Syria crisis: The 800 year history lesson

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Antakya on the Turko-Syrian border


As international diplomats continue efforts to try to end the continuing violence in Syria which has led to an estimated 27,000 deaths, they would do well to consider the lessons from the extraordinary length of time that Syria's strategic position has been provoking foreign interest - and foreign intervention.

The things we don't know about history will always outweigh the things that we do know.

We will never be sure for example if a certain Colonel Walker of the Royal Marines knew much about Frederick Barbarossa, emperor of the Germans.

On the face of it they certainly do not have much in common - they died 650 years and several hundred miles apart.

But each in his own way left us with the ultimate reminder of the temptations and dangers foreign military intervention in the Middle East.

I found Colonel Walker's name on a plaque which mourns his loss near the market in the ancient city of Acre - known in Hebrew as Akko - which is now in northern Israel.

It does not tell us much about him beyond the fact that at 68 he was getting on a bit for an infantry officer. A doughty character perhaps who led from the front - we'll never know.

He died during the complex manoeuvrings whereby Britain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire combined to remove the land that is now Syria from Arab control and give it back to the Ottoman Turks.

At the risk of upsetting the Colonel's family I must admit I cannot now remember why that diplomatic strategy seemed important at the time.

Frederick Barbarossa was about the same age as the redoubtable Colonel when he went to meet his maker in 1190.

He was leading a Crusade to the Holy Land - a cross-country route that would have taken him through the territory we know as Turkey and Syria (Richard the Lionheart was among the Europeans who took the easier option of sailing across the Mediterranean).

Image caption,
Emperor Frederick died leading his men on the Third Crusade to the Holy Land in 1190

Frederick found himself waiting to cross a bridge which was blocked by a slow-moving body of his own troops. Being seized of a kingly impatience he decided to wade instead.

If he had taken his suit of armour off before getting in the water the Third Crusade might have turned out differently.

As it was he drowned and they preserved his body in vinegar in the hope they would be able to bury him eventually in Jerusalem, the holy city.

It turned out the royal retinue had overestimated the power of pickling and what with the heat and so on, they were eventually forced to bury him in the city of Antioch instead where he still lies, just inside Turkey's border with Syria.

Antioch and Acre were already places of great antiquity when Emperor Frederick and Colonel Walker played out their last dramas there.

The neural wiring of the world's military, diplomatic, commercial and religious networks already ran through this region and through Syria in particular - in ways that make it compelling and dangerous.

In our own time when a country is bleeding from self-inflicted wounds as Syria is bleeding now, the impulse to do something rather than nothing is strong.

Western governments must be tempted to point to the success of their intervention in Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi was toppled when a handful of the leading nations of Nato offered air support to the rebellion against him.

It feels like a template for similar intervention in Syria but it is not.

Libya was a one-person state more than a one-party state and change was comparatively easy to achieve. Its long-term consequences may be unpredictable but in military terms it was relatively clean and cheap.

Syria is a complex multi-confessional state in which the prospects for intervention are much more uncertain.

It has better air defences for a start and an army which has already displayed a certain brutal efficiency.

Iran has religious reasons for supporting Bashar al-Assad whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shia Islam - but it also sees Syria as a vital strategic bridge to its paramilitary force Hizbollah in Southern Lebanon.

Tehran's first preference for Syria might be to keep Assad in power - its second might be to create the kind of violent instability which haunted neighbouring Lebanon after its own painful civil war.

Image caption,
Food is in scarce supply as the Syrian government's bombing of Aleppo continues

Russia and China can use their vetos at the UN to frustrate any Western impulse to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.

It is all reminiscent of the Security Council stalemate of the cold war.

Russia may have an eye on the interests of Syria's orthodox Christians - and it has a naval base and some economic investments at stake too - but its main motive is almost certainly to show Washington that the process of change in the Middle East is not under Western management.

For America and its allies there are other problems too.

Their preferred solution may be some kind of national dialogue after the removal of Bashar al-Assad - it is not easy to see what they will suggest if the depth of hatred and the level of violence make dialogue impossible.

And that ignores the fact that with radical foreign fighters reinforcing a splintering rebel movement it is hard for the West to pick a preferred winner anyway.

The sheer scale of what is at stake in Syria is daunting - it is one of the nation states built on the wreckage of a collapsed Turkish empire after the First World War.

If it disintegrates into warring sectarian statelets - or just disintegrates - how stable will the other countries created at the same time in the Middle East then look?

So this is not the first time that statesmen have weighed the risks and rewards of military intervention in this difficult neck of the woods.

The stories of Colonel Walker and the Emperor Frederick eight centuries apart show just how dangerous it has always been.

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