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)

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