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Syria in the hijaz yesterday and today

Maps of the Hejaz Railway

If you hear local buzz and especially heated comments from people living here who have immigrated from the Middle East about the possible strike to Syria, it may interest you know something about the history of the area. About 100 years ago, Syria and much of the Middle East was referred to as the Hijaz. It was one vast area of land that was inhabited by two groups of people -- towns dwellers and bedouins and all inhabitants were usually Arabs.

During World War I and II, the power structures among Arab leaders consisted of tribes who had lived in the area for centuries, yet Britain, France, Italy and Russia carved up the Hijaz when Britain helped in the fight with the Arab Revolt, lead by Sharif Hussein ibn Ali against the Ottoman Empire. For years the regional powers consisted of Egypt and the Ottoman Empires, but the first Saudi king, Abdul Azziz, took control with his tribe of what is known today as Saudi Arabia.

Aramco plays a big part in the progressive wealth that was amassed in the region because Standard Oil built the first oil well in 1930.

The defeat of the Hashimite forces at Turabah had not deflected Shareef Husain ibn Ali from his ambition to subdue the Emir of Riyadh, and by the spring of 1920 the British press was escalating the conflict between the Arabs, who were both claiming British subsidies to finance battles against each other.

The Arab world remained a jumble of military administrators and local rulers swirling in the vacuum left by the defeated Turks; and into this formless ether stepped Mr. Winston Churchill, who was charged early in 1921 as his Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies, and with the task of bringing order out of chaos.

In Cairo, in the middle of March 1921, areas were parceled out for various interest groups they represented. At the diplomatic conference, Churchill etched out a political policy that left Syria and Lebanon for the French; Palestine was made a mandate; Iraq, formerly called Mesopotamia was given to Feisal; Transjordan was given to Abdullah; both sons of Shareef Husain ibn Ali, and Abdul Aziz was the head of Saudi Arabia.

There were two important documents, besides the Balfour Declaration, which were essentially a proclamation towards Zionism in the area; those documents drafted by the British were the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The McMahon-Hussein letters were exchanged between 1915 and 1916 during World War I concerning the status of lands under the Ottoman Empire, which would guarantee Arab independence. But in 1917, the true plan for splitting and thus occupying the promised Arab countries between France and Britain was exposed in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The west did not recognize the area until 1973, or at the least in 1932, when the area called Nejd and Hijaz was united into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a single country the size of western Europe. Add together the surface areas of Portugal, Spain, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy and it equals 815,700 square miles. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone is the 12th largest country in the world and was essentially created by Abdul Aziz in the 20th century. According to the U.N. Statistical Office, Saudi Arabia is 830,000 square miles.

One can call Abdul Aziz a "wahabi" because the country is governed by the shariah (Muslim law) as interpreted by Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century religious scholar, which is considered to be a rigorous obedience to God.

Is Bashar Assad a "wahabi" you may ask? No. He is an Alawite. The differences between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria have sharpened dangerously since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family is Alawite. The reason for tension is primarily political, rather than religious: top position in Assad’s army are held by Alawite officers, while most of the rebels from the Free Syrian Army come from Syria’s Sunni majority.

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