100 Years Of History Charts Path To Syria's Bloody Civil War

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A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 25, 2015. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

Author John McHugo joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss the last century of Syrian history, and explain why a country that held so much promise as a secular Arab state fell into chaos and civil war.

Interview Highlights

On how modern-day Syria and Russia aligned

“I’m afraid this was because of a major mistake that the West made. In the 1950s, it was the era of the Cold War. It was also, of course, when the Arab-Israeli conflict was at its height. And basically, the Western powers abandoned Syria. Syria needed arms for its defense. The Western powers refused to sell them. You know the name Hafez al-Assad who became the dictator of Syria in 1970. Well he began as an air force cadet, and as an air force cadet, he visited London for the only time in his life to learn to be trained to fly fighter aircraft. But that all ended, and instead he spent a year in Russia. And there has been a huge connection between the Syrian military, the Syrian political elite and trade connections, and also, to some extent, religious connections, because, let’s remember, that the largest Christian sect in Syria, they’re orthodox and they have co-religions in Russia. And the Russians have always seen themselves at the protectors of the orthodox. And so when you have all these links that have been allowed to grow in strength over the decades since the late 1950s, it’s no surprise that Russia is closely connected to Syria. The Syrians have felt terribly abandoned by the West, because they would really have far preferred to be with the West than with Russia.”


On the formation of Syria

“I think the first thing we have to realize, that the boundaries Syria has were largely fixed by the British and the French. And those boundaries were devised to suit Britain and France. The local people, the Syrian people — I mean, it’s a very interesting thing that an Egyptian friend of mine said to me not so long ago — when I see someone on the television and he’s speaking the dialect from that part, I cannot tell if he’s a Syrian, a Lebanese or a Palestinian very often. And all these people to some extent were part of a cultural whole, something that could become a nation. But the British and the French did not want that to happen, and so, sadly, we partitioned Syria. Now, the partition essentially happened in 1922-23, and since then, Syria, as we know it today, by default, has become a nation-state. And, now, the disaster in Syria today has many factors, but we should not ignore the role that Britain and France, I’m afraid, played in it.”


On creating a secular Arab state

“Secularism goes back well before the Ba’ath Party. Faisal, who tried to set up a united Syrian state in 1919, said some words in Aleppo on the day that the first World War ended, which I think we should really remember, and they aren’t well-known. He said the following: ‘The Arabs were Arabs before Moses, before Jesus and before Muhammad. And whoever tries to sow discord between Muslim, Christian and Jew is not an Arab. I am an Arab before all else.” And what the Syrian-Arab nationalists were trying to do, well before the Ba’ath Party, was establish a secular state. … It is a huge tragedy that religious conflict has gone down, has occurred, because I think it could have been avoided. Because the idea was that Arabic would be the common tongue. They were proud of their Arab heritage. And I’m afraid a lot of people didn’t want that to happen.”

On where things went wrong in both Iraq and Syria

“The problem that Saddam Hussein had in Iraq and that Hafez al-Assad had in Syria was basically the same. You come to power by military coup, you have a narrow power base. How do you win support? The obvious means of doing so is patronage. That means that you give jobs to your cronies, first of all to your family. In the case of Syria, this meant that the president, Hafez al-Assad, and his wife, they tended to recruit people to look after the security services from their own families. They, of course, were all of the same religious sect, the Alawis, and the Alawis became disproportionately strong in the security services and the top brass of the army. In Iraq, it happened the other way around. There the Sunni Arabs were the minority, but Saddam Hussein and his predecessors came from that minority. So, where do you think he chose the Republican Guard from? From the tribes near his hometown who were all Sunnis. So you had a kind of religious minority taking a disproportionate share of control of the country. And in both countries at the same time, they had put democracy into the deep freeze, and that meant that there was no way you could oppose the government. And sadly, this is what let open the door to serious, hate-filled religious politics.”

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