Book Review

The Arab Commander Who Lost the 1948 War: Hero or Failure?

Focusing on the outsized life of pan-Arabist Fawzi al-Qawuqji, Laila Parsons' 'The Commander' paints a rich picture of the history of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism through 1948.

Palestinian refugees returning to their village after its surrender during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Wikimedia commons

“The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948,” by Laila Parsons, Hill and Wang, 320 pp., $26

In the autumn of 1947, the Arab League convened hurriedly in the town of Aley, north of Beirut, to assess the unexpected decision by the British to withdraw from Palestine the following year. Internecine violence was spiralling out of control in Mandate Palestine, and the colonial overlords were abandoning the situation to the United Nations.

The Arab League was establishing a force to seize control of Palestine once the British pulled out. Fawzi al-Qawuqji – soldier, tactician and Arab nationalist – was invited to the meeting, essentially to interview for the position of commander of the proposed Arab Liberation Army. Qawuqji had several factors in his favor, including 30 years of military experience and an outsized reputation on the Arab “street.”

“Unlike many leading Arab nationalists, who came from the elite landowning families,” the historian Leila Parsons writes, in her new biography of Qawuqji, he “always possessed the ability to connect directly with common people, whom the elites came to speak in the name of but in fact often represented a clear threat to their social and economic status.”

A bit of a mouthful, but one gets the point: Qawuqji, the perfect candidate to lead the drive to reclaim Palestine, had the authentic credentials of a man of the people.

He failed — this much we know. Why he failed remains a matter for debate, all the more pertinent given the place of the Nakba (the "catastrophe," in Arabic, or, if you prefer, the creation of the State of Israel) in contemporary Arab nationalist discourse. “The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and The Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948,” is an intriguing reassessment of the Arab nationalist and military strategist, and crafts a studiously even-handed history of the Arab anti-colonial movement through 1948.

Fawzi al-Qawuqji was born in Tripoli, in present-day Lebanon, in 1890. His father served in the Ottoman Army, and the younger Qawuqji followed in his footsteps, completing his officer training at the Ottoman War College in Istanbul. During World War I, Qawuqji served, with some distinction, in the Ottoman Army, in Iraq and Palestine. Like many Arab officers, he allowed the British-backed Arab Revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman Empire to pass him by, probably recognizing that its focus was not Arab emancipation but furthering British interests in the region. At the end of the war, on the losing side and demobbed, he returned to Tripoli, his future uncertain.

Biographers sometimes stretch for the coherent – and convenient – linear narrative, at the expense of complexity. Parsons, a professor of history and Islamic studies at McGill University, instead draws a more rounded, albeit contradictory, account of Qawuqji’s life from available sources: a story of idealism tinged with ambition, inconsistency and alleged opportunism, military service in three different armies over three decades interspersed with freelance insurgency.

Fawzi al-Qawuqji
Wikimedia Commons

Qawuqji consistently sought out progressive pan-Arab forces, but in doing so left himself exposed to the ideological contradictions of Arab nationalism – specifically, competing visions of the various sovereign states regarding the composition (and leadership) of a future pan-Arab state.

Qawuqji’s first overt engagement with Arab nationalism was in 1918, when he threw his lot in with the nascent Arab government of Greater Syria (today’s Syria, plus Lebanon), headed by Faisal, son of the Hashemite grand sharif of Mecca. This nominally independent government was short-lived; the San Remo Conference of 1920 imposed a French mandate over the country.

A brief, unsuccessful war ensued, with Qawuqji on the (losing) side of the independent Arab fighters. Faisal was exiled, and Qawuqji went to ground. While the exact facts remain unclear, when he re-emerged the next year, he was an enlisted officer in the French-established Syrian Legion – surprising given his anti-colonial stance of not long before.

Qawuqji later claimed this was an act of infiltration; Parsons, scrupulously even-handed, suggests that given his circumstances (among other things, he had recently married), he had no other options. In any case, there he remained for the next few years.

In 1925, various tribal and political interests united in a revolt against the French. Qawuqji, a cavalry officer in the town of Hama, joined in. Things seemed promising at first, but after the French decisively crushed the revolt in Hama in late 1926, he fled, an outlaw.

Forced into exile

His next decade was peripatetic. First port of call was the Hejaz, in present-day Saudi Arabia, to train fellow Syrian exiles in the army of the sultanate of Ibn Sa’ud. It was an uneasy alliance, and after Qawuqji found himself on the wrong side of Ibn Sa’ud, he left for Iraq. Faisal – of Greater Syria – had in the meantime been rewarded by the British for his loyalty, crowning him the first king of Iraq. Even though Qawuqji had fought against the British during World War I, he saw, in his erstwhile patron Faisal, the potential to build on genuine Arab autonomy.

Fawzi al-Qawuqji
Wikimedia Commons

By the 1930s, the Palestine question – specifically, the British Mandate and Zionist migration to the Jewish ancestral homeland – was fanning the embers of Arab nationalism. Qawuqji, who had taken up a commission with the Iraqi Army, followed developments closely. Upon the outbreak of the Arab Revolt of 1936, he determined that the time had come to put rhetoric into action; resigning his army commission, he put together a party of guerrilla fighters to fight the British in Palestine.

The popular legend on the Arab “street” of Qawuqji the heroic fighter and astute tactician – which influenced the decision, a decade later, to appoint him to head the Arab Liberation Army in Palestine – stems from this period. There’s no doubt that his irregulars, operating in the north of what is now the West Bank, contributed to the general sense of unease of the period. But relying on contemporaneous reportage and records, Parsons proposes that while he was an irritant, he didn’t achieve much by way of military victories.

He did, however, forge a mutually distrusting relationship with Amin al-Husseini, grand mufti of Jerusalem. Husseini had his own ambitions for a pan-Arab state, albeit one with Jerusalem (and, naturally, himself) at its center. Qawuqji’s freelance operations were not merely a challenge to his political authority and competence, but a reminder that the Palestine question was, for many players, merely a means toward an end.

In any case, the British, fed up with Qawuqji’s meddling, leaned on the Iraqis to take him out of the picture. Between this and pressure from the mufti, he was pushed to leave Palestine. On his return to Iraq, he was promptly forced into internal exile in Kirkuk.

Domestic intrigues had left Qawuqji without a champion in the Iraqi political sphere, and he remained on the sidelines until the brief and bloody Anglo-Iraqi War of 1941, which erupted against the background of World War II and was sparked by an attempted coup aiming to excise pro-British sentiments.

Qawuqji put together a band of irregulars to fight the British. But this initiative failed. First, he was defeated in battle against the British, as the coup itself collapsed. The new government offered Qawuqji amnesty, but he turned it down, choosing to remain loyal to his fighters. Instead, he formed a new alliance with Vichy French forces in Eastern Syria. Then, travelling to defend an oil-pumping station in Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, he was badly injured when a British fighter plane strafed his convoy. After initial treatment in Vichy-controlled Syria, he was transferred to Germany, where he spent the rest of the war.

Qawuqji was a marginal figure for much of his Germany period, in part due to the close relationship between the Germans and Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. While Parsons does not contribute much to our understanding of this period, she notes that Husseini accused Qawuqji of being a British spy – supposedly, he had ceded victory to the British during the Anglo-Iraqi war too easily. The recuperating Qawuqji had to defend himself against accusations of treason.

That said, not being central to the German-Arab war effort ultimately played out in his favor. After the end of the war (and detention by the Russians), Qawuqji swiftly re-integrated himself into pan-Arab activism, his reputation (untested since 1941, incidentally) improved in his absence.

And so to 1947 and the Arab League. The conventional wisdom places much of the blame for the initial failures in Israel's 1948 War of Independence against the Arabs with Qawuqji’s deficiencies as a tactician and leader. Parsons, however, argues that his appointment was flawed from the start. At the conference in the Lebanese city of Aley, she notes, participants from the principal Arab blocs sought to advance personal agendas. Tellingly, the grand mufti of Jerusalem was not invited to Aley, and had to gate-crash proceedings to argue his case against Qawuqji. Qawuqji’s main advantage, it seems, was not being affiliated to any of the dominant blocs jostling for positions.

“The Commander” never quite captures the essence of Qawuqji as a military mastermind – or, alternatively, explicating this myth. He was here, there and everywhere, true, but never really rose above distinguishing himself in losing military causes. The real strength of Parsons' book lies in the rich, textured picture she paints, both of the history of Arab nationalism and of the poor judgments that led to the Nakba.

Appointing Qawuqji was merely one of many bad decisions. The Arab Liberation Army was grossly unprepared for combat. Soldiers were undertrained and under-equipped; there were multiple lines of command, relying more on existing loyalties than circumstances on the ground; field battalions were unwilling or unable to coordinate effectively; supply lines were fragile.

Beyond all this, and despite the clear warnings sounded at Aley, the preparedness of the Haganah, the pre-state Israeli army, was largely discounted. Early victories for the Israelis in the spring of 1948 were enough to destroy whatever fragile morale the ALA was nursing; the hodgepodge army labored on until the end of the year before being disbanded, consistent only in its ineffectualness.

Visceral tensions

One shortcoming of “The Commander” is its dry, academic tone. Faulting Parsons for scholarly meticulousness is unfair. (We certainly need more of this in our age, dominated by hyperbole and “false facts.”) But matter-of-fact exposition deprives the reader of the visceral tensions ever-present in Qawuqji’s life. One example: When he returned to the Middle East from Europe in 1947, he was almost captured by British agents, after his flight to Cairo made an unscheduled landing in Mandate territory. The situation was tense, touch and go. But instead, we are presented with an almost anti-climactic description.

“After an hour or so of refueling, the plane took off for the short flight to Cairo,” Parsons writes. “Al-Qawuqji did not feel relief until the plane started to descend, and he saw the lights of Cairo below him.”

This lack matters because Qawuqji’s place in the story of pan-Arab nationalism only makes sense if one can fully appreciate his status as a soldier, taking the fight to Western colonialism. That this doesn’t quite come across diminishes Parsons' book somewhat.

One thing “The Commander” makes clear, though, is that there was enough blame to be spread around for Palestine 1948. It was Qawuqji’s misfortune that, after 30 years championing Arab nationalism, he was labelled the scapegoat for the 1948 war. As “The Commander” reminds us, responsibility for the failure to achieve pan-Arab unity runs much further back.