Argument

Once Upon a Time, America Needed Syria

Americans have forgotten that their long history of intervention in the Middle East started in Damascus. Now it might end there.

A mosque, in Damascus, in the 1930s. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A mosque, in Damascus, in the 1930s. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Just as the Central Intelligence Agency came into being in September 1947, two of its officers drove east out of Beirut over the mountains to meet a colleague who had just arrived in Damascus. Archie and Kim Roosevelt were cousins—grandsons of the buccaneering 26th U.S. president no less—and, though only 29 and 31 years old respectively, were already veterans of the world of intelligence. Archie, who had recently completed a posting as the military attaché in Iran, was the new head of the CIA station in Beirut; Kim, who had served in the Office of Strategic Services during the war, was posing as a journalist on a commission for Harper’s magazine. The man they were going to meet would eventually become equally well known. His name was Miles Copeland.

Once the two Roosevelts had met up with Copeland, the three men embarked on a tour of Syria. Ostensibly, they wished to see the country’s numerous Crusader castles; in reality, they were talent-scouting. In particular, they wanted to identify Syrians in positions of influence who had benefited from an American education and might be willing to help them in a matter that had assumed the greatest strategic significance. The cover and the real purpose of the mission dovetailed rather well: By the fall of 1947, Syria had become as important to the United States as it had been to the Crusaders eight centuries earlier.

Then as now, it was the country’s location, rather than its resources, that made it so crucial. Syria had mattered to the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries because it lay on the route between Europe and Jerusalem. And it mattered to these three Americans in September 1947 because it lay on the likely route of a pipeline that would pump vast quantities of oil from Saudi Arabia to Europe via a terminal on the Mediterranean coast. Such was the importance of this project that the CIA men made two extraordinary moves to secure it. Not only did they sabotage a British plan that seemed to threaten it, but they also interfered, to a degree that was unprecedented, in local politics in the region.

Although the episode marked the beginning of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East, it has been largely forgotten—including by U.S. policymakers. Syria clearly still has geopolitical importance for some countries. The United States just isn’t one of them.

The idea that Syria would be the arena for a conflict between the United States and Britain over the resources of Saudi Arabia would have been inconceivable a decade prior to the Roosevelts’ arrival in 1947. Between the wars, Syria was ruled by the French; the American presence was tiny by comparison and confined largely to missionary activity. But then, in 1938, an American-owned and domiciled joint venture, Aramco, struck oil in Saudi Arabia. Although output was initially constrained by the war, in 1944 the eminent oil geologist Everette Lee DeGolyer reached a stunning conclusion following a visit. Believing that there might be as much as 100 billion barrels of oil beneath the desert of Saudi Arabia, he decided that the center of gravity of the oil business would soon shift 8,000 miles east, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.

This had profound ramifications for the Americans, because Aramco’s relations with the Saudi king, Ibn Saud, who had granted it the concession in the first place, were rather bad. The war had cut Aramco off from its primarily Far Eastern market, while shortages of steel constrained its plans to expand. The result was that the king, who had been counting on growing oil income, was short of money and hinted periodically that he might take the concession off Aramco and give it to the British.

In a bid to mend fences with Ibn Saud by enabling the company to compete in the thirsty European market and to extend his influence into Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, which gained their independence soon after the end of the war, the U.S. government proposed building a Trans-Arabian Pipeline from the Saudi oilfields to the Mediterranean coast. Although Tapline, as the pipeline was known, would ultimately be financed by Aramco itself, the project had always been strategically attractive in Washington. By making Saudi oil cheaper than American oil in Europe, the pipe would ensure that the Saudis would now fuel Europe’s postwar recovery, while the United States conserved its domestic stocks of oil in case there was another war. Moreover, the trade would generate profits for Aramco and dividends for its owners—both of which the U.S. Treasury could tax. The pipeline would thus help recoup some of the billions that the United States was about to spend through the Marshall Plan, which then-Secretary of State George Marshall unveiled at Harvard University in June 1947.

Tapline’s one drawback was that it put the United States on a collision course with the British, because Aramco’s pipeline would compete with that already operated by the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company, which pumped Iraqi oil from Kirkuk to Haifa, and it would extend Saudi influence into a region that the Iraqis and their British allies regarded as their backyard. When a week after Marshall spoke at Harvard he heard that Jordan’s king, Abdullah, had gone to Baghdad for talks and then learned that Abdullah had reiterated that his goal was a reunited Syria in federation with Iraq, Marshall correctly guessed that the British were at work behind the scenes.

It was Kim Roosevelt who then spiked the British plan. At a point when the British government was denying that it was either for or against Abdullah’s proposal, Roosevelt approached the Jordanian king’s chief British advisor, Alec Kirkbride, in his guise as a writer for Harper’s. “Pleasant and unassuming,” according to his namesake, the British double agent Kim Philby, and “the last person you would expect to be up to the neck in dirty tricks,” Roosevelt managed to elicit from Kirkbride the crucial information that surreptitiously the British were indeed backing Abdullah’s ambition. Knowing that the news that the British were supporting Abdullah to be king of an Arab federation would infuriate the Iraqis, the Americans passed the intelligence to Baghdad. Just as the Roosevelts were touring Syria with Copeland, the Iraqi government openly denounced Abdullah’s plan, effectively destroying it.

Although the three CIA officers could—and did—congratulate themselves for seeing off the British threat, that was not the end of the matter. While Syria’s president, Shukri al-Quwatli, had given his government’s approval for Tapline, the deal still needed parliamentary ratification. Efforts by Aramco and the CIA to support friendly candidates in the summer 1947 election in Syria did not smooth the process. Neither could the men the Roosevelts and Copeland met during their tour of Syria that fall. Ratification had still not happened when, on Nov. 29 1947, the United States government voted at the United Nations in favor of the partition of Palestine, a move that caused uproar across the Arab world. In Damascus, a mob stormed the U.S. Embassy, and a Tapline encampment in Jordan was also attacked. Quwatli, unwilling to court public opprobrium, put ratification on hold indefinitely.

At the end of 1948, one of Copeland’s colleagues in Damascus, Stephen Meade, believed he had found the man who could end the deadlock. Husni al-Zaim was an ambitious and bombastic Syrian army colonel. The “only way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy” was “with the whip,” he told Meade, thwacking his desk with his riding crop. Having seized power with the CIA’s help on March 30, 1949, Zaim announced that he would ratify Tapline by decree just days later. With this final obstacle removed, the pipeline was completed in September 1950 and began pumping oil three months later.

As Damascus’s taxi fleet of vintage Dodges and Chevrolets used to reflect, the pipeline brought the United States unrivalled influence in Syria in the early ’50s. But it was brief. America’s ally, President Adib Shishakli, was overthrown in 1954, and the country drifted leftward, which Moscow assisted with by offering arms in exchange for Syrian wheat and cotton, as well as soft loans. Following three unsuccessful attempts to launch counter-coups—the last of which provoked a threat from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev of nuclear war—at the end of 1957, the senior U.S. diplomat in Damascus admitted that there was no more his country could do to stop Syria’s drift into the Soviet orbit. “Unhappily there is no satisfactory alternative, as far as I can see, to leaving the handling of the problem to King Saud and other moderate Arabs. The best we can hope for from Syria for a long time would be genuine neutrality.”

The grounds for risking a conflict with the Soviet Union over Syria soon waned. From the mid-1950s, the new generation of supertankers increasingly presented a more economic and reliable route to market than Tapline, which was intermittently disrupted either by war or demands from the states it crossed for higher payments. And by the time the northernmost section of the pipeline, through Syria and Lebanon, was shut down in 1976, the Americans no longer had a financial stake in the venture, since the Saudis completed the nationalization of Aramco the same year.

Yet the geopolitical facts that made Syria an arena in the 1940s and ’50s remained. The country stood on the natural corridor between the Gulf and Europe. Mindful, perhaps, of how this had destabilized his country in earlier times, in 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned down a Qatari proposal to route a gas pipeline through Syrian territory in favor of a pipe that would connect the Iranian oilfields with the Mediterranean for the first time, creating a steel umbilical cord that tied him to his patrons in Teheran.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Qatar, like most of the other local states that disliked Assad, expected the United States to intervene after the Syrian president used chemical weapons against his own people. But the United States, having long since given up Syria as a lost cause, had no deep interest in intervening in the country in the way that it had done more than 60 years before, as its half-hearted effort to arm Assad’s opponents has shown. Its chastening experience in Iraq, and the chaos caused by the Anglo-French intervention in Libya, provided additional reasons for inertia. The growing shale industry in the United States means that, for the time being at least, the arguments over energy security that were so powerful in the late 1940s no longer have any purchase.

The reasons why the United States was once so ready to interfere directly in Syria are much the same as those motivating the Russians today. President Vladimir Putin’s great aim is to reverse his country’s waning influence by controlling the flow of energy in all directions from Russia, the Middle East, and the Caspian Sea region. Control of the Syrian corridor will improve his chances of being able to monopolize future European supply.

Having protected Assad from western retaliation in the U.N. Security Council, Putin will no doubt be looking for payback from his client in the future. America’s moment in the Middle East is now over. The Russian era, on the other hand, looks like it has only just begun.

This article was adapted from Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East

James Barr is the author of Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East.

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