28 August 2013

Syria – a brief background

Foreign policy that is put together in a timescale of days or weeks and that does not have a clear end objective is frankly dangerous. That is where we are with Syria now. A lot of people know about what horrors have happened recently, but the history of a place and the culture has to also be understood before Western powers go down a path of intervention.

For 400 years, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, ending in 1918 as Arab troops led by Emir Faisal, captured Damascus. At the Treaty of Versailles Faisal pushed for self rule and in 1919 elections were held in Syria. Shortly afterwards, the British and the French occupied Syria and forced Faisal out, splitting the country into three zones.

As nationalism continued, the French bombarded Damascus in 1925/26. Elections were held again in 1928, but again the French denied the Syrians independence. In 1936 the French finally agreed to independence in principle while maintaining full control. From 1940 to 1941 Syria fell under Axis control, then back under French and British control until 1945. Eventually in 1946 Syria was finally free of French occupation.

From 1947 to 1954 there were coups and instability. In 1958 Syria joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic under Nasser’s rule. In 1961 Army officers seized power and ended the union. Another coup and then the 1967 war with Israel, eventually resulting in Hafez al-Assad seizing power in 1970. He held onto it in 1973 despite removing a constitutional requirement that the President had to be a Muslim.

The stability and repression under Hafez al-Assad continued as he was succeeded by his second son Bashar in 2000, but it has been his oldest son Basil (who died in a car crash) who had been expected to succeed him. As you can see, we didn’t seem to have a problem backing Assad when it suited our government.

So how does western intervention play out in the Middle East? We can look at the success stories:

Iraq today: "A series of co-ordinated bombings in the Iraqi capital Baghdad has killed more than 50 people and wounded dozens more, police and medical sources say."

Afghanistan yesterday: "Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned the killing of 12 civilians in two separate attacks in Afghanistan."

Libya yesterday: "Libya's largest western oilfields closed when an armed group shut down the pipeline linking them to ports, its deputy oil minister said on Tuesday, reducing its oil output to a trickle."

The best you can say about our interventions is that without "intervention" things would be worse. That is not something you can test but the record indicates that for a successful foreign intervention, such as Sierra Leone, there needs to be a very clear objective. It is not obvious what that could or should be, given that the strongest part of the opposition are affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

Thank goodness for Caroline Lucas in Parliament, asking to see the legal advice to the government and showing real opposition to this. Let's hope some Labour and Lib Dem MPs also find the courage to oppose a motion that is designed to give the government a free hand in supporting an American strike.

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