Unlike the the two post-Ottoman political projects of the Hashemites and modern Lebanon that this series has so far presented, the political project of Grand Syria has never materialised.

Grand Syria is a term that has appeared in different eras, always referring to the geographic land extending from the Taurus mountains at the Levant’s natural borders with Asia Minor, all the way south to Egypt’s Sinai. The definition of the term was always vague, something to be expected from a notion that has always sprung up from conceptions about culture, but that never came to pass in any political entity.

Yet, Grand Syria has continued to inspire scores of thinkers and politicians who regarded that geographic space – effectively the bulk of the Levant – as comprising a single cultural and social milieu, and that ought to manifest in a Levantine political unity.

Antoun Saadeh was the most prominent twentieth century thinker who advocated a single Syrian cultural and political identity in the whole of the Levant. Saadeh was executed in Lebanon in 1949, but his thought has for decades inspired a number of political movements in Syria and Lebanon. His thought was anchored on the idea that Levantine way of living, quite similar societal traditions, shared history, and even their close variations of Arabic accents bring the vast majority of Levantine communities together, and, equally important, make the region as a whole distinct from the rest of the Arab world and from al-Mashreq. This makes the notion of Grand Syria different from Arab nationalism. In this view, Grand Syria was a cultural reality before being a political project.

Saadeh’s thought, and that of his followers, was never popular amongst the Levant’s political elite. But to some extent, elements of the notion of Grand Syria seeped into that of the Syrian branch of al-Baath (the party of Resurrection, which controlled Syria and Iraq for decades). President Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000, was at heart an Arab nationalist, an ideology he remained faithful to until the end of his life. In his policies, however, especially in his successful attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to extend Syria’s influence over Lebanon and within many Palestinian political factions, Hafez al-Assad was a de-facto promoter of Grand Syria. But, for al-Assad, Grand Syria was not merely a cultural umbrella that ought to be expressed in a political project; rather it was a sphere of Syrian influence in the Levant.

Al-Assad certainly saw Syria’s prominent role in the Levant’s history as well as its demographic size – by far larger than those of other countries in the region – as anchors for his ambitions to his country, regime, and family. But al-Assad’s view was also anchored on a historical view of Syria as having responsibilities and prerogatives in the Levant, which stem not only from its demography and history, but also from its role in the region’s geopolitics, as well as from, in his view, its custodianship of the region’s core cultural identity.

Despite their differences, Saadeh, Hafez al-Assad, and all proponents of Grand Syria in its variations shared particularly hostile views of the West, especially Britain and France. In their schools of thought, Western rule was much more calamitous to the region than four centuries of Ottoman rule, because, in their view, the Ottomans, despite their often highly oppressive machinations of power and their often rejection of modernisation, had built their rule on unifying the Levant, and assuaging the differences between its communities. By contrast, in their view, the main success of Western colonialism in the region was that it managed, in a relatively short period of time, to bring to the surface and emphasise the differences between Levantine communities. And so, in this line of thinking, Grand Syria was a form of a regional nationalism that aimed to fill the vacuum that the fall of the Ottomans had created, as opposed to Western presence, that the Grand Syrianism saw as dividing and conquering the Levant, largely along sectarian lines.

Grand Syria was also conceptually against – and often condescending towards – Levantine sectarianism, one of the defining social characteristics of Syria and Lebanon. In this view, Grand Syria was an overarching identity that transcends antiquated sectarian affinities. Not surprisingly, the most ardent proponents of Grand Syria were often assertively secular.

Grand Syria’s failure to take hold of any Levantine country deprived it from the momentum that other political projects – such as those of the Hashemites or Arab nationalism – acquired. Still, Grand Syria has left the Levant with three important legacies.

The first was a sense of victimisation. Grand Syria remains in the minds of many, especially Leftist groups in Lebanon and Syria, as an unfulfilled ideal, the true cultural frame of reference that the West and sectarian forces in the region had conspired against. Victimisation continues to give Grand Syria an appeal among groups of young Levantines, especially given the fraught and problematic recent past of both Syria and Lebanon.

The second is a notable presence in Levantine academic and media circles. Some of Saadeh’s disciples and admirers came to hold highly influential positions in some of the leading academic institutions of Syria and Lebanon, and to become prominent voices in some of the most successful media outlets in the region. This is why, despite its relatively niche nature as an ideology, Grand Syria continues to find new interpretations in some of the most successful Syrian and Lebanese media.

The last legacy of Grand Syria is a form of intellectual passion. Perhaps it is the last of all Levantine nationalist, Left-leaning ideologies of the century since the fall of the Ottomans that continues to inspire its adherents with a fiery fervour and devotedness to the project that has never come to pass.