Let’s revisit, and use this oldie but a goodie to understand Syria. Sorry for the lateness, but my real life stuff is cramping my geopolitical style.
1). Syria is and always has been a terrible place to set up a nation-state
2). Bad was made worse by the invention of political ideology, which mixed up the heads of the already very confused Syrian elite and made a peaceful social consensus impossible
3). A civil war, civil conflict, or revolution were always quite likely because of these two big conditions
Now, let’s get super, and why Syria is a bad place for a nation-state
The biggest reason Syria has always been swimming against the tide in regards to becoming a proper nation-state is because it lacks a nation. “Syrian” is more of a citizenship rather than a national identity, and that’s more or less been the case since the independent state of Syria came into being in 1947.
As a province of an empire, Syria worked quite well. The territory’s internal divisions could always be quelled by an outside imperial army that rode in, cracked skulls, burned cities, and established peace. But setting up a nation-state in a place as diverse as Syria was always bound to be a bumpy road.
But why isn’t there a proper Syrian nation? Well, that boils down to geography
Take a good look at the map below. Syria’s geographic situation is one of an overexposed territory with long frontiers and few natural barriers. Attack from the north, south, or west is relatively easy, and intervention by a naval power from the Mediterranean is almost as simple. Its main river systems don’t unite the country, but actually divide it. The Euphrates River flows from Turkey into Iraq, creating trade links with those countries and undermining trade routes with the territory’s biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.
This has meant, historically, that Syria is a piece of an empire rather than an empire unto itself. Unlike Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, Syria lacks the natural frontiers to secure itself. So it’s ended up as a province for almost its entire history.
And being a province from one empire to another has meant a lot of cultural and religious diversity
Each imperial conqueror left a bit of their culture behind. Syrian Christians are holdovers from the Roman era; Muslims from the time of Rightly-Guided Caliphs; and the sects within Islam from the long Turkish era. The Ottomans didn’t have the power or the interest to turn all of Syria’s people into good Sunni Turks, so diversity flourished. As long as all the various sects recognized the Sultan, all was well with the world.
Despite Syria’s common Arabic language, Syrians themselves were encouraged to view things locally under the Ottoman system. As religious diversity was at least unofficially tolerated, it ended up creating sects found almost nowhere else, most notably the Alawite sect of Shi’a Islam. Whereas attempts to create new Islamic sects failed in more centralized, geographically secure places like Egypt, in Syria power was spread out more, and imperial governments couldn’t impose an absolutist vision of religion on the people.
So while Syrians had very little in common with one another, the events of the 20th century tried to lump them into a modern system they were not prepared to run
When the Ottoman Empire’s end came, it was because another imperial power, Great Britain, suddenly swept in and imposed a settlement. The Arabs who rode alongside the British were not from Syria itself, but were Bedouin from elsewhere who were ambitious to build new kingdoms out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire.
Not for the first or the last time, Syria became a pawn in the day’s geopolitical chess game. The French sought influence in the Middle East to mitigate British and Russian power, and used their cultural toehold in Lebanon to grab up Syria. At first, the French were pretty reasonable, dividing up the mandate into several different states based on sect. Such a system might have kept the peace, but the French realized early on that to divide up an already weak state invited intervention and invasion from other great powers.
Unlike earlier conquests, however, the French didn’t intend to stay. The 20th century spelled the doom of traditional empires. With population densities growing and the costs of policing a colony skyrocketing, formerly imperial powers were rapidly losing interest in grabbing up territory, but were rather keen on influencing and directing friendly governments. This was basically neo-imperialism, and it was a helluva lot cheaper than the old system.
So the French attempted to cobble together a nation-state, which was a political system they could influence and indirectly control. Their first draft of the Syrian map was ditched, though they split Lebanon off, creating a nation-state that to this day still barely functions.
To be fair to the French, there wasn’t much they could have done short of mass colonization. Syrians were not a nation of people; the political results of that would come out in spades in the 1950s and 60s.
So independence came at just about the worst time possible
A free Syria in 1850 might have held together as a kingdom, with a benign king ruling over a dizzying array of vibrant cultures. But a combination of a skyrocketing population and technological change required a far more efficient form of government. There was nothing for it; a nation-state it had to be. Alas, Syria had no nation but a variety of cultures that didn’t trust one another. Worse, the infusion of the 20th century’s many ideologies, from the big fight between communism and capitalism to the small fights between pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, made everything more complicated.
No social contract could be written by Syria’s elite because they didn’t really govern a united nation. Spoils were handed out to loyalists after a coup; they stole what they could, and then in turn got overthrown, to be replaced by a new sect or political party’s cronies.
Case in point of the chaos: the United Arab Republic and its dismal history
In 1958, Syria was on the verge of civil war between Communists and secularists, and so the government decided it had had enough of being independent and opted to dissolve itself into Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. With Egypt’s superior geopolitical power, Syria’s elites assumed their own chaos could finally be set aside, with Egypt playing the part the Ottomans once did between varying Syrian factions.
Alas, the Egyptians went a step further, replacing Syrian elites with Egyptian ones. Rather than playing referee, Egypt was acting the colonizer. That antagonized just about every Syrian faction there was, and in 1961, barely three years after the UAR was formed, Syria’s army organized yet another coup and threw the Egyptians out. Egypt didn’t put up a fight; running Syria had been a headache. So much for Arab unity.
Following the ejection of Egypt, Syria’s elites started to realize they rather liked having their own country. Their tolerance for coups lessened; in 1963, the Ba’athists, a pan-Arab socialist party, took power. Bashar al-Assad continues to lead them.
The Ba’athists recognized Syria’s geographical reality and turned the place into a police state
It was obvious Syria was not a politically mature enough place to run itself. So the Ba’athists, eventually ended up by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, copied the Soviet Union and turned Syria into a police state. Politics was shut down, and every key position in government was filled by an Alawite or Ba’athist true believer. Unable to afford the education system needed to remake Syrians into a common people, and lacking the time to do it anyway, the Ba’athists were content to shoot their way through their many problems.
That kept the uneasy peace until 2011
And uneasy it was. The Muslim Brotherhood launched an uprising in the 1970s and 80s that culminated in the destruction of Hama in 1982. Well-supplied by the USSR, Assad could and did shoot his way through Syria’s differences. Like the Ottomans before him, he played referee between factions; when one group stepped out of line, they were shot.
The Arab Spring of 2011 threw a massive curveball at Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar. For the second time in Syria’s history, many of Syria’s factions united around a single goal: the ousting of Bashar al-Assad. This spontaneous, meme-like revolution was something Assad’s contract couldn’t handle. So rather than trying to rewrite the contract, Assad retreated to his core supporters: the Alawites and other religious minorities, the secularists, and the Ba’athist party itself. Meanwhile, he was forced to abandon the rest of Syria.
Now the Balkanization of Syria is just the country’s natural divisions coming out
The Islamic State’s hold on eastern Syria and western Iraq reflects the ease of moving between those two regions. Their split has only made sense when enforced by strong governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Now those strong governments are gone and the border is erased.
Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces are still based in their own natural strongholds, minus Damascus, which for symbolic purposes must be held at all costs.
The civil war will only end when outsiders come to impose a peace
No one faction is well armed enough or numerous enough to achieve total victory. Much like the Balkan Wars, the steady fighting will continue until someone from the outside – more numerous and more powerful – decides to impose a settlement. But with Russia and the U.S. gridlocked, the UN ignored, and the Arab League utterly ineffective, not much can change in the near future.