The terrible scenes we have witnessed each night on our TV screens of desperate Syrian refugees, washed up, half drowned on Mediterranean beaches or trapped behind razor wire, made this contribution to the Nour Festival not only timely but essential. For without context, history is just a random series of events. Seeking to place these events in context was the task of historian, Arabic linguist and international lawyer John McHugo.
In his hour-long talk, McHugo explored the history of Syria from the First World War to the present outlining the obstacles that have prevented the emergence of a stable democratic state which can harness the considerable talents of its citizens.
Modern Syria emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, though before the Syrian people could establish an independent state they found themselves victims of a crude power play by the World War victors who had destroyed the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France, wartime allies, arbitrarily – and without respect for ethnic or cultural factors – divided up the former Ottoman territories between them. Syria found itself ‘allocated’ to France. McHugo’s description of the country’s thwarted attempts at independence under French rule was the substance of real tragedy. A rebellion in 1925, which lasted for two years, was crushed by the French with great brutality. The leaders of the revolt, coming from across the religious, ethnic and tribal divide, had been calling for an independent secular Syria. McHugo makes clear that, in the long term, only a secular Syria, in which the rights of believers of all faiths are protected, is viable. Thus this event could well have been called ‘Syria- Democracy and Secularism Thwarted,’ and this strangling of a nascent Syrian polity at birth has had consequences that we still see to this day.
The defeat of the French Army by the Germans in 1940, despite the squalid machinations of Vichy, saw the writing on the wall for the French in the Levant and by 1946 Syria had become fully independent.
Post-independence Syrian history becomes a tale of the growing interference of the army in politics, the impact of external forces; the Arab-Israeli conflict, the cold war, pan-Arab nationalism, the growing influence of Saudi Arabia, and the rise of the Baath party and emergence of the Assad dynasty. This complex range of forces did not augur well for the development of a healthy civil society and democratic institutions. With politics driven underground, religious and tribal forces have now came to the fore, with terrible consequences for the Syrian people.
“Nothing,” wrote A. J. P. Taylor, “is inevitable in history, until it happens.” Syria with a well-educated middle class, and high rates of literacy had/has enormous potential. The desire of its population for employment, civil liberties and representative institutions, for freedom from corruption and arbitrary acts of violence by the state or others, are the aspirations that inspired the whole ‘Arab Spring’. So at a time when Tunisian politicians are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it is clear that the Arab world has both the will and the capability to move towards these goals. According to McHugo, what is required is that outside forces step back and allow the space and time to allow Syrians to forge their own future. Alas, it does not look like this will be happening anytime soon. A timely if somewhat sad and sobering lecture that, inevitably, produced more questions than answers.
The region of the Middle East stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean to Iraq and the Persian Gulf represents the very cradle out of which European civilisation was born. Its rich diversity of religions, intersecting communities and cultures, languages and dialects – a heritage that belongs to us all – is now seriously at risk. This talk brought home that rich cultural heritage and what we are losing by the destruction of Aleppo and DAESH’s demolition of the ancient temple in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
This review was written by Stan Moorcroft, resident and City Living, Local Life community reporter for Nour Festival blog.