British author John McHugo explores the historical roots of the Syrian predicament
by Susannah Tarbush
(An Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 28 February 2015)
Despite the crucial importance of Syria in today’s turbulent international politics, there is a striking lack of in-depth knowledge of the country and its history in much of the West. In the preface to his book “Syria: A Recent History”, British author John McHugo writes: “To the English-speaking world Syria is a far-off country which relatively few people have made a serious effort to understand.”
The “Arab Spring” aroused great interest and excitement when it began. But when the crackdown on protesters in Syria evolved into civil war and a man-made humanitarian crisis, “disaster fatigue seemed all too often to be the general reaction to what was happening.”
McHugo’s book, published by Saqi Books in London as a paperback in March, makes a valuable contribution towards increasing knowledge and understanding of Syria and of the historical processes that contributed to the dire situation in it is today.
The book will appeal to the specialist and the general reader alike. In addition to McHugo’s lively, clear, and admirably fair-minded and balanced text, the book includes copious notes on each chapter, an extensive bibliography, a nine-page chronology of history, maps and a glossary of terms.
Saqi published the first edition of McHugo’s book in mid-2014 as a hardback entitled “Syria: From the Great War to Civil War”. For the new, paperback, edition under the title “Syria: A Recent History” McHugo has updated his text to take into account changes on the ground since the first edition was published.
The new edition includes high praise for the book from publications such as the Sunday Herald, Jordan Times, Journal of Peace , and Times Literary Supplement, and from experts and scholars including Nikolaus van Dam, Ray Hinnebusch and Andrew Arsan.
The New York publisher The New Press bought the North American publishing rights to the book. It published the book in February this year as a hardback and as an e-book under the title: “Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years.”
McHugo is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, Scotland, a board member of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) and a member of the supervisory board of the British Egyptian Society.He read Arabic at Wadham College, Oxford University, and after graduating in 1973 he spent two years at the American University in Cairo studying for an MA in Islamic History.
John McHugoWhile at the American University in Cairo McHugo made his first visit to Syria, taking a walking holiday in November 1974 through the mountains from the Crusader Castle at Crac de Chevaliers to the Assassins’ Castle at Masyaf. He spent every night as the guest of local people, and in his book he describes his various encounters with Syrians, who clearly made a deep impression on him.
From the American University in Cairo McHugo returned to Oxford University and obtained an MLitt degree in Medieval Sufi Literature. He then studied law and qualified as a solicitor, working first in Oman, and then in London for the Bahraini government, and later spending much time in Cairo.
McHugo joined the Liberal Democrats because that party opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he is chairman of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.
Sadly, one way in which he has had to update his book for the new edition is in giving increased figures on the devastating human toll of the civil war. By December 2014 an estimated 200,000 Syrians had been killed. Of the population of almost 22.2 million people, more than 9.6 million had fled their homes: of these, 3.2 million had left Syria, while a further 6.45 million were internally displaced. McHugo has also updated the book in terms of the rise and expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam (ISIS), and its declaration of a Caliphate state in June 2014.
A major recurring theme of the book is the effect of actions of outside powers on Syria over the past 100 years, with France and Britain deciding under the 1916 secret Sykes Picot agreement on how to carve up Greater Syria and neighbouring parts of the former Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War.
One reason the English-speaking world knows relatively little about Syria is that after the First World War it was the French who got the mandate for Syria and Lebanon while Britain had the mandates for Palestine and Iraq. McHugo is highly critical of French actions in Syria. France had a vision of a permanent presence in Syria, which conflicted with the “sacred trust of civilisation” which the mandate system of the League of Nations was supposed to provide. Another major outside factor has been the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has had “an enormous and deleterious effect on Syria” over the years.
During the Cold War Syria was a pawn between the Soviet Union and USA, and “in fact today’s Syrian civil war could be said to be the last proxy conflict of the Cold War.” Or, even more disturbingly, as “the harbinger of the revival of the Cold War which has now begun in Ukraine.”
Certain Arab states – especially Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – and non-Arab Middle East countries Iran and Turkey have also “played games” in Syria. It is because of the importance of the outside factors that for each of the main periods covered in his book, McHugo first considers the impact of wars and foreign affairs before turning to the developments which took place within Syria.
At each stage “events happening outside Syria circumscribed the freedom of action open to its rulers and foreclosed the options available to them. This does not excuse or justify some of the actions those rulers took, but their actions cannot be examined in isolation from what was going on between Syria and its neighbours.”
McHugo sees one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Syrian politics as being what happened to Ba’thism. Initially a nationalist movement which seemingly cared deeply about social justice and healing the rifts in society throughout the Arab world, it had the added advantage for Syrians of having been born in Damascus. But the way in which Ba’thism degenerated into the dictatorship of the Assads is “an object lesson for other Arab countries at the present time.”
Another salutary example is the chaos of parliamentary life in Syria under the mandate and the years after independence. “The glimpses of that chaos which this book contains are a dire warning. It led to impatience with elected politicians and is part of the story of the descent into dictatorship.”
The importance of religious politics grew as a reaction to the failures of Ba’thists and other Arab nationalists. “Islamism is not well understood in the West. It is ultimately a quest for authenticity and identity” McHugo says. “Many Syrians may well want a form of democracy that acknowledges in some way the Islamic roots of the majority of the population. Such a democracy could not be more different from the kind of rule offered by militant organisations like al-Qa’ida or ISIS, which are infamous for their brutality and intolerance.”
McHugo makes interesting comparisons between the behaviour of the French in crushing the 1925-27 Syrian revolt, and the campaign of violence since 2011 by the Ba’thist regime of Bashar al-Assad. In both cases the regimes resorted to intense violence against civilians, as in al-Assad’s bombardment of civilian areas and his recruitment of militias such as the Shabiha to terrorise rural areas and put down uprisings.
Both the French and Ba’thist regimes demonised their opponents as religious extremists. There was a strong feeling among Syrian protestors that the French in 1925, and Bashar al-Assad today, lacked legitimacy. And in both cases expectations had been raised: before the French arrived, Syrians had expected that their country would become independent, while in the early years of Bashar’s presidency many hoped he would reform the system and bring freedom. The weakness of the economy, and the failure of government to help the population, also helped to fuel both the 1925 rebellion and the uprising which began in 2011.
Historical comparisons can also be drawn between the harshness of the response of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against the demonstrations that grew into a civil war and that of his father Hafez al-Assad in Hama in 1982.
President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in his turn demonized their opponents as Islamist fanatics. While Hafez al-Assad found overwhelming force worked against his opponents, the actions of Bashar’s regime against people demonstrating for their freedom helped turn the protests into an Islamist uprising. “It was much easier to fight with tanks and bomber aircraft against a demonised opponent in battles that destroyed half the urban landscape of Syria than to deal with crowds agitating for their human rights and free elections.”
McHugo often wonders what became of those Syrians and their families he met while he was walking in the mountains on his first trip to Syria four decades ago. On that trip he was entertained by Orthodox Christians, Ismaili Muslims and Sunni Muslims, and what struck him most was the great similarity between them all. “Whatever differences their religions might have, the likenesses were far greater.” Whenever he has returned to Syria – most recently in December 2014 – he has observed exactly the same thing.
McHugo writes that although at the moment Syrians are being forced back into their sectarian identities, “I refuse to believe that in Syria the secularism based on mutual respect between members of different faiths has ended. But I also know that many would now call this belief of mine an act of faith. Only time will tell.”