The modern Middle East was born when the European powers exploited the declining Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I to gobble up its lands.
They did so by duping naive Arab nationalists to rise against their Ottoman suzerain and then cheated the Arabs of the fruits of their uprising.
So goes the popular narrative about the origins of the region’s troubles. It’s an emotionally gripping tale, but it’s also the inverse of truth. It wasn’t British officials but a Meccan potentate, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family, who in the summer of 1915 hatched the idea of overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Impressed by Hussein’s promises to raise the Ottomans’ Arab subjects in revolt, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, tentatively accepted Hussein’s vision of an Arab successor empire and facilitated the revolt that began in June 1916.
Hussein never came close to fulfilling his end of the bargain. Most of the Arabic-speaking population remained loyal to the Turks until the bitter end, viewing the Hashemite insurrection with disdain. Even in his hometown of Mecca the sharif didn’t command absolute loyalty. Had he not been armed and fed by Britain (and, to a lesser extent, France) and provided with troops, military guidance and lavish shipments of gold to buy Bedouin loyalty, Hussein would have never been able to launch his uprising, let alone sustain it.
This act of insubordination in a secondary theater of the Great War played a negligible part in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was instantly immortalized as the “Great Arab Revolt,” winning the Hashemites territories several times the size of the British Isles after the war: The emirate of Transjordan (later to be known as the Kingdom of Jordan) was established in 1921 to satisfy the ambitions of Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, while in the same year the modern state of Iraq was created at the instigation of Abdullah’s younger brother Faisal. Hussein himself became king of the Hijaz, Islam’s birthplace, only to be evicted a few years later by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of Saudi Arabia.
It was a young British participant, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), who single-handedly produced this extraordinary feat of historical deception. Though aware that the revolt was but “a sideshow of a sideshow,” as he wrote in his cleverly titled 1922 memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph,” Lawrence had no qualms about mythologizing it in grand style. In the process he catapulted himself to fame as “Lawrence of Arabia” and became perhaps the first mega-celebrity of modern times. His legend was amplified by generations of acolytes, including Lowell Thomas, whose “The Last Crusade” lectures about Lawrence played to full houses in New York and London in 1919; the British director David Lean, who gave us the Oscar-winning 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia”; and a lengthy string of fawning biographers.
The illegitimate son of a disgraced Anglo-Irish aristocrat and his children’s governess, Lawrence studied archaeology at Oxford and spent the prewar years working on digs in Syria and Palestine. When the Ottomans made their catastrophic decision to enter World War I on the side of the Triple Alliance in November 1914, Lawrence was recruited to a new intelligence unit in Cairo, the headquarters of Britain’s war effort in the Middle East. Two years later, in October 1916, he accompanied a senior British official to the Hijaz to inspect the state of the Hashemite insurrection that had begun a few months earlier. Staying behind to report on the situation, he endeared himself to Faisal, and the road from there to his creation of the myth of the revolt was short.
How did an archaeologist with no military education successfully brand himself a world authority on guerrilla warfare with considerable impact on the future shape of the Middle East? The answer offered by Scott Anderson’s beautifully crafted but ultimately flawed account of the desert revolt is that “Lawrence was able to become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ because no one was paying much attention.” As Lawrence’s superiors saw it, the author says, permitting a daring young operator to lead the Arabs in distracting the Turks from the much bloodier and consequential European front was a low-cost, high-return investment.
The problem with this theory is that London did actually commit massive resources and serious efforts to the Middle East during the war. These ranged from the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landing, to the tortuous but successful Mesopotamian campaign (1915-16), to the conquest of the Levant (1917-18) by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force headed by Gen. Edmund Allenby. By the time fighting came to an end in 1918, no fewer than one million British and Commonwealth troops had been deployed in the region—hardly a reflection of “the low regard with which British war strategists viewed events in the Middle East,” as Mr. Anderson claims.
The Hashemite uprising was indeed a minor sideshow in the grand order of things, yet it was never the free-ranging operation suggested by the author. Rather it was an integral part of the Anglo-French war effort—Paris sent a military mission to the revolt commanded by a colonel—that was led by a string of seasoned officers, such as Col. Cyril Wilson and Lt. Col. Pierce Joyce, but never by Lawrence. As Lawrence himself put it, “I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them. Wilson, Joyce, Newcombe, Dawnay and Davenport were all over my head.”
Mr. Anderson recounts Lawrence’s life in chronological fashion, drawing on some contemporary sources, official correspondence and the like. Yet he is too willing to take his subject at his word, even as he acknowledges that “earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe.”
To substantiate Lawrence’s largely fictionalized version of his exploits, Mr. Anderson juxtaposes them with those of three contemporaries, freelancers who the author thinks lived parallel lives to Lawrence’s. Throughout the book, the stories of these other men are interwoven with the central narrative concerning Lawrence: William Yale, a young oil man “who, as the only American field intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation’s postwar policy in the region”; Curt Prüfer, a German antiquities scholar “who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to foment an Islamic jihad against the Western colonial powers”; and Aaron Aaronsohn, “a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman government, would establish an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a crucial role in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”
Putting a human face on historical events is an appealing technique that makes “Lawrence in Arabia” a gripping read. Yet eloquence and color can’t authenticate a flawed historical argument. Prüfer is little more than a curiosity, notable only for his future Nazi sympathies. Yale was in no position to affect the outcome of a war that his country joined at the 12th hour and even then took no part in the Middle Eastern fighting. Yale’s minor advisory role at the postwar Paris conference made no difference whatsoever and, as Mr. Anderson writes, he “resigned from the American peace delegation in disgust and sailed back to New York.” As for Aaronsohn, he did indeed provide vital intelligence that facilitated Allenby’s rout of the Ottoman armies in Palestine, but he played no “crucial role” in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. If anything, the exposure of his spy ring in autumn 1917 triggered a draconian Turkish retribution, with the Levant’s Ottoman master, Djemal Pasha, warning Zionist leaders that should the Turks be driven out of Palestine, there would be no surviving Jews to welcome the British forces.
Lawrence did indeed have a considerable impact on the creation of the modern Middle East, but this had nothing to do with his real war record. The revolt had been a complete fiasco. For all the British and French efforts, the Bedouins remained hopelessly immune to any concept of orderly warfare. They would break for coffee in the middle of the fighting and drop off occasionally to see their families; often a whole clan would tire of fighting and take a rest. They would attack small and lightly armed Turkish garrisons but would disperse in panic when confronted with a significant force, or even upon hearing artillery. Small wonder that they failed to vanquish the debilitated Ottoman forces in the Hijaz, with the strategic (and holy) city of Medina holding out to the end of the war. It was only in July 1917, more than a year after the start of the revolt, that the rebels managed to overcome the meager Ottoman resistance and capture the small port town of Aqaba, in the extreme northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Their subsequent advances, which would carry them to Damascus at the war’s end, were but a corollary of Allenby’s Palestine offensive, and even these were achieved by the semiregular forces built by the British from among the prisoners of war shipped to Arabia.
How Lawrence managed to pass off this sordid power-grab by a local potentate as a heroic national revolt against an imperial oppressor Mr. Anderson doesn’t tell. He describes Lawrence as a “painfully shy” and “supremely private and hidden man” with a “craving for anonymity.” But painfully shy men, especially in the lowest rungs of strict, disciplinarian hierarchies like the military, don’t treat their superiors as equal or engage in high-level political machinations, let alone make their inner feelings known to the entire world via international best sellers—egomaniacs and compulsive attention-seekers do.
Lawrence was an exceptionally gifted charlatan with a keen eye to networking and self-promotion, who successfully cast his spell on far more senior and accomplished contemporaries, such as Allenby and Winston Churchill, who in his capacity as colonial secretary put the final touches to the post-Ottoman state system. As Lawrence admitted, tongue in cheek, in a rare moment of candor in “Seven Pillars”: “My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy.”
Turkey and the time bomb in Syria
The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.
Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.
The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.
Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.
It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.
Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.
The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.
Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa. One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.
In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.
European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.
Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.
Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.
There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.
The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.
In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.
Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.
From our partner Tehran Times
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
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