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)

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