2015-12-02 By John Bruton
It is important to see the civil war in Syria that has killed 300,000 people and driven millions from their homes, against the background of Syrian history.
Before its boundaries were created by a deal between the French and the British in 1916, present-day Syria was not a natural political unit at all.
It was part of a much wider Arabic speaking “Greater Syria”, which included the entire area from Palestine to the Turkish border, and from the Mediterranean as far as the Iranian border with Iraq. Uniting “Greater Syria” has been a longstanding theme of Arab politics.
The subsequent history of relations between the newly created Syria and France has been troubled.
After the First World War, France was awarded a League of Nations responsibility to administer present day Syria, with a mandate to prepare it for full independence.
Britain was awarded a similar mandate for the area that is now occupied by Israel/Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Both mandates covered an area that had hitherto been part of the defeated Ottoman Empire.
Both Britain and France were rivals for regional influence, and both wanted to retain as much control as possible in their own hands. Neither France nor Britain moved with any swiftness to guide the territories in their charge towards independence.
France had to suppress a major revolt against it rule in Syria in the 1925 to 1927 period, and it used brutal tactics in that war. In 1939, France handed over part of its mandated Syrian territory to Turkey to buy Turkish neutrality in the coming war with Nazi Germany. Even at the end of the Second World War, France still wanted to hang on the Syria, and was engaged in hostilities with Syrians seeking independence as late as May 1945.
Syria finally got full independence later that year. Initially it had a parliamentary democracy of sorts, but this was gradually replaced by military regimes.
The parliamentary regime proved too weak to cope with the external threat posed by the rise of Israel. The parliamentary regime was dominated by wealthy Sunni interests, who had traditionally exercised power in Syria under the Ottomans. Their reign did not last.
After the 1948 wars with Israel, which was taking over what most Syrians would have seen as part of “Greater Syria”, the Syrian Army had to be increased in size and strength. The army’s increasing involvement in politics brought new groups into power in Syria, but it also weakened the army itself, because of factionalism and politically motivated purges.
This weakness was exposed when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israeli occupation, when it was defeated in the 1967 War
That led, indirectly, to the takeover of the state by Hafez Al Assad, a former Army officer, of Alawite religion, who has been Minister for Defence in 1967.
He was a ruthless pragmatist and held power for 30 years. He ensured that Syria performed better in the 1973 war with Israel, than it had in 1967, although it did not regain the Golan Heights.
His regime was a police state, although it did provide order, and it improved education and infrastructure in the country.
His regime was not an overtly sectarian one, in the sense that it did not set out deliberately as a matter of policy to grant privileges to the Alawite minority at the expense of the Sunni majority.
But patronage jobs in the public service have always been a way of building a power base in Syrian politics.
When Hafez al Assad died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashir. Bashir is married to Sunni and initially favored liberalizing the regime, but gave up because of resistance from vested interests.
The eventual rebellion against him was sparked by a minor enough incident in March 2011, when some children were arrested and detained for writing anti regime graffiti on a wall in a town near the Jordanian border.
The conflict with Israel contributed, from its beginning in the late 1940’s, to the militarization of the Syrian regime. The continuing occupation of Syrian territory by Israel adds to sense of siege.
All of Syria’s neighbors are using the present civil war to pursue their own agendas.
Turkey is pursuing and Anti Kurd agenda. Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war with one another. Israel is happy to see Hizbollah employed in Syria, rather than attacking it. Although some of the parties in the war, like Daesh, proclaim their Islamic faith, the majority of the victims of this appalling war are other Muslims.
There are so many parties involved in this civil war that even a temporary truce would be very hard to negotiate. Localized humanitarian truces may be the best one can hope for.
The threat of Daesh may grow so great that it may prompt all the regional powers, including Iran, to reach a grand bargain on all the issues that divide them and impose peace by cutting off supplies to the belligerents. That prospect seems far off at the moment.
Indeed the record of other civil wars, like that in Spain from 1936 to 1939, is not encouraging. It may be a long time before the millions of unfortunate Syrian refugees will be able to return home.
For images of the Syrian civil war see the following:
Editor’s Note: This piece by John Bruton was brought to our attention and provided by Dr. Harald Malmgren.
John Gerard Bruton is an Irish politician who served as Taoiseach of Ireland from 1994 to 1997. A minister under two taoisigh, Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald, Bruton held a number of the top posts in Irish government, including Minister for Finance (1981–1982 and 1986–1987), and Minister for Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism (1983–1986). He became leader of Fine Gael in 1990 and served as Taoiseach from 1994 until 1997, leading the Rainbow Coalition government of Fine Gael–Labour Party–Democratic Left.
Currently, he is Non Executive Director at Ingersoll Rand, Smart Invest, Irish Diaspora Loan Origination Fund and CEPS.
He is a member of the Board of Directors of:
1.) Ingersoll Rand (a global diversified manufacturer) since 2010, and of
2.) The Centre for European Policy Studies
3.) Irish Diaspora Loan Origination Fund since 2015
4.) Smart Invest ( a recently established venture capital fund) since 2015.
On these boards, Mr Bruton has acquired a good knowledge of the workings on public corporations operating under US SEC, and particular knowledge of diversified manufacturing and reinsurance. During his terms as a director, the share prices of Ingersoll Rand(+169%) and Montpelier re (+140%) have performed very well by comparison with peers, and the market(+98%).
He is Chairman of the Public Interest Oversight Body of Deloitte in Ireland. This has given him an insight into the auditing of public companies.
He is an Advisor to Cabinet DN (a Brussels based public affairs consultancy working with EU institutions), and, in that capacity, he is Chairman of the European Sports Forum. This enables him to maintain his knowledge of EU policymaking processes.
He is a member of the European Advisory board of Eli Lilley, a pharmaceutical company.
From 2010 to 2015, he has been President of IFSC Ireland (a body promoting the development of the international financial services industry in Ireland).
From 2010 to 2015 he has been a non-executive Director of Montpelier Reinsurance from 2010 to 2015 (A Bermuda based reinsurer recently merged with the Endurance Insurance Company),
He has a website which includes recent speeches and articles he has written.
Also see the following: