Is there a more tragic country in the world today than Syria ? How did it descend into chaos, conflict, and crisis?
In an interview with Joseph Richard Preville and Julie Poucher Harbini on ISLAMiCommentary, John McHugo, author of Syria: A Recent History, offers insights into the complexities of the country’s past, present and future.
Here is an excerpt of the interview:
What was the long-term impact of the post-World War I redrawing of borders on Syria’s future?
The partition of Greater Syria by Britain and France was a fatal mistake that underlies so much of today’s instability. The arbitrary borders the two European powers imposed were just one of the causes. Another was that this Balkanisation of the area created brittle and insecure states that were set against each other by the pressures of the Cold War. Ultimately, the partition opened the door to religious militancy (although the causes of that are complex) and also hindered economic and social progress. Nevertheless, there is now a strong sense of Syrian national identity. That is why I am still optimistic that, despite the horrors of today, all will come right in Syria in the end.
Syria gained its independence as a parliamentary republic — a democracy — in 1945. Was this French-imposed system a bad fit for Syria? What is it about Syria’s foundations as a nation that has proven to be so fragile?
I don’t think the parliamentary republic was a bad fit for Syria in itself (Syrians had drafted the constitution – although subject to a French veto on its contents). The French fought tooth and nail against anything more than local autonomy and conceded independence with extremely bad grace. This made it difficult for post-independence governments to tackle the monumental difficulties they faced: overcoming vested interests; tackling local and sectarian divisions -such as Damascus against Aleppo, town against country, Christian against Muslim; spreading education; and building a modern society generally. It is now too easily forgotten that Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan were once all part of the area known as “Greater Syria” (bilad al-shaam, in Arabic) that was ripped apart and denied the right to decide its own destiny.
How much do you attribute the ensuing conflict, and Syria’s history for that matter, to outside interference by Western and regional powers?
The conflict has been stoked by outsiders fighting for their own interests in Syria. Interference by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been tied up with Sunni Muslim identity politics as well as specific goals such as control of the Kurds (Turkey) and rolling back Iranian influence (Saudi Arabia). They have sometimes supported opposition factions that have been fighting each other as well as the regime. On the other side, Iran is concerned with maintaining strategic depth for Hizbullah and combating Sunni hegemony in the Arab world. They are all prepared to shed Syrian blood for the sake of their own interests.
As regards the USA, Britain and France, we forget how toxic their role has been in past episodes of Syrian history. This explains why Daesh, al Qa’idah and others can use their narrative about Crusaders so effectively. Western powers are hamstrung by their failure to acknowledge their own past acts, such as the arbitrary partition of Greater Syria and their connivance in the ongoing injustices to the Palestinians. I could give other examples.
One word answer — Are you optimistic about Syria’s future or pessimistic?
Click here to read the full interview.