Metternich and the Austrian Intervention in Syria


by Andre Novellino Gouvêa

History is life’s teacher and this proves true yet again in the case of sectarianism in the Middle East. Understanding the past conflicts in the region can be of great significance when trying to make sense of the issues in it today, and the 2010 article by Miroslav Sedivý, published in the Austrian History Yearbook, sheds light on one such event of the Middle Eastern past: the Austrian intervention in Syria in 1840-1841. Analyzing this intervention can be useful for understanding the issues of the region today, particularly due to the role religious hostility played. Indeed, conflict between different religious groups has been a mainstay of conflicts in the region: not only between different religions, as in the case of Jews and Muslims in Israel/Palestine and of Christians and Muslims in Lebanon and Egypt, but also between different sects of the same religion, such as Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Although Egypt began the 19th century under Ottoman domination, by the end of the 1830s the Egyptian governor, Mohammed Ali, had achieved virtual independence from Constantinople. He controlled not only Egypt proper, but also Crete, Sudan and Syria (which also included the territory of modern Lebanon and Israel/Palestine). In 1839, the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II decided to submit Egypt once again to his rule. That initiative, however, ended catastrophically for the Turkish monarch, who not only saw his military demolished by Mohammed Ali, but also lost his own life.

Most of the European great powers were afraid that this could result in greater instability in the Middle East and the Balkans. Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia desired to see Mohammed Ali’s power restricted to Egypt itself, with Syria being restored to Ottoman dominion. Therefore, together with the Ottoman Empire, they signed an agreement regarding the conditions under which the conflict should be resolved on July 15th of 1840. Increased engagement of the great powers in the region led to greater interest in the destinies of the Christians who inhabited Syria. It was Metternich who would play a leading role in vying to ensure a safe situation for them.

The creation of a large Egyptian army and fleet required raising large amounts of money, so Mohammed Ali imposed high taxes, mandatory conscription and forced labor in Syria, which in turn caused a series of revolts against his rule. Between May and July 1840, a rebellion led by the Catholic Maronites erupted in Syria. Mohammed Ali made inimical statements and followed his words with the dislocation of an enormous contingent of troops to quell the rebellion. As a result, rumors began circulating in Europe that the Egyptian governor could be planning to exterminate the Maronites once and for all. Although it is unclear whether these rumors were indeed true, the situation of the Maronites was quite precarious, for the Druze (a religious group that is neither Muslim nor Christian) were helping to quell the rebellion, and they shared a mutual religious hatred with the Maronites. As such, even if Mohammed Ali had no intentions of genocide; the Maronites could be left in a position where the Druze would slaughter them.

By the end of July 1840, Metternich took the first step to protect the Maronites: he advised the Ottoman monarch to not be harsh to them, to reestablish their ancient rights and to allow them to be unburdened by taxes for several years. In one stroke, Metternich sought to protect the Christians living in Syria and restore the traditional authority of those lands, furthering both the causes of Catholicism and political conservatism. He sought, in his own words, to bind the Maronites to their “legitimate sovereign and at the same moment to give these people guarantees of their further peaceful existence”. The Austrian chancellor then sent emissaries to the religious leader of the Maronites, promising them that the Turkish sultan would restore their traditional rights and would respect their autonomy and property, if they would pledge their loyalty to the Ottoman monarch and would aid the joint Austrian, British and Ottoman invasion which had been planned in efforts to retake Syria.

By the end of 1840 the military campaign to restore Turkish rule to Syria was successful, and the Ottoman sultan assumed responsibility for the well-being of the Christians in Syria of all three confessions (Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants). Metternich soon moved to oppose a plan by the French foreign minister, Guizot, to declare Jerusalem a free, Christian city: first, because the Ottoman monarch could hardly accept that since the city was sacred for Muslims as well, and secondly because Metternich understood that the probable result would be oppression of the Catholics in the city by its Orthodox inhabitants. The latter possessed superiority both in numbers and wealth in the city, while their relations with the Catholics were hostile. Guizot had only considered enmity from Muslims, not taking into account the hostility between different Christian confessions could be just as great, if not greater.

For similar reasons, Metternich also sought to oppose the Prussian plan to establish a protectorate by the great powers over Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. That plan, like Guizot’s, had the intention of protecting Christians from the Muslim rule, while ignoring the fact that hostility between different Christian groupings was fiercer than that between Christians and Muslims. Metternich saw Muslim law as being tolerant to the Christians, and understood that Ottoman rule could neutralize the disputes between different Christian confessions. Furthermore, he desired a solution that will stabilize the region and shift away the focal point of the conflict; it was clear to him that choosing a one-sided course of action in favor of the Christians would most likely provoke strong resentment among the Muslims, and possibly lead to further conflict.

Despite Metternich’s efforts, the province of Syria continued to be a center of conflict in the long run and to attract the attention of the European great powers. Contrary to the chancellor’s wishes, Ottoman rule was not consolidated in the region. Nevertheless, his analysis of the situation was more realistic than that of many contemporary statesmen.

Metternich’s insights regarding this issue are directly relevant to the modern world in two main ways: first, that taking decisions that are too one-sided over extremely sensitive areas such as the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, sacred to three world religions, can lead to greater bloodshed and instability; and second, that enmity between different segments of the same religion can be equal to or greater than that between different religions.

It seems likely that if a durable peaceful settlement is to be found for the Israel-Palestine issue, it will have to conciliate the wishes of Muslim and Jewish populations to a large degree, rather than being too one-sided for either of them.

As for sectarian hostility, it is one of the major issues of the current Syrian civil war; although it is between different Muslim sects, rather than Christian ones. This is pertinent specifically to the issues between the Alawites, an Islamic sect to which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad belongs, and the Sunni rebels. On the 4th of August of 2013 for instance, many Alawites were massacred by Sunni Islamist forces, as reported by the British news outlets the Guardian and the BBC.

In other Middle Eastern countries sectarian violence has also been an issue. In Iraq, for instance, it has been pervasive throughout that country’s history: not only was the country’s Shiite population persecuted by the government of Saddam Hussein (who was a Sunni), with executions of Shiite clergymen and the expulsion of around 100,000 Shiites from the country under his rule, wrote Michael Sodaro in Comparative Politics, but even after the toppling of that regime interconfessional violence still goes on in Iraq. On the 13th of November 2013, for example, Shiite pilgrims suffered an attack by a suicide bomber, as reported by the BBC. Contrary to what we may expect, the amount of violence in religious conflicts is not proportional to how different each religious grouping is from each other – and sectarian violence can sometimes be even stronger than violence between different religions altogether – and as such it would be a mistake to overlook the potential for hostility between different groupings of the same religion.

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