Syria from Unity to Union

States arise out of war, and are also eliminated by war. War is not just armed conflict but is also a conflict of discourses, of intellectual modes, and of desires. The state may be a nation state or it may be something else – as was the case for the Syrian state on the day segments of the Syrian population rose up and revolted against it just over four and a half years ago. It was not a nation state, no matter how much the regime, its supporters and theorists insisted otherwise.

The Syrian state started out in the first half of the last century, arising out of battles and as a result of local, regional and international conflicts of will and vision. The state was certainly supposed to be a national one, according to the rhetoric employed by its founding fathers, and was founded on various principles, chief among which were centralization, Arabism and respect for Islamic values and the sharia.

The path that state has trodden since then has led it to the devastating war we see raging today and all the destruction, displacement, extermination campaigns and hate speech unfolding there. As far as I’m concerned the Syrian state was established on a flimsy foundation, but nevertheless it did carry within it some elements of national survival, which were rooted in the Syrian people’s struggle against the French mandate and the projects to divide and federalize the country that it had proposed at the time. However, those elements of potential continuity and cohesion were not engaged with on the basis of a deep-rooted nationalism immediately after independence; on the contrary, the very opposite took place once Assad the father tightened his grip on the country, and under Assad the son those elements were smashed so effectively as to perhaps not reappear at all in recent years.

But in any case, whatever our analysis of the causes of the situation in the country may be, what the ailing Syrian state project was built upon in the first half of the last century is no longer viable as a foundation for anything. If the Syrian entity is somehow able to survive the current slaughter and anything of it does in fact remain afterwards, it will be standing on a new foundation and not on the one that the Syrians of the nineteen forties and fifties knew.

What needs to be pointed out first – and what must always be born in mind – is that what distinguishes a nation state from other types of state is that it is a state of citizens. It is a state in which the citizens all have equal rights and responsibilities, and if this is not the case then it turns into something other than a nation state. The nation state is the option I lean towards from among the various types of state that humans have founded in their political history, and it is the most prevalent type of political society today. It can be said that the majority of states in the world are nation states, or are at least heading towards becoming fully-fledged nation states – thanks to long and diligent engagement with the things that the citizens of the country all have in common, with national principles and national consensus. This engagement was hesitant and confused in the first decades of the Syrian state’s life and then ground to a halt entirely during the last few decades.

An invalid ‘consensus’

The idea of Arab nationalism is not suitable as the unifying factor the Syrian nation state is founded on, because the era of the rise of Arab nationalism has passed, and because the Baath party’s Arabism failed once its proponents had ruled over the Syrian population with an iron fist for decades. Furthermore, the Baath version of Arab nationalism is widely considered to be one of the main causes of the current situation in the country, and no longer to be a valid unifying factor – not for the entire population nor even for the majority of them, as was the case immediately after independence.

However, Arabism’s unsuitability to constitute one of the Syrian national unifying factors is not only due to the presence of the Kurds in the north and northeast of the country, as many people argue. Rather, it is because national identity is not only formed of what unites a country’s population but also of what distinguishes them from others. Arab nationalism erases the boundaries of the Syrian national entity, considering it a temporary entity that must be eliminated and subsumed into a greater whole. Let us remember that the dream of the first post-independence Syrian president was for the flag of the Arab Nation to be flown above the Syrian one, and for the major Syrian public holiday not to be a celebration of the country’s independence but of the withdrawal of foreign forces. As for independence, he thought it was what the country should be rescued from by Arab unity.

None of this means that Arab nationalism has to be excluded from Syrian national culture, nor that there would not be a place for Arabism in any Syrian nation state. The reality is that the connections between the Syrians and their Arab environment cannot be severed: they are complex links involving blood kinship and modes of religious practice as well as language and culture. And Arabism also brings together many sections of the Syrian people – but it still does not constitute a universal national connection, and it is still not suitable to be a main pillar nor the decisive factor in constructing a Syrian nationality.

Islam is not suitable as a main pillar in constructing a Syrian nationality, either. Firstly because Islam is not a single homogenous faith in Syria, and the Islam usually presented as Syrian Islam is Sunni Islam. The Alawites, Christians, Shiites, Druze, Ismailis and other minority sects – who constitute at least thirty percent of the population – all fall outside of the Sunni sphere on account of their birth. The first thing this means is that the country’s minorities would have to be oppressed and forced to comply with religious values that they were born outside of and that are not what they were raised to believe in originally. And so clearly the second thing this implies is that a state would be established in which the citizens are not equal in terms of rights or responsibilities. In addition, Syrian political Islamic arguments are built on the claim that the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and within this assumption is something that seeks to erase the local distinction between individuals and communities and to establish authoritarian rule.

But none of the above means, either, that the exclusion of Islam from the Syrian population’s lives is a condition for building a national consensus – even political Islam. Firstly because this exclusion would be impossible, or would require the unleashing of barbaric violence that would not lead to the formation of a nation state. Secondly, because Islam is indeed the religion of the majority of Syrians, and an adherence to its values and requirements is a choice made by a broad cross section of Syrians. So the very notion of attempting to force them to abandon Islam is a fascist one that can only lead to more wars,  more hatred and even further injustice.

The Syrian state was founded on the basis of centralization, and the centralization of the state was not a mere administrative choice in Syria but the focus of a public consensus with its own ideological and historical support structure. This structure is linked to the fact that the struggle to get the French forces out of the country and free the Syrians from the French mandate was going on at the same time as the struggle against the federal Syrian state project approved by the French in 1922, and was followed by the struggle against the division of Syria into independent states. Those plans for federalizing and dividing the country came in the context of the victorious First World War allied forces breaking up the Hashemites’ project for an independent united Arab state. This led to an insistence on the centralization of Syria, both as a way of defending whatever could be defended of that Hashemite project and as a way of retaliating to these western attempts to divide the country.

Talk of division, decentralization and the federal state has always been unacceptable in Syrian politics, culture and political thought, and it still is. Not only is the rejection of these ideas backed up by the brutality of the security services, but these ideas are also rejected by the overwhelming majority of pro- or anti-Assad and revolutionary Syrian elites. There are still some people who claim that these proposals are a conspiracy by western states eager to continue fragmenting the region.

But in any case, it would no longer be possible for the centralized Syrian state to be a nation state, now that Syrians are lined up today in local rather than national armed formations. They now have local administrative, judicial and legislative councils, and their lifestyles have diverged more and more. Their relationships with each other are now tainted by mutual hostility, hate and suspicion, and this is not limited to the relationship between regime supporters and opponents nor to the relationship between people of different sects and nationalities.

The return to a centralized Syrian state looks impossible today. But even if it were possible it would either require the state to decree quotas of warlords and the groups they represent (along the lines of the Lebanese state produced by the Taif Agreement) or for there to be a well organized and well armed military power willing to exercise violence freely – or a combination of both those things. It is impossible to conceive of this scenario, on the one hand, and on the other hand it would surely lead to the establishing of something other than a nation state: a frightening state that would be no less heinous than the State of Assad.

The idea of Syrian unity

What can the Syrian people be brought together by today other than the emotional desire most of them have to preserve the unity of the country, and their desire to survive? Nothing else. They are not brought together by any kind of political consensus, nor by any state identity, nor by the nature of the regime ruling over that state, nor by its international alliances and position on the global stage, nor by lifestyle or sources of legislation. The Syrian people are not brought together by anything other than the fact that they do not want to die, and that they want their life to improve. But their opinions on how to avoid death and push life forward are so varied and so contradictory as to provoke them to murder, lynching and genocide.

However, a little scrutiny of the way the conflict is developing points to something that could turn out to bring the Syrian people together: their troubled relationship with the state, its apparatus, its center and its hegemony. Syrians do not love the state, they do not trust it, and they have distinct local tendencies that were demonstrated so clearly as to be impossible to ignore in the areas that rose up against the regime. There is also a clear tendency among ordinary Syrians to manage their lives autonomously, and a desire to establish institutions with local characteristics and end the center’s tyranny over the periphery. This does not only apply to opponents of the regime and to revolutionaries, but even to most of the regime’s supporters, whose loyalty to the centralized state in Damascus is based – as events have shown – on the state’s capacity to protect them from the supposed danger posed by other Syrians rather than on any other consideration.

So all of the above could be the foundation of a new Syrian state in which the population is brought together by a mutual recognition of each other’s right to organize their own affairs autonomously and to live in accordance with their local lifestyles and sources of legislation. The idea of a decentralized state is rejected out of hand by the majority of Syrian elites as the idea of federalism – a term that provokes indignation and anger as if its advocates were enemies of Syria and of the Syrians.

Therefore let us leave the term federalism to one side, and start to think about dividing the country into autonomous districts managing their own affairs, in which local legislative councils and administrative bodies are elected. Security operations and the application of the law could be carried out by local police agencies. During a ceasefire period long public discussions could be entered into about the powers and authority that will be given to a centralized state, and about how the army is to be organized, its powers and structure. There would also be debates about the mechanisms regulating economic exchange between the provinces, about local budgets and the general state budget, and about how to regulate the relationship between the judicial, legislative and executive bodies in the provinces. General guidelines and controls to be agreed on by all would also be debated, and would then be included in a comprehensive constitution for the whole country in which the principle of autonomous self-management would form a central plank that cannot be amended other than by a revolution. Whether that revolution happens on a bright or cloudy day makes no difference, because no state can go on forever, not the State of Assad nor any other.

That would be a federal state. The scenario presented above seems like a flight of fancy at the moment, and on top of that it would of course depend on the transnational jihadi forces’ surrender as well as that of the Assad forces intent on forcing their tyrannous rule on the entire country at any price. Nevertheless, even the fantastical elements of that scenario seem easier to imagine than either a return to a stable and calm centralized state or the division of the country into independent states. It also seems closer than either of those options to accomplishing what the Syrians are aiming for when they rise up in revolution, carry arms, or fight in the conflict – namely the transition to a better life. It is closer to the idea of the nation state, because it would afford the greatest possible equality of rights and responsibilities to the population.

On ‘our will’, state aspirations and regional aspirations

Syrians may seem to have lost their will these days and to have no say in determining their fate or the fate of their country. But this is neither entirely true, on the one hand, nor entirely new, on the other – it is not the result of years of revolution and war. In any case, the debate about the Syrian people’s role in making decisions about their own destiny is a long debate better dealt with elsewhere, and is not what this article seeks to address. There is no doubt, though, that the population of the country are not making the crucial decisions, and that what can be done about this fact is to research ways to restore as much autonomous decision-making power to that population as possible. It is clear that the Syrian people will not easily become the main decision-makers about their position in the various regional and international alliances and axes. This is for a whole host of reasons, most prominent among which is their profound disagreements over those alliances and axes. Therefore what can be worked on is restoring and defending the Syrians’ right to manage their own day-to-day affairs, to choose their own way of life and the type of administrative and legislative systems they want to live under. And it may be that the only path to these rights is via autonomous local administrations.

It is not exactly true that the great states will join forces one day with the powerful regional states to decide our fate, and that what they decide is exactly what will take place. Rather, the truth is that although in the end that will happen, the decisions taken and the understandings arrived at will inevitably be influenced – to varying degrees – by what we construct in terms of political and social structure, and the ways of life we want, and the ideas and suggestions we come up with.

This text adopts a point of view which can be summed up as follows: the theory of a Federal state seems more suited to life in our country than the idea of a centralized state does, and researching it and suggesting it in earnest and on a wide scale might help to establish the social and political modes that are best suited to the Arab Levant after the end of the war. If developed further the theory might also contribute to stopping the war one day.

Conclusion, and a call for open debate

It is true that the Syrian state was not established by the Syrians’ will, but was instead the outcome of understandings that were reached after the First World War. However, it is also true that the centralized state and Arabism were what the Syrian elites chose, and that Syrian political discourse is proud of the centralized state – instead of the greater Syrian union – having resulted from the Syrians’ struggle against the options offered by the French mandate.

What all this means is that our will and our aspirations have a place that may be obliterated in the midst of the terrible international war that is being waged on Syrian soil and in Syrian skies. If Syrian unity has failed miserably, then a Syrian union might be an viable and life-giving alternative, perhaps the only solution on offer instead of the division of Syria – and consequently the rest of the region – into sectarian states, or the continuation of a devastating war in the country for decades to come.