Words by Stan Moorcroft, City Living, Local Life Community Reporter

‘Why have Syria’s foundations as a nation proved so fragile, and why has the international community been so powerless?’

This was the question that historian, Arabic linguist and international lawyer John McHugo sought to address on a cold autumn night at the Central Library, Phillimore Walk.

The terrible scenes we witness each night on our TV screens of desperate Syrian refugees, washed up, half drowned, on Mediterranean beaches or trapped in front of razor wire erected to keep them out made this contribution to the Nour festival not only timely but essential. For without context, history is just a random series of events. Seeking to place these events in context in this hour long talk Mr McHugo explored the history of Syria from the First World War to the present and to examine the obstacles that have prevented the emergence of a stable democratic state able to harness the considerable talents of its people.

Mr McHugo’s exploration of the country’s thwarted attempts at independence under French rule is the substance of real tragedy. A rebellion in 1925, that lasted for two years and at one stage saw large portions of the country in ‘rebel’ hands, was crushed by the French with great brutality. The leaders of the revolt, coming from across the religious, ethnic and tribal divide, had called for an independent secular Syria. For one thing was clear from Mr McHugo’s talk is that in the long term only a secular Syria, in which the rights of believers of all faiths and none are protected, is going to be viable.

Post-independence Syrian history became a tale of the growing interference of the army in politics, the ferocious impact of external forces, – Israel, the cold war, pan-Arab nationalism, the financial and ideological influence of the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, – and the rise of the Baath party and the Assads. The complex range of forces at play did not augur well for the development of a healthy civil society and democratic institutions. With politics driven underground religious and tribal forces came to the fore, with the terrible consequences we are now witnessing. How exactly the West should respond to this tragedy remains a matter for debate, but whatever we decide turning our backs is surely not an option any civilised society would want to embrace. This was a timely if somewhat sad and sobering lecture that, while providing valuable insights, inevitably produced more questions than answers.