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:
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.