04/17/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Syria's Independence Day -- What Went Wrong

On April 17, 1946, French mandatory rule over Syria came to an end after 25 tumultuous years of a colonial rule which started with violence and ended with violence.

For France, the granting of Mandatory rule over the Levant was the realization of a long expectation to extend its tutelage over the Christians of the region, particularly the Maronite Catholics of Mount Lebanon, "our little brothers of the Orient." For the overall Sunni Muslim majority of the Levant, particularly in Syria, that meant the replacement of a Sunni Muslim domination [the Ottoman Empire] with a Colonial Christian control, an historic upheaval which the Sunnis were not ready for, nor willing to compromise about. If Syrian Sunnis needed a reminder that their fears were well-placed, they got it soon enough, when General Gouraud, who defeated the feeble Syrian opposition in Maysalun [24 July 1920], declared in Damascus that this was a victory of the Cross over the Crescent. It could not be clearer than that!

In 1945, these were the British who forced the hand of another French General, who had similar views, though never expressing them so blatantly, the great Charles De Gaulle, and after a French attempt to suppress Syrian uprising, issued an ultimatum to the General, and the proud Frenchman had to swallow his pride and commit himself and France to a complete, final withdrawal which came to an end exactly 68 years ago. De Gaulle held the grudge against the British for many years to come, but Syria became independent and thus started an era which can be summed up as an ongoing attempt to cement common identity as part of a state formation, in a country so fractured by long-held sectarian divisions. We know now that it failed, and the search for common identity proved futile, and so a state was formed, but from its very inception, it lacked the basic elementary ingredients of a viable, stable national community.

There are some important reasons for that, and they can be seen also as the root cause of troubles in other Middle Eastern countries [see the examples of Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Libya], but this is Syria's day today, so the emphasis is on the country which never came to grips with its boundaries. Syria, after 1946, was a country claiming to be the great loser of the post WW1 and 2 territorial arrangements in the Middle East.

While lack of internal stability caused an unbridgeable gap between aspirations and capabilities came the era of supposed stability as of 1970, when Hafiz Al Assad completed his takeover of the ruling Ba'ath Party and enforced an iron-fist dictatorship.

As of 1970, the political bon ton in Syria was clearly revisionist, as the regime explained in words, and sometimes in actions that Syria had a claim over Palestine [Hafiz Assad in a famous speech on March 8, 1974], over Lebanon [Hafiz Assad in another famous speech, on July 20, 1976], and even on Jordan [the crisis of November 1980]. Surely, the new posture of Syria as stable state seemed to give credence to some of Assad's words and actions.

The problem was that Syria under Assad was NOT really stable, and the horrendous repression of the Sunni majority by a coalition of minorities, led by the Alawites, managed to create a semblance of stability, predicated on fear, rather than on genuine legitimacy.

Legitimacy was not achieved, as the Sunni majority never accepted the right of Alawites to control. Arab Nationalism, Arab Socialism and Syrian Patriotism were used by the regime as means of mass mobilization, but it did not work.

The writing was on the wall much before Hafiz Assad was born. In 1870, a British Consul in the Levant sent an illuminating report to London about the people of the Levant, "they hate each other... Sunnis hate the Sh'ites, Muslims hate the Christians... they ALL despise the Alawites...''

Here is where primordial tribal and sectarian/religious loyalties have collided with the notion of a modern state based on commonality of values and a sense of civic solidarity. Not in most parts of the Middle East, surely not in Syria. The sword of oppression did not bring a sense of solidarity, and fear is effective only up to a point.

When sectarianism is backed up by economic deprivation, people have nothing to lose and then they rise up. The rebellion fittingly started in a Sunni region [Dera'], long neglected, on the verge of starvation due to scarcity of water and economic opportunities. And this was the picture also in other peripheral Sunni regions, which suffered intentional neglect due to the policies of preferring the minorities over the majority.

The current state of affairs in Syria, whereby the country is virtually partitioned along sectarian lines is the most striking indication that Arab Nationalism as espoused by the Ba'ath Party could not overcome more fundamental forces, with much greater legitimacy, chief among them is sectarianism. Syria does not celebrate today the final evacuation of French colonialism. Syria is too bleeding to celebrate anything these days.