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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, Report, c.8 January 1918


[Written by T. E. Lawrence c.8 January 1918, and printed as Arab Bureau Supplementary Paper No. 1, 1 February 1918. The version below was published by A.W. Lawrence in Secret Despatches from Arabia from the manuscript, which survived among Lawrence's papers.]

It used to be interesting before the war to ask a Syrian in French who were the leading spirits of Beyrout or Damascus, and a day or two later to ask him the same question in Arabic. You got two entirely different lists, alike only in that all were Moslem, since there are no Christians, in or out of Syria, whose 'nationalism' is more than a pretty name for a European control loose enough to give their co-religionists excessive place in the administration. For this reason Christians have no share in the political life of the country, and their voices and opinions are absolutely to be ignored.

The Moslems were divided rather sharply into the intelligentsia and the Arabs. The first were those who had thrown off Arab things, and bared themselves to the semi-Levantine semi-European fashions of the renegade Moslem - the Moslem who has lost his traditional faith, and with it all belief in all faiths. They spoke foreign languages as often as they could, wore European clothes, were often wealthy, used to entertain and be entertained by foreigners, and impressed themselves more deeply upon foreign visitors than their numbers or home influence warranted. Their political ideals were culled from books. They had no programme of revolt, but many ideas for the settlement after one. Such and such were the rights of Syria, such her boundaries, such her future law and constitution. They formed committees in Cairo, Paris, London, New York, Beyrout, Berlin, and Berne, to influence European powers to deliver them from the Turks, and lend them the sinews to go on spinning real dreams. Their habits made Syria uncongenial, and most of them lived in foreign countries.

There existed a bridge between these occidentalists and the classes that speak Arabic first and foremost. They were the translators, who were in touch with the foreign-veneered logocrats. They edited newspapers, and produced Arabic paraphrases of western political theories.

When war broke out they remained in Syria, believing themselves Secure. They had preached the completed revolution daily in their press, but their hearts were shining - innocent of all intention of revolutionary processes. Their tragic astonishment when Jemal Pasha arrested them and hanged them as leaders of rebellion betrayed their harmlessness. They saw the real conspirators, men who day and night preached armed action against the Turks, walking freely in Damascus, and crowding to see them executed. Some took up the dress of martyrs, and died silently. Some in their bitterness told the Turks the names all Arabs knew, trying to involve the guilty with themselves in punishment: but mostly Jemal only laughed.

Thus by January, 1915, Syria was deprived of her Christian pseudo-nationalists, who were either silent with terror, or the Turks' best friends, of her Levantine-Moslems, who were reaping new delights abroad, in finding themselves taken seriously by foreign chancellors, and of her Arab-revival idealists, who were hanged and buried. For three years she has been a closed country, ignorant of the programmes made for her future in allied capitals, subject to the military autocracy of a particularly ruthless and unbridled dictator, and so forced to a more secret internal and intensive culture of such nationalist ideals as had real root in herself. Until the northern thrusts of the Sherifian army, to Akaba, and then to the Hauran, there was no outer door by which contact could be obtained with this re-born Syria of 1918, and only by casual indications could the force and direction of the new movements be guessed. Now that we can feel the full vigour we realise how jejune the former political groups have become, and how little they can claim to represent the feelings of Syria to-day. The Azm and Mutram factions go on blindfoldedly, balancing this party with that party, and offsetting this programme with that programme in memoranda and solemn interviews with European statesmen, while in the disputed country the Sherifians set their teeth and work, and the Turco-Germans bring down Abbas Hilmi into Asia.

This restoration of Abbas Hilmi may be called a renaissance of Oppenheim, and points to Germany's having at last gained a hand in Turkish internal politics. The Turks tried to use Abbas Hilmi in the early days of the war, found him double-edged, and threw him aside. Now in their extremity they are forced again to admit him, knowing that it hurts them if he succeeds. Abbas Hilmi will not serve the Turks to suppress the Arabs, but only to elevate himself - by the Arabs - to the level of the Turks. He may do this with Germany's approval. Oppenheim with his very rich Semitic nature was always pro-Arab rather than pro-Turk. He fought the ultra-Turk party in Germany till the first year of war, and was beaten. Prussia allied herself with Enver to raise a Jehad, and her Arab friends joined Arab parties. The day of the Sherif's revolt justified Von Oppenheim, too late to help Germany, but soon enough to give him another opportunity. Turkey to-day is [too] feeble to serve Germany's ends in the world. The Kaiser must have friends in Islam other than Enver and Carasso, and friends in Syria and Mesopotamia other than Jemal and Sheikh Shawish. Oppenheim has set out to find her allies on the Alexandretta-Basra lines of penetration, in readiness for the after-war.

His first pre-occupation must be the Sherif. Abbas Hilmi is beloved in Mecca, but the Sherif based his revolt on principles which are above private friendships (even in the Near East where the personal element is nearly all in all) and till the issue of the war is plain, Oppenheim will not overtake our influence there. When the Sherif drew sword he told us what he wanted, and we raised no vital objection to his claim. Since then we have helped him manfully, and his kingdom has grown from nothing to 100,000 square miles (such miles, perhaps, but the Arabs like Arabia!). He has involved himself and all his friends in the risk of gallows if they fail, or if we fail, and has pledged his honour to the Arabs in the magnificent ambition of adding Syria and Mesopotamia to his dominion. If the war lasts long enough he wins, at least enough to fire Arab minds for many years with the picture of Arabia Irridenta. The dice of the great game between us and the rest, for Arab suffrage after the war, will be cogged against the alien owners of any such province: but the asset in our hands, our control of the sea, has been so seared into the minds of the Sherif and his family, by the work of the Red Sea Patrol during this war, that its importance will probably outweigh to them any sins of commission or omission, that we may accumulate.

Oppenheim's second effort may well be to try and divide the Arab house against itself. The phrase 'Arab Movement' was invented in Cairo as a common denomination for all the vague discontents against Turkey which before 1916 existed in the Arab provinces. In a non-constitutional country these naturally took on a revolutionary character, and it was convenient to pretend to find a common ground in all of them. They were most of them very local, and very jealous, but had to be considered, in the hope that one or other of them might bear fruit. The day the Sherif declared himself, ended this phase of the question. We had found one Arab who believed in himself and his people, and fortunately it was the noblest family of them all. Since then there has been for us no question of any 'Arab Movement'. We have supported the Sherifian movement, and have tried to help him gather into his own society such Arab side and sub-currents as his progress has encountered. Our exclusiveness has been justified, since to date no second Arab has had the courage to range himself independently against the Turk.

Needless to say the Arab parties are not all ready to welcome an imposed head. The renegade Moslems, the Christians, and all other sects (there are few parties whose real platform is not sectarian) are dissatisfied. Their arguments are specious, and not only persuade themselves, but give manœuvre ground for Oppenheim (and indeed for all other powers who feel alarmed at our too great influence with the Sherif) to oppose us on the highest motives. 'The Sherif', they say, 'Is Meccan and obscurantist. We are infidel and enlightened. Deliver us from him.' The Sherif, they imply, will be fanatical in religious questions, and crabbed constitutionally. The sacred words Progress and Nationality are to be ranged against him.

Unfortunately these charges are brought against the Sherif by parties ignorant of Arabia. The Sherif heads no religious revival, claims no hierarchical position. His revolt has divided the house of Islam, drawn the teeth of the Khalifate for a generation. His growth is the one factor in our hands which can aid us to stem the new fanatical revival in central Arabia. His rise has killed the idea of Jehad, the very real bogey which has so often paralysed our action in the East. In Moslem theology he heads the old and slightly effete professional orthodoxy. Legally he is rather lax. Even in the holy cities he dilutes the Sheria; in the provinces he abandons it altogether, for customary law. For a first offence in Wahabi Nejd the right hand is cut off, for the second the tongue torn out, for the third the offender banished to a desert without food or water. In Mecca the worst penalty is imprisonment. For his northern provinces, whose complex populations and commerce make a simple code impossible, he has designated his more plastic son, Feisul, as administrator. His promised programme for Syria may not be sufficient to enlist him the support of Syrians in Europe and America, but the Syrians of Syria are enlisting by thousands in the ranks of his armies. Arabs in Egypt and elsewhere have spoken and written against him. Feisul will not hear of a press propaganda of his ideas: but no free Arab has yet fired a shot against him or his forces, and every advance of his armies is done, not merely by the consent, but by the actual brains and hands of the local people, in the strenuous field of rebellion. There is no 'Hedjaz force' in Syria. Feisul accepts any volunteer for his service, allowing him to preach what he pleases, and pray as he pleases, so long as he will fight against the Turks. He says always that neither England nor France nor Turkey will give over to the Arabs one foot of unconquered ground, but that each new village occupied, each new tribe enrolled by Arab effort, is one more step forward towards the Arab state. For him questions of its boundaries, the composition of its upper house, and the colour of its policemen's boots, can wait till the Turk is conquered. One may surmise, however, that his administration will differ rather in the spirit, than in the form, from the system which the Turks have gradually built up for their subject-provinces.

The Syrians abroad are as anxious as the Syrians in Syria to obtain deliverance from the Turk, but desire more elaborate reforms when he is removed, and particularly desire a leading voice in the decision of what these reforms are to be. They have a pathetic belief in the idiot altruism of Britain and France. Themselves hardly capable of courage or unselfishness, they accredit us with little else. For their sake (or rather for their words' sake) we are to pull down the new (and to us rather comfortable) Moslem Power we have so carefully set up, to launch armed expeditions into Syria, expel the Turks, and police the country at their direction, while they exhaust upon it the portfolio of constitutions that Abbé Sieyès must have bequeathed to them. In return we are to have their gratitude, afterwards. The only difference between the Sherif's conquest of Syria and theirs (and they call it such a little difference) is that the Sherif achieves it by the hands of the Syrians themselves, and they wish it achieved by our own blood. They would so much rather the Judean hills were stained with London Territorials, dead for their freedom, to save them from the need of taking dangerous rides,... but from our point of view it may be argued that in these times of crisis our interests may lead us to support those who adventure their lives in arms on our side (even if they do not please all who call themselves our friends) rather than to rebuff the armed supporters in favour of wordy persons who claim to represent - behind our line - a higher form of culture. A spontaneous rebellion in Syria is an impossibility: the local people will take no action till the front tide of battle has rolled past them. If it is the Sherifian tide, they are enlisted by him, and serve at a later date to advance the allied cause another step. If it is our front line, they will get on with the ploughing of the fields, feeling no gratitude, and no obligation towards us. We have only given them the opportunity of unpunished politics, in the future. When the Sherif comes, neutrality is impossible, and their decision, as between Arab and Turk, inevitable. Our coming enables them to postpone for a season the necessity of rebellion, the gravest step that sedentary man can take. Not until the prosperity of foreign control has given them renewed leisure for politics, will the need for self-government revive. Oppenheim, and the financial interests that back the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian railway schemes would like to raise an Arab movement against the Sherif, since the Sherif is irrecoverably ours. If they succeeded in limiting the pro-British spheres to the Wahabis of Nejd, the Emir of Mecca, and the Bedouin of the Hedjaz, they would have a plausible case for tying the town and village communities of Syria and Mesopotamia to the continental Powers for protection against these our friends, and could do it all the more freely, since the Arabic areas south of the Akaba-Basra line are not essential to anyone except ourselves. Their material interests are limited to the settled peoples, and if they can prevent our making ourselves 'founders' kin' to the Arab federated states that are inevitable among them, they will have gained a part of their ends. The moral element, the support of the head of Islam passed from them when the advance from Akaba closed the history of the Hejaz revolt. The success or failure of the Sherifian invasion of Syria - a new operation and a new movement - is going to affect the other phase of European rivalry in the Levant, by determining whose candidate is going to gain control of the trade routes and commercial centres of Western Asia.

Source:p SD 155-161p
Checked:p mv/p
Last revised:p 5 August 2006p

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