We Can't Rely On Trump Or Putin—Macron Must Save Syria | Opinion

At important crossroads in history it is sometimes important to stand back and examine the bigger picture. Now is such a moment in Syria. Understanding the centuries-old patterns that characterise the tangled web of relationships in this complex region is the key to finding a solution to the seemingly intractable Syrian crisis.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks of the 'Big Price' to be paid by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his protector President Putin of Russia, following the latest in a series of chemical weapons attacks on the Ghouta, the eastern agricultural suburb of Damascus. Three more presidents—President Erdogan of Turkey, President Rouhani of Iran and President Macron of France are also deeply entangled, not to mention a key prime minister, Netanyahu of Israel. So many leaders, each with their own set of interests and agendas.

For four years I have been researching the socio-economics of Syria for my new book The Merchant of Syria, with some surprising results. How did Syria survive the periods of massive political turbulence that have long afflicted the region, the rollercoaster of disasters, man-made and natural, that its people have been forced to ride? Wars, invasions and occupations have come along as often as earthquakes, famines and droughts.

The answer lies in the local proverb: A man who enters politics is like a man climbing into the garbage. Power and politics corrupt. The way to survive lies elsewhere, in commerce and in religion, the two constants in a world of inconstancy. The architecture of every Syrian city reflects this duality, with mosques and churches surrounded by buzzing markets.

Trump, the self-styled deal-maker king, should be in his element here, with his talk of trade wars and big prices. But the deals that Trump lives and breathes are the cut-throat deals of corporate finance, where the bottom line is to survive at the expense of your rival, ideally putting him out of business completely. The business ethic at work in Syria would be alien to him, based as it has historically been on the joint survival of the community, with everyone trusting and looking out for his neighbour. Ottoman court archives show how Muslim shop-owners clubbed together to save their Christian neighbours from going broke. Bankruptcy was seen as a social failure of the community.

Syrian civilians flee from reported regime air strikes in the rebel-held town of Jisreen, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 8, 2018. ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images

Putin too cares little for community. Russia's relationship with Syria goes back to the 1950s, based on arms sales. The Syrian armed forces are equipped entirely with Soviet-era hardware. Syrian military personnel were sent to Moscow for training which extended into all areas of security. Syria's intelligence apparatus is modelled on the KGB. Morality and upholding human values rank low in the priorities.

Commerce, not politics or religion, has always been the driver in the region known before World War I as Greater Syria—a region encompassing today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Honest merchants were the bedrock of society, the caretakers of their communities. Their motivation for wealth creation was first and foremost to look after their families, then to channel surplus profits to benefit the wider community. The model is there.

A picture taken on March 8, 2018 shows a Syrian child walking down a street past rubble from destroyed buildings, in the rebel-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of Damascus. HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images

What Syria needs is not a political solution—that is unrealistic with so many conflicting agendas. What it needs is a commercial solution—one where all the parties to the conflict gain more than they do by continuing to fight. It would be the mother of all deals. But who will be the honest broker, whom all parties can trust?

Surely not the maverick twittering Trump whose views veer unpredictably in all directions, nor the devious Netanyahu who may soon be sent to jail for fraud. Surely not the mild-mannered Rouhani who has to kowtow to the Ayatollahs and their extended clerical establishment, nor the table-thumping Erdogan for whom compromise and power-sharing are dirty words. Certainly not Bashar al-Assad himself, whose family and friends have been creaming off Syria's surplus to line their own pockets for the last half century.

All that leaves is the bright-eyed Macron, in power less than a year and therefore still uncorrupted by it. The other leaders between them have ratcheted up an impressive 65 years in power. How wonderful it would be if the fresh-faced French president could make amends for the self-serving 25-year French Mandate rule in Syria. His compatriots suppressed all stirrings of Syrian independence and brutally quelled the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, bombing Damascus and stringing up corpses of 'rebels' in Marja Square.

How wonderful if he could redeem France's reputation in the region and orchestrate a balanced power—and profit-sharing agreement for Syria. It took 30 years for the Good Friday Agreement to be brokered two decades ago. Syrians cannot wait that long.

Diana Darke is author of The Merchant of Syria (April 2018)