Syria since the Ottomans

April 14 2011

Analysis by Joshua Landis on The Real News and YouTube and, with comments, at Landis’s indispensable Syria Comment.

The second clip has the historical perspective. It’s an extremely lucid summary of the present balance of power in Syria and the history behind it.

Robin Yassin-Kassab’s summary and response to Landis is here.

The French played more constitutional games with their mandates and colonies than the British, setting up republics, for example, before granting independence. A Syrian Republic was declared in 1930. In 1936, a Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence was signed, but it was not ratified by the French legislature.

The British and Free French invaded and occupied Syria and Lebanon in 1941. Independence was granted to the two countries in the name of the Free French in that year – or 1943 (a date can refer to when an arrangement was agreed or when it took effect; I don’t claim full consistency here), but the French saw even that as independence by virtue of, and within the framework of, the Mandate.

On May 29 1945, France bombed Damascus from the air and tried to arrest its democratically elected leaders. While they were doing this, the Syrian prime minister was at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, presenting Syria’s claim for independence. French troops did not leave until 1946.

In the view of the UN, the French had terminated the mandate by granting independence. H Duncan Hall, Mandates, Dependencies and Trusteeship, Carnegie Endowment, 1948: “The Syrian mandate may be said to have been terminated without any formal action on the part of the League or its successor. The mandate was terminated by the declaration of the mandatory power, and of the new states themselves, of their independence, followed by a process of piecemeal unconditional recognition by other powers, culminating in formal admission to the United Nations. Article 78 of the Charter ended the status of tutelage for any member state: ‘The trusteeship system shall not apply to territories which have become Members of the United Nations, relationship among which shall be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality.’”

During the war, Britain had secretly advocated the creation of a Greater Syrian state that would give Britain preferential status in military, economic and cultural matters, in return for putting a complete halt to Jewish ambition in Palestine. France and the United States opposed British aspirations in the region, and thereby helped the cause of Zionism.

The secular, socialist Baath Party was founded in Damascus in the 1940s. It has been in power in Syria, supported by the army, since 1963.


After 1918, in accordance with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement signed between Britain and France in 1916, the British took control of most of Ottoman Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and the southern part of Ottoman Syria (Palestine and Jordan), while the French took the rest of Ottoman Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, part of southeastern Turkey).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a betrayal of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence of 1915-16, in which the British promised an Arab Kingdom in return for an Arab uprising against the Ottomans. Sir Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. Hussein was the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca or Sharif of the Hejaz, an office which had existed since the late Abbasid era.

Hussein proclaimed himself King of the Hejaz in 1917. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and its dissolution in 1923, he declared himself Caliph. In 1924, in the face of attacks by Ibn Saud, he abdicated his secular titles to his eldest son, Ali, who became the last Sharif. At the end of 1925, Ibn Saud conquered the Hejaz and expelled the Hashemites. The House of Saud has ruled the holy cities since then.

The British granted control over Transjordan and Iraq to Hussein’s other sons Abdullah and Faisal. The Emirate of Transjordan (1921-46) was part of the British Mandate of Palestine (1923-48). In 1946 it became a kingdom, which survived after the mandate was ended. The Kingdom of Iraq (1921-58, Faisal I, Ghazi, Faisal II) continued after the British Mandate of Mesopotamia (1920-32) had ended, until the revolution of 1958. The Baathists came to power ten years later and survived until the American invasion of 2003.

But in October 1918, before he was posted to Iraq, and with the permission of Allenby, Faisal established an Arab government in Damascus. It would be an Arab kingdom based on justice and equality for all Arabs regardless of religion. The administration formed local governments in the major Syrian cities, and the Pan-Arab flag was raised all over Syria. The Arabs still hoped in 1918, with faith in British promises, that the Arab state would include all the Arab lands stretching from Aleppo in northern Syria to Aden in southern Yemen.

The French demanded full implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the placement of Syria under their influence. At the Paris Peace Conference the European powers decided to ignore the Arab demands.

Agreements in Europe that would turn the planned Arab Kingdom of Syria into a French mandate also stimulated Syrian nationalist societies such as al-Fatat (the Young Arab Society) to make preparations for a national congress. These societies advocated complete independence for an Arab Kingdom uniting the Arab world under Faisal. A hasty election was called, summoning representatives from all over the Arab lands, including Palestine and Lebanon, though French officials prevented many of them from arriving. The first official session of the Syrian Congress was held on June 3 1919. On July 2 it passed a number of resolutions pertaining to the formation of Syria as a completely independent constitutional monarchy with Faisal as king, and asking for assistance from the United States and the refusal of any rights claimed by the French.

The hope of Faisal that either the British or the Americans would come to his aid and intervene against the French quickly faded. On November 26 1919, the British withdrew from Damascus, leaving the Arab government face to face with the French. In January 1920 Faisal was forced into negotiations with Clemenceau. The French would uphold the existence of the Syrian (not pan-Arab) state and would not station troops in Syria as long as the French government remained the only government supplying advisers and technical experts. News of this compromise did not go down well with Faisal’s vehemently anti-French and independence-minded supporters, who persuaded him to reverse his commitment. There were violent attacks against French forces and the Syrian Congress assembled in March 1920 to declare Faisal king of Syria.

The British and French repudiated this action and the League of Nations called the San Remo Conference in April 1920 to establish an explicit mandate of the French over Syria. This was in turn repudiated by Faisal and his supporters. The commander of the French forces General Henri Gouraud gave an ultimatum to King Faisal on July 14 1920.

Faisal surrendered, but his defence minister, ignoring him, led an army to Maysalun to defend Syria from the French advance. The Battle of Maysalun resulted in a crushing Syrian defeat and the capture of Damascus on July 24. The French mandate of Syria was put into effect thereafter (1923-43, but see above as to the latter date). The official name was the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon.

The failure of the brief, tumultuous Arab Kingdom was a bitter disappointment to the Arabs, but it became a inspiration to other Arab liberation movements. One can’t fully understand Arab psychology after the establishment of Israel without knowing about it. It would become the often-repeated story of an Arab people breaking out from their colonial bonds only to be castigated for their revolutionary fervour. The fall of the Kingdom of Syria led to a deep mistrust of European powers, who were seen as liars and oppressors, and serves as a reminder of the overwhelming military might that can be imposed on a regime that does not serve the interests of a major power.


In 1920-21 the French divided Syria into several states in order to exploit sectarian divisions.

1. State of Greater Lebanon. Capital: Beirut. The beginning of modern Lebanon.

The French had first intervened in Lebanon in the 1860s, to protect the rights of the Maronite population in the mutasarrifia (Ottoman administrative unit) of Mount Lebanon. Greater Lebanon included, in addition to Mount Lebanon, other, mainly Muslim regions that were not part of the Maronite mutasarrifia, hence “Greater”. Those regions correspond today to north Lebanon, south Lebanon, the Beqaa valley and Beirut.

Muslims in Greater Lebanon rejected the new state on its creation and demanded unification with Syria. The separation of Lebanon from Syria has tended to be regarded as temporary by the Syrians. The Christians welcomed the mandate, even though they were not a majority in Greater Lebanon.

Lebanon became a quasi-independent republic in 1926, with a new constitution, still under the Mandate, and achieved independence in 1943, though French troops remained until the end of 1946.

2. Alawite State. Capital: Latakia. Population of Alawites, a Syrian branch of Shia Islam.

At first an autonomous territory under French rule known as the Alawite Territories. In 1922, France established a loose federation between Damascus, Aleppo and the Alawites, the Syrian Federation. The Alawites seceded in 1924 and became the State of Alawites, while Damascus and Aleppo were united into the State of Syria.

In 1930 the State of Alawites was renamed the Independent Government of Latakia and the State of Syria was declared a Republic. In 1936 Latakia joined the Republic.

There were several rebellions against the French.

The Assad regime (since 1970) has an Alawite power base.

3. Sanjak (Ottoman administrative unit) of Alexandretta. Capital: Alexandretta (Turkish Iskanderun). Turkish minority. Southern edge of the region known in the ancient world as Cilicia.

Autonomous from 1921 to 1923, due to the presence of an important Turkish community, along with Arabs of various religious denominations (Muslim and Christian) and other minorities. In 1923 attached to the State of Aleppo. In 1925 directly attached to the French Mandate of Syria, still with special administrative status.

In 1936 it was proposed that the sanjak should join the Syrian Republic. Elections in the sanjak returned two MPs favoring the independence of Syria from France. The Turks complained to the League of Nations about the alleged mistreatment of the Turkish population. Atatürk demanded that Alexandretta become part of Turkey. The sanjak was given autonomy in November 1937 in an arrangement brokered by the League. Under the new arrangement, the sanjak became “distinct but not separated” from the French Mandate of Syria on the diplomatic level, and linked to both France and Turkey for defence.

On September 2 1938 the assembly proclaimed the Republic of Hatay, using the excuse that rioting had broken out between Turks and Arabs. The Republic lasted a year under joint French and Turkish military supervision. The name Hatay had been proposed by Atatürk and its government was under Turkish control. In 1939, following a popular referendum, the Republic of Hatay became a Turkish province, with its capital at Antakya (Antioch) rather than Iskanderun (Alexandretta). For the referendum, Turkey sent tens of thousands of Turks into Alexandretta to vote. The French tolerated the Turkish annexation, hoping for Turkish support against Hitler. Syria did not recognize the incorporation of Hatay into Turkey and the issue is still disputed.

4. State of Jabal Druze. Capital: As Suwayda. Created for the Druze population of southern Syria.

The Druze broke away from the Ismaili Muslims in the eleventh century. They are regarded as heretical by most Muslims.

In 1925, a revolt in Jabal Druze became a general rebellion in Syria. France tried to weaken it by having the parliament of Aleppo declare secession from the union with Damascus, but the voting was foiled by Syrian patriots.

In 1936 Jabal Druze joined the Syrian Republic.

5. State of Damascus. Capital: Damascus.

United with Aleppo in 1924 to form the State of Syria. The Sunni urban population was strongly opposed to the division of Syria.

6. State of Aleppo. Capital: Aleppo.

United with Damascus in 1924 to form the State of Syria. The Sunni urban population was strongly opposed to the division of Syria.


“Syria is not a unified nation in the way that Egypt is. There has been some form or other of centralised control in the Nile valley for thousands of years. Syria’s geography and demography – it’s a country of mountains, competing market cities and desert oases – means that power in Syria has always been much more divided, and that Syrians would feel more at home in an all-encompassing nation larger than the borders drawn by imperialists. Landis points out that in Syria’s brief democracy (the late 40s and early 50s) not one political party accepted the country’s borders. They sought instead either a unified pan-Arab state or a restitution of Bilad ash-Sham, the zone of enormous diversity between the Taurus mountains, the southern desert and the Euphrates river which nevertheless constitutes one market area and enjoys a common Levantine culture. Bilad ash-Sham is sliced today into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine-Israel, and a sliver of Turkey.”

The French built an army of minorities. “The victory of the military over the parliament [which flourished in the early years of independence], and of the military wing of the Ba’ath party over all other parties, was a victory of the countryside over the city, of the periphery over the centre, of sectarian minorities over the Sunni majority. The Ba’ath years therefore oversaw a social revolution in the sense that previously distanced and despised rural classes moved to the cities and entered elites.” But Assad, whose core support is Alawite, has reached a modus vivendi with the Sunni majority, and the food subsidies which his party offers have kept a large proportion of the urban working class on his side. The current opposition insists that it is unified around principles of democracy, and not an assemblage of minorities which threatens to cause Syria to disintegrate.

Overview of Syrian minorities at Minority Rights Group International. No mention of Salafis. Are they, strictly speaking, a sect?

Joshua Landis’s new book is here.

8 Responses to “Syria since the Ottomans”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Bashar has started copying the American presidential gesture of pointing at imaginary figures in the audience to show recognition and connection.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    There was a cringe-making moment in the first of the five hour-long BBC4 films last year called Syrian School. I wrote about the series here. Bashar’s posh wife Asma winced as the call to prayer sounded while she was addressing a group of schoolchildren. The clear (and I thought rather offensive) message was: “We all know this is ridiculous, but let us wait for it to pass.”

  3. davidderrick Says:

    And yet what would have happened if the Arab Kingdom of Syria had survived? It would have turned into a succession of dictatorships just the same.

  4. […] Extracted from Syria since the Ottomans. […]

  5. […] France to Turkey before the independence of the modern Syrian state.” On which last point see my post about some recent Syrian […]

  6. […] Assad and other Arab dictators’ wives (I have described here the moment, before the Arab spring, when I started loathing […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: