Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Syria's strange love affair with Britain

For anybody who has been fortunate enough to visit both capitals, London and Damascus appear to stand at the poles of two opposing cultures and world views. Both of these cities were once the capitals of great empires. In Damascus, Salah el Din rides his steed to glory and victory whilst in London, the lonely figure of Richard the Lion Heart raises his sword one last time. Syrians in particular have a strange infatuation with the English. Their educational system is held in high esteem and is commonly (and accurately) believed to be better than the American one. Their president was also educated in Britain and ultimately married a Syrian woman from Acton, who was brought up and educated in Britain as well. Historically, we are told the tale of the Syrian trader who married a local woman, a tale repeated countless times till the present, living where today there is a border with Scotland when the Romans were still in Britain. The British have Lawrence of Arabia, a semi-legendary figure who 'helped' in the Arab revolt but strangely they were happy to leave Syria and Lebanon to the French during the "mandate" years.

Syria and Britain are two countries which should, by all accounts, be enemies. Yet strangely there exists a bizarre connection between the two countries which persists in spite of whatever political turmoil is taking place. In the eighties, the Syrians tried to blow up an El Al flight taking off from Heathrow. The man responsible is still in prison here, but the issue was hushed up and nobody remembers that anymore. Britain's pro-Zionism is also silently overlooked by Damascus in its relations, as is Syria's support for Palestinian resistance movements. Both countries hold special relationships with stronger allies, the United States for Britain and Iran for Syria, and both seem to act as the conduit through which much negotiation takes place between these two opposing powers. During the 1990 Gulf War, a member of the British Special Air Service managed to escape Iraq to the safety of Syria, then a member of the coalition to oust Saddam from Kuwait, but in protest at the aggression of the United States against Iraq and its continued bombing, Syrian rioters 'managed' to completely trash the British Council's offices before proceeding to the US embassy, where one of the rioters was able to pull down the American flag and then duly urinate on it. British intelligence routinely "tips" Syrian intelligence services to pick up individuals of interest who fly to Damascus to learn Arabic or religion, to be tortured and interrogated, before the necessary diplomatic outrage allows for their release - or not. The incidents go back and forth, and yet there seems to be a silent 'understanding' between the two countries which has persisted over the years.

It is a very curious relationship...and one which I expect will produce strange offspring in the future.


Anonymous said...

Nice post...well written and very true. Let's see what the future brings :)

مترجم سوري said...

as far as i remember the incident of pulling down the american flag and the breaking into the BC was upon killing Mohammad Al Durra by the Israeli soldires. i was a student in the BC at that time.
i fully remember that day.


Maysaloon said...

Well said Omnia, thank you. I just couldn't remember exactly what had pissed people off back then but the bit I remember was that they pulled down the US flag. Hopefully we'll see more of this kind of anger in the future!

MJ said...

maybe the syrian leaders are affiliates to the same club or society as the Queen..? who knows.. :)