A terrible war has been taking place in Syria since 2011, It is a contemporary struggle, but this is a history festival. So, a little history. First a story. During the Cold War, a joke was circulating in Damascus. Pollsters were asking people around the world for their answer to the question, “What is your opinion of eating meat?” In Poland, people said, “What do you mean by ‘meat’?” In Ethiopia, they said, “What do you mean by ‘eating’?” But in Syria, everyone said, “What do you mean by ‘what is your opinion’?”
The Syrian regimes of the Assads, the father Hafez and the son Bashar, are not the first not to bother to elicit public opinion. Instead, they and their predecessors have dictated it. The only attempt to ascertain the opinions of the Syrian people came in 1919, when Dr. Henry Churchill King and Charles Crane headed an American commission to determine what the people of Syria wanted in the territories that the Ottomans had recently evacuated. They held meetings, received petitions, met local leaders and drew up their report. The King-Crane Commission found: 80.4 per cent of the population wanted to keep Syria – what we now call Greater Syria of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and little Syria – united. Seventy-three point five per cent wanted full independence. Fifty-nine per cent wanted a constitutional monarchy under King Feisal of the Hejaz, who had led the Arab opposition to the Turks. So, what did they get? No unity, no independence and no Feisal.
The French expelled Feisal and imposed the so-called Mandate over little Syria and Greater Lebanon in 1920. Rebellions began immediately. Damascus was always at the heart of the rejection of disunity and foreign rule. French Général C.J.E. Andréa wrote in La Révolte Druze et l’Insurrection de Damascus, 1925-1926 , “the Arab heart beats more strongly than anywhere else.” His observation preceded by twenty years Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dictum that Syria was “the beating heart of Arabism,” a phrase quoted from time to time by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as posthumous benediction from the last, possibly the only, great Arab nationalist leader. Damascus was the capital of the first Arab empire, the Omayyad, in the seventh century. When its Sunni legions completed their conquest of Syria, they turned their might on Persia, a precedent not lost on the Shiite rulers of contemporary Iran. The Omayyads annexed all the territories from India west across North Africa to Spain, making theirs the most extensive imperium the world had known. Though illustrious, its duration was a mere ninety years. Thirteen centuries later, Damascus became capital of the first independent Arab kingdom to emerge from the defeated Ottoman Empire. Its tenure was a bare five months, from March 1920, when an elected Syrian Congress declared Sherif Feisal of the Hejaz its king, until French forces expelled him on 28 July. Damascus’s 7th century empire and 20th century kingdom, though vanished, inform the myths to which the city’s inhabitants cling in turbulent times, as these are.
No event looms larger in modern Syrian history, though, than the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925. Syrians recall it as a nationalist revolution against foreign occupation, while to French Général Andréa, in his memoir of its suppression, “C’est du banditisme tout pur.” That insurrection erupted unexpectedly, like the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, during a drought in the Hauran, a plateau rich in wheat and vines beside a rugged basalt mountain south of Damascus. Similarities between the rebellions of 1925 and 2011 are many. Both started with petitions and non-violent demonstrations over discontent with local governors. Both caught the authorities unawares. Both spread to Homs before engulfing the rest of the country. Both received weapons from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Both comprised rival factions of secularists and Islamists, democrats and theocrats, tribesmen and city sophisticates, Syrians and outsiders. Both, despite provoking bombardment from aeroplanes and heavy artillery, enjoyed initial success. The first was defeated, and the second – despite the gains made by the fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq – is losing as well.
Every Syrian government since the final departure of the French Army on 17 April 1946 has claimed to incarnate the spirit of the Great Revolt. Yet each Syrian government found itself in the position of the French, governing and modernizing a country that tended to resist both projects. France’s High Commissioners, like their indigenous successors, failed to absorb the greatest lesson of four centuries of Ottoman trial and error in Syria: to govern well, govern little. The Turks, while introducing haphazard and occasional reforms and hanging fomenters of sectarian warfare, barely tampered with the structure of governance they inherited from Rome, Byzantium and the Omayyads. That is to say, they left the tribes and sects to their local chiefs. The French, as well as the assorted civilian and military regimes that followed in their wake, were more ambitious.
Governing Syria has never been easy, as the commanders of punitive expeditions from Titus to the Ottomans’ last general could attest. Two years into the French League of Nations Mandate over Syria and Lebanon, a Scottish traveller, Helen Cameron Gordon, toured the country and later described conditions that would daunt any sovereign, foreign or local. She wrote:
Her inhabitants are made up of at least a dozen different races, mainly Asiatic; and worse still, of about thirty religious sects, all suspicious and jealous of each other.
Amongst Christians alone, there are seventeen high dignitaries with the title of Patriarch, and other leaders politically minded and steeped in intrigue: Moslems, Druses, Ismaelites, Nosairis [Alawites], Yessides and various sub-sects too numerous to mention. Influence, that is pernicious, is brought to bear upon them from outside, which they are themselves unequal to combat, and sometimes prone to pay too much attention. Is it to be wondered that amongst officers of the Army of the Levant, it has become proverbial that peace is only in the shadow of their bayonets and within the radius of their machine-guns?
France’s Armée du Levant engaged in nearly continuous counter-insurgency from the moment it invaded Syria. Twelve hundred Arab fighters, including Feisal’s minister for war, Yusuf al-Azmeh, died resisting the French advance on Damascus in 1920. Syrians resented the intrusion of westerners who sliced their homeland into mini-states that would become Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and a “mini-Syria” that was a fraction of itself. The Alawite minority under Salih al-Ali fought the French for a year in the northwest, as did a largely Sunni force led by a Kurdish former Ottoman officer, Ibrahim Hananu, around Aleppo. In the Hauran and its mountain, alternately called Jabal Hauran and Jabal Druze, the French skirmished often with King Feisal’s former partisans, who made cross-border raids from his brother Abdallah’s new principality of Transjordan. Many Druze fought them until 1922, when France granted a “Druze Charter of Independence” with local autonomy and an elected Druze Majlis or Council. By the time Général Maurice Sarrail, France’s third High Commissioner in four years, disembarked in Beirut on 2 January 1925, Syria had been subdued.
Nowhere appeared quieter than the formerly turbulent Druze region in the highlands of the Hauran. The Majlis had even chosen a French officer, Captain Gabriel Carbillet, as governor in July 1923, when they could not agree on a Druze candidate. Carbillet was a man of the Left, anti-clerical and a Freemason, who determined to bring égalité to the Druze by enfeebling their aristocracy. Joyce Laverty Miller wrote in the International Journal of Middle East Studies in 1977:
Carbillet proved to be an ambitious and zealous reformer. In the course of a year, he opened twenty-three new schools, equalized the civil laws, opened a court of appeals at al-Suwaida (the capital city of Jabal-Druze), constructed an extensive system of irrigation, built roads, disarmed the population, and used the forced labor of prisoners and peasants.”
Among his achievements was to bring running water for the first time to Suwaida. He also built five museums, but his use of conscripted corvée labor caused resentment. So too did his collective punishment of Druze peasants and sheikhs alike, whom he forced to break rocks under the Syrian sun. Druze reaction resembled that of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson and his fellow prisoners of war in Bridge on the River Kwai to Colonel Saito’s decree that officers, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, would do manual labour alongside other ranks. Like George W Bush’s neo-conservative true believers in occupied Iraq, Carbillet had a vision. He asked, “Should I leave these chiefs to continue their oppression of a people who dream of liberty?”
France introduced something new into Syrian life, something that lingers to this day: In his book Syria and Lebanon Under French Mandate, Stephen Helmsley Longrigg write, “Rigid control of personal movement was established. The use of schoolmasters as informers was everywhere practiced. Punishments, for offences sometimes trivial, were arbitrary and even capricious. The sensitiveness of Druze pride was repeatedly offended.”
Like the Trojan War, the Great Syrian Revolt resulted from breaches of hospitality. As Paris stole his host’s wife, functionaries from Third Republic Paris made a gross faux pas in the village of Qraya on 7 July 1922. Armed soldiers broke into the house of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who was away, to arrest a Shiite named Adham Kanjar on charges of attempting to assassinate the High Commissioner, Général Henri Gouraud. Al-Atrash, a thirty-one year old hotspur with penetrating azure eyes and formidable moustaches, a visual embodiment of the noble Druze warrior, had served in the Ottoman Army before defecting in 1918 to Sherif Feisal and the British. When the absent Atrash discovered the French had desecrated his house, he demanded Kanjar’s return. The French refused. Al-Atrash, as a notable whose prestige depended on his power to protect others, attacked a train he mistakenly believed to be carrying the prisoner to Damascus. The French retaliated by demolishing his house and ordering his capture. He fled, returning a year later under an amnesty.
The Observer, in an article on 9 August 1925 sub-headed “Quarrel with a Young Governor,” traced the revolt’s spark to a subsequent violation of the Druze code of hospitality. The “young governor,” Captain Carbillet, had overseen the construction of the first hotel in the Druze capital at Suwaida and required travellers to lodge there rather than as guests in private houses. The Observer wrote,
[Nesib] Atrash Bey pleaded that the century-old traditions of hospitality could not thus be broken, and finally roundly suggested that the Governor was financially interested in the fortunes of the hotel, and refused to yield, whereupon the notables guilty of having opened their houses to travellers were seized and sent to break stones on the roads.
The Atrash family appealed to the senior French official in Syria, newly arrived High Commissioner Sarrail, in February 1925. Sarrail, like Carbillet in a minority among French officers as a staunch republican and progressive, declined to receive the forty-man delegation. When they persisted, he arrested their leaders. Nesib Bey al-Atrash was reported to have told the French, “Very well. Rifles will speak.” The arrested Druze were sent to France’s new prison in the desert at Palmyra, where Sarrail’s secretary, Paul Coblentz, admitted that treatment “was certainly not always comparable with the methods used in similar cases in Europe.”
In March 1925, Captain Carbillet went to France on leave. A more conservative officer, Captain Antoine Raynaud, filled in for him. Raynaud’s light-handed governance made him popular, especially among the landlords. When a French parliamentarian, Auguste Brunet of the Radical Party, came to Beirut on what a later era would call a fact-finding mission, Druze delegates presented him with a petition calling on France to make Raynaud’s appointment permanent. Brunet ignored the petition, and Sarrail once again rebuffed their deputation.
The Druze graduated from polite petitions to public protest. Their newly formed Patriotic Club staged a demonstration on the morning of 3 July in front of the Majlis in Suwaida, where Captain Raynaud was presiding over a council session. About 400 Druze horsemen shouted demands, chanted war songs and carried weapons, while refraining from violence. When French-officered gendarmes dispersed them, though, shots were exchanged between one Druze leader, Hussein Murshid, and French Lieutenant Maurel. Neither man was hit, and the Druze offered an immediate apology. Captain Raynaud, despite the fact that the demonstrators’ goal was to retain him as governor, commanded the Druze to pay a large fine and turn over twenty young men for detention. He also ordered the immediate demolition of the house of Hussein Murshid. The Druze religious sheikhs intervened to prevent bloodshed, agreeing that the community would pay the fine and turn over the young men. But destruction of a Druze house was not acceptable.
French troops appeared at Murshid’s house to tear it down, but Sultan al-Atrash, hundreds of mounted men and neighbors with rifles forced them to withdraw. Raynaud sent a warning to High Commissioner Sarrail that discontent was leading inevitably to revolution. Sarrail dismissed Raynaud and assigned an officer from the Intelligence Corps, Major Tommy Martin, to fill his post pending Carbillet’s return. Sarrail summoned five Druze chiefs, including Sultan al-Atrash, to Damascus. Fearing a trap, Sultan declined. He was not surprised when Sarrail arrested the others at their Damascus hotel and sent them to Palmyra.
Up to that time, the Druze had not demanded an end to the French Mandate, anymore than Dera’a’s demonstrators in early March 2011 initially sought to depose Bashar al-Assad. Their request for one French officer to replace another implied recognition of the Mandate. Similarly, the Dera’a protestors’ call in 2011 for the dismissal of a governor who had crossed a line by torturing children acknowledged the president’s authority to replace local officials who violated the law and trampled on their dignity. When the rulers refused to listen, the people’s horizons expanded to a future in which they would choose new rulers.
Captain Carbillet returned from leave on 19 July, but Sarrail did not restore him as governor. The governorship had ceased to be the issue, just as Bashar al-Assad’s belated dismissal of Dera’a’s governor, his cousin Faisal Kalthum, came too late to pacify the rebellion against his rule. The Druze and their allies, including many Sunni Muslims and a few Christians, demanded nothing less than France’s expulsion and self-determination in a unified Syria.
On the day of Carbillet’s return, two French reconnaissance planes spotted Sultan al-Atrash’s growing insurgent band in the village of Urman. The Druze fired at the planes, downing one and capturing its two pilots. This became the date on which the Great Revolt is said to have begun. Michael Provence in his excellent history, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism, “Neither rebel leaders nor the mandate authorities had a clear conception of the direction and seriousness of the uprising at this early point.” Nonetheless, both sides escalated the violence.
The next day, Major Martin sent a force of about two hundred French and colonial troops under a Captain Normand to retrieve the two pilots and crush what appeared to be a local disturbance. Normand bivouacked on 21 July beside a village halfway between Salkhad and Suwaida, where Sultan al-Atrash’s envoys asked him to return to Suwaida for negotiations to end the fighting. Normand declined. During the battle that followed, Sultan al-Atrash’s Druze and bedouin warriors destroyed Normand’s force in about thirty minutes. A few stragglers made their way back to the garrison at Suwaida, which al-Atrash attacked the next day, laying siege to the French in the old citadel.
The destruction of the Normand column galvanized latent opposition to the French in Syria. Young men from Damascus joined the colors, as did Arab patriots from the recently created neighboring countries. Abdel-Aziz ibn Saud, who with his Wahhabi followers ruled the Nejd desert and had recently conquered Mecca and Medina from Britain’s Hashemite allies, sent arms and men. Mustapha Kemal Pasha, the Turkish leader who had his own dispute with France over Turkey’s border with Syria, supported the rebels in the north. The French in turn armed Armenian refugees, barely recovered from massacres by Muslim Turks, as well as minority Circassians and Arab Christians. The rebels cut French communications, severing rail and telegraph lines at different times to Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan.
To quell the uprising, Sarrail dispatched Général Roger Michaud, the Armée du Levant’s commander, from Beirut to Damascus. Michaud led a large force south towards the Druze capital to relieve his besieged countrymen. On 2 August, when his force rested about twelve kilometers short of Suwaida, Sultan al-Atrash attacked with five hundred Druze and bedouin horsemen. The French drove them back, but, running short of water, began a withdrawal north the next day. Al-Atrash attacked again with greater force, annihilating the French column. Michaud’s second-in-command, Major Jean Aujac, committed suicide in the field. Al-Atrash’s men collected more than 2,000 rifles, as well as machine guns and artillery pieces, from the dead Frenchmen. Reuters reported, “The French have evacuated Southern Hauran.”
French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand nonetheless declared that the situation in Syria was not dangerous. France faced a greater threat in its Morocco Protectorate, where insurgents from the Rif Mountain were humiliating the armies of both France and Spain. Moroccan success inspired the Syrians, much as the downfall of the dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya would ninety years later. But the rebellions in Morocco and Syria had far to go.
Unrest spread immediately to Homs, where so-called “bandits” attacked outlying French positions and closed roads. The nationalist elite in Damascus, who had remained quiet, was forced to support the rebellion or stand accused of treason. On 23 August, al-Atrash requested negotiations with Sarrail through his old friend Captain Raynaud. Just as Sarrail had invited Druze leaders to Damascus as a ruse to arrest them, al-Atrash’s offer was a cover for an assault on Damascus. On 24 August, more than a thousand men from Jabal Druze, the Hauran and the desert mustered on the city outskirts. Arguments among their leaders over strategy delayed their advance, giving French planes time to locate and strafe them. North African cavalry then drove them south.
Muslim soldiers from Algeria and Senegal began deserting the French army to join the rebels. So did local levies in France’s Syrian Legion, including the Legion’s commander in Hama, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, with all his men. The mutineers held Hama for two days, until ferocious French bombardment of the ancient souqs and residential quarters forced the town’s notables to beg Qawuqji to spare the city by withdrawing.
As over the past three years, some rebel leaders claimed to speak for all Syrians – Arab Sunni Muslims, the various Shiah sects and Christians. But not all the participants shared that universal vision. In 1925, some raised the flag of jihad and attacked the Christian town of Ma’alula – known as one of the last places where Aramaic was still spoken. One of the revolt’s more able leaders, Said al ‘As, wrote:
This work was not legitimate and the revolt was exposed to doubt by their attack and their hostility against Ma’alula which alienated the hearts of the Christian sons of the one nation, our brothers in nationalism and the homeland.
As the nationalists regretted the assault on Ma’alula in 1925, their descendants condemned the jihadist assault on the same Christian town last year. Yet the effect of both was the same: to drive Christians out of a country where they have lived since the time of Christ or to drive them into the arms of the regime, French then and Baathist now.
By early October, the rebels had the initiative, forcing the French to confront them at times and places of their choosing. Their next target was Damascus, which they entered on 18 October. Typical of the disorganization within rebel ranks, the local commander, Hassan al-Kharrat, invaded the city before Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s mutineers and Sultan al-Atrash’s Druze-bedouin cavalry arrived. Entering the Shaghur quarter, Kharrat shouted, “Rise up, your brothers the Druze are here!” Most Damascenes, like their descendants in this century, did not rise up.
As his forces lost control of Damascus, High Commissioner Sarrail declared martial law and commanded the summary execution of Syrians found with weapons. French tanks raced through the souqs, wrote The Times, “at terrifying speed, firing to the right and left without ceasing.” At noon on the 18th, as Sarrail departed for Beirut, he ordered warplanes and heavy calibre cannon to bombard the city day and night.
The Manchester Guardian correspondent interviewed a traveller from Damascus who “describes days and nights of unforgettable terror.” The shelling destroyed the famous Souq Hamadieh bazaar, the Biblical “Street Called Straight,” the magnificent Azem Palace and the districts of Shaghur and Meidan. French troops executed insurgents and those who protected them. The Times reported that French troops, having murdered two dozen young men in villages southeast of Damascus, brought their corpses to Marjeh Square near the city center. The paper’s correspondent wrote,
Instead of merely exposing the bodies for a space on the spot as an example to other malefactors, in accordance with Eastern custom, and then handing them over to their relatives for decent burial, the French authorities brought them to Damascus. There they attached them to camels and paraded them through the streets. The ghastly spectacle presented by the swaying corpses naturally infuriated the excitable Damascenes, as indeed the news of the official adoption of such deterrents will inevitably arouse the natural indignation of many Frenchmen.
The Times reported that the rebels then killed twelve Circassians serving with the French and left their bodies outside the city’s Eastern Gate. “This was the reply, typical of the spirit of those whom it was intended to humiliate,” The Times correspondent in Damascus wrote. Forty-eight hours of steady bombardment, as in Hama, saw the city’s leaders begging the rebels to leave. The Manchester Guardian wrote, “The rebels remained in Damascus until October 20, and only retired because their presence was given as the cause of the bombardment.”
By the time Sultan al-Atrash’s forces arrived, Damascus was lost. He and his allies, however, took control of nearby villages and orchards in the fertile Ghoutha, isolating the capital from the rest of Syria. Animosity between Damascene civilians and rebels grew. The Times reported that one Druze leader threatened “the residents of the Meidan quarter that as they had betrayed the Druses on Sunday by refusing to fight they would be the first to suffer from the next attack, which would be made very soon.” The French also antagonized the population, devastating villages, machine gunning unarmed civilians and looting houses.
As France gained ground, a Maronite Christian supporter of the rebellion wrote accused them of a crime against humanity. He wrote, “The French army has employed poison gas against the Druze, which affirms French will to exterminate an entire people.” No inspectors, as at the end of last summer in Damascus, came to investigate the charge. But pressure on France grew to end the war or to abandon its Mandate.
As with the rebellion against Assad, rival leaderships emerged inside and outside Syria. Fighters, then as now, ignored the external leaders, but they attempted operational coordination under Ramadan Pasha Shallash. Shallash, a bedouin prince, had served as an officer in both the Ottoman and Feisal’s armies. Genuine rebel unity, however, proved as elusive as it remains today. Stephen Henry Longrigg in his Syria and Lebanon Under French Mandate, described the rebel leadership in terms that could apply to the present uprising:
No statesman with a truly national appeal, no considerable military leader appeared, no central organization controlled events, little correlation of effort or timing was visible. The Government of Syria [Syrians appointed by the French] – ministers, officials, departments – gave no countenance to the rebellion, those of Great Lebanon and the ‘Alawis still less; and the greatest part of the public abstained, if it could, from overt help to a movement which damaged and alarmed it.
French military setbacks were causing severe repercussions at home. Pierre La Mazière, a senator of the Democratic Left, wrote in Partant pour la Syrie that “we have lost so much money, so many lives, so much prestige that – Ah, if only we could get out of Syria without any of the rest of the world noticing it!” Much of the world demanded that the League of Nations end the French Mandate. To hang on, the French government changed leadership in Syria. Général Maurice Gamelin replaced Général Michaud. A disgraced Sarrail was recalled to Paris, and Senator Henry de Jouvenel became the Mandate’s first civilian High Commissioner. He immediately put out feelers to Sultan al-Atrash, paid subsidies to village elders to support the French, offered amnesties to rebels who gave up their arms and travelled to Ankara to bargain with Mustapha Kemal Pasha, the future Atatürk. In exchange for a small parcel of Syrian territory, Turkey cut the arms flow to the rebels.
Disputes among rival rebel leaders crippled their movement, and foreign backers pulled them in different directions. Rebel chiefs deposed and arrested their military commander, Ramadan Shallash. He escaped, surrendered to the French and helped to suppress the rebellion he had led.
France escalated its military campaign with aerial bombardment in and around Aleppo and a ground campaign under newly promoted Général Andréa that routed Druze and Sunni forces in the Hauran by the late spring of 1926.
French General Andréa wrote, “The French flag flew over Suwaida, but there wasn’t a single inhabitant left in the town.” As with the Americans in Vietnam, destroying villages counted as saving them.
In 1927, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash took refuge in Transjordan and then with Ibn Saud in what would eventually be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Druze warrior was permitted home ten years later, and he lived peacefully until 1947 when he launched another doomed revolt against Syria’s newly independent government. In the current rebellion, the Druze have remained neutral.
The parallels between then and now are as instructive as the differences, which are many. In the 1920s, fighting did not spread across the region like the current war. While there were Wahhabis from Arabia, there was no equivalent to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS. The French, like the Assads today, held on. The French finally left, as I suspect the Assads will, but that took France another twenty years.