Though this blog is about Syrian history, the next few entries will be skewed towards the part Britain has played as coloniser and as a leading proponent of the capitalist system. I say this because I am fed up with people commenting on the ”atrocities” committed in Syria. Though these are damaging to the sensibilities of the super races of Europe, they are ordinary occurrences that take place in war zones, of which there are many. It is interesting that film of Britain and its cohorts committing atrocities is rarely shown and that people believe that Western forces are benign; a fallacy as the West has superior weaponry. Of course Britain does have a way with the pen but more about that later.
Another aggravation is the continued references to the ”Arab spring” whereby a few people would gather somewhere with no particular idea of what they wanted to achieve; their government would then step down and they would all live happily ever after. Wish it were that simple: Britain has enjoyed the same regime for three hundred plus years. There has been changes over that time but in the 1980s the whole of the economy was restructured as it has been recently. At the same time, in the words of a friend of mine, Thatcherism was altering the psyche of the British people. Did we rise up yes, for the best part of twenty years, did the regime step down, no it did not.
In Egypt, Mubarak was ready to retire, a perfect excuse. In Tunisia, Ben Ali had been skimming for years, an excuse to flee and throw himself on the mercy of Europe. In Syria, a liberalisation of the regime led to plots by the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom had thrown their lot in with other Islamists in the region (that is reading between the lines but I am pretty certain, as the invasion occurred shortly after the uprising). I do know there was a breakdown in the Sunni Muslim Church by 2005 and feel lots of people were worried in Hamma; if they were secular or Islamic.
What was the president to do walk away from his supporters? As we know President Assad did not do that but this did not prevent much of his support fleeing to other countries. Needless to say like in Iraq, these were mainly the middle classes. You might say you do not blame them for not fighting and who can in a way? but like the Iraqi middle class who fled, they have made a rod for their own backs, as they no longer have a homeland and people, on the whole, do like their homelands.
Of course the more wealthy of them will hit British shores and denounce their government for asylum, as did many Ba’ath party supporters from Iraq. History does repeat. The difference between Syria and Iraq and Egypt and Tunisia is that Syria and Iraq were invaded, so people become very frightened and there were countries to flee to. Syria was generous to displaced people and paid the price. The Lebanon, incidentally, once a tax haven, will profit, though it may yet come on top there, as their government is weak. Jordan is royalist and has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, as such it enjoys a certain immunity.
Nineteenth century colonisation: even more comparisons
It is useful to consider the position of some of the prominent men of the time, as this gives a perspective to the agreements that were made after world war one.
The invasion of Arabic territories by the West began during the Napoleon wars, when all the European powers enjoyed adventures in the region, as they sought to defeat each other and acquire as much territory as possible by the pen or the sword. As the focus is on the mandates and Arab nationalism, the entry will only feature the roles of England and France.
The 19th century saw the building of the Suez canal and the history of how it was eventually acquired by England, is both fascinating and sheds light on how Britain has remained so dominant through the decades. That particular history will be featured in a later publication but suffice to say it makes the events of the 1950s, when Jamel Abdul Nasser attempted to re-nationalise the canal, look like a tea party. This backs my assertion that ‘The Making of the Modern Arabic World’, featured on Radio 4 recently, didn’t go back far enough in history.
As England and France were land grubbing the Ottomans were slowly but surely losing power, though the empire did not disintegrate fully until several decades after. According to historian Peter Mansfield the seeds of Arab nationalism may have been planted by a Turkish man with possible Greek ancestry. He was named Ibrahim Pasha and is buried in Cairo, where he lived as a child and for much of his adult life.
Ibrahim Pasha governed Syria from 1831 to 1840, when he introduced major reforms, which included a ”principles of equality” between the Muslim and Christian populations. Eventually the taxation required to sustain his reforms was too high and he was driven out. To me this is an almost identical position to which President Assad was in at the beginning of the troubles.
The Ottomans, in a bid to regain its territory, supported the Syrian uprising against Ibrahim Pasha. Another parallel or what? Just think back to the first battles between president Assad’s army and the renegades. Syria still has a large Turkish population, particularly around Haleb (Aleppo).
Back to 1840; the austere way the Ottomans re-established themselves, extended to the Lebanese Mountains and directly affected the balance of power between the Druze Muslims and the Maronite Christians. As a result many Christians were massacred, in Lebanon and Damascus and the French had an excuse to invade. This may not be connected but during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s onwards, Syria invaded Lebanon on behalf of minority Christian groups who were being massacred by the Maronites. This is documented and will be discussed in the future but it will be interesting to explore the connection between the Maronites and the other Christians in the region. I have read that both the Druze and the Maronites deny they are Arabic.
If the Druze and the Maronites do not identify with Arabism, Ibrahim Pasha certainly did, as he reportedly said, his connection with Egypt made him feel more Arabic than Turkish. Though there was a suspicion that he aspired to create an Arabic state with its own language and politics; this did not materialise.