Is there still a Syrian state?

Research Professor at CERI Sciences Po, Eberhard Kienle currently works on the dislocation of states in the Middle East and on the regional political order, as well as on the link between economic liberalisation and political transformations in the region. He agreed to help us understand the current status of the Syrian state. Is there still a state in Syria? Interview.

You mention in your contribution to the edited volume Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War (eds. Linda Matar and Ali Kadri) that there are similarities between what you call the “old struggle for Syria” (late 1940s) and the current “new struggle” for Syria. Would you mind giving us the main aspects of these similarities?

When Syria became an independent state with the departure of French forces in 1945, unsurprisingly various political forces competed for political influence and for the material resources that depend on government action. Like many other states emerging from decolonisation, Syria had been largely shaped by the European powers: at the end of World War One the British and the French drew the political borders of post-Ottoman Middle East, and thereby defined the territory and population of its contemporary states, including Syria. Great Britain and France also established their institutions, including governments, assemblies and administrations, in other words their political regimes. As a colonial product the Syrian state suffered from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many of its nationals. 

Indeed, the population often felt at least as close to other Arabs as to their fellow citizens, and to other Arab governments as to their own. By implication, Syrians tended to draw other Arabs and foreigners into their domestic conflicts and offered external forces numerous opportunities to strengthen their own influence at the cost of Syrian unity. During the 1940s and 50s Iraq and Egypt sought to draw Syria into their respective orbit, as did Trans(Jordan) and Saudi Arabia. As a matter of course, non-Arabs also participated in a game that the famous journalist Patrick Seale discussed in his seminal book on the ‘Struggle for Syria’.

The dynamics of the Cold War and other developments allowed a highly authoritarian government and regime to dominate Syria and crush most opposition from the 1960s onwards. In this period Damascus emerged as a major international player in the Middle East and even beyond. However, the demise of the USSR and the advent of capitalist globalisation weakened the rulers around Hafiz al-Asad, the father of current president Bashar al-Asad, reducing policy making capacities at home and abroad, and thus contributing to the reemergence of domestic divisions that had temporarily been papered over. These divisions have not always reflected societal cleavages based on language or religion but they have greatly contributed to domestic conflicts since 2011. They once again allowed external forces ranging from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran to Turkey, European states, Russia and the US to enter into alliances with domestic forces, a constellation that has led to a new ‘Struggle for Syria’.

You refer to Baghat Korany’s work* while stating that Syria is a territorial rather than a nation state. Why? Does this mean that there is no Syrian nationalism whatsoever?

Syria may usefully be described as a ‘territorial state’ as its population, much less than that of other states, has formed a nation in the sense of an overarching community of solidarity and loyalty that reduces the impact of other loyalties—such as those based on language, religion or family—on the conduct and action of individuals, be it in politics or day-to-day matters, such as friendships and marriage. Put differently, Syria is a state with borders, a population and a political regime, but this state has not been consolidated by a strong national sentiment coextensive with the territory and population. This is not to claim that no such sentiment exists in Syria, as it is not to claim that classical nation-states like France are devoid of sub-state loyalties and solidarities. There were indeed periods in the history of Syria during which historical developments and political decisions favoured such a nascent national sentiment. In the end, however, it never became as powerful as in European and North American states where a variety of factors, including the capitalist revolution, strongly favoured it.

Interestingly, and consistent with what I said above, nationalism in Syria was more often Arab than Syrian, in other words, a form of Syrian nationalism that referred to a territory and population much larger than the Syrian state. A common language – Arabic – facilitated exchanges with many of the neighbours who were not seen as ‘foreigners’ or ‘strangers’. Nonetheless, a state where the national sentiment spills far over the borders is not a classical nation-state either, simply because once again state and nation are not coextensive. In that sense Bahgat Korany’s distinction is extremely helpful for the understanding of political dynamics within Syria and across its borders.

Given the so-called international community’s reluctance to accept changes to international borders, and yet given the violent conflict raging over identities in Syria, is the current territorial unity of Syria at risk? Is a division of the country into several smaller states a possibility and a way out of the war?

Yes, the territorial integrity of Syria is at risk, as is the case in other territorial states such as Iraq. Yet, ‘at risk’ does not mean that Syria will have to disintegrate entirely and possibly give way to smaller political entities, or to different ones such the Islamic State. The disintegration of Syria into smaller states would by no means solve the problem. Most likely conflicts within Syria would be transformed into conflicts between the successor states. Not everybody would have access to the sea, not everybody would have oil fields to control. People who moved to big cities like Damascus over decades might be victims of ethnic cleansing. Co-existence within one state is difficult, in particular after a conflict, but probably preferable mini-states at war against each other. Obviously, such coexistence needs a lot of time and effort, by locals as well as by the externals currently involved in the new struggle for Syria. The question is whether in particular the external forces, that may be tempted to run away, will have the patience, stamina, and understanding of the situation.

Is there still a Syrian state?

There is still an internationally recognised Syrian state, even though some external forces, including forces who officially recognise it, maintain troops on its territories. In functional terms the central government of this state had—and still has—lost control over parts of its territory, be it along the Turkish border, around Idlib or the Golan. And certainly the central government in Damascus does not currently exercise the famous monopoly over the physical forces of coercion that defined the state for Max Weber. Even less does it exercise a ‘legitimate’ monopoly, as Weber thought it had to. However, the reach of the central government has extended over the past years. More importantly perhaps, numerous exchanges and interactions, including trade and travel, have continued across the informal (and frequently moving) borders that armed groups have drawn between the parts of the country that they dominate. These exchanges continue to produce and reproduce links across the territory and among its inhabitants that may partly consolidate the state, possibly even create or recreate a sense of common purpose and overarching solidarity one day, even though this would not be for tomorrow.

*Korany, B. (1987). Alien and Besieged, Yet Here to Stay: The Contradictions of the Arab Territorial State. In G. Salamé (Ed.), The Foundations of the Arab State. London: Croom Helm.

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