In one of his cruel dissections of his colleagues, David Lloyd George once compared the great Lord Kitchener in the Great War to “one of those revolving lighthouses which radiates momentary gleams of revealing light far out into the surrounding gloom and then suddenly relapses into complete darkness”. In the Middle East, we are a little like Kitchener. We gaze aghast at an enormous explosion in Beirut, wonder at the “treacherous” new peace between Israel and a tiny Gulf monarchy, but then permit the darkness to return.
Thus, just three days ago, far off in the hot desert gloom of eastern Syria, we missed another explosion, far smaller in size than any in neighbouring Lebanon but one which cast an all too revealing light on a nearly forgotten war. The blast was beside a road scarcely fifteen miles east of the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, and it killed a Russian major-general. His convoy was returning from what the Russian defence ministry, in a grimly brief and unhelpful report, called a “humanitarian operation”.
The bomb was an improvised explosive device – an amateur roadside booby-trap of the kind which killed so many US soldiers in Iraq and has struck many Syrian army personnel over the past nine years. The general – a “senior military adviser”, according to the Russians – was unnamed but died of his “severe wounds” after receiving medical help. Two of his colleagues were also wounded but survived.