The comparison is nowhere made explicitly, but the subtext for most readers of Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt will inevitably be the current situation in Iraq — even if it was not the author’s intention. The irony is that Provence poses the 1925 revolt against French Mandate rule in Syria as the watershed event in the emergence of Arab nationalism. In Iraq, where Baathism is rapidly being super ceded by Islamism in the vanguard of resistance to the occupation, we may be witnessing its death throes.
The revolt also represented a watershed in counterinsurgency and clinical mass killing. It culminated in French aerial bombardment of Damascus, predating by 12 years the Luftwaffe’s destruction of Guernica, which claimed an equal number of lives but is far better remembered.
The revolt began in July 1925, when Druze farmers in the Jabal Hawran, a rugged frontier zone some 50 miles southeast of Damascus, shot down a French surveillance plane. Provence chronicles how the revolt quickly evolved from a local Druze rebellion to a Syrian revolution with a nascent Arab-nationalist consciousness.
The Druze had been deported to the harsh Hawran from Lebanon by a joint French-Ottoman force following a civil war with their Maronite Christian neighbors in the 1860s. There they established their dominance over Bedouin raiders and developed a “frontier warrior ethos.” Provence writes: “They sought to preserve their independence both from the state and from provincial elites and would-be landlords.” The initial leader of the revolt and its eventual military commander, Sultan al-Atrash, was an heir to this long struggle. In 1910, his father, Dhuqan al-Atrash, had been hanged by the Ottoman authorities on charges of insurrection. Sultan al-Atrash was then serving with the Ottoman military in the Balkans, gaining experience that would serve him well back home.
Al-Atrash was involved in the early resistance to the French when they took over Syria in 1920 under the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, ousting the recently installed Hashemite King Faisal with reluctant British connivance. Faisal’s loyalists put up a struggle before the king was enticed by Britain to accept the throne of Iraq as a consolation prize. Druze villagers took up arms for Faisal on a pledge of regional autonomy for the Jabal, and many fought at the battle of Maysalun, the most significant engagement in the brief war.
The 1925 revolt would prove a greater challenge. The French cast their colonial project in anti-feudal terms, and the armed resistance that exploded that year as sectarian, not nationalist: the work of local chiefs whose power was threatened by the Mandate’s reforms. Provence writes: “Sectarian conflict was a theoretical necessity for French colonialism in Syria, since the entire colonial mission was based on the idea of protecting one sectarian community, the Maronite Christians, from the predations of others. Without sectarian conflict, colonial justification evaporates.” The French encouraged such conflicts by imposing territorial divisions based on religious and ethnic lines. The rebels were immediately labeled “bandits,” “extremists” and “feudalists.”
From the start, Provence dismisses France’s self-serving “narrative” of a civilizing anti-feudal mission. He informs us that Druze village sheikhs were not absentee landlords, and in fact served to protect village interests in dealings with Damascus merchants who purchased their grain. But the village political orders they oversaw seem to have been fairly authoritarian, and the Bedouin were made to pay tribute to the sheikhs for access to pasture and water.
Paradoxically, trouble started brewing with the Druze when the old-guard military administrators — who were of a “right-wing, pro-Catholic political bent” — were cycled out under a new high commissioner for Syria, Gen. Maurice Sarrail, “a republican anticlericalist freethinker and a darling of the French Left.” Sarrail appointed as governor of the Jabal Hawran one Capt. Gabriel Carbillet, who zealously sought to break the grip of Druze “feudalism” in the region. Carbillet conscripted the sheikhs for forced labor (officially in lieu of taxes) on modernizing projects such as road-building. Protests were met with repression, villages raised militia, and the regional capital of Suwayda was besieged.
As always, the forces of “civilization” quickly resorted to barbarism. France responded to the rebellion with aerial bombardment of villages and “collective punishment”: wholesale executions, public hangings, house demolitions and forced removal of the populace from disloyal regions. There were rebel claims of poison gas used against Jabal villages. Meanwhile, leaflets air-dropped on the Jabal read, “Only France can give you wheat, running water, roads and the national liberty you desire.”
At its inception, the revolt used the “language of Druze honor and Druze particularism,” and French counterinsurgency measures sought to encourage this. The French used Christians, especially Armenian and Circassian refugees from Ottoman rule, as shock troops against the rebel Druze villages. “Irregular troops” were also conscripted from the lumpen, who committed some of the worst atrocities, an echo of the “Salvador Option” apparently now being employed by the Pentagon in Iraq. Yet the rebellion also exhibited the beginnings of a national consciousness from the start. In defiance of the divide-and conquer strategy, al-Atrash wrote the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Damascus apologizing for rebel reprisals against Christians, pledging reparations, and calling for mutual solidarity against the French.
The real turning point came when the rebel leadership, following ties already established through trade, made contact with the prominent Arabs of Damascus who supported independence. The Hizb al-Shab (People’s Party) –– whose leader, Shahbandar, had already been imprisoned and seems to have been operating semi-clandestinely –– embraced the Jabal revolt and called for a general revolution. At this point, the rhetoric of Druze particularism was decisively abandoned in favor of an Arab nationalism that was at least tentatively secular. In an August call “To Arms!” addressed to all Syrians and distributed in Damascus by the People’s Party, al-Atrash (now “Commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Armies”) delineated French crimes: “The imperialists have stolen what is yours. They have laid hands on the very sources of your wealth and raised barriers and divided your indivisible 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.”
Rebel propaganda emphasized that Druze, Sunnis, Shiites, Allawis and Christians alike were “sons of the Syrian Arab nation.” As the Druze rebel army (now swelled with volunteers from Bedouin tribes) advanced on Damascus in October and urban militants erected street barricades in preparation for the coordinated uprising, brigades were organized to protect the Christian and Jewish quarters of the city from potential mob violence. “These Moslem interventions assured the Christian quarters against pillage. In other words, it was Islam and not the ‘Protectrice des Chrétiens en Orient’ which protected the Christians in those critical days,” wrote the British consul in Damascus (arguably not the most objective source).
However, al-Atrash apparently called for the amputation of the hands of informers (albeit with anesthesia and under a doctor’s supervision, a touching nod to modernity). Captured Circassian fighters were summarily killed and mutilated. Rebel demands that prominent Christians and Jews provide taxes and conscripts for the independence struggle were often made under explicit threat of retaliation, which can be read as: either embrace the revolt or face persecution. And in a grim harbinger of a generations-long ethnic struggle to follow in both Syria and Iraq, there were episodes of internecine violence between Arab and Kurdish rebel bands.
As guerrillas besieged the city and the uprising broke out, Sarrail approved the bombardment of Damascus. Nearly 1,500 were killed as the bombs fell for two days. Then, in a gesture of stupendous arrogance, the French demanded a large fine be paid by leaders of the rebellion in the city. It was eventually paid by the Mandate’s own puppet president, Subhi Barakat, in a bid to buy peace.
In the aftermath, when the guerrillas had withdrawn, the pro-independence forces once again mobilized brigades to protect the city’s Christians from reprisals. Interestingly, the leader of this effort was Said al-Jazairi, grandson of Amir Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, the famous Sufi warrior who was exiled to Ottoman Damascus after a failed 1856 uprising against the French in Algeria.
The post-bombardment peace was illusory. France had regained control of the capital, but guerrilla control of the countryside around Damascus was nearly total. Paris realized a change of direction was called for. Sarrail and Barakat were both removed, and the more popular Taj al-Din al-Hasani, son of Damascus’ leading Islamic scholar, was installed as president. Moves towards greater self-government were pledged. These measures weakened the links between the urban movement and guerrillas. In the summer of 1926, a French counteroffensive drove al-Atrash first into the mountains and then, the following year, into Transjordan, where the British authorities expelled him and his followers across the border to the new Saudi kingdom.
Al-Atrash and his comrades spent the next ten years in exile and under sentence of death. They continued to agitate for Syrian independence from their refugee encampment at Wadi al-Sirhan oasis. In Jerusalem, their supporters launched the newspaper Jamiat al-Arabiyya (Arab Federation), which protested Zionist designs on Palestine as well as the continuance of Mandate rule in the Fertile Crescent. In an early example of anti-imperialist solidarity, one issue protested the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, where Marines dispatched by President Calvin Coolidge were also pioneering the use of the airplane to deliver terror and death to peasant villages.
In Syria, a new party called al-Kutla al-Wataniyya (National Bloc) displaced the pro-independence leadership of 1925, and pursued a course of “honorable cooperation” with the French. They called for the establishment of a constituent assembly to draft a constitution, and for a timetable for self-rule. Full independence, of course, did not come until 20 years after al-Atrash’s revolt had been put down.
Provence writes that the history of resistance to French rule in Syria has been “recolonized” by the Baathist regimes that have held power since 1963. As the Allawi minority holds sway in the current regime, the new version favors the Allawi revolt in Latakia, led by Salih al-Ali, which Provence downplays as one of a “series of uncoordinated resistance movements” that followed the transition to French rule, lacking the significance of the later 1925 revolt in terms of emerging national consciousness.
Given Provence’s thesis, it is an irony as well as a testament to the continuing efficacy of imperial divide-and-rule strategies that the Druze today have been pitted against Arab nationalists. The relatively favored status of the Druze under Zionist rule, and their widespread use in the security forces against their Palestinian neighbors, dates at least to 1948. In Lebanon, the Druze political patriarch Walid Jumblatt is one of the harshest opponents of Syria and recently called openly for U.S. military intervention against Damascus. (Druze in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights continue to wage an anti-colonial struggle.)
Provence makes only the most cautious and tentative references to the obvious contemporary analogue to the 1925 Syrian revolt. “Resistance against occupation remains a potent theme in the Middle East,” he states rather obviously. “Few scholars today would use words like ‘bandit’ or ‘extremist’ to describe insurgents against colonial rule, though ‘terrorist’ is perhaps one equivalent.”
The United States makes no blatant claims to be protecting one minority in Iraq, as France did with the Maronites in Syria and Lebanon, but Washington does purport to be defending secularism against sectarian fanaticism. Groups such as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia play into the self-serving propaganda of Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom to a far greater degree than the petty authoritarianism of the Druze sheikhs ever could have with French auto-justifications for their colonial venture. If the trajectory of the Syrian revolt was from sectarian particularism to secular nationalism, in Iraq since 2003 it has all been in the reverse direction.
Independent Syria would degenerate into the ugly Baathist regime of Hafiz al-Assad, due in no small part to ongoing U.S. attempts to subvert the more moderate nationalist regimes that preceded it. The world will be lucky if Iraq now manages to avoid a far greater disaster.