President Putin seems to think he has thoroughly out-smarted Barack Obama over Syria. But will he come to rue the day he ever set foot in Syria? The history of foreign entanglements in the Arab world should not fill him with optimism.
In the Nineteenth Century, another great power and Russia’s great enemy at the time France launched a similar initiative to ‘save’ the Algerians from themselves, and bring them the benefits of western civilisation, with terrible consequences both for the Algerians and for themselves. Consequences that are still being played out today in places such as Paris and Nice.
In 1830, observed by upper class French people who took pleasure boats from Marseille to observe the conquest, 37,000 French troops landed near Algiers and began what became the annexation of the country to France.
Andrew Hussey in his brilliant book, ‘The French Intifada: The long war between France and its Arabs’, describes the extensive preparations for the invasion. Naval and military officers were outnumbered by map-makers, linguists, artists and engineers. Pamphlets were prepared telling the Algerians,
We French, your friends…are going to drive out your tyrants, the Turks who persecute you, who steal your goods, and never cease menacing your lives.
Sounds a bit like the ‘war on terror’?
Hussey goes on to quote a highly prophetic remark made by the Duc d’Orléans, soon to become the last French king, about the big party the French threw in Naples the night before the fleet set sail.
This is a truly Neapolitan fête…for we are indeed dancing upon a volcano.
What volcano Algeria proved to be, that kept on erupting throughout the 132 years of French rule, and the fires from which have continued to consume innocent victims in France and Algeria to this day.
I fear that Putin will find Syria may prove another volcano. For decades, the French considered that leaving Algeria would be more costly than staying, until the cost of staying eventually became to high. How long will it be before Putin or his successors are forced to make the same calculation, just as the British and Americans did before him in Iraq and Afghanistan?