Monday, January 13, 2014

Yousef al-Azmeh, Hero

Some of this is a repeat of Early 20th Century Syrian History, but I wanted to set up the Yousef al-Azmeh story as a stand alone post not contained in the history post.

Amidst the colonial turmoil of post World War I, Emir Faisal – that guy who went across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia – joined General Allenby in Damascus in October of 1918. The Emir began establishing a 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. In November of 1919 the British left Damascus to avoid conflict with the French, ending Syria’s hopes that the west would honor their sovereignty.

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.

In July of 1920, according to the French, tired of King Faisal trying to convince the League of Nations that he had a better right to rule Arabs than the French and British did, the French sent King Faisal the ultimatum “surrender or fight.” According to Syrians (who have photographic evidence) the French bombed Damascus from the air, and threatened to reduce it to rubble if King Faisal did not surrender immediately. Syria had barely begun to form its military, and had no airplanes nor any anti-aircraft defenses, so King Faisal surrendered to save his people and the antiquities of his country, including the Umayyad Mosque and Straight Street, along with other sites sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews in Syria.

The French say Yousef al-Azmeh, King Faisal’s Chief of Staff and Minister of War, willfully disregarded his King’s surrender and led his men into battle against the French ignoring the fact they had no hope of winning against superior numbers, artillery, and training.

The Syrians remember Yousef al-Azmeh very differently. The young idealist knew what a blow surrendering to the French would be to the pride and hope of the Syrian people as well as their future bids for sovereignty. If they surrendered without a fight, it would be as if the Kingdom of Syria had never existed. Azmeh decided to recruit and lead a group of men in a fight against the French so history would reflect that the Syrians had not given up without a fight. In one respect the Syrians agreed with the French: they didn’t have the weapons, numbers, or training to prevail against the French invaders. No man who followed Yousef al-Azmeh into the Battle of Maysaloun Pass on 23 July 1920 expected to live. Azmeh died, as did most of his men, and the next day, King Faisal’s forces in Damascus surrendered to the French.

Today, Yousef al-Azmeh is remembered in Syria as a martyr who died for the cause of Syrian Independence. A statue of him is located at the center of a circle named after him in downtown Damascus, near the Cham Palace Hotel and less than 600 metres (roughly 2000 ft.) from Marjeh Square (a.k.a. Martyrs' Square) where the execution of Arab nationalists originally prompted the start of the Arab Revolt.

You may use these links to access the bibliographies on wikipedia and track down primary source materials if you wish to learn more.

Battle of Maysalun

Arab Revolt

Marjeh Square

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