Sami Moubayed at PostGlobal

Sami Moubayed

Damascus, Syria

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst and historian based in Damascus, Syria. Moubayed is the author of "Damascus Between Democracy and Dictatorship (2000)" and "Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (2006)." He has also authored a biography of Syria's former President Shukri al-Quwatli and currently serves as Associate Professor at the Faculty of International Relations at al-Kalamoun University in Syria. In 2004, he created, the first and online museum of Syrian history. He is also co-founder and editor-in-chief of FORWARD, the leading English monthly in Syria, and Vice-President of Haykal Media. Close.

Sami Moubayed

Damascus, Syria

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst and historian based in Damascus, Syria. more »

Main Page | Sami Moubayed Archives | PostGlobal Archives

« Previous Post | Next Post »

21st C. Churchill in Another Man's War

The Washington Post is asking panelists from around the world how they think history will label Tony Blair 25 years from now. Writing from Damascus, I can speak for how the Syrians will remember him. The man was first regarded as a friend, and welcomed by the Syrians when he came to office in 1997. He reportedly was “personally involved” in the reforms taking place in Syria after 2000, following up with great interest through media reports, and those of the Foreign Office. Relations deteriorated during the Anglo-American war on Afghanistan in October 2001, hit rock bottom during the Iraq War, and have been strained -- to say the least -- since the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri in February 2005. The world remembers the Blair-Assad Summit in London. I would rather recall the Blair-Assad Summit in Damascus in 2001. I happened to be in London when Tony Blair was in Syria and can still remember reading “Syria Scorns Blair” at newsstands scattered all over Oxford Street.

Blair's clash with Assad reminded me of a similar incident that took place 62 years ago. Upon his return from a meeting with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta, the late British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill made a stop in Egypt to meet with Arab leaderships and rally their support "against a war of terror," launched, however, not by Osama bin Laden but by Adolph Hitler. Coming at the height of Churchill's glory and as the war in Europe was turning in Allied favor, Churchill met with Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli. Great Britain back then was gaining the upper hand in the Middle East, and taking over military responsibility in regions previously controlled by France. London demanded that Syria sign a political and economic friendship treaty with Paris, and grant her concessions and privileges on Syrian soil. Churchill's words ran as follows: "I am warning Syria specifically that her negative and radical policies during these difficult times will not be tolerated." He shouted adding: "The entire world is threatened with destruction and we must do all that is possible to attain victory. That is why we will not have mercy on any person or group, whomever they may be, who will not side with us." Quwatli refused an agreement with France and responded: "Mr. Churchill, what does France want from us? Why doesn't she turn her attention to liberating her own lands before she occupies a freedom seeking country? Hasn't she experienced the humiliation of occupation and defeat?" Quwatli added in a raised voice that Syria's principles were clear - and he would not change them "even if the waters of the ocean turn red." Churchill snapped back: "Are you challenging me? Don't you challenge me! Do you know who I am? I am Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces. I will not let anyone in this world, threaten or challenge me."

The parallel between what took place in 1945 and what is taking place today is striking. Tony Blair came to Damascus with the aim of widening the anti-terrorism campaign and working to re-start the Arab peace process with Israel. Like Churchill, Blair was at the height of his glory in 2001. Like Churchill, who met with Roosevelt to lay out the "new world order" at Yalta, Blair had recently been in Washington to lay out the new world order with George W. Bush. They coined this new order "a new community of nations" able to defend the institutions of freedom. While Churchill wanted Quwatli to abandon Syria's ongoing demands for independence from the French, Blair wanted Assad to abandon his ongoing demands for resistance against Israel. While Churchill had to stand and listen as Quwatli described the French as terrorists, Blair had to stand and listen as Assad referred to the Israelis as terrorists.

Assad shattered the prime minister's imagination when he said, "We cannot accept what we see every day on our television screens, the killing of innocent civilians. There are hundreds dying every day." Assad added, "We should differentiate between combating terrorism and war. We did not say we support an international coalition for war. We are always against war." The Syrian leader went on saying: "We, and I personally, differentiate between resistance and terrorism. Resistance is a social, religious and legal right that is safeguarded by UN resolutions." He linked the Palestinian groups, both those residing in Syria and the occupied territories, to European resistance fighters in World War II seeking to liberate their lands from Nazi occupation. Assad argued that in Europe the great symbol of resistance had been Charles de Gaulle. "Can anyone accuse de Gaulle of being a terrorist? No way."

Blair came to Syria with all the arrogance that Churchill once had, yet seemed to forget that he was not Churchill and that this was not the Great Britain of 1945. For one thing, England had long lost its place in the region to the United States. During the first half of the century, the United Kingdom managed to portray itself as an ally of the Arabs. During Ottoman times and their immediate aftermath, the Arabs were convinced that the road to prosperity and success ran through London. Even following several consecutive setbacks -- the Balfour Declaration, the French Mandate in Syria, the British Mandate in Palestine, and ultimately, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 -- the Arabs were still, surprisingly, willing to remain in Great Britain's orbit. Winston Churchill perhaps single-handedly created this paramount status for the British. A master manipulator and cunning statesman, Churchill laid the groundwork for the modern Middle East, and knew how and when to speak to the Arabs. Matters began falling apart when Churchill left Downing Street, and have taken a plunge ever since. It takes more than shuttle diplomacy for Tony Blair to restore Britain's credibility in Arab eyes. Following his ordeal with Assad, Blair's spokesman said: "I think it is important to have a reality check here. We were never going to solve the problems of the Middle East in 48 hours." How right he was. It takes more than 48 hours, more than words and gestures to deal with the region. By appearing in their midst, Tony Blair hoped to rally support for his cause and lure them back to the peace talks. Perhaps this was the prime minister's first true lesson in the complex and distorted world of the Middle East.

War on Terror

Blair will be remembered -- among other things -- for sending British troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. At the time, one could literarily feel how unpopular the decision was, and how agitated many Britons were over their Prime Minister’s blind alliance to the United States and its President George W. Bush. Among other things, he was accused of magnifying the threat of Saddam Hussein’s WMD, ignoring advice from those around him, spinning stories of Iraqi terrorism, and very bluntly lying to the British people. The newspapers deliberately misspelled his name “B-liar.” The extra mile Blair was willing to go in order to please the United States -- often at the expense of Great Britain -- prompted former South African President Nelson Mandela to once describe him as, “the U.S. foreign minister.” The rude manner in which Bush addressed him at the G8 Summit in 2006, with the now famous “Yo Blair” greeting, did nothing to comfort the people of Britain. Blair defended the war more eloquently than Bush, and was seemingly more convincing. That is why he became “spokesman” for the Anglo-American adventure in Iraq, and in reward, was the first British leader since Winston Churchill to be given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2003, and the first non-American to receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, also in 2003.

This, however, was not the Great Britain that everybody knew. When Blair ordered 46,000 troops to Iraq in 2003 (one third of the army’s land forces) many wondered whether these soldiers even knew where they were heading. Operation Telic, as it was called, was the largest operation of the British Army since World War II. I can understand Great Britain entering the Suez War in 1956 to protect its interests, although I certainly would not support it. I can understand, support, and honor Great Britain’s efforts during World War II. It was a matter of maintaining national pride, independence, and protecting the homeland. Saddam was no Hitler, and Tony Blair knew it. One particular WWII phrase kept coming to mind, famously said by Sir Winston Churchill: "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Churchill had every reason not to surrender. He was fighting for Great Britain. The poor boys who went to Iraq in 2003 -- and will start coming back in May 2007 -- were not fighting for Britain. They were fighting for the United States, and it was never their war to start out with.

All of this keeps coming to mind since Blair announced that he would be resigning on June 27, 2007. Last February he addressed the House of Commons announcing that his troops in Iraq would be reduced to 5,500 before summer 2007. All of them, probably, will be out by late 2008. The UK currently has 7,100 troops in Iraq. Almost in domino effect, Denmark declared that it would also be bringing its 460 troops back home by August 2007. Lithuania will do the same for its 53 troops and South Korea, which currently has 2,300 soldiers in Irbil, is expected bring half of them back by April 2007. This came as a blessing for the Democrats in the United States, who have been calling on President Bush to take similar action. Bush refused to listen to them and refused to adopt the findings of the Baker Report. Apparently, Blair took James Baker more seriously than the U.S. President. He has been hinting at troop withdrawal since he last visited Iraq in May 2006. The U.S. insists that this does not mean a change of strategy, nor does it spell out failure for the international coalition in Iraq, claiming that eventual withdrawal was what the West had in mind for Iraq since 2003. The al-Qaeda terrorists commented that Blair’s exodus meant the “beginning of the disintegration of the crusader coalition (in Iraq).” The U.S., of course, is planning to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq to reinforce the Baghdad Security Plan and its ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki. Blair’s remaining troops, however, will not be used to help patrol or protect Baghdad, as when they came to the aid of the Americans in Falluja in October 2004. They will remain in the southern district of Basra, the second largest city in Iraq with over 2.5 million inhabitants, because the Iraqi capital, according to Blair, is witnessing “an orgy of terrorism.”

Blair commented saying, “What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by the Iraqis.” To be fair to Blair, let us try to see the good side -- if any -- to the British troop presence in Iraq since 2003. They did help re-open schools, equip hospitals, improve waterworks, and secure oil platforms. Their job was made easier by the relatively calm situation in Basra, when compared to Baghdad. Blair described it as such, saying that in the south, there was “no Sunni insurgency, no al-Qaeda base, little Sunni or Shiite violence.” Blair seemed to forget that earlier in 2006, Basra did face a lot of violence, greatly endangering the 7th Armored Brigade based there. Perhaps he was misinformed but Basra has always been a troublesome city. Two uprisings were launched against Saddam from it, in 1991 and 1999. Since entering the city on April 6, 2003, the British troops have done little to eradicate sectarian militias, except sporadic operations, like such as raiding a police station in December 2006 and freeing 70 people taken hostage by Shiite militias. Earlier, on May 6, a British helicopter had been downed in Basra, killing five British troops. Treating the public as dunces, British Defense Minister Desmond Browne (apparently copying the attitude of his then U.S.-counterpart Donald Rumsfeld) described the event as an “isolated incident” that had been “magnified” by the press. Shortly afterwards, a roadside bomb went off, killing two British soldiers, bringing the number of British deaths (as of January 2007) to 130 (as compared to only 16 who were killed in the Gulf War of 1991). British troops can no longer travel on foot, for fear of being ambushed, and have to use helicopter taxis.

The Basra that Blair leaves behind has been overtaken by loyalists to the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is currently, believed to have disappeared after the Baghdad Security Plan. The people of Basra followed him in rank-and-file when he began his rebellion against the U.S. in 2004. His pictures can still be seen on the walls and monuments of Basra, showing how powerful he really is. Some claim that unwillingly, the British watched as Muqtada transformed Basra into a mini-theocracy. Alcohol is banned and veiling is becoming a must; those who refuse are arrested or beaten by religious militias who act as a morality police squad. Since 2003, the British have been unable to eradicate them. Merchants who sell alcohol have been beaten by the fundamentalists. Some have even been executed. On April 21, 2004, a series of bombs ripped through the British-controlled city, killing several Sunnis who live there, including a university professor. Armed men also stormed a police station, killing 11 policemen, and burning down two buildings. Sunnis have migrated en mass from Basra, fearing for their lives, and the British have been unable to protect them. A report by the Department of State in 2006 on Basra described it saying, “Smuggling and criminal activity [continue] unabated. Intimidation attacks and assassination are common. Unemployment is high and economic development is hindered by weak government."

Watching all of this -- perhaps in surprise, perhaps in disbelief -- is Tony Blair. His decision to start pulling out is a wise one; however, it comes too little too late. He is probably thinking now about how history will label him. The man certainly has a mixed record. When he came to power in 1997 as the youngest prime minister in British history since 1812, the world welcomed the Oxford-graduate as a progressive middle-class man who spoke the language everybody wanted to hear. Blair will be remembered for the Human Rights Act he introduced in 1998 and for increased public spending on health and education. Most of all, however, history will remember him as the man who dragged Great Britain into a senseless war in Iraq. Sadly, people remember failure, more than success. He knows, despite all the sugar coated talk being read in the media and spoken by officials at 10 Downing Street, that the British adventure in Iraq -- to please the United States in its war on terror -- has been an ultimate, resounding failure. It did nothing for Great Britain.

All of what is happening in Iraq brings to mind a strong phrase once said by T.E. Lawrence, the legendary British colonel who helped the Arabs in their war against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The British dailies repeated it nearly one year ago, and I wrote it for Asia Times Online in May 2006. I will re-quote today, because of the significance of the passage. Lawrence, writing in The Sunday Times on August 22, 1920, described Great Britain’s role in Iraq, saying: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.” Today, nearly 90-years later, Britain has again been unable to escape with dignity from the Iraqi swamp. The hands-on results in Basra speak volumes about how terrible the situation is and how Tony Blair will be remembered by history.

The young men Blair sent to Iraq died in a battle that does not concern them. They died on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields, the streets and hills of a faraway land named Iraq, and for a distant friend called George W. Bush.

Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.

Email This Post to a Friend | | Digg | Facebook | Email the Author

Reader Response

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.