Thursday, November 20, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 7--section 1: 1925 to 1926 Period


According to Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism, the 1925 revolt in Syria “began in the southern grain-producing region of Jabal Hawran and quickly spread to the Maydan quarter of Damascus;” and this “Great Syrian Revolt” of 1925 to 1927 “was a mass movement” using “tactics of armed revolt” that “were far more radical than much of the elite” nationalist “leadership of Damascus was prepared to embrace.” The Great Syrian Revolt against French control of Syria started on July 19, 1925 when—following the arrest of three Druze [Syrian religious minority group] chiefs by French authorities on July 11, 1925—“Druze farmers” in Syria “shot down a French surveillance airplane” and “Druze rebels attacked French troops in the Jabal” region of Syria, according to the same book.

In late August of 1925, “the most radical among the nationalists and the Druze leaders” in Syria then “resolved to bring the revolt to Damascus,” according to The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism; and on Aug. 23, 1925 the Commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Armies, Sultan al-Atrash, signed and distributed in Damascus a revolutionary manifesto which indicated the reasons and the goals of the 1925 uprising in Syria:

“…Let us arouse ourselves from our torpor and disperse the dark clouds of foreign oppression which weigh heavily on our land. For 10 years we have struggled for the cause of liberty and independence…

“The imperialists have stolen what is yours. They have laid hands on the very sources of your wealth and raised barriers and divided your invisible homeland. They have separated the nation into religious sects and states. They have strangled freedom of religion, thought, conscience, speech, and action. We are no longer even allowed to move about freely in our own country…

“To arms! Let us free our country from bondage…

“…These are our demands:

“1. The complete independence of Arab Syria, one and indivisible, sea-coast and interior;

“2. The institution of a Popular Government and the free election of a Constituent Assembly for the framing of an Organic Law;

“3. “The evacuation of the foreign army of occupation and the creation of a national army for the maintenance of security;

“4. The application of the principles of the French Revolution and the Rights of Man…

“Long live independent Syria!...”

Then on the following day—Aug. 24, 1925—the anti-imperialist Syrian nationalist rebels attempted to attack French troops in Damascus; and “armed bands” of Syrian rebels began “to form in the neighborhoods of Damascus and in surrounding villages,” according to The Great Syrian Revolt and The Rise of Arab Nationalism. But, according to Philip Khoury’s Syria and the French Mandate, French imperialist authorities in Damascus responded to the Aug. 24, 1925 attack of the anti-imperialist Syrian rebels in the following way:

“Sultan al-Atrash’s rebel army was stopped southeast of Damascus by three squadrons of Moroccan Spahis supported by the French air force. Afterwards, the French…initiated a house-to-house search for all suspected nationalist leaders. Many were apprehended and jailed without trial on Arwad Island, some for the second time since the French occupation. French troops also began to inhibit movement in the town with barbed wire…”

Although “the most important nationalist leaders, including Dr. Shahbandar…managed to escape the French dragnet,…French security dismantled what was left of the People’s Party” in Damascus, according to the same book.


Agitation and protests against French imperialist rule, however, continued in Syria in September 1925 and during that month “gradually spread to all the cities of mandate Syria,” in which 20 percent of Syria’s population then lived, according to The Great Syrian Revolt and The Rise of Arab Nationalism. As Syria and The French Mandate observed, “…barred from Damascus, the People’s Party and the Druze leadership set up a nationalist provisional government in the Jabal Druze on Sept. 9 [1925];” and “uprisings first in Hama and then in Damascus in the following month ignited rebellion throughout Syrian territory” so that “by the end of October [1925] large areas of Syria were in revolt.”

(end of part 7/section 2)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 6: 1922 to 1925 Period


After being imprisoned in 1922 by French imperialist authorities in Syria for 17 months on Arwad Island, the now-defunct Iron Hand Society’s former leader, Dr. Abdal-Rahman Shahbandar, was then sent into exile by French General Weygand, who was in charge of the French occupation troops in Syria. But by the early Summer of 1924, French authorities apparently felt that Shahbandar no longer represented an anti-imperialist Syrian nationalist political threat to continued French rule in Syria, and so they allowed Shahbandar to return to Syria from exile at that time. As Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism observed, “by 1925 the occupation and pacification of Syria was presumed complete,” and “few imagined that nationalist resistance would emerge in the countryside and spread to the cities—yet this is precisely what happened.”

According to Philip Khoury’s Syria and The French Mandate, after the French government reformed Syria’s judicial system so that “any foreign national involved in a commercial or civil dispute” in Syria could “have his case tried in a court presided over by a French judge” and not by a Syrian judge (and in which “the majority of judges were to be French”), Syrian nationalist lawyers of the Union of Lawyers in Damascus organized protests in 1925. In addition, by 1925, “the stark reality of life in a garrison state in which the French arrested and jailed or exiled scores of their political opponents, using specially constituted military tribunals headed by Frenchmen” also sparked protests in 1925, according to the same book.  The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism also noted that under French imperialist control of Syria during the first half of the Roaring Twenties, “inflation squeezed people’s income and savings” in Syria, “drought had gripped southern Syria for 3 or 4 years,” the “tax burden on cultivators had risen,” and “heavy-handed direct military rule nurtured nationalist and anti-imperialist feeling among the mandate population.” 

Syria and the French Mandate also observed that discontent with French colonial rule in Syria increased among Muslims in Syria after French authorities transferred “the Syrian section of the Muslim-owned Hejaz Railway to a French railroad company in 1924” because the Hejaz Railway had been “the only railway in Syria not built and owned by Europeans.” In addition, because “the French treated Syria as an imperialist possession to be exploited in the `old’ colonial manner” and “their economic policies” just “promoted French economic interests,” in 1924 “in Aleppo…a French group received the electricity and tramways concession” and were “guaranteed revenues of 8 percent of the invested capital” by French authorities, according to the same book.

So when the nationalist Syrian People’s Party--that the formerly jailed and exiled Iron-Hand Society leader Shahbandar now led--called for a protest in Damascus against the visit of Lord Balfour (the UK imperialist politician whose declaration during World War I had expressed UK government support for the Zionist movement’s establishment of settlements in UK imperialist-controlled Palestine during the 1920s) on Apr. 8, 1925, according to Syria and The French Mandate, the following happened:

“Huge demonstrations in the town were organized against him. Some 10,000 protesters, including hundreds of high school students, gathered at the Umayyad Mosque. While police and gendarmes tried to break up the crowd, Balfour made a hurried exodus to Beirut, escorted by French troops and airplanes. Twenty-six casualties were reported.”


By June 1925, “some 1,000 persons in Damascus” had joined the secular nationalist People’s Party that Dr. Shahbandar led; although, “in spite of its popular support” the urban-based People’s Party was still “essentially an elitist organization” controlled by absentee Syrian landowners, Syrian merchants and Syrian intellectuals, according to the same book. But even without the Damascus-based elitist People’s Party having any organized link to the mass of Syrians who lived in rural areas, French imperialist rule was so unpopular in Syria that in the Summer of 1925 another revolt of people in Syria against the military occupation of their country by French imperialist troops erupted.

(end of part 6) 

Monday, November 17, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 5: 1921 to 1922 Period


Ironically, most of the 70,000 troops that the French imperialist government utilized in the early 1920s to block Syrian national liberation and independence after World War I, were from other nations that the French imperialist government had previously formally colonized. As Philip Khoury’s Syria and the French Mandate noted:

“…French colonies supplied the bulk of men in French uniform [in occupying Syria]: North African, Madagascan, and Senegalese, commanded by French officers…While Frenchmen in uniform maintained a low profile in the town, Black Africans and Moroccan Arabs were called upon to maintain order.

“The size of the Armee du Levent was at first enormous. At the end of 1921 it stood at 70,000 men…” 

In addition, “the French established a Syrian Legion (Troupes Speciales) recruited almost exclusively from the local population, which became the embryo of a national army,” according to Syria and the French Mandate; and “by 1924, the Legion included some 6,500 men commanded by 137 French and 48 native officers.”

Since Syrian “minorities and rural Sunni Arabs were thought to be less susceptible to Arab nationalist influences,” the French imperialist military “promoted them in the military hierarchy” in Syria; and, eventually, “Alawites found the military an eminently suitable vehicle for reaching political power,” when formal French imperialist control over Syria finally ended after World War II, according to the same book.

After French imperialist troops occupied Damascus in late July 1920, “martial law was declared and resisters were quickly rounded up and jailed without trial,” according to Syria and the French Mandate, but “much of the Syrian nationalist leadership in Damascus had already fled across the borders to Transjordan and Palestine” and “from there, many moved on to Cairo and a life of political exile.” So “for the first 20 months of occupation, the general pattern of protest in Damascus included submitting petitions and occasionally closing the city’s great bazaars, but little else,” since “after the nationalist defeat in 1920 it took some time for the dispersed and exiled nationalist leadership to return to the political scene and to display its strength and popular support in Damascus and Aleppo;” and by the fall of 1921, the commander of the French occupation troops in Damascus, General Gouraud “felt confident enough to grant an amnesty to many nationalist exiles.”

But after returning to Damascus, however, Syrian nationalist activists, led by Dr. ‘Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar, formed an underground political group, the Iron-Hand Society, to organize political opposition to continued French military occupation of Syria. And after French imperialist authorities arrested Shahbandar and four other Syrian Iron-Hand Society leaders in early April 1922, 8,000 people gathered at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus for Friday prayers on Apr. 8, 1922 and, according to Syria and the French Mandate, the following happened:

“The decision to demonstrate was unanimous. On leaving the Mosque the crowd, which had swelled to over 10,000 marched…to the Citadel [in Damascus]…where the arrested were being held…The rank and file included students—demonstrating for the first time since the occupation…French security…deployed around the Citadel…some French troops, and several armored cars and tanks…On the first day of confrontation, 46 Damascenes were arrested and many were injured…

“…On Apr. 11 [1922] leaders…at the front of the long procession…placed 40 women, including the wives of Shahbandar and other imprisoned nationalists. Holding petitions and tearing their faces into their nails, the women ululated at an unbearably high pitch, bringing the thousands of men behind them to an explosive roar…As the demonstrators moved closer and the familiar chant of `we will buy our independence with our blood’ grew louder, the French decided to take the offensive…Three Syrians were left dead and many others including several women were injured. Another 35 persons were arrested and imprisoned alongside their comrades in the Citadel…”

In protest against the French troops’ Apr. 11, 1922 killing of Syrian nationalist demonstrators in Damascus, the shops and factories in Damascus were all closed down by their Syrian owners for the next 15 days. But a French military tribunal still sentenced Iron-Hand Society leader Shahbandar to 20 years and his arrested Iron-Hand Society nationalist colleagues to 5 to 15 years in prison; and they were then all imprisoned on Arwad Island by French colonial authorities.

So, not surprisingly, branches of the Iron-Hand Society in Homs, Hama and Aleppo organized more protests by nationalist Syrians against French rule during the rest of April and early May 1922; and “at the League of Nations, the unofficial but permanent delegation of the Syrian-Palestinian Congress registered a strong protest on behalf of the Syrian people,” according to Syria and the French Mandate.


But, according to the same book, “on May 9 [1922], French detectives, relying on information provided by local informants, raided the Iron-Hand’s secret headquarters in Damascus, arresting 17 members on the premises;” and after “five of the Iron-Hand `conspirators’ were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 to 15 years, while 15 other partisans were expelled” from Syria, the Iron-Hand Society, “as an organization” was “destroyed.”

(end of part 5)

Friday, November 14, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 4: 1920-1921 Period


Following World War I, “armed opposition to European occupation emerged immediately in Syria” according to Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism. For example, “thousands of Syrian men and women, some armed with no more than sticks, went to stop” advancing French imperialist troops “at the pass of Khan Maysalun…25 kilometers west of Damascus…,” according to the same book; and “the Alawite territory” of Syria “was in open revolt against the French between 1919 and 1921,” according to Philip Khoury’s Syria and the French Mandate. As the same book also recalled:

“Yusaf al-‘Azma,…Emir Faisal’s Minister of War, led…a large group of irregulars from the popular quarter of Damascus against the French invasion…on July 24 [1920], at Khan Maysalun…On the following day the French Army occupied Damascus…Approximately 150 Arabs were killed and another 1,500 were wounded at Maysalun…The French claim to have lost 42 men, with another 152 wounded and 14 missing. The size of the Arab forces have been estimated at anywhere from 4,000 troops (including volunteers) to one division. The French invasionary force was composed mainly of Algerians and Senegalese…Among the dead at Maysalun lay [Syrian] General ‘Azma. Only 36 years old, he was henceforth immortalized by Syrians as the supreme national martyr…

“…French columns penetrating from the northwest, had occupied Aleppo two days before Damascus fell…French planes circled Aleppo, dropping leaflets carrying [French General] Gouraud’s proclamation that local residents must submit to French occupation…On July, 23 [1920], the French army occupied Aleppo and by the 25th as many as 18,000 French troops were stationed in and around the city. Meanwhile, 9,000 troops under the command of [French] General Goybet took control of Damascus and the vicinity…

“…Two regions provided sustained resistance to pacification: the Alawite [Syrian religious minority group] mountain and the northwestern districts…Following s series of unsuccessful raids on French posts in the winter and early spring of 1921, the French columns encircled the Alawite mountains…Engagements over the next two months gave France the military edge, although not without heavy casualties…The Alawite rebels surrendered…”

Syria and the French Mandate also described the economic and political motivation for the French imperialist government’s decision to militarily occupy Syria in 1920 and block political independence for people in Syria at that time, in the following way:

“…In 1920, France still had the largest financial interests in Syria, with the preponderance of her capital concentrated in the banking, public utilities and transportation sectors, and in silk and tobacco products…In addition to her consolidated prewar interests, France had additional motives for occupying Syria which surfaced after 1914. These included…new economic prospects in petroleum and cotton development…The development of several harbors on the Syrian coast as terminals for oil pipelines from northern Iraq, as commercial outlets for Aleppo and central Syria, and for overland trade from Iraq and Iran would round out her overall Mediterranean policy.

“…To French policy-makers, Arab nationalism…threatened not only French financial…investments along the Syrian coast and in…Lebanon, but, more importantly, French North Africa. To check the spread of nationalism, France had to establish hegemony over Damascus…There were French financial and commercial interests, both established and potential. Of Syrian raw materials, silk and cotton were of most interest to the French economy in 1920…French capitalists touted northern Syria as a potential French cotton plantation…”

According to the same book, “one of the new” French “colonial government’s first acts was to divide” Greater Syria “into a series of regional units, based on sectarian differences, and the perceived interests of France;” and “the coastal region of `Greater Syria,’ the area of greatest traditional French influence, became the state of Greater Lebanon, intended to maintain a…nominally Catholic majority.” As Syrian and the French Mandate recalled:


“…At the end of August 1920, the French decreed the new state of Lebanon…Most of Lebanon’s newly acquired `citizens’ did not want to be part of a Maronite [Catholic]-dominated Lebanon and agitated for union with the rest of Syria…The creation of Greater Lebanon did more than pass the reins of government to a minority ruling group; it also perpetuated Maronite dependency on French support to remain in power…France’s favoritism toward Greater Lebanon exacerbated the anti-French sentiments of the Syrian nationalist movement…”

(end of part 4)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 3: August 1914 to 1920 Period

After World War I broke out in August 1914, people in Syria then “suffered tremendously between 1914 and 1918,” “hundreds of thousands” of Greater Syrian men were drafted into the Turkish military and “hundreds of thousands” of Syrians “died in the famine that accompanied the war,” according to Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism. As the same book recalled:

“…A crushing famine gripped most of Greater Syria…The most devastating element was effective British blockade of all Arab Mediterranean ports…The British kept any grain from entering the country…British policy led indirectly to the deaths by starvation of hundreds of thousands in the cities of Greater Syria…”

And, according to the Palestine Book Project’s 1977 book Our Roots Are Still Alive, “in Greater Syria, one-eighth of the population died of starvation,” during World War I.

According to Philip Khoury’s Syria and the French Mandate, “France’s sphere of influence was recognized” during World War I “by the Anglo-French partition plan known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement” in which “Britain and France had agreed in 1916 to set up an Arab state in part of Syria,” but “British rather than French influence” had become “paramount” in Syria by 1918. So “when Arab nationalists called for an independent Syria” after Arab rebels entered Damascus with UK troops on Oct. 1, 1918 and the UK government initially supported the establishment of a nationalist regime in Syria headed by the Arab leader Emir Faisal, the French “accused Britain of trying to deprive them of Syria and their share of the Ottoman Empire,” according to the same book.

In response to the French imperialist government’s complaints and pressure, however, the UK imperialist government’s prime minister, Lloyd George, then “revealed a plan…whereby Britain would immediately hand over to France military command in Cilicia, followed by its garrison in western Syria,” according to Syria and the French Mandate. And although “the nationalist-dominated Syrian Congress in Damascus declared Syria an independent constitutional monarchy” and “Emir Faisal was crowned king of the state of Syria in March 1920,” the French imperialist government “was never really prepared to accept any nationalist government in Damascus” in 1920, according to the same book.

So, predictably, as Syria and the French Mandate noted:


“In the third week of July [1920], General Gouraud [of France] gave Faisal an `ultimatum’ that he must demobilize his army, recognize the French Mandate, and dismiss his `extremist’ supporters or else he would be removed from Damascus. Even though Faisal reluctantly accepted the ultimatum, the French Army was already advancing. By July [1920], Damascus had fallen into French hands and Faisal had to leave Syria for good…Although the vast majority of inhabitants of the region opposed the French coming, France had realized her claim to Syria…”

(end of part 3)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 2: 1896 to August 1914 Period

By the late 1890s, foreign investors from France were also gaining wealth from people in Syria and special influence in the economy of Greater Syria. As Philip Khoury’s Syria and the French Mandate observed:

“By 1900, French financial investments in Syria were firmly established…The bulk of European investments in Syrian industries were…French. Financiers were primarily concerned with providing home industries with processed raw materials…”

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “the end of the 19th century” also “saw a considerable decline in the economic conditions” of the Syrians of Jewish religious background “in Damascus” because “local industries were ruined due to the growing importation of European goods and the opening of the Suez Canal, in particular, which dealt a severe blow to the trade with Persia through the Syrian Desert;” and, as a result, many people of Jewish religious background from Damascus either immigrated to the United States or moved to Beirut, “which became a large town and a commercial center.”

So by the 1890s some Syrian people began to express politically their dissatisfaction with the political and economic set-up in Greater Syria prior to World War I. According to Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism, for example, “there were two major uprisings against the Turkish Ottoman State by Syrians of Druse background between 1896 and 1910; and to suppress the 1910 uprising in Syria, 30 battalions of Ottoman troops were required.”

Yet despite these two major pre-World War I uprisings in Syria against Ottoman Turkish political control of Syria, France-based banks and investors continued to invest their money heavily in the economy of Syria, in other parts of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire and in Turkey itself right up to the beginning of World War I in 1914. As Syria and the French Mandate observed:

“Between 1890 and 1914 France was by far the largest investor in the Ottoman Empire. On the eve of World War I, her investments were more than double that of her nearest rival, Germany…In 1913, French capitalists controlled 63 percent of the Ottoman Public Debt; they, along with their British counterparts, owned and directed the Imperial Ottoman Bank which controlled the tobacco monopoly, several utilities, railway and industrial issues, and other business ramifications…

“…The Imperial Ottoman Bank, which issued the Ottoman currency…had active branches in Damascus…By 1914, French companies…owned all but one of the railroads that crisscrossed Syria…On the eve of World War I, France was the largest single investor in Syria…It is estimated that by 1914 the French had invested some 200 million francs in the region, mainly in public utilities, railroads, and silk and tobacco production…”

But nationalist Syrian activists who opposed continued Turkish government political control of Greater Syria organized a large demonstration in Damascus in early 1913 and then held an Arab Congress in Paris in June 1913. And, in response, the French government’s consul in Damascus apparently promised the Syrian nationalist activists that a large French government loan to their Turkish rulers would only be given if the Turkish government agreed to implement the democratic reform program for Syria that the nationalist Syrians were demanding.

Yet when the Turkish government signed a formal agreement in April 1914 to give French investors exclusive railroad concessions in Syria, in exchange for the large French government loan, “there was no mention of a Syrian reform program,” according to Syria and The French Mandate. So, not surprisingly, as the same book recalled:

“…In the four months before the war broke out, the sentiments of the Syrian reformers became…blatantly anti-French…France was accused of abandoning the Syrian-Arab reform movement for an exclusive sphere of economic influence.


“The French decision to withdraw support from the reform program was in line with France’s imperialist logic…”

(end of part 2)

Monday, November 10, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 1: Pre-1895 Period

In late September 2014 the Democratic Obama Administration began ordering U.S. military air strikes on ISIS/ISIL fighters in Syrian territory—without first asking the permission of either the United Nations Security Council or the government in Damascus that Syria’s secular Baath Party still controls. Yet most people in the United States know very little about the history of people who live in Syria.

Between 1516 and 1918, for example, Syria—along with Jordan, Palestine/Israel and Lebanon—was officially part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s “Greater Syria” administrative area; and, from its “imperial center” in Istanbul, the ruling dynasty of a Turkish Sultan and/or his Turkish military officers mostly ruled people in Syria undemocratically through local Syrian elites, according to University of California-San Diego Professor of History Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism. As the same book also recalled:

“…The top political families of Damascus usually got their start in government service (either civil or, more likely, military) and later became tax brokers, government officials, and eventually landlords. These families provided generations of sons for high positions in local government…The political notables struck a bargain in which they enjoyed variable and qualified access to political power and tremendous economic power in return for minimizing the political aspirations of the great mass of the subject population.”

During this same historical period, most Syrians of Jewish religious background in Damascus “earned their livelihoods in various crafts,” except for “a small class of wealthy Jews engaged in the wholesale and international trade of Persian and local products,” according to the Encyclopedia Judaica.

By the late 19th century, “wheat, cotton, silk and other agricultural products” had become “the major exports from Greater Syria,” according to The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism. Yet when Greater Syria was officially part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, only a few families in Syria apparently derived much economic prosperity from the Greater Syrian economy. As the same book also observed:

“Local power was based on control of land and agricultural surpluses…Families from Damascus and Hama owned entire villages in the surrounding regions. Single extended families controlled scores or even hundreds of villages comprising thousands of individuals. The share of agricultural produce retained by peasants often barely met the level of subsistence. Leading families usually lived in Damascus in grand houses that included multiple courtyards…The houses dominated the urban quarters in which they were situated…The leading families also owned large areas of urban real estate, which they leased for commercial and residential purposes…”


MIT Professor of History Philip Khoury’s Syria and the French Mandate book also noted that “by the end of the 19th century there had emerged in Damascus and the other large cities, a more or less unified group of powerful families deriving wealth and social position from ownership of land, having access to the Ottoman government, and able to maintain a `delicate balance between central authority and provincial influence’;” and “the story of Arab nationalism in Syria…is also the story of conflict between bourgeois and radical nationalism.”

(end of part 1)