Throughout its long history, only a handful of independent entities have emerged in the geographical space known today as Syria. On the other hand, no less than two dozen empires ruled over the lands of the Levant. Syria, nonetheless, was never a civilizational or geopolitical backwater. The Umayyads made Damascus the capital of the first Arabic-Islamic empire and later, from the crusaders to the Ottomans, international and regional powers fought endlessly for control over this land. When the country’s modern borders were drawn in the wake of the First World War, the struggle for Syria did not come to an end. On the contrary, Syria’s new borders created patterns of conflict that have plagued the country for a century, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
In 1919, the Syrian Congress, made up of delegates from all across the Levant, demanded an independent Arab state in what is today Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. France and Britain, however, had no intention of allowing such a thing to happen. The region was carved up between the two powers and the modern Syrian state was born. To the east, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot first drew their line in the sand between Syria and Iraq in 1916. The borders between Syria, Palestine and what later became Jordan were also subject to Franco-British “interests.” To the west, the French High Commissioner in Syria Henri Gouraud created Greater Lebanon. To the north, the border between Syria and Kemalist Turkey followed the Aleppo-Mosul railway, since both Turkish and French diplomats had no clue where a “natural” border should run. These arbitrary borders seldom brought stability.
Syria never developed a healthy relationship with Iraq. France suspected that Britain was influencing Arab tribes to destabilize its presence in eastern Syria, because the British had an eye on Palmyra as a crucial pumping station for Iraqi oil toward seaports on the Mediterranean. After the two countries gained their independence, local governments inherited the morbid suppressions of colonial powers. When the Baath Party took power in both capitals in the 1960s, the struggle took a turn for the worse.
In recent years, the vast swath of desert between Iraq and Syria was the main incubator for Daesh, and the terror group still has pockets of resistance there. More importantly, today, and for the first time in history, the United States has a military presence on Syrian soil, scattered between the northeastern-most parts of the country and the Tanf crossing on the Iraqi border. This space will, therefore, continue to foster suspicion and instability for months, and perhaps years, to come.
The borders arbitrarily drawn more than a century ago have become dangerous fault lines for geopolitical conflict between restless neighbors and foreign powers.
In the south, Syria and Jordan seldom enjoyed a harmonious neighborly relationship, but the emergence of Israel in 1948 transformed Syria’s southern border into a dangerous fault line, which it remains today. Syria was the only Arab country that did not sign an armistice with Israel after the Arab defeat in 1948. It was not until after Husni Al-Zaim, an army officer, usurped power in Damascus in 1949 that Syria signed off on the agreement. Nonetheless, the Israelis remained restless, coveting the rich water sources just behind the Franco-British-drawn border. Continued Israeli harassments and aggression eventually culminated in the 1967 Six-Day War, which in turn led to the 1973 October War. A cold calm reigned over the frontier following the disengagement agreements that Henry Kissinger brokered in 1974. In recent years, however, Israel, still occupying the Golan Heights, is once again pursuing an aggressive policy toward Syria, with detrimental consequences.
The border that Gouraud and his colonial staff drew between Syria and Lebanon remains an unfinished work. Nonetheless, as in the cases of Iraq and Jordan, the colonial powers’ enduring legacy is one of suspicion and latent hostility. Since independence from France, some Lebanese politicians had feared Syrian attempts to swallow their country. The Syrian intervention in the Lebanese Civil War reinforced these convictions. Syria, in turn, did not want Lebanon to become a bridgehead for foreign powers. Gouraud himself had marched from Beirut to occupy Damascus in 1920. These nightmares became reality when American Marines landed in Beirut in 1958 and again in 1982. Today, the fate of the two countries seems more intertwined than ever. The war in Syria has divided Lebanese politicians and society, and more than a million Syrian refugees currently reside in the country, putting unprecedented pressure on its economy and infrastructure. Yet the legacy of the past decades still looms large over any attempts at future cooperation.
It is Syria’s northern frontier, above all, where the century-old, arbitrarily drawn borders continue to breed conflicts, and not only involving regional players but also international powers. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used Turkish military force and support to rebels in northern Syria to extort a beleaguered France. He succeeded in capturing territories that were considered henceforth a part of French Mandate Syria. The border he eventually agreed to with the French ran parallel to the Aleppo-Mosul railway, leaving many Kurds stranded between the two countries.
The Cold War largely froze the situation on the Syrian-Turkish border, except for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) insurgency in southern Turkey. Today, however, the entire frontier has erupted in a manner unprecedented since the 1920s. Like Ataturk, who had to juggle relations with France and Britain while fighting the Kurds and carving up Syria’s territory, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself stuck between Russia and the United States, militarily involved in northern Syria and, once again, fighting the Kurds. The situation is increasingly complicated, and further escalation is unfortunately highly possible.
Syrians never acquiesced to the Sykes-Picot borders; they always saw themselves as part of a larger entity, whether a greater Syria or the Arab nation. These “lines in the sand,” however, had a more detrimental effect on the lives of Syrians than constraining ideological aspirations, as they have become dangerous fault lines for wider geopolitical conflict between restless neighbors and foreign powers.
Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.