• Syria’s Doomed Struggle for Independence After WWI

    Elizabeth F. Thompson on a Diplomatic Ruse That Transformed the Middle East

    It is a commonly held idea that there is but one democracy in the Middle East. Not only is this false, but the ways it is uttered—as if the region has been one long failed blood battle for centuries and centuries—overlooks the fact that democracy was on the verge of flowering at the end of World War I. During the war, the British promised the Arabs an independent state, and in return, leaders of the Arab Revolt joined the Allies in World War I to capture Greater Syria from the Ottoman Turks in 1917-1918.

    Prince Faisal, leader of the revolts Northern Arab Army, proclaimed the end of Turkish tyranny and a new era of constitutional government, where citizens would enjoy equal rights regardless of religion, upon the armys arrival in Damascus in October 1918.

    And here began the beginning of a deep and profound betrayal.

    Not long after his troops ousted the Ottomans from Damascus, the British informed Prince Faisal that Arabs would not automatically gain independence: they would have to negotiate for it at the Paris Peace Conference. Prince Faisal traveled to Paris, where he won Allied recognition of provisional independence on condition that Syrians accept a temporary period of political tutelage, called a mandate. He then returned to Syria to call for elections of a constituent congress, which presented its resolutions on Syrias political future to a visiting American committee of inquiry sent by President Woodrow Wilson.

    The congress called for immediate independence, or at least, a brief and limited American mandate. However, the British and French refused to recognize the congress or its resolution. They had secretly agreed that France should occupy Syria and Lebanon, while Britain occupied Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. In the fall of 1919, Britain withdrew its occupying troops from Syria, making space for a French occupation. Popular protests flared across Syria that winter, and the Congress reconvened to declare unilateral independence, without Allied consent, but based on the Leagues principles of self-determination.

    In January 1920, Faisal returned from another round of negotiations in Paris with a secret accord to avert outright colonization. By then, the French had occupied coastal Lebanon and Syria and installed a high commissioner in Beirut, General Henri Gouraud, who itched to occupy the Syrian interior, including the Syrian capital, Damascus. The accord, struck with French Premier Georges Clemenceau, permitted a limited form of French mandate that would bar French troops from the hinterland.

    But Faisal feared the power of political movements that rejected all compromise in favor of full independence. In hope of moderating popular opinion, the Prince enlisted the help of a famous Islamic reformer, Sheikh Rashid Rida. Rida, well known for his widely read magazine, The Lighthouse, and for his support of constitutional government had been living in Cairo during the war, in exile from Ottoman Turks.

    The negotiations conducted at Damascus in February and March 1920 would lead to the Syrian Arab Kingdoms declaration of independence on March 8th. Virtually every invested faction attended. Negotiators included not only the dominant Sunni Arabs, but also Shi`ites and Christians. Jewish and Greek Orthodox leaders pledged allegiance to the constitutional monarchy.

    The negotiations did not include Faisals own father, Sharif Hussein at Mecca, who had led the Arab Revolt. Arabs of Greater Syria had insisted that their state would be independent from the Kingdom of Arabia, but in federation with it. Likewise, they aimed to forge a federation with the Arabs of Iraq. Their model was the federal system of the United States.

    Rida warned that the French were laying a trap. Their advisors must not hold any administrative authority in the government, he advised. Syrians must be free to disagree with French advice.

    Remarkably, the Arabs in Syria formulated their political demands in alignment with what they understood to be international law. Arabs were not flouting European liberalism, they were universalizing it. At stake in 1920, according to Rida, was not just the independence of Syria, but the viability of the peace after World War I. He correctly foresaw that if the rights of small nations were not respected under the new world order, years of violence would ensue.

    Arabs were not alone in the demand for national rights and the end of colonialism after the war. Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and colonized peoples of Africa were also clamoring for self-determination, inspired by Pres. Woodrow Wilsons wartime promises. As Rida predicted, the denial of democracy at this critical moment, in 1920, unleashed decades of anti-colonial and civil violence across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

    Also at stake was the future of democracy in Arab lands. Sheikh Rashid Rida was in a unique historical position to forge a compromise between religious conservatives and secular liberals in the Arab world. The political bargains he struck at Damascus in the early spring of 1920 were historic. The destruction of Syria by French forces four months later would drive a wedge between Islamists and liberals that lasted for a century, dividing the coalitions that rose up against dictatorship in 2011, thus undermining the Arab Spring. This was exactly what Rida hoped to avoid when he set out to Tripoli just after New Year that January.


    A rainstorm drenched Qalamun on the morning of Sunday, January 11th, when Sheikh Rashid Rida and his brother set out on a walk to Tripoli. The road turned muddy, so they stopped at the house of a friend, the city’s former mufti. Because of his nationalist views, the French had expelled him from his office. Suddenly, a French messenger arrived with a note from General Henri Gouraud, the French high commissioner in Beirut: would Rida kindly attend the official welcome ceremony for Prince Faisal upon his arrival in Beirut on Wednesday?

    After tending to his ongoing legal tangle over the mosque endowment, Rida set out for Beirut the next evening. The trip took six hours. Rain poured down and one of his car’s tires blew out. He arrived near midnight. On January 14th, Faisal disembarked at Beirut to enthusiastic crowds. General Gouraud hosted a reception and luncheon for the prince, attended by his top military brass as well as foreign consuls present in the city.

    Faisal assured Gouraud that the Clemenceau accord would open a new era of peaceful relations in Syria. Gouraud warned him that France would uphold the accord only if all guerrilla violence ceased in the Bekaa valley, which lay between the French and Arab zones. The general sent a guardedly hopeful report back to Paris.

    The next morning, January 15th, Rida arrived at the Damascus government’s delegation in Beirut for a personal meeting with the prince. He had been waiting for this moment since September. Faisal arrived just before noon. “He welcomed me with much praise,” Rida recalled.

    The 35-year-old prince and the 54-year-old sheikh took an immediate liking to one another. Over the course of more than an hour they spoke frankly. Faisal confided to Rida the terms of the accord with Clemenceau. Since America and Britain had abandoned Syria, they must strike a deal with France, he explained.

    Rida warned that the French were laying a trap. Their advisors must not hold any administrative authority in the government, he advised. Syrians must be free to disagree with French advice. And the French must not be allowed to control the police or military. “Their control over security, for example, would allow them to rob the country of its freedom,” Rida pointed out. “I cannot be free in my thoughts or opinions, or in advising my nation against their policy, if they can boot me out of the country for security reasons!”

    “That is true,” Faisal admitted. “But if we are united in the service of our country, we can protect ourselves against the dangers inherent in their authority.” The only other option would be to wage war, Faisal reasoned, and he would not take responsibility for that: it was up to the people to choose between the accord and war.

    Rida proposed to Faisal a third option. “If they would let you say at the Peace Conference that Article 22 of the Treaty recognizes the complete independence of Syria,” Rida proposed, then Syria could act as a strong nation. It could choose its own advisors, not France. And Syria could “form a national government, elect deputies to the legislature, and enforce the laws.”

    Some theorists and policymakers interpreted “nations” to mean “states,” meaning the Syrian state was essentially sovereign. Others insisted that the article did not grant political sovereignty.

    International recognition of Syria’s independence would also remove the threat of conquest, Rida argued. “The French Chamber of Deputies will not approve funding for a war of colonization, especially against a country that the peace conference had determined was independent.” Rida demonstrated here familiarity with debates on Syria in the French Chamber of Deputies. Since the 1918 armistice, the socialist deputy Marcel Cachin had led a faction demanding respect for Syrian self-determination.

    Faisal parried that the colonial lobby would be likely to prevail over pacifists in the Chamber. “[France] feels the ecstasy of victory,” he remarked. “Syria would consider an order to evacuate her army occupying Syria as an insult to her military honor.”

    Rida’s counsel reveals that he was acutely aware of the ambiguities of legal meaning in the League covenant that could either ensure Syria’s freedom or seal its subjugation. Article 22 provided that “certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory.” Article 22 left open to debate where sovereignty lay—with the nation, with the mandatory power, or with the League of Nations.

    Some theorists and policymakers interpreted “nations” to mean “states,” meaning the Syrian state was essentially sovereign. Others insisted that the article did not grant political sovereignty; as a mere nation, Syrians, like Zionist Jews in Palestine, could lay claim only to a homeland, not an independent state. They would remain under the sovereignty of the League (or a mandatory power designated by the League) until they proved the capacity to govern themselves and “to stand alone” in world affairs.

    Most radically, the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour would insist in 1922 that mandates belonged to the conquering power. The League was bound to become a “laboratory of sovereignty,” as one scholar put it. It would take years to define the terms of statehood.

    In Rida’s view, Syria must exploit this legal ambiguity. Its future depended on obtaining an official pronouncement in favor of the “state” interpretation of Article 22. That was the reasoning behind the Syrian Union Party’s call to draft a constitution for presentation to the Paris Peace Conference. It would prove that Syrians were worthy of a state.

    Rida would later claim that he was the first to propose that Syria confront the Allies with the Declaration of Independence as a fait accompli. He was, in fact, only the herald that introduced the idea to the prince. The Syrian Congress had already adopted such a resolution on November 24th and deputies had repeated it to Faisal at an Arab Club meeting on January 22nd.

    Rida and other Syrians saw themselves as players in a global process of establishing a new regime of international law to govern the relations among states. At stake in the Syrian case were general principles that would shape the future of other nations as well. European statesmen and legal scholars had historically excluded non-Christians and non-Europeans from full membership in the family of sovereign nations. The Ottomans were deemed only marginal guests. But Wilson had opened the door to a universal regime of states’ rights. Syrians aimed to keep that door open.

    Faisal and Rida said their good-byes over a formal lunch with two French officers, Colonel Antoine Toulat and Colonel Edouard Cousse. As Faisal’s liaisons to General Gouraud, Toulat and Cousse were destined to play a role in the coming independence struggle. As for Rida and Faisal, their January 15th meeting would launch an intense relationship for the next six months.

    The next day, just as Faisal departed on the Damascus Road, an ominous rainstorm broke. The prince worried about the reaction of Syrian nationalists to the accord. They would reject the provisions granting control of foreign affairs and internal security to the French and independence to Lebanon. His plan was to persuade the cabinet that these terms were an interim step, not a capitulation.

    Elizabeth F. Thompson
    Elizabeth F. Thompson
    Elizabeth F. Thompson is a leading historian of the modern Middle East and Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at American University’s School of International Service. She is the author of two previous books, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, winner of two national book prizes, and Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East. Her newest book, How the West Stole Democracy From the Arabs, is out from Grove.

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