Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher

Former British Ambassador to Lebanon

Part of UK in Lebanon

13th April 2013 Beirut, Lebanon

History, Conspiracy and Meaningful Independence

As a Brit in the Levant, you can never go far without being reminded of history, and our role in it. At this week’s Lebanese Army conference, the moderator spoke of ‘the British habit of interventions in the Middle East’. I countered that this was a relatively recent phenomenon – others had been at it far longer than our 1000 years or so. At the same event I was told, not for the first time, that it was all the fault of the way Sykes and Picot drew the borders of the region’s 20th century states – as Tom Friedman writes, take away their map and the Syria crisis is easier to understand. When I visit Palestinian refugees, I hear that their – distressing – situation is all the fault of Balfour.

Sykes, Picot, Balfour. These are names known to most schoolchildren in the Middle East, but few in the West. Their legacies are significant, controversial and contested. It would take a book rather than a blogpost to consider them properly.

In the last few days however, I’ve been reminded of five other fascinating moments in our recent history in the region.

1. John McArthy of the BBC, who of course has his own Lebanon history, was here researching what we think was the last Royal Visit, by Prince Albert in 1862, a sort of glorified gap year. Just as last month Samantha Cameron met refugees from the Syria crisis, the Prince shared a camp in the British Consul’s garden with refugees from the 1860 civil war, and what we would now call international peacekeepers. I’m on my way to Belfast with Walid Joumblatt, conscious of the way that the views of some in Lebanon are still shaped by British actions – my predecessor ran guns to one side – during that 1860 war.

2. A week ago, I was re-living the dream of many English schoolboys, camping in Wadi Rum, from where TE Lawrence supported the 1917 Arab revolt against the city of Aqaba.

3. We’re preparing for Remembrance Services for the British soldiers who died – alongside Australian, Palestinian, free French and other allies – in liberating Lebanon from Vichy France in 1941.

4. We had James Barr here, author of a book about the extraordinary Edward Spears, who as Churchill’s Minister to Lebanon and Syria played a key part in delivering free elections and independence in 1943, an anniversary Lebanon will mark in November.

5. To mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher, we released locally her 1982 letters to President Reagan and President Sarkis, expressing ‘total condemnation’ (more characteristically tough language I imagine than the FCO drafts) of the Israeli invasion of that year, and an iron-clad commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability.

All this history matters hugely. Freedom is a common theme. Yet some interlocutors (see lively exchanges on previous blogposts ) can’t see past the past when it comes to the Brits. So for all that we talk of the Britain of Beckham, Prince William and London 2012, they see the ghosts of Balfour, Prince Bertie and London 1192.

One of the most important projects in contemporary Lebanon is the effort to write a shared version of the events that shaped the nation. We have to be as honest as possible about our role in that history, but not be trapped by it; conscious of it but not constrained by it. We should not give lectures, but neither should we take them from countries that still manipulate Lebanon for their own interests, or from those who want to use us as the excuse. After all, if we were as good at conspiracy as some claim, we would still have an Empire.

The key to Lebanon’s future lies not in arguing over whether it is all the fault of the Canaanites or Mamluks, Crusaders or Israelites, Ottomans, colonialists, Persians or others, fascinating as that debate can be. The key lies in shaping the conditions for the 70th anniversary of Lebanese independence to be the first year of meaningful Lebanese freedom. A year when already, perhaps for the first time in a generation, we have a PM selected without reference to Damascus. Our external interference should continue to be to give Lady T’s ‘ironclad support to Lebanon’s sovereignty’. I read recently that there is an international conspiracy to keep Lebanon stable – count me in for that one.

It is not just about the last Sykes and Picot, but the next ones. And they should have Arabic names.

9 comments on “History, Conspiracy and Meaningful Independence

  1. Interesting blog, Tom.Of course, you can only speak for your work in Lebanon. But in Syria, a man in Tadmor said to me: “Betrayal is written on every page of our history book.” There’s been a fair bit of that in the Middle East. However – and you’ll know the phrase: “There is a place beyond right and wrong. I’ll meet you there.” It’s a good starting point.
    All the best…

    1. Thanks Mary, I’m sure that many in Syria do feel betrayed by the international community. But huge effort continues to be exerted on a political solution, and we must all keep at it. As your quotes suggest, important to be conscious of the history, but seek common solutions. All best.

  2. Dear Tom
    As UK co-ordinator for the Anna Lindh Foundation and a contributor to the Young Arab Voices regional youth debate programme, I am very interested in links with the Lebanon, a country which I have visited several times and where I have some very good friends. During my last visit (in April 2012) I came to the British Embassy in Beirut and had interesting talks with a member of your staff. I will be visiting Beirut again from 7-10th May, to discuss a possible contract to work on education initiatives with the Hariri Foundation. I would be delighted if an opportunity could be found during my visit to meet with you personally, although of course I understand that you may be very busy. Meanwhile I hope that your trip to Belfast is fruitful and enjoyable.
    Best regards
    Richard Shotton

  3. Sir,
    I am delighted to perfectly support your views in the blogpost, for which we thank you.

  4. I so totally agree with what has been said and written here by and from Tom Fletcher.
    Lebanon does need to be kept stable and not influenced by others that are only in it for themselves.
    Lebanon is a beautiful country (I have visited) and I do hope that in the future more people will understand just how this little country has a BIG heart 🙂

  5. All our internal conflicts and disputes are mainly related with the occupation of Israel for part of Our territory and the ways or means of achieving full liberation of Our Land. The arguments among these Lebanese parties are well known to all.
    The question is the following: Why the United Kingdom do not participate positively in solving the above conflicts by means of:
    a. convincing Israel to withdraw its forces totally from Lebanon.
    b. or in case Israel does not want to quit , then UK will supply our army to liberate our land either alone or jointly with Almoqawamah..
    c. why UK is not acting actively to stop the destruction of Syria and thus avoiding the syrians to flee away into Lebanon and Jordan
    Best Regards

    1. Thank you Mohsen,

      On your questions …

      we try to convince all parties to respect UNSC 1701, including Israel.

      We work hard to help the Lebanese Army to support stability in Lebanon. The path towards agreement on the Southern border will come through negotiations rather than more conflict.

      We are actively working to prevent the destruction of Syria. The challenges are immense, but we are backing the political process.

      Best wishes.

Comments are closed.

About Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011. Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford…

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011.

Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford College), graduating with a First class degree in Modern History. He has an MA in Modern History, and is a Senior Associate Member of St Anthony’s College for International Studies, Oxford.

He is married to Louise Fletcher and they have two sons, Charles (born 2006) and Theodor (born 2011). Tom enjoys political history, cricket (Strollers CC), and mountains, and is the co-founder of 2020 (a progressive think tank).

Tom was awarded the Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 2011 New Year’s Honours, for services to the Prime Minister.