Syria’s Doomed Struggle for Independence After WWI

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

The largest demonstration yet in Damascus greeted Faisal upon his arrival on January 17th. The Higher National Committee, led by Sheikh Kamil al-Qassab, had been planning it for weeks. Dr. Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar of the Syrian Union Party also played a prominent role at a general meeting of the Higher National Committee which organized opposition throughout Syria.

Qassab claimed that more than 100,000 people marched. Widows and daughters of war martyrs led the procession, followed by clergy of all faiths, committees of national defense, political parties, notables, the municipal council, civilian and military employees, farmers, doctors, pharmacists, journalists, the Arab Clubs, the schools of law and medicine, teachers, merchants, artisans, guilds, and leaders of the city neighborhoods and nearby villages.

They arrived at Marjeh Square with signs reading “The Arab Country Is Indivisible” and “Religion Is for God and the Country Is for All.” Others demanded full independence and a national army. Faisal greeted the demonstrators in front of city hall, promising to heed the people’s will. The crowd cheered when he proclaimed that he and the nation were fundamentally “in agreement for an independent, indivisible Syria.”

However, Faisal was not yet ready to cede authority to either the people or the Congress. At a large gathering at the Arab Club, he intervened in a debate between the Maronite priest Habib Istifan and Dr. Shahbandar. While Istifan pledged loyalty to Faisal, Shahbandar urged the assembly to recognize the government installed during Faisal’s absence and to follow the example of the Egyptian nationalist revolution against Britain. Dr. Shahbandar, Faisal responded sharply, should stick to his own profession, medicine.

The prince insisted that the current government was not an elected representative of the nation; it was merely a temporary, military administration. Since Syria was not yet recognized as a sovereign state, only he could represent the country, as a delegate of his sovereign father, Sharif Hussein of Mecca. “I am the spirit of the movement,” he declared. “I am the responsible person until a national assembly is elected, whereupon I shall relinquish my responsibilities and hand them over to the people.”

Faisal proceeded to dismiss the nationalist cabinet and restore Ali Rida al-Rikabi as head of government. He also supported the creation of a new conservative party to counterbalance the HNC. The Syrian National Party was led by anti-Fatat notables like the Congress vice president, Abd al-Rahman al-Yusuf, and Faisal’s wartime generals, Nasib al-Bakri and Sharif Nasir. They favored compromise with France over what they viewed as certain defeat for a self-proclaimed independent state.

But the prince could not turn back the political clock. Newspapers and Arab Club members publicly condemned the Clemenceau accord. Even Faisal’s personal physician, Dr. Ahmad Qadri, gave a press conference against it.

As a last resort Faisal called a meeting of Fatat leaders, but they too rejected the accord. Like Rida, they argued that it was a fig leaf for another French protectorate, as in Morocco and Tunisia. Faisal lost his temper and demanded that they file paper ballots to record their error for history. Then he called for elections for a new central committee. The new slate of Fatat leaders also voted against the prince.


On a brief visit to Beirut in early February, Faisal sought out Rashid Rida for advice. Over dinner, the prince asked the sheikh to return with him to Damascus to act as a mediator with Fatat and other nationalist leaders. Faisal pointed out that Rida knew Qassab and Shahbandar personally and had influence within Syria’s new Independence Party. But unlike those hotheads, Rida was a mature man of reason.

The sheikh hesitated. He had already left his family for more than five months and had refused an offer to work for the Damascus government. He was also appalled at Faisal’s naïveté. Faisal had foolishly trusted the British and now he appeared to be repeating the mistake with the French. But Rida also found Faisal an intelligent and eager student. In Faisal, Rida also recognized an opportunity to realize the Arab unity he had so long sought: If Syrians achieved independence, they might spark a revival across the Muslim world. So Rida agreed to Faisal’s offer, with a caveat that he would be no yes-man.

Rida advised Faisal to build solidarity through Islam. “We cannot establish Arab unity and restore the Arabs’ glory and civilization without Islam,” he contended.

Rida tied up his affairs in Beirut and took the train to Damascus on February 8th, 1920. That very night, he met with his old friend Kamil al-Qassab to catch up on the local news.

The very next day, a snowstorm hit the capital, locking it down for three weeks. The stretch of isolation proved to be a fertile period for political bargaining. Rida met Faisal nearly every day. In a fatherly manner, he dispensed the wisdom of age to the younger man. Rida also edited the prince’s speeches and reviewed his correspondence with Lloyd George and Sharif Hussein. The two men discussed how Faisal had blindly followed his father’s faith in the British, to no good end.

Rida also used his meetings at the royal residence to advance his ideas on building Arab strength through a league of states, based in Mecca. He argued that the key to achieving political unity, internationally and within Syria, was to build cooperation from the ground up, not to impose unity from above by subduing the different parties.

Rida drew his wisdom on democratic politics not from reading European or American textbooks but from his own experience in Ottoman politics. The Young Turks had betrayed the 1908 constitutional revolution by repressing opposition parties. Difference was natural, Rida explained to Faisal. In a righteous government, parties were free to debate and thereby minimize the harm in their differences by finding points of consensus.

To demonstrate his ideas, Rida invited the prince to a rally on February 9th. As the wind blew drifts of snow, the city’s elite gathered in tents warmed with carpets. Sheikh Kamil al-Qassab delivered “a long and eloquent speech” on how the nation would accept nothing short of absolute independence. Faisal gave a speech in response, in which he felt compelled to agree.

Rida advised Faisal to build solidarity through Islam. “We cannot establish Arab unity and restore the Arabs’ glory and civilization without Islam,” he contended. He also proposed ways of bridging differences among various Islamic sects. The prince was so enthusiastic that he asked Rida to move his family and magazine to Damascus from Cairo. Rida assured Faisal that he would stay to build a righteous government based on the ideas of Islamic reformists.

Rida firmly believed that Islam and democracy were not only compatible but also a necessary combination for ethical governance. His views were not universally popular, as he discovered when the dean of the newly founded law school invited him to give a lecture. Anticipating opposition, Dr. Ahmad Qadri, Faisal’s personal physician, warned Rida not to deliver the speech.

But when a secularist law professor objected to hosting a religious lecture in a state school, the dean overruled him. With Faisal in attendance, Rida gave his lecture, titled “Arab-Islamic Civilization and European Materialist Civilization.” The prince liked the lecture and praised Rida for his mature views, Qadri later confided.

In these crucial weeks of snowed-in consultation, Rida became a pivotal player in uniting Faisal and the Syrian Congress on a plan to declare independence. But it was not Rida who finally persuaded the prince to abandon negotiations with the French. Faisal realized the game was over when his own father, Sharif Hussein, published a personal attack on him and on the January 6th accord in a Cairo newspaper. An opposition paper in Damascus reprinted Sharif Hussein’s demand for complete independence with no strings attached.

The article launched a new round of public protest. Delegations arrived at Faisal’s royal residence, demanding that he obey his father. The prince staunchly defended the need for the accord. On February 15th, after Qassab gave a speech viciously attacking Faisal’s policy, the HNC took a formal vote against the accord and against all compromise.

Rida urged Faisal to reconcile with Qassab and Shahbandar. The nation’s future depended on it, he warned. Faisal acquiesced and invited Qassab and Shahbandar to dinner at the royal residence the next evening, February 16th. The three argued fiercely. Qassab insisted that the nation was ready to rise up en masseto claim independence.

The time was ripe, since French forces had relocated from Syria to confront the Turkish nationalists in Cilicia. Faisal responded that the nation needed firm leadership, or else blood would run in the streets. No common ground was found. The dinner ended, however, with promises to keep their disagreement secret.

In desperation, Faisal cabled to Gouraud in Beirut pleading for a sign of French support for the terms of Arab independence promised in the January accord. “The people are waiting for actions by the French government in support of my efforts in this regard,” he wrote. Their fears were heightened now, he explained, “since the publication of the message in which His Majesty my father advised me to demand independence for all the Arab regions.”

But Faisal’s effort to use his father’s public warning as leverage with the French failed. Word of the royal rift had already leaked out. Colonel Cousse, the French liaison in Damascus, reported that it had revealed Faisal’s weakness. Gouraud reported to Paris only that Faisal appeared incapable of upholding his promise, made on January 6th, to maintain order in Syria.

The staff in Paris agreed with Gouraud to make no more concessions to “extremists.” They also agreed to reaffirm their advice to Faisal, that he should not return to Paris to finalize the accord until he could demonstrate solid political support for it.

Faisal received no response from Gouraud until March 2nd. The general assured the prince that France did not intend to rule the East Zone directly, but that it would defend its position in Lebanon. Faisal and Zaid held a last-ditch meeting at Rikabi’s home in the hope of persuading several Fatat leaders. But the political pendulum in Damascus had swung toward an alliance for independence.


In late February, even as he continued to meet Faisal, Rida attended Independence Party meetings on reconvening the Congress and drafting a declaration of independence. (The party was the public face of the secretive Fatat.) During several meetings held at Ali Rida al-Rikabi’s home, a majority in the party agreed with Rashid Rida that the Congress must be established as the nation’s representative—against Faisal’s dynastic claims. Congress, not Faisal, would have to declare independence in the name of the people. As the snow began to melt in the last week of February, the Independence Party summoned its members from Lebanon and Palestine.

Against minority proposals to hold new elections for Congress, Qadri and Shahbandar argued that Syria must declare independence immediately. The Congress could proceed legitimately based on the elections of June 1919. It must now exploit the window of opportunity that had opened with the transfer of French troops from Syria to Cilicia, where they were battling Turkish nationalists.

Some party members objected that Syria’s status had to be defined at the peace conference, in the treaty on the Ottoman Empire. The conference had only now opened discussions on the matter, after completing treaties with the other Central Powers since summer. But Qadri and Shahbandar insisted that Syria’s right to provisional independence under Article 22 of the League covenant had already been ratified by France and Britain as part of the Treaty of Versailles, which had taken effect on January 20th.

Should the Syrian state have a top Islamic official, like the Ottoman Empire’s Sheikh al-Islam? Should Islamic law be integrated into the regime?

Meanwhile, Izzat Darwazeh, deputy from Nablus, Palestine, and others drafted a declaration of independence. At a subsequent party meeting, Rida proposed amendments to the draft. “He left out the most important of my proposals,” Rida wrote, “which is to base independence on the natural right of the people to freedom and independence . . . and on the fact that Syrian Arabs and others rebelled successfully against the Turkish government.” These points must be coupled with Syria’s rights as defined by Article 22, he argued.

The palace was likely aware of these meetings, given that Rida requested copies of supporting legal documents from Awni Abd al-Hadi, who was Faisal’s secretary and a leading member of Fatat. Abd al-Hadi had returned to Damascus with Faisal in January and had taken a personal interest in the plans for independence.

He felt especially anxious because Britain had already claimed a mandate over Palestine, thereby separating his hometown, Nablus, from Syria. While Abd al-Hadi continued to lose weight, owing to anxiety, Rida eased his worries by indulging in the delicious cuisine of his homeland. In his diary, he noted he had gained four kilograms in February.

On February 29th and March 1st, the Independence Party opened debate on the role of Islam in the government. Until then, members had only vaguely talked of a constitutional monarchy with Faisal as its king and with Islam as its religion. Should the Syrian state have a top Islamic official, like the Ottoman Empire’s Sheikh al-Islam? Should Islamic law be integrated into the regime?

One side responded no, there was no need for a cabinet minister on Islamic affairs. The other side argued that a minister must govern Islamic courts and endowments. They asked Rida for his view.

The Syrian state would gain much prestige and support if it had an Islamic component, Rida argued. The caliphate had helped the Ottoman regime to survive, despite its military defeats, because millions of Muslims supported it. Second, Islam would strengthen Syria’s confederation with Iraq and Arabia. The only bond uniting Arabs across the regions was their common religion. “Syria cannot remain as an independent kingdom unless it is united with other Arab countries surrounding it,” he pointed out.

Third, he said, most ordinary Muslims would consider a secular state unfamiliar and illegitimate. “They would overturn it in favor of a religious one at the first opportunity,” Rida claimed. “Therefore, our Sharia should be the main source of needed legislation, even if the government is not Islamic.” Rida proposed that the government include a minister for religious affairs as well as Islamic scholars on its staff.

Such a state would not be a theocracy, he assured opponents. Nothing in Islamic law contradicted a civil state—only scholars of the strictest schools believed that there was any contradiction. The meeting disbanded without resolving the question.

Faisal was by then convinced that he should reconvene the Congress. While critics later claimed Faisal was bullied by “extremists” into accepting the Declaration of Independence, the record of his sustained discussions with Rida and with party members suggests otherwise. Faisal recognized that popular opposition to the French accord was overwhelming.

He also recognized the legality of Syrian independence under international law. And he understood the need to establish an independent state as a fait accompli, given that the Americans were no longer arbiters against colonial aggression at Paris. In the end, Faisal was likely happy to hand responsibility for such a fateful decision to the Congress.

The prince did, however, worry about his father’s reaction. When a new flag was proposed, he insisted on pleasing his father by maintaining the stripes and red triangle of the Hijazi flag flown during the Arab Revolt. Party members agreed. The new Syrian flag would differ only by the addition of a white star inside the triangle.


Excerpted from How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth F. Thompson.

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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