This Hollywood history would have us believe that the Arab revolt the first great inter-imperialist world war gave rise to, was completely co-opted by the British and led by a blond-haired, blue-eyed British officer that looked a lot like Peter O'Toole. Perhaps that is why so many on the Left are quick to believe Arabs, especially in those bastions of "anti-imperlialism/anti-zionism" run by "enlightened" dictators such as Qaddafi and Assad, have been manipulated into revolting again by sinister western forces.
The movie was a false, chauvinistic and self-serving picture of what happen back them between the Arabs, the Turks, the Brits and the French interests - played by Claude Rains, nevertheless, it did get some basic things right:
There was an Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Arab nationalism traces its roots back to literature produced in the Mashriq in the 1860s while it was under Ottoman control. In the beginning of the next century, Arab nationalism started to take on more distinct forms, notably the 1911 formation of al-Fatat (the Young Arab Society") throughout the Levant [Greater Syria] and the Arab Congress of 1913 in Paris.
The crisis of world war became an opportunity for many colonial people to improve their position and this was true for the Arabs as well. The British badly needed Arab support against German ally Turkey in the Levant and promised they would support the formation of an independent Arab state in what today constitutes Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar and Bahrain if the Arabs helped them win the war. This is similar to the promise of an independent Vietnam after the war, described in my last blog, that the United States made to gain Viet Minh support in the war against Japan 24 years later.
In 1916 the Sherif of Mecca initialed the Arab Revolt with the aim of throwing out the Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state spanning from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. In return for his alliance with Britain and France, he was promised their support for the creation of this Arab State after the war. Lawrence of Arabia told the Arabs they were fighting for the freedom of this independent Arab nation.
After the war was won, the imperialists went back on their word. Surprise! Surprise! Already in 1916, while they were making these representations to the Arabs, they had concluded the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France on how the spoils of war in the Middle East were to be divided.
In 1920 they sealed the deal with the Treaty of Sèvres. Britain got Iraq and Palestine, France got Syria and Lebanon and an independent Arab state was recognized only in the Kingdom of Hejaz (Saudi Arabia). This treaty was never accepted by the Arabs who continued armed struggle against the French in Syria and British rule in Baghdad. The Iraqi revolt of 1920 as well as the revolts that swept across Egypt in 1919 gained a measure of independence from British rule in those countries, and together with independent Saudi Arabia and North Yemen, provided a base for the continued growth of Arab nationalism.
Wikipedia describes how some modern Arab states were formed:
In the aftermath of the war, the Arabs found themselves freed from centuries of Ottoman Sultanate rule, but under the mandate colonial rule of France and the United Kingdom. As these mandates ended, the sons of Hussein were made the kings of Transjordan (later Jordan), Syria and Iraq.The way the Middle East/North Africa region was carved up by the Europeans had far too much to do with their competing interests and little to do with national, traditional or tribal boundaries that had developed historically. This is one of the contradictions Arab nationalism has had to deal with since World War I.
In 1931 a pan-Arabist covenant was proclaimed at a pan-Islamic conference in Jerusalem. It centered on three main articles:
In its effort to divide the Arab people and so better avail themselves of the region's rich natural resources and strategic position, the imperialists have forced the Arabs into separate states designed in Europe that respect neither territorial or historical realities.
- The Arab countries form an integral and indivisible whole. Hence the Arab nation does not accept or recognize the divisions of whatever nature to which it has been subjected.
- All efforts in every Arab country are to be directed towards the achievement of total independence within one single unity. Every endeavor which confines political activities to local or regional issues is to be fought against.
- Since colonialism is, in all its forms and manifestations, incompatible with the dignity and paramount aims of the Arab nation, the Arab nation rejects it and will resist it with all the means at its disposal.
And yet Arab nationalism remains. The Arab Spring was a powerful testimonial to that! The Arab uprising of 2011 quickly spread around the crescent from Tunisia, through Libya and Egypt to Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain because they are all one people closely connected by language, territory, culture and history.
I have gone into this history because I have noticed that this context of Arab nationalism is generally missing in discussions of the Syrian conflict on the Left in the West.
Generally, those in the Western Left that oppose the Syrian Revolution, and sad to say, they are the majority, speak of other Arabs that have come to join the fight in Syria from Libya and Iraq as "foreign fighters" without the slightest acknowledgement that those in the fight may have good reason to see things differently.
These Leftists paraphrase Audar in Lawrence of Arabia and say "The Arabs? The Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Lebanese, Jordanians; these I know, I have even heard of the Egyptians, but Arabs! What tribe is that?" As far as they are concerned there is no Arab nation worthy of their consideration. They consider the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Syrian conflict to be every bit as foreign as the involvement of Russia and Iran.
They don't understand how Saudi Arabia or Qatar could see supporting one side in the Syrian Revolution as being in their national interest, so they draw the chauvinistic conclusion that these Arab oil emirates are supporting the rebels at the behest of the United States. Because they have rendered invisible the context of Arab nationalism, they find it difficult to understand what is going on. For example Patrick Cockburn writes:
The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.It makes no sense to Cockburn because he forgot that all this is happening within one nation. He sees only that which divides them. He sees Sunni vs Shiite, monarchy vs democracy, religious vs secular. He doesn't see what unites them, Arab nationalism, and with it, anti-imperialism. In that context it is easy to see that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are doing what the national bourgeois of an oppressed nation has always done to justify its existence, let alone its claim to national leadership. It is making itself and its wealth useful in the nation's independence struggle. The Arab Spring is a part of that struggle as are the revolutions in Libya and Syria. They are supporting them for the same reasons they have long supported the Palestinian people, this support helps them to stay in power.
The Arab monarchs of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are in the happy positions of having more than enough oil revenue to keep their small citizen base materially satisfied. Other than that, to stay in power, they need to be seen as champions of the nation, the Arab nation. Supplying the Syrian rebels may make them anathema to the Western Left but it buys them a lot of credits with their own citizens and among the greater Arab masses.
The Arabs are one people united by language, culture, territory and history. Due to the machinations of imperialism, they have been divided into many states and must now conduct their struggles for democracy and socialism on that basis, but their greatest strength lives in the unity of all Arab people and the struggle for Arab independence remains their greatest unifying cause.
It is important to remember that when considering the role pf "foreign" Arabs in the Syrian struggle.
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