John Bruton: Syrian history key to current conflict

It’s important to see the civil war in Syria, which has caused so much death and devastation in recent years, in the context of Syrian history, says John Bruton
John Bruton: Syrian history key to current conflict

It is important to see the civil war in Syria, that has killed 300,000 people and driven millions from their homes, against the background of Syrian history.

Before its boundaries were created by a deal between the French and the British in 1916, present day Syria was not a natural political unit at all.

It was part of a much wider Arabic speaking “Greater Syria”, which included the entire area from Palestine to the Turkish border, and from the Mediterranean as far as the Iranian border with Iraq.

Uniting “Greater Syria” has been a longstanding theme of Arab politics. The subsequent history of relations between the newly created Syria and France has been troubled. After the First World War, France was awarded a League of Nations responsibility to administer present day Syria, with a mandate to prepare it for full independence.

Britain was awarded a similar mandate for the area that is now occupied by Israel/Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Both mandates covered an area that had hitherto been part of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Both Britain and France were rivals for regional influence, and both wanted to retain as much control as possible in their own hands. Neither France nor Britain moved with any swiftness to guide the territories in their charge towards independence.

France had to suppress a major revolt against its rule in Syria in the 1925 to 1927 period, and it used brutal tactics in that war. In 1939, France handed over part of its mandated Syrian territory to Turkey to buy Turkish neutrality in the coming war with Nazi Germany.

Even at the end of the Second World War, France still wanted to hang onto Syria, and was engaged in hostilities with Syrians seeking independence as late as May 1945. Syria finally got full independence later that year.

Initially it had a parliamentary democracy of sorts, but this was gradually replaced by military regimes.

The parliamentary regime proved too weak to cope with the external threat posed by the rise of Israel. After the 1948 war with Israel, which was taking over what most Syrians would have seen as part of “Greater Syria”, the Syrian Army had to be increased in size and strength.

The army’s increasing involvement in politics brought new groups into power in Syria, but it also weakened the army itself, because of factionalism and politically motivated purges.

This weakness was exposed when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israeli occupation, when it was defeated in the 1967 war. That led, indirectly, to the takeover of the state by Hafez Al Assad, a former army officer, of Alawite religion, who had been Minister for Defence in 1967. Assad was a ruthless pragmatist and held power for 30 years.

When Hafez al Assad died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashir, who is married to a Sunni and favoured liberalising the regime, but gave up due to resistance from vested interests.

The eventual rebellion against him was sparked by a minor enough incident in March 2011, when some children were arrested and detained for writing anti regime graffiti on a wall in a town near the Jordanian border.

The conflict with Israel contributed, from its beginning in the late 1940s, to the militarisation of the Syrian regime. The continuing occupation of Syrian territory by Israel added to a sense of siege.

All of Syria’s neighbours are using the current civil war to pursue their own agendas. Although some of the parties in the war, like Daesh (Islamic State), proclaim their Islamic faith, the majority of the victims of this appalling war are other Muslims.

There are so many parties involved in this civil war that even a temporary truce would be very hard to negotiate. Localised humanitarian truces may be the best one can hope for.

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