One hundred years ago, Colonel Sykes and Monsieur Georges-Picot sat down to work out the finicky detail of an agreement to split the Middle East between the allied powers of France and Great Britain.
The secret Sykes-Picot agreement, revealed to the world a year later, has come to stand a symbol of the old European empires frustrating the self-determination of Arab peoples.
Bashar al Assad is a thoroughly unpleasant character, but by now it should be plain that he is not going to give up power and that he has a substantial base of support in the country, while Da’esh and other Islamist forces are wreaking havoc across both Syria and Iraq.
At Foreign Office questions this week, I asked the Government to pick up the phone and try and broker a deal between Russia, Assad, and other anti-Da’esh movements, but the response from my friend Tobias Ellwood only exhibited the curious Official Thinking about Syria.
First he asserted that “the majority of people in Syria do not accept that Assad should be part of its long-term future.”
The minister neglected to reveal how he had obtained this information in a country wracked by civil war where, needless to say, respectable surveyors of public opinion do not operate, and where elections – aside from returning suspiciously large majorities for the incumbent – are of unsurprisingly dubious legitimacy.
Reassuringly, however, Ellwood did assert that “it is for the people of Syria to decide who should lead their country”.
But if that is the position of Her Majesty’s Government, isn’t it illogical for the United Kingdom to presume the role of dictating to Syrians who they may or may not vote for, who may or may not participate in politics, and who may or may not be invited to negotiations to end this bitter and destructive civil war?
But the minister continued, asserting that as Assad has used barrel bombs and chemical weapons “he should have no part at all in the long-term future of the country.”
It takes a well-trained ministerial mind to, almost in the same breadth, assert that the Syrian people must be free to choose their own leader except – that they mustn’t be allowed to choose someone we don’t want.
I welcome Ellwood’s condemnation of the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. The use of these weapons can never be justified and we must condemn their use everywhere and at all times. The failure to abide by the legitimate norms of warfare is contemptible and worthy of strong condemnation, but nonetheless this failure (the ‘jus in bello’) does not automatically negate the legitimacy of a cause (the ‘jus ad bello’).
More prosaically, you can dispute the correctness of Hiroshima but still support the Allied cause in the Second World War.
That war should provide us a lesson today: we allied our country, commonwealth, and empire with the Soviet Union, one of the most deadly tyrannies ever to have stalked the pages of history.
What’s more, we were completely right to do so: Nazi Germany posed an immensely more grave and immediate threat to our country, our way of life, and the freedom of Europe and the world than the Soviet Union did.
So, as we are faced with the wanton tyranny of Da’esh, it should be obvious that some form of accommodating Assad is in our interests.
Syria is currently bogged down in an almost unwinnable conflict – a civil war all too similar to the one we despairingly saw drag on for twenty years in neighbouring Lebanon. The Government’s priority on every level must now be to end the war – not enforcing the regime change which recent experience has not worked wonders in Iraq and Libya.
Sadly we find Foreign Office ministers are stuck in the mentality of prioritising geopolitical ploys over a grave humanitarian crisis: this has to change.