The late Princeton scholar Philip K. Hitti called Greater Syria -- the historical antecedent of the modern republic -- "the largest small country on the map, microscopic in size but cosmic in influence," encompassing in its geography, at the confluence of Europe, Asia, and Africa, "the history of the civilized world in a miniature form." This is not an exaggeration, and because it is not, the current unrest in Syria is far more important than unrest we have seen anywhere in the Middle East.
"Syria" was the 19th-century Ottoman-era term for a region that stretched from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in the north to the Arabian Desert in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Mesopotamia in the east. Present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, western Iraq, and southern Turkey were all included in this vast area. In other words, the concept of "Syria" was not linked to any specific national sentiment. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I led to Greater Syria being carved into a half-dozen states. Although territory had been cut away on all sides, the rump French mandate of "Syria" that came into existence, nevertheless, contained not only every warring sect and regional and tribal interest, but also the spiritual headquarters in the capital Damascus of the pan-Arab movement, whose aim was to erase all the state borders that the Europeans had just created.
Pan-Arabism -- of which the post-World War II independent state of Syria claimed to constitute the "throbbing-heart" -- became a substitute for Syria's very weak national identity. Indeed, Syria's self-styled "steadfast" hatred of Israel was a way for Syrians to escape their own internal contradictions. Those contradictions were born of the parochial interests of regionally based ethnic and sectarian groups: Sunni Arabs in the Damascus-Homs-Hama central corridor; heretical, Shiite-trending Alawites in the mountains of the northwest; Druze in the south, with their close tribal links to Jordan; and Kurds, Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Circassians in Aleppo.
Between 1947 and 1954, Syria held three national elections that all broke down more or less according to these regional and sectarian lines. After 21 changes of government in 24 years and a failed attempt to unify with Egypt, the Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. By ruling with utter ruthlessness, he kept the peace in Syria for three decades. To wit, when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rose up in Hama in 1982, he killed more than 20,000 Sunni Muslim civilians there in response, according to some estimates. Assad's son, Bashar, who succeeded his father as Syria's president a decade ago, has yet to make his bones in such a way. It is unclear whether the son is visionary enough to satisfy today's protesters, or cruel enough like his father to stay in power. His regime's survival may require stores of both attributes. A complicating factor is that to a much greater degree than his father, the son is trapped within a web of interest groups that include a corrupt business establishment and military and intelligence leaders averse to reform. So the political crisis in Syria will likely continue to build.
Syria at this moment in history constitutes a riddle. Is it, indeed, prone to civil conflict as the election results of the 1940s and 1950s indicate; or has the population quietly forged a national identity in the intervening decades, if only because of the common experience of living under an austere dictatorship? No Middle East expert can say for sure.
Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. Iraq is bordered by the strong states of Turkey and Iran in the north and east, and is separated from Saudi Arabia in the south and Syria and Jordan to the west by immense tracts of desert. Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater. That is because of the proximity of Syria's major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already.