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Syria’s dismemberment: fulfilling the French Mandate’s vision?

Could the neglected strength of the mainstream Muslim community – a vestige of the Ottoman self-governing ethno-religious millet system – hold Syria together as it did nearly 100 years ago and prevent its dismemberment into a number of mini-states?

Dawn Chatty
4 September 2012
Damascus ca. 1910. Flickr Commons/OSU Special Collections and Archives.

Damascus ca. 1910. Flickr Commons/OSU Special Collections and Archives.

At the end of World War I, the spoils of the Middle East went to the victorious Allies, England and France. Two secret agreements concluded several years before were to determine the shape of what was to become of the southern provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1915/6 McMahon-Hussein Correspondence between the British High Commissioner in Egypt and the Sharif of Mecca promised the Arabs a state of their own in Arabia if they rose up and fought with the British to defeat the Ottomans.  A second agreement a few months later was signed by the French, British and Russians – the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord. It provided for the carving up of the region into a French zone over Greater Syria (Bilad-al-Sham) and a British zone over Palestine, Mesopotamia and a Kurdish zone. It also gave Jerusalem to Russia on account of its special relationship with orthodox Christianity. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 put paid to Russian claims, but the rest of the Sykes-Picot Accords all came to be integrated into the Paris Peace Conference of 1920. It was a catastrophic outcome from the view point of the Arabs. Syria’s dismemberment was just part of the story.

One might wonder how it was that a British General would conquer Damascus for the Allies, but then would end up handing it over to the French. It was the line in the sand from Acre in Palestine to Kirkuk in Mesopotamia that Sir Mark Sykes drew across a map as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement which would determine that everything south of the line was British and everything north of it would be French. General Edmund Allenby would lead the victorious campaign in Palestine, taking Jerusalem for the Allies in December 1917 and then marching into Damascus on 1 October 1918 to be greeted by T.E. Laurence and a few days later Emir Faysal and his Arab nationalists forces. The Syrian National Congress would declare Emir Faysal King of Greater Syria. But General Allenby would have the difficult task of informing Faysal that, contrary to the McMahon Hussein Correspondence of 1915/6, Greater Syria would not be recognised as an Arab Kingdom, but would instead become a mandate of the French state. The Allies created the League of Nations which then endorsed the handing over of the mandate of Greater Syria to the French in 1920. The French then rather unceremoniously deposed King Faysal of Syria a few months on. A year later, the British conducted a plebiscite in their League of Nations mandated state and placed the deposed King of Syria, Emir Faysal, on the throne of the newly declared Kingdom of Iraq.  

These manipulations were greeted with widespread outrage and general unrest in both Iraq and Greater Syria. The French responded to this popular uprising with a policy of divide and rule. First they shaved off the western part of Syria – today the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon – and attached it along with Tripoli to the Christian Maronite enclave of Mount Lebanon, thus creating the modern Christian and Muslim country we know today. Then they set out to create an Alawite proto-state north of Lebanon, and a Druze state in the south, extending to the British mandate of Transjordan. What remained of Syria they attempted to further parcel up as a Bedouin ‘Emirate’ in the Syrian desert from Homs east to the Iraqi border thus dividing up Damascus and its hinterland from Aleppo and its surrounding towns and villages. The French attempt to divide Syria into six mini-states to subjugate a people who wanted to remain united, was met with a country-wide revolt which lasted six years and was to shake the French mandate authorities to their foundation.

The irony is that at the end of World War II, the British, hearing the demands of the Syrian people, sent their armed forces into Syria to push France to give up its mandate over the country. Yet here we are, 70 years on, and it is the British who are cooperating with the disparate groups of the armed opposition but not listening to the majority; a move which threatens to promote the unravelling of the modern state. Such action is more likely to see the fracturing of the state into enclaves as the French had tried but failed to do nearly 100 years ago: an Alawite mini-state to the west, a Kurdish state to the north, a Bedouin nation to the east, a Druze state to the south. What Great Britain should be supporting is an internationally negotiated transition to a democratic government which involves all the Syrian people and their religious leaders, not just the opposition groups.

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