Syria - History
The Ottomans were nomadic Muslim Turks from central Asia who had been converted to Islam by Umayyad conquerors in the eighth century. Led by Uthman (whence the Western term Ottoman), they founded a principality in 1300 amid the ruins of the Mongolwrecked Seljuk Empire in northwest Turkey. Fifty years later Uthman's successors invaded Europe. They conquered Constantinople in 1453 and in the sixteenth century conquered all of the Middle East. From 1300 to 1916, when the empire fell, 36 sultans, all descendants of Uthman, ruled most of the Muslim world. Europeans referred to the Ottoman throne as the Sublime Porte, a name derived from a gate of the sultan's palace in Istanbul.
From 1516 the Ottomans ruled Syria through pashas, who governed with unlimited authority over the land under their control, although they were responsible ultimately to the Sublime Porte. Pashas were both administrative and military leaders. So long as they collected their taxes, maintained order, and ruled an area not of immediate military importance, the Sublime Porte left them alone. In turn the pashas ruled smaller administrative districts through either a subordinate Turk or a loyal Arab. Occasionally, as in the area that became Lebanon, the Arab subordinate maintained his position more through his own power than through loyalty. Throughout Ottoman rule, there was little contact with the authorities except among wealthier Syrians who entered government service or studied in Turkish universities.
The system was not particularly onerous to Syrians because the Turks respected Arabic as the language of the Quran and accepted the mantle of defenders of the faith. Damascus was made the major entrepot for Mecca, and as such it acquired a holy character to Muslims because of the baraka (spiritual force or blessing) of the countless pilgrims who passed through on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ottoman administration often followed patterns set by previous rulers. Each religious minority--Shia Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian, and Jewish--constituted a millet. The religious heads of each community administered all personal status law and performed certain civil functions as well.
The Syrian economy did not flourish under the Ottomans. At times attempts were made to rebuild the country, but on the whole Syria remained poor. The population decreased by nearly 30 percent, and hundreds of villages virtually disappeared into the desert. At the end of the eighteenth century only one-eighth of the villages formerly on the register of the Aleppo pashalik (domain of a pasha) were still inhabited. Only the area now known as Lebanon achieved economic progress, largely resulting from the relatively independent rule of the Druze amirs.
Although impoverished by Ottoman rule, Syria continued to attract European traders, who for centuries had transported spices, fruits, and textiles from the Middle East to the West. By the fifteenth century Aleppo was the Middle East's chief marketplace and had eclipsed Damascus in wealth, creating a rivalry between the two cities that continues.
With the traders from the West came missionaries, teachers, scientists, and tourists whose governments began to clamor for certain rights. France demanded the right to protect Christians, and in 1535 Sultan Sulayman I granted France several "capitulations"--extraterritorial rights that developed later into political semiautonomy, not only for the French, but also for the Christians protected by them. The British acquired similar rights in 1580 and established the Levant Company in Aleppo. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Russians had claimed protective rights over the Greek Orthodox community.
The Ottoman Empire began to show signs of decline in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century European powers had begun to take advantage of Ottoman weakness through both military and political penetration, including Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, subsequent British intervention, and French occupation of Lebanon. Economic development of Syria through the use of European capital--for example, railroads built largely with French money--brought further incursions.
Western penetration became decidedly political after the Druze uprising in the Syrian province of Lebanon in 1860. The revolt began in the north as a Maronite Christian peasant uprising against Christian landlords. As the revolt moved southward to the territories where the landlords were Druzes, the conflagration acquired an intersectarian character, and the Druzes massacred some 10,000 Maronites. France sent in troops and removed them a year later only after the European powers had forced the Sublime Porte to grant new laws for Lebanon. By the Statute of 1861, for the first time Mount Lebanon was officially detached from Syria, and its administration came increasingly under the control of France.
Because of European pressure as well as the discontent of the Syrian people, the Ottoman sultans enacted some reforms during the nineteenth century. The Egyptian occupation of Syria from 1831 to 1839 under the nominal authority of the sultan brought a centralized government, judicial reform, and regular taxation. But Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian ruler, became unpopular with the landowners because he limited their influence, and with the peasants because he imposed conscription and taxation. He was eventually driven from Syria by the sultan's forces. Subsequent reforms of Turkish Sultan Mahmud II and his son were more theoretical than real and were counteracted by reactionary forces inside the state as well as by the inertia of Ottoman officials. Reforms proved somewhat successful with the Kurds and Turkomans in the north and with the Alawis around Latakia, but unsuccessful with the Druzes--who lived in the Jabal Druze (now known as Jabal al Arab), a rugged mountainous area in southwest Syria--who retained their administrative and judicial autonomy and exemption from military service.
Although further reform attempts generally failed, some of the more successful endure. Among them are the colonization of Syria's frontiers, the suppression of tribal raiding, the opening of new lands to cultivation, and the beginnings of the settlement of the beduin tribes. Attempts to register the land failed, however, because of the peasants' fear of taxation and conscription.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), sometimes known as Abdul Hamid the Damned, acquired a reputation as the most oppressive Ottoman sultan. Opponents died quickly; taxes became heavy. Abdul Hamid tried to earn the loyalty of his Muslim subjects by preaching pan-Islamic ideas and in 1908 completing the Hijaz Railway between Istanbul and Medina. However, the sultan's cruelty--coupled with that of his deputy in Acre, known in Syria as The Butcher--and increasing Western cultural influences set the stage for the first act of Arab nationalism; World War I opened the next.
World War I
The period from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the granting of France's mandate over Syria by the League of Nations in 1922 was marked by a complicated sequence of events and power politics during which Syrians achieved a brief moment of independence. Syrian intellectuals, many of them graduates of European and European- or American-run universities, were urging the study of Arab history, literature, and language. Also, groups of Syrians publicly demanded decentralization of Ottoman administration and administrative reform. As Ottoman governors such as Jamal Pasha suppressed them, Syrians went underground and demanded complete Arab independence. One of the first secret groups to form was Al Jamiyyah al Arabiyah al Fatat (the Young Arab Society, known as Al Fatat, not to be confused with the contemporary Al Fatah, or Fatah, of the Palestine Liberation Organization--PLO), of which Prince Faysal, son of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, was a member. Another group was Al Ahd (the Covenant), a secret association of Arab army officers.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Jamal Pasha determined to tighten his control over Syria. Attacking dissidents ruthlessly, he arrested Al Fatat members. Twenty-one Arabs were hanged in the city squares of Damascus and Beirut on the morning of May 6, 1915. The event is commemorated as Martyrs' Day, a national holiday in Syria and Lebanon.
Events leading to Syria's momentary independence began in the Arabian Peninsula. The British--anxious for Arab support against the Ottomans in the war and desiring to strengthen their position vis-a-vis the French in the determination of the Middle East's future--asked Sharif Husayn, leader of the Hashimite family and an Ottoman appointee over the Hijaz, to lead the Arabs in revolt. In return the British gave certain assurances, which Husayn interpreted as an endorsement of his eventual kingship of the Arab world. From the Arab nationalists in Damascus came pleas for the Hashimites to assume leadership. Husayn accepted, and on June 5, 1916, the Hijazi tribesmen, led by Husayn's sons and later advised by such British officers as T.E. Lawrence, rose against the Turks. In October 1918, Faysal entered Damascus as a popular hero.
Faysal, as military governor, assumed immediate control of all Syria except for the areas along the Mediterranean coast where French troops were garrisoned. In July 1919, he convened the General Syrian Congress, which declared Syria sovereign and free. In March 1920, the congress proclaimed Faysal king of Syria.
Faysal and his Syrian supporters began reconstructing Syria. They declared Arabic the official language and proceeded to have school texts translated from Turkish. They reopened schools and started new ones, including the Faculty of Law at the Syrian University and the Arab Academy in Damascus. Also, Faysal appointed a committee to begin drawing up a constitution.
In the areas still held by the French, Syrians continued to revolt. In the Jabal an Nusayriyah around Latakia in the northwest, there was an uprising against French troops in May 1919. Along the Turkish border, the nationalist leader Ibrahim Hannanu incited another rebellion in July 1919. The French defeated these attempts but not before Hannanu and Faysal had acquired permanent places in Syrian history as heroes.
Three forces worked against Arab nationalism and Faysal's budding Arab monarchy. One was Britain's earlier interest in keeping eastern Mesopotamia under control, both to counter Russian influence in the north and to protect oil interests in the area. The second was Zionism and the Jewish interest in Palestine. Although Britain had promised to recognize "an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States" in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 16, 1916, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 it had also promised Zionists a "national home" in Palestine. The two promises were in direct conflict. The third force was France's determination to remain a power in the Middle East. Earlier in the war, the French, British, Italians, and Russians had met secretly to decide the fate of Arab lands. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks published secret diplomatic documents, among them the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In this agreement, signed only six months after the British had vaguely promised Husayn an Arab kingdom, Britain and France agreed to give the French paramount influence in what became Syria and Lebanon; the British were to have predominance in what became Transjordan and Iraq.
At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Woodrow Wilson asked that the Arab claims to independence be given consideration, and Faysal was invited to present the Arab cause. His pleas were unavailing, as was a report recommending Syrian independence under Faysal or a United States mandate over the country. Disappointed by his failure at Versailles, Faysal returned to Damascus and declared again that Syria was nevertheless free and independent.
France and Britain refused to recognize Syria's independence, and the Supreme Allied Council, meeting in San Remo, Italy, in April 1920, partitioned the Arab world into mandates as prearranged by the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement. Syria became a French mandate, and French soldiers began marching from Beirut to Damascus. Arab resistance was crushed, and on July 25, 1920, the French took Damascus. Faysal fled to Europe and did not return to the Middle East until the British made him king of Iraq in 1921. Faysal's brother Abdullah was recognized by the British as the amir of the region that became known as Transjordan. The boundaries of these states were thus drawn unilaterally by the European allies after World War I. Syria had experienced its brief moment of independence (1919-20), the loss of which Syrians blamed on France and Britain. These events left a lasting bitterness against the West and a deep-seated determination to reunite Arabs into one state. This was the primary basis for modern Arab nationalism and the central ideological concept of future pan-Arab parties, such as the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party and the Arab National Movement. Aspects of the ideology also were evolved in the 1950s and 1960s by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
The French Mandate
French-British rivalry in the Middle East continued after the two countries had divided the area into spheres of influence at San Remo. In their mandate, the French sought to increase their strength by supporting and separating religious minorities and thereby weakening the Arab nationalist movement. France originally planned to establish three sectarian states: an Alawi state in the north, a Sunni Muslim state at the center, and a Druze state in the south. The three were eventually to be incorporated into a federal Syria. France did create a Christian state in the area of Mount Lebanon. The Sunni Muslim state never materialized. Instead, in 1926 the French, working with Maronite leaders, expanded the original boundaries of the Christian state to create Lebanon. To the east the valley of the Biqa, predominantly populated by Muslims, was added; to the west the Christian state was expanded to the coast and incorporated the cities of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre.
The rest of Syria was divided into five semiautonomous areas- -the Jabal Druze, Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus, and Alexandretta (modern Iskenderun)--which accentuated religious differences and cultivated regional, as opposed to national pan-Arab, sentiment (see Religious Life , ch. 2). The Druzes were given administration of the Jabal Druze, the area of their greatest concentration. The northern coastal region and the Jabal an Nusayriyah (where there was a concentration of Alawis, Syria's largest religious minority) were united in the state of Latakia (present-day Al Ladhiqiyah Province). North of Latakia, the district of Alexandretta (the present-day Turkish province of Hatay), home of some Turks, had a separate government. In the area to the south, in Palestine, European Jews were promised a Jewish homeland. Opposition by nationalistic Arabs to the many divisions proved fruitless, and Arab nationalists became isolated in Damascus.
French rule was oppressive. The franc became the base of the economy, and currency management was in the hands of French bankers concerned with French, rather than Syrian, shareholders and interests. The French language became compulsory in schools, and pupils were required to sing the "Marseillaise." Colonial administrators attempted to apply techniques of administration learned in North Africa to the more sophisticated Arabs of Syria. Nearly every feature of Syrian life came under French control.
The Syrians were an embittered, disillusioned people whose leaders kept them in ferment. Shaykh Salih ibn Ali led the Alawis in intermittent revolt, Shaykh Ismail Harir rebelled in the Hawran, and in the Jabal Druze, Sultan Pasha al Atrash, kinsman of the paramount chief of the Druzes, led continual resistance, most notably in 1925, as did Mulhim Qasim in the mountains around Baalbek. The revolts, however, were not necessarily expressions of desire for unified Syrian independence. They were uprisings by individual groups--Alawis, Druzes, and beduins--against foreign interference, comparable to those earlier fomented against the Ottomans.
In Damascus Arab nationalism was led by educated, wealthy Muslims who had earlier supported Faysal. Their grievances against the French were many, but chief among them were French suppression of newspapers, political activity, and civil rights and the division of Greater Syria into several political units. They also objected to French reluctance to frame a constitution for Syria that would provide for the eventual sovereignty that the League of Nations mandate had ordered. When the Iraqis gained an elected assembly from the British in March 1924, Syrian Arabs became even more distressed. On February 9, 1925, as a placating move, the French permitted the nationalists to form the People's Party. Led by Faris al Khuri, they demanded French recognition of eventual Syrian independence, unity of the country, more stress on education, and the granting of civil liberties.
The most immediate issue was Syrian unity, since France had divided the country into six parts. In 1925 the Aleppo and Damascus provinces were joined, and in 1926 Lebanon became an independent republic under French control. The League of Nations in its session in Rome in February to March 1926 stated: "The Commission thinks it beyond doubt that these oscillations in matters so calculated to encourage the controversies inspired by the rivalries of races, clans and religions, which are so keen in this country, to arouse all kinds of ambitions and to jeopardize serious moral and material interests, have maintained a condition of instability and unrest in the mandated territory."
Devastating proof of the miscalculations of the French burst into the open with the 1925 Druze revolt. The Druzes had many complaints, but chief among them was the foreign intervention in Druze affairs. The Ottomans had never successfully subdued these mountain people; although split among themselves, they were united in their opposition to foreign rule. Led by Sultan Pasha al Atrash, Druzes attacked and captured Salkhad on July 20, 1925, and on August 2 they took the Druze capital, As Suwayda.
News of the Druze rebellion spread throughout Syria and ignited revolts in Aleppo and Damascus among Syrian nationalists, who pleaded with Atrash to attack the Syrian capital. In October the Druzes invaded the Damascus region; nationalist leaders led their own demonstrations; and the French began systematic bombardment of the city, resulting in the death of 5,000 Syrians. The rebellion collapsed by the end of the year, and reluctant order replaced open revolt.
The return of order gave the French military government an opportunity to assist Syrians in self-government, an obligation demanded of France by the League of Nations. In 1928 the French allowed the formation of the National Bloc (Al Kutlah al Wataniyah), composed of various nationalist groups centered in Damascus. The nationalist alliance was headed by Ibrahim Hannanu and Hashim al Atassi and included leading members of large landowning families. One of the most extreme groups in the National Bloc was the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, a descendant of the old Al Fatat secret society of which Shukri al Quwatly was a leading member. Elections of that year for a constituent assembly put the National Bloc in power, and Hannanu set out to write a constitution. It provided for the reunification of Syria and ignored the authority of the French. In 1930 the French imposed the constitution minus articles that would have given Syria unified self-government.
Syrian nationalists continued to assert that they at least should have a treaty with France setting forth French aims, since Britain and Iraq had signed such a treaty in 1922. Unrest after the death of the nationalist leader Hannanu at the end of 1935, followed by a general strike in 1936, brought new negotiations for such a treaty. Under Leon Blum's liberal-socialist government in France, the two countries worked out the Syrian-French Treaty of Alliance in 1936. The French parliament never ratified the treaty, yet a feeling of optimism prevailed in Syria as the first nationalist government came to power with Hashim al Atassi as president.
During 1937 Syria's drive for independence seemed to be advancing under National Bloc leadership. France allowed the return of Jabal Druze and Latakia to the Syrian state and turned over many local government functions to the Syrian government. French administration during the previous years had given some advantages to the Syrians. It had built modern cities in Damascus and Aleppo and roads and schools throughout much of the country; and it had partially trained some Syrians as minor bureaucrats. French cultural influence spread in the schools, in the press, and even in the style of dress; social and economic conditions slowly improved.
Under the French, Syria became a refuge for persecuted groups from neighboring countries. Most of the Kurdish population arrived between 1924 and 1938, fleeing Kemalist rule in Turkey. The major immigration of Armenians occurred between 1925 and 1945 as a result of similar persecution. Assyrians, under attack in Iraq in 1933, settled in eastern Syria.
Although the country appeared to be on the verge of peace, true calm evaded Syria. Claims by Turkey to Alexandretta, Arab revolts in Palestine, an economic crisis caused by depreciation of the French franc, and lack of unity among Syrians served to undermine the stability of the Syrian government. The National Bloc was split by rivalries. Abdul Rahman Shahabandar, a leading nationalist, formed a rival organization in 1939 to compete for Syrian political leadership, but he was assassinated a year later. Separatist movements in the Jabal Druze found French support and antagonized the nationalists.
During the course of the Syrian-French treaty discussions in 1936, Turkey had asked for reconsideration of the situation in Hatay--at that time the Syrian province of Alexandretta--which had a large Turkish minority and already had been given a special administrative system under the Franco-Turkish Agreement of Ankara (sometimes called the Franklin-Bouillon Agreement) in 1921. The case was submitted to the League of Nations, which in 1937 decided that Alexandretta should be a separate, self- governing political state. Direct negotiations between Turkey and France ended on July 13, 1939, with France agreeing to absorption of Alexandretta by Turkey. Disturbances broke out in Syria against France and the Syrian government, which Syrian nationalist leaders felt had not adequately defended their interests. Syrian President Atassi resigned, parliamentary institutions were abolished, and France governed an unruly Syria through the Council of Directors. Latakia and the Jabal Druze were again set up as separate units. The French government officially declared it would not submit the Syrian-French treaty to the French Chamber of Deputies for ratification.
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