The first thing to understand about Syria and its current situation is that Syria a made-up place. It was not born naturally. Instead, it was artificially created by France in the 1940s. In this post I will talk about one of the main reasons why countries in and the Middle East and Africa are so unstable compared to countries in Europe.
We tend to think of countries as places that have grown over the centuries from the seeds of tribes and kingdoms. These countries evolved throughout history to become the definitive birthplace and identity of a certain kind of person. France and French people are a good example of this. Because France has continued to exist independently for hundreds of years, the country of France has become a unique place, and a person who has grown up in France is bound to have a uniquely French identity. For example, French people speak French, they make beautiful depressing movies, they have good fashion sense, and cook amazing food. French people are unique because they grew up in a country that is so potent with it’s own identity, that anyone who grows up in France will become French.
Now, let’s look at a country like Syria. Syrian people are not uniquely Syrian. They are Arabs or Kurds or Armenians or Turks or Druze or a number of other things. Sure, they grew up within the borders of a country called “Syria,” but their identity is not very affected by that fact. Instead, their identity is more dependent on which tribe or religion they grew up in. Even their language depends on this. Nobody in Syria speaks Syrian. There is no such thing as Syrian. Most people in Syria speak Arabic. Some speak Kurdish. Others speak Armenian. In fact there are many languages spoken within the borders of Syria.
So if Syria is a made-up place, how can it be a country? To understand this, we need to go back in time.
What is now called Syria used to be a small part of something much larger. For hundreds of years the Middle East and North Africa were ruled by an empire. This empire was called the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire covered a lot of land. A LOT of land! Here is a map if you want to get into it. I don’t want to spend too much time on the Ottoman Empire but any empire that simultaneously covers Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, and much of Eastern Europe, is a big empire.
Also, any empire that simultaneously covers Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, and much of Eastern Europe, will have a lot of different kinds of people in it. For hundreds of years under the rule of the Ottomans, these various people didn’t spend their time trying to kill people who were different than them (for the most part.) Some of this is due to the fact that the Ottomans ruled before the days before nationalism.
A side note about nationalism: nationalism is a very important concept to understand many of the conflicts that are happening today. This includes the conflict in Syria.
Simply put, nationalism is when a group of people get together and decide that their group can be defined with specific traits, and anyone with those traits is part of the nation. The situation going on right now in Ukraine is a perfect example of this. Russian speakers in Ukraine are beginning to say that because they speak Russian, they are Russian. These are the Russian Nationalists. Many Ukrainians disagree and are saying that because they live in Ukraine, they are Ukrainian. These are the Ukrainian Nationalists.
Language is often a big part of nationalism. Before nationalism existed, there were a lot more languages. For example, before the nation of France was born, there were a lot of different kinds of French being spoken in France. Then, about 200 years ago, the government of France decided that all the people that lived within the borders of France needed to be part of a French nation. In order to do this, everyone in France needed to speak the same language. That language is now what we call “French.” With everyone in France speaking the same language, they could do business and get along much more easily.
What the French did may sound like an obviously good thing to do, but what they did was very radical. What if the government of the United States required everyone to speak a special version of English called “American” and banned all other languages and accents from being spoken? Country music wouldn’t stand a chance…
Before nationalism spread through Europe, Europe had a lot more cultures in it. What happened to Germany is a good example of this. Before Germany was a country, Germany was a bunch of different cities and pockets of various cultures. As part of the effort to help unify these cultures and create the German nation, two brothers traveled to through the different cultures and collected stories.
These two brothers were the Brothers Grimm. The folk tales they collected and then published became the “official” or “German” versions of the folk tales. Suddenly there was only one version of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. By giving out the same version of a folk tale to many different groups of people, it gave the various cultures of the future nation of Germany a common component they could unify around. Like how nerds of all types can unify over the Star Wars trilogy.
And now, back to the Ottomans.
The Ottoman Empire existed mostly before nationalism. This meant that everyone that lived within the Ottoman Empire spoke their own languages and had their own cultures. Few people within the Ottoman empire actually spoke Ottoman or would identify as being Ottoman.
At the end of World War One, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. France and England took over the Middle East and North Africa. And then they did something really really bad. They just sort of drew lines on the map and started trying to make the areas within those lines into countries.
Every straight line on this map was the result of British and French people negotiating in some room somewhere, using a straightedge and pencil to divide the Middle East and much of Africa amongst themselves. This was a crazy thing to do for so many reasons. Since their creation, almost all of the countries on this map has fought at least one war as a result of these lines. Even worse, most of these countries are at a constant risk of an uprising.
These arbitrary lines split apart communities, but more importantly they mashed separate communities together and forced them to compete for power. It was, and still is a complete disaster of system.
This was how Syria was created. After World War Two, France could not hold on to its Middle East territories and gave “Syria” independence. This is not to say that France abandoned its Middle East territory and left it to rot. They wanted Syria to be a stable country. Much like how the US is leaving Afghanistan, and desperately want it to be a stable country.
When it came to Syria, the French thought they could create the country of Syria and leave it as a stable country. They tried to do this by putting a lot of effort into creating a Syrian nationalism. After all, it was French nationalism that created the nation of France. They sponsored “Syrian” poets and “Syrian” musicians. “Syrian” historians wrote new histories that attempted to unify the “Syrian people.” France did its best to inspire people who lived as Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, etc. to abandon their old identities and become “Syrian” instead. Unfortunately it turned out that this kind of artificial nationalism was not enough to create a stable country.
To summarize, some European countries like France were born “naturally,” while Middle Eastern countries were not. Think of Syria as a country “born” more like how Frankenstein was created. Like Frankenstein, Syria was sewn together out of many different people. It had an Arab body, a Kurdish arm, an Armenian leg, a Christian mind, a Muslim soul, etc. France gave life to Syria by shocking “Syrian nationalism” into it like lightning bolts. After 20 years of this, France gave independence to Syria and left screaming “It’s ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE!” France had created a country, but this country was as good at being stable as Frankenstein was at being human.