Editor: J. Priestland, with an Introduction by Dr Patrick Seale, writer and consultant on Middle East affairs
Author:N/A ISBN: (10) 1-84097-140-1 Published: 2005 Paper: Printed on acid free paper Binding: Library binding with gilt finish. See sample pages:
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There is no better single guide to Syria’s eventful history – from the dying years of the Ottoman Empire to the October War of 1973 – than this selection by Archive Editions of British diplomatic despatches. These fifteen volumes are an invaluable resource for historians, researchers, politicians, diplomats, journalists or simply for any one who might wish to know how professional observers reported and interpreted the complex events unfolding before them.
Records of Syria contains 12,000 pages of original research carried out at the National Archives in London.
Historical Overview From the Introduction to the Collection by Dr Patrick Seale
In the long, arduous and still incomplete struggle for Arab independence, Syria, and its historic capital Damascus, seat of the seventh century Umayyad dynasty, occupy a central place. It was in Syria that the aspirations of Arab nationalism were first expressed and then savagely repressed, only to be revived at every opportunity and in every subsequent generation, earning the country the proud title of ‘the beating heart of Arabism’.
...These hard-working ambassadors, consuls, military attachés, academic experts and envoys of all kinds invariably viewed the situation from the standpoint of British interests. But, as one dips into these volumes, one cannot but be struck by the fair-mindedness and dispassionate judgements of the men on the spot. Who would not be tempted to read minutes by Arnold Toynbee or Gertrude Bell on the future of Syria and Palestine, or General Allenby’s report on a secret Arab society which formed the core of the Arab Revolt, or a personal letter from T. E. Lawrence to the Foreign Secretary on how to negotiate with the Amir Faysal? And who would not wish to pause long enough to read a confidential despatch by a diligent British consul on the plundering and burning of Syrian villages by French forces during the Druze rebellion of 1925?
As one explores this treasure trove of documents one finds a despatch from Damascus by a military attaché describing the mechanism of the Ba‘th party’s successful coup of 8 March 1963, which was to change Syrian politics for the next four decades. And leafing further ahead to the last volume of the series, one may wish to read a despatch from Moscow assessing the significance of President Asad’s visit when he sought Soviet weapons and support for the great assault of 1973, which he hoped would regain territory lost in 1967 and force Israel to the negotiating table. These goals proved elusive, but they still rank high among Syria’s present priorities and will remain so until the Arab–Israeli conflict is finally put to rest.
Key documents Selection of extracts from the documents
Telegram from General Clayton, Cairo to the India Office, 18 November 1918, providing a summary of current political opinion in the effort to provide for future administration of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine
Arabs in Syria desire an independent Arab Government but are apprehensive of reactionary Sherifian influence. They realise the necessity of European advice and assistance and wish that… to come from Great Britain. They are deeply distrustful of French aims and intentions and are strongly opposed to French penetration…
Arabs in Palestine are strongly anti-Zionist and are very apprehensive of Zionist aims. They were pro-British in the early days of the occupation but are showing a tendency to turn towards the King of the Hedjaz and the Arab Government of Damascus. This attitude is due to the growing conviction that Great Britain is pledged to support the Zionist programme in its entirety.
Zionists who follow Dr Weizmann are strongly pro-British as it is to Great Britain alone that they look for fulfilment of their programme. They are anti-French and distrustful of French policy towards the Jews. They are anti-Palestinian Arab but wish to (modify) the Arab Government of Damascus through which they hope to overcome Arab opposition in Palestine.
Druses of Jebel Druse are anti-Arab owing to long standing feuds with neighbouring Arab tribes and also because they view with misfavour… control and taxation. They are anti-French from deep rooted sentiment and long tradition…
It is important that any settlement arrived at now should prevent all chance of future friction and clashing of interests.
Extract from an interview with Sherif Feisal, 27 December 1918
Sherif Feisal, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel T.E. Lawrence, visited the India Office… and was entertained at tea by the Secretary of State…
The Sherif discussed the relations between Bin Saud, Emir of Nejd, and the Hejaz authorities. He explained the nature of the Wahabi movement, of which Bin Saud is the figure-head and the leading spirit…
Feisal explained the circumstances which led to the Arab revolt in 1916…The authors of the revolt turned naturally to the British Government as the only European Government that pursued an enlightened policy towards subject races… in regard to Mesopotamia…he had full confidence that the British Government would do what was right. But he has been greatly disturbed by certain recent developments, and particularly the terms of the Sykes–Picot Agreement…He had no idea, when engaged in struggle against the Turks, that any agreement of the kind was in existence, or that Arab rights in Syria had been bargained away in advance.
Questioned…on the subject of Palestine…[the Arabs] regard the Jews as kinsmen whose just claims they will be glad to see satisfied. They feel that the interests of the Arab inhabitants may safely be left in the hands of the British Government.
Secret and Confidential Memorandum from the War Office, 9 December 1918: the strategic importance of Syria to the British Empire
Syria is at present militarily important because:
It is an avenue of approach to the Suez Canal and Egypt. It contains the Pilgrimage Railway.
…from the strategic point of view we should aim at a politically detached Syria under our influence which must be accompanied by the retention of Mohammedan goodwill.
The creation of a buffer Jewish State in Palestine, though this State will be weak in itself, is strategically desirable for Great Britain so long as it can be created without disturbing Mohammedan sentiment and is not controlled by a power which is potentially hostile to this country.
Finally it is difficult to see how any arrangement could be more objectionable from the military point of view than the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916, by which an enterprising and ambitious foreign power is placed on interior lines with reference to our position in the Middle East.
Memorandum by Mr A.J. Balfour, 9 September 1919: some difficulties to be borne in mind in any Syrian negotiations
On whatever basis the arrangement with the French is arrived at - it will be difficult to shew reason why Feisal should have a larger measure of independence in Damascus and Eastern Syria than we are prepared to accord to him or other Arab rulers in Mesopotamia…
Neither of us [the English or the French] wants much less than supreme economic and political control…In all the ordinary talk I hear on the subject of Mesopotamian oil, it is assumed that if this is found in the British sphere it belongs, to all intents and purposes, to Britain. But this is quite inconsistent with the assumption underlying the whole Covenant and expressly embodied in its clauses. For in all mandated territory the ‘open door’ is to be completely maintained and all nations are to enjoy equal opportunities. This will prove an inconvenient argument when we are urging our inherent rights to an all-British Railway and an all-British pipeline to carry all-British oil to the British Navy and the British Mercantile Marine!
Letter from Major Wallinger to the India Office 25 November 1919
…Zaglul Pasha has just written from Paris to Fuad Salim Bey in Geneva stating that he met the Emir Fazil (sic) and found him even more bitter against England than he (Zaglul) is himself. ..the Emir Fazil writes that he has been completely deceived by England and that the ultimate aim of the English is to divide and dominate the whole of Arabia, sharing the proceeds with France.
Telegram from Baghdad to Foreign Office enclosing an extract from a speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, 3 May 1949
As regards the recent coup d’état in Syria the Iraqi Government’s attitude is based on the assumption that it is an internal affair which concerns our Syrian brothers themselves… The Iraqi Government expressed their readiness to send the Iraqi army to defend Syria should the Zionists suddenly attack the country… We welcome union between Syria and Iraq should the Syrians themselves so desire. We have no scheme which we wish to impose on any Arab country…
Extract from the Annual Review for 1949, sent from Damascus to the Foreign Office
In the year 1949 three main factors have stood out in Syrian politics. Firstly, an attempt to break with the old reactionary regime: this has so far succeeded. Secondly, an attempt to set up a régime more or less on the lines of that of Kemal Ataturk: this failed. Thirdly, the incursion by the army into internal politics: twice such intervention overthrew the existing régime: on the third occasion which was at the end of the year it has appeared to put a stop to ideas of a union between Syria and Iraq. To a point a sense of Syria’s isolation was behind all these moves and it is quite clear that an increasing fear of the growing power of Israel and the threat which that involves has played a part.
Internal rivalry within the Ba´th party, 1964
The well-informed source … explained that the Syrian civilian leaders of the Baath wanted the Government of Syria to be in the hands of the International (Pan-Arab) Leadership of the Party, in which civilians pre-dominated, while the soldiers wanted the Government to be mainly in the hands of the Syrian National Leadership in which soldiers like Salah Jedid predominated… General Hafez maintained his position because he was a moderate, respected by soldiers and civilians alike, and a member of both the International and the National leadership.
… Elections… were now being held secretly… Aflaq was apparently confident that the results would be satisfactory to him and to the International Leadership. The case of the International Leadership was that… the Baath must be conceived as an international movement. If it failed in Syria, its Arab mission, its sole raison d’être, would disappear.
Series of extracts from Volume 15, 1965: regarding the support given by Syria to the PLO
1. From W. Morris, British Embassy, Damascus, 9 April 1965:
3 December 1964. Shukeiry announced that Palestine refugees would be trained in Syria. 4 December 1964. Colonel Madani visited Damascus and saw General Hafez and General Jedid, the Chief-of-Staff. It was announced that Syria had agreed to train Palestinians in her military schools. 21 January 1965. Shukeiry announced that training of Palestinians had actually started in Syria. from British Embassy, Damascus to Foreign Office, 4 May 1965: On 3 May Hafez presented colours to the first unit of the Palestine Army trained in Syria. This is claimed to be a Commando Battalion.
2. From British Embassy, Damascus to Foreign Office, 14 May 1965:
At the ceremony…the Syrian-trained regiment of Palestinian Commandos was formally handed over to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, banners carrying extremist slogans were much in evidence. The slogans included “We are returning; revenge, sacrifice” and “One Arab nation with an immortal Mission”, the well-known Baathist slogan.
3. From British Embassy, Damascus to Foreign Office, 15 May 1965:
There are some indications that the Syrians are beginning to feel themselves a bit out on a limb as far as Israel is concerned. Commander Abdullah, the Syrian delegate to the Mixed Armistice Commission, recently told Sparre…that the Syrians feared that they could not rely on the Egyptians in the event of a Syrian clash on the border, and that Nasser would probably even welcome a set-back for the Baath…The Foreign Affairs Adviser at the Presidency even went so far as to complain that the United States were treating Syria as if it were the Cuba of the Middle East.