Sorry, sorry, have drifted way off-topic here

Apologies to everyone – anyone? – who ‘s come here  for a light-hearted piece on some aspect or other of financial marketing:  today I’m doing Syria. Normal service will be resumed from my next blog onwards.

I don’t really have any justification for doing Syria in a financial marketing blog, but I have two small excuses:

1.  Being partly Palestinian and having family spread all over the Middle East, I have an interest in the region.

2.  So much of what is written and said about Syria is rubbish.

Here’s a sort of executive summary of where we are today:

In early 2011 the US and other Western powers, having accepted or at least tolerated the Assad regime (father and son) since 1961, decided that Bashar al-Assad had to go.  By saying this, and taking some actions like imposing sanctions, we gave encouragement to a mixed bag of opponents to escalate their activities from street demonstrations to violent uprising.  Unsurprisingly, Assad, with Russian support, has chosen to resist this uprising.  And with the army remaining loyal to him, he has been able to inflict far more violence upon his opponents than they have been able to inflict on him and his supporters.  However, the uprising, and the violence, continue, and despite the current fracas about chemical weapons there is no serious plan on any side at the moment to resolve the situation.  Meanwhile, in the West, opinions about intervening against the Government are divided.

I think most people in the West understand most of this, although some may not fully recognise how much Obama’s intervention in May 2011, effectively calling for regime change, escalated the situation.  But what is much less well understood is how we got here.

Apologies again, but we have to go back to the aftermath of the First World War, and the Anglo-French Sykes Picot agreement – which carved up the Middle East after we brought about the end of the Ottoman Empire which had controlled the region for centuries.

The key thing to understand is that in this agreement, we carved out “countries” that made no sense.  Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, even Jordan were all just lines on a map, drawn up as a result of horse-trading between the British and the French without any consideration of the make-up of the populations who actually lived there.

In this respect these artificial countries were not unlike others created by colonial powers to serve their own interests – for example, Yugoslavia, Libya, Zimbabwe, pre-partition India, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Congo.  And if history teaches us two things about these countries, they are:

1.  When their populations consist of large ethnic and/or religious minorities with a history of hatred and bitterness towards each other, they are always on the brink of civil war.

2.  Civil war seems to be prevented most effectively by strong and unpleasant dictators who suppress all protest and opposition (Assad, Saddam, Gaddafi, Mugabe, Tito etc.

Maybe there’s a third point too:

3.  The only reliably successful way out of these dictatorships and towards anything we would recognise as a democracy involves the break-up of the countries into smaller and much more homogeneous ones (for example the partition of India into Hindu and Sikh India and Muslim Pakistan, the break-up of Yugoslavia and fairly soon, by the look of it, the re-partitioning of Libya).

This is emphatically NOT to say that civil war is inevitable and never-ending in these artificial countries unless dictators suppress all protest.  Various factors can prevent this, including:

–  Benign and not-too-dictatorial leadership, the most obvious example being Nelson Mandela

–  Strong economies and a sense that everyone is (more or less) benefiting, as in Spain over the last 35 years or so since the fall of Franco (although not so sure about the next 35 years…)

–  And perhaps most commonly a sense of complete exhaustion after a long period of civil war, with participants simply lacking the energy and conviction to fight any more (eg Northern Ireland and Lebanon).

But I don’t think anyone can deny that these disunited countries, even when at peace, still have the capacity to lapse into civil war horribly quickly.  Who, frankly, would be surprised to hear that hostilities had been resumed in Northern Ireland, or had broken out post-Mandela in South Africa?

What’s not a viable solution in these artificial countries, just for the avoidance of doubt, is Western-style democracy.  In sophisticated countries and in peaceful times it may just about be possible to maintain something that looks like democracy by imposing (non-democratic) power-sharing agreements on top of a democratic outcome (Northern Ireland again, and currently Iraq, just about) but for one thing by definition these aren’t really democratic, and for another they’re not stable enough to survive a major challenge.

Unless somehow the populations of these countries can  choose to overcome tribal, religious or ethnic hatreds which in many cases go back over millennia, the only viable solutions in the medium to long term are a) to leave them in the hands of repressive dictators, or b) to see them break up into smaller and more homogenous entities.

Which brings us to our current problem in the West:  we don’t like either of these options much.  We don’t much like repressive dictators, or at least we don’t much like them when they’re closer to the Russians than to us (we’re pretty OK with them when they’re close to us – Pinochet. Franco, Mubarak, the Shah of Iran etc).  But we don’t much like either the process of break-up (lots of violence and ethnic cleansing, as in the collapse of Yugoslavia or the separation of India and Pakistan) or, very often, the consequences – especially when one or more of the new mini-states is run by a confrontational Jihadist government.

When people say we need an “end-game strategy,” this is ultimately the choice we have to confront.  For as long as we don’t, the danger is that we’re supporting an untenable worst-of-all-worlds outcome, installing weak and vulnerable governments who can’t survive the secessionary threats within their own countries without massive military support (as currently in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan).   I suppose that this kind of strategy can postpone the inevitable, though only at vast expense and with heavy continuing loss of life resulting from continuing low-level confrontation between communities.  But it can never resolve the situation and provide even a medium-term solution, because the fundamental instability is too great:  who can doubt that the Taliban will be back in power in Afghanistan,. albeit facing continuing harassment by drug-money-fuelled warlords, within three years of the West’s final exit?

So, against that background, what’s your strategy for Syria?  Is it:

a)  To do what the West has usually tried to do with these artificial, fragmented countries which we drew on the map in the first place, and install a dictator who is friendlier to us than to the Russians?

b)  To encourage the insurgents to overthrow Assad and win the war, with the strong probability that the country will then break up into a number of mini-states at least one of which will be ruled by jihadists?

c)  To play for time and install a puppet regime, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, that can’t survive without massive ongoing support?

You say you don’t like any of those options much?  You say you don’t think any of them is worth spending billions of pounds and maybe hundreds or thousands of Western lives on?

Well, in that case, my advice is to fucking well stay out of the fucking place.  People like you, trying to run other people’s lives for them,  have caused quite enough trouble in that unhappy country – and indeed in most of the world that we once carved up so casually – already.




3 thoughts on “Sorry, sorry, have drifted way off-topic here

  1. The control of oil supply would seem to be a big issue, as it were, round the Med and up the Gulf. Myself, I am rather romantic about the old Levant and Middle East generally – ah, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria. The girls! The boys! The wine! The heavy reds of the Bekaa Valley, ah…

    Whatsisname, the top intellectual Edward Said, said I shouldn’t romanticise and orientalise the Levant and old Baghdad – Tangier! (begins to snivel, thinks he is a chap who once worked there for the British Council) – but it is really quite a loss that these old, wise places and deeply satisfying places are so tortured and beaten up.

    The Ottomen? One of the great things about the Turks in London is that when you go to one of their top restaurants in London like Tas in the Cut, SE1, not only is the food and wine fabulous but the waitress who is so beautiful, kind and intelligent is studying Engineering here.

    My ambassador for the whole deal would be Claudia Roden, the Middle Eastern cookery writer and generally good egg when it comes to all-round culture – she is a well rounded woman in every sensual sense. Her “Desert Island Discs” – when I first heard it in 2001, I thought, blimey, who’s that? – gives us a fine picture of why the Mediterranean countries from Gib to Jerusalem are something of a unity in terms of living the good, deep and wise life because of, not despite, all the interesting and fascinating differences. I mean, did the tribes fancy each other and merge a bit? Of course they did.

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