Picking sides in Syria, the Algerian experience

14 November 2012

Some thirty-five years ago, in 1977 to be exact, I first published A Savage War of Peace, a definitive history of France’s war in Algeria. The war dragged on from 1954 to 1962, torpedoed six French governments, and the Fourth Republic itself, bringing de Gaulle to power. It also introduced a new meaning to the word ‘insurgence.’ Thanks to the indolence of my publishers, the book was allowed to go out of print. When the Iraq War began, to my fury I learned that it was changing hands on the free market in Washington at over $200 a copy, with quantities being bought by the Pentagon.

Then, out of the blue, in 2006, the New York Review of Books offered to reprint it in their ‘Classics’ series; I was invited to write a new foreword, bringing the lessons of Algeria into focus on what was going wrong in Iraq. It became an instant best-seller. I am aware that writers for The Spectator always eschew name-dropping, but one of its readers was President George W. Bush. To my surprise, and gratification, I was invited by him to the White House, and was allowed the best part of an hour discussing Algeria and Iraq. He was most courteous, and — contrary to reports — well-read, as well as being (as I found on a later occasion in London) an attentive listener.

He asked me, pointedly, how de Gaulle had got out of Algeria. I replied not well, in fact he lost his shirt, he lost everything. Looking discomforted, the President repeated twice ‘we’re not going to pull out of Iraq, we’re going to win.’ I reflected to myself that it was really too late now, five years down the lane in Iraq, to utilize the lessons of Algeria. That should have been done before going in:  and the cautionary advice ought surely to have been NO; DON’T.

Although la guerre d’Algérie ended fifty years ago, as the first major conflict between the West and the Arab world, policy-framers still find it has much relevance today. Insurgents blooded in Algeria turned up again in Afghanistan, and Iraq. There was, however, also always one emphatic difference:  Algeria was simply an anti-colonial war of national liberation. For that reason it was easier to understand than Iraq, or Syria today. Islamic, sectarian differences were at a minimum in Algeria; Fundamentalism was not an issue. That all came later in the gruesome civil war of the 1990s, which may have claimed another hundred-and-fifty thousand lives.

Now the West is confronted with the agonizing problem of involvement in the ongoing misery in Syria, and — at the same time – support for a possible go-it-alone Netanyahu strike on Iran. With the sobering lessons of Algeria, Iraq — and now Afghanistan — behind us one would hope the response in both London and Washington might this time be a resounding NO; KEEP OUT to both.

Hillary Clinton has proved herself to be an outstandingly competent US Secretary of State. Just recently she came out with the sage advice that the US should cease giving across-the-board encouragement to the SNC as being a bunch of out-of-touch exiles in Istanbul, many of whom ‘have not been in Syria for 20,30 or 40 years.’ Instead there had to be ‘representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom.’ This sounded like coming uncomfortably close to involvement in Syrian affairs, but the advice was nevertheless historically well-founded.


During the latter stages of the Algerian War, leadership of the insurgent FLN was split between the ‘intérieur’ and the ‘extérieur.’ The ‘intérieur’ consisted of hard men, toughened by nearly eight years of grim warfare; it was they who had done the fighting. They were headed by Houari Boumedienne, whose unsmiling, gaunt features said it all. The ‘extérieur’ were formed around six members of the original ‘neuf historiques’ founders of the revolt in 1954, who were based largely in Cairo or French prisons. They had had an unusual career; at the time of Suez in 1956, their plane had been intercepted by the French in a highly questionable coup de main, and they were then held in French prisons for the next six years.

On release at the end of the war in 1962, they set up again in Cairo. Their leader was Ahmed Ben Bella, a football-playing ex-sergeant in the French army (he died this April). In 1962, Ben Bella, though supremely out of touch, was elected first premier, later President of the new, independent Algeria. Increasingly autocratic, he was a disaster, and in 1965 was roughly deposed by army chief Boumedienne, once his close friend, and disappeared into house arrest.

While researching my book in Algeria I moved heaven and earth to interview Ben Bella, but was told it was impossible. There were even ugly rumours that he had had his tongue torn out. Such was Algeria in those days. Several of Ben Bella’s colleagues among the wartime leaders of the FLN were mysteriously bumped off; one, Mohamed Khider, shot down in a Madrid street, another, Belkacem Krim, who had led the peace negotiations with de Gaulle, found garroted in a Frankfurt hotel. Eventually, in 1980 Ben Bella was exiled to Switzerland, where he lived in fear of his life. One FLN ex-pat whom I went to see, Mohamed Lebjaoui, hid out in a small flat in Geneva, protected by a Cerberus-like mastiff.

Eventually I tracked down Ben Bella, in 1986  through a Swiss journalist friend. The rendez-vous had all the makings of a James Bond plot. I was instructed to be at McDonalds, opposite Lausanne station at 9.30 the following day. ‘Carry a copy of Le Monde; a man will come up and ask if it is today’s paper; you will answer “Yes, it is,” and he will say “I am Mr. Yussef.” You will then follow him in your car…’

All went swimmingly, precisely as arranged; except that the young Algerian muffed his lines by saying ‘I’m afraid Mr. Yussef couldn’t come to day.’ I suppose if I had been Daniel Craig I should have brought out my Walther PPK, fired, and fled the scene. Instead I obediently followed Mr. Yussef’s understudy, behind his expensive new BMW on a roundabout route, up into the hills behind the city; then, on his signaling, left my car in a parking lot and got into the BMW.

Would I end up kidnapped, chained to Terry Waite for 5 years? Or garrotted like Krim? Algerian politics was a roughhouse in those days. But curiosity got the better of prudence. After another mile or so, we arrived at a prosperous villa with its name writ large  on the front wall: ‘La Baraka’, or Arabic for spiritual good fortune. Despite all the mysterious persiflage, nothing could be more obvious that an important Arab, probably an Algerian, was housed there.

Inside ‘La Baraka’ I was welcomed by Ben Bella himself, unmistakable with his great shock of curly black hair, despite his age of 69. He urged me not to reveal the name of the town where we meeting, then launched into his plans for a comeback in Algeria. It was hard to remember that here was a man who had once been one of the most redoubted revolutionaries of the post-1945 world, on a par with Castro or Ho Chi Minh. It was, potentially, a most exciting encounter for any historian; but I was swiftly disappointed. Ben Bella was all too clearly one of yesterday’s men, hopelessly out of touch with the real world, particularly the world inside his own country. His main concern seemed to be a longing to return his home in Marnia.

But he was of the same feather as the out-of-touch Iraqi ex-pats, of the ‘extérieur’, like  Ahmed Chalabi and merchants of the Bagdad bazaar who managed to sell the 2003 invasion to the awful Rumsfeld and his team of pro-Israel enthusiasts, Wolfowitz, Feith and  Perle in the Pentagon. Now, Mrs. Clinton has wisely warned against backing the Syrian ‘extérieur’ in Istanbul. At the same time, PM Cameron on his recent trip to the Middle East spoke up for the possibility of arming the rebels of the ‘intérieur’. Nice thought; but who, precisely? In Syria, how do you separate the sheep from Al-Qaeda? On all previous occasions, in Afghanistan, Iraq — and most recently, Libya — weapons supplied by the West have ended up in the wrong hands.

And now, on the heels of Cameron’s visit to the Gulf, one of the most prominent Syrian leaders, in whom much faith was invested, Riad Seif, has resigned, apparently leaving the whole dissident movement once more in a state of Mid-Eastern chaos.

For the US and Britain to be seen to be picking ‘responsibles’ in the Syrian opposition seems a precedent fraught with danger. As I said earlier, Algeria was simpler; during the war with France, sectarian strife was not an issue. In Syria it is the issue. Painful as it may be to watch the horrors of its civil war, we should keep out. This is an Arab, and an Islamic issue.

The question Cameron should have been asking our friends in the Gulf was ‘Why can’t YOU do more?’ Why is it always the West that is left to pull Arab chestnuts out of the fire? We only come off with burnt fingers.

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  • Well Spoken

    Very well written article. The arab and middle-eastern countries must do more yes, send ground troops etc. The US and UK have their own responsiblities to handle domestically. Syria depends on Syrians

  • Derk Aderkaderk

    Cant but admire the arabs for their pride, they dont take crap for noone, the character of a true warrior.

  • mladenm

    Actually, it’s not even just Islamic issue. There are 10% Christians. Then 13% of Alawite who are Arab, but barely Shiite Muslim. Kurds who are Sunni but not Arabs. Then Druse… And many Sunni who as religious as typical Europeans and don’t want religious hard-liners to decide what they will dress and how they will behave. Meanwhile, rebels with guns can be divided on village militias running amok in large towns and hard-core Islamist, many foreign, who dream of 7th century Caliphate. Best favour USA could do would be to push for political solution with all it’s might and then help ensure there will be free, fair and internationally monitored elections, with secular state afterwards. If USA wanted it over 200 years ago, what would be excuse to help someone opposing that goal?

  • Brad

    Sir Alistair’s analysis fails on two grounds:

    1. French policy was complicated by the need to reconcile Algeria’s future with an acceptable status for the pieds noir, a condition that proved unrealizable at acceptable cost. The American adventure in Iraq faced no such constraint.

    2. The FLN’s exile leadership came to grief because it was quickly upstaged by the internal leadership, which had been hardened by years of war. In Iraq, Saddam’s secret police had done an effective job of destroying any organized internal dissent, so that any post-invasion government would have to have been dominated by exiles, who would have faced no competition from organized internal rivals aside from remnants of the Baath.

  • edlancey

    As one who read ASWOP before it was fashionably (and hopefully profitably) re-released you had me right up until you called Clinton “outstandingly competent”…

  • cg

    I was lucky enough to be able to buy a copy of the excellent ‘A Savage War of Peace’ in a library sale. I recommend it very highly.

  • Alkan Kizildel

    On no account do not get involved in Arab or indeed Muslim affairs which includes Iran and Pakistan. Let them sink in their own mire..!

  • Vulture

    Nice to see one of our most eminent and underrated – historians is still as sharp as ever.

    (For those who have never read him Horne’s trilogy on the three wars between France and Germany from 1870-1940 as well as his Algeria book – are superb, although, like most British historians he is far too kind to the evil De Gaulle. [ It would have been far better all round if the OAS had succeeded in bumping him off and saved Algeria]).

    It is troubling that our idiotic child of a Prime Minister, instead of heeding Sir Alistair’s wise words to the West, which can be summed up as STEER CLEAR OF THE MIDDLE EAST – is talking of getting involved in the Syrian imbroglio which is none of our business.

    Sir Alistair should go to Downing Street and put the ignorant and historically illiterate fool right. Thank God that the US will soon overtake Saudi oil production and that we are sitting on trillions of cubic feet of Shale Gas. Once we can meet our own energy needs we can leave the sons of the desert with their awful religion to do what comes most naturally to them, – as Horne demonstrates so graphically – viz. killing each other.

  • vix

    Fascinating to hear of this and hope your book is still in print/e-editions. I look forward to a good read.
    Yes, there are others to take on this battle – but it is next door to Israel so USA bound to stay involved. Since we have a ‘special’ relationship with US (and NATO) and since the EU (of which we are so far still a member) is trying to look like a country, we are unlikely to stay out though! And Turkey, in NATO, is next-door….. All as you already know.
    Ledwidge on ‘Losing Small Wars’ makes the point that US/UK should have looked to the reconstruction of Germany in 1945 for a model of post war Iraq development. Interesting idea, if there had been a plan at all to put the country quickly back on its feet.

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