Thank you to BBC 2 for showing both this and the programme on Burma/Myanmar which was on on Sunday night. We get 24/7 news coverage these days, but we don’t get that many programmes looking at major current issues over a period of time, rather than just looking at what’s happened that day. Well, as ever, it’s all going on in the Middle East at the moment – in addition to the wars in Syria and Yemen, neither of them showing much sign of ending, Hezbollah are stirring up trouble in Lebanon, Iran and Israel are at each other’s throats, two million people are displaced in Iraq, and over fifty people have just been killed in clashes on the border between Israel and Gaza. The war in Yemen is sadly being largely ignored in the West. That’s not true of the war in Syria, but is it “the world’s war”?
I don’t really know why the BBC chose that title for these two programmes, because there was very little in it about the impact on neighbouring countries, and not as much as I was expecting about outside intervention. Well, there were numerous mentions of Russia – the BBC isn’t very keen on Russia – and several of Iran, and a lot of talk about America, but Turkey, the one country which has actually barged into Syria, was largely ignored. That was fair enough, because the programme was supposed to be about Syria, but it made the choice of title a bit daft. More frustratingly, there was very little historical background information in it either. The argument, insofar as there was one, was that the war was purely about Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s fight for survival. And that’s a bit too simplistic, really.
OK, this is not the usual sort of civil war. It isn’t really between ethnic or religious or regional groups, or even ideological groups. It’s not like the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or the war in Syria’s neighbour Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, where you needed to go back through several centuries to understand the differences between the groups involved. But there are sectarian and ethnic divisions, and a bit more talk about the Alawites, and about the position of the Kurds in Syria, would have been helpful. We didn’t even really get much about the history of the Ba’ath party and the fact that repression of civil rights in Syria goes back several decades. It was all very much “in the moment”. I don’t really think that helped viewers to try to understand what’s going on – and it really isn’t easy to try to understand what’s going on in Syria, with different groups getting stuck in at different points. Civil wars, or any wars, don’t just start spontaneously, without any roots in what’s happened in the past.
Having said all that, it did an excellent job of covering what has happened since 2011. Representatives of various different groups were interviewed, and given the opportunity to put their arguments across. It must have been extremely frustrating for the presenter, Lyse Doucet, when, for example, government representatives insisted that the hospitals they’d bombed weren’t really hospitals, but the BBC allowed them to speak.
And it was horrible – really, really horrible. Pictures of bodies lying outside prisons, covered in polythene bags, the sort you use to cover clothes being taken for dry cleaning. And the state of the bodies … reminiscent of pictures from Nazi concentration camps in terms of how thin they were. People talking about being tortured, and showing the terrible bruising they’d suffered from being tortured. Tales of children so traumatised from endless bombing that they didn’t know how to relate to other human beings any more. Accounts of massacre after massacre. Families massacred in their own homes. A man describing how he took photographs of children sleeping … and then realised that they weren’t sleeping, they were dead. Killed in a gas attack. Pictures of cities that are now just … well, bomb sites. Completely devastated. Ten years ago, Syria was a relatively prosperous country. Now it’s a ruin. I went to Egypt in 2007, and the Middle Eastern section of my travel brochure included a tour of Syria. 11 years ago, you could go there on holiday. Now look at it.
And, if it is “the world’s war”, how has the world let it happen? How many times do we say “never again”, only for it all to happen all over again somewhere else? Well, as far as that went, the conclusion seemed to be that the world should just have stayed out of it completely and left Assad to it, because he was going to win anyway and, if he’d won more quickly, fewer lives would have been lost, fewer lives devastated. And that the best thing the world can do now – other than Russia and Iran, who are backing Assad anyway – is just that, to leave him to it. And the people interviewed were saying that because they couldn’t see any alternative. If you remove a regime with nothing to put in its place, things can end up worse than they were to start with.
We know that. Remove Charles I, and you get a bunch of dictatorial religious fanatics – why Oliver Cromwell is so often voted in the top few places in “greatest English person in history” polls is beyond me completely. We learnt our lesson there – James II was only booted out once William of Orange had agreed to take his place. Cromwell’s a fairly mild example. Remove Louis XVI, and you get the Terror. Remove the Tsar and Kerensky and you get Lenin and Stalin.
Remove Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and do you turn Iraq and Libya (I have no idea why I originally put “Lebanon”) into lands of harmony and plenty? Hardly! It’s horrific, isn’t it? Two such evil men. We rejoiced at their downfall. Of course we did. But everyone’s been sharply reminded that power vacuums can be just as dangerous. It’s not a computer game – topple the bad guy and you’ve won. Syria hasn’t got a Nelson Mandela or a Vaclav Havel waiting in the wings. It hasn’t even got someone like Ho Chi Minh, or Francisco Franco. How many people can even name a Syrian opposition leader? Can anyone even define what “the Syrian opposition” is?
It’s all academic anyway, because Assad isn’t going anywhere. The UN Security Council’s paralysed, and, even if it wasn’t, it couldn’t just go around removing countries’ leaders. The only way would be if a group of powers decided to try to capture him on the grounds that he was wanted for war crimes. But how would that be done? Boots on the ground? More casualties. No way. Special forces? Maybe. But then what? It’s not happening. The best anyone can hope for is that the war will end – which it will, because wars don’t go on for ever – , Assad will implement some sort of reforms, and some sort of rebuilding can take place, and some of the refugees return. The programme didn’t even get that far. It didn’t really talk about hope, or peace. But, if it had done, it could only have been speculation. It gave us facts. This is the age of spin. And, worse, the age of fake news. No speculation. No answers, because no-one’s got any. But a lot of brutal, horrible facts.
It started with peaceful protests. And spiralled into a war which has now lasted longer than the Second World War did. What can we do? Give money to aid agencies? The programme didn’t offer any answers, because no-one has got any answers. But it was a very well-presented factual documentary.
Surely everyone watching it could only wish fervently that someone did have some answers. What a mess.