Monday, February 29, 2016

The Battle for Syria

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.

The Crusades: Tactics

There were four main armies participating in the first Crusade:

The first in time as well as in distinction was the army mainly composed of French-speaking Walloons, which followed Godfrey of Bouillon, the Duke of Lower Lorraine, who had with him his dark-haired, dead-pale, grave brother Baldwin of Boulogne.

The second army, following, in a similarly loose fashion Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse and Marquis of Provence….

A third army might roughly be called “The Northern French.”  It had no single leader though it formed one loose body.  The man of greatest power in it was the sovereign of Normandy, Duke Robert, the son of William, the Conqueror….

The fourth army demands particular attention for it was of a very special kind.  It is generally called “Norman” because it was organized under those powerful men of Norman descent who had got hold of southern Italy and Sicily during the last two generations before the Holy War.

Prince Bohemond, brother of the reigning King of Sicily, led this fourth army; in Bohemond, we find a hint at the reality of the Crusading armies – this reality thereby shaping the tactics.  His plan was to cut a deal with Byzantium and the Greek Emperor – ignoring the Pope who called for the Crusade…

…and so would get for himself a principality really independent under the nominal legal headship of Constantinople; not the Holy Sepulchre, not Jerusalem…some realm of his own to be occupied and settled on the way to the Holy Land.

Every army was independent from the other; these armies were drawn from men in a society without a “sovereign” in the sense that we understand the term today.  Belloc, speaking for a fictional man from those times, a Crusader, while observing modern government, offers:

“What is all this about nations?”  “Where does authority lie and how is it divided?”

Not only were the armies independent – even those composing each army carried his decentralized position with him:

A man who moved from one body to another, taking with him his immediate dependents (for even the poorest knight had some attendant, and most of them had several) was not a deserter in our sense; he was not even a deserter if he chose to ride away and have done with the whole business; the penalties which could attach to him for so acting were as a rule moral penalties only – if any.

Each army could act independently.  Each knight within each army could do so as well.  Add to this the attitude of Bohemond, which was unique when compared to his peers only in pledging his allegiance to the Greeks – but not unique in looking for his own principality without a larger purpose – and it is easy to understand why coordinating the combined might of the Crusading force was not accomplished.


Before traversing 1000 years to current events, another stop or two might be considered.  From Palestinians: The Making of a People, by Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, describing the situation in the mid-nineteenth century:

Jerusalem’s merchants sent most of their trade (especially their locally produced soap and olive oil) through Damascus.

As trade will normally follow the most efficient route, it would seem the connection of Damascus with Jerusalem was natural – at least absent religious animosities (kept in reasonable check under much of the Ottoman period).

“Greater Syria” was viewed as (or hoped to be considered as) one by at least some Arabs at the time of the end of World War One:

Faysal meant today’s Syria and Lebanon, as well as Transjordan and Palestine.

Of course, in the end the region was divided:

Syria would be put under French protection, and Palestine would remain with the British.  “The Arabs will not consent to that,” Husseini responded.

The time is the Great War, the issues are how the West might carve and divide the Middle East and how the locals might feel about this.  As during the time of the Crusades, the issue remains the line running from Aleppo to Damascus, running through Homs and Hama.  More on this from David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace:

Clayton…reported that al-Faruqi said Hussein would never allow France to have Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Damascus.

Clayton and al-Faruqi recognized that France could not be excluded from the Christian coast of Syria-Lebanon (Hussein later insisted otherwise, specifically to include Beirut).  But the Arabs indicated they would oppose “by force of arms” any French attempts to occupy the districts encompassed by this string of inland cities.

The towns had another important feature in common: they constituted the railroad line.

The French built the line some decades earlier.  Of course, a railroad line was of no consideration to the Crusaders; however the location of the railroad line supports the value of the corridor for transport and travel – bound by the mountains and difficult sea-coast to the west and the desert to the east.

In the end, the French retained authority over Greater Syria, to include what is today Syria and Lebanon – the inland cities as well as the coast beholden to these cities over the centuries.

Versailles carved Greater Syria into pieces: Transjordan was to become a (seemingly independent) Arab state; Palestine would go to the British, and Syria (to include Lebanon) would belong to the French.  From One Palestine, Complete, by Tom Segev:

But no one in Palestine was happy; the Arabs felt the country had been torn away from Syria; the Zionists were bitter because Transjordan had been torn away from Palestine, and the northern border differed significantly from the Zionists’ map.

It should be recognized that Syrian-Arab society included many of what Fromkin refers to as “secret-societies.”  Each society had its own objectives and desired outcome.  Some wanted to remain under Ottoman rule – if they could not have independence, they preferred to be ruled by Moslems.  Also, they enjoyed the wealth generated by trade opportunities afforded by the Ottomans.

Other societies had their own purposes.  There was little that fully unified the disparate tribes and clans.


Of course, to speak of an “Arab” position during the time spanning from the Crusades to Versailles is an exaggeration, a stretch.  This has changed in recent years, at least in Iraq, Libya, and Syria – albeit under the control of less-than-savory players.  Of course, it has reverted in two of the three – and the third (Syria) is under assault even now – hence, the focus of this post.

Assad must go, so we are told.  He (along with Hussein in Iraq and Ghaddafi in Libya) brought some semblance of unity within their respective states.  Yet, historically it was this disunity that proved to be a weakness for any unified Arab cause and a strength for any enemies. 

Is this why Assad must go?  He represents a risk of presiding over a reasonably unified Arab state (as did Hussein and Ghaddafi elsewhere in the region)?

Assad must go, so we are told.  While rebels control much of eastern Syria – the desert – this critical western region of Syria (Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, the regions along the Beqaa) is still controlled, mostly, by Assad.

Is this why Assad must go?  Whoever controls Damascus will eventually control Jerusalem? 

If successful, it will be rebels in control of Damascus and this critical region.  Perhaps it is enough to turn the entire region into a war zone, with Arab factions fighting amongst each other and not looking outside – such that Damascus cannot threaten Jerusalem for several generations.

Could this be what is behind “Assad must go”?

Perhaps.  At least according to Belloc.

1 comment:

  1. [quote]
    Is this why Assad must go? Whoever controls Damascus will eventually control Jerusalem? [/quote]

    From the Clinton emails[quote] At the same time, the fall of the House of

    Assad could well ignite a sectarian war between the Shiites and the majority Sunnis of the region drawing in
    Iran, which, in the view of Israeli commaders would not be a bad thing for Israel and its Western allies.[/quote]