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The Syrian Dilemma | The Nation

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The Syrian Dilemma

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Damascus

About the Author

David Hirst
David Hirst, longtime Middle East correspondent for the Guardian, has also written for the Christian Science Monitor,...

Also by the Author

The Baathist regime is the most opaque on earth, and Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad must develop a strategy to save himself and his regime,
as the UN investigation of the assasination of Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafiq Hariri unfolds.

The Zionist-colonial enterprise has always had a built-in propensity to gravitate towards its most extreme expression.

ONE ARAB NATION WITH AN ETERNAL MISSION: BAATH PARTY, SMASHER OF ARTIFICIAL FRONTIERS. Till not so long ago, this was the slogan emblazoned across a triumphal archway under which travelers passed at the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. It was a relic of that turbulent, post-independence era when revolutionary nationalist movements, bent on restoring the "Arab nation" to its former greatness, took power in various countries. No country was more central to this than Syria, the "beating heart" of Arabism, and no movement more than Syria's progeny, the Baath, or Renaissance, Party.

Since the 1950s Syria has embarked on countless, ultimately abortive unionist projects with other Arab states. None of them, oddly, involved the country that was closest to it--not at least until, in 1976, its army crossed the most "artificial" of its colonially drawn borders and, in what it portrayed as its pan-Arab duty, sought to rescue Lebanon from the civil war into which it had fallen. Thus began the overlordship, the far-reaching political, economic and institutional penetration of one Arab country by another, in which everyone--America, Israel, the Arabs--eventually acquiesced. Yet still the frontier post, odious symbol of Arab fragmentation, remained obstinately there; and eventually the decaying archway that supposedly heralded its disappearance disappeared itself, giving way to a new complex of immigration buildings and a duty-free emporium adorned not with unionist slogans but with ads for Dunkin' Donuts.

When, soon after the February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, widely assumed to have been carried out by Syrian agents, I crossed that frontier, it had become more than just a standing reproach to Arabism; it was symbolic not merely of the Arabs' failure to unite but of the tearing asunder of the little degree to which they had. Normally teeming, it was almost deserted. Lebanese were uneasy about going to Syria. Syrians were positively fearful of going to Lebanon, where they have been insulted and assaulted, their residences attacked, a reported thirty of them murdered.

If assassinations sometimes accelerate history, Hariri's brutal, spectacular, but popularly unifying demise was surely one of them. At a stroke it unleashed, in a great and very public torrent, all the anti-Syrian sentiments that had been surreptitiously building over the years.

Ever-growing street demonstrations, unprecedented in modern Arab history, culminated in one on March 14 that drew perhaps a million people, a quarter of the population, to Beirut's Martyrs' Square. Not just the numbers were impressive; so was their composition. In this multi-confessional country, it was, if anything, a triumph over confessionalism. The people by and large stood in one trench, their Syrian-controlled rulers in another; that, not confessional antagonism, was now the fault line principally defining the course of events. True, one sect, the Shiites, was heavily underrepresented, and the Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah had earlier staged a huge--yet smaller, more regimented, essentially single-sect and tactically motivated--"pro-Syrian" rally of its own. No less true, however, the Sunni Muslim community now threw its full weight behind the hitherto mainly Christian and Druse opposition, the significance of that being that it was traditionally Sunnis, not Shiites, who chiefly stood for Lebanon's pan-Arab nationalist identity and looked to Syria to sustain them. But at bottom it was Lebanon's silent majority--of all classes, sects and stations--who had their say on March 14. And at bottom what they said was: Give us our independence, dignity and freedom back again.

For the Baathists it was surely the death throes of One Arab Nation. Here they were, its historic standard-bearers, being reviled and driven back across that "artificial" frontier from the one Arab state where they had had the means and opportunity, in their fashion, to implement it. But history may one day judge it to have marked the birth of something new. As Lebanese columnist Samir Kassir put it: "The Arab nationalist cause has shrunk into the single aim of getting rid of the regimes of terrorism and coups, and regaining the people's freedom as a prelude to the new Arab renaissance. It buries the lie that despotic systems can be the shield of nationalism. Beirut has become the 'beating heart' of a new Arab nationalism."

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