The Arab Kingdom of Syria

May 14 2011

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 dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate in March 1924, he declared himself Caliph. In the same year, 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). 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.

Extracted from Syria since the Ottomans.

2 Responses to “The Arab Kingdom of Syria”

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