The great 10th century Iraqi poet Abu Tayyib al-Mutanabbi once lived, O fated city, in the Emirate of Aleppo. He even led a revolt in Syria which was – familiar stuff, this – put down with great ruthlessness. Al-Mutanabbi actually spent two years in prison before reconciling himself to his loss and was subsequently released. Most Arab children in Syria can quote the man by heart and one of their favourite poems begins with these words:
When you see the teeth of a lion,
Don’t think that the lion is smiling at you.
I was reminded of this lion while clambering through the ruins on the side of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh last week. This was the centre – now famous from so many satellite pictures – destroyed by Donald Trump’s missiles when they struck at “the heart of Syria’s chemical weapons programme”. Did they? Anything with a Strangelove name like the “Department of Pharmaceutical and Civilian Chemical Research” – the bit of the complex hit by at least 13 missiles – deserves to have its contents studied closely. I’d been refused permission to visit this Syrian institution for three days. If it was all in ruins – which it assuredly is, and on a scale much larger than the photographs suggest – why the delay?
And does it matter? Well, yes. I am reminded of the much more famous Iraqi “baby milk factory” bombed by the Americans in 1991 which General Colin Powell called “a biological weapons factory, of that we are sure”. My colleague Patrick Cockburn wrote of this last week, recalling his visit to the factory only hours after the bombing. After the war, it turned out that the building probably had been an infant formula factory after all – although what can’t you do with a glass of milk?