Syria: What to do and what not to do

Syria 1945

On June 4 1945, the Syrian President sent the following message to British Prime Minister Churchill in London: “Your excellency will have received my message of June 1st expressing the deep gratitude of the Syrian people for the intervention of the British government . . . in the task of restoring order and security in Syria.”

These messages followed Churchill’s own message of 31 May 1945 to General de Gaulle, Chairman of the Provisional French Government, asking for, (i.e. demanding) the withdrawal of French troops ,  whom de Gaulle had ordered to land in Syria on May 17 in contravention of French assurances, supported by the British, given on 8 June 1941, that Syria would become an independent country at the end of the war in Europe (8 May 1945).  The arrival of French troops on May 17 led to fierce clashes with Syrian civilians and militia who were determined to resist any attempt by France to restore its rule.

In June 1941, Britain had liberated Syria from control by Vichy French soldiers who were in occupation of Syria following the award to France of a class A League of Nations mandate in 1920.  In 1940, after its defeat in France, the French Army in Syria had sided with Germany.  The British invasion was undertaken in order to ensure that Syria did not fall into the hands of the Germans who were already using air bases there to support an anti-British rebellion in neighbouring Iraq.  This rebellion was threatening the Iraqi oil fields, vital to Britain’s campaign against the Germans and Italians in North Africa.

On June 1st 1945, following Churchill’s instruction to the Commander in Chief Middle East, Sir Bernard Paget, troops of the British Ninth Army moved from Palestine to occupy Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other cities in Syria and Beirut in the Lebanon in order to restore order and allow the new Syrian government to function.  The French withdrew to barracks by June 3 and shortly after returned to France.  As Churchill emphasised throughout, Britain coveted nothing from Syria or Lebanon, desiring only the installation of governments freely elected by the Syrian and Lebanese peoples.  British troops were withdrawn by the end of June.  Britain was for the moment the heroine of the Arab world.

So much for gratitude.  But the real point for today, 68 years later, is that in 1945 Britain had the power and the will to achieve a specific objective, so much and no more, even at the risk in this case, of antagonising its onetime ally in Europe – France – which Churchill as a life-long friend of France was deeply conscious of.

Contrast with UK and US Governments today

In 2013, Britain has not the power and the US has not the will to achieve anything in Syria.  Neither the British government in the persons of Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Minister Hague, and the US government in the persons of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, seem to have the faintest idea of what they want to achieve or to have even done the analysis as to what could be achieved.

To portray the terrible carnage in Syria as a struggle between liberal democracy (good) represented by the rebels, and a sort of fascist autocracy represented by the government of President Assad (evil) as Cameron did in the House of Commons on June 4, was moral fantasy at its most extreme: juvenile, even infantile student politicking at its worst.

The rebels are in fact an inchoate mish-mash of Sunni groups vying for power in the wake of the anticipated overthrow of President Assad’s Alawite (Shia) regime, which alone in Syria controls a functioning government apparatus, including the Syrian Army.  With their talk of establishing no-fly zones over Syria, arming the rebels, dismantling the Syrian Army, the US and UK governments are all set to replicate in Syria the chaos they created in Iraq by doing exactly these same things 10 years ago.  Truly, as has been repeatedly said, the path to hell is paved with good intentions – in this case bumbling, ill-thought through intentions swaddled in ignorance of the Middle-East peoples and their history alike.  To attempt any initiative in Syria in company with the French is alone testimony to that ignorance: for the reasons alluded to at the beginning of this article, France is detested in Syria – by Shia and Sunni alike.  We may have made it up with France, but Syrians have not.

What Britain should do

1              As a matter of principle it should return to its long-established (pre-Blair) policy of not trying to change other countries’ governments and leaders, however distasteful they may appear in liberal moralist eyes.  (See “Libya: And Deeper Yet”, 24/4/11.)

2              In the particular case of Syria, Britain should disengage as fast as it can from its present aimless wandering around the international stage and recognise that Syria is in the midst of a Shia-Sunni civil war which British finger wagging will only make worse.  Britain should therefore (a) renounce all ideas of sending arms to the rebels; (b) accept that President Assad is going in all likelihood to prevail.

3              In agreement with its long-term ally Jordan, Britain’s forces and assets in nearby Cyprus should be deployed  to fly in earth-moving equipment, flat-pack housing, generators, sanitation and water supply equipment and the people to operate them to relieve the terrible suffering and overcrowding in the refugee camps on the Jordan-Syria border.

4              Recover the full fixed and on-going costs of this practical aid programme from the EU and UN bits of the Department of International Development’s budget.  (See “Put British guns before International Butter”, 17/9/10; “International Aid”, 19/9/12; “The Realities of British Overseas Aid”, 13/3/11.)

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One Response to “Syria: What to do and what not to do”

  1. Ageing Albion says:

    Had Britain followed the suggestions advanced on this site of equipping armed forces with tangible real world equipment in the form of helicopters, transport planes, transport ships and boots on the ground, it would be in a position to offer help in the manner in which you have suggested to Jordan. As it is one wonders if they can do more than token efforts.

    As for the Syrian civil war, all one can say is that it is a humanitarian tragedy, but well beyond the means of Britain to do anything about. Put crudely, we do not have a dog in the fight. Though, of course, we can expect to be told to shoulder the majority of the burden of any refugees from the conflict who make it to Europe, and to have to host a reprisal of the Islamic civil war on our shores as a celebration of diversity …

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