Monday, January 13, 2014

Early 20th Century Syrian History in Brief - with heavy use of wiki!

Remember George Santayana? No? That’s ironic, since he reportedly coined the phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, apparently, the US enjoys repetition. But, as events unfold in Syria today, foreign intervention looming on the horizon, it’s hard for Arabs not to remember how things went almost a century ago, and dread that history may be repeated.

Even before World War I started, Arabs were trying to break free from the Ottoman Empire and form their own nations. In 1908, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca declared himself King of the new Kingdom of Hejaz. Throughout WWI the Hashemite royal family continued to correspond with the British (first with Lord Kitchener in 1915, then Sir Henry McMahon 1915 – 1916). On May 6, 1916 the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule was finally triggered when the sultan had Arab nationalists executed in Marjeh Square, Damascus. In the remaining years of World War I, Arabs helped England and France prevail against the Ottoman Empire believing it was their best chance at independence. Emir Faisal and a contingent of supporters attended western peace talks after World War I in an effort to secure a future for the Arab people as independent nations rather than colonial assets to foreign powers.

November 1917 was a particularly disappointing year for the Arabs. On November 9, a paper publicized the Balfour Declaration of November second, essentially giving Zionists official British support for establishing a home in Palestine. On November 23 the new Bolshevik government in Russia made the Sykes-Picot Agreement public, revealing the French and English had been secretly negotiating throughout WWI to rule over the Arabs while at the same time promising them self-determination.

Later an American report (King-Crane Commission 1919) showed that Syrians opposed both the Balfour declaration and the French and British mandates. The report was ignored as were Arab demands for an independent and unified Syria.

Here’s the part you might be familiar with. Emir Faisal – that guy who went across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia – son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, joined British General Allenby in Damascus in October of 1918, and began establishing a local government. At the same time, the French, demanding that the English honor the Sykes-Picot agreement, arrived in what was becoming known as Lebanon and took over.

At the Paris Peace Talks of 1919 – which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles – the US Secretary of State Robert Lansing identified the mandate system as a thinly veiled division of the spoils of war. In July the newly formed Syrian Congress passed resolutions demanding a constitutional monarchy with Faisal as King, and asking the US for assistance. In November, the British left Damascus to avoid conflict with the French, ending Syria’s hopes that the west would honor their requests.

In March of 1920, after negotiations with the French collapsed under Arab pressure for independence, the Syrian Congress declared Faisal King of a new state: the Arab Kingdom of Syria. The Europeans responded by holding the San Remo Conference, and allocating governance of former Ottoman territories as they saw fit.

Syria had no trained army to speak of and no air force at all, so when the French bombed antiquities and threatened to raze Old Damascus to the ground, the Syrians eventually surrendered (see my Yousef Azmeh blog for an important footnote).

“Henri Gouraud on horseback inspecting his French troops at Maysalun” This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. It was reportedly taken on 24th July, 1920 in Maysalun. The photographer is unknown. The file is from Wikimedia Commons.

The French ran Syria for well over the official 20 years of the mandate. The French Mandate of Syria was not formally approved by the League of Nations until 29 September 1923, when they had already been running Syria and Lebanon for three years and they did not leave Damascus until 1946. The French disdain for Arabs is exemplified by the story that after putting down a revolt in northern Syria, General Gouraud kicked Saladin’s tomb and said, “Awake, Saladin. We have returned. My presence here consecrates victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”

In 1946 when the French withdrew, they left a final mark in the memories of Syrians: they bombed parliament. One of my ancestors, a parliamentary guard, died in the attack. I don't know how many others died.  

Though remnants of French influence, good and bad, can be found throughout Syria, and French culture is respected, Syrians have not forgotten the bad taste of imperial rule. So, you see, perhaps the one thing that a Syrian fears more than a dictatorship is a foreign dictatorship. Ironically the best hope for Syria to stay intact both physically and as a government –we do have a parliament and a constitution - is the United Nations, the entity that succeeded The League of Nations, who created the mess in the Middle East in the first place.

The following links will help you find the bibliographies on wikipedia so you can get to primary sources, if you wish to learn more.


partitioning of Ottoman Empire

French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon

Battle of Maysalun

Marjeh Square

Arab Revolt

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