The Syrian Intervention: Following the Wingate Model
British Maj. Gen. Orde Charles Wingate’s approach to the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian occupation in 1941 provides a useful model for modern-day intervention in Syria. Rather than hand out money and materiel to local forces, Wingate advocated committing one’s own forces and then allowing local forces to participate of their own accord. In his view, loyalty bought with cash and weapons will always prove temporary.
One of the recurrent arguments against full-scale American intervention in Syria (as well as in Kurdistan) has been the contention that the various rebel forces might prove to be greater regional threats than the murderous, yet contained, Assad regime.
This misconception is anything but new.
Two years ago, Steven Heydemann, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote in his “Why the United States hasn’t intervened in Syria” that in addition to a “deep cognitive bias against risk” and an overreliance on lessons presumably learned from earlier US interventions, previous administrations failed to appreciate that “Syrian fighters followed resources, not beliefs.”
Indeed, providing significantly increased training and resources to the various Syrian opposition groups has long been championed by US diplomats, albeit to little avail. See, for example, former Ambassador Frederic C. Hof’s 2015 exhortation that the “train and equip” program be put “on steroids.”
To be sure, empowering and developing opposition forces to counteract the Assad regime, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman expansionism, Iranian influence, and Russian regional maneuvering must form a crucial part of US strategy. However, there is a fundamental problem with the very concept of “supply and equip” that must be understood — and it was explained 77 years ago.
Orde Wingate was the military genius and innovator whose early dedication to Zionism — and invaluable training of the Anglo-Jewish Special Night Squads and other Haganah personnel — led to his enduring place of honor within Israeli military doctrine and history. His subsequent theory of long-range penetration “not only worked, but resulted in a new concept of warfare and established combat techniques that today are used by both regular and unconventional forces.”
While numerous books have been written about Wingate’s long-range penetration campaigns into Burma (during one of which he died in a plane crash on March 24, 1944), his campaign to restore Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian throne following Italian usurpation has been somewhat neglected.
Ethiopia did not matter much to the British government circa 1940. Selassie, its deposed emperor, had been left to wander the halls of power as Italian forces continued to consolidate positions deeper in East Africa.
W.G. Burchett summarized the overall campaign to retake Ethiopia in his 1946 book Wingate Adventure. With about two thousand mixed Sudanese and Abyssinian regular soldiers, an average of one thousand Abyssinian patriots, and a handful of British officers and NCOs, he chased nearly 40,000 Italian and Colonial forces through the Abyssinian jungle.
The “thousand patriots” were locals who fought within tribal structures rather than as conscripted troops. Wingate’s lifelong friend, Brigadier Derek Tulloch, noted in his 1972 book Wingate in Peace and War that Wingate had managed to unite the Hazara and Galla tribes to serve under his command despite their bitter historical rivalry.
How Wingate accomplished this is the lesson that must be learned and applied in Syria.
The dominant theory at the time — which has, disturbingly, persisted into present thinking — was that local forces would be induced to fight by offering them arms and materiel, the methods by which the British supported the Hashemite anti-Ottoman “Great Arab Revolt” of World War I.
To say that Wingate was opposed to the that model (which came to be largely associated with T.E. Lawrence or “Lawrence of Arabia”) is a severe understatement. As preeminent Wingate scholar Simon Anglim has explained, Wingate not only used the term “Lawrence” as a synonym for “wrong,” but contended that Lawrence’s method of guerrilla warfare, consisting essentially of handing out weapons and money to local irregulars or tribal warriors, would not only be interpreted as a sign of British weakness, but would result in cash and guns being misappropriated for the guerrillas’ own ends.
What, then, was Wingate’s method? Just as he had taught the Haganah fighters that it was the commander’s duty to lead them into battle, his solution was to invite the assistance of local chieftains by demonstrating the commitment of his own forces first.
Prior to departing Sudan, Wingate wrote a memorandum in which he explained that the local fighter “must see us first, not fighting by his side, but in front of him. He must realize not only that we are brave soldiers but devoted to the cause of liberty. Cease trying to stimulate revolt from without … let’s do something ourselves.”
At the risk of extreme oversimplification, Wingate’s method relied not on transient loyalty bought with weapons, but on demonstrably committing one’s own forces to a given struggle, and thereafter permitting local forces to play a part of their own accord.
In our cost-conscious world, we are ever more steered towards offering armaments from the shadows and loud proclamations in public, and then say that we must be careful in providing assistance, lest our present allies later turn on us. It is a pat answer to a self-created problem and is by no means the only solution. As Wingate demonstrated over 75 years ago, there is an infinitely better way to develop local support that can be relied upon after the spigot of military assistance has closed.
The US must begin by asserting that the cause for which others fight — whether it be in Syria, Kurdistan, or any of the regions where people are struggling against a tyrannical regime — is our own. Once committed, Washington will need to follow through, but with the knowledge that the correct calculus lies in both thwarting the regional ambitions of hostile state actors and in supporting fundamental human rights for those who could — and should — be our natural allies.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is a practicing attorney in the State of New York, consultant, analyst, researcher, and public speaker. BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.