T. E. Lawrence and Foreign Intervention in Syria

“They 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,” thus noted T.E. Lawrence, presumptuously, in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which recounts his exploits as part of the Arab uprising against the Turks during the First World War. “They” are the Syrians, and Lawrence provides a vivid description of the land and its people, which he and a Hashemite led Arab Army where about to wrestle from Ottoman control.

The Free Syrian Army recently condemned a meeting of the Syrian National Council and representatives from France, Tunisia and Turkey in Cairo because the delegates are “rejecting the idea of a foreign military intervention to save the people…and ignoring the question of buffer zones protected by the international community, humanitarian corridors, an air embargo and the arming of rebel fighters.”

With growing international pressure for military intervention in Syria, T.E. Lawrence’s analysis, although written by an outsider of an imperialist Western power, and almost a hundred years old, may caution us to think carefully when arguing for Western involvement in the region.

Prior to the establishment of the modern state of Syria under a French protectorate following the First World War, the term Syria denoted the entire Levant, including Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. However, Lawrence, in his work, especially singles out the Syrian cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo when describing the political issues of Syria, as well as the Yarmuk Valley (running along today’s Syrian-Jordan border), Hauran, a volcanic plateau (and people in today’s Southwestern Syria), and Daraa, also located in Southwestern Syria, which he saw as “the critical centre of Syria in all ages.”

Lawrence determined that in order to succeed in Syria he had to have the Sunni majority on his side. He therefore cautioned that the “only independent factor with acceptable groundwork and fighting adherents was a Sunni prince, like Feisal, pretending to revive the glories of Ommayad or Ayubid.” Yet he also knew that any new form of government may be seen by some fragments of society as foreign-imposed: “Arab Governments in Syria, though buttressed on Arabic prejudices, would be as much ‘imposed’ as the Turkish Government, or a foreign protectorate, or the historic Caliphate. Syria remained a vividly coloured racial and religious mosaic.”

He was deeply pessimistic about the outcome of any uprising in the country: “Time seemed to have proclaimed the impossibility of autonomous union for such a land…it was also by habit a country of tireless agitation and incessant revolt.” Lawrence acknowledged the potential for a general insurrection against the Turkish government in Damascus, but again cautioned that it not be foreign-led: “Syria ripe for spasmodic local revolt, might be seethed up into insurrection, if a new factor, offering to realize that centripetal nationalism of the Beyrout Cyclopaedists, arose to restrain, the jarring sects and classes. Novel, the factor must be, to avoid raising a jealousy of itself: not foreign, since the conceit of Syria forbade.”

In the light of the current uprising, T.E. Lawrence’s words may seem almost prescient, although they were written more than 90 years ago. In a sense, the incumbent Alawi and Shia dominated government under Bashar-al-Assad, reproduced the ancient foreign Ottoman administration, with the top tiers of government dominated by a Shia minority that constitutes less than 20 percent of Syria’s total population. Lawrence described the Alawi as “clannish in feeling and politics.” The current revolt would thus not be a surprise to him.

The internal strife so feared by Lawrence has been stifled ever since the Corrective Revolution of 1970 (the exception being the Muslim Brotherhood Uprising of February 1982) due to the suppressive nature of the Alawi-dominated Assad regime. Yet, to openly insert into this complex and volatile kaleidoscope of tribal and religious factions additional foreign elements may prove disastrous for all involved.

The major lesson Lawrence drew from the history of foreign interventions in Syria, starting from the Ottomans to the British and French, is that they have been marked by failure and defeat, not so much in the military struggle — both the British and French prevailed in that sphere — but in the political settlements and the transition to peace once the fighting ceased. Or as T.E. Lawrence alliterated: “Any wide attempt after unity would make a patched and parceled thing.”