Prestige and political skills

Only during the 1830s, under the regime of the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha, was the local power structure destroyed and a central authority imposed. However, the Ottoman Tanzimat regime that followed4 was too weak to pursue the Egyptian reforms in the Syrian region and thus needed the assistance of indigenous notables and tribal Shaykhs in order to enforce its authority (Ghazzal, 2007). Nevertheless, toward the end of the century Ottoman authority gradually extended, while since the 1860s there emerged for the first time among Christian intellectuals notions of Syrian territorial identity and Arab cultural consciousness.

These notions subsequently merged into a Syrian—Arab national ideology, notably under the rule of Amir (later king) Faysal in Syria (1918 to 1920). At the San-Remo Conference (1920), the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon was allocated to France, which ousted Faysal from Syria in July 1920 (Jan, 2006 p. 79). The French authorities discouraged the development of a Syrian national community, while adopting two major methods by which to control Syria and Lebanon (DeLong and Lukeman, 2004 p. 69).

The first was to achieve cooperation with the traditional elite, mainly the Sunni-Muslim urban upper class, which consisted of a few hundred families and constituted the political, as well as the socioeconomic, elite (Hopwood, 1999 p. 524). They owned the vast majority of the agricultural land, being the chief economic sector in Syria, and dominated the commercial and industrial activities in the major urban centers (Jan, 2006 p. 81). The second method was to divide and rule” — the aim being to weaken the Syrian—Arab national movement.

In order to achieve this aim, the Mandate authorities divided Syria into several administrative and political units, notably the Territories of the ‘Alawis and the Druze, as well as the region of Alexandretta and the Jazira (Ghazzal, 2007). The official French explanation for the establishment of these units was that it was due to the separatist feelings of various sections of the population and their different levels of development (Zalkin and Simon, 2004 p. 32).

In addition to encouraging separate Alawi and Druze autonomies, the French also recruited many members of these sects to the “Troupes Speciales du Ievant,” all of which contributed to the fostering of communal separatism and to the widening of the gap between the Sunni-Muslim majority and the various minorities (DeLong and Lukeman, 2004 p. 69). Moreover, the absence of a national ideological consensus and of a prominent leader with the necessary prestige and political skills to lead a nationalist movement, also contributed to maintaining the sectarian and class division among Syrian society throughout the Mandatory period (Jan, 2006 p.79).

Following World War, even though Syria gained its independence, it lacked any exclusive central authority capable of serving as a focus of identity and loyalty for the whole population. In fact, it was a political entity without a national community) In order to achieve Syrian national integration following independence, the new authorities endeavored to weaken the autonomous status of the various minorities (Hopwood, 1999 p. 525). Under Adib Shishakli’s regime, minority representation in the Syrian People’s Assembly was completely abolished (1953), while measures were adapted to Arabize and Islamize public life and institutions.

Simultaneously, the Syrian regime attempted to overcome the military strength of the Druze and the ‘Alawis and to impose central authority (Ghazzal, 2007). However, only after smashing the 1954 Druze revolt0 did the central government achieves military superiority throughout the country (Zalkin and Simon, 2004 p. 32). From then on, members of the minorities became more involved in Syrian political life, mainly through the army and the Ba’th party, while the traditional parties primarily consisted of upper-class urban Sunni Muslims (DeLong and Lukeman, 2004 p. 69).