What Syria can learn from Lebanon

Sunday 19/03/2017

While mentioned abundantly in the Bible, Lebanon, as a nation state, is a young country of the 20th century. From the beginning, Lebanon’s community equilibrium was unstable. Packed into a small narrow strip of land dominated by the Anti-Lebanon mountain range as its spine, the country is made up of a multitude of ethno-religious and linguistic peoples, including members of all three of the world’s Abrahamic religions.

The idea of Lebanon as a nation state seemed tenuous from the outset. Muslim and Christian aims, aspirations and identity moved in opposite directions. The Muslims wanted national sovereignty but within the framework of a Greater Syria to form a northern Arab powerhouse. The Christians were culturally and, to a lesser extent, linguistically looking westward to Europe and fostered a uniquely non-Arab identity.

The eventual creation of Lebanon as a nation state struck a huge compromise between these various competing aspirations of its peoples. Edmond Rabbath, the late jurist and historian, characterised the eventual pact as “the Lebanonisation of the Muslims and the Arabisation of the Christians” and pointed out an aspect seldom mentioned, namely that the Lebanese constitution was, at the time, innovative for its all-encompassing accommodation of its peoples.

Syria and Iraq have an equally diverse assortment of religious and ethnic groups, albeit in a larger area. However, Lebanon was the only country to recognise all groups in its constitution and avoid any awkward proclamation as to a singular state religion. The Lebanese constitution of 1926 officially recognises 17 religious families, Christian, Muslim and Jewish.

All Lebanese are equal before the law (Article 7) and the state guarantees to the communities, no matter what rite, respect for their personal status laws and religious interests (Article 9). Article 95 calls for communitarian composition in the ministries and civil service.

Of course, this equalitarian constitution could not stop the devastating Lebanese civil war from 1975-90 but what it did do, arguably, was to preserve Lebanon’s existence and territorial integrity following the conclusion of the war. Lebanon remained because all sides still felt that it was “their Lebanon” chiefly because the constitution enunciated recognition for all. There was limited desire for any form of split or separation. Lebanon was still Maronite as much as it was Sunni or Shia. What was once seen as Lebanon’s weakness became its strength.

The situation in Syria is less promising. Syria’s diversity and recognition of its peoples was not an issue at the forefront of its present formation. The ideology of pan-Arabism swept any formal recognition of its various peoples under the carpet, and people were satisfied with Arabism insofar as it remained distinctly secular as a political rather than a religious ideology. Arabism, however, is on its last legs and has been brushed aside as irrelevant.

When the dust settles on this present and seemingly endless conflict in Syria, whether under Syrian President Bashar Assad or under a different government altogether, Syria would face a real existential threat to its current territorial integrity and borders if it were not to accommodate and recognise all its peoples in some formal way. There are already calls for separation and independence from the Kurdish belt in northern Syria as well as various other calls for separation by other communities.

Russia’s draft constitution for a post-war Syria (which Moscow indicates is only a guide) has omitted the word “Arab” as Syria’s middle name. This, of course, has raised alarms for pan-Arabists. Syria has an important place in the history of the Arabic-speaking people.

However, it is likely that the only way to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity after this conflict is to provide recognition to its various peoples and make them feel that they have a stake in the state. Anything less than that may not be satisfactory.

Increasingly, a country’s identity is never black and white. Syria can still be and should be Arab but its Arabness would not be diminished through recognition, incorporation and involvement of its Kurdish, Turkmen and other communities. Like Lebanon before it, Syria needs to strike a balance.