Syria: A Recent History by John McHugo

512R+XAgLZL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Reflections and Summary by Colin Chapman

 This very readable review of the last hundred years of the history of Syria has helped me to make sense of the ongoing conflict in Syria. Before summarising each chapter, it may be helpful to spell out some of the most significant themes that John McHugo draws out from this history:

  1. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Faisal set himself up as king in Damascus in 1918, attempting to set up an independent Arab kingdom in accordance with promises made to him by the French and the British. This was ‘probably the best chance of Greater Syria to develop their own nationhood’; but these hopes of independence and nationhood were dashed by French and British colonial ambitions.
  1. France during the Mandate period (1920 – 1946) did little to prepare the country for independence, and some of its policies (like ‘divide and rule’ and supporting minorities) sowed the seeds of later conflict. France’s colonial rule made it difficult for Syria to develop as an independent state.

‘France had a vision of a permanent French presence in Syria … “the whole of it and for ever” … The French did their utmost to make the establishment of a successful independent Syrian state as hard as possible … It is not an exaggeration to say that the actions of the great powers in the aftermath of the Great War and over the following decades deprived the people of Syria of any chance of a normal development to nationhood.’mchugo_john

  1. Britain shares some of the responsibility along with France since many of its policies in the region were motivated by rivalry with France and a determination to limit its power in the region. The boundaries of the states they created were artificial and determined more by their own interests than by geography, history or demography.
  1. During the Cold War (later 1940s – 1989) Syria was caught up in the struggle between the US and the USSR and therefore became ‘the play thing of foreign interests.’ Syria turned to the USSR for support (and especially for arms) when it was rebuffed by the West. Many US policies in the region were intended to separate Syria (and Egypt) from the USSR, to support Israel and further American hegemony.

‘the global tussle for supremacy between the USA and the USSR turned Syria into a pawn. It was to be moved, and when expedient, sacrificed on the chess board of global politics.’

  1. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combined with the Cold War, distracted Syria from dealing with its economic problems and developing a sense of nationhood. Because of the loss of the Golan Heights and the conflict with Israel, Syria was put ‘on a semi-permanent war footing’, which made reform harder.

‘The Arab-Israeli dispute blended with the Cold War … The trampling underfoot of Palestinian rights made the task of moderate Arab nationalists who wished to find an accommodation to the West infinitely harder.’

  1. The Ba’th Revolution (from 1940) was inspired by the ideals of Arab nationalism and socialism. But in practice it encouraged nepotism and created a new elite, which later came to be dominated by Alawites and friends and relatives of the regime. Hafiz al-Assad used the Ba’th party to control the country, turning Syria into a repressive one-party police state. ‘Ba’thism morphed into the dictatorship of the Assads.’
  1. Patronage and tribal solidarity have always been part of Arab societies. The notables (‘quasi-aristocratic families’ who were landowners, administrators and religious leaders) played an important role after the end of the Ottoman Empire, and were used by the French to control the country. The Ba’th party created its own system of patronage and its own kind of tribal solidarity, which took the place of both the notables and the French colonial power and plunged Syria into class and sectarian conflict.             ‘Hafez al-Assad never envisaged the establishment of a democracy in Syria which might threaten his position.’
  1. The sectarianism that is so significant in the present conflict has a long history. French colonial rule tended to favour minorities and encouraged the Alawites in particular to join the army. The Sunni majority has always been bitter that the Assad regime has been dominated by Alawites. Because the Alawites are an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, Syria has been strongly supported by the Shi’ite Republic of Iran and by the Lebanese Shi‘ite militia, Hizbullah.
  1. Islam provided ‘the most convenient rallying cry’ for many Syrians both against the French and against the Ba’th. Islamic revival was also stimulated by the 6-Day War and subsequent alienation from the West. Both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad have used the threat of Islamism and Jihadism to protect their own interests and to keep complete control.

‘It is easier to fight against a demonised opponent [Islamists] with bombs and tanks than to deal with crowds asking for human rights.’

  1. Lebanon during the civil war of 1975 – 1989 became the battleground of the Middle East. Since 2011Syria has taken the place of Lebanon as ‘a theatre for proxy wars.’ This new proxy war has marked a return to the earlier Cold War – but this time with other powers (especially Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States) drawn in on one side or the other.

‘Today’s civil war could be said to be the last proxy conflict of the Cold War. 

  1. The use of violence by the Assad regimes (in 1982 and since 2011) to put down opposition has been no different in principle from the violence used by the French to put down dissent (especially in 1925 and 1945).
  1. Although Bashar al-Assad probably wanted reform when he took over from his father in 2000, he was ‘totally dependent on a clique of family members and close associates in the one-party police state.

‘The destinies of those at the top of the regime are bound together and they will survive or fall as one.’ 

Chapter 1. The land that once was known as Sham

After World War I, four powers had an interest in the future of the Ottoman Empire and Syria: Britain (which saw the region as an important land bridge for maintaining its empire in the East and after 1928 as a vital source of oil), France (which wanted to support Catholics, believed it had a mission civilisatrice, a civilising mission, and had ‘idealised memories of the Crusades’), Turkey (which had been allied with Germany) and Russia (which for the previous century had been trying to extend its influence in the region and saw itself as a protector of Orthodox Christians).

In 1516 Christians were approximately 1/3 of the population of Syria; in 1914 they were 20%; Aleppo was 1/3 Christian.

The clashes between Christians and Druzes in 1880 spilled over to Damascus, and encouraged Maronite separateness and nationalism. Resentment against Christians partly because of their relations with European powers.

Greater Syria played a role in the Nahda, the Arab cultural renaissance which led to a greater sense of Arab-ness.

The Young Turks in 1908 were seeking to refashion the Ottoman Empire; their reforms provoked resentment among the Arabs and stimulated the desire for independence from Turkish/Ottoman rule.

World War I was a calamity for the people of Syria, with ports blocked by Allies – leading to famine, in which 1/5 of the population of Mt Lebanon died.

Allenby captured Damascus Oct 1918, while another British army took control of Iraq. In Nov 1918 Britain and France promised ‘complete and definite emancipation … and the establishment of national governments.’ But these promise were completely ignored. April 1919, after Versailles Peace Conference, Faisal returned to Damascus to establish a single Arab state.

August 1919 the King-Crane Commission reported strong desire among the majority for ‘a single independent state in the form of a decentralised constitutional monarchy.’

But in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement (May 1916), Britain and France had already agreed to carve up Greater Syria. So at San Remo Conference in April 1920, they granted France the mandate for Syria and Lebanon and Britain the mandate for Palestine and Iraq. The Arabs felt betrayed by both Britain and France.

July 1920 French forces crushed a Syrian army at Maysaloum west of Damascus, and deposed Faisal.

Chapter 2. French Rule (1920 – 1946)

The French presence in Syria was supported in France both by the colonial lobby (which was concerned for business) and the Catholic lobby (which supported the Maronites). The Mandate was supposed to prepare the country for independence – ‘until such time as they are able to stand alone’. But French policies made it harder for Syria to develop towards independence:

– The policies of France caused economic decline – eg more was spent on the army and security than on infrastructure.

– Special privileges granted to the French living in Syria – eg Mixed Courts with European judges.

– Christians in Syria were associated in the mind of Syrians with the French.

– France turned Syria into ‘a patchwork quilt of semi-autonomous but dependent territories over which it would retain control … with the aim of discouraging a Syria-wide sense of national feeling’: (a) Greater Lebanon created to build a Maronite-dominated entity; (b) Alawite area around Lattakia; (c) Druze area around Suwayda.

– Alexandretta given to Turkey in 1939 in breach of terms of the Mandate

France co-opted some of the major landowning families as intermediaries. In doing so, they stepped into the shoes of the Ottomans. Vast majority of Syrian questioned the legitimacy of France’s authority. Army columns were sent round the country in a show of force and to discourage rebellion. The People’s Party formed in 1925 seeking independence.

Resentment against French rule led to the Revolt of Druze in Hawran (1925 – ’27). 1,000 French soldiers killed. They ‘recruited gangs from the Circassian and Armenians minorities to carry out their dirty work.’ Revolt spread to other parts. Savage and brutal assault with shelling on Damascus, May 1926. ‘The French air force conducted what may well have been the most intensive and systematic aerial bombardment against a civilian population that had taken place up to that time anywhere in the world.’ Maronites supported the French, but many Orthodox backed the rebels.

‘Sometimes … there was a religious tinge to the revolt …’ It was considered a scandal that France was ruling over a mainly Muslim country. ‘The religious rhetoric of Islam has its place in any sense of Arab pride, and was an obvious rallying cry … it was only natural for it to use religious symbolism on appropriate occasions.’

Revolt crushed by summer 1927. 6,000 rebel fighters killed; homes of 100,000 people destroyed. ‘By the time the rebellion was over, a strong sense of Syrian national identity had taken deep root’ – especially among Sunnis and Druze, but also among Christians.

National Bloc created 1930s: French persuaded notables who were nationalists to take part in running the country in ‘honourable cooperation.’ But Assembly suspended by France. Treaty with France in 1936, but not implemented. Constitution suspended in July ’39; Druzes and Alawites given increased autonomy.

Muhammad Abdou in Egypt was aware of how western education and values might threaten Islam unless it could renew itself from within. He feared that if this did not happen, Islam would be discarded like an old garment. ‘Sunni Islam was the focal point of identity for many people. This sentiment blended naturally and easily into a sense of Arab nationalism… One of the reasons for the popular growth of Arab nationalism under the French was that it was a way for many people to express their allegiance to Islam, the threatened cornerstone of their identity.’

In the minds of the French, Arab nationalism and ‘Muslim fanaticism’ were linked. ‘This led the French to favour religious minorities and non-Arab ethnic groups [like Maronites, Orthodox Christians, Alawites and Druzes] and to try to co-opt them.’

To create Greater Lebanon, non-Maronite areas had to be added to the Maronite heartlands. ‘Viewed with the hindsight of today, this arguably defeated the purpose of the establishment of the state of “Greater Lebanon” in the first place.’ Lebanon was created ‘to suit the political purposes of just one of those tribes’, which was Phoenician, Christian, capitalist and western rather than Arab. The split between Syria and Lebanon ‘came about because of the “divide and rule” politics of the French.’

France also proposed an Alawite state.

1945. ‘The final chapter of the Mandate was a display of extremely bad grace by the frustrated French.’ Strikes and demonstrations against the French, who bombed and shelled Damascus, May ’45; government buildings almost destroyed by French shelling. ‘This wanton destruction could be said to have been a symbol of France’s failure to fulfil the promise to prepare Syria for independence which it had made when it accepted the Mandate.’

1946. French (and British) troops finally left Damascus and Beirut.

Chapter 3. From Independence to Hafez al-Assad (1946 – 70)

After independence Syria was governed through ‘a western constitutional formula stretched like a new skin over the fissures of a traditional society’ (Patrick Seale).

Most politicians were from notable families. Rivalry between Aleppo and Damascus.

Main parties: (1) Syrian National Party, founded ’32 by Antun Sa’ada; working for Greater Syria. Rejected Islam and Arabic as source of nationhood; against pan-Arabism; complete separation of religion and politics. (2) Syrian Communist Party.  (3) Islamists; Syrian branch of Muslim Brotherhood founded ‘45/’46. Moderate Islamist agenda, sensitive to Christians. (4) Ba’thism; founded by Michel Aflaq (Orthodox Christian) and Salah al-Din Bitar (Sunni Muslim) (1940s), working for rebirth of Arabism. Three goals: unity, freedom and Arab socialism. Separation of religion and politics. Syrians ‘were suffering not only from  national wounds inflicted by  the foreigner but also from social wounds because our society was sunk in ignorance and falsehood’ (Aflaq).

Between independence and ’58, Syrian politics were a three-way clash between (a) the old notables, the traditional ruling political classes which had evicted the French; (b) new movements like Ba’ath the Arab Socialist Ba’th Party, 1952; (c) army, whose officers eventually came out on top. A series of coups.

When Israel created in 1948, the Syrian army was to prevent Jordanian army occupying parts of northern Palestine and to ward King Abdullah off from Syria. ‘The Syrian army never tried to do more than take a few Zionist settlements around the Sea of Galilee and the marshes to the north.’ Army defeated and felt humiliated by politicians.

1949 Coup. Col. Husni Zaim installed himself as head of state. Offered peace with Israel.

Syria caught up in the Cold War. In 1955 Baghdad Pact created to prevent Soviet expansion in M East; Britain wanted to recover lost power in region.

US was trying to woo Syria through aid.

Nsser’s coup in Egypt, 1952. When Nasser was humiliated by Israeli raid on Gaza Feb ’55, he sought arms from US, who refused. Therefore turned to Communist block, esp. Czechoslovakia. US retaliated in July ’56 US by refusing to finance Aswan Damn. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Led to Suez crisis of October ’56.

Soviet penetration of Syria began in earnest, turning Syria into a Soviet satellite. This made the US and West angry.

1958. United Arab Republic (UAR) created. Nasser never envisaged political union with Syria. But when it was proposed by Syria, Nasser said ‘full union or nothing.’ This marked the end of Syrian democracy and the old Ba’ath, which was abolished by Nasser. The union was emotionally driven and hasty. Result was that Syria was absorbed into a larger entity dominated by Nasser.

1961.Coup of Syrian army officers ended the UAR. Elections for parliament held.

March ’63, another coup by Ba’athists, Nasserites and independents; led to death of the old regime of notables. Nepotism – helping relatives, friends and minorities – especially Alawites.  Creation of ‘impenetrable bureaucracy that was almost to strangle commercial life in Syria.’  ‘Its revolutionary fervour had triumphed over its support for democracy.’

Feb ’66 Coup installed Salah Jadid – army now in control. ‘Nationalisation and full-scale class warfare.’

June ’67 War; ‘the war that neither side wanted’. Golan Heights captured. Syrian army and government humiliated.

Chapter 4. Hafez al-Assad, 1970 – 2000

Nov ’70. Coup led by Hafiz al-Assad deposed Salah Jadid. Syria now led by ‘a regime with a heart that was made of lead’ and prepared to use assassination and terrorism. Because of confrontation with Israel, country on semi-permanent war footing, with long-term militarisation of society; help from Russians to rebuild army.

Oct ’73. Syria and Egypt attack Israel. Syrian forces attempting to retake Golan defeated, but redeemed their honour, and were soon re-equipped. After the war, Kissinger’s aim was to detach Egypt from USSR and bring it into western orbit. ‘This was Cold War thinking and has since proved to have been the sowing of dragons’ teeth. The failure to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace had a knock-on consequence which made reform in Syria harder …’

1975. Civil War in Lebanon. Assad first tried role of conciliator. As result of Kissinger’s intervention, Syria intervened to end the civil war. This intervention led to Syrian hegemony over Lebanon in ’76. Assad and Arafat – mutual hatred.

Assad wanted Lebanon and Jordan to work with Syria against Israel. He was angry and bitter that the diplomacy of Kissinger, Carter and Sadat had isolated Syria.

Syrian could do nothing when Israel annexed Golan in ’81 in ‘a grotesque breach of international law.’

1982. Invasion of Lebanon. Sharon’s goal was (a) to drive Palestinian leadership from Beirut, destroy its forces and the idea of Palestinian nationalism; (b) to install Gemayel as President and sign peace treaty with Israel; (c) to humiliate Assad by driving Syria out of Lebanon. Gemayel assassinated 14 Sept. Brother Amin made President – agreed that Israel remain in south. Syria occupying most of rest of Lebanon

End of Lebanese civil war with Tai’if Accord Sept ’89: parliament to be divided equally between Muslims and Christians, and powers of president reduced. This rejected by Aoun, who was driven from Baabda. By ’90 Assad had almost turned Lebanon into a Syrian protectorate

August ’90. Iraq invaded Kuwait. Syrian support for the US and the UN against Saddam Hussein helped Syria to reassert its hegemony over Lebanon. After the war US attempted a comprehensive peace plan; but Israel wanted to negotiate with each country separately.                ’93 Oslo Accords.              ’94 Peace with Jordan.

2000. Assad met Barak in Geneva. But Barak not prepared to give share of Lake of Galilee to Syria. 3 months later Assad died.

Why did Assad support the Maronites in Lebanon against the nationalists and leftists (who might have been his natural allies)? It was to prevent Lebanon becoming a leftist state which would threaten Syria. ‘Assad’s involvement in Lebanon created almost as many problems as it solved. He prevented Lebanon falling under Israel’s hegemony and instead placed it under his own… Syria’s … meddling in Lebanese politics was as self-seeking as that of Israel.’

Assad’s difficult relationship with Iraq and Iran: enmity with Iraqi Ba’th and hatred of Saddam Hussein. Syria supported Iran against Iraq in war of ’80-’88. Hussein’s war on Iran ‘a betrayal of Arab nationalism.’

Chapter 5. Inside the Syria of Hafez al-Assad

During the 1930s and 40s the Alawis had been a clannish and secretive group at the very bottom of Syrian society, persecuted and marginalised. Ibn Taymiyya (d 1328) had been fiercely anti-Alawite (and anti-Shi’ite).

Assad joined the Ba’th party in ’46, and took part in the coup of March ’63. By ’64 he was commander of the air force. Took control in Syria in 1970, and reshaped Ba’th party.  ‘The party was now transformed into a movement that existed to support the leader – a complete contradiction with the ideals of its founders… It became the vehicle every ambitious person had to join in order to get ahead and an instrument with which to control the country.’ Alawite officers were 42% of army. Number of security agencies grew.

Alongside the repression and corruption, there was real transformation of the country – education, electricity, water. But country ‘choking with bureaucracy … control was the watchword of the Syria of Hafez al-Assad.’  ‘A very traditional use of Alawite family patronage to extend the influence of the ruler and ensure his survival.’

Islam provided the most convenient rallying cry against the Ba’th revolution which had ended the old order. Assad always stressed he was Muslim. Obtained fatwa from Musa al-Sadr to say Alawites were true Muslims of Shi’ite persuasion. His attempts to reach out to the Sunni majority didn’t work. The Islamic revival had first been sparked by the 6-Day War and alienation from West.

Disturbances beginning in ’79 – especially in Aleppo and Hama. Climax of rebellion in Hama, 1982, fiercely put down, with between 20,000 and 40,000 killed and central Hama flattened. ‘After the Hama massacre of 1982, the mukhabarat were everywhere. Fear would now stalk the land for so long as Hafez al-Assad lived.’

Afterwards Assad tried to co-opt the religious revival.

After ’82 greatest threat to Assad came from his own family. Rifaat critical of his policies, and was more pro-West. In ’83 decided not to challenge Assad and left the country. Basil died in car accident ’94.

Assad died 2000. ‘A corrupt and repressive regime.’ ‘Some of the choices he made were very murky indeed. Perhaps he lost his way somewhere between pragmatism and ruthlessness.’

Chapter 6. Bashar al-Assad, 2000 –     

Aged 34 when took over in June 2000, after he was only 18 months into his study to be ophthalmologist in London. Married Asma, from Sunni family from Homs, whose father a cardiologist in London.

In his first speech called for ‘democratic thinking’ and for government that was ‘reasonably transparent and free of vested interests… But it was just such a government that Bashar al-Assad was never able to provide. He did take steps which he may have genuinely hoped would eventually lead to one.’

The hopes raised by the Arab Spring were soon crushed. Chiefs of Mukhabarat told him that if he continued political reform, they could not guarantee he would remain in power. By 2001 restrictions on political freedom reappearing, and reforms seen as ‘essentially a public relations exercise by the authorities and little more.’

Should we give Bashar the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps, but (1) he was the product of the world in which he had grown up; (2) he inherited the burden of the past.

9/11 and Bush’s ‘war or terror’ enabled Bashar ‘to achieve a certain rapprochement with America’. After 2003 invasion of Iraq the right wing in the US wanted the ‘reshaping of the M East to suit America and Israel’ and was ‘pushing Syria to accept the entirety of the hegemonic vision the Bush administration had developed for the region.’

14 Feb 2005. Assassination of Rafiq Hariri led to an immense welling up of anger against Syrian presence in Lebanon.’ Pressure from the UN forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, 12 July 2006. Nasrallah became a national hero and made Bashar popular.

Some attempts at economic reforms, but much corruption and inefficiency. ‘Chinese model of economic liberalisation without a loosening of the political system … the reforms skirted anything that threatened the position of Bashar al-Assad’s most important supporters … crony capitalism of the most extreme kind.’

Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin, controlling 60% of country’s economy.

Bashar ‘became dependent on a clique of family members and other close associates in a way that narrowed his power base.’ Probably not able to exercise power over them. ‘The destinies of those at the top of the regime are bound together and they will survive or fall as one.’ ‘Many believe that Bashar was essentially corrupted by power.’

Bashar seemed to have ‘survived the challenge from political Islam. He continued his father’s policy of reaching out to religious scholars who were willing to coexist with the regime’, and argued that there is no conflict between Islam and the regime.

‘But there was no progress on two key fronts: fighting against corruption and starting moves towards freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the dismantling of the security state… Syria slid down the spiral which ended in civil war.’

The Arab Spring (Dec 2010) caught most people by surprise. Protesters in Syria wanted ‘human rights, democracy and jobs’ – summed up by the word ‘dignity.’

March 2011 children aged 9 – 11 wrote graffiti on wall ashsha‘ab yurid isqat al-nizam (‘The people want the fall of the regime’). Security reacted with brutality – children taken to Damascus. Protests in Der’a; attack on Governor’s office, Ba’th and Security HQ, demanding ‘an end to the unaccountable security state and the absence of freedom, policies to tackle the lack of jobs and opportunities and a drive against corruption.’

Bashar at first silent – then 30 March addressed nation: Syria is the ‘victim of foreign conspiracy’. Acknowledged need for reform, which had been delayed for many reasons (including drought). His basic message: ‘Trust us!’

‘Now he would find himself the victim of his own failure to introduced transparency into the government’s workings and tackle the security and state corruption.’ This speech of self-justification left Syrians deeply disillusioned. Attempts to buy popularity; but protests intensified with brutal crackdown on demonstrations.

When was the point of no return? Possibly on 29 April, 2001, when13-year old boy arrested in demonstration and his mutilated body returned to family one month later.

July: Free Syrian Army created
October: Syrian National Council

Government ‘presented itself as the only solution to problems which it had created or exacerbated’

Splits in opposition; eg. Islamists refused to join coalition. Resignation of al-Khatib, imam who strove for democracy and pluralism; ‘an immense loss to the credibility of the rebel cause.’

August ’13 Chemical attack. Obama’s ‘red line’. Government agreed to give up chemical weapons. UK and USA not willing to intervene militarily. ‘Many observers said that Syria and its people were now paying the price for the botched intervention in Iraq.’

April 2013. ISIS took Raqqa.

Bashar had allowed Islamist militants to cross Syria into Iraq – and they have turned against him. ‘To many Syrians it seems perfectly plausible that there was some kind of alliance between groups such as ISIS and the regime, or at least a relationship which might be described as a form of mutual manipulation. These groups benefited the regime in some ways, since they discredit the opposition in the eyes of the international community and distract other groups from their fight against it.’

Jan/Feb 2014 talks in Geneva failed. ‘a voiceless silent majority stood in the middle.’