Before there was a Palestine or a Jordan, before there was a Lebanon or an Iraq, in the Arab mind, there was only Greater Syria. This vast land stretched from Jaffa and Tripoli on the Mediterranean, through Jerusalem and into the Transjordan up to Damascus, and across to Mosul. In WWI, the Arab tribes under Faisal fought for this land from their base in the Hijaz (now a part of Saudi Arabia) and against their Turkish occupiers. The borders of the modern Middle East were the creation of the European victors of the war. The Turkish empire was split up through a League of Nations mandate system, and the dream of Greater Syria lay dormant as whole new countries arose.
Syria was divided east and west by the creation of Iraq and Lebanon, and also north and south by the creation of “Palestine”. At that time in the Arab geographic conception, there was no such thing as “Palestine”, only Greater Syria. “Palestine” was a Christian concept, the name that the Catholic Church had designated for the Land of Israel. The Church had taken the name from the Romans, who had punished the ancient Jewish Revolt with the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the renaming of the land. The Arabs who lived on the land were never called “Palestinians”, and their numbers up until the twentieth century were never very high. They eked out a living as landless tenants who owed their rents to the landlords who resided in the major cities of Greater Syria.
But after the two world wars, Greater Syria was never forgotten. Certainly not in the conception of the modern rulers of Syria (the Assad family and the Bath Party) or, for that matter, in the minds of nearly all the factions of Arab nationalists. For many of the Islamic fundamentalists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, a similar transnational approach was present. But the Islamists were never in charge. Quite the contrary, the League of Nations mandate system had established a strict minority secular emphasis to government. In the quasi colonies of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the French and English had used the age-old adage of “divide and conquer”. All three countries were ruled by minorities. While in so called “Palestine”, originally established as a homeland for the Jews, the entire eastern portion of the mandate was given to the Arabs. But the Transjordan had always been an integral part of the geographical history of Israel. Since only Greater Syria had existed in the minds of Arabs, this vital geographic link had been forgotten because it had never been learned. But the Jews did not forget. If there was ever to be a secure and equitable arrangement for the territory called Israel or “Palestine”, the true geographic dimensions of the polity needed to be expressed. Hence the struggle for the Holy Land became triangular, while the search for a solution remains confined (a hundred years later) to half a land.
For the Arabs, specific national identities always came with some form of dictatorship or monarchic authoritarianism. In order to forget their misrule, the Arabs always had Israel and the Zionists to scapegoat and blame. But over many defeats and many decades, using both conventional armies and asymmetrical warfare, the scapegoating just wasn’t enough. The Arabs demanded change, both political and economic. Their tolerance for dictatorship and minority rule had run its course. In Iraq, it was the outside intervention of the Americans that had turned the tables, as the majority Shiites headed a government for the first time in centuries. But they didn’t rule in the name of Iraqi identity. They ruled as Shiites. The Americans either didn’t try hard enough (especially under Obama), or they just didn’t have the economic wherewithal, to push the Shiites toward greater magnanimity.
In Syria, the economic and political morass of four decades of Assad family misrule caused an explosion of democratic hunger. But this time around, the Americans were nowhere to be seen. The messy events in Iraq had soured their taste for democratic “nation building”. The Sunnis of Syria (the majority) were left to the cruel devices of the Assad family rule. This extraordinary moment, when hundreds of thousands of brave Arabs came out into the streets as citizens of an embryonic democracy, was wasted. The democratic youth of Syria were sacrificed on an altar of indifference by all the world’s democratic nations. At that very moment, Syria as a national identity ceased to exist. In its place, Greater Syria as an Islamic concept was reborn. The Arab Spring ended when the quest for democracy in Syria was abandoned by the world, and the regional contest for supremacy between Sunni and Shiite, Iran and Saudi Arabia, took precedence.
It is within this regional contest that the civil war across the northern Levant has spread to become a transnational Islamic religious war. Now the boundaries of the last one hundred years, which were rooted in a discredited dictatorial nationalism, have become fluid. Syria has been divided in three — Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. The same is true for Iraq. The forces on the ground have gotten most of their backing from either the Gulf monarchies or Islamic Iran. The monarchies have no desire for democracy, and they have aided and abetted the most extreme of the Sunni Islamic terrorists from all over the world. Iran has countered with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, its own Quds Force, and many Shiite militiamen from Iraq. The borders of the northern Levant have ceased to exist. It was only a matter of time before the misrule in al-Maliki’s Iraq would link with the stalemate in Assad’s Syria.
Now, the spread of regional carnage has finally, hopefully, caught the eye of national interest in the UN Security Council, because the war could escalate. While it is still in the proxy status stage, a full-fledged, state vs. state conflagration between the main headliners (Iran and Saudi Arabia) has now become a distinct possibility. Iran has been warned to stay out of Iraq in any great numbers. To take back the Sunni north would be impossible for al-Maliki without massive Iranian help. Apparently the Saudis will not countenance this. In other words, either the war of the Levant will most likely stalemate for years to come, or it will spread to the world’s oil fields. No wonder the UN Security Council has started to pay attention. Such an escalation could bring down the global economy for years to come.
In a showdown in the Gulf, Iran would have to contend with a Saudi Force equipped with tens of billions of dollars of the most advanced military hardware in the world. It might have to face the Obama doctrine — military assistance for an ally directly threatened. It is unlikely that the Americans would allow events to get so terribly out of kilter without stern warnings ahead of time. But nobody seems to be listening to Washington lately. Without a political plan for the region with international clout, events could move so swiftly they would simply bypass the Americans. So is Iran willing to gamble? Or they might decide to live with a permanent state of war and the breakup of Iraq on their border. After all, a rump Shiite state might work in Iran’s favor. Better that than a hostile Sunni state on its border (remember the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988). However, Greater Syria rising could also mean the rise of Kurdistan. This is not in Iran’s interest. The revolt of the Sunnis in Iraq has brought the Kurdish problem glaringly out into the open. Kurdistan could become an ally to both Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That would place the onus of Kurdish nationalism on Tehran. In the not-too-distant future, the Iranians could have all kinds of troubles with other minority groups. Greater Syria rising could become a cauldron of fragmentation and destabilization the likes of which Tehran has never witnessed.
Then there is Israel. Without the most far-reaching nuclear deal on the Iranian program, Israel could decide to take out Iran’s assets on its own. Whether or not they could get the job done is anyone’s guess. But once they make the decision, Hezbollah and Assad will become vulnerable. Israel cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear breakout capacity, period. Here again, Iran is at a disadvantage. Its only means of striking at Israel is by missile. If the full force of Israel’s military strength came to bear on pro-Iranian irregulars in southern Lebanon or Assad’s dwindling capabilities in Syria, the Shiite crescent would fold like a tent in the desert. The Shiites and Alawis are at risk in Greater Syria. Miscalculation by Iran toward Israel could make that risk even greater.
So far the Middle East has careened out of control, and not one leader or one nation has gravitas to alter the deadly course. With the spread of ISIL and the rise of Greater Syria, total regional war can now be foreseen on the horizon. The longer the situation persists, the more dangerous, bloody and financially costly it all becomes. Perhaps Prince Hassan of Jordan was only speaking for himself, but in an interview with the BBC on June 18th he suggested that only a regional solution, including all the major players (Iran and Israel, Russia, China and the US, Turkey and Iraq), can solve the problem. Prince Hassan must certainly understand that Greater Syria is as frightful a prospect for his country as the Shiite crescent, as first described by his nephew King Abdullah II. But the only thing that could prevent years of war and its myriad of risks is just such a regional solution. The Middle East can’t wait any longer. It needs a Grand Bargain to stop the spread of war and nuclear weapons. Greater Syria is nothing more than a pipe dream for fanatics. Its butchery dishonors the very name of Islam. It is time for peace to prevail.