By Adrian Davies.
It may well be that few readers of this web site greatly care for John Lennon, but no-one can be wrong all the time, not even a dead Beatle. It really is time to give peace a chance, yet our posturing pygmy of a Prime Minister, unworthy holder of a great office once held by great men, and our yet more odious Foreign Secretary, William Hague (some of whose very specialised interests in the Arab world, as related to me with much hilarity by my sources in the Foreign Office, cannot be repeated on this web site by reason of our libel laws) seem hell-bent on fomenting war against Syria, a country that has never done us any harm, nor wishes us any ill.
The usual tall tales are being trotted out: supposedly, the Syrian government, which is winning its war against terrorists by conventional means, has just used chemical weapons against its own people in a suburb of Damascus, in the face of repeated threats from the would be belligerent powers that such use would “cross a red line” (though the use of depleted uranium shells by Israel in its invasion of Lebanon or the Americans in their invasion of Iraq apparently “do not count”.)
This preposterous tale comes from the same sources as Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that were going to obliterate British bases on Cyprus according to the “doctored dossier” presented to Parliament to justify the second Gulf War. Our rulers might at least think of more original lies!
The adventurism of previous British governments in the region has not turned out well. The second Gulf War did not end in the stable, prosperous , democratic Iraq which the neo-cons promised. It has arguably not ended at all. Suicide bombings inspired by sectarian hatred tear Iraq apart every day. We have nothing but hundreds of dead and mutilated British servicemen and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilian casualties (mere “collateral damage” to our evil elites) to show for the blood and treasure expended in furtherance of the (as yet) unpunished war criminal Tony Blair’s participation in aggression against a state that repressed, not supported Al Qaeda. So why are we on the verge of getting involved in yet another Middle Eastern quagmire?
It is not in pursuit of a genuine commitment to the liberal internationalist ideology of democracy and human rights, which our elites parrot as a justification for their foreign wars. The Egyptian army has just overthrown the democratically elected President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to replace them with a regime under which I for one would much rather live, if I were an Egyptian, but that lacks all democratic legitimacy and has been imposed by brute force at the cost of many, many lives, all with the grumbling acquiescence of the Egyptian army’s American paymasters. There is not the slightest chance of western intervention to restore democracy in Cairo, so why are we so concerned about democracy in Damascus?
Indeed, the Syrian regime embodies western values much better than its enemies. It protects the rights of minorities, not least because President Bashar Al Assad himself belongs to a sect that is small in numbers, but very influential over the army and the state. His government truly values diversity, because it is dependent upon the support of Syria’s many and varied minorities in the face of unchained religious fundamentalism amongst important elements (though by no means all) of the majority. Women enjoy equal access to education and the workplace with men, and may hold political office.
It is not through any residual sense of responsibility for a former colonial possession, since Syria was under French, not British rule in years gone by. For many centuries, the Turkish (Ottoman) Sultans ruled over Syria, but in 1916, we reached an agreement with the French to divide the Middle Eastern spoils of eventual victory over Turkey, then an ally of Germany, against which we were fighting the “war to end all wars”, purportedly to protect the rights of small nations.
Our agreement with the French to demarcate spheres of influence (or less euphemistically, colonialist control) in the Middle East, called the Sykes-Picot pact after the lead British and French diplomas involved, took no account of the rights of a large nation, that is to say, the Arab nation.
Sykes-Picot gave British diplomacy a bad name in the Arab world for deceit and duplicity, for the courageous and visionary Colonel T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had, with the encouragement of other elements of the British government, already promised self-government to the Arabs. Lawrence’s object was to encourage the Hasehmite Sharif of Mecca, Husayn ibn Ali, to lead an Arab revolt in the Hejaz against the Turks in order to assist the Allied war effort, which indeed the Sharif did, to good effect.
Little thanks did the Hashemites get for the risks that they took and the blood that they shed in the Allied cause, since they were soon abandoned in favour of the House of Saud, who really do not do democracy or human rights or tolerance of religious minorities or even allow women to drive cars, but have remained close allies of ours (and more pertinently, of the Americans) ever since, and are amongst the principal fomentors of trouble in Syria to-day.
Under the Sykes-Picot pact we received what is now Iraq, while the French received what is now Syria. While both Damascus and Baghdad had once been great centres of political power, commerce and learning, the frontiers of modern Syria and modern Iraq do not correspond to any previously existing states, though Syria is a more historically coherent political entity.
Iraq is an unlikely mish-mash of ethnicities (Kurd and Arab) and religions (Sunni and Shia Islam, Christians and others besides), while Syria is also ethnically and religiously diverse (majority Arab but minority Kurdish in population, divided by religion between Sunni and Alawite Muslims, Christians, Druze and others, including a small Jewish community, whose right to worship freely according to their own tradition the Syrian government upholds, despite its staunchly anti-Zionist line).
The French colonialist rulers of Syria separated Lebanon from Syria, even though the two had always been administered together historically, and were not considered to be separate nations. The French deliberately played upon the division between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon to create a Lebanese state in which Christians were the largest group, and had the leading role. The French favoured the Christians because they were (and are) very Francophile and did not chafe under rule from Paris, whereas the Muslims did. Unsurprisingly, Syrians of patriotic views did not like the division of their country to suit their French colonialist overlords, who still appear to believe that they can dictate to the Syrians how to run Syria.
Meanwhile, in Syria proper, the French long favoured the Alawites (an offshoot of Shia Islam, whom they now oppose), at first toying with the idea of a separate Alawite state, but later encouraging Alawites to join the Syrian army, in which the Alawites predominated long before Syria became independent of France. One of the Alawite leaders with whom the French worked closely was the grandfather of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
French policy in Syria precisely parallelled British policy in Iraq, where (in accordance with the old imperialist maxim of divide and rule) we favoured Sunni Muslims over Shia, and Arabs over Kurds, so that President Saddam Hussein was as much a product of British policy, as President Assad is the heir of French policy.
Syria eventually became independent of France after the Second World War (during which, incidentally, its French colonial rulers sided with the Vichy government, leading to fighting with British forces in the region).
At that time, Arab nationalism, represented in Syria by the Ba’ath party, was the new big idea in the Arab world. Arab nationalism has never had any truck with Salafism (Sunni Muslim fundamentalism). It embraces all Arabs, whether Muslim, Christian or Druze, regardless of religion and sect.
It must be said that pan-Arabism worked better in theory than in practice. An attempt to carry it into effect in the 1950s in the form of the United Arab Republic (a federation of Egypt and Syria) proved short-lived. Syria quickly seceded from the U. A. R.
After a complex political struggle, into the details of which I shall not venture, the Ba’athists eventually came to power in Syria in the 1960s, ironically as a result of the dissolution of the unitary Arab state that they so fervently advocated.
A power struggle within the Ba’ath party led to an acrimonious split (who could have imagined such a thing?) between its Syrian and Iraqi factions. Indeed, the Syrians joined in the first Gulf War on the American side, so bitter was the hatred between President Hafez Al Assad of Syria (the father of President Bashar al Assad) and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. In those days (not so very long ago) Ba’athist Syria was the ally, not the enemy of America and its obsequious British satellite state.
Syria benefited considerably from the eventual overthrow of Saddam Hussain following the second Gulf War, since a dangerous rival of the Assad dynasty was eliminated, though President Bashar Al Assad (much to his credit) very chivalrously gave asylum to Saddam Hussain’s widow and daughters in Damascus.
The new, Shia led, Iraqi government enjoys excellent relations with Syria, based on a common front against Sunni extremists, who are waging horrific terrorist wars against both the Syrian and Iraqi states, neither of which, it must be said, appears reluctant to retaliate with all the force at its disposal (in the case of the Iraqis, thoughtfully provided by the Americans, who are apparently on the side of the Shia in Iraq but of the Sunni in Syria, without any apparent discernment of the problematic nature of their engagement in sectarian politics that outsiders to the region can scarcely understand).
Given the contradictory positions taken with regard to Syria and Iraq, Anglo-American involvement in the region does not seem to be the result of a decision to take sides for some Machiavellian reason of grand strategy in the sectarian disputes that afflict the Muslim world, and are as difficult to understand to us as Protestant and Catholic sectarianism in Northern Ireland would be to the average Baghdadi or Damascene (who, it must be said, probably both have other things to worry about these days than the decisions of the Parades Commission, such as how to do the shopping without being blown up by a lorry bomb or shot by a sniper).
Nor, on this occasion, is British policy towards Syria wholly determined by the usual suspects. It is true that post-Suez (and arguably post-1945) the default foreign policy position of the British establishment has been to find out what the Americans want and then do it, in order to maintain the imaginary “special relationship” with the U.S.A., which the Americans regard as occasionally useful, when the fig-leaf of a coalition is required to give legitimacy to a war, sometimes annoying, much like the slobbering of a fawning dog on its master’s shoes, but never to be taken seriously, let alone reciprocated.
Equally, since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, if not before, the default approach to foreign policy of the American political class (with some honourable exceptions, such as President Nixon, at least sporadically, and President Carter, more consistently) is to take their instructions from AIPAC, the all too influential America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has more or less set American foreign policy in the Middle East for almost five decades, in the interests of Israel, not America.
On this occasion, however, there is little evidence that President Obama really wants to intervene in Syria after America’s experience in Iraq, and equally little evidence that the Israelis would prefer a Salafist regime in Syria to the Ba’athist regime, which is pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, but, unlike the crazed fundamentalists who oppose President Assad, is also a rational actor, well aware of the risks of confrontation with Israel at a time of weakness and division in the Arab world (a state of affairs that has, it must be said, prevailed somewhat consistently since 1948 for various reasons).
On the contrary, this time our prime minister and the French President, François Hollande, are egging the Americans on to an intervention that the more prudent and cautious President Obama appears to view with justified apprehension.
The real explanation for the proposed joint Franco-British attack on Syria (shades of Suez, 1956!) is, I believe, the continuing delusion of the British political class that the British state is still a great power.
More than half a century ago, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” Fifty-one years on, those words still ring true.
At first, our elite’s narcotic of choice for the loss of empire (the wholly predictable result of waging two world wars for doubtful ends) was the absurd Commonwealth, whose members, in the memorable words of Mr Enoch Powell, have nothing in common and no wealth.
Then came the so-called “special relationship” with an imaginary friend, which I have already discussed.
Yet another opiate of our establishment is the fond belief that we can (and should) “punch above our weight”, closely linked to which is an obsession with keeping “our seat at the top table” (also known as denying reality).
Such wishful thinking certainly goes back to the time of the Yalta conference in 1945, when Churchill wholly succeeded in convincing himself, partially succeeded in convincing Stalin, but largely failed to convince Roosevelt that Great Britain was somehow on a par with the U.S.S.R. and the U. S. A., by reason of our huge war effort, only sustained, it must be admitted, with American help.
No-one believed that for long. The political weakness of post-1945 Great Britain results from relative economic decline. Despite our still powerful armed forces, just how little clout we had on the world stage became clear to all but the most self-deluding after the Suez debacle of 1956 (interestingly, a joint Franco-British attempt to project our declining power into the Arab world: be warned, history has a habit of repeating itself!)
Wars are very expensive, and countries with shaky economies cannot wage them for long, however brave and well-trained their soldiers, sailors and airmen might be. The poor equipment with which our armed forces have had to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is tangible proof of that. What is more, wars usually are not over by Christmas, as the generation of 1914 learned to its cost. They go on, and on, and on, especially (it would seem) in the Middle East and cost more, and more and more.
The reality of modern Britain is that we are a medium sized European power that no longer has a world role, or responsibilities that extend beyond the shores of our islands. We have plenty of problems of our own to be getting on with, before we meddle in Syria’s affairs, or anyone else’s.
It is a wicked dereliction of duty for a prime minister whose government lost control over large parts of its capital city (and many other towns and cities besides) only two years ago to posture on the world stage. He would do better to put his own house in order, and protect British soldiers from fundamentalist fanatics and murderers on the streets of Woolwich than meddle with the Arab street, but so monstrously vain, complacent, out of touch and short-termist is this posh boy who doesn’t known the price of a pint of milk that he prefers to strut his little hour than do anything about matters that he really could influence, if only he wanted to.
Instead of the insane adventurism of David Cameron and William Hague, all true patriots should sing along with John Lennon, who advocated a much better foreign policy for our country. All we are saying is give peace a chance!