Syria and the Birth of Pan-Arab Extremism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 15

In the aftermath of the Iraq war, Syria captured the headlines of the world press, as the international community asked, “Will Syria be next?” Though it quickly became clear that no such attack was imminent, Syria, nevertheless, has come under intense American pressure aimed at radically diminishing the threat Damascus allegedly presents to the West through its support of terrorist organizations. In order to comprehend the reasons for this support, it is necessary to deal briefly with Syria’s position within the Arab world.

There is a well-known Arab saying: “Egypt is the head of the Arab world and Syria is its heart.” Syria has always been regarded as the bulwark of the Arab unity movement; it is on Syrian soil that the idea of pan-Arabism originated, in the late Ottoman period. Arab nationalism, encompassing the concepts of Arab revival, liberation, and unity, was born in Syria at the time when Egypt did not even regard itself as part of the Arab world. [1] One of the groups that emerged from the Arab nationalist sentiment in Syria was the Ba’ath party, which became prominent in Damascus during the early 1960s. With slogans such as “Unity, freedom, and socialism” and “One Arab nation endowed with an immortal mission,” the Ba’ath vehemently rejected the idea of separate Arab countries. The party instead proclaimed its unshakeable belief in one and only one Arab nation that had been artificially split by imperialist invaders and must be reunited in a single state. Claiming to be an all-Arab political organization, rather than a local one, it came to be regarded as the main champion of Arab unity, a vehicle of national and social revolution fated to eliminate all the traces of foreign domination, which included, of course, the establishment of a Zionist state in the Arab world.

As the prospects for Arab unity and the creation of a single Arab state appeared to be waning by the mid-sixties, Ba’athism was transformed in practice into a doctrine of “Arab nationalism in one state.” Its ideology, however, remained staunchly revolutionary and Pan-Arabist, increasingly focusing on the liberation of Palestine. In 1970, General Hafez al-Asad seized power in Syria through a military coup. His mission of making Syria the “Hanoi” of an Arab revolution led him to help arm and train Palestinian fedayeen operating against Israel. His regime even tried to mobilize Syrians for a “protracted mass armed struggle” in support of the fedayeen. As if to compensate for the failure of Arab unification, the Ba’athist regime intensified its anti-Zionist propaganda during this time, hardening its stand on the Palestinian issue. In the eyes of the Ba’ath party, Israel became an embodiment of the hateful imperialist West, a springboard for neo-colonialist aggression against the Arab nation. To this day, the word “Israel” is never mentioned in the Syrian media; “Zionist entity” is used instead.

In addition to the Pan-Arab nationalist ideology of the Ba’athists, the regional policy of Damascus has been shaped by a powerful realpolitik rationale: Asad’s high ambitions for playing a major role in Arab politics have simply not been matched by Syria’s capabilities. Neither Syria’s economic and military potential nor its political weight is sufficient to ensure the country a leading role in the Middle East. Syria has just two trump cards in the game: Palestine and Lebanon. Syria has long postured as the self-appointed protector of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), despite a less than friendly relationship between Asad and PLO leader Yassir Arafat. But following the peace agreement been between Israel and Egypt in 1979, Syria was the only country in a position to provide concrete military aid to Palestine, as both Iraq and Saudi Arabia were too far removed from the actual area of conflict. With regard to Lebanon, Syria’s successful role as arbiter of the protracted civil war in that country gave Asad a good deal of leverage in Arab politics. Since the cessation of open hostilities in 1976, Syrian military forces have occupied major areas of Lebanon, establishing a kind of de-facto protectorate.

At that time also came Iran’s Islamic revolution. At first, it would seem that there is little in common between Asad’s regime and that of Ayatollah Khomeini. The former is secular and rules over a predominantly Sunni population, while the latter established a theocratic form of government in an overwhelmingly Shi’a country. However, the bitterly anti-Western and anti-Zionist stance of both regimes draws attention to a whole set of shared ideological values and political aims that can be summarized in one word: Jerusalem. Both leaders see the restoration of Arab rule over the Holy Land as their historic mission and sacred duty. And by doing everything possible in order to achieve this goal, both hope to deal a crushing blow to their eternal enemy, Western imperialism. The motivations may be different, a triumph of Islam for Tehran clerics on the one hand and a victory of Arab nationalism for Ba’athists on the other, but the overall goal is the same.

The Iranian revolution gave a powerful boost to the Lebanese Shi’a community, which had traditionally been subordinate to their Sunni and Christian counterparts. Lebanese Shi’a experienced a full-fledged coming of age. The emergence of Shi’as on the Lebanese political scene soon proved to be an extremely important phenomenon, with far-reaching effects. It was Shi’as who came to the forefront of the struggle against Israeli and Western intervention in Lebanon; the first Arab shuhada’ (martyrs) were Shi’a militants, who blew themselves up together with hundreds of American and French soldiers in 1983.

The most radical and intransigent Shi’a political organization, created under Iranian auspices, was Hezbollah (The party of God). Founded in 1978, Hezbollah reemerged in 1982 with cells in the Beirut area and its headquarters in the al-Biqa’ valley. These strongholds still remain: on a visit to Lebanon a few years ago, this author saw Hezbollah militia in their yellow uniforms very much in evidence on the road from Beirut to Ba’albak.

Damascus was quick to appreciate the significance of the Shi’a revival in Lebanon. The prominent American expert on Lebanon, Augustus Norton, wrote that Syria “fostered the development of radical Shi’a groups…In July 1982, Syria permitted the establishment of a 1,000-man Iranian Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) contingent in Ba’albak and the simultaneous fixing of a Pasdaran headquarters in the Syrian border town of al-Zabadani…Ba’albak would come to be seen as at least one of the critical junctures in the terror network that appeared so sensationally in 1983.” [2]

Since then, the alliance between Syria and Iran has proven the single most important factor in keeping Hezbollah afloat. There is no doubt that ending Syrian support for Hezbollah is the principal American demand at this time. The United States has added Hezbollah to its list of international terrorist organizations, the reason being its systematic attacks against Israeli military, and sometimes civilian, targets in the frontier zone between Lebanon and Israel. Whether this kind of activity can be justly qualified as international terrorism aside, Israeli authorities regard Hezbollah as the most dangerous extremist group directly threatening the security of the Jewish state. Syria has also been rumored to be lending support to Palestinian organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Though hard evidence of this is difficult to ascertain, it would not be out of character for Damascus to aid the most active and militant groups of the Palestinian resistance.

Syria’s reasons for backing extremist Arab groups have remained more or less the same over the last few decades: doing so allows Damascus to play a role in Arab politics. Add to this the fact that Syria has so far failed to achieve the supreme national goal of restoring sovereignty over the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. If negotiations on the Palestinian issue prove successful (i.e., peace is ensured and a Palestinian state is established), Israel may lose any incentive to settle the Golan issue; it may be forgotten altogether, in which case Syria will have emerged as a big loser in the half-century-long Arab-Israeli conflict. To prevent this, Syria must do its best to convince the world community that no final settlement of the conflict is possible without taking into consideration Syrian national interests. For Damascus, the Palestinian issue must be linked to the question of a territorial settlement between Syria and Israel. Therefore, it must be capable of disrupting the peace process if its national interests continue to be ignored – hence Syria’s support for Arab extremists.

Of course, as vital as the Golan issue undoubtedly is for Syria, it is not the only reason for its support of extremist forces. As mentioned above, the two principal assets of the Ba’athist regime are its Palestinian and Lebanese connections, which give Damascus an opportunity to figure prominently on the Middle Eastern scene. By exerting its influence, Syria has been able to increase or diminish the degree of internal struggle in both of these areas. Now, however, Syria’s role seems to be significantly reduced. No matter how successful the current talks on a peace settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prove to be, Syria is hardly in a position to exercise much leverage on behalf of the Palestinians. The outcome of the crisis is likely to be decisively influenced by other players, particularly the United States. Furthermore, the political situation in Lebanon appears fairly stable. The main causes for the civil war have been more or less settled, and there are few signs of renewed internal strife. Accordingly, calls for the withdrawal of the Syrian peacekeeping forces have lately been intensified. The bulk of the Lebanese population increasingly regards their presence as pure occupation, infringing Lebanon’s sovereignty. Thus, Syria appears relegated to the sidelines of Arab politics, its capacity to influence the course of events in the Middle East greatly reduced. In fact, Syria is faced with the prospect of becoming a regional lightweight. This situation presents a great challenge to the young President Bashar Asad who cannot afford to be accused of squandering the legacy of his charismatic father.

As Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli finance minister regarded as the most likely successor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said recently: Since America had defeated Iraq, Israel no longer needs to make any concessions to the “isolated backwater” that Syria has now become.


1. Only much later, under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, did Egypt succeed in capturing the slogan of Arab unity and becoming the champion of pan-Arabism.

2. “Amal and the Shia,” by Augustus Richard Norton, University of Texas Press, 1987, p. 100.