[Taken from the blog Bionic Mosquito.]
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.
Read the Original Article at Bionic Mosquito
The Battle for Syria
I continue with Hilaire Belloc and his book The Crusades: The World’s Debate. Recall from my previous post on this topic: Belloc offers that the Crusades might have been successful had the Crusaders taken the inland cities stretching from Aleppo to Damascus. Had they done so, they would have separated the Moslem east from the Moslem west and at the same time protected the access to Jerusalem as well as their holdings along the coast of what is today Israel and Lebanon.
Recall also the similarity to today’s chaos in the Middle East – chaos perpetrated by the west. This chaos has destroyed the pockets of unity developing within these Moslem / Arab countries – Iraq, Libya and now Syria. Might this fomented chaos serve a similar purpose?
On to Belloc:
…all that was needed to crystallise the military situation and determine Moslem victory was unity of command on the Moslem side.
“Unity of command on the Moslem side” did not occur during the first several decades of occupation by Crusaders. However, this was slowly changing, first with Zengi:
Imad ad-Din Zengi (c. 1085 – 14 September 1146), also romanized as Zangi, Zengui, Zenki, and Zanki, was a Turkish atabeg who ruled Mosul, Aleppo, Hama, and Edessa. He was the namesake of the Zengid dynasty.
As is noted, Zengi successfully consolidated a good portion of the eastern Moslem Middle East, with the important exception of Damascus, as noted by Belloc:
Zengi had been held up for years by quarrels of rivals in Mesopotamia. These he had at last overcome. He ruled at Mosul as at Aleppo – but he had not acquired Damascus. He could not act toward the south.
Zengi made many attempts on Damascus, but failed each time. The Damascenes often allied with the Crusader army of Jerusalem in order to repel Zengi’s attacks.
Belloc contends that failing to secure the line from Aleppo to Damascus made the situation for the Crusaders perpetually vulnerable. From the moment that Zengi began consolidating Moslem forces, the vulnerability to Christendom in the Levant became a reality.
Then, as now, the source of disunion among Arab Moslems was not only geographic; it was also grounded in the antagonism between the major sects of Islam:
More delaying to Moslem unity even than this division among Syrian Moslems was the sharp antagonism between Egypt with its Fatimite, that is, heretical Caliphate at Cairo and the orthodox Caliphate of all that lay east of Jordan and Orontes, centered spiritually in Baghdad.
The Fatimid Caliphate:
The Fatimid Caliphate was an Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and ultimately made Egypt the centre of the caliphate.
The Fatimids claimed descent from Fatima bint Muhammad, the daughter of Islamic prophet Muhammad.
The ruling class belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shi’ism, as did the leaders of the dynasty.
The “orthodox Caliphate” located in Baghdad refers to the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate:
The Abbasid Caliphate was the third of the Islamic caliphates to succeed the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Abbasid dynasty descended from Muhammad’s youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (566–653 CE), from whom the dynasty takes its name. They ruled as caliphs, for most of their period from their capital in Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, after assuming authority over the Muslim empire from the Umayyads in 750 CE (132 AH).
Returning to Belloc:
It was the question of Egypt – the all-importance to Jerusalem of keeping up the quarrel between Cairo and Damascus, the all-importance to Damascus of acquiring Cairo and welding all Levantine Islam into one body for the encirclement and destruction of the Crusaders…
The objective of the Crusaders was to ensure continuing conflict and enmity between and among the Moslem Arabs. The objective of Zengi was to begin the unity of the east – Egypt – and the west – Syria and Mesopotamia. It meant unity of Damascus with the rest of Syria.
After Zengi came Nureddin:
Nur ad-Din was the second son of Imad ad-Din Zengi, the Turkic atabeg of Aleppo and Mosul, who was a devoted enemy of the crusader presence in Syria. After the assassination of his father in 1146, Nur ad-Din and his older brother Saif ad-Din Ghazi I divided the kingdom between themselves, with Nur ad-Din governing Aleppo and Saif ad-Din Ghazi establishing himself in Mosul.
Nur ad-Din sought to make alliances with his Muslim neighbours in northern Iraq and Syria in order to strengthen the Muslim front against their Western enemies. In 1147 he signed a bilateral treaty with Mu’in ad-Din Unur, governor of Damascus…
Damascus now aligned with Baghdad. Yet, this peaceful alliance did not last long.
The growing weakness of Damascus under Mujir ad-Din allowed Nur ad-Din to overthrow him in 1154, with help from the population of the city. Damascus was annexed to Zengid territory, and all of Syria was unified under the authority of Nur ad-Din, from Edessa in the north to the Hauran in the south.
In 1154, Nureddin took Damascus, unifying all of Syria. Nureddin next turned to Egypt (returning to Belloc):
It was vital to Jerusalem that Cairo should be if possible an ally; if not an ally, a sort of dependent; and at all costs that Cairo should not be absorbed by the power of Nureddin.
A very applicable sentence if one wants to describe current western policy toward Moslems in the Middle East.
By 1164, the conquest of Egypt by Syria began. Ultimately, the Fatimite Caliphate in Egypt was suppressed.
The Crusaders understood the situation:
All now knew that Christendom in the Levant was on the defensive and all could feel that one issue dominated the future: whether, or rather when, the Mohammedan world of the Near East should achieve complete unity. By intrigue and policy that unity might be postponed. It might be delayed; it could not be avoided.
When it fully appeared, when there was one Mohammedan command all around, Jerusalem was doomed.
In 1174, Nureddin died. Until this time, first Zengi and then Nureddin made major steps toward consolidation. Moslem unity and the final victory over the Crusaders were thereafter achieved through Saladin.
Saladin (1137 or 1138 – March 1193), known as Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb in Arabic and Selahedînê Eyûbî in Kurdish, was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of their Ayyubid dynasty, although it was named after his father. A Muslim of Kurdish origin, Saladin led the Muslim opposition to the European Crusaders in the Levant. At the height of his power, his sultanate included Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hejaz, Yemen and other parts of North Africa.
Saladin was 35 years old when Nureddin died. At 47, he held rule over much of the Moslem world of the Near East – both east and west. This was not done completely peacefully:
Not long after the death of Nur ad-Din in 1174, Saladin personally led the conquest of Syria, peacefully entering Damascus at the request of its governor. By mid-1175, Saladin had conquered Hama and Homs, inviting the animosity of his former Zengid lords, who had been the official rulers of Syria. Soon after, he defeated the Zengid army in battle at the Horns of Hama and was thereafter proclaimed the “Sultan of Egypt and Syria” by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustadi. He made further conquests in northern Syria and Jazira, escaping two attempts on his life by the Assassins, before returning to Egypt in 1177 to address issues there. By 1182, Saladin completed the conquest of Muslim Syria after capturing Aleppo, but ultimately failed to take over the Zengid stronghold of Mosul.
By 50, he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem (returning to Belloc).
At Hattin, in the summer of 1187, the Crusading State is killed in battle.
Christians were thereafter allowed pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and a hold of a small portion of the Palestinian coast.
Region against region, sect against sect, political dysfunction all around, no possibility of unified action, western action to drive division. A war of all against all in the Moslem Middle East. As it was 1000 years ago, this is the reality of today’s Middle East, with events drastically escalating post 911.
Assad must go, we are told. Maybe for the same reason that Hussein had to go and Ghaddafi had to go. They each represented success in bringing unity out of disunity – of course, not always via pleasant means.
Is this why Hussein had to go? Is this why Ghaddafi had to go? Is this what was behind the so-called Arab Spring? Is this why Assad must go? Will Saudi Arabia and Turkey be next?
Read the Original Article at Bionic Mosquito