebanon, the divisions corresponded neither to Ottoman provincial lines nor to any other boundaries. Indicative of their novelty was the need to refer back to ancient or medieval times to find names for some of these new entities-Iraq, Jordan, Palestine."
Perhaps Pipes' sentiment could be summed up by the quotation with which he adorns the concluding chapter of his book. It is attributed to Major Saad Haddad, the Lebanese army collaborator who surrendered parts of southern Lebanon to Israel. He is quoted as saying: "We ask almighty God to divide Syria into hundreds of pieces so that the world will rest in peace."
How do we reconcile these opposing views? Dr. Vorboose's who speaks of the Syrian civilization with the highest praise and invites scholars to rewrite history taking into account the Syrian foundation of knowledge, and Pipes' denials that such an entity even exists. These opposing views beg the following question: how could there be such a great Syrian Civilization that dates to at least 5000 years BC without a Syrian Nation that gave birth to it?
If there is a Syrian Nation, a nation with a distinctive persona that has evolved over thousands of years, a nation that has been a contributor par excellence to world civilization, then why deny it? Perhaps if we start examining the second part of our title, Pax-Israelana we will find the answer.
Pax is a Latin word meaning peace. Israel is a Jewish state proclaimed by the Zionist movement in Palestine in 1948. However, that proclamation was only a small step towards a much larger goal: a goal that has been a sacred constant in the strategic Zionist thinking but was revealed only in stages. A quick historic review is in order.
The Zionist movement, which appeared on world stage in 1897 in Bazl Switzerland adopted, in its first convention held that year, the following program:
1 . The promotion of Jewish colonization of Palestine by Jewish
agriculture and industrial workers;
2 . The establishment of an organization to bind world Jewry by means
of institutions in each country inhabited by Jews
3 . The strengthening of Jewish national sentiment;
4 . The acquisition of government consent to the attainment of Zionist aims.
The founder of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, failed in his bid to get "Government Consent" from the Ottoman Sultan. His successors were more successful. They were able to wiggle their way through the conflicting agendas of the warring blocs during and after WWI, and advance their program and obtain the necessary consent. This consent was manifested through such agreements as the Sykes-Picot accords of 1916, the Balfour declaration in 1917, and the Mandate for Palestine in 1922.
The Sykes-Picot accords between the British and the French divided Syria into three areas for post WWI consideration. Area A, or the "Blue Area," included the current states of Lebanon and Syria to be under French rule. Area B, or the "Red Area," included Iraq and Jordan of today, to be under British rule. Palestine was designated as the "Brown Area" where: "There shall be an international administration the form of which will be decided upon after consultation with Russia and after subsequent agreement with the other Allies and the representatives of the Sherrif of Mecca."
Apparently one of those "Allies" was the Zionist movement. One year later, the British government issued the now infamous "Balfour Declaration" as a letter to Lord Rothchild, head of the Zionist movement. It stated.
"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
After WWI, the victorious Allies decided to divide the ex-colonies of the defeated empires. The Sykes-Picot accords were transformed into a "Mandate," sanctioned by the League of Nations. Hence, France was mandated to govern Syria and Lebanon, and Britain to govern Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Palestine. .
In the Mandate document, the Balfour declaration was incorporated word for word, but given added teeth. For example, Balfour Declaration stated: "The establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people." The Mandate states in the preamble that: "Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds of reconstructing their National Homeland in that country;"
Article two states that:
"The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home;"
Article four recognizes the Zionist organization as:
"A public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home;"
Article six states that:
"The Administration of Palestine shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in cooperation with the Zionist organization, close settlement of Jews on the land, including state lands and waste lands not required for public use;"
With the vigorous implementation of this Mandate, it was only a matter of time before a Jewish Homeland would be proclaimed at the expense of the Syrian population in Palestine. However, this was not the end. Now that the first Zionist program of Bazl 1897 was fulfilled, a new objective was revealed to the world. This happened in the 23 Zionist congress convened in Jerusalem in 1951.
According to Encyclopedia Judaica: "The Bazl program no longer met the requirements of the new reality and was replaced by the Jerusalem program." The essential clause in the new program stated: "The task of Zionism is the consolidation of the state of Israel; the in-gathering of the exiles in Erez Israel, and the fostering of Jewish unity."
The first and third items of this statement are clear, but what about "the in gathering of the exiles in Erez Israel"? If the exiles are supposedly the Jews living outside Israel, what then is Erez Israel? Again, we go to Encyclopedia Judaica for an answer. We read in vol. 6, of the 1971 edition under Erez Israel the following: "Hebrew name of the Land of Israel. From the second temple period onward, the term Erez Israel became the current appellation of the promised land." Which promised land? The land supposedly promised by God to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis chapter 15:18:
"In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land from the river of Egypt unto the great river Euphrates."
and in Joshua 1: 3-4,
"Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites and unto the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your cost."
Hence the actual objective of Zionism is to gather as many Jews and bring them to the promised land between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, in other words, to the Syrian Fertile Crescent..
Perhaps now we can better understand Daniel Pipes and his book "Greater Syria, History of an Ambition." When Pipes says, "Syria does not exist as a nation," he is really saying Syria should never be allowed to exist i a nation because such a nation will threaten Israel and the Zionist objectives.
In a previous article also written by Pipes and published in Commentary in the December issue of 1986, the author says in discussing the concept of Palestine as Southern Syria:
"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 from pursuing the dangerous dream of Southern Syria."
Hence the real issue in the Middle East is not a border dispute between states, nor is it a matter of adding another state to the area. The real conflict is a life and death conflict between Syria, a nation trying to regain its unity and its place among the nations, and the Zionist dream of transforming Syria into a Jewish homeland. It is obvious that there is no room for those two conflicting claims to be achieved simultaneously. One of them has to be abandoned. That is why it is important for Pipes and his school to keep Syria divided. That is why Major Haddad, Israel's alley, invoked the wrath of the Almighty upon Syria and wished for its disintegration.
Where do we go from here? There is no doubt that Israel has made giant steps towards achieving its dream of controlling the Fertile Crescent, and imposing a Pax-Israelana on it. Let me present here a word of caution to those who only see control as direct military occupation as we have witnessed in Palestine and Southern Lebanon and the Golan. Military occupation is a brute and least desirable form of control. It is least desirable because it is messy and attracts attention. The control we are talking about is much more subtle, corrosive and dangerous. It is the control of the economy and resources.
I think it will be safe to chronicle the era from 1897 to present as follows: 1897-1948, infiltration and establishment; 1948-1973, entrenchment and encroachment; 1973-present, removing the obstacles from the path of an Israeli dominated peace in Syria.
What do we mean by an Israeli dominated peace? We mean a situation whereby Israel is recognized as a legitimate entity by the Palestinians. The Palestinians will have to drop all claims to land occupied by Israel in 1948, and most of the land occupied since 1967. Israel will also maintain military superiority through international guarantees. It will be able to pursue its programs of settling the lands of Palestine and Syria with Jewish settlers. It will have a preferred position when it comes to natural resources, especially water, and a free access to the markets of Syria and the Arab World.
To achieve those objectives, a number of obstacles had to be removed starting with the aftermath of the October 1973 war. Chronologically these were as follows: enticing Egypt into a separate peace treaty, the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and fighting potential in Jordan and then Lebanon, and forcing Lebanon into a humiliating peace treaty. Israel succeeded in the first two and failed in the third. Its failure could be attributed to: a) the assassination of its man in Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel; b) the cancellation by force of the May 18, 1983 treaty; c) the heavy price Israel paid at the hands of the Lebanese National Resistance in the South.
Other obstacles: growing military power of Iraq and financial power of Kuwait. This was taken care of through the Gulf war and the destruction of Iraq and Kuwait. The Palestinians refusal to give up their title to the land of Palestine is being taken care of through the deal with the PLO. While the PLO gives up its title to the land, Israel secures the right for future Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. At the same time this deal opens up Arab markets for Israeli goods and services. Arab countries now will say: "The Palestinian problem is resolved, so we can normalize relations with Israel."
The situation might be bleak for Syria today, and Israel might think that it has achieved its objective of a hundred years ago, or at least getting there. For those who think this way we say think again. Syria is a nation that has surprised the world more than once. We do not think that Israel was thinking about the Palestinian commandos of 1965 when it drove their fathers out of their homes in 1948. Israel was not thinking of October 1973 when it defeated the Arab world in 1967. It was not thinking of the Lebanese National Resistance fighters when it invaded Lebanon in 1982. Israel was not thinking of the Children of the Intifada when it perpetrated the massacres of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut.
Israel is now preparing for a final push in which it might pressure some of the Syrian states into submission. In response to that we say: "Regardless of political decisions, the final word belongs to the Syrian Nation, and the Syrian Nation has not said its final word yet."
Questions and Answers
I think a nation is defined by the people who live in it. Most people in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iraq view themselves as Lebanese Arabs, Syrian Arabs, Palestinian Arabs and Iraqi Arabs. I therefore dispute what you said about a Syrian nation. As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, the majority of the Israelis have rejected the notion of Erez Israel. There are a few who hold this view, but I strongly believe that the majority have rejected this issue.
Many people believe that there is one Arab nation. I hold a different view. I hold the view that there are four Arab nations as such. First let me give a definition of a nation.
A nation in my view is a Unity of Life - a unity of life for a group of people interacting among themselves and with the land upon which they live. They don't necessarily have to be of one race or ethnic origin. Our people, the Syrian people are made up of many different races. They have mixed with one another and have interacted with that piece of land called the Fertile Crescent for so many generations, actually millennia, to create what is called the Syrian Persona. The same thing happened to the Egyptians who have a different persona than that of the Syrians or the Morrocans or the Arabians of Arabia.
Now let me define the word Arab. In Arabic, Al-Arabah means desert. Hence the dwellers of Arabia are the desert dwellers. The Fertile Crescent people are not desert dwellers. Those four nations, Arabia, Syria, Egypt, an the great Maghreb are four Arab nations in the same sense as one would say Mexico is a Spanish nation belonging to the Spanish world, and Australia is an English nation belonging to the English world. But when you say a nation it has to imply a unity of life.
In our country, we have had this unity of life for thousands of years. Jerusalem, and Haifa and Yaffa and Beirut and Damascus and Baghdad, these are all cities within one nation. Obviously we can disagree on this, but at least this is my view on a nation.
On the second point that was raised, we have seen the Jewish objectives expand and retract according to political expediency. They did not say in 1897 that they wanted the whole land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. They said that in 1951. Why should I dispute what the Zionists say in their program? I should take it at face value. Some Israelis want direct military occupation, others favour indirect economic control. The result is the same. I think that an economic and resources control of the area is much more dangerous.
I find your overview very clear except for the relation between the historical nation of Syria and the current existing government of the country called Syria. I wonder if you can elaborate.
All along, I have been talking about the Syrian Nation and very briefly did I mention the current State of Syria. The current state called the Syrian Arab Republic was under French mandate starting from the early twenties on. Interestingly enough, the French had four states within their sphere of mandate. They had Lebanon, they also had a state for the Alawiis in the North Western part, they had a state for the Druze in the Southern part and one for the Sunnis. The Alawi and Druze states were incorporated into the Syrian state and Lebanon was left as an independent state for political and religious purposes. This is a brief history of area "A" of the 1922 mandate.
The Syrian Arab Republic is ruled by the Ba'ath Party. It proclaims one Arab Nation from the Atlantic to the Gulf. However, there are now some writers who suggest that, there has been a shift from Pan-Arabism to Pan-Syrianism within this party. This shift, according to Patrick Seale, was led by President Assad. This apparently prompted Daniel Pipes to publish his first article in Commentary, in which he warns the West from Assad's new approach.
To follow up on this question what would be the aspirations of the Syrian state toward historic Syria.
It is not a matter of the aspirations of a state. It is much deeper than that. It is a matter of life and death. The largest two states in the Fertile Crescent are Syria and Iraq. I think it is a matter of urgency to have some closer relation and even unity between these two states. There is a big problem looming on the horizon, the water problem. Let us touch upon it because the next war will be fought over water.
The current states of Syria and Iraq share the water of the Euphrates. Turkey is building huge dams on this river thus depriving Syria and Iraq from about 50% of their water. Ironically, Syria builds more dams on its side of the border thus depriving Iraq of more water. You cannot have resource and economic planning in the Fertile Crescent with those political divisions. It is disastrous for Lebanon, for Syria, for Palestine, for Iraq and everybody else. Every body is going to be affected by the water problem. So it is not a matter of aspirations, it is a matter of urgency that this unity takes place.
Let us look at this from another angle, demography. In Syria and Iraq, more than 50 % of the population is below 20 years of age. This means that in the next twenty years, the population, which is 13.5 million in Syria, and 17.5 million in Iraq, will have doubled. We already see the towns and villages on both sides of the borders between Syria and Lebanon expanding at phenomenal rate. They will sooner or later link despite the political boundaries between Lebanon and Syria. This is what I meant by saying the Unity of Life will impose itself and transcend those boundaries through trade, marriages, business and the movement of goods and services.
The unity will happen whether the politicians like it or not. This is what Israel will have to contend with. This is why I think the Israelis wanted to remove as many obstacles preventing them from having an upper hand in any peace negotiations, especially on the fronts of resources and markets. I don't see the necessity from here on for direct occupation with Israeli soldiers hitting people with rifle butts. Now is the time for economic entrenchment and I see it as much more dangerous.
In Pipes' book, there is reference to a map that the traveller to Syria sees at the airport in which the parts ceded to Turkey are shown as parts of Syria, and where there is no boundary between Syria and Lebanon, and where the Golan Heights are part of Syria. Other western writers have argued that half the Syrian population have lived only under the rule of Assad, and know Syria by its present boundaries. My question is do you think that Syria harbors iridescent claims to this territory?
The land that you are referring to is Iskenderun (Alexandretta) which was ceded to Turkey by the French mandatory power in 1938. Not only Iskenderun, but Marsin, Adana, Antiokh and all of North Western Syria. It almost included Aleppo, but the French changed their mind at the last minute. I think the French were trying to keep the Turks from joining forces with Germany just before the war so they gave them this land, but it did not work. The Turks joined the Axis anyhow. That land is Syrian land and the people their still speak Arabic. Pipes mentions in his book that Khaddam was asked whether Syria harbors any claims on those lands and he diplomatically answered that Syria seeks friendly relations with Turkey.
In my presentation, I mentioned that the history of Syria is that of expansion and recession. Right now the Syrian nation is in a state of recession way behind its natural boundaries. That is why you have areas of Syria which are under foreign influences.
The only two times in our modern history that we had a chance to express our opinion on the matter were the first Syrian Conference in 1920, and the King-Crane commission in 1922. On both occasions, the Syrian people in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine expressed their desire for unity from the Torus Mountains to Al-Arish.
Do you think the people of South Iraq identify with the Syrian nation? As far as I know Sheikh Khaza'al was for a while in Bahrain. So do the people in Ahwaz identify more with Syria or the Gulf area.
Probably they identify now more with the Gulf and Iran in the same way as some people in North Western Syria identify with Turkey. One of the biggest tragedies happens when a nation does not know its history. A nation has to be aware of itself. The awareness of the Syrian persona was lost for many generations. We were put to shame in Ottawa in 1980 when Dr. Vorboose lectured us about the greatness of the Syrian Nation.
It was interesting because he said: "Before I start my lecture let me give you a definition of the Syrian Nation so that you do not confuse it with the Syrian Arab republic. I am talking about the geographic area between the Mediterranean and the Zagrous mountains and from Taurus to Sinai. In this area rose the first civilizations in the world and they were most loving of knowledge and learning and science". etc. etc. It will take time but the Syrian people will come to know that we are one.
In the same way that the people of Ahwaz or Iskenderun might not know that they are Syrians, many in Lebanon, have accepted the de facto political situation forced upon them by the West. In fact many Lebanese identified more with the French than they did with Damascus. Some still do. But now that the Lebanese have paid a heavy price during the civil war, many are starting to acknowledge that we cannot live without Syria because our trade and commerce and family ties are all but one. You cannot cut the arteries of a body and expect it to live.
The same thing happened when Palestine was severed from Syria. In fact you have some Israelis who acknowledge that Palestine is Southern Syria. I have an article here by Mr. Ilan Elgar, council for press and Information at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles. In his attempt to deny that there was ever a Palestinian entity, he proves that Palestine is part of Syria. He says: "They thought of themselves as Syrians or as inhabitants of towns and villages in Southern Syria".
I return to the point that what you are talking about is geographical and economic necessities which could be resolved through free trade like many European countries are doing right now. However, the essential ingredient of a nation is that the people identify themselves as such. The overwhelming majority of people in what you call geographical Syria or political Syria do not identify with a Syrian Nation. They identify as Lebanese Arabs or Syrian Arabs and some identify as Moslems. An Arab nation does not have to be homogeneous. The most essential ingredient in it or in any other nation is the identification of the people to be such and such. If you do not have this identification the Syrian nation is not going to work.
I agree partially with what you are saying. Perception plays a very important in this. First thing they teach you in communication is the difference between the world outside and the world in your mind, and how they might not correspond. However I ask the following question: " Who old us in Lebanon that we are Lebanese? Why did the boundary of Lebanon top at Naqoura in the South and the Nahr Al-Kabir in the North, and why not 10 miles north or south of those borders? Why should we accept a nationality imposed upon us by an occupying power? This is the question to ask. Granted we hold Lebanese Identity papers. But when I ask myself: Was that an identity of my choice"? The answer is no. Was that identity given to me for my own good or for the good of the French? The answer is for the French.
I would like to respond. You said I do not recognize, from a legitimate pint of view, the borders between Syria and Iraq and Lebanon. I think hey are artificial. However, if the people of the region, if the people o Lebanon and Syria and Iraq consider these borders to be legitimate then they are legitimate. Then what you have in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon is a selling job. There is a very small minority who believe in what you are saying. The overwhelming majority in the Arab world believe, apart from the Islamists who do not believe in a national identity, that they are Lebanese Arabs or Syrian Arabs etc.
You say that the majority in Lebanon will tell you they are Arabs. In fact a great number of Lebanese will tell you they are Phoenicians, so where is the truth? Not only that, during the civil war, some Lebanese wanted to divide Lebanon into two more states, one for the Christians and one for the Muslims. Would you have accepted that?
The difference here is that I am giving definitions to every term I use. So when I say Arab, I mean the dweller of Al-Arabah, or the desert. Now, if you reverse the situation, and you go to Saudi Arabia and tell them you are an Arab, they will tell you no, you are a Syrian. The same if you go to Egypt and tell them I am Lebanese or Palestinian, they tell you "You are dwellers of Bilad Ash-sham.
Our problem in Syria is that our divisions are so ingrained in our minds. If we believe that we are Lebanese, we have to ask ourselves why? Our educational system in Lebanon was run by French missions that funded half the schools in the country. Not only did they teach us that France is our benevolent mother, but they taught us that we are different from one another because of our religious affiliations. I cannot force this opinion on any one, but I have to sell it because I believe that until we achieve our unity, not only geographically, but socially as well, we will always have a problem.
Looking at the historical aspect is very important, and also looking at what people think they are be it Arabs or Syrian or Lebanese, is also important. While it is true that the current divisions are the result of Imperial regimes, it is also true that there are different levels of human rights in each state. If we look at the future, and think of reuniting this region, one wants to know what kind of political regime there will be, because there are many people who call themselves Syrians or Arabs who do not want to live under the political regime of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Syrian Fertile Crescent and the pax Israelana
Lecture delivered at
The University of British Colombia
By Oussama El-Mohtar
February 12, 1994
Political regimes and respect of human rights vary from State to another and from time to another. All I can tell you is what I believe in. I believe in the unity of Syria, the unity of its people and their equality under the law. I believe in total separation between Church and State. You want to pray for God in a church, go and do it. You want to pray in a Mosque, go and do it. You do not want to pray at all, don't pray. It is a fundamental issue of human rights and beliefs, and no one has the right to impose it on any one.
What is the difference between the Arabism of Nasser of Egypt and that of Syria or Iraq? How do you explain some of Syria's political decisions such as siding with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and its stand against the Palestinians in Lebanon? And what do you think Syria's position will be regarding the peace talks between Israel and the PLO?
For an in depth analysis of Syria's decisions, I would like to refer you to two books, Pipes', and Patrick Seale's, Struggle Over the Middle East. They both give good insights into the thinking of Assad. But let us go back to your very first question. You have to look at how Syria and Iraq came into being and what ideological confusion followed. There was a lot of confusion. Arab nationalism as based on language and culture was very strong. I know what my friend here means when he says that we are all Arabs. The assumption is since we all have the same language and apparently the same culture, we are all Arabs.
In my view it is the other way around. Language and culture are by-products of a nation, but they do not make a nation. Our nation at certain times of its history spoke Syriac, at others it spoke Aramaic at other times it spoke Greek, and now it speaks Arabic, and it is the same nation. Canada speaks two languages and Switzerland three. A culture is also a by-product of a nation and not the other way around.
Arab nationalism was adopted and reached its height in the fifties when Nasser came to power. Every one believed that the Arab nation is going to solve the Palestinian problem. The dilemma though was that Palestine is a Syrian problem before it is an Egyptian problem or a Morrocan problem.
I think Assad went through a transformation process. He started as a Pan Arabist. But in 1973, he started to ask whether he had missed something fundamental by completely rejecting pan Syrianism. Pan Syrianism as such had been rejected because of its association with King Abdullah and because it was labelled as anti Arab or Anti Islamic. But apparently in 1973 Assad started looking at the special relations between Syria and Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Syria and Jordan, and Syria and Palestine. And I think he came to the conclusion that Palestine is a Syrian problem.
Hence in 1974 he publicly stated for the first time: "Palestine is Southern Syria".
This transformation is growing. As for the Syrian thinking on Lebanon, many people don't understand it. Before the war in Lebanon, Assad was pro Palestinian in Lebanon. As the war started, he intervened against the National movement and the Palestinians. If you look at these two
events at the microcosmic level they do not make sense. But if we view them in a larger contest we see that his objective was to prevent the Lebanese right wing movement from throwing itself into the Israeli arms. He failed. Because although he hit on the Palestinians in 1976 and 1977, the Lebanese right wing Christian parties still went ahead and threw themselves into the Israeli lap.
This of course created a whole new set of problems for Assad. Because paramount in his strategic thinking was the prevention of one to one negotiations with Israel as is happening now. He preferred a unified front. He succeeded in abrogating the 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanon, but failed in preventing Arafat from signing a separate peace treaty with Israel ten years later. So I wouldn't be surprised if Assad is rethinking the whole situation right now. And we will probably see some developments in that direction.
I might be picking on small points. However, Syria intervened in Lebanon for two reasons: the Lebanese National Forces were about to win the Civil War. Assad was afraid of two things, establishment of a leftist democratic Arab state which would undermine his regime by exporting the ideas of free speech into Syria, and the establishment of a Palestinian state in Lebanon which will drag him into war with Israel. So I don't think it was that vision of greater Syria or any thing like that.
I think you misunderstood me completely. I agree with you on the second part of your statement. Assad has been avoiding a direct war with Israel at any cost. I agree with that. I seriously question whether the Leftist alliance between the PLO and the Lebanese leftist movement would have presented a "Democratic State." I also question whether that state would have threatened Syria.
I would like to take exception to the notion that has been put forward by some questioners that we are Lebanese Arabs or Palestinian Arabs etc. In fact, my grand parents immigrated to Canada at the turn of the century. They come from Khiam which is now in Lebanon. But my grandfather, my father, and my aunts referred to themselves as Syrians. My Grandmother's immigration papers refer to her place of birth as Marjayoun-Syria. All the Arab clubs in Canada and Detroit and New York were Syrian clubs until the 50's. So to say that we are Lebanese Arabs is really erroneous.
Do you think that Assad decided to take on the cause of Greater Syria?
I don't look at Assad as someone who takes on causes as such. Assad is a very pragmatic leader. He is taking a hard nosed look at the reality of the political and social situation on the ground. It is true that the political slogans of socialism and unity and one Arab Nation are still there in the Ba'ath party rhetoric. But they are there for political consumption. The real political inclinations are for a "Syrian First" solution to the problem rather than a "Palestinian First" or an "Arab First" solution.
What about the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and Assad?
I think it must have influenced his thinking.
Do you think he has the same ideology now?
I think he has been influenced by this party's ideology and way of thinking for more than one reason. First, It represents a comprehensive and pragmatic outlook on the whole area. The second influence could be family related. According to Seale, Assad's wife comes from a family with strong connections to the Syrian Nationalist movement. So there could be an influence there. But I can not say that he is working to achieve the goals of that party.
How does the Syrian Nationalist Party view the Arab World?
It views the Arab world as composed of four nations, Syria, or the Fertile Crescent, Arabia, the Nile Valley, and the Great Maghreb. It calls for an Arab front comprised of those four nations to deal with issues of common interest.