Deja Vu? Debating a U.S. Intervention in Syria in 1919

December 4, 2015

The horrific attacks in Paris on November 13 have increased calls for the United States to take a greater role in Syria. This is not the first time that the question of American involvement in Syria has arisen. Almost a century ago, in the midst of another Syrian crisis, the United States faced pressure to intervene, but managed to resist. Whether it chooses to intervene this time could well become the main foreign policy question of the coming months.

The issue in 1919 revolved around what the American military representative to the Paris Peace Conference Gen. Tasker H. Bliss called “a grand triangular row” in Syria. In exchange for their help during the war against the Ottoman Empire, the British had promised Arabs led by Emir Faisal a large Arab state. In a letter to a friend, available today at the United States Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Bliss noted with a degree of sarcasm, that now that the World War was over, the Arabs “are so unkind as to insist on these promises being fulfilled.”

Standing in their way were French imperialists, who claimed that their ancient connections to Syria entitled them to a voice in the region’s future. Faisal, however, pledged to fight the French if they came to colonize Syria. He told William Westermann, Woodrow Wilson’s Middle Eastern advisor and a professor at Columbia University, that he “was now ready to let the blood run out of his body” rather than turn Syria over to France. The British played a dual game, trying both to limit the size of French claims and to use those same claims to justify their own interventions into Mesopotamia, Palestine, Jordan, and elsewhere.

Faisal and his English advisor, T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) wanted the United States to shield Syria from European imperialism by declaring Syria an American protectorate. From there, Faisal envisioned the creation of a grand confederation of Arab states on the American model. If the Americans would agree, Faisal promised, the Middle East would emerge as a stable region and there would be statues of American leaders in every city in the region. Westermann, the Columbia professor advising Wilson, was taken by the idea. “Voila! Great is Lawrence and great is Faisal. I am a convert,” he wrote.

Bliss was far less certain. The United States had not declared war on the Ottoman Empire, limiting Wilson’s authority to intervene in Middle Eastern issues. More importantly, Bliss saw British and French schemes as an attempt to tie American power to imperial agendas that the United States did not share. “I myself have declared,” Bliss wrote in his letter, “that I would not touch the question, even with a pole long enough to reach from here to Syria, unless I were positively ordered to do so by my government.”

Chance gave the Americans a way out. British diplomats at the Paris Peace Conference proposed a commission to undertake a fact-finding trip to Syria to find out what the Syrians themselves wanted. The French were livid because they guessed that few Syrians would express a desire for French protection. Faisal, by contrast, was so elated that he drank his first glass of champagne.

The commission bought the United States enough time and diplomatic cover to disengage from the idea of intervening in Syria. French troops then preempted the commission by forcing Faisal and his Arab army out of Syria. The British sent him to Mesopotamia in 1921 to be the king of the new state of Iraq, a place Faisal had never before seen.

Today, of course, the context in Syria is different, and in ways that may make avoiding American intervention this time more difficult. In 2015, unlike in 1919, Americans feel their interests threatened by events in Syria as instability there has shown the ability to inspire terrorism worldwide. This time, France appears not as an imperialist power trying desperately to expand its empire but as a beleaguered ally that deserves our help and is fighting on the front lines of a shared fight.

The problems of today are every bit as complex as those of a century ago. As Bliss wrote to his wife, “We used to study for a day or two ahead — perhaps for a month. Now we think in terms of 50 or 75 years — perhaps even centuries.” Bliss himself used to escape from the pressures of Paris by reading Livy and Thucydides in their original languages. He saw as clearly as anyone that the deep histories of Europe, the Middle East, and the United States would make finding a solution difficult, if not impossible.

The “triangular row” that Bliss saw in 1919 is today something with a seemingly infinite number of sides. The problem he faced is therefore not an exact analog and may provide only vague guidance. Whether or not the United States should heed his warnings against intervention in Syria this time will be a defining problem for this administration and the one that will soon follow it.


Michael S. Neiberg is the inaugural Chair of War Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College. His most recent book on the First World War is Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Harvard University Press, 2011). The Wall Street Journal recently named it one of the five best books ever written about the war. He is currently at work on a history of American responses to the Great War, 1914–1917. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Army War College.