Borders, Identity, and Spillover as a Construct in Lebanon/Syria
The two imperial powers were bound by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which staked each country’s claim to Ottoman spoils after the war ended. There were too many promises, too few specific, considered intentions.
… France soon created a country where none existed. Lands once joined by history, tradition, clan, and commerce, were divided by imperial borders put forth by the loudest voices. In Lebanon, these were the Maronite Catholics, a Christian sect long united with the Roman Catholic Church. Ties between France and the Maronites stretched far back, and in more modern times France had played guardian to the Maronites, who had enjoyed a certain autonomy under the Ottomans. The Maronites’ leadership— religious and political— had long pushed for enlarging their homeland, and after the Ottomans’ fall they saw the opportunity to create a greater state. The French, albeit with reservations, complied. To the Maronites’ rather small sanjak, or district, the French added the coastal towns of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre, all of which had belonged to the Ottoman province of Beirut. From the Ottoman province of Damascus they added the fertile Bekaa Valley, which included territory that encompassed Marjayoun.
- Anthony Shadid, House of Stone
The colonial lines that redrew the post-war Middle East continue to deeply affect issues of identity, space, and solidarity in Lebanon and Syria today.
They also make us question the narrative of “spillover” more largely and could potentially influence further partitions of both countries— a Sykes-Picot redux— should the Syrian conflict continue to deepen both in its intensity and involvement.
Similar to their patronage of the Maronites in a newly-created Lebanon partitioned off from greater Syria, France also supported the Alawites in the new Syria and gave them special rights and privileges.
These new borders and seemingly arbitrary lines drawn on a map by European diplomats cut and realigned traditional communities, severed their contagiousness, and blurred understandings of national identity.
Indeed, for many understood-to-be-Lebanese migrants, the juncture of greatest migration— during the Ottoman period and chiefly among the Orthodox and Catholic communities— to areas such as Detroit, Latin America, and West Africa, actually coincided with their identities being officially understood as Syrian.
In New York City, a Little Syria neighborhood flourished on Washington street in what is now the financial district for decades around the turn of the century. This community came from Saida, Beirut, Aleppo, and Damascus. They were predominately Christian, and mostly considered themselves Syrian. This fascinating migratory history was on view at the Arab American National Museum in Detroit and re-opens in New York City this week.
Following independence, many originating from cities in what are now Lebanon viewed their identity through the partially French colonial-induced sectarian demographic prism and later came to identify as Lebanese.
Khalil Gibran’s writing from this period is fascinating in this regard. His essays show blurring lines of identity and nationalism, characterizing himself as both Lebanese and Syrian at various times depending on the piece, the topic, and the audience.
Similarly, and on a more personal note, my famous second cousin, Ed Farhat, better known as “The Sheikh or “The Original Sheikh,” and one of the most influential ’heel’ professional wrestlers of all time, was a Michigan-born Syrian who later considered himself Lebanese (like the rest of my family who migrated from what is now south Lebanon to Detroit, Senegal, and Mexico during the Ottoman period) and assumed the character of “a rich wild man from Syria” who “used hidden pencils to cut open his opponent’s faces” and deployed a "fireball that he threw into his opponents’ faces, sometimes burning their face severely."
Today, these blurred notions of national identity and the complex, interwoven history of the two countries faces new challenges as the traditional authority of the states lack the prerequisite monopoly of violence on their Sykes-Picot national boundaries.
As communities, instead, identify with their sects first, perhaps their outside backers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and France second, and sometimes their actual countries third, further divisions in a time of deadly conflict seem more possible.
One can view Dahiyeh, the once predominately Christian, but now Shi’a strong hold in south Beirut along these lines as it, in many ways, constitutes a “”mini-state” that is stronger than the state; one with its own economy, security, weapons, and culture. A ‘Hezbollah state’ par excellence.”
The Alawite area in the hills of northwest Syria that some are now calling Alawistan could also be viewed within this context, as could the Sunni area in Tripoli, the Lebanese Forces-dominated Christian area in Bishari, or the al Nusra controlled areas outside of Homs.
As Druze leader (and infamous political flip-flopper) Walid Jumblatt warned last year,
"This is the unravelling of the Sykes-Picot agreement," said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, in reference to the secret agreement between the British and French in 1916, which carved up the Levant into spheres of influence in the wake of the Ottoman empire’s demise. "We are seeing the end of what was created 90 years ago. The consequences will be very, very, grave unless they are managed properly.”
The Sykes-Picot agreement divided Qusayr and its inhabitants, with a considerable number of Lebanese Shi’a, holding Lebanese citizenship, actually residing on the Syrian side of the border.
The inextricable conflict, refugee flows, sectarianism, identity, and small arms proliferation affecting both sides of the Lebanon-Syria border— some of these longstanding French colonial legacies— might actually continue to accelerate as the fighting deepens and, nearly a 100 years later, lead to the breakdown, and further fragmentation, of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The ongoing, and accelerating flow of refugees and its future repercussions on Lebanon’s tenuous demographic balance further complicates this notion of borders and what, exactly, spillover even is.
The influx of displaced Syrians to Lebanon is unprecedented in Lebanese history. They come from all social classes and they number more than a million, which is comparable to the Palestinian displacement in 1948. The EU ambassador in Beirut recently said, “I know of no other country where a quarter of the people are refugees.” More and more Lebanese Christians are realizing that their fate is tied to that of the Christians of the region.
The current borders, as we know them, might not be sustainable for another 100 years.