restricted access The Battle for Syria: 1918–1920 by John D. Grainger (review)
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The Battle for Syria: 1918–1920, by John D. Grainger. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2013. 261 pages. $45.

The Battle for Syria is a study of the political and military turmoil in the Levant and adjacent areas during and shortly after World War I. As such, author John D. Grainger considers ways in which key nations and groups sought to use military success to dictate political outcomes for the future of the Arab world. Despite the title, this work discusses World War I combat operations and political plotting prior to 1918 as part of the events leading to the capture of Damascus and the subsequent final defeat of the Turkish military forces controlling Arab lands. As part of this discussion, Grainger points out that prior to 1920, the term Syria usually referred to “Greater Syria,” which was never well defined, but sometimes expansively included the land from the Sinai to the Taurus Mountains.

Grainger does an excellent job analyzing the motivations and war aims of major combatant countries and important rebel groups (such as the Sharifian rebels of the Arab Revolt) with a particular focus on how they adapted their strategies to pursue key goals over time and in response to changing situations. As part of this critique, he has some interesting insights on the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of March 1916, which laid out the basic British and French plans for dominating the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire after the war. He states that neither Sir Mark Sykes of the United Kingdom nor François Georges-Picot of France, “had any real authority to conclude international agreements” (p. 8) and that such agreements “must therefore be regarded only as aspirations of the particular moment at which they were agreed” (p. 8). While the general outline of the Sykes-Picot agreement did survive into the postwar era, this was hardly assured and depended on continued British-French agreement on Middle Eastern issues which was often shaky. The entry of the United States into the European war (but not the war against Turkey) also had considerable potential to complicate the practice of traditional imperialism, although Washington’s limited interest in a postwar Middle Eastern role eventually minimized this factor.

Grainger’s study is also an excellent military history which makes extensive use of a wide variety of primary sources. He considers British general Edmund Allenby to be “one of the most capable [generals] on any side in the whole war” (p. 7), and shows him to be a brilliant organizer who was able to integrate highly diverse forces from throughout the British Empire into an effective and well-trained fighting force. In contrast to Allenby’s brilliance, many other British officers displayed an unreserved contempt for the armed forces of a less developed state (in this case Ottoman Turkey). After the Ottoman military defeats in the Balkan Wars and in Libya, a number of British officers viewed their Turkish adversary as deeply inferior despite their considerable efforts at military reform (which would eventually include extensive German help). Grainger notes that both the United Kingdom and France had “sliced off choice [End Page 175] Ottoman morsels in the past” (p. 25) and assumed that any conflict with Turkey would be an easy one. These prejudices disregarded the difference between attacking an empire on the periphery and seeking to destroy it. Consequently, overconfident British commanders paid a heavy price when their forces encountered the Ottoman defense at Gallipoli in the spring of1915. This disaster was quickly followed by the defeat of the British-Indian forces at Kut (in present day Iraq) in late 1915 and early 1916. Turkish units had high rates of desertion, but they also fought effectively despite a number of deprivations and the brutalities inflicted by their officers. The Ottomans were often short of food and supplies, heavily outnumbered, and suffered with high rates of disease aggravated by an inadequate medical infrastructure (p. 82). Yet their military did not crumble, and the Ottomans seem to have anticipated something like Stalin’s later comment that it took a brave man to be a coward in the Soviet Army.

This study also considers the political...