John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Syria

A TOPICAL BOOK….A RECENT HISTORY OF SYRIA

SyriaI have just finished reading “Syria, a recent history” by John McHugo, which was first published last year by Saqi Books.

The author is a senior fellow in the Centre for Syrian Studies in St Andrews University.

It shows that Syria is not a natural political unit on its own, but is part of a much wider Arabic speaking “Greater Syria”, which included the entire area from Gaza and all of 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

This book also reminds the reader of the long, and troubled, history of relations between Syria and France. 

After the First World War, France was awarded a League of Nations responsibility to administer 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.

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. 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 1946.

This book described the complex post independence history of Syria right up to 2014.

Initially Syria 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.
After 1948, the Army was increased in size and strength. The army’s increasing involvement in politics brought new groups into power in Syria, but it 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, 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 a 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.

The rebellion against the regime 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 militarisation of the Syrian regime.

This book does not provide any solutions to the current civil war, but it may help in the avoidance of mistakes. It gives a good sense of the deep complexity of Syrian politics and society.

 

WHAT ARE EUROPE AND AMERICA DOING TO HELP CHRISTIANS FLEEING THE MIDDLE EAST?

This article from the Wall Street Journal highlights a huge moral and political question for our times….the extermination of long established Christian communities in the Middle East. Some of the refugees, described so graciously by David Cameron as a “swarm”, are Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq.

While not the primary cause, Western interventions, like the invasion of Iraq, contributed  to the plight of Christians there. Western support for rebels in Syria is also worsening the position of religious minorities in that country.

People fear the arrival of refugees in the West, and suggest they will become a burden. But experience shows that previous refugee flows, like the East European Jews, the Ugandan Asians, and the Lebanese Christians have quickly become self supporting and active contributors to economic development in their host countries.

People look back and ask themselves why their governments failed to provide refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930’s and assume smugly that, knowing what we now know, this generation would do better.

The present response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis throws that into doubt. In fact there is less excuse now, because many Western societies are ageing, and actually need an influx of younger people.

THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL……..AND OTHER MATTERS

The fact that a framework agreement has been reached with Iran on its nuclear programme is really good news, at a time when there is little good news around.

Back in 1963, many people believed that, within 10 years, there would be up to 25 states with nuclear warheads.

The fact that this has not happened is quite an achievement.

Iran denies that its programme is designed for military purposes, but this is hard to believe.

Iran is surrounded by nuclear armed powers, Pakistan, India, Israel, and Russia, and has had a bad relationship with another nuclear power, the US.
The framework agreement may lead to a  final comprehensive agreement.

A robust “anywhere, anytime, no notice” inspection regime will be the key to the credibility of any final agreement. 

In the United States, critics of the framework agreement have yet to come up with a convincing alternative to it.

Some seem still to favour targeted military action against Iran, notwithstanding the poor outcome of the intervention in Iraq.

SYRIA

Meanwhile the tragedy of Syria continues.

220,000 people have died and 8 million people are forced from their homes.

Ancient religious communities, that had survived since the time of Christ, are being destroyed. 

Nobody seems to have any idea how to stop the slaughter

If the international community can reach a deal on the Iranian question, they should turn their attention to Syria.

The initial goal  in Syria should be a truce with forces in place, rather than regime change.  A frozen conflict is better than a hot one.

THE BRITISH ELECTION

It is depressing to watch parties in the British election promising to increase spending on health, while simultaneously saying they will not increase most taxes. 

Britain still has a structural budget deficit of 2.3% of GDP, one of the highest in Europe. In other words the British Government is committed, on present policies, to spending more than it receives. That gap will eventually have to be closed.

Even more worrying, the wider British  economy is not in balance. 
The current account deficit is 5.5% of GDP. In other words, Britons are spending 5.5% more abroad than they were earning abroad.

The current account deficit was the indicator that should have warned policy makers that Ireland was heading for trouble, in the 2004 to 2007 period, but it was ignored. It looks as if it is being ignored in Britain today.

WILL QUANTITATIVE EASING LEAD TO TROUBLE?

Negative interest rates, brought about by quantitative easing, make it very hard for private pension funds to make an adequate return, unless they shift to riskier investments.

But riskier investments are, well , how should I put it, riskier! And pension funds should be risk averse.

Likewise, banks have to maintain their capital rations by buying bonds at the artificially low interest rates now obtaining.

If banks buy a lot of bonds at very low interest rates, and then interest rates rise, these low interest rate bonds will be devalued. That will hit the balance sheets of those banks very hard. Could it make some of them insolvent?

WHY IS THERE NOT MORE INVESTMENT WHEN MONEY IS SO CHEAP?

The big problem in the economy is not the cost of money, but the lack of investment in  productivity growth by firms across the economy. 
At present low interest rates, one would expect a lot of borrowing to invest, but it is not happening. Why? Are firms waiting for consumers to start spending, or is it the other way around?
Or are we running out of growth potential in mature economies? 
These are the sort of issues that should be the subject of debate in election campaigns, rather than competing promises  to spend more, and tax less, all at the same time!

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