T. E. Lawrence's Prescient Warning about Syria

How a nearly 100-year-old analysis cautions against contemporary Western involvement in the fractured nation.

“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 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 were about to wrestle from Ottoman control.

Today, the discontent described by Lawrence remains, this time among the rebel groups opposed to the ruling Assad regime. For example, the Free Syrian Army recently condemned a meeting held in Cairo between the Syrian National Council and representatives from France, Tunisia and Turkey; they claimed the delegates were “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 of a fractured nation—although written by an outsider 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 singled out the Syrian cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo when describing the political issues of Syria. He also focused on 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 thought 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 might be seen by some parts of society as imposed by a foreign power: “An Arab government 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 seem almost prescient, although they were written more than ninety years ago. In a sense, the incumbent Alawi- and Shia-dominated government under Bashar al-Assad has 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.” Thus, the current revolt would not be a surprise to him.

But due to the suppressive nature of the Alawi-dominated Assad regime, the internal strife so feared by Lawrence has been stifled ever since the Corrective Revolution of 1970 (with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of February 1982). Yet inserting additional foreign elements into this complex and volatile kaleidoscope of tribal and religious factions 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 disappointment. The defeats have come not so much in military struggles—both the British and French prevailed in that sphere—but in the failure of 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.”

Franz-Stefan Gady is a foreign-policy analyst at the EastWest Institute.