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  • Lawrence Bailey

Hard lessons to be learned over Syria

It’s funny how we all become Middle East experts with the raising of a pint glass or a dinner napkin.

I guess I’m no different when I stated the other night that the saddest thing about history repeating itself is how lessons are so seldom learned.

In January 1915, toxic gas first drifted across a frozen battlefield, indiscriminately killing and maiming those it touched. More than a century later, it feels we’ve come little further as a species.

Political opinion is that the targeted destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria was either an expedient action in favour of humanity or an example of prime ministerial high-handedness. You can make up your own mind.

For me, it is one of those instances where the operation was a success but the patient remains on the critical list.

Take away the stand-offs, the rhetoric and a willingness to conduct a super-power struggle by proxy and you’re left with the hard reality that the Syrian civil war is rooted in generations of conflict – much of which is a legacy from those western powers who would now judge events on the ground.

About a year after gas became a weapon of ‘modern’ warfare, something called the Sykes-Picot Agreement [1916] carved up the crumbling Ottoman Empire into British and French hegemonies. In every respect, the deal carried an arrogant disregard for centuries of disparate tribal and sectarian factors.

France imposed blunt-edged cohesion in Syria through colonial rule until the 1950’s when it gave up pretence of legitimacy.

A succession of military coups and takeovers followed, each of them brutally aimed at clamping down on ethnic secession.

Somewhere along the timeline came a pact with the Soviet Union which provided the communists with a foothold and put the nation on the US foreign policy blacklist – where it has stayed ever since.

The concept of a constitutional democracy as we’d know it has never applied. Nor could one hope to thrive in a nation where ‘strong’ i.e. ruthless leadership is the accepted norm, according to those who write in learned journals.

And if the lessons of Iraq and Libya teach us anything it’s that a reckless regime changes imposed from outside often creates new scope for horror and extremism.

There’s no doubt that the road to Damascus is a tough one and demands tough decisions as outrage builds on outrage. Equally however, there are few here at home willing to give the benefit of the doubt to politicians who proffer an ‘intelligence-led’ way to war.

You may not know it but Syria is roughly three quarters the size of the UK with an about a third of the population. Yet the gulf affecting the respective sides is vast. Meaningful intervention requires a commitment beyond that of boots on the ground.

I’m not sure what we learned from yesterday’s parliamentary exchanges about legalities or whether they added much to our understanding. The most hopeful sign was a near-consensus across the Commons chamber that you cannot bomb your way to a peaceful solution.

I suppose that’s a start.

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