Syria

“The Persian Moslems are threatening trouble. There is a dry wind blowing through the East”
“I fancy religion is the only thing to knit up such a scattered empire”
“There is a Jehad preparing. The only question is, how?”
“Suppose that they had got some tremendous sacred sanction, some book or gospel or some new prophet from the desert, something which would cast over the whole ugly mechanism of …war the glamour of the old torrential raid which crumpled the Byzantine Empire and shook the walls of Vienna?”
“Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.”
“To capture all Islam… the man must be of the …tribe of the Prophet.”
“Once get the flames going and they will lick up the pagans…how many thousands, do you think, were in the Mahdi’s army who never heard of the Prophet till they saw the black flags of the Emirs going into battle?”

Apart from the slightly old-fashioned turn of phrase, you might imagine you were reading a briefing from a modern strategic studies think-tank. But in fact all of the above was written in 1916, in the context of the First World War.

I have been re-reading John Buchan’s novel “Greenmantle”, the plot of which is set exactly 100 years ago. The Turks, having rebuffed the British landings at Gallipoli, have failed to capitalise on their success and are being menaced by the Russians from the north, who have the city of Erzerum as their target. Intelligence has come into the hands of the British that the Turks’ ally, Germany, has some secret plan to set the Islamic world aflame and unite all Arab lands against the British and their allies. Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is asked to investigate and brings along his Boer friend Peter Pienaar, the American John S. Blenkiron, and the fascinating Arabist Sandy Arbuthnot, based in part on T.E. Lawrence and who has a modern-day heir in Rory Stewart MP.

The novel demonstrates that there really is nothing new about Al-Qaeda or Daesh / Isil. It is simply that modern technology has allowed them far greater freedom to spread their creed than was available to their predecessors. Like the fabled prophet in Greenmantle, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi claims descent from Mohammed. Like Osama bin Laden and every other Islamic extremist, he preaches what is considered to be a pure form of puritanical Islam, and he of course urges holy war. He has attracted to his cause hundreds of young Western Muslims who previously were not known to be devout. And in the Middle East, it is clearly the case that the lines which Britain and France drew under the Sykes-Picot agreement bear no real relation to local loyalties. It is, indeed, only Islam which is the unifying force in the area, albeit that within Islam there is the fundamental Sunni-Shia divergence.

It made absolutely no sense for Britain to oppose Daesh in Iraq but not in Syria. The terrorists pay no attention to national borders. Nor is there any basis for negotiation with them. That is only seen as weakness to be exploited. The decision to let the RAF strike at targets in Syria is the right one, and it is essential that the conjoined efforts of NATO and Russian forces are maintained until Daesh is defeated. That I suspect means until Al-Baghdadi is killed. When Bin Laden was killed by the Americans, Al-Qaeda lost impetus and is now being supplanted by Daesh. The destruction of the charismatic leader appears to be the key.

And Greenmantle is a splendid novel.

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