Sowing dragons’ teeth

This is my review of Syria: A Recent History by John McHugo.

Drawing on firsthand experience of living in Syria, John McHugo has produced an informative analysis of the facts leading up to its tragic civil war. His detailed focus starts in the early twentieth century, just beyond the reach of living memory. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled after the First World War, a critical opportunity was missed to create, under King Faisal who had shown himself to be reasonably competent, an Arab state with the logical boundaries of Greater Syria, now divided between modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and parts of southern Turkey. Instead, France and Britain were allowed to play imperial politics and carve up the territory along the notorious Sykes-Picot line, agreed in secret and, like too many other Middle Eastern borders, running across territories with no regard for ethnic groupings or geography.

Although McHugo accepts that an independent Arab state established in the 1920s might well have lapsed into tribal and religious conflict, and acknowledges the corruption which has fed unrest, he makes clear the West's part in inadvertently bringing about the current crisis. The disproportionate support for the Israeli cause without ensuring justice for the Palestinians has had complex consequences, such as the provocation of Israel's occupation of Syria's Golan heights, and the influx of Arab refugees into partly Christian Lebanon. This set up explosive tensions which Syria sought to resolve at the cost of antagonising the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rather than accept the Achilles heel of a weakened Lebanon through which Israel could attack Syria.

Instead of seeking a comprehensive and statesmanlike approach, the West confined itself to a somewhat blinkered preoccupation during the Cold War with attempts to gain the upper hand over the Soviet Union in the Middle East. "Once America had both Egypt and Israel as its allies as well as friendly relations with numerous other Arab governments….it did not need Syria" – which reacted by obtaining vital arms from Russia.

The author explains Ba'athism as an originally idealistic movement based on the three goals of unity, freedom and socialism – which of course must have been perceived as a threat by some Western powers. Yet when the Ba'ath party overrode elected politicians to gain power, it consolidated its position with nepotism and cronyism, thus undermining its founding ideals and reputation.

McHugh devotes two chapters to Hafez al-Assad, one of the pragmatic, ruthless secular Arab leaders who kept tribal and religious differences in check in the final decades of the C20. His son Bashir al-Assad seems to have attempted a more democratic approach on gaining office, but been driven by the pressure of events to adopt a more brutal and authoritarian approach, with less skill than his father.

McHugh ends on the bleak note that the most likely alternative to a victory by the regime is a descent into warlordism. The recent rise of Isis which has gained influence since the author went to press makes the effects of this anarchic outcome all the more grim. This book may sound like a depressing read at a time when Europe seems to be turning a blind eye to the political and economic chaos on its borders, but it has a positive effect in raising one's understanding of the complex chain of events, and increasing one's respect and sympathy for the Syrian people.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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