“Arab horsemen from distant Hejaz today galloped in triumph through the streets of Damascus,” The London Guardian reported on Oct. 1, 1918. “As the sun was setting over the mosques and spires, Major T. E. Lawrence, the young British officer whose tactical guidance has ensured the success of the Arab revolt, drove through the lines in an armoured car. One Arab rider waved his head-dress and shouted, ‘Damascus salutes you.’”
It is a stirring account, although The Guardian also issued a salutary warning about the future administrative control of the region liberated as part of the Arab uprising against the Turks during the closing days of World War I.
“There is a serious danger that law and order may break down,” the paper noted. “Notables who until the last minute worked with the Turks now proclaim their loyalty to the Allies. Already there are reports that some have been shot. General Allenby’s first task will be to install a military government to keep order, and restore the city’s public services.
Lawrence’s triumphant arrival in Damascus in 1918 might be said to have been the spark that ultimately ignited a powder keg of factional rivalries and distrust.
“Conforming to arrangements agreed with Britain, the French will take control of Syria. Allenby’s army is preparing to move east, to link up with French forces whose task is now to take the port of Beirut in Lebanon.”
Connoisseurs of 20th-century history will surely recognize the template for one of those largely improvised and increasingly fractious multistate partitions of a conquered land that found its full expression in Berlin from 1945 to 1961. Indeed, Lawrence’s triumphant arrival in Damascus that Tuesday morning in 1918 might be said to have been the spark that ultimately ignited the powder keg of factional rivalries and distrust into the ruinous civil war that continues to torment the region a century later.
The territorial fission of Syria in the years immediately following the Great War would have presented a stern administrative challenge at the best of times, let alone in a period that also saw the wholesale collapse of Europe’s four continental empires. Here was chaotic tribalism, violent and pitiless.
As so often in that schizophrenic region, the fate of the geographic entity now known as Syria was determined by oil.
But it would take more than mere postcolonial dislocation to trigger the seemingly permanent cycle of sectarian insurrection and state-sponsored genocide that since 2011 has caused an estimated 500,000 civilian deaths and prompted a further six million citizens to flee their ruined country. Something more material was needed. As so often in that schizophrenic region, at once so richly endowed and so riven by factional rivalries, the fate of the geographic entity now known as Syria was determined by oil.
New Frontiers, New Boundaries
It took the French occupying forces from 1918 until 1923 to gain full control over Syria and to quell the successive attempts by Bedouin militias to remove them. Meanwhile, an Anglo-French pact had been concluded in April 1920 that delineated new desert frontiers and communal boundaries. The treaty included a secret protocol that led Britain to withdraw its army from Syria while retaining the rights to 75 percent of the crude oil recently discovered in the supposedly barren wasteland around the present-day Syrian-Iraqi border. The French agreed to this arrangement not out of magnanimity but in order to remove the troublesome King Faisal without having to worry about British intervention. Deposed in July 1920, Faisal went on to live in comfortable exile in London before being installed as king of Iraq, where he ruled until his sudden death (possibly a victim of poison) at the age of 48 in 1933.
Renewed nationalist agitation against the French led to a revolt that broke out in the Druze mountains in 1925 and soon spread across the whole of Syria. The ferment was finally suppressed by way of ferocious aerial bombardment of civilian areas, including Damascus. In 1930, the French agreed notionally to Syrian independence, although they reserved the right to intervene in “matters of primary commercial interest.”
In 1930, the French agreed notionally to Syrian independence, although they reserved the right to intervene in “matters of primary commercial interest.”
The question of oil ran like a fault line through all successive arrangements in the region until 1940, at which point the French state temporarily ceased to exist. Syria notionally became a sovereign nation on April 17, 1946, but without a recognized head of state or even a coherent form of government strong enough to unite the country. The worse the divisions became, the less able were the men at the center of the system to fix them. Between 1946 and 1956 there were 20 different cabinets—two a year—and four separate constitutions.
The Suez Crisis of October 1956 provided another plot twist in the unfolding 20th-century narrative of a fractured Syrian nation. Although the Soviet Union was unable to take full advantage of the bitter Anglo-American feud that followed the botched attempt to restore the recently nationalized Suez Canal to Western control (its tanks being too busy at the time with the suppression of a popular uprising in Hungary), the crisis drove Syria into the Soviet camp. In a foreshadowing of events six years later in Cuba, Nikita Khrushchev said that he would launch missiles at the pro-NATO Turkey if Turkey attacked Syria, while the United States, in turn, announced that it would retaliate. The crisis eventually died down as quickly as it had flared up, and in 1958 the sovereignty of Syria was itself submerged in the ocean of Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s so-called United Arab Republic.
‘A Vivid Mosaic’
Forty years earlier, T. E. Lawrence had reflected on his liberation of Damascus in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “The [people] were discontented always with what government they had; such being their intellectual pride; but few of them honestly thought out a working alternative, and fewer still agreed upon one.”
These were prescient words. Lawrence would add: “A central government in Syria, though buttressed on Arabic prejudices, would be as much ‘imposed’ as the late Turkish government, or a foreign protectorate, or the historic Caliphate.... Syria remained a vividly coloured racial and religious mosaic.” He was not optimistic about the prospect of consolidating the region’s competing sectarian groups into a coherent nation-state: “Time seemed to have proclaimed the impossibility of autonomous union for such a land.... It was by habit a country of tireless agitation and incessant revolt.”
This state of affairs continued with the bitter estrangement between the principals of the United Arab Republic and the imposition of a government under the former Syrian army officer Abd al-Karim al-Nahlawi, which itself fell victim to a coup. In time, al-Karim returned from exile and attempted to seize power in an unsuccessful military putsch. After a lengthy period spent overseas, the same figure emerged in the 1960s to launch a third coup attempt before relocating abroad once more.
In keeping with Lawrence’s dictum, the final withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 brought with it a new wave of economic, moral and ideological unrest.
The next step along the downhill continuum Lawrence identified in 1918 came with Syria’s inglorious defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel destroyed much of its northern neighbor’s air force and captured the Golan Heights. An attempt to reverse this setback in 1973 was met by an Israel counterattack. The ensuing Syrian political discord ended in a military takeover—the so-called Corrective Movement of the former defense minister Hafez al-Assad in November 1970. (His son, Bashar al-Assad, of course, now reigns over Syria’s ongoing bloody civil war.)
Assad père’s coup perhaps marks the moment when the wholesale Syrian administrative breakdown so feared by Lawrence subsided to one of merely seething tribal and religious dissatisfaction with the central regime, coupled with regular overseas adventuring. In 1976, the Damascus government embarked on what proved to be a 29-year occupation of Lebanon. In general terms, this was not an era distinguished by what Assad termed “a league of Arab brotherhood” so much as by a cycle of political killings, purge trials and indiscriminate armed attacks on noncompliant citizens that might have raised eyebrows in the Kremlin of the mid-1930s. In keeping with Lawrence’s dictum, the final withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005 brought with it a new wave of economic, moral and ideological unrest.
If the test of the latest Syrian state constitution of 2012 is its treatment of minorities, it has failed.
If the test of the latest Syrian state constitution of 2012 is its treatment of minorities, it has failed. In May of that year, Bashar al-Assad’s forces executed 108 civilians, including 49 children, in the dissident enclave of Taldou. In the measured words of the United Nations report into the affair (8/15/12): “On the basis of available evidence, the commission has a reasonable basis to believe that the perpetrators of the deliberate killing of civilians...were aligned to the Government.... This conclusion is bolstered by the lack of credible information supporting other possibilities.”
We need not linger over the catalog of human rights abuses in Syria that continue to this day, except to note the conclusions of the independent inquiry of October 2014 that found evidence of the “systematic killings” of about 11,000 political detainees, many of whose corpses were “emaciated, bloodstained, and bore signs of torture—some had no eyes, others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.”
While Syrian rebels are targeted by government troops who bomb their towns and murder their children, so, too, are the Christians of the area. In the midst of the so-called Arab Spring, some 40,000 Roman Catholics fled the battleground province of Homs following an ultimatum that they either choose sides in the civil war or leave. In a reign of terror that includes land theft, kidnappings, rape and torture, the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Christians remains curiously ignored by the West’s political and media classes.
An Ally Thrown to the Wolves
The liberation of enemy-occupied towns in wartime is rarely a pretty sight. But the events of a century ago in Damascus had special qualities of administrative disarray and naked brutality that arguably go much of the way to explain the bloody turbulence the area is experiencing today. The fragile peace that followed the occupation of Oct. 1, 1918, lasted just 48 hours, when the British convened an all-faction conference at the city’s Hotel Victoria in order to “settle institutional control founded on the recognition of the belligerent status of the inestimable Arab forces as allies against Germany, and the right to governmental self-determination.”
King Faisal later insisted that Lawrence had assured him at this meeting that Arabs would administer the whole of Syria, including the all-important trade routes to the Mediterranean through Lebanon. He claimed to know nothing of any plans for a postwar Anglo-French occupying force and that even the “meanest-spirited colonial power” would have known that their continued presence would only inflame simmering religious and ethnic tensions.
When Faisal later protested to the British about these arrangements, the British urged him to talk to the French. Faisal left the Paris peace conference in 1919 a dejected figure. He later remarked that he had been “abandoned [by the] British and delivered bound feet and hands to the French.”
Back home in England, Lawrence watched impotently as his government threw their “inestimable” ally to the wolves. He obsessively read and re-read a poem about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and often sat, his mother recalled, “the entire morning between breakfast and lunch in the same position, without moving, and with the same expression on his face.”
Perhaps Lawrence had glimpsed the future even at the moment he triumphantly entered Damascus in 1918, because he later remembered the joyful scenes on the streets that night when the muezzin had called the faithful to prayer, adding an extra line that Allah had been good to the people and delivered them from captivity that day. “Only for me,” Lawrence wrote, “of all the hearers, was the event sorrowful and the phrase meaningless.”