Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Milestones in Syrian History - The First Syria

In times of crisis I like to look far back, to the beginning, to see where the seeds of the present were planted. I know such a process can be tedious for some people, but in my experience I find this exercise can often yield surprising results and quite novel insights, for example: a look at America's CIA toppling of the Mossadegh government in Iran during the fifties leads almost directly to the rise of the ayatollah's in Iran; Nasser's anti-monarchical views led to terrible results in the Yemen, and also to the rise of a twenty-seven year old man called Moammar al Gaddafi to power in Libya. History is not just a stale list of events and dates that needs to be memorised, but the 'current affairs' of yesterday and a mirror into the future.

I have always been fascinated by this quirk of fate that distributes people across nations and races; I never chose my parents, nor did I choose the background that I was raised in, but it is a part of me nonetheless. As impartial as I can ever try to be, an integral part of my character is forever intertwined with this branch of life that we call a country, a tribe or a people. This does not mean we should confuse jingoism with a desire to appreciate and understand our backgrounds. What I believe is that the more we understand our past, the clearer the choices we must make become, for it is in understanding what has shaped our beliefs, fears and view of the world that we can make sense of what befalls us, and discover how we can learn from our mistakes as well as grow strong from our wisdom. With that in mind, I intend to take a series of short journeys into Syria's modern history at key junctions in this country's past. It is not going to be easy, not least because my sources will (to start) be extremely limited, but I expect my knowledge about each of these junctions in Syrian history to be supplemented in layers as I review and examine fresh material. I know there are plenty of people who have carried out in-depth analyses of Syrian economic, political and social development, but what I want to do is bring the topic to life. This is certainly not an exhaustive (and exhausting) academic study of Syrian history. If somebody reads this series and finds it interesting and thought-provoking then I would have, perhaps, achieved my goal.

The First Syria


The roots of modern Syria, like other countries in the region, lie in the great 'Arab Revolt' that took place during the First World War. At the time the British thought it would be a good idea to incite the Arabs, then under Ottoman rule, to revolt. Of course we cannot entirely blame (or thank) the British for sparking this revolt. The twentieth century saw the natural conclusion of nineteenth century nationalism and jingoism, and one can argue, as I will, that the 'Great War' was the final 'nationalist' struggle of that great era which began on the fields of Waterloo. It would not be until the Second World War that the greatest drive behind conflict would be ideology, and until that point the Arabs, like everybody else, were interested mainly in expressing a nationalism of their own - but usually under some form of Arab monarchism. By that time the decrepit and rotting Ottoman Empire could no longer rely on a relatively universalistic 'Islamic' appeal, and the Young Turk movement, of whom Mustafa Kemal Attaturk was a member, was trying to "Turkify" the empire's subjects with a Turkish nationalism.

Naturally the Arabs were not very pleased with this and, coupled with corruption and heavy handed repression - as well as that bane of all peoples, heavy taxation - the Arab masses were prepared to ignite in revolution at any moment. Of course we are not going to relate the events of the First World War - that has been done very well elsewhere - but this yearning for Arab nationalism led to the creation of the first Syrian Kingdom (under King Faisal) and it as Syrians that the soldiers of that country's newly formed army fought the French in Maysaloon. Of course, the Syrian army has never won a war in its entire history, but there is a plucky Syrian spirit that was embodied in that defiant last stand by Yusuf al Azmeh. It is that pluckiness in the face of overwhelming odds which characterises the average Syrian, and it is because of General Al Azmeh's bravery that nobody can ever say the French walked into Damascus without a fight. One could say that the Syrians placed a great emphasis on principle, as if an invisible observer will keep track on a score card and one day congratulate them on their stances. On a side note this kind of behaviour is manifest even today in day-to-day dealings with Syrians - something which often baffle foreigners with more practical considerations, but I digress.

I sometimes wonder why the Syrians didn't fall back into the land and begin a war of attrition, but in reality, and with the European powers having just defeated the Central Powers, there was no hope for any kind of insurgency movement. Even in the Arabian peninsula, that some people say had never been conquered by the Europeans, the Saud's themselves were dependent on payments of gold made by the British to various tribal chiefs. Furthermore, the embryonic Syrian state simply did not have the infrastructure or arms industry that could sustain a conflict with a country like France. Rather interesting to note, however, was that what the new Syrian kingdom lacked in resources, it more than made up for in the quality of her people. Far from idealising the individuals of the time, it is fair to point out the dedication and idealism that the members of (what we can now call) the old Syrian establishment were imbued with. A man like General Yousef al Azmeh was thirty seven years old, and had previously commanded Ottoman troops against the Tsarist army in the Caucasus. During the great revolt he had defected and joined the rebels, after which King Faisal appointed him the Syrian minister of defence. Graduated from the Ottoman military academy in 1906, at a time when the Middle East still had institutions that were capable of producing quality officers, al Azmeh must have recognised the hopelessness of the situation. But, as is usual with such men, personal regard was set aside for a greater good. It might be that in times of great upheaval, it is easier to make such choices, but regardless, we can only consider his fateful decision to fight as a sign of great personal bravery. One can only speculate about how a present-day Syrian minister of defence would behave during a war.

The Battle of  Maysaloon was not the only resistance, furthermore, and there were revolts and resistance throughout Syria. In 1926 Ibrahim Hananu led the 'Aleppan Revolt' against the French, and the country was racked by strikes and protests. Sadly, it seems that as hard as they tried the Syrians just could not keep the French out of the country, and on August 1st, the 'King of Syria' was sent packing to Haifa, whilst the Syrian army ended up disbanded. In a way, this short-lived experiment in optimism seems to prefigure most Arab attempts at state building. Whether it was Muhammad Ali Pasha's attempt to build a modern Egyptian state, and ending up indebting the country to European powers that would occupy it, or Faisal's attempt to finance a Kingdom of Syria, the initial attempts to create modern states in the Middle East seem to have consistently failed, or been made to fail. Even today, in the supposedly independent countries of the region, there is not one state in the Middle East (apart from Turkey) that is worthy of the name. All are just as reliant on foreign legitimacy and aid today as their predecessors were at the start of the twentieth century.

The unhappy King Faisal himself was later made the ruler of Iraq, where his ill-fated son would later be killed in a coup that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy there. Another notable member of Faisal's government was Hashem al Atassi, the prime minister at the time, and a man who would later become Syria's first president and was also responsible for framing Syria's first republican constitution. It is thanks to men of his calibre that Syrians today can look back to a republican and, albeit brief, democratic history. The gradual domination of Syrian society by the Syrian Baath party from 1963 meant the virtual extinction of any Syrian statesmen of high calibre to the present. But in 1920 Syria still had an educated class of scholarly, erudite and (largely) selfless statesmen and intellectuals. In Britain their equivalents would have been referred to as gentlemen. These men were not to be confused only with the beyks and bashas who had held title under the old Ottoman system. Although many of them might have come from rather wealthy landowning families, it would be unfair to apply later notions of class and privilege to them. We must judge these men based on the standard of their time, and not on the standards we have accumulated since the rise of the first Soviets in the place of Czarist Russia. Ideology, as far as I have been able to tell, was not a major factor in the motivations of men who were moulded in the bosom of an Ottoman Empire that, in spite of its decline, still viewed itself as an equal with European powers. The accompanying confidence, as well as a background of wealth and privilege, influenced the way that a Levantine Syrian, or an Egyptian, would have viewed the European - as opposed to a tribal chief from Africa or Borneo, with the greatest respect to such chiefs of course.

Perhaps sensing this, it is under the guise of a League of Nations mandate that the French sought to control the area they referred to as "The Levant". In a trend that would become more common in the twentieth century, colonial powers were now careful to cloak their naked ambitions with a legal framework. Unlike in Algeria, which was invaded and colonised by the French in the nineteenth century, the French just could not apply the same brutal mission civilisatrice that it had used in its African colonies.This did not mean that they could not brutalise the Syrians, quite the opposite, and in 1925 they used counter-insurgency methods that would later be perfected in Indochina and Algeria. Their bombing of Damascus in 1926 was so bloody that it inspired the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawki to say the now famous line:

And at freedom's red door knocks every bloodied fist

It is with those same bloody fists that Syrians have been beating on freedom's door ever since, but that is another story. Insofar as the French attempted to dominate the Syrians, it seemed almost inevitable that their efforts were doomed to fail. Due to the deliberate and steady efforts of men like al Atassi and the then influential National Bloc, an agreement for gradual independence was forced out of the French government. Then, in 1936, Mr Hashem al Atassi was elected as the first president of the Syrian Republic.The man himself was a fascinating character, and sadly his life has been examined academically far less than he deserves. What most people, including many Syrians, mistakenly assume is that the Syrian state came into existence with the departure of the last French soldiers, but in reality Syria had a functioning state that technically pre-dated the arrival of the French. Not only that, but Syrian institutions and statesmen had their own roots in the imperial state of the Ottomans, meaning that Syria and Syrian statesmen did not just erupt into existence in 1946. The fact that these institutions would later become compromised by a political party and then made subservient to a tyrant is a separate matter, and one that I wish to examine later. 

The fact that Syria had some of the institutions of governance and a class of educated and urbane statesmen who could engage in a political process does not mean that the country was a nation state in the European sense. The country itself was divided by the French into six separate states: Greater Lebanon; a state for Damascus; a state for the Druze; a state for Aleppo; a state for the Alawites on Syria's coast; and an Alexandretta state. By the time the French had left Syria, Greater Lebanon and the Alexandretta province were no longer parts of the modern Syrian state, but the Alawite and Druze states remained a part of Syria whilst Damascus, much to the chagrin of the Aleppan elite, was made the capital of the country. Throughout the French mandate, and like in many other French colonies, ethnic and religious divisions were amplified and encouraged. This in itself was to have a big impact on the way minorities in the country saw themselves, and much later the rule of one minority would cause unprecedented damage to the state's infrastructure. I have noticed a trend in modern day Syrian historians to try and portray the uprisings of Druse and Alawite leaders such as Sultan al Atrash and Saleh al Ali as inspired by Syrian nationalism, the reality seems to be that they were motivated by much more practical considerations regarding the treatment and status of their minorities under the French authorities. In Syria under the French mandate, the term "A Syrian Nation" could only be applied in the loosest sense possible, and some members of the Druze and Alawite communities could justifiably have expected the formation of their own states, especially after 1920, when the French created the separate entity of Lebanon to be ruled by the Christian Maronites.

For the Arab nationalists, it seemed that with the end of Faisal's Kingdom of Syria the dream of a free and independent Arab nation was now firmly beyond reach. This freedom that was achieved mostly through Western guns proved, in the end, illusory. The Great Arab Revolt petered out following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of ideology would, for the rest of the twentieth century, divide the peoples of the region. Most notably, the rise of an Arabic nationalist ideology would itself cause problems within Syria, where Syrian Kurds were later denied nationality by the Syrian Baath party. Interestingly, the term Syrian Arab Republic was added only after the ill-fated and badly planned union with Nasser's Egypt. In addition, the 'Arabism' of such parties as the Baath, dominated as they came to be by the Alawite and Druze minorities, were viewed quite curiously by the descendants of those Arabs who had led the Great Revolt. Later this radical element, inspired by a mixed range of socialist and leftist ideas, was often at direct odds with the original monarchic elements of the Arabic political spectrum, and eventually the two sides would clash, often violently.  

Ultimately, King Faisal and his Prime Minister Hashem al Atassi were politically outmanoeuvred and out-gunned. The Kingdom of Syria could hardly be called glorious or remarkable in any way, but the important thing was that the Syrians had a good go at it. Sadly, there was simply no way that they could have, with the resources available to them, go up against Britain and France without the assistance of another great power, and enthusiasm alone was not enough to stop French troops from entering Damascus. The short-lived Kingdom of Syria was probably doomed to failure from the start, but as in Maysaloon, the example it set would capture the imagination of generations of Syrians to come. It would also sow the seeds of deep mistrust towards the West, a mistrust that continues till the present and has its roots in what was regarded as a betrayal by the British and the French through the Sykes-Picot agreement. 

1 comment:

AB said...

Superb. One of the more objective, and Factual articles I have read recently. You are to be congratulated on your hard work and manifest wisdom. Eagerly anticipating the remainder of the series.

Your Cousin