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Precise analysis of a crisis

Earlier this year on the Syria-Lebanon border I was told the story of a woman called Fatima and her family.

Young and old, the family had walked for six hours the day they fled the fighting that engulfed the Syrian city of Homs.

It was then that Fatima made the fateful decision to turn back alone to retrieve the passport and ID cards forgotten though panic while escaping the shellfire and marauding gunmen ripping their neighbourhood apart.

She was to make it all the way back to the house before a sniper caught her in the crosshairs of his rifle sight as she stood in the living room and despatched the bullet that ended the young woman's life.

Syria's civil war makes no concessions for age, gender or status. Young and old, male or female, rich or poor, it blights equally all those innocent civilians trapped in its path.

As author John McHugo rightly points out in this hard-hitting book, the scale of human suffering is truly terrible in what is now the greatest humanitarian and political crisis of the 21st century.

Syria - From The Great War To Civil War is, as its title suggests, a largely chronological account of Syria's recent history. Often this straight timeline approach can make for a very plodding read but not in this case.

To begin with the book is very timely on two levels. First, because the current civil war rages ferociously and its fallout is being felt across the entire Middle East region, especially now in Iraq. Second, because this account traces Syria's political journey from that crucial period just before and during the First World War, the 100th anniversary of which we commemorate this month.

Arabic linguist and international lawyer, McHugo is well placed to write a book that unravels Syria's tortuous history and how this contributed over time to create the conditions for today's conflict.

Also working in the book's favour is its length. This may be a big subject but this is not a big book.

As with McHugo's previous work, A Concise History Of The Arabs, a substantial part of this latest book's appeal is its tightness of structure. The narrative works well in paring down and condensing key historical moments like Syria's thwarted attempts at independence and Anglo-French partition to give a real insight into the political fragility that underpins much of what caused the current civil war.

And when it comes to today's crisis, there is much to be learned from the author's exploration of the religious and sectarian tensions that make the Sunni-Shia struggle for dominance such a critical factor in the shaping of today's Middle East. While the situation on the ground remains desperate and Syria's civil war is yet to run its course, the author is firmly of the view that "partition along ethnic or sectarian lines is not the answer".

There is, writes McHugo, nothing to suggest that is what Syrians want, pointing out that the original Arab Spring demonstrators of 2011 who called for freedom, were not looking for their country to be split up.

Overall the feel of this book is at times remarkably prescient.

Though published before the recent military and territorial gains in neighbouring Iraq by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), towards its end the author acknowledges the group's effectiveness and aim of establishing an Islamic state or caliphate.

Throughout the concise 260 pages the reader is never left in doubt that it has been the actions of outside powers over the last century that have shaped Syria.

Just as the global struggle of the Cold War saw Damascus used as a bit player by Moscow and Washington, so today the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad finds itself the centre of attention from both superpowers.

Indeed, the author disquietingly suggests that Syria's civil war might even have been a harbinger of a Cold War revival now being played out in other places like Ukraine.

If I have any quibbles with the book it is that its texture might have been made even more engaging had the author included more of his own first-hand experiences. This however is a minor complaint.

At the very start of this enlightening read McHugo, makes the point that to the English-speaking world, Syria is a far off country which relatively few people have made a serious effort to understand.

In writing this insightful and timely book, he has gone some considerable way to rectifying this neglect.

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