Golda Meir once said that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian”, while Hafez al-Assad claimed that Palestine “is nothing but southern Syria”. The similarity of these statements, made by former leaders of two sworn enemies, is not as paradoxical as it might sound. Both Israel and Syria rejected the notion of an autonomous Palestinian entity, whether as a territory or in the form of a national identity. But whereas Israel’s rejection was based on the straightforward assumption that an independent Palestinian nation would negate the very existence of Israel, the Syrian attitude is a complex one.
For Syrians, Palestine, along with Jordan and Lebanon, is part of a “natural” or “greater” Syria. This is a long-held ideological conviction: “Palestine is an inseparable part of Syria,” wrote the Hashemite Prince Faisal to General Edmund Allenby after the collapse of Ottoman rule. Having established an Arab government in Damascus in 1918, Faisal was grooming himself to become king of “Greater Syria”. Since then, no Syrian leader has failed to assert his country’s claim to Palestine. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, these claims were briefly curbed by internal turmoil and the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Nasser introduced a version of pan-Arabism that made Palestine “an inseparable part” not of Syria alone, but of the whole Arab world.
Unlike Nasser’s, however, the Syrian commitment to Palestine was not purely rhetorical. As far back as the start of the troubles in Palestine, Syrians had volunteered to fight side-by-side with the Palestinians. During the general strike of 1936-39, Fawzi al-Qawuqj, a Syrian officer, led 300 men in the fight against the British and Zionist militias. And when the UN endorsed partition in 1947, there was as much protest in Syria as in Palestine.
The strength of this commitment has brought Syria into confrontation with not only Israel and its western allies, but also the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Disillusioned with Arab regimes after the Six Day War, the PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, decided that it would no longer accept Arab guidance in its decision-making. This brought it into conflict with Syria under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, a conflict from which the relationship has not yet recovered. Syria not only questioned the PLO’s right to represent the Palestinian people, but went as far as attacking the organisation and trying to destroy its leadership.
Ideological conviction apart, Syria’s love for Palestine has often been based on hard political calculation, especially during Hafez al-Assad’s rule. The oppressive regime could survive only by maintaining a state of emergency, which could be done only by mobilising the country against an external threat – Israel. Yet it is unfair to assume that Syria’s government has always regarded the Israeli threat as a mere pretext for its own survival. From the beginning, Israel represented a huge challenge to Syria. After Egypt, Syria’s most reliable ally, signed a treaty with Israel in 1979, Damascus felt isolated and needed desperately to extend its domination over Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Palestine in particular was, and still is, a bargaining chip that Syria could not afford to lose. For this purpose, it tried to subordinate the PLO to its will, but Arafat chose to talk to the Israelis without the blessing of the Syrians. He was never forgiven for that. Since the Oslo peace talks, Damascus rarely refers to Palestine as southern Syria, but whenever negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis reach a deadlock, as they so frequently do, the Syrians cannot help reviving their long-standing love for Palestine.
Samir el-Youssef is a Palestinian writer living in London
Sects in the city
Despite official rhetoric about the “united Syrian Arab people”, Syria is far from being a homogeneous state. The country is 74 per cent Sunni Muslim,10 per cent Christian, and the remainder is made up of a scattered mosaic of sects: Druze, Ismailis, Twelver Shias and Bashar al-Assad’s own minority, the Alawites.
The Alawites were once confined to the poor mountainous areas of western Syria. With Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power, however, they were promoted to senior positions in Damascus, though he was careful to share power with other minorities. Syria’s internal security – and the survival of the Assads’ pragmatically secular regime – has been ensured by minorities afraid of the sectarian chaos that has plagued much of the region.
But this type of stability comes at a price: the Syrian political scene is dominated by Alawite relatives of the president, including three militia leaders, the head of military intelligence, parliamentarians and the heads of both the Republican and Presidential Guards. Assad Jr must attempt to keep his ambitious clan in check – Assad Sr was forced to exile his younger brother Rifaat after a failed coup d’état in 1984 – while maintaining their grip on power. The Iraqi example suggests that if the regime should fall, ordinary Alawites could pay the price for decades of dominance over the Sunni majority.