Library Blog



This lecture, given by Sir Roger Tomkys, has recently been deposited in the College Library Archives:

Syria. What next?

Autumn 2013 Ely Cathedral.

The subject of my talk this evening has developed considerably since the Dean asked me some weeks ago if I would be ready to give you my thoughts about the tragic situation in Syria. After the use of chemical weapons around Damascus, efforts pushed by the French Government and HMG to get the UNSC to authorise bombing of military targets came to nothing and have been overtaken by Asad’s offer to dispose of all the regime’s stocks and by work to convene an international conference to address the whole Syrian issue as soon as possible. Meanwhile the US administration, relieved to have been let off the hook of involvement in a military intervention for which neither President Obama nor the American people had any appetite, have opened welcome but wholly unexpected lines of communication to the Government of Iran, a key player if a conference is indeed to be held. In reaction to this infant rapprochement, the Government of Saudi Arabia has declined to take its coveted seat on the UNSC, and coupled this with unprecedented harsh criticism of the US as of the UNSC. It is likely that the private comments of Israel to Washington are at least as forceful.

The scale of what is going on was emphasised in a recent lecture by Charles Freeman, a retired American Ambassador in which he said many pungent things, quite at odds with the usual sense of US analysis. For example: “ninety seven years after its birth, the Middle East Mr Sykes and M.Picot conceived seems to be disintegrating. Outside powers created that Middle East. Indigenous forces are now tearing it apart” I may quote Freeman again later, but this illustrates why I cannot confine myself solely to Syria. There is one wider aspect which is of particular relevance here in this cathedral, and that is the implications of the Syrian conflict for the future of Christianity in the region. I may not be able to cover this adequately in my remarks but we should have time in discussion afterwards. I commend William Dalrymple’s book “From the Holy Mountain” as background to this long sad story.

What I aim to cover is as follows: first, a brief resume of Syria’s make up in terms of human geography, followed by an account of its modern historical development. Then I will try to put Syria in the context of the region and of wider trends, including the growing impact of Islam in global terms. From there I move on to the part played by outside powers, including the UK. I apologise for the title of this lecture, which is a feeble evasion of any accurate definition of my topic but I was keen to avoid any sense that I would concentrate on British policies; of course “what is to be done?” has to be tackled but it is not the main point because, as Charles Freeman says, we are not the main players. I will then say what I think about the 2011 phenomenon we know as “The Arab Spring” before finally tackling the questions of what is likely to happen, what outcomes are possible and to what end we should use the limited influence we can bring to bear.

I am conscious that in galloping through a massive amount of subject matter I shall oversimplify and fall short of proper academic rigour. The best Arab historian of the last century, Albert Hourani, wrote a magisterial history of the Arab Peoples of which he said that he was not sure it contained a single sentence that did not need qualification, so I shall be in good company. I am also aware that for some of you what I have to say will be old hat, which is why I will try to gallop and make time for discussion afterwards. As a final prefacing remark, let me emphasise that twenty years since I left the Diplomatic Service I do not speak for HMG in any sense. Indeed, while I would not overstress the point, had I been happier with HMG’s policies in the region I might not have been on the lookout for early retirement opportunities. I am certainly glad they came up as we both enjoyed 12 happy years at Pembroke as a result.




In very broad terms Syria’s population in 2011 was some 23 million, of whom about 8 million would be in Damascus and Aleppo, two ancient cities with deep cultural roots. The other sizeable cities Homs, Hama and Latakia lie on or west of the main North/South axis which roughly divides the rain-fed agricultural zone from the desert, with another arable region in the Euphrates valley to the East. The population was very mixed. Racially more than 90% were Arab and Arabic speakers but there are still a few Jews, a few thousand Circassians, some tens of thousands of Armenians notably in Aleppo, and a politically and numerically significant  Kurdish population, especially in the North and North East. Religiously the picture was less simple. The majority , perhaps 70%, were Sunni Moslem; this includes the Kurds. Traditionally they were relatively liberal; fanaticism has not been widespread. There were then significant minorities of Christians, Alawites and Druze, the two latter being sects deriving from Islam, the Alawites being more or less generally accepted as Moslems belonging on the Shia side of the fence and the Druze being beyond the pale. 10% Christian, 10% Alawite and 5% Druze would leave 5% for the rest, including orthodox “Twelver” Shia  (a notably small group which is worth remarking), Ismailis, and Yazidis and other exotica. They have generally lived without intercommunal conflict or segregation, though the Jews suffered sporadic attacks. They were unevenly distributed. The Christians were in the cities and some small mountain towns, a few still speaking Aramaic. The Alawites and Ismailis were in the mountains between the coast and the agricultural land about Homs and Hama where traditionally they had been the serfs and domestic property of the Sunni landowners. The Druze kept their own fiefdom in the mountain that bears their name in the South, linked to their coreligionists  in Lebanon.

All this is now overtaken. The latest estimates  I have seen suggest 3 million refugees in neighbouring countries and 4 million displaced within Syria, a total close to one third of the whole population of the country, no doubt with women and children hardest hit.




Until the first World War Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire with Damascus the important centre of a province or Vilayet. There were lesser administrative centres in Aleppo, Beirut and Jerusalem, dependent on Damascus, and the whole region was known as Bilad al Sham, though the term Palestine was used for the area around Jerusalem. The Ottomans were, of course, Moslem Turks and Turkish was the administrative language but the population of the Asiatic provinces beyond Asia Minor, present day Turkey was predominantly Arab. The Ottomans entered the war on the German side in 1914 and with their eventual defeat, the break up of the Empire, already largely achieved in the Balkans over the preceding 100 years, became inevitable. The fighting in the region, in Mesopotamia, in Gallipoli, around Salonica and, most important for our purposes, in the Arab revolt of Lawrence of Arabia fame, was sustained mostly by British forces. Britain was in prime position to dictate the post war settlement, but in a conflict in which Britain shared vital interests with France, account in the eventual division of the spoils was taken of France’s claims in the region, notably through the Sykes /Picot agreement to which Charles Freeman referred as quoted earlier.

It was not an honourable arrangement. In various secret processes the British had promised to the Hashemite descendents of the Prophet who were hereditary governors of the Hejaz, an independent Arab Kingdom if they would raise the Arab nation against the Turks. The Arab Revolt fell far short of that objective and the British certainly failed to deliver. There had been some weasel words excluding from that promise areas to the west of Aleppo and Damascus on the dubious ground that these were not truly Arab in character. This was later used to explain how HMG could in 1917 promise, in the Balfour Declaration, to view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish homeland, albeit “without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the existing population” Meanwhile, Sykes and Picot had agreed that the whole Arab area north of the Arabian Peninsula should fall into British and French spheres of influence. This, with a good deal of horsetrading as a result of which France got what is now Syria and Lebanon while Britain got Iraq, with its oil, and Jordan/Palestine. In the end the Hashemites lost Arabia to the Saudis; Prince Faisal was driven out of Syria by the French but fitted up with Iraq by the British, some of whom, including Lawrence, were rather ashamed of letting their protégés down. They also got Transjordan, the poor rump of the British Mandate, and held on in increasing prosperity under King Hussein and his son Abdullah to what has been a Kingdom for some 65 years.

Both in Iraq and in Syria the Mandates faced armed insurrection from the start. In Iraq, the British opted for indirect rule and by the 1930s for retention of privileged access to influence, oil and military facilities. The French were made of sterner stuff. As in Morocco they used minorities as troupes speciales to hold down territory; in Syria this built up notably the place in Syria’s military hierarchy of the hitherto Alawite underclass. They encouraged regional fragmentation and created a so-called greater Lebanon gerrymandered to secure as much territory as was compatible with domination by their particular clients, the Maronite Christians, thereby depriving Syria of much of its natural Mediterranean access. Independent Syria still regards Lebanon as an integral part of its homeland, and asserts its interests there accordingly. The boundaries established by Sykes/Picot are, perhaps, no worse than most and, setting Israel aside, have proved pretty durable. Syrians will remind anyone interested that the French gave away the Hatay, the region around Antioch and the natural outlet for Aleppo’s trade toTurkey on the eve of the Second World War, aiming to keep Turkey at least neutral in the conflict. Ataturk had, of course, seen off any attempts to dismember Turkey itself in no uncertain manner.

During WW2 Syria with Lebanon was taken by British forces from Vichy France and then achieved independence as a Republic. The region was in turmoil. The first Arab/Israeli conflict in1948 was followed in the 50s by the overthrow of Royalist regimes in Egypt in1952 and Iraq in 1958 a year in which Jordan and Lebanon also had near misses .The Suez folly of 1956 made President Nasser a hero throughout the Arab world and in 1958 Syria begged a junior role to Nasser’s Egypt in the short lived United Arab Republic . This followed more than a decade of coup and counter coup in Syria in which every one from the CIA to the Communists were constantly engaged. When the Union broke in 1961, internal conflict resumed. By the end of the decade it had resulted in victory for the Baath party, of which more anon, led since 1970 by Hafiz al Asad and his son Bashar. Somewhere along the road, Syria had lost the Golan Heights to Israeli occupation and the Arab leaders, mostly of a socialist, dirigiste persuasion had lost credibility in the catastrophic defeat of 1967’ Six day War.

We need a word about the Baath Party. Founded by French educated Christian Syrians and Lebanese, it was now in power in Iraq and Syria. Its founding principles were insistence on Arab Unity to which local national interests were subordinated and a medley of modernising ideals including universal free education and health provision, equality for women and no religion in politics. In power, these fine aims were overtaken in favour of corrupt authoritarian control in alliance with the army and in the hands, in Iraq, of a close group of Sunni from Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace, and in Syria of Alawites around the Asad family. Iraq and Syria have always been hostile rivals; Saddam, a sadistic street fighting boss who always wore military uniform, and Asad, a cold , calculating former air force General, always in civilian western suits, hated and made strenuous efforts to have the other killed or overthrown. The Syrian regime was an economic failure. Though it did not use terror on the Iraqi scale it tortured and assassinated its perceived enemies in Syria and in Lebanon without pity. Its opponents had good reason to revolt; when they did so in 1982 in Hama President Asad’s brother Rifaat crushed the uprising by flattening the city and killing around 20,000 victims in 3 weeks. Unsurprisingly, there was no more trouble for more than two decades, and the regime thought they had the recipe for dealing with the Arab Spring when it arrived in 2011.

Baathist Syria has few friends. It joined the Western alliance against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 out of a wish to destroy Saddam. Its determination to maintain steadfast opposition to Israel so long as 1967 conquests including the Golan heights are not returned was translated into sponsorship of Hizbullah in Lebanon, even though the regime recognised that the religious Shia motivation of Hizbullah represented a long term threat to a secular power. Alliance with Iran was driven by shared interest in Hizbullah and common hostility to Iraq. With the USSR, Syria was dependent for arms and for political support. It offered in return, port and other strategic facilities but was not a puppet. Even so, its relations with its neighbours were notably bad; with Israel it goes without saying, though the joint border was always without incident. But Turkey objected to Syria harbouring Kurdish activists, Jordan, pro- western, had longstanding grievances, Lebanon had been partially occupied by the Syrian army during their civil war, and both feared and resented Syrian indirect or direct interference. With Saudi Arabia relations rubbed along surprisingly well, but the Gulf Arabs generally regarded Syria with a mixture of fear and loathing.



Important changes throughout the Middle East have taken place over recent decades that need to be noted. People in the region and their leaders have been aware of material decline compared with the West for 200 years. Their first answer was either to modernise Islam and ape the West or to return to Islamic principles and reject Western standards. After WW2, Arab Nationalism, whether  Nasserite or Baathist, and to some extent Communism held the answer and religion took a back seat. With the disaster of the Six Day War, Revolutionary Arab Governments were seen to have failed; both for the recovery of Palestine and for a better society at home, the Arab populace turned either to popular movements like the PLO, or to Islamic movements such as the Moslem Brotherhood, both of which appeared to have the interests of the ordinary people at heart. The Islamic Revolution and the fall of the Shah in1979 gave a great impetus to Islamic political force throughout the world, assisted by heavy spending by Saudi Arabia, Libya and others on global Islam as the oil boom enriched the region. Hostility between Sunni and Shiite Islam modified but did not cancel out this impetus. Baathist,  secular Syria is a dinosaur left behind by this process, one reason why, until 2011, the Christians of Syria remained less under pressure than their coreligionists elsewhere.




Before at long last I finally get around to the Arab Spring and its outcome, especially in Syria, I want to say a few cautionary words about British policy in the region since 1973. Briefly, I think we have followed too closely mistaken US policies. In the 70s we accepted their commitment to freeze the PLO out of any peace process. In the 80s and later we joined them in blocking UNSC efforts to curb Israeli operations in Lebanon. Having rightly played with them a leading role in mounting a wide coalition to drive Saddam Hussain out of Kuwait, we spent the next decade supporting their undeclared efforts to get regime change through UN sanctions nominally targeted at securing the destruction of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. .I will spare you my take on the 2003 invasion of Iraq except to say that it is surely clear that the US purpose was regime change, which is not an admissible justification for war; it is worth remembering how in those far off days the neocons advising President Bush believed Democratic Iraq would welcome a major US military presence in their country as a springboard from which to spread Western values throughout the Middle East and constructed the largest US Diplomatic establishment in the world beside the Tigris from which to guide the process. Under Tony Blair, HMG colluded in this fantasy. Since the Arab Spring we have once again played a leading role, this time over Libya. On balance I believe it was right for us, as we did, to seek and get a UNSCR to intervene with air strikes to prevent the slaughter of the civilian population of Benghazi; in retrospect it was almost inevitable that the real objective would turn out to be, once again, regime change. In other words, we have form, and it is hardly surprising that the Russians and others are now incurably sceptical of our purposes at the UN.




Had I given this talk in the far off days when the Dean first asked me, the hot topic would indeed have been to explain how Franco-British efforts to get a SCR to authorise air strikes against the Asad regime were inevitably to be greeted with scepticism as we argued that nothing was further from or thoughts than regime change. But that has been overtaken in the astonishing upheaval now in process in the area and pointed up by Freeman. Everything is in flux; but first I must try to put the Arab Spring in context

In 2011 it is fair to say that no single Arab State could safely be said to be well governed with equality for all citizens under justly administered laws. Some were notably  worse than others, and Syria was among them. Western policy toward them was governed by considerations of commercial advantage, and the usefulness of the existing regime, as in Egypt and Jordan, for keeping Israel secure from conflict. Since 9/11 the war on terror also meant opposition to movements such as Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon which had democratic credentials but employed terrorism against Israel. There were special reasons for hostility toward Iran, both because of its nuclear programme and deriving from the American hostage crisis in the 70s and the Iran/Iraq war in the following decade. But if one’s friends, especially if they were oil-rich and we had an intelligence liaison with them as with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, did not manage their domestic affairs as ideally they might, it counted for little except for wriggling about an ethical foreign policy.

No one really knows why the Arab Spring started when it did, in Tunisia of all places. My theory is that it was waiting to happen, the internet and social media enabled it to catch fire and spread, apparently unstoppable through Libya and Egypt to Syria and Bahrain, with ripples of dissent reaching other Gulf States and Jordan. No one got it right. The media saw the same phenomenon everywhere and reported as though the issues were identical and the protesters everywhere in the right. HMG and the West were suddenly rather ashamed of their long support for Mubarak in Egypt and dropped him quickly. In Bahrain we wished the Shia majority could have full democracy, which their Saudi neighbours would never allow. Saudi Arabia has its own issues and there were local demonstrations but we are all far too conscious of their wealth and oil to raise uncomfortable topics like democracy. In Syria, I got it wrong because I thought the regime too much in control for opposition to get traction; I underestimated the effect of social media since 1982, and I thought the protests elsewhere more relevant to Western backed Governments. HMG got it disastrously wrong by concluding, and saying publicly by summer 2011 that Asad was finished and could last only weeks. We chose to back the opposition and lost any possible diplomatic leverage.

The Syrian Spring started as well merited and initially peaceful home-grown protest ignited by events in Tunisia and Egypt against the abuse of power by a corrupt and brutal regime. Bashar al Asad had promised reform but little had changed. Had his response been to offer serious negotiation with opposition figures it might perhaps have worked. But the regime had crushed one uprising 30 years before and tried to repeat the dose, though this time with the world watching. That the Alawites dominated the leadership may have sharpened animosity but religion was not a main driver. The uprising morphed progressively into serious armed uprising with increasingly non-Syrian fighters being backed by the West or by Syria’s enemies in the Arab World. Syria called on its Russian and Iranian allies for support and hardened Hizbullah Shia forces from Lebanon played a growing part. The conflict was fragmented with many opposition factions and consolidation of local authority, for example by Turkish backed groups in the Northern border area.

The critical change, however, came when Saudi Arabia and Qatar committed their resources to Asad’s overthrow and began to fund Sunni forces, often non-Syrian and sometimes affiliated to Al Qaeda, to this end. The conflict had now become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sunni versus Shia, for control of the region over the dead body of Syria. It is worth remembering that Al Qaeda got its start in life when the US and HMG worked with the Pakistani Intelligence Services to channel Saudi funding to the Taleban and Al Qaeda to fight the USSR in Afghanistan. Now we appear to be allies in a Middle Eastern conflict in which the “War on terror” has mutated strangely.

Some context is needed for this proxy war.. The ancient division of Islam into majority Sunni and minority Twelver Shia derives from conflict in the 7th century of our era. Doctrinal differences are significant but clashes have always been more about power than doctrine or practice. Of major states in the Islamic World only Iran has long been ruled by Shia , since the 16th century Safavid Dynasty. However, Iraq has a Shia majority, and the unintended consequence of Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 was not only to ensure power went to the hitherto subordinate Shia majority, but also to give Iran greatly increased influence through their coreligionists in the Arab World. King Abdullah of Jordan coined the phrase “ The Shia Crescent” for Iran, Iraq and, by extension, Syria. Saudi Arabia now sees the whole region through the lens provided by its rivalry with Iran. The presence of a large minority of Shia in Saudi’s oil rich Eastern Province, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the instinctive age-old mutual distrust between Arab and Persian all feed the flames. The paradoxical outcome is that Saudi Arabia, the neocons in Washington and Israel all together see Iran as their absolute foe, despite the fact that Israel had formerly seen Iraq as the existential threat; Saudi Arabia had backed Saddam against Iran, and while both Saudi and Israeli intelligence services liaise closely with their Western counterparts in the war on terror, Saudi money funds Al Qaeda franchises to fight in Syria. In Egypt some Arab friends see Saudi and Qatari money behind the fall of Morsi’s elected Moslem Brotherhood Government and in Moscow the Head of Saudi Intelligence is widely believed to have offered Russia contracts worth many billions in a failed attempt to get President Putin to abandon support for Asad. This is the Middle East turned upside down,. While it is happening there are millions of displaced Syrians, more than 100,000 dead and the prospect of a failed, fragmented state: Somalia on the Mediterranean.




First let us remember the Hippocratic Oath, above all not to make things worse, translated by Denis Healey as “When in a hole, stop digging” and like Charles Freeman, be suitably modest, not only about our power to punch above our weight and determine events but also about our track record as wise statesmen; in the Middle East we have done badly in the past and blundered again in Syria in 2011. The sequence of events that brought a new look to the government in Iran, the positive response to John Kerry’s challenge to Asad to surrender his chemical weapons and the resulting efforts to convene a peace conference without delay, are all to be welcomed and supported. I cannot see how anyone except the editorial staff of “The ”Times” about whom a word later. now could wish British and French efforts to get a UNSCR mandate for Western bombing of Syria to have succeeded unless they subscribe to the Saudi position that the only thing that matters in the region is to destroy all Iranian influence. In Washington, at least, the relief felt in the White House must be palpable, though Dick Cheney, who epitomises the spirit of the 2003 Iraq adventure, would, it seems, prefer to bomb Iran before Israel does so. I do not have a dog in that fight. I do not believe the problems of the region are best addressed by conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. Iran is a regional power with legitimate interests not only in the Arab World but also in Afghanistan and needs to be brought into negotiation, not demonised, threatening though it has appeared since 1979.

Convening a conference will not be easy. The Un representative Lakhdar Brahimi is a diplomat of immense quality and experience but the task could prove beyond even his skills The opposition groups, whether radical jihadis or western backed Syrian elements are reluctant to participate. My view, and I have no privileged knowledge of ongoing talks, is that this should not matter. There is, in any case, nothing to negotiate with Al Qaeda lookalikes. The first task of a conference should be to get a cease fire in place to enable the terrible humanitarian crisis to be addressed. For this purpose what is needed is for the sponsors of the anti-regime groups to require them to observe a cease fire and to cut off funds and arms if they refuse and for Russia to make the regime reciprocate.The second step is to secure access for aid and relief agencies to the critical areas. Future constitutional pipe dreams can wait. Here I should add that press reports indicate that my view of the priority of a ceasefire in place is not shared by the parties concerned, who still give priority to achieving their political goals at such a conference; its convening is far from assured.

If there is a conference, the credit will go primarily to Putin’s Russia. Syria is Russia’s Near South, and in Chechnya and elsewhere Russia has every reason to wish to put down fundamentalist jihad. There is no reason to suppose humanitarian principles have played an unexpected part. Without a conference, and unless the sponsors call off their dogs and Russia forces Asad to reciprocate, I see no outcome beyond a fight to the last jihadi standing and the break up of the country. Already the ancient Christian tradition is in a critical state. At the outset, in 2011, I argued that while 15% of the population was ready to fight and die to bring down the regime and 15% to defend it, 70%, including virtually all the Christians were terrified of what conflict would bring; then, one thought in terms of a Syrian civil war, now it is a proxy war fought over the broken country. It is hard to see who benefits. As in broken Iraq, the Kurds will press for greater autonomy with potential trouble for Turkey. Jordan will have a lawless northern border, full of jihadis with no love for western oriented monarchies. Instability and conflict between Sunni and Shia in Iraq will have an open border to the West. Lebanon’s domestic sectarian clashes will be exacerbated and there will no longer be a dreaded and brutal arbiter to intervene in Lebanese civil conflicts. All the neighbourhood will be burdened with a flood of hopeless refugees. Even in Israel where no doubt the propagandists with their cheerleaders in the US will say this proves that no peace can be negotiated with their Arab neighbours and force is the only defence, the many Israelis who cling to the hope that their children can sometime in the future live in peace in a prosperous Arab region will despair, and with reason.

This is bleak stuff. I can only temper it with the thought that, despite Prince Bandar and Dick Cheney, the process which has made it possible that the US and Iran will begin to talk seriously about their shared concerns is full of potential for good. It could help in Iraq as well as in Syria and over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Bandar, who was Saudi Ambassador in Washington and very close to the architects of the Iraq adventure is not the only voice in Riyadh, though the visceral hostility to Iran is general among the Al Saud.Britain’s role, alas, and because of past mistakes as well as lack of political and military clout can only be secondary but we should use it for humanitarian aims and to promote consensus among the sponsors to end the conflict, not to choose sides in an unattractive field.

In case any of you think that what I have said is all too obvious let me draw your attention to a leader in the “Times” last week which began with “There is always a moment to talk peace. In Syria that moment has not yet come” and concluded that the conference postponed until next summer, not least because the opposition do not want to discuss peace until Asad has gone. Meanwhile “The threat of US-led force should remain”. Against what target one asks oneself. With or without UN approval? By next summer the death toll will have multiplied and Syria will be broken for ever. In my view this is a once great newspaper barking to the tune of a faction in the US who were responsible for the disaster in Iraq and are ready to repeat the experience over Syria or in conflict with Iran. Fortunately, President Obama shows no sign of wanting to go down that road

I would like to stop there to allow time for discussion and questions. I am not sure how closely you all follow these issues. Where I have generalised at unacceptable cost to accuracy or facts, please correct me. If you would like to go into more detail about  Islamic sects or racial groups in the region or whatever, we can talk till the cows come home.