There ran down the edges of the desert a string of cities and their connecting road – Aleppo, Homs, Damascus….
As long as these cities remain in enemy hands, the seacoast (Lebanon and Israel) will not be secure. But this isn’t a story taken from today’s age; so writes Hilaire Belloc in his book The Crusades: The World’s Debate, regarding the Holy Lands of Palestine. It is curious to contemplate this perspective when considering more recent events.
The Crusades: Strategy
The Crusaders were concerned solely about the cities along the sea – Antioch, Tripoli, and Beirut, as examples – and, of course, the gem of Jerusalem. They were so intent on these that they neglected and otherwise did not properly secure the cities inland – Aleppo, Homs, Damascus. Had they done so, they would have divided the Moslem world; had they done so, Belloc believes they would have held the Christian Holy Lands – well, setting aside the fact that the invading lords intermarried (Christian Armenians were a popular choice) and otherwise accepted many of the local customs.
Passing Aleppo unvisited to their left and east, leaving Aleppo undisturbed in Mohammedan hands, the captains of the great column now making south and west for the Orontes began the final failure of the Crusades. The neglect of Aleppo in 1097 was the root of all their future weakness, their increasing difficulties in holding Syria for the next two lifetimes, and their breakdown at Hattin after ninety years of desperately maintaining a doomed and falling cause.
This “final failure” was not at the end of European rule over regions of the Holy Land; it was virtually at the time the First Crusade arrived in the region – according to Belloc, the seeds of failure were sown at the beginning. Neglecting Damascus one year later was a second failure. Finally, when attempting to take Damascus fifty years later, the effort was poorly staffed and too late.
Belloc offers this string of Arab cities as a dividing line – to the west, mountain ranges, rivers, and valleys connecting to the Mediterranean coast (today’s Lebanon and Israel); to the east, vast desert. It is the primary route connecting the Moslem worlds of Mesopotamia to the east and Egypt to the west (broadly speaking).
The ultimate failure of the Crusades lay in this: that Christendom got hold of the first or seacoast road, kept only a doubtful or disputed grasp on parts of the second or river road, and altogether failed to build the third road along the edge of the desert. (Emphasis in original)
The first and third roads have been identified – the sea coast and the string of inland cities, respectively. What is this second, river road?
The second road would naturally follow the central valley, getting plentiful water from the Orontes and the Jordan.
The Orontes flows north from Syria, then west to the Mediterranean just south of the Amanos Mountains; it passes Antakya, and flows to the sea north of Latakia. Control Aleppo and you control access to this road.
As to the central valley?
The Beqaa Valley…is a fertile valley in eastern Lebanon.
The Beqaa Valley lies on the route directly between Beirut and Damascus. It has also been the location of numerous conflicts between Israel and Syria virtually since the founding of Israel as a state. Belloc offers, perhaps, a clue as to this region:
Damascus never fell and because Damascus remained in the hands of Islam, Jerusalem sooner or later was bound to follow.
…it is Damascus throughout the ages that has determined the fate of Syria. It was Damascus on which the Assyrian power had concentrated centuries earlier and had found so difficult to grasp; it was from Damascus that Pompey gave orders which made the Roman soldiers the possessors of the whole land; it was the fall of Damascus to the first Mohammedan invasion which determined the success of that invasion and made it permanent – and now it was Damascus that would have confirmed the Crusading effort.
Control Damascus and you control Syria. Control Syria and you control Jerusalem. This is what the Crusaders missed. According to Belloc, this sealed their fate – from the beginning.