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Islamic State has turned T E Lawrence’s WW1 dream of an Arab nation into a nightmare

ISIS posted footage online of the Sykes-Picot line between Iraq and Syria being blown up. Lawrence thought the Arab revolt had failed; in fact it was only just beginning.


The Blue Castle in eastern Jordan is usually buzzing with tourists keen to see the rooms from which T E Lawrence directed the Arab Revolt. But when we went last summer, apart from a forlorn tour guide, it was deserted. Jordan is perfectly safe, but the war in nearby Syria and the rise of Isil have put off most westerners.

What would Lawrence have made of the mess the Middle East is in? And might he have felt some responsibility? Like nearly everything about this man, it is hard to say. Neil Faulkner, whose informative book examines the contest between the British-backed Arabs and the German-backed Ottomans during the First World War, has no doubt that the post-war carve-up of Arabia by the imperial powers led to "sectarianism, violence, intractable conflict and untold human suffering". Faulkner's judgment may be sweeping, but he is right to see the origins of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria in a period that saw the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of Arab nationalism.

Since the 2003 Iraq war, when Britain helped to break the country it once designed, there has been renewed interest in Middle Eastern history. Lawrence, though, has rarely been out of fashion. His memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), cast him as a disappointed romantic; in the David Lean film of 1962, he was a sensitive warrior, betrayed by the British and brutalised by the Turks; lately, academics have accused him of being a fantasist, overplaying his attacks on the Ottoman railways. Now, in Faulkner's Left-leaning study, Lawrence has become a "metaphor for the imperialism, violence and betrayals that tore the region apart a century ago and has left it divided into warring fragments ever since".

It is striking that this war, fought between Arabs and Turks, is still seen from the viewpoint of this Englishman. That is partly a matter of sources. The Arabs didn't write much down and the Turks restrict the access of western historians to their archives (worried, Faulkner speculates, what might be revealed about the Armenian massacres.) The other reason Lawrence's narrative dominates is because he was an accurate as well as evocative writer. Faulkner found that, "wherever it could be tested", Lawrence's account was confirmed, "implying that the detractors who have portrayed him as a liar, a charlatan and a self-promoter are wrong".

Born out of wedlock in 1888 to an aristocrat and a governess, Lawrence was working in Syria as an archaeologist when war broke out. The Germans, as well as allying themselves with the Ottomans, sought to exploit Pan-Islamic feeling to unsettle the British Empire. The British also played on Muslim sentiments. In 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, high commissioner of Egypt, wrote to the Emir of Mecca Sharif Hussein of his "readiness to approve an Arab caliphate" once the Ottomans had been kicked out.

The British would never have countenanced a greater Arabia, let alone a revived caliphate. But it's an open question whether the ordinary Arab wanted such a state anyway. As Faulkner reminds us, the Arabs hadn't lived under a unified state for more than 1,000 years, and were used to being dominated by greater powers; most had their first allegiance to their tribe.

Lawrence looked on the Arabs as a noble race embodying medieval martial virtues. His admiration for Faisal, the man later crowned King of Syria and then Iraq, was typically dramatic. Faisal was "almost regal in appearance," he wrote, "like a European, and very like the monument of Richard I." But Lawrence later became disillusioned with Faisal – regarding him as weak-minded and indecisive – and the Arabs more generally. Faulkner is probably overstating it when he says that Arab nationalism was purely a British invention, but the dynamics at play were hardly clear-cut.

That is why all the talk of a "great betrayal" of the Arab cause by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement is overblown. Lawrence played the warrior-sheikh but never forgot that his ultimate loyalty was to the British Empire. Faisal also knew the price he had to pay for throwing out the Turks and becoming king. He used Lawrence as much as Lawrence used him.

Where the Englishman excelled was in military tactics – well described by Faulkner. He had an instinctive grasp of what the author calls the "anthropology of war", marshalling the talents of men from different cultures. Historically, the Arabs had been successful in swift camel attacks. Lawrence saw they could do the same to the Turks. He led attacks on the 800-mile railway track from Damascus to Medina, forcing the enemy to waste resources in constant repairs. He developed the hit-and-run tactics that would be taken up later by anti-colonial guerrilla fighters – not least by Iraqis fighting the US and British after 2003.

But as Faulkner reminds us, the war wasn't all camel raids: in Palestine, General Allenby fought a brutal mechanised war. The Vickers Mark 1, an early tank, reached a maximum speed of two miles an hour, the men inside contending with temperatures up to 50C. The brutality of hand-to-hand killing nearly sent Lawrence insane. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

Arab nationalism of the kind Lawrence favoured has now been replaced at its extreme with what the British airily promised during the First World War: a revived caliphate. In 2014, Isil posted footage online of the Sykes-Picot line between Iraq and Syria being blown up. Lawrence thought the Arab revolt had failed; in fact it was only just beginning.

Source: The Telegraph

Neil Faulkner's Lawrence of Arabia's War is published by Yale Books.

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