Richard T. Antoun
Albert Hourani, a prominent historian of the modern Middle East has stated that "Even were there no Syrian people, a Syrian problem would still exist." 1 Syria's geographical and strategic position at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and near the convergence of three continents established its political importance long ago. Hourani pointed out that, historically, Syria has served as a focus of political and economic movements, "at times as a starting-point, at others as a terminus or a bridge." 2 At a crossroads of world trade, it is not accidental that Syrian merchants, historically and today, play a prominent role in the economy and politics of the country. As a crossing ground for armies and caravans, at times a leading province in empires far larger than itself, it is remarkable that near the end of the twentieth century "the isolation of Syria" should appear so frequently as a theme in the writings of scholars and observers of the contemporary Syrian scene (see Cobban, this volume; and Sadowski 1987--n. 19).
The reaction of Syria's people to the contrasting cultural, demographic, economic, and political currents from across the Mediterranean and Europe on the one hand and across the desert and Arabia on the other, has been absorption and accommodation, and often at the same time tension and conflict. Accommodation has taken place at the socio- cultural level in the development of a mosaic society well adapted to the geographical diversity of the country, in which a number of ethnic groups and sects (Sunni Muslims, Alawis, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Kurds, Circassians, Ismailis) find their niches in various regions of the country or in various ethnic divisions of labor in urban centers. Accommodation has taken place at the psychocultural level in "the art of rapid and superficial