Century-Old Lesson Still Unlearned

Since posting The Bitter Legacy of Sykes-Picot a couple of weeks back, I have run across a couple of points substantiating the thesis therein, namely that two untraveled mandarins were ill-qualified to carve up one of the world’s great powder kegs along lines that suited their respective empires. Quite apart from leading the Arab Revolt of that time against the Turks, T.E. Lawrence used his experience to argue a different approach.

Apart from listening to men from across the Middle East who were serving in the army of Britain’s Arab allies against Turkey, he was also in contact with other British experts on the region, such as DG Hogarth and Gilbert Clayton. Lawrence’s suggestions however fell foul of the British administration in Mesopotamia.

Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence biographer recently discovered a map that was particularly interesting because “it suggests that Lawrence’s proposals were taken fairly seriously, at least in London and would have provided the region with a far better starting point than the crude imperial carve-up agreed by Sykes and Georges-Picot”. Hania Farhan, regional director of the Middle East and North Africa, Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “The map shows that the opinions of those who knew the region well were often ignored, as the colonial powers in London and Paris had their own agendas and did not appear to care about the facts on the ground or the people of those areas.

Lawrence's 'Peace Map' for the Middle East

Lawrence’s ‘Peace Map’ for the Middle East

Note how provision for a Kurdish homeland (still unrealised) and an Arab unity outside of Palestine. Had such a proposal for sovereign countries (not just protectorates to be subsumed into existing empires) been followed, much of the mayhem that has plagued the region in the century since might have been avoided.

Fears are growing of a widening war across the Middle East, fed by reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) envisions a region-wide, all controlling theocracy. At the same time the centenary of  The Great War and its 37 million casualties is focusing on the battlefields and trenches of the Western Front to the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire of the Turks that dominated the Middle East. T.E. Lawrence became a hero in the Arab world when he led nomadic Bedouin tribes in battle against Turkish rule. Peter O’Toole immortalized him in the epic movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In that film, after dynamiting the Hijaz railway and looting a Turkish supply train, Lawrence is asked by an American reporter, “What, in your opinion, do these people hope to gain from this war?” “They hope to gain their freedom,” Lawrence replies, and when the journalist scoffs, insists, “They’re going to get it. I’m going to give it to them.”

At war’s end, Lawrence’s vision of Arab independence was shattered when the Versailles peace conference confirmed the carving of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine into British and French spheres of influence; arbitrary boundaries drawn in the sand to satisfy the appetites of empire. The F.O. even called the former Ottoman lands “The Great Loot.”

Using Lawrence’s map could have provided us “with a far better starting point than the crude imperial carve up.” Lawrence wrote to a British major in Cairo: “I’m afraid you will be delayed a long time, cleaning up all the messes and oddments we have left behind us.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, demand for Lawrence’s book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” increased eightfold. It was taught at the Pentagon and Sandhurst  for its insights into fighting war in the Middle East. In 2010, Major Niel Smith, who had served as operations officer for the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, told The Christian Science Monitor, “T.E. Lawrence has in some ways become the patron saint of the US Army advisory effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Lawrence’s understanding of the ancient and potent jealousies of the people among whom he had lived and fought generally was ignored. In 1920, he wrote for the Times an a prophetic article about Iraq. He decried the money spent, the number of troops and loss of life, and warned that his countrymen had been led “into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information…. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It… may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.

Not for the last time in the Middle East would disaster come from the blundering ignorance and blinding arrogance of foreign intruders convinced by magical thinking of their own omnipotence and righteousness. If ever George Santayana’s pithy aphorism applies it must surely be here:

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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