Syria: Caught in a Trap

As the Syrian crisis intensifies, John McHugo looks at the country’s troubled relationship with the West during the Cold War and the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict.

Flying the flag: Palestinians and Syrians hold a picture of President Bashar al-Assad as they mark the creation of the state of Israel, May 2011. Getty Images/AFPThe regime in Syria is a brutal and corrupt nationalist dictatorship with a youth movement inspired by that of North Korea. Some of the rebels opposing the regime aspire to democracy and secularism, but those who seem to be in the ascendant have intolerant agendas; some have even linked themselves to al-Qaeda. Yet observers are wrong if they comfort themselves with the thought that none of the causes of the barbarity in Syria at the moment can be laid at the door of the West.

In the years before and after 9/11 the history of the Arab Middle East became a political and cultural football in Britain and America. Scholars such as Bernard Lewis frequently accused Arab leaders of failing to take responsibility for their disastrous policies and then trying to offload the blame on to the West. There was more than a grain of truth in such assertions, but they obscured a very important point. Many in the West have sought to blame Arabs for the disastrous failures of western states in the Middle East. Syria today is a case study of a country trapped in a vice created by the effects of western policies across the decades.

The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is, as the Middle East commentator David Lesch has pointed out, a child of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neither was caused by Syria, but the country suffered terribly as a result of both. It had only been genuinely independent for two years when the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. As the historian Rashid Khalidi baldly puts it, the offensives by Zionist militias to secure the territory for the new state ‘led Palestinian society to disintegrate’. The ensuing calamity and the armed conflict that followed Israel’s declaration of independence tested Syria’s infant democracy to destruction. By the end of the following year, it had seen two military coups and civilian politicians knew that they could never rule without the support of the army.

Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights during the Six Day War in 1967 led to the militarisation of Syrian society, something that has endured to this day. Following the failure of Syria’s attempt to recover the Golan by force in 1973, it was pushed into a corner by the diplomacy of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who treated the Arab-Israeli dispute as a proxy war against the USSR. Having successfully enticed Egypt, Syria’s key military ally, into the western fold, he lost any interest he may have had in an overall Arab-Israeli settlement.

Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel was signed in 1979. Two years later Israel annexed the occupied Syrian Golan, although this flew in the face of international law. Israel was now a strategic partner of the US and its patron would never administer more than a slap on its client’s wrist. Today Israeli maps show the Golan as Israel. Israeli citizens are encouraged to settle there and export its products. An energy exploration licence over part of the Golan has been awarded by Israel to a company in which Rupert Murdoch is a shareholder. Such doings attract little interest in the West.

President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez after the latter’s death in 2000. Hafez al-Assad had ruled Syria ruthlessly for 30 years, but was a shrewd, cautious pragmatist. Frustrated in his attempts to recover Syria’s lost territory and obtain some form of justice for the Palestinians, he played the only card available to him and put pressure on Israel by frustrating its attempts to achieve hegemony over Lebanon. He sponsored militants of whatever hue (initially Palestinians, more latterly the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah) who could hit back at Israel. A series of proxy wars between Israel and Syria ensued on Lebanese soil. There were occasions when the US tried to facilitate negotiations that might have led to a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, but the American will to pressure Israel to return the entirety of the Syrian territory it had seized was lacking. Without the return of that land, no Syrian ruler could make peace. Throughout his rule, Hafez al-Assad was forced to devote his time and energy to matters of defence and foreign affairs, when the country desperately needed much more attention on economic and social issues.

The negative effects of western policies did not begin with Syria’s independence. The predominantly Arabic speaking provinces of Ottoman ‘Greater Syria’ (essentially everything between the Sinai desert and southern Turkey) were arbitrarily partitioned between Britain and France under League of Nations Mandates after the First World War. An attempt to create an independent Syria was crushed by French tanks and aircraft at the battle of Maysaloun, outside Damascus, in 1920. France and Britain supposedly had ‘a sacred trust of civilisation’ to prepare the mandated territories for independence, but began by setting up customs posts and barriers to trade and movement where none had previously existed. The boundaries they established ignored established administrative ones, did not reflect ethnic divisions and were drawn to suit themselves rather than the peoples of the territories they controlled. France attempted a divide and rule policy to justify its presence, exacerbating the sectarian fault-lines in Syrian and Lebanese society. The strife between secularists and Islamists in Syria cannot be laid at the door of the French, but they did make it worse, not least by giving the Sunni Muslim majority the impression that Syria was being run for the benefit of the Alawites and other minorities, such as Christians and Druze.

The period of the mandate flowed almost seamlessly into that of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. During both periods, many conspiracies were hatched against Syria. People often became paranoid in reaction to events. Today’s Syrian regime is a case in point. None of this lifts the blame from the shoulders of the Assad family for what is happening there now, but the tragedy of today’s Syria cannot be fully understood unless this crucial fact is acknowledged.

John McHugo is a lawyer, linguist and author of The Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi Books, 2013).

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