Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Has Syria Lost its National Identity Forever?

Children help put together tables and chairs to use in class as they attend the first day of school in a village in the countryside of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on October 9, 2021. (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP)

Ghazi Dahman

The Syrian national identity has been one of the biggest victims of the country’s decade-old political crisis. Some fears have recently started to surface regarding the Syrians’ ability to repair the impairments that afflicted their society and identity following the great fragmentation in the anatomy of their patriotism, especially with the emergence of ethnic and sectarian identities that are forming an essential bedrock in the groups’ views and how they define themselves.

Complex crises such as civil wars constitute a ripe environment for the growth of sub-identities and their transformation into fundamental identities as each group retreats to its old bastions and recalls its entire past, which it had left behind when entering the process of national integration as required by the provisions of the Westphalian states. And as Syria’s state heritage is no more than a century old, memories of the pre-state linger with grandparents still passing them down to their grandchildren.

In the period following independence, Syrian political regimes have failed to build the Syrian national identity, to the extent that the political entity that frames this identity has failed to prove itself. For decades, Syria stood on the precipice of a failed state, until it fell into a sea of ​​failure, and it appears its egress from this collapse will be neither easy nor prompt.

Observers of the Syrian crisis often blame the colonial period and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which cut off Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine from Syria and granted the “Iskenderum Brigade” to Turkey, for leaving Syria in a state of imbalance and in a complex predicament between the jaws of the pincers of hostile countries like “Turkey and Israel,” which are eager to seize more Syrian lands, and countries that are leery, such as Lebanon and Jordan,” which deem Syria’s behavior as an attempt to restore its hegemony, especially in Lebanon, which has been engulfed in the fires of Syrian hegemony for more than three decades.

However, blaming the failure to build a state and national identity on external causes is nothing but an attempt to avoid accepting the reality, which has already involved mismanagement of the state and institutions by the successive Syrian elites. And if the traditional bourgeois elites that assumed power after independence deepened the differences between the rural and the urban, thus limiting the national identity to specific groups, the military that seized power since the Baath Party coup in 1963, and subsequently the rule of the two Assads, “father and son,” confiscated the Syrian nation in its entirety and made nationalism an honor that they bestow only on those who adhere to their policies, and reclaim it in blood and soul.

Thus, Syria transformed into a republic of terror run by the security services. This entailed stripping citizenship status with its connotations of rights and considering it one of the most important factors of the relationship between the state and its people, rather than the main indicator of political modernity. This reaction coincided with the traditional social structures that were still in the early stages of learning and understanding political modernity, which distorted the essence of nationalism and affiliation. It came to be utilized as one of the regimes’ tools to establish themselves in power, subsequently subjugate and laugh at the people, which made the unifying national identity lose all its positive values ​​and became a hollow caricature instead.

The Syrian revolution represented a valuable opportunity to rebuild the Syrian national identity on new foundations, especially during its early stages, when it was led by modern and educated young men and women familiar with contemporary approaches to nation-building. They came from across Syria’s entire social and political spectrum, a unique occurrence in the history of Syria, which historically was torn apart by political conflicts, class differences and social sensitivities. Their favorite slogan as a symbol of a united national identity was “The Syrian people are one,” and the roar of their voices echoed throughout Syria. 

In the face of this new awareness, the affected parties began to engineer new identities and endorse them as alternatives to what they considered to be attempts to remove them from the picture, and perhaps prosecute them for all the crimes they committed against the Syrian nation and its constituents. These identities were distinct in that they were exigent, undesirable and only fitting in the current circumstances. The Assad regime removed Aramaic and Hittite identities from the catacombs of its museums, thus voiding the Arab identity due to the sympathy of the Arab peoples toward the Syrian revolution. In response, some of the regime’s opponents came out with identities based on an extremist form of Islam that the Levant had never known before whether in its ancient or modern history.

However, the two blows that would break the back of Syrian nationalism came first through the Assad regime’s use of the Syrian state’s institutions and capabilities in the war of extermination it launched against its opponents, which were the majority of the Syrian people, and which drove them to search for other options that secure them protection. After disengaging from the state and its national identity, they would find this protection in family, clan and sect, which would embrace them after the state expelled them, or more precisely, after they discovered they were citizens without a state.

The second blow came in the form of the distribution of control over the Syrian homeland among four regional and international powers, namely Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, with whom loyalties were forged, and interests and relations were formed. For example, as there is no longer an economic unity among Syrians, some of them trade in the Turkish lira and others in the dollar, while those who fall under the regime’s authority use the Syrian lira. 

The curricula for the education and upbringing of students have also differed, while the concepts of patriotism have varied and have different interpretations according to the authority to which the particular Syrian adheres. Priorities have also shifted in terms of order and importance, and the same applies to the Syrians who sought refuge in neighboring countries and in Europe, for whom the Syrian identity became mere nostalgia as they grew immersed in the complexities of integration, learning languages, and initiating new paths for their sons and daughters.

This reality raises the question of whether it’s possible to resurrect a Syrian national identity from this rubble that pervades the Syrian scene, and whether there is an opportunity to repair the social fabric that was subjected to massive ruptures throughout the years of war.

Historically, whether distant or contemporary, societies and countries have been able to resurrect their national identities after extinguishing the flames of conflict and arriving at acceptable settlements for all their components. In this context, Rwanda constitutes a prominent example. Still, although Rwanda and Syria are comparable in terms of the size of the loss of human life, they are dissimilar in terms of the intensity of external interference in the two crises, as Syria will likely remain under the control of foreign forces for a prolonged period. 

In the best-case scenario, Russian and Iranian control will linger for decades to come as a consequence of the agreements and treaties signed by the two parties with the Syrian regime. This perpetuation will remain a cause for division in Syria and the continuation of the rift in the Syrian national identity, which will likely last for many years. And as more time passes, Syria’s constituents will adhere to the framework of their new identities, either as the sub-national “tribal and clan,” or the supranational “races and sects,” and the natural result of this will be the final demise of the Syrian national identity.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

user placeholder
written by
All Michella articles