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)

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