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5 June 2006

Big brother no more

Syria - As repressive abroad as it is at home, its bullying tactics have done little to endear it to

By Hazem Saghieh

To its smaller neighbours, Syria is the regional bully of the Middle East. When the Palestinians seem lax in demanding their rights from Israel, it is swift to urge them on; when the Lebanese and Jordanians appeared to give way to the west over Israel, Syria pulled them up short. For the past 40 years, the country has been locked in a struggle to “return” Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine to the Syrian “womb” from which they were forcibly delivered by colonial doctors.

As with many bullies, however, Syria’s aggression stems from a nagging sense of its own weakness. Until Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, Syria frequently seemed keen to deny its identity as an independent nation state. In 1958, it accepted unification with Egypt under the pan-Arabist Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and became, until 1961, simply the “northern region of the United Arab Republic”. When this venture collapsed, it briefly became the “Syrian Arab Republic” (as it is now), but after the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1963 Syria was again demoted – in official rhetoric at least – to the status of a mere qutr or “region” of a wider, and completely imaginary, Arab nation.

Under the Ba’athists, Syria has often seemed a tool of notional pan-Arabism rather than a modern state: it has always spoken far more of its resistance, defiance and steadfastness than it has of its education system, health service or economic productivity. After Hafez al-Assad came to power, Syrians began referring to their country as “the Syria of al-Assad”. Even then, their sense of nationhood was defined in terms of their leader rather than the people, or even their territory.

Syria’s fluid sense of its own borders has made relations with its tiny coastal neighbour Lebanon particularly fraught. When the two states first came into existence, Damascus refused to exchange diplomatic representation with Beirut, as it was unnecessary between “brothers” – a sign less of fraternal affection than of the need to keep a grip on Lebanese sovereignty.

The neighbours have been further divided by their attitudes to the west – to the Lebanese, progress meant copying the west: to the Syrians, progress meant fighting against it. The Lebanese emphasise the “industrial” international links they have forged through trade, education and emigration, while Syrians prefer to stress the “natural” inherited ties of language, history, land and tribe. Their identity remains deeply rooted in the Arab world.

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The Syrian one-party system is an extension of this desire for unity and for the expression of a single “national truth”, which applies equally to internal policy. It would be hard to guess from official rhetoric that “the Arab people of Syria” in fact consists of various sects whose relations are less than cordial. Outbreaks of unrest, such as the violent Kurdish demonstrations of 2004, are quelled as quickly as possible. At an international level, Syria’s authoritarian approach has proved to be less than endearing. If the Middle East is to shake off the resentment caused by 20th-century pan-Arabism, it is up to Syria to become, instead of a dictatorial “elder brother”, a good sovereign neighbour.

Hazem Saghieh is political editor of al-Hayat newspaper