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.