Throughout T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom—that majestic, if oft-criticized memoir of the Arab revolt during World War I—one finds plenty of Eurocentric sermonizing on the Middle East, Arabs, and “Semitic culture” writ large. But though some of Lawrence’s opinions are undoubtedly biased and should be dismissed, many others remain quite relevant today.
Take for example the following passage where Lawrence contrasts British war planners who agonized over the precise geopolitical outcome of the revolt with the Arabs themselves, who clearly operated on a much less structured strategic vision.
The problem of the foreign theorists—‘Is Damascus to rule the Hejaz, or can Hejaz rule Damascus?’ did not trouble [the Arabs] at all, for they would not have it set. The Semites’ idea of nationality was the independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder. Constructive policies, an organized state, an extended empire, were not so much beyond their sight as hateful in it. They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it.
This brief comment, though tainted by old European ideas about race and national character, nevertheless contains a germ of wisdom that we should keep in mind as we agonize over the desired outcome of the latest Arab war in Syria.
And agonize we do. Recent announcements by Western leaders that they plan to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons but not remove him from power have sparked controversy among those who favor a more conclusive, and indeed comprehensive, outcome in Damascus.
The question is obvious: Recognizing that Assad runs an evil regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah, and knowing that Assad permitted the brutal gassing of hundreds of his own people, why would we allow him and his regime to survive?
There are three logical answers: Either the West is afraid of war-making, the West is lying about its intentions, or the West recognizes the truth noted by Lawrence almost a century ago.
That the Western powers—namely Britain, France, and the United States—feel skittish about embarking on yet another Middle Eastern adventure goes without saying. War weariness has seldom been so palpable in the three countries, and the reluctance of their leaders to commit to large-scale occupation and counterinsurgency operations is not all that surprising. These are, after all, democratic nations that presumably reflect the will of their people.
Neither would it be surprising if Western denials are really a smokescreen for plans to depose Assad, albeit indirectly. Outright invasion and regime change are illegal under the UN Charter, but a devastating missile barrage, launched as punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, is firmly rooted in moral and humanitarian arguments that are hard to dispute. The West could reasonably expect a widespread bombing campaign to incapacitate Assad’s regime so badly that his adversaries would be primed to prevail. At the very least, such a campaign could level the playing field and prolong the Syrian civil war that much longer.
But as convincing as these explanations might be, I believe the real reason the West is forswearing regime change is that the West knows precisely what Lawrence knew back then: Arab civilization, and specifically that part in and around the Fertile Crescent, is riven by countless tribal and sectarian cleavages that make even well-meaning attempts at regime change unlikely to succeed.
I can hear the criticism already. Trying to explain “Semitic nationality” with one sweeping axiom is highly problematic in that it generalizes and essentializes a far more complex reality. It lumps several hundred million people together (and not all of them Arabs) under one rubric and dismisses any chance for a functioning multi-ethnic or multi-religious state in this part of the world.
While this criticism may be warranted in other cases, here I would argue that Lawrence’s claim is supported by the evidence. The Syrian battlespace with which he was so familiar is a land where each clan, village, and sect craves its independence and is willing to fight to the death to attain it. Among Assad’s myriad opponents there is a consensus that the evil Alawite empire must fall; however, they propose no constructive policy or organized state to replace it. The Syrian people on both sides—all sides, in fact—have displayed little impulse since 2011 apart from killing their enemies.
Those who criticize Western powers for not going all the way in Syria don’t appreciate the unique nature of the country and the competing array of cultures within its arbitrary, European-devised borders. They haven’t contemplated how regime change could ever be successful without long-term occupation. They want a clear goal, an identifiable enemy, a decisive outcome.
Unfortunately, such clarity rarely comes to this part of the world—not because the West doesn’t want it, but because the locals don’t seem to want it themselves.
At this point Western powers have little choice but to take the moral high ground, discreetly punish what is acknowledged by all as a violation of legal and moral norms, and withdraw to allow the Syrian people to sort out for themselves just what kind of polity they wish to create.
And, if they ultimately prove Lawrence wrong and gather round a cohesive and humanitarian vision for the future, I will be among the first to advocate for assisting them.