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Reviewed: A History of Syria with Dan Snow

In the air tonight.

A History of Syria with Dan Snow

It’s irritating the way modern television documentaries feel they have to carry the name of the presenter in their title. I mean, when Life on Earth screened in 1979, it wasn’t called Life on Earth with David Attenborough. Such nervousness! Do commissioning editors honestly think we’ll get interested in a subject just because a certain historian is attached to it? Unless you’re talking about an auteur like Jonathan Meades, surely most people go for subject first and presenter second.

But even in this context A History of Syria with Dan Snow (11 March, 9pm) struck me as a more than usually weird title. For one thing, since when has Snow been any kind of an expert on the Middle East? For another, I’m afraid that it called This Morning with Richard and Judy irresistibly to mind, which was wholly inappropriate in the circumstances. Early on, when this thought first invaded my brain, Snow was explaining the Sunni-Shia schism. But all I could think about was what would have been happening if Richard Madeley had been in his shoes. I had the feeling that he would have been enthusiastically wearing a keffiyeh and aviator sunglasses.

I’m in two minds about the film itself. It was an excellent idea to look at Syria’s history in depth – William Hague, among others, could really do with a primer – and the way Snow connected the present turmoil with the past, and in particular with colonial power, was incisive and wholly right. Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, learned an awful lot from the French, whose rule in the country was brutal but effective. There was a powerful moment when Snow interviewed the daughter of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who had led a glorious uprising against the French in 1925. The present revolution, she said, is simply an extension of what her father started all those years ago. As you will gather, people in Syria have long memories.

Snow was good, too, on the Alawites, for years a persecuted minority who dared not leave their strongholds in the coastal mountains, but now the heterodox Shia sect that rules Syria so ruthlessly. The story of Alawite power is a remarkable one, given there is a strand of Sunni thought that considers them more heretical than either Christians or Jews, and Snow delineated it extremely thoughtfully. In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend. This is how it worked during French rule – it was the French who gave the Alawites their first stepladder to power; a leg-up motivated by their mutual loathing of the Sunni majority – and this is how it tends to work now. The idea that the present struggle is a war that can be “won” by one side or another is ludicrous.

But for all that this was incredibly interesting, the clock was ticking and we were always on the surface as a result. It’s impossible to deal with a country’s history from Constantine the Great to the 21st century in an hour, particularly if you’re going to devote the last quarter to a little light war reporting (Snow went to meet Syrian rebels on a remote hillside; he also spoke to some victims of the civil war, now refugees in Lebanon).

There were some peculiar talking heads, too, once we got to the present. I was baffled by the American academic who revealed that when he met Assad, the president told him that one of his biggest mistakes on coming to power was to let it be known he liked the music of Phil Collins. Apparently, this led everyone to believe that he was a liberal, who would permit reforms. Hmm. Personally, I think the chinless Syrian leader has made bigger mistakes – if that is the right word – than this. Besides, do you know any liberals who like Phil Collins? On the other hand, it did set me thinking. Perhaps this was what was in Tony Blair’s mind when he welcomed Assad and his “desert rose” (copyright: American Vogue), Asma, to No 10 in 2002. Isn’t soft rock Blair’s thing? Did the Downing Street stereo pump out “Sussudio” and “Easy Lover” as the power couples dined?

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem