Published in A Wider Middle East. Strategic Yearbook of the National Defence College 2005

The historical setting for today's conflicts in the Middle East

Av Ingmar Karlsson

They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. Hosea 8:7

Versailles - a peace to end all peace

An explanation often given for the lack of democracy and the complex political problems in the Middle East is that not only Islam but also the Arab political culture are fundamentally anti-democratic. The thesis put forward in this context is the same as the one used to explain Russia's distinctive character, namely that like Russia the Muslim world did not undergo the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, that is to say the historic events that are the foundation for the modern European project and its conception of the world. The way of thinking that characterised Islamic rationalists such as the Persian doctor and philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) and the philosopher Averroës (1126-98) in Córdoba was not institutionalised and the philosophers, the natural scientists and the rational sciences were forced out of the formal educational and cultural sector as early as the Middle Ages. The orthodox dogmatists, the jurists and the mystics prevailed over the free-thinking philosophers. The era of the latter, characterised by Plato and Aristotle whose work was furthermore passed on to the West through Arab translations, lasted just under 400 years from the beginning of the 9th century to the end of the 12th century.

Religious orthodoxy should thus already then had won the victory over rationalism, a fact that still today characterises large parts of the Islamic world.

Although a great deal speaks in favour of this argumentation, it is, however, far from the whole truth. Neither the decades following the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire nor later the political realities of independence were particularly favourable to the development of democratic traditions and political systems. The French and British European mandate period was followed by domestic governments led by monarchs or by officers who had been trained at the military academies of the mandatory powers not to take over independent democracies but to serve as instruments for the interests of the former colonial powers and to pursue a "rule and divide" policy. Weak economies, inadequate education systems and high unemployment rates made the growth of efficient democracies impossible.

The regimes were too authoritarian and too based on special interests to be able understand the necessity of democratisation, and the interest in the West in democracy and human rights outside Europe was not as pronounced as it is now. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s many accepted the suppression of democratic rights on the grounds that this was necessary both for the survival of their own nation and for the sake of Arab unity and for the fight against Israel. Also in Europe an Arab socialism based on a one-party system was in many quarters claimed and considered to be a precondition for economic development. This applied not least to the now so discredited FLN version of Algerian socialism.

Above all, the national unity and stability that are essential for a functioning democracy had been undermined from the very beginning when national borders in the Middle East were drawn to suit the purposes of the colonial powers.

According to point 12 of the 14 points that the American president Wilson presented at the Versailles Peace Conference, the nationalities that were under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development. Instead, however, the division of the Ottoman Empire that was the result of the peace settlement became a peace to end all peace in the words of the British historian David Fromkin. The current problems in the Middle East have their origins in the decisions to divide this region taken by the victorious powers during and after the First World War.

The promises of independence given to the Arabs for their participation in the war against Turkish-Ottoman supremacy were not kept. To accommodate the national interests of France and Britain, new states were constructed with borders that did not correspond to the historical, geographical and religious realities. The Middle East became what it is today because France and Britain made no effort to create dynasties, states and political systems that would survive in the long term while, at the same time, they irreparably damaged the old political order. They totally ignored the fact that the borders were being drawn in a region with an ancient and proud civilisation and they appear to have assumed that national identities which took centuries to develop in Europe would take root within a decade.

The European Middle East problem, that is to say the matter of French, British, German and Russian influence in the great game was solved, but at the same time it gave rise to a Middle East problem in the region. The agreements concluded after the First World War over the heads of the Arab population are the core of all of today's conflicts in the Middle East and they are an explanation for the bloody civil wars in Lebanon, the daily attacks and acts of violence in Israel and in the occupied territories and the present fighting in Iraq.

When the First World War broke out, Arab nationalism was growing. This movement had first started among young Arab intellectual Christians in Lebanon and Syria who had been educated by western missionaries. As early as the mid-1800s, Christian students in Beirut began to organise themselves in associations with the aim of achieving a renaissance of Arab culture and social life. They started mainly from the Arabian language as a link that united all Arabs irrespective of religious affiliation. The pan-Arab movement was thus originally wholly secular and can be seen as the answer from the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire to the young Turks' nationalism. If the Turks constituted a nation, so too did the Arabs. Unity was considered a precondition if Arab society was to be modernised. The most important institution for what is called "The Arab Awakening" was the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, from which the famous American University subsequently evolved. These nationalists wanted to see an independent Arab state comprising the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire. However, the ideas about the political and religious direction and the territorial extent of such an Arab state strongly differed.

Among the member of one of the first secret organisations to be formed (al-Fatat, the society of young Arabs) was Prince Faisal, the eldest son of Sharif Hussain of Mecca who was an Ottoman vassal in the province of Hijaz on the Arabian Peninsula and the ruler over the holy cities Mecca and Medina.

In February 1914, Sharif Hussain's second son Abdullah went to Cairo to visit the British Agent Lord Kitchener to ascertain the possibility of British support should his father stage a revolt against the Turks. He received a negative answer since at that time London regarded Istanbul as a friendly power. When later in the same year the Turks allied themselves with Germany, the situation changed and Kitchener's successor, Sir Henry McMahon, began corresponding with Sharif Hussain. In a letter dated July 1915, the latter defines the area that a future independent Arab state under his leadership would comprise as follows; the Arabian peninsula with the exception of the British colony Aden, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria including present day Jordan, and Iraq. McMahon replied in October on behalf of the British government and declared his support for Arab independence after the war but with certain reservations inter alia "exclusions of territory not entirely Arab or concerning which Britain was not free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally France". The territories not entirely Arab included "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo".

Sharif Hussain duly launched his revolt against the Ottoman Empire in June 1916 and in October proclaimed himself King of the Arabs while the allies recognised him only as the King of Hijaz. The British, however, contributed economic and military support to Hussain's two sons Abdullah and Faisal and also provided them with advisors, the most famous being T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

Parallel to the correspondence between Hussain and McMahon, however, the British carried on secret negotiations with the French and Russians on the post-war future of the same region. After their defeat by the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915, the British realised that they would only be able to achieve their military and political goals in the Middle East with French support. In February 1916 the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed which, contrary to the promises to Sharif Hussain, divided the Middle East into French and British zones of control and interest. Palestine was to be administered by an international condominium consisting of Britain, France and Russia while Transjordan was to become a British zone of control.

In November 1917, in the Balfour Declaration the British government proclaimed, "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

Following the Sykes-Picot Agreement the strategic importance of Palestine had increased and in London the Zionist movement was now seen as a tool for securing British interests in this strategically so important area. Through the Balfour Declaration London wanted both to make sure of a continued basis for its control of the Suez Canal and at the same time secure the overland route to the Indian and East African parts of its empire.

The Declaration was criticised in the Arab world as a serious breach of the promises made in the McMahon-Hussain correspondence. European arrogance towards the Arabs is perhaps most clearly illustrated in this Declaration in which a British minister promises a country that was not his to a people who were not resident there against the will of the local inhabitants and without their having been consulted. Although the Jews, the majority of whom were recent immigrants, made up less than ten per cent of the population of Palestine in 1917, it seemed perfectly natural to Balfour to depict the Arab inhabitants as a negligible non-Jewish population.

New deceit for Hussain and his sons was manifested in November 1917 when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was revealed by the new Bolshevist government in Russia. However, the French and British gave assurances that the promises in the McMahon-Hussain correspondence would be kept and referred to their successful joint military operations. At the beginning of the campaign Sharif Hussain had driven out the Turkish troops from Mecca and Faisal's forces took the important port of Aqaba in July 1917. When Faisal entered Damascus in October 1918 as an Arab national hero, it meant the end of the war on that front.

After the cease-fire, the Allies organised the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration with the aim to create an interim government for Palestine, Syria and the Mesopotamian vilayats. In July 1919 the General Syrian Congress assembled in Damascus and urged the allies to recognise an independent Syria which also included Palestine with Faisal as king. The League of Nations did not accept this proclamation.

Between January 1919 and January 1920 peace negotiations took place in Paris. Faisal as the Arab representative and Chaim Weizmann as the Zionist representative reached an agreement on cooperation in Palestine. Faisal, however, made a note on this document. His signature presupposed that the Allies fulfilled their promises of Arab independence. As the promises were broken the Arab side did not feel bound by this agreement.

For his part, the American President Wilson set up a commission - the King-Crane Commission - to investigate how the mandate under the auspices of the League of Nations should be divided. The commission reported strong Arab opposition to the Balfour Declaration among Palestine's Arab population and advised against an unlimited Jewish immigration and the creation of a Jewish state. However, the Commission's report was not discussed during the peace conference and was not made public until 1922.

Britain was given a mandate for Palestine and the Mesopotamian areas which were given the name Iraq - "the well-rooted country" - while France was given Syria and Lebanon. The Balfour Declaration was confirmed in the mandate for Palestine and the mandate powers were urged to "secure the establishment of the Jewish national home" and the Zionist Organisation was recognised as a partner in the endeavours to achieve this objective. Hussain and his sons opposed this with reference to the fact that Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant adopted at Versailles had endorsed President Wilson's principle of the right of self-determination of peoples and thereby supported the demand of Palestine's Arab majority for an Arab state. Thus the foundation for today's Israel-Palestine conflict was laid.

Iraq and Syria became French and British mandates at the San Remo Conference in April 1920. French troops occupied Damascus in July and Faisal was forced to leave Syria. After a year in exile he was installed on the royal throne in the British mandate of Iraq. At the same time the British Government declared in September 1922 with the approval of the League of Nations that Transjordan was not covered by the Balfour Declaration but had been separated from the Palestine mandate with Faisal's younger brother Abdullah as emir. He had earlier suffered a military defeat against Ibn Saud's fundamentalist Wahabi forces who had launched an offensive against Hijaz from their areas around Saudi Arabia's present capital Riyadh. In 1925 the house of Saud seized power there too. The Hashemites were driven out of Mecca and Medina and the Saudi monarchy which now stands on increasingly weak foundations had been created. A Saudi camel cavalry invaded Jordan in August 1922 and was stopped outside Amman by British aircraft and tanks.

The British now set a boundary for the Transjordan mandate which also included the most northerly part of what had previously been the Ottoman vilayat of Hijaz, including the strategically important port Aqaba. The Iraq mandate had already previously included the desert areas west of the Euphrates up to the Syrian border which the house of Saud had claimed as well as the Sheikdom of Kuwait which in practice had been independent for almost 200 years under the as-Sabah family. A British official now set the borders between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Sheikdom was forced to cede areas to a neutral zone to Saudi Arabia. Later on, in 1937, Iraq claimed an incorporation of Kuwait on the grounds that it had been part of the vilayat of Basra which had now become part of independent Iraq. Saddam Hussein used the same argumentation for his invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

For the British it was not least important to secure the overland route to India, establish military bases and airfields and secure the Suez Canal. Egypt, which had been occupied by the British in 1882, became formally independent through the Allenby Declaration in December 1922. Fuad I was placed on the throne in Cairo but the real power stayed in London which still had full control over the Canal zone.

The tasks of the mandate powers were defined in Article 22 of the Charter of the League of Nations: "To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves …….there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization …..the best method is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility."

For France and Britain the mandates were primarily an authorisation to safeguard their imperialist interests and endeavours without having to take on the role of colonial power. Instead of attempting to build robust states on a sound historical, economic and geographical basis, France chose a rule-and-divide policy and played off the various Christian communions and Muslim sects against each other which is the basic reason for the problems that still plague the former French mandates Lebanon and Syria.


When Mount Lebanon became a French mandate in 1920, a political-administrative decision was taken in Paris that was to have far-reaching consequences and which is the main cause of the problems that still afflict Lebanon today. To the relatively homogeneous mountain region with its Druse and francophile Maronite Christian population, the French now added both the areas to the south as well as the Bekaa valley between the Lebanon and Antilebanon mountain ranges, two areas with a large Shiite population, and the coastal plains with the Sunni dominated cities Tripoli, Beirut, Saida and Tyr. There were also several Christian minorities in these areas, chiefly Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic who did not have the Maronites' European focus but saw themselves as an integral part of their Arab environment. Like the Sunnis who had been linked to the mandate without being consulted, they had no Lebanese identity whatsoever. The population in the towns along the coast and in the Bekaa valley traditionally considered themselves part of Greater Syria and had their natural link to Damascus and other cities in the Syrian interior. This Syrian identification was strongest among the lower social strata but also the Sunni leadership requested on several occasions, for example in 1928 and 1936, that these areas should be regarded as a part of Syria. They refused as long as possible to have anything to do with the French mandate power or its Lebanese agencies. For the inhabitants of the southern area that had been incorporated into the mandate, Galilee in Palestine was for historical and geographical reasons the area they felt a link to, ties which were definitely cut when Israel became an independent state.

The starting-point for this unnatural geographic union was that France would always be present in the region as a uniting factor and as a guarantor of a dominant role for their protégés, the Maronite Christians, in the artificial polity, le Grand Liban. To secure the position of their protégés, the French established already in the first constitution in 1926 the confessional political system that was to become Lebanon's overriding problem. All appointments to high posts were based on religious affiliation according to a proportional system. This immediately led to the emergence of strong pressure groups which in their own interest and the interests of their communion opposed any form of change, particularly trends towards a secular system. As a result, the religious communions tried as far as possible to manage their own affairs, which the French encouraged for financial reasons. Thus, in 1933 there were only 3 600 state employees for a population of 850 000 while - to give another example - only 438 of the 10 000 pupils who received higher education in 1938 went to state, that is to say secular, schools. The most important posts were given to aristocratic Maronite families who, in the missionary schools and later at the Jesuit Saint Joseph University in Beirut, had received a French style education.

Naturally, a Lebanese identity and Lebanese political life could not develop in this environment. The function of the Lebanese government and national assembly was mainly to divide the few government functions among the different communions. The political bodies therefore became a means of defending groups' own interests but not those of the state of Lebanon.

This is reflected in the political structure which Lebanon received on its independence in 1943. The unwritten "national pact" which the zuáma (plural of za´im - local leader of a religioius communion) agreed on meant that power was divided among the leading families. Representation of the different denominational groups in state organs was based on an arbitrary French census from 1932. The result was that to every six Christian posts there were five Muslim posts. Furthermore, the President was always to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the National Assembly a Shiite Muslim, etc.

The pact may be said to have been a reluctant and forced Maronite acceptance of the fact that, despite all, Lebanon was part of the Arab world and not a European outpost that would continually seek French or other European protection. At the same time, the Maronites considered it to be understood that the Muslims would recognise a certain measure of Christian, that is to say Maronite, supremacy and abandon all ideas of Lebanon's being included in a Greater Syria or in other ways wholly integrated into the Arab world.

Hence, right from the start this pact had several built-in weaknesses which in themselves were the seeds of Lebanon's later misfortunes. In practice the system placed power in the hands of the Maronite Christian President and the Maronites came to rule Lebanese society politically, socially, economically and culturally despite the fact that the 1932 census - which even then was called in question - did not reflect the real situation in Lebanon in 1943. The Christians, particularly the Maronites, were over-represented in the political bodies, a situation which became successively more pronounced due to the considerably higher Muslim birth rate. Major religious groups such as the Shiites, Druses and Armenians were under-represented in all political bodies and in the army from the very beginning. The demographic balance was further upset by the inflow of about 100 000 - mainly Sunni - Palestinian refugees to southern Lebanon after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War.

The open Lebanese society with its weak central power was a natural centre for Palestinian political and military activities. Southern Lebanon became a base for operations against Israel and, conscious that the Lebanese central authority could not offer them any protection, the Palestinian groups came to ignore the host country's authorities.

At the same time as these antagonisms were ongoing, the Arab states utilised the open Lebanese system with its freedom of speech to carry on their own disputes. Lebanon became a platform for ideological controversies which often took military expression. Right and left, revolutionaries and contra revolutionaries and radicals from the Arab so-called brother states fought each other there. They accused Lebanon of being a threat to their respective social systems in that Beirut was allowed to be a refuge for political opponents. In this way the already weak confidence in Lebanese central power was further undermined. It received its death blow, however, through the Israeli attacks on Lebanese areas which followed in answer to Palestinian action against Israel. The Israeli retaliation attacks became increasingly violent and directed not just at Palestinian refugee camps but also at Lebanese villages and towns, whose civilian populations had to pay the price for Palestinian actions.

The Israeli attacks also resulted in streams of refugees from the south who further augmented the slum areas around Beirut which became an increasingly fruitful breeding-ground for radical and revolutionary ideas. The Maronite Christians in east Beirut and up in their key areas on Mount Lebanon began to feel more and more isolated and surrounded, and a self-defence reflex which they had always had since the Druse massacres in 1860, grew stronger. The Palestinians were regarded as the main enemy and their Lebanese allies were described as the tool of the international Left and their goal was said to be to change Maronite Christian European Lebanon into something completely different. The Maronite militia, assembled in the Lebanese Front, began to arm for the worst. Their weapon arsenals were modernised, foreign advisers (including Israelis) were recruited as instructors and the leading Maronite clans prepared themselves for armed conflict to try to preserve the existing political system - or rather the lack of one - and the political privileges which the demographic situation in Lebanon did not entitle them to. The proportion of both Shiites and Sunnis in the Lebanese population was now larger than the proportion of Maronites, and this is not counting the over 400 000 stateless Palestinians.

To describe all the complicated vicissitudes and changing alliances during and after the prolonged Lebanese civil war would be beyond the scope of this chapter.

Characteristic of the complexity of the Lebanese crisis, however, was that Palestinians were not involved in its outbreak in 1975. Instead, the unleashing factor was a socio-economic conflict between poor fishermen and Maronite capitalists. It developed into a conflict between a local leader and the symbol of the feeble central power, the army. The war subsequently developed not only into a sectarian struggle between Muslims and Maronites and a national conflict between Lebanese of different religious backgrounds and the Palestinians and the Maronites but also occasional wars between rival Maronite militias, conflicts which still lie under the surface in today's relatively calm Lebanon.


When the French took control of Syria they had the experience of the resistance to French colonialism in Tunisia and Algeria in mind. To counteract growing Arab nationalism which was further fuelled by the failed promises of independence, Paris gave autonomy to the Alawi minority in the mountains east of the port of Latakia and to the Druses in Jabal Druse south-east of Damascus, making them independent in relation to the Sunni Arabs in Damascus and only accountable to the French. The Druse, Alawis and other minorities received tax benefits and subsidies from the French government. They were above all recruited to the army. The Damascus region was regarded as occupied territory and was patrolled by Senegalese troops with the aid of Alawis, Druses and Kurds. The Arab population felt more humiliated and exposed than during the Ottoman Empire.

To the national forces known under the name Troupes Spéciales du Levant and which became the Syrian army after independence, the French mandatory power consistently recruited men from religious and ethnic minorities: Alawis, Druses, Ismailites, Christian Arabs, Armenians, Kurds and Circassians. The obvious aim of this policy was that the Sunni majority, whose men were not encouraged to join the army, could more easily be kept under control. None of the other groups could gain a strong enough position to be a threat or even an annoyance to the colonial power.

Special efforts were made, furthermore, to recruit people from the minorities living far from the capital Damascus and far from the regional centres and from among those who came from economically underdeveloped areas such as the Alawi mountains where the population would be attracted by the opportunities the army offered. Both the leading Sunni families and the Sunni middle class in the cities and the landowning farmers in rural areas - among whom anti-French national currents were strongest - refused to send their sons as officers to these special troops which were considered to be the tools of French imperialism. Furthermore, they traditionally looked down on the military profession.

For gifted but poor Alawi country boys the army was the only way to get ahead in life. For the few who could continue their education after elementary school, the military academy in Homs was the natural, possibly the only, entrance to higher education and climbing up the social ladder.

The Arab Baath Socialist Party, founded in the 1940s by a Greek Orthodox Christian, Michel Aflaq, appealed particularly to the religious minorities. The Baath ideology was explicitly pan-Arab certainly but its secular and socialist message appealed to the young Alawis and the party carried on a conscious and effective campaign in the educational establishments in the minority areas. The Baath Party became the natural choice for politically interested Alawis. Hence, on independence the Alawis played a role substantially greater than their share of the population they represented in what was later to be Syria's political central nervous system - namely in the army and the Baath Party.

But, compared with the Sunni majority, other minorities were also similarly over-represented in these two institutions. The most senior military, however, were almost exclusively Sunnis and when the first of several military coups were launched in 1949 - over twenty coups or attempted coups in as many years - the Sunni officers, many with a Kurdish or Circassian background, were at the forefront. They had the support of other soldiers with the same religious and regional background. The first coup d'état was perpetrated by Brigadier General Husni az-Zaim, whose bodyguard was made up exclusively of Circassians. This led to an extensive purge of officers with this ethnic background after his fall. Colonel Adib Shishakli (1949-54) was a Sunni from Hama and during his relatively long period in power, officers from that region, both Sunnis and Christians, rapidly climbed the military hierarchy only to be purged after Shishakli's fall.

The Alawis still played a less prominent role in the higher military echelons but they were increasingly taking over the lower positions. A survey carried out by the security service in 1955 showed that not less than 65 per cent of non-commissioned officers were Alawis. The Alawi officers were known for their strong internal solidarity. Like other minorities they tried in various ways to promote members of their own sect when military posts were filled, particularly key positions which were often not so high in rank.

If fellowship was good among officers and non-commissioned officers with a minority background, the opposite was true regarding the Sunnis. They were divided into different political camps. Furthermore, there were social antagonisms with ancient regional aversions between officers from the cities - traditionally mainly recruited from Damascus and Hama - and those of rural origin who mainly and equally traditionally came from the districts around Deir ez-Zor on the Iraqi border and Hauran in the south of Syria.

The Damascus group consisted largely of Nasserites while those from Hama sympathised on one hand with socialist ideology, on the other with the landed bourgeoisie. Among officers from Deir ez-Zor there were some Nasserites while the majority sympathised with the Baath Party.

During the shortlived union with Egypt and Egyptian dominance in 1958-61 these antagonisms could temporarily be kept under control. The automatic Sunni dominance which Egyptian sovereignty over Syria meant in practice was naturally a threat to the Alawis' gradual move towards the cauldrons of power, and all the more so since the basis for their purely political activity, the Baath Party, was prohibited. Over 90 per cent of all posts in the regional Syrian government went to Sunnis. The counter-move of the Alawi officers was to form a secret military committee in the Baath Party in 1959, which attracted officers who were dissatisfied with Egyptian dominance. There the Alawis had a safe majority, which later proved to be of considerable importance.

The 1961 coup d'état which released Syria from the United Arab Republic was staged, however, by Sunni officers from Damascus who had also had enough of the dominance exercised by their Egyptian Sunni brothers. But the position of the perpetrator Lieutenant Colonel Abdelkarim an-Nahlawi rapidly weakened since five of the ten army staff officers who did not come from Damascus refused to give him their full support. This was in spite of the fact that four of them were Sunnis and only one, a Druse, belonged to a religious minority. Nahlawi tried to strengthen his grip on power in a traditional Syrian way - by a military coup. This was unsuccessful, however, and Nahlawi was exiled with his five foremost Damascene accomplices. After the failed coup there was a total deadlock in the military and political situation which threatened to lead to a military explosion. To avoid this, a military congress was convened in April 1962 with representatives of all military regions and major military units. Of the 41 officers assembled no less than 36 were Sunni. Four of the others were Christian and one Alawi. The 13 representatives from Damascus formed the largest regional group, but this did not prevent them from being a purged from strategically important units around the capital. They were replaced by officers from rural areas with a deeply rooted aversion to city officers. Since then, that is to say for over 40 years, no person from the capital has held any position of real power in Syria's political life.

On 8 March 1963 a new military coup was carried out by a coalition of Baathists, Nasserites and politically independent officers. It signified a fundamental change in the political life of Syria even though the traditional power struggle between rival groups with different socio-economic and regional backgrounds continued according to previous patterns. The political power was now in the hands of people from the rural areas and the lower middle class. In some cases they came from the proletariat and the religious minorities - groups that had previously been kept out of the power game.

It soon became known that the Baath Party was the driving factor behind the coup. The leadership of the party's military arm, which possessed the power resources, included three Alawis, two Druses and two Ismailis. However, it also included four Sunnis, only one of whom did not have a rural background. He, Amin al-Hafez from Aleppo, was the coup's strong man. The party's civil branch was also dominated by people from rural areas. About half of them were Sunnis while the others came from different ethnic and religious minorities.

But, at the time of the coup, the Baath Party's civil wing was too small - about 400 members - to be capable of taking on the government responsibility their military branch had prepared the ground for. However, leadership of the military committee was in the hands of an Alawi troika, including the commander-in-chief of the air force Hafez al-Assad.

The coup was followed by a purge of political opponents in the army. Half of the 700 officers dismissed were replaced by Alawis who were often placed in key positions that enabled them to neutralise the decisions of any Sunni superiors. The crews in the armoured battalions stationed in strategically important places were most often Alawis while their officers were Sunnis. In reality, however, these crews only obeyed other Alawi officers, whose real influence thus exceeded their formal influence.

The Alawis now also controlled the entry to the military academy and, not least important, appointments within the intelligence services. The Baathists' grip on power became even stronger in July 1963 when a Nasserite coup failed with subsequent purges of more Sunni officers. In the Baath Party too, there was an accelerating polarisation between Sunnis on the one hand and representatives of the minorities on the other. This process, in which Sunni influence was gradually decimated, came to its climax when Amin al-Hafez was forced to resign in February 1966 following a coup d'état in which the Druse Salim Hatum played the chief role. There were the traditional consequences; more purges of Sunni officers.

The power struggle now became increasingly an internal Alawit struggle, particularly after Hatum himself in September 1966 launched a new but unsuccessful coup which cost the Druse officers continued influence. In February 1968, the only remaining compact Sunni power bloc made up of officers from Hauran province in the south of Syria was purged and in 1968-69 it was the turn of the Ismaili officers.

The power struggle was subsequently fought out between different Alawi clans and it was dominated by the rivalry between Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad. Antagonisms were also ideological and largely drew a dividing line between the party's military and civil branches, the latter advocating a rapid transition of Syria towards socialism, which was also recommended by the Sunnis holding the posts of President and Prime Minister. The military wing, on the other hand, wanted to see a build-up of the army and cooperation with Arab neighbours even though this would necessarily mean serious encroachments on their ideology. Salah Jahid had made the mistake of leaving his position in the army as early as August 1965 and was therefore gradually outmanoeuvred by Hafez al-Assad who had been appointed Minister for Defence in the new regime and could systematically place his confidants in key positions.

Hafez al-Assad seized power in Damascus in November 1970 in the twenty second military coup since 1949 and he became Syria's first non-Sunni President in February 1971. The journey of the Alawis from an economically disadvantaged and exploited existence in a remote Syrian rural spot to absolute power was thus completed 25 years after independence. When al-Assad, before his death in the summer of 2000, handed over the Alawi throne to his 34 year old son Bashar the main threat to the succession had come from the young president´s uncle, Hafez al-Assad´s younger brother Rifa´at.


While France broke down the existing political and social structures to safeguard their national interests in Syria, Britain tried to create a new nation state in Mesopotamia to accommodate theirs.

The Basra and Baghdad vilayats in Mesopotamia had for a long time been neglected provinces on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, however, the British became more and more interested in the area as part of the overland route to India. In the early 20th century the importance of Mesopotamia grew when production from the newly found Persian oil wells controlled by British companies began to be shipped out from the Persian Gulf. British interest was further heightened in 1899 when Germany was granted a concession by Istanbul to build a railway from Konya in the Anatolian highlands to Baghdad, to be subsequently extended to Basra. A German presence in Mesopotamia would threaten both the oil interests and the British interests in India.

In addition to this, the Arab campaign for national liberation started to make itself heard in these regions. Primarily in order to safeguard the oil pipelines, British troops from India landed in Shatt al Arab in the initial stages of the First World War and took Basra. An expeditionary force sent north to take Baghdad was forced to surrender in 1916 to Turkish troops at Kut al-Amara. Baghdad was taken the following year, however, and in 1918 British troops had pressed on as far as Mosul.

After having invaded Baghdad, Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude, the Tommy Franks of his time, issued a declaration with the following message:

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators. People of Baghdad remember for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her allies for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity or misgovernment."

When the British received a mandate to rule Iraq in 1919, there was no Iraqi people as such. Basra in the Shiite south of Mesopotamia had always turned to the Gulf and India, Baghdad had strong contacts with Iran while Mosul in the north which was not yet formally included in the mandate and where the Kurds were in the majority, had its network of contacts in Turkey and Syria. Lieutenant General Maude was soon forced to establish that Mesopotamia was an area where 75 per cent of the population was tribal "with no previous tradition of obedience to any government".

In 1920 the population of southern Iraq staged a revolt, protesting against the fact that the British had not kept their promise to leave the area after the defeat of the Turks. In this uprising which was called the Great Iraqi Rebellion, Sunnis and Shiites were united for the first time, albeit for a short period, in a common struggle. A British officer admitted with a sigh of resignation that the only way to put an end to the uprising was "wholesome slaughter". The British succeeded in restoring order after, among other things, bomb attacks against the civilian population with some use of war gases.

In an article in the Sunday Times dated 22 August 1920, T.E. Lawrence wrote:

"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster ….We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish government and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil….We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of imperial troops and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?"

Churchill who was Minister of War at that time toyed with the idea of abandoning the entire project but the Prime Minister Lloyd George refused. According to the Prime Minister, if the British left it would mean that within a couple of years they had "handed over to the French and Americans some of the richest oil fields in the world".

The solution was to install a monarchy. The British choice was Faisal who was now compensated for having previously been driven out of Syria by the French as thanks for taking part in the war against the Turks. With his background as a direct descendant of the prophet he was seen as a person who would have sufficient nationalist and religious credentials to gain legitimacy but at the same time he would always be dependent on British support. The British therefore supported local sheiks and tribal leaders that opposed Faisal's attempts to create national awareness and strengthen national institutions. One of the main British objectives was to see to it that the king was stronger than each individual tribe but weak enough to oppose coalitions between several of them.

Another problem for Faisal was that he was not an Iraqi and that monarchy was a foreign form of government to Mesopotamia and was therefore regarded as a British invention. In a well organised referendum, he won 96 per cent of the votes. However, the real chief was the British High Commissioner supported by different Sunni tribal and clan leaders. There was therefore instability built into the new state from the beginning which meant that it could only be ruled by strong leaders. Furthermore, the Sunni minority held the leading posts in the new Iraqi army that was formed.

Stability was not improved by the fact that the issue of independence or autonomy for the Kurds promised in the 1921 Sèvres Agreement was removed from the agenda since oil had been discovered in the regions around Kirkuk in the Mosul vilayat which the new Turkish state under Atatürk regarded as part of its territory. The matter of the final status of the area was solved by the League of Nations in 1925 when it was incorporated into the British mandate in Iraq and the foundation was laid for Iraq's Kurdish problems.

Antagonisms about the future of the mandate arose at an early stage. For Iraq's part the desire was to have it replaced as soon as possible by an alliance with Great Britain that would lead to early independence and through treaties in 1921, 1922, 1926, 1927 and 1930 the new polity received its independence in October 1932 when, at the proposal of Great Britain, Iraq became a member of the League of Nations and the mandate was revoked. In the 1930 treaty, however, London secured far-reaching rights. The two countries entered into a 25-year alliance entailing consultation on foreign policy issues and mutual assistance in the event of war. The British were given preference for posts that required foreign expertise and they were accorded full freedom to use Iraqi rivers, ports and airports, and air bases were leased to the British army.

When the British left, they had installed a weak monarchy supported by a small Sunni elite. Rivalry between the different ethnic and religious groups made it impossible to establish a strong central government. The problem was exacerbated not least by the fact that the British hesitated for a long time as to whether the Kurds in the north should be incorporated into the new state or be given independence. Originally, France was to have sovereignty over the Mosul vilayat with its Kurdish population but the French abandoned their demand in exchange for a larger share of the Turkish Petroleum Company which was transformed into the Iraq Petroleum Company.

After a short time on the throne Faisal is said to have sighed that there was no Iraqi people just crowds that were impossible to govern and which turn against every government no matter what it looks like. He died in 1933 and was succeeded by his son Ghazi who, when he died in a car accident in 1939, had had increasing problems in handling antagonisms not only between but also within Iraq's different religious and ethnic groups; Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmens, Yezidies, Jews and the numerous Christian churches.

A military coup was staged in 1958 and the young King Faisal II was lynched by a mob. The first Iraqi republic also became an unstable creation with a history characterised not least by continually recurring Kurdish uprisings. The Baath Party came to power in 1968 in a coup in which Saddam Hussein played a role and he went on to seize power in 1979.

Developments now followed the same pattern as in Syria. As described above, a minority within the religious Alawi minority had used the secular and putative Baath Party as an instrument for reaching absolute power. In Iraq, political power was gradually gathered by the same means by a minority among the Sunni Arab minority which represents about 20 per cent of the population - officers originating from the provincial town Tikrit.

Ibn Khaldoun and the future of Iraq

Both in Syria and Iraq, political developments after independence may be explained by the historian Ibn Khaldun's 600-year-old theory of asabija. The word is difficult to translate and denotes a fanatic clan solidarity characterised by a never-say-die spirit. According to Ibn Khaldun the basis for political power was group solidarity, and groups with a common tribal origin - particularly from inaccessible poor areas - tended to have more asabija than people who lived protected lives in the towns. These group loyalties were often further strengthened by affiliation to the same religious sect. In the political power struggle, the group that demonstrated the greatest asabija finally triumphed.

When the British drew the borders for their mandate to rule Iraq after the First World War an American missionary warned them: "You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history". If the now tumbled Iraqi minority government after free elections is replaced by a new government with a broader political base that better reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the country, there is a great risk that the same development will be repeated. Strong political power is needed if present ties of loyalty with religious, regional or ethnic bases are to be broken. Every new regime aiming for such a position of power will, however, sooner rather than later not just for their political but also for their physical survival, be forced to depend on the loyalty in their own group, which will make it impossible to fulfil their original political intentions however good these may have been.

Of the parties that have stepped forward in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall, the Communist Party is the only one with an ideological background and the only that is trans-regional. As the Shiites are clearly in the majority, parties with this religious background will also win a majority in free elections. Should they choose to follow an Iranian path, which is quite probable, this would surely not be accepted by Washington with subsequent consequences for Iraqi faith in western democracy. Furthermore, a democratic Iraq as envisaged by the Americans would mean that the Kurds in the north would be forced to give up the independence they have now since over ten years been enjoying for the first time in their long history.

To solve this dilemma, the American occupying power will perhaps soon be forced to try to apply a Lebanese solution, that is to say to give the different religious and ethnic minorities parliamentary representation based on their share of population. The Lebanese example is, however, not particularly encouraging. Ibn Khaldun's 600-year-old asabiya thesis is still of such relevance that democratic regimes also in the foreseeable future probably will be utopian in countries such as Syria and Iraq. An Iraqi identity might possibly be developed as a consequence of a common resistance to a continued American presence in the same way as Sunnis and Shiites were united in 1920 for a time in their resistance to British occupation.

If, against these odds, George W Bush were to succeed in his intention to introduce democracy to the Muslim world from outside, the result of free elections will not be what he expects. As a historical irony it will prove that due to the occupation of Iraq, the support for Israel's expansionist policies and the annexation of east Jerusalem, Bush has laid a solid foundation for democratically elected anti-American governments in all Muslim states from Indonesia to Senegal.

The longer the American military presence in Iraq continues, the greater credibility will be given to Bin Laden's arguments that the Muslim world in its entirety was the main target from the beginning. Iraq was attacked and not North Korea which was a greater threat. Saddam Hussein's claimed possession of weapons of mass destruction proved to be a pretext for the war and the occupation of Baghdad is for many Muslims the most humiliating event since East Jerusalem was lost in 1967. As the capital of the caliphate over a six-hundred-year period the city has enormous symbolic value.

Furthermore, the rapid and total collapse of the Iraqi regime strengthened Bin Laden's argument that neither secular Islamism nor Arab nationalism can liberate the Muslim world but that salvation rather lies in Islam and a permanent violent military jihad. If just one per thousand of the population of the Muslim world believe in this argument, it means a recruitment base of over a million people. Blind terror directed against American and other western targets will therefore probably continue to be a phenomenon we are forced to live with in the foreseeable future. In a worst-case scenario the Cold War of the 20th century will be replaced by a very hot one without clear frontlines and waged with weapons we do not know how to combat or defend ourselves against.

Thus, the chances of the American invasion creating a western style prosperous democracy that spreads its light over the Muslim world are small. Instead, through the invasion of Iraq, both the prospects of such a development and of winning the war against terrorism have probably been ground to zero.

George Antonius, The Arab Awakening : The Story of the Arab National Movement (Capricorn Books New York 1965) Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Baath Party (I.B.Tauris 1996) Tony Dodge, Inventing Iraq. The Failure of Nation Building and as History Denied (Hunt and Company, London 2003) Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation. The Abduction of Lebanon (Oxford University Press 2001) David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Henry Holt and Company 1989) Albert Hourani, The Emergence of the Modern Middle East (University of California Press 1981) John Keay, The Mismanagement of the Middle East 1900-1960 (John Murray Publishers London 1988) Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism (Princeton 1987) T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Garden City 1935) Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear, The Politics of Modern Iraq (University of California Press 1988) Kamal Salibi, A House of Many Mansions - The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (I.B. Tauris 1993 Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (University of California Press 1989)

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