The Battle for Syria

Denis Judd praises a lucid study of the emergence of modern Syria, and what it tells us about the region's later instability

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Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: John D Grainger
Publisher: Boydell Press
Price (RRP): £25

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The publication of this book could hardly be more timely. For the past two years, Syria has scarcely been out of the world’s headlines as the government and various factions, mostly local but some from outside the country, engage in a ferocious struggle for supremacy. Meanwhile the more powerful and interested states in the international community, as well as the United Nations, make pronouncements, often take sides, but are able to do nothing, except to dither and wring their hands, while the slaughter carries on.

Most of the world’s onlookers, even Middle East experts, I suspect, are not always clear as to who is fighting who or exactly why. The situation is chronically confused, changeable and hard to interpret. Although this will be of little comfort, the events that led to the emergence of modern Syria some 90 years ago, and which are the subject of John Grainger’s lucid book, appear at first sight to be equally confusing.

Take, for example, the capture of Damascus in the autumn of 1918, an event that marked Turkey’s defeat in the region and was the springboard for the creation of the state of Syria. The city fell to two more or less independent allied armies, one composed of British imperial troops – mostly Australian and Indian, under the overall command of General Allenby – and the other led by TE Lawrence and his Arab insurgent forces. But which of these two forces was to be, literally, Syria’s kingmaker and install a new regime in the place of the ejected Turks?

Almost immediately more confusion ensued with the arrival at the coast of French warships sent to ensure France’s control of the new Syria under the hitherto secret Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1915 aimed at dividing up much of the territory taken from Turkey in the Middle East between the two allied powers. Elsewhere in the wider region, the implications of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in favour of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine were unclear, but almost guaranteed to lead to conflict.

The vigorous French assertion of their right to control Syria, and also Lebanon, meant that the British were forced to renege on their existing plan to put their ally the Arab leader Prince Faisal bin Husain on the throne in Syria. In compensation, Britain quickly cobbled together a new state, Iraq, and installed Faisal as its first monarch. Amid this rapid drawing of frontier lines in the sand, local identities and susceptibilities were frequently ignored in favour of allied realpolitik. No wonder so much of this hastily reconstructed Middle East has subsequently experienced such instability and conflict.

In conclusion, Grainger argues – though admitting the perils of the ‘what if’ games of historical analysis – that Syria’s best chance of a stable, peaceful and perhaps more democratic future probably depended upon the implementation of the original plan to put Faisal at the head of a constitutional monarchy. “But the constitutional system, monarchy or not, would have involved Britain and France abandoning their normal imperialistic attitudes, and breaking their promises to each other in favour of an untried ruler in a devastated country,” Grainger argues, going on to point out that “Syrians have repeatedly attempted to set up a democratic system – in 1920, 1925, 1936, 1945–48 and now in 2011–12”.

Grainger is an admirably clear-headed guide through the historical quicksands and thickets of his subject matter. He is particularly good on the military complexities of the rapidly evolving situation, and has made excellent use of the available evidence, especially the accounts of many of the military men involved. As a result he has produced a learned, deeply considered and tightly written book that deserves to be seen as the definitive version of a momentous episode in the making of the modern Middle East.

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Denis Judd is professor emeritus of imperial and Commonwealth history at the London Metropolitan University and the author of Empire: the British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present (IB Tauris, 2011)