Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the fight for Arab lib­er­a­tion

Pales­tinian fight­ers hung framed pho­to­graphs of him on their walls while France con­demned him as a traitor. But Laila Par­sons’ book proves the for­mer Ot­toman Arab of­fi­cer’s story, like so many oth­ers, de­serves to be told

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Laila Par­sons teaches mod­ern Mid­dle East his­tory at McGill Univer­sity and is au­thor of The Com­man­der: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and Fight for Arab Lib­er­a­tion, 1914-1948

Bri­tish and French colo­nial­ists drew the bor­ders of the mod­ern Mid­dle East. It is this dis­pen­sa­tion that is col­laps­ing to­day in Iraq and Syria. But his­tory could have taken a dif­fer­ent course. When the Ot­toman Em­pire col­lapsed, a group of Arab soldiers fought to es­tab­lish an Arab state in the area that was to be­come Syria, Jor­dan, Iraq, Le­banon and Is­rael/ Pales­tine. The story of their re­sis­tance to European im­pe­ri­al­ism is barely known in the West. And their de­feat by colo­nial armies helps ex­plain the tragedy that is now play­ing out in Syria and Iraq. Last year marked the 100th an­niver­sary of the sign­ing of the Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment, the se­cret ter­ri­to­rial blue­print that Bri­tain and France would im­pose on the Arab Mid­dle East fol­low­ing the Ot­toman Em­pire’s de­feat in 1918. Few in Europe and North Amer­ica are fa­mil­iar with Mark Sykes or Ge­orges Pi­cot, but the pact the two men signed is in­fa­mous through­out the East­ern Arab world. Re­cently, ISIL has in­voked Sykes-Pi­cot as a sym­bol of west­ern in­ter­fer­ence in Arab and Mus­lim af­fairs. When ISIL fight­ers tore down a bor­der post be­tween Iraq and Syria, they pro­claimed that they were de­stroy­ing the “Sykes-Pi­cot fence”.

There is much talk to­day about the long-term ef­fects of th­ese car­to­graphic in­ci­sions. If the map­mak­ers’ surgery had been more pre­cise, would the re­gion have suf­fered so much tur­moil? Would Syria have col­lapsed into civil war, if a sep­a­rate Alavi en­clave had been cre­ated along­side a Sunni one? Was Iraq doomed from the start, since it should have been di­vided into three in­di­vid­ual states, one Sunni, one Shi­ite, and one Kur­dish?

Ques­tions like th­ese ig­nore the al­ter­na­tive fu­ture that many Arabs strug­gled for in the 1920s and 1930s: a sin­gle Arab state that would en­com­pass the lands that be­came to­day’s Syria, Jor­dan, Iraq, Is­rael/Pales­tine, and Le­banon. In the West, what most peo­ple know about the Arabs in the First World War is that a charis­matic Bri­tish of­fi­cer TE Lawrence per­suaded them to join the Bri­tish cam­paign against the Ot­tomans, an ac­count made fa­mous by David Lean’s 1962 movie Lawrence of Ara­bia. But the more im­por­tant story about the Arabs in the First World War – the story that is not re­told in a Hol­ly­wood block­buster – is that the ma­jor­ity of Arab soldiers and of­fi­cers stayed loyal to the Ot­toman army and fought hard to de­fend the Ot­toman state against Bri­tish and French oc­cu­pa­tion. After the Ot­toman army dis­banded in late 1918, Turk­ish soldiers and of­fi­cers used what was left of the Ot­toman army’s equip­ment to bat­tle against the European oc­cu­pa­tion of parts of Ana­to­lia for four more years. This four-year war – the Turk­ish War of In­de­pen­dence – was in fact the con­tin­u­a­tion of the First World War in Ana­to­lia. The Turks’ ul­ti­mate vic­tory against the Euro­peans re­sulted in the es­tab­lish­ment of the Re­pub­lic of Turkey in 1923 un­der the pres­i­dency of Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk.

In­spired by th­ese events, ex-Ot­toman Arab of­fi­cers led a se­ries of re­bel­lions against European oc­cu­pa­tion of the Arab lands south of Ana­to­lia, in Greater Syria (to­day Syria, Jor­dan, Le­banon, and Is­rael/Pales­tine) and Iraq. Like the Turk­ish of­fi­cers to the north, th­ese Arab of­fi­cers also con­tin­ued the strug­gle of World War One, try­ing to wrest con­trol of their land from the oc­cu­py­ing armies of Bri­tain and France. They re­jected the new bor­ders im­posed on the Mid­dle East in the post-war set­tle­ment, and they bat­tled against Bri­tish and French troops by mov­ing from place to place as if the bor­ders did not ex­ist: in Iraq in 1920, in Syria from 1920-1927, and in Pales­tine in 1936 and 1948. Their aim was to es­tab­lish a uni­fied, in­de­pen­dent Arab state in the Arab prov­inces of the for­mer Ot­toman Em­pire.

Seek­ing help in the fight against the Bri­tish and French, th­ese Arab of­fi­cers ap­pealed to their for­mer Turk­ish com­rades, who by then were serv­ing as of­fi­cers in the newly cre­ated Turk­ish Army. But the Turks were ex­hausted by their own strug­gle to wrest parts of Ana­to­lia from Bri­tish and French con­trol, and they turned in­wards, fo­cus­ing now on build­ing their new re­pub­lic and de­fend­ing its bor­ders.

Left on their own, with­out the mil­i­tary in­fra­struc­ture of the once mighty Ot­toman army, the Arab fight­ers strug­gled but ul­ti­mately failed to ex­pel colo­nial troops from Arab lands. If they had suc­ceeded in their ef­forts, the Mid­dle East would look very dif­fer­ent to­day.

Fawzi al-Qawuqji was one for­mer Ot­toman Arab of­fi­cer who de­voted his life to fight­ing against colo­nial oc­cu­pa­tion.

His life story re­flects the larger story of Arab re­sis­tance against colo­nial­ism be­tween 1918 and 1948. He was born in 1894 in Tripoli, then un­der the rule of the Ot­toman Em­pire, and he en­rolled as a cadet in the Mil­i­tary Col­lege in Is­tan­bul. He fought as a young of­fi­cer on the Ot­toman side dur­ing the First World War, and never joined the Arab re­volt in the Hi­jaz. When the Ot­toman Em­pire col­lapsed in 1918, al-Qawuqji faced an un­cer­tain fu­ture. He could go north and fight with Mustafa Ke­mal’s forces in Ana­to­lia, or he could join the Arab army es­tab­lished by King Faysal in Syria in 1920. He chose to join Faysal’s army and to fight for an in­de­pen­dent Arab state in Syria.

When the French de­feated King Faysal’s forces at the Bat­tle of Maysalun in July 1920, Faysal was ex­pelled from Syria by its new European oc­cu­piers, and al-Qawuqji was once again left with­out a pro­fes­sional fu­ture.

As French rule over Syria deep­ened and so­lid­i­fied, al-Qawuqji de­cided to join the French army, even­tu­ally serv­ing as an of­fi­cer in a gar­ri­son in Hama.

But serv­ing in the army of Syria’s for­eign oc­cu­piers weighed heav­ily on him. In the au­tumn of 1925, in the mid­dle of the Great Syr­ian re­volt, al-Qawuqji mu­tinied against his French com­mand­ing of­fi­cer and led an up­ris­ing against the French in Hama.

One of his fel­low rebels and close con­fi­dantes ex­plained al-Qawuqji’s choice to leave his com­fort­able life as an of­fi­cer in the French army and join the Syr­ian rebels: al-Qawuqji “wanted free­dom from the life he was liv­ing by re­plac­ing it with a life of hon­our and dig­nity”.

For al-Qawuqji there was no turn­ing back. The French gov­ern­ment con­demned him as a traitor and de­serter, and put out a war­rant for his ar­rest. From that mo­ment on, al-Qawuqji lived the life of a rebel sol­dier.

After the col­lapse of the Great Syr­ian re­volt, al-Qawuqji went into ex­ile. He spent sev­eral years in the Hi­jaz work­ing for Ibn Saud and help­ing to train the new Saudi army.

When al-Qawuqji left the Hi­jaz – fol­low­ing a dis­pute with Prince Faysal, one of Ibn Saud’s sons – he moved to Bagh­dad. From Bagh­dad, al-Qawuqji or­gan­ised a small com­pany of ir­reg­u­lar soldiers and in the late sum­mer of 1936, he led them into Pales­tine, where they joined the Pales­tinian re­volt against the Bri­tish.

Al-Qawuqji’s role in the Pales­tinian re­volt made him fa­mous through­out Pales­tine. He was cel­e­brated in po­ems and songs, in­clud­ing one by the Pales­tinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, who de­scribed him as a “hero of he­roes” and “the flower of all young men”. Pales­tinian fight­ers hung framed pho­to­graphs of him on their walls, and post­cards de­pict­ing his ex­ploits were handed out at re­li­gious fes­ti­vals. When al-Qawuqji left Pales­tine and re­turned to Bagh­dad, the pro-Bri­tish Iraqi gov­ern­ment sent him into ex­ile in Kirkuk as a way of keep­ing him from mak­ing trou­ble. A pro-Ger­man re­volt against the pro-Bri­tish Iraqi gov­ern­ment broke out in 1941, and al-Qawuqji joined the Iraqi fight­ers. He car­ried on lead­ing a small band of loyal troops long after the Iraqi rebel lead­er­ship had been de­feated by the Bri­tish. Ger­man of­fi­cers and diplo­mats sta­tioned in what was then Vichy-con­trolled Syria sup­ported al-Qawuqji in his con­tin­ued at­tempts to attack Bri­tish army in­stal­la­tions and dis­rupt the flow of the oil that was so cru­cial to the Al­lied war ef­fort.

In the sum­mer of 1941, al-Qawuqji was se­verely wounded when two Bri­tish air­planes at­tacked him and his men as they trav­elled in the desert near Palmyra. His Ger­man con­tacts ar­ranged for him to be flown to Ber­lin, where he un­der­went ex­ten­sive surgery.

Dur­ing the surgery 19 bul­lets and pieces of car metal were re­moved from his body. But the sur­geon left one bul­let still lodged in his head, afraid that at­tempt­ing to re­move it would cause brain dam­age. Al-Qawuqji suf­fered from headaches for the rest of his life as a re­sult. Al-Qawuqji re­mained in Ger­many through­out World War Two. He was one of many Arab na­tion­al­ists who be­lieved that a Ger­man vic­tory in the Mid­dle East would fi­nally bring in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tish and French colo­nial rule. Other anti-colo­nial ac­tivists – such as the In­dian na­tion­al­ist Sub­has Chandra Bose and the Ir­ish na­tion­al­ist Sean Rus­sell – also spent the war years in Ber­lin lob­by­ing the Ger­mans to sup­port their fight for in­de­pen­dence.

Al-Qawuqji’s time in Ber­lin was marred by his grow­ing ri­valry with Hajj Amin Al Husayni, the de-facto leader of the Pales­tini­ans and also an Arab ex­ile in Ber­lin. Hajj Amin did ev­ery­thing he could to un­der­mine al-Qawuqji’s cred­i­bil­ity with his Ger­man in­ter­locu­tors, in­clud­ing ac­cus-

ing him of be­ing a Bri­tish spy.

When the Rus­sians oc­cu­pied Ber­lin in the sum­mer of 1945, al-Qawuqji found him­self in a Rus­sian pri­son camp. It was not un­til 1947 that he man­aged to es­cape from the Rus­sians, find­ing his way even­tu­ally to Paris, where he was wel­comed by the Le­banese Le­ga­tion in Paris as a lon­glost hero.

Al-Qawuqji re­turned to the Mid­dle East in March 1947. A lot had changed since his dra­matic de­par­ture in 1941. Syria, Le­banon, and Jor­dan had all gained in­de­pen­dence. The Jewish com­mu­nity in Pales­tine had in­creased in num­ber to about 600,000 souls, many of them refugees from Nazi-oc­cu­pied lands.

It be­came clear that the Bri­tish, who had ruled Pales­tine since 1917, were pre­par­ing to pack up and go home. A war be­tween the Pales­tinian Arabs and the Jewish com­mu­nity in Pales­tine was on the hori­zon. The Arab League, cre­ated just two years pre­vi­ously, started to plan for it. As part of th­ese prepa­ra­tions, the League es­tab­lished a vol­un­teer army that drew its troops from all across the Arab lands.

In late De­cem­ber 1947, the Arab League ap­pointed al-Qawuqji as field com­man­der of this army, which be­came known as the Arab Lib­er­a­tion Army (Jaysh Al In­qadh). By Jan­uary 1948, the Bri­tish had for­mally de­clared their in­ten­tion to leave Pales­tine and were al­ready start­ing to with­draw their troops. Al-Qawuqji had only a few weeks to find of­fi­cers, to re­cruit and train or­di­nary ranks, and to pro­cure sup­plies, weapons and am­mu­ni­tion.

For al-Qawuqji, fight­ing against the es­tab­lish­ment of a Jewish state in Pales­tine was just an­other war against European colo­nial con­trol of Arab lands. But in con­trast to 1936, when he led a small ir­reg­u­lar band of rebels into Pales­tine, al-Qawuqji now found him­self com­mand­ing a mod­ern army of about 4,000 men. The Arab Lib­er­a­tion Army en­tered Pales­tine in Jan­uary 1948 and en­gaged Jewish forces in sev­eral bat­tles over the fol­low­ing months.

Most ALA of­fi­cers and soldiers fought bravely, but al-Qawuqji was plagued by lo­gis­ti­cal and com­mand-and-con­trol prob­lems through­out the war. He never had a large enough num­ber of ex­pe­ri­enced of­fi­cers at his com­mand. Wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­stantly broke down, and even when he did man­age to get through to his own su­pe­ri­ors in Dam­as­cus, the League re­sponded slowly and hap­haz­ardly to his re­quests for the sup­plies and am­mu­ni­tion that he and his troops so des­per­ately needed.

The war ended well for the Jewish com­mu­nity: a re­sound­ing mil­i­tary vic­tory and the es­tab­lish­ment of the state of Is­rael over a far greater pro­por­tion of Pales­tine than the Yishuv had been promised in the UN’s Par­ti­tion Res­o­lu­tion of De­cem­ber 1947. Seven hun­dred and fifty thou­sand Pales­tini­ans were ex­pelled or fled from their towns and vil­lages, cre­at­ing the Pales­tinian refugee cri­sis that is still on­go­ing to­day, and Pales­tine was erased from the map.

Al-Qawuq ji re­tired from pub­lic life after the war. He left a com­plex legacy. Some still think of him as a great hero of the post-World War One strug­gle for Arab in­de­pen­dence. For oth­ers, he is ir­re­deemably im­pli­cated in the Arab de­feat in 1948.

Many re­gard him and his gen­er­a­tion as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of an era of hope­less and costly mil­i­tary ad­ven­tures, stretch­ing from 1948 to to­day.

Be­cause of the stain of 1948, there is very lit­tle writ­ten – ei­ther in English or Ara­bic – about al-Qawuqji and his fel­low exOt­toman of­fi­cers. But th­ese men fought hard against the colo­nial oc­cu­pa­tion of Arab lands from 1918-1948. They never ac­cepted colo­nial bor­ders and strug­gled in­stead for a dif­fer­ent vi­sion of the fu­ture.

Their story de­serves be told.

The Com­man­der: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab In­de­pen­dence 1914-1948 Laila Par­sons Saqi Books, Dh60

Pop­per­foto / Getty Im­ages

Pho­tos Getty Im­ages

On the cover: pho­to­graph of Arab fight­ers dis­cov­ered in 1938. Above: many be­lieve that Bri­tish army of­fi­cer T E Lawrence, bet­ter known as Lawrence of Ara­bia, per­suaded the Arabs to join the Bri­tish cam­paign against the Ot­tomans in 1916-18. But the...

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