Patrick Higgins details the complex & contentious history of French Syria.
Gary: Today’s special episode is by Middle Eastern scholar Patrick Higgins, who gives an account of the French Empire in Syria from its earliest days until the present conflict.
Patrick Higgins received his BA from Wayne State University, an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and served as a fellow at the Middle East Political Economy Summer Institute. He is currently a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Houston where he is studying under Dr. Abdul Razaaq Takriti, whose revolutionary work made him the youngest Royal Historical Fellow in British history. Patrick is currently finishing his dissertation on Palestinian perceptions on US imperialism in the Arab World from the 1950s to the early 1970s and how those perceptions shaped theory and strategy of the Palestinian cause.
Today’s episode is probably very different from what we hear in the West, since it takes the perspective of the colonized Syrians and their perceptions of Europe’s game of empires. This episode may challenge some of your conceptions, though I encourage you to listen, as Higgins is an accomplished scholar, studying under one of the most acclaimed historians on Earth. Moreover, those of us in the West almost never hear the perspective of our history from the other side and so learning what others think of us is incredibly important to understanding each other. Please enjoy.
This series will explore the history and legacy of the twin forces of colonialism and imperialism in Syria. Although it begins with French presence in Syria, and although its main focus is the historical period of French dominance, its scope is not limited to France. The series will also take brief turns looking at the attempted domination of Syria by the British Empire, Turkey, Israel, and, most recently, by the United States of America. Although the character of the rule and the style of militarism implemented by these nation-states have varied, I argue that they have a common origin in a single world imperialist system that aims to exploit the many poorer nations in order to enrich a select few nations, particularly the ruling classes of those few. Although obviously fact-based, the analysis that follows is not dispassionate: I seek throughout to locate and uphold the traditions in Syria of resistance to imperialism, as well as the interlinked battles of class war waged within Syria against exploiters both foreign and local. In summation, the analysis I offer spans in time from the early 20th century to the contemporary war engulfing Syria and by now dominating newspapers headlines on and off for the better part of the past decade. This is an analysis that uncovers both an imperialist war from above and a corresponding Syrian resistance war waged from below. Taken in totality, this is a war that has lasted the better part of 100 years, and it is still ongoing. It is firmly my belief that peace and social and economic development in Syria will come with the cessation and defeat of all imperialist aggression against it.
The End of the Ottoman Era
The modern areas comprising Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon—sometimes referred to as the Levant, Greater Syria, or most appropriately, “Bilad al-Sham”—became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516. Ottoman authorities valued the region for its rich agricultural lands and its trade routes connecting Greater Asia with Africa. Ottoman provinces in the area were divided between Syria, Aleppo, and Beirut, while Jerusalem and Mount Lebanon constituted their own governates. At the ports of coastal cities like Beirut and Haifa were docking points open to the system of world trade, nodes used to send off boatloads of local silk and Yaffa oranges into the vast Mediterranean blue, towards Europe, from which import-filled ships arrived at Levantine shores in turn. Early Ottoman Syria was an agricultural society. Class power was dictated by land ownership, and land was owned by relatively few families, which maintained almost total control over the peasants who tilled the land. In a technical legal sense, the Ottoman state owned most of the land, but it ruled through landowners who lay claim to peasants’ agricultural product. This arrangement ensured that peasants depended entirely on the whims and goodwill of landowners in order to gain access to their own plots of land. As the Ottoman territories gradually became more integrated into the world system, merchant families began to establish themselves as managing the export of goods such as grain, while educational institutions (medical and military training schools, civil service academies, and so on) were constructed in order to train the sons and daughters of urban notables, so that they could become well acculturated loyalists to the Ottoman dream. By the 19th century, the Ottoman authorities legally sanctioned private property in the Tanzimat reforms of 1858, which allowed relatively wealthy urban notables to buy up land on which peasants lived, even if they did not own the legal deed to it. In effect, the landless peasants of Ottoman Syria came under greater state control and encountered a new class exploiter with which to contend in the form of a bourgeoisie, which was supplemented by the growth of urban professionals imbricated in real estate speculation, tax collection, and finance. As Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels infamously declared, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” and Syria is no exception. This theoretical basis, that of class struggle, is important to set down, because when the French and British imperialists arrived to dominate and exploit West Asia in the early 20th century, they did so representing an unprecedentedly powerful class power and also as class partisans on the side feudal land owners in an already-existing class conflict against the peasant majority. In this capacity, the European imperialist powers intervened against the majority of the region’s people on behalf of a small coterie of land barons and, later on, on behalf of the finance moguls who helped to secure imperialist interests.
Syria as an Arena of Conflict in the First Inter-Imperialist War
Syria became enveloped in the modern world imperialist system in the same way as most nations, through extreme violence, in this case during the First World War, which I will instead refer to as “the First Inter-Imperialist War.” I do not use this term with the desire to confuse, but rather because it will help to clarify the real origins of war, violence, and destruction in Syria, as I later will trace the history of Syria’s encounter with France to the current war facing Syria today. So please bear with me and allow me a moment to explain why I say “Inter-Imperialist War” rather than “First World War.” Despite its tremendously rich cultural and intellectual history dating back to the earliest stages of human social development, Syria was by the 20th century peripheral to the forms of production that amounted to power and influence on a global scale, that is, above all, industrial production. To describe the contours of global production and extraction patterns, sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein argued that the world’s nations can be categorized between “core” and “periphery” nations. Within this schema, nation-states are the central organizing units of the bourgeoisie, the ruling class of the capitalist era. Nation-states are organized territorially by national borders, with each states’ boundaries demarcated along constructed or imposed cultural lines, meaning: religions, traditions, languages, and so on. The existence of nation-states has allowed national bourgeoisies to execute class rule through national armed police forces lording over peasants and industrial workers within allotted territories. As the saying goes: the state holds a legal monopoly on violence. The nation-state also allowed national bourgeoisies to pursue their class interests abroad, beyond their national borders, through national armies to pursue tasks such as the extraction of vital resources. Wallerstein traced our current world system to around the year 1500, around when the expanding armies of what is known now as the continent of “Europe,” including of course French traders, invaded and overthrew the social and political orders of the Americas in pursuit of, at least to start with, precious metals and land, which was later to be converted into private property. This conquest, genocidal in its methods, was later followed by invasions across Africa and Asia. Some of these invasions were partially successful, although they were always challenged and thwarted by resistance. This date, 1492, thus marked the bloody dawn of colonialism, which developed in tandem with the rise of capitalism and capitalism’s core tenet, the forced military conversion of agricultural lands once held in common into privately owned property.
In this new colonial, capitalist system, those nations with superior military technologies developed through industrial forms of production and, by the 18th century, chiefly by coal-powered factories. They became “core” nations, while those nations invaded by core nations and subject to their rule became “periphery” nations. With the rise of colonialism, a minority of core nations in Europe amassed tremendous wealth at the expense of keeping the vast majority of rest of the world’s people poor. Very specific ideologies supported and supplemented this colonial turn, in the form of national chauvinism, racism, European supremacy, and Euro-centrism, or the belief that European military dominance was the product of the inherent superiority of Europe’s peoples, the indisputable wisdom of their monarchies, and the unique, incontestable truth of their Christian faiths. European colonialists believed these notions deeply, even as most of historic Europe had languished as societies peripheral to the world system in the preceding centuries. (I will note here as an aside that there were and are important exceptions to the European rule in terms of what has constituted the “core” and “periphery” nations: for example, the English ruling class, after it exhausted its ability to seize lands from peasants living in England, turned to nearby Ireland to steal agricultural products. This historical example, the fact that colonialism actually began inside the bounds of what is considered geographic Europe, proves further that the unequal distribution of wealth and development in the world is an inherited result of a common system.) As European armies began to compete for the military possession of periphery nations and preferential access to natural resources around the globe, they turned to war against each other to settle their differences.
When analyzing the global competition for resources and influence at the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin thought it necessary to distinguish modern forms of empire from ancient ones such as Rome, Persia, and so on. This was a new kind of imperialism, an imperialism capable of a much grander scale of violence and destruction. Lenin outlined some of these new features in his 1917 pamphlet “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” To start, the market production in the nation-state system tended not towards free and fair competition, but towards the development of monopolies, enormous private corporations backed and protected by state power. He described this corporate-state merger as the fusion of bank capital with industrial capital. The capitalists in charge of these industries heralded a new financial aristocracy, an oligarchy. Lenin argued that their chief concern at the time was over what to with surplus: both the surplus goods coming out of industrial production and with surplus capital that needed to be invested somewhere. To solve their crisis of overproduction, these financial barons of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and yes, the United States (which was emboldened at the turn of the century by its recent seizures of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, and Guam) sought out periphery nations in which to establish new markets to dump surplus into. It is out of these observations that Lenin famously called imperialism in its modern form “the highest stage of capitalism.” This is to say that by the 20th century, capitalism could not exist without imperialism because imperialism was one and the same system as capitalism. In 1914, the attempts by capitalists to divide up the territories of periphery nations was to be settled by the cataclysmic violence of a total war, an inter-imperialist war engulfing the whole of the world map. It is with that disturbing realization that we return our story to Syria in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire. As things would turn out, the Ottoman system was an empire unfit to compete in this new age of imperialism…
The Arab Revolt and the Mandate System
As their economy contracted, Ottoman authorities began to face political pressures in emergent, rapidly growing national movements inside its territories. As an empire, the Ottoman Empire was by its nature a “prison house of nations,” holding hostage manifold communities defining themselves by shared histories, languages, and cultures, thereby preventing them from achieving political self-determination as it was very often articulated at the time, or at least self-determination in the form of their own nation-states. The nationalist pressures first began to swell in the Balkans. By the late 19th century, the development of an Arab bourgeoisie was supplemented by Arab clubs and associations emphasizing a uniquely Arabic culture and history. Their mission was aided by the existence of a printing press, which produced Arabic language newspapers and periodicals. Some Ottoman officials of Arab descent serving in the Ottoman Empire’s majority-Arab territories began to reconsider their traditional, supremely trained allegiance to the Ottoman project. (A note: there were always in these lands, we must insist on saying, Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and many other peoples.) The British Empire viewed growing Arab nationalist consciousness as an opening, a potential rip in the Ottoman fabric to be seized upon and torn unsparingly and ever wider. The British imperialists sought to aid an Arab military revolt led by Hussein ibn Ali, Sharif and Emir of the City of Mecca, along with his two sons, Abdullah and Faisal. These figures entered into alliance with the British on the basis of a promise made by one Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry McMahon that the British would grant formal independence to a single Arab homeland stretching from Syria to Yemen. The revolt ultimately succeeded in expelling the Ottomans from Syria, and it even portended the complete overthrow of the Ottomans by the vanguard of the nascent Republic of Turkey in 1924. But this victory did not portend an independent Arab homeland across the agreed-upon territories. The British turned their backs on their word, if indeed they ever intended to keep it in the first place. What Hussein, his sons, and the region’s peoples received instead at the end of the First Inter-Imperialist War was a “mandate system” effectively run by Britain and France.
What was the Mandate system? It was, above all, a way for Britain and France to directly safeguard their interests along the eastern Mediterranean while maintaining a thin appearance that there existed some degree of political autonomy for the region. Through the Mandate Act, the League of Nations carved Syria into Syria, Lebanon, the mountainous region of Jabal al-Druze, the Sanjak of Latakia located on the Mediterranean coast, and northward from there the Sanjak of Iskanderun, which was in theory part of Syria, but in practice had its own autonomous form of government. More broadly, the Mandate Act, an extension of the secret 1916 pact between Britain and France commonly known as the Sykes-Picot agreement—or as it was known by Lenin, “the agreement of the colonial thieves”—was finalized as a postwar settlement at the San Remo Conference in 1920. It allotted the territories of Syria and Lebanon to France and the territories of Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq to Britain. In theory, the mandate was supposed to be supervised by the League of Nations. In actual practice, Britain and France ruled over the territories as colonial prizes. Their rule was to be met with relentless resistance. The Arab nationalist consciousness that animated the 1916 Revolt would soon spread to new classes and engender diverse articulations and demands. In view of the following decades of war and struggle, the momentum of the 1916 Revolt would give way to varied uprisings across North Africa and West Asia against the new European overlords. An uprising in Egypt against British rule in 1919. Another against the British in Iraq in 1941. An explosive, sustained uprising characterized by both armed struggle and strict modes of political organization against the British in Palestine from 1936 to 1939. And of course what is known as “The Great Syrian Revolt” against France from 1925 to 1927, to which we will return. Each of these uprisings served as incubators for Arab nationalist ideas, propelling the force of nationalist anti-colonial ideas and movements forward from one location to another and from one decade and generation to the next.
The Mandate and King Faisal
Ayse Tekdal Fildis argues that Britain’s reasons for brokering the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Mandate regime were as follows: to safeguard India, the so-called jewel in the crown of the British Empire, from all imperialist rivals; secure cheap and accessible oil, which had been deemed by many to be the most important resource of the coming century for its primacy in fueling industrial development; and to maintain the overall balance of power in the Mediterranean to its advantage. Fildis argues that France’s hopes for the agreement was for French imperialists to preserve centuries-old ties with Syrian Catholics, whom they viewed as a possible local layer of support in the region; to gain a base of power in the Mediterranean; to ensure a cheap supply of cotton and silk; and most importantly of all, to prevent Arab nationalism from spreading to their bases of power in North Africa. For an example on the last point, Robert de Caix, architect of French Syria policy before the First Inter-Imperialist War, argued against the idea of a unified Syria on grounds that it would be an Arab and Muslim-oriented entity hostile to France and likely to have a dangerous, subversive influence on Arab and Muslim populations under French rule in North Africa. This part of the matter is key. Since 1830 France had occupied and become heavily invested in the territories of Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria, where it established a settler colony in which a population of relatively light-skinned French settlers sought to replace local Arabic and Amizighi cultures and amass wealth by expropriating property from the local populations, in addition to exploiting them as a source of cheap labor. This state of affairs was made possible only by the brutal suppression of the native’s political rights. By factoring the prospects of their project in North Africa into their calculations for seizing Syria, French imperialists understood early on the relationship between, indeed the inextricability of, the fate of Syria from that of North Africa. By its very nature, in swallowing up vast territories and imprisoning so many nations, imperialism tends towards globalization. The dialectical flipside of this process is that resistance to imperialism also tends to globalize, to form a counter-globalization if you will, as once disparate nations become bonded materially through their common imperialist jailer as well as becoming intellectually linked once they act on the realization that their respective struggles for self-determination are being suppressed by the same imperialist enemy. If nationalist dreams of independence could take popular hold and achieve observable success in Syria, what was to prevent them from gripping the peoples of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria and inspiring them to follow suit? As our story progresses, do not forget this maxim, as it will come up again: the liberation of Syria and Algeria are one!
When the imperialist powers gathered in Paris in 1918 to discuss the Mandate settlement, Faisal, son of Hussein of Mecca, established a government in Damascus with the permission of British General Sir Edmund Allenby, “supreme commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.” On October 15 1918, Faisal declared himself “king of a united Syria.” But he did not have the political powers of a true sovereign, as he was still beholden to British imperialism. His declaration of kingship presented a problem for France, which viewed him as a tool of British power, their imperialist competitor. After the British imperialists decided they did not actually want Syrian nationalism to challenge British interests, they agreed with France to condemn the emir’s action. Like a true puppet, Faisal was then called to London and told to settle with France. The British cut his monthly subsidy in half, forcing him to make a deal with the French in order to be provided the other half of his allowance. His financial fealty to imperialism had only expanded and deepened. After his London trip, Faisal was called to Paris. He was told he could stay in power so long as Syria remained under France’s de facto influence. France gave Syria military and financial aid while taking control over its foreign policy. As a first order of business, Syria was forced to recognize Lebanon as an independent state under French mandate authority, shattering Faisal’s ambition to achieve a united Syrian kingdom. From there, Faisal’s embarrassment, shame, and effacement before the French continued. In 1920, Alexandre Millerand replaced Georges Clemenceau as the Prime Minister of France and he quickly enacted an abrupt change in France’s Syria policy by calling a halt to the friendly agreement with Faisal. Faisal reported the secret deal to his supporters in the Party of Arab Independence, which was set up by al Fatat, an underground Arab nationalist party that started in Ottoman era that claimed control of Syrian congress. In March of 1920, this congress responded to France’s provocation by declaring the full independence of Syria. The next day, Faisal was reluctantly declared king of the new “United Syrian Kingdom,” which was to include Lebanon and Palestine and, significantly, to reject the ambitions of a new political movement expanding next door in Palestine called Zionism.
A Word on Zionism
Before continuing with Faisal’s dealings with France, we need to take a detour to offer a word about Zionism, a topic of great importance for Syria. In its earliest phases the Zionist movement was comprised largely of Jewish people in Europe (although, it must be said, the majority of Jewish people in Europe did not actually support Zionism at the time). The movement boasted support from some key powerful European Protestants. It traced its intellectual heritage to a book called “The Jewish State” written by a Jewish Austrian journalist named Theodor Herzl, whose vision was stirring enough to bring about the First Zionist Congress held by the World Zionist Organization in Basle, Switzerland in 1897. Herzl’s book sought a remedy for what was being termed “the Jewish Question,” or the problem of rampant anti-Semitism that was plaguing European societies. Across Europe, from as far west as England, to as far east as Russia, Jewish people encountered ferocious racism and hostility. Otherwise antagonistic and fueding Christian factions united in their anti-Semitic contempt, slandering Jewish people for the imagined threat they posed to the order of Christ. Meanwhile, nationalists of various European stripes scapegoated Jewish people for social problems, demonizing them as rootless wanderers incapable of adopting legitimate national identities, capable in fact only of destabilizing the well being of nations on account of their suspect loyalties.
By scapegoating Jewish people, the ruling classes of Europe found a convenient way to point boiling discontent caused by class exploitation away from capitalists and instead towards an imagined inferior “race.” Anti-Semitic ruling classes, such as the Tsarists in Russia, crammed Jewish populations into segregated ghettoes. They incited mobs of violence and acts of looting against Jewish populations in the form of pogroms by spreading calumnous propaganda and forged documents, most notoriously The Protocals of the Elders of Zion, claiming that Jewish people comprised a secret cabal which lorded over the progression of history and acted as the architects of the world’s many miseries. Jewish thinkers ruminated over possible ways to end Jewish suffering in Europe. One solution was proposed by those involved in Communist parties and movements: to bring about socialist revolution. They believed as Karl Marx did that a rising tide of communism could amend mistaken ideas among the working class about the roots of inequality and exploitation and replace them with a comprehensive analysis of the capitalist system. Furthermore, communists believed that the particular emancipation of Jewish people from anti-Semitism could only be achieved as part of the universal emancipation of the proletariat, the class to which the majority of Jewish people belonged, from the bourgoisie. Another possible solution to Jewish suffering was offered by Bundism, the belief that Jewish people ought to establish political autonomy and self-determination in the areas in which they were already living.
Zionism argued that Jewish people constituted a nation in the accepted modern sense and that their problems could only be solved through the establishment of a national homeland. But it went a step further by insisting that Jewish populations vacate Europe to establish their homeland elsewhere. Among other territories nominated for future settlement, such as Uganda and Argentina, Palestine in particular captured Herzl and other early Zionists’ fancy as the prime destination for their desired Zion. This leads us to the key tenet that is often neglected or overlooked in those characterizations of Zionist ideology dedicated to defending it on the impression that it offers the sole possible solution to the ongoing and still persistent problem of anti-Semitism. In order to establish a national Jewish home outside of Europe, Herzl openly and unapologetically sought to imitate European colonialism. While contemporary proponents of Zionism and the State of Israel may wish to neglect this fact for the inconvenience posed by its contemporary connotations, it must be remembered that “colonialism” was not a dirty word in 19th century Europe. To quote Herzl in his own words when he referred to Palestine: “We should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” To quote him further: “We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. The sanctuaries of Christendom would be safeguarded by assigning to them an extra-territorial status such as is well-known to the law of nations. We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence.” Herzl began and ended his proposition with a logic much resembling the trajectory of Europe itself. That is, what he began by proposing Jewish people mimic European nationalism, he concluded by proposing they mimic European imperialism. This reasoning cannot solve the problem of anti-Semitism, for it is in European colonialism and imperialism, with their endemic penchants for marking entire populations of human beings as “subhumans,” that the origins of anti-Semitism lay.
To make the point even more explicit, Herzl throughout the text of The Jewish State referred to potential Zionists entering Palestine as “colonists.” He also dealt at length with the problem presented by the fact that there was already an existing population living in Palestine. In effect, the preeminent founding figure of Zionism preemptively exposed as a lie subsequent Zionist generations’ slogan that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” As an open and proud colonial, Herzl’s directness turned out to be prescient. He predicted that his dream Jewish State would be protected by Europe. He pledged that this state would protect the interests of so-called “Christendom” in Asia. Herzl’s words can help us to understand a few additional things. The first is how Zionism, a movement supposedly founded in opposition to anti-Semitism, could forge a fundamental alliance with an anti-Semite as powerful and dangerous as Arthur Balfour, who as British Prime Minister introduced the Aliens Act in 1905, which prevented Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe into Britain at a time when pogroms were raging in Russia. It should not be so strange: together, Balfour and Herzl agreed on the inherent incompatibility of Jewish populations with European societies and on the old fashioned colonial need for a plan to safeguard European and Christian interests against Asia. Second, Herzl’s words help us to understand Arabs’ and Palestinians’ fundamental objection to being expected to pay the price for European bigotries and crimes by forfeiting the one thing a majority-peasant people needs most: their land. In that sense, the consequences of Herzl’s dream need not be a matter of speculation. They can be easily observed in world today, as his dream came true and the vast majority of Palestinian peasants expelled from their land when the State of Israel was founded are now landless refugees, many of them dwelling in squalid camps. Many of these refugees ended up in Syria. It is estimated that by the summer of 1948, 70,000 Palestinian refugees were living in Syria. Third, his words help us to appreciate why Syrian Congress’s opposition to the existence of Zionism in Palestine helped to secure Faisal’s fate in Syria. Zionism was the position of British imperialism in Palestine; anti-Zionism was the position of the Syrian masses. By accepting anti-Zionism as Syria’s diplomatic position, Faisal, no matter how forced his hand may have been, effectively took the position of the Syrian masses against that of Britain. Then and there, the hand that giveth to Faisal had his throne taketh away—or at the very least allowed for the conditions by which his throne could be taken away.
Syria and King Faisal, Continued
Let us return to Faisal’s time in Syria. Britain had unilaterally withdrawn from Syria in 1919. This meant that Faisal lacked any external source of protection from the whims of French imperialism at time when he was facing increasing pressure from Arab nationalists to confront the French. In July of 1920, General Henri Giraud sent Faisal a proposal to be responded to in four days. Among other things, it demanded unconditional acceptance of French mandate, the adoption of French paper money based on the franc, a reduced Syrian national army, the presence of French military units at key railway points, and draconian punishments of those Syrians who dared to defy the French mandate. In a desperate attempt to cling to his scraps of power, Faisal accepted the terms, but by then it did not matter. Ddding insult to a fledgling king already suffering severe injury in the lowered esteem of Syria’s nationalists, France decided to seize Syria anyways. On July 26, 1920, the French military occupied Damascus and overthrew Faisal’s government. Faisal left two days later, and one year later was appointed to the throne in British Mandate Iraq. Why had British imperialists changed their mind about Faisal? To quote one British official: “He had learned the limits of Arab nationalism and of Europe’s superior strength.” This sentment was but a triumphalist way to describe an ignomonious surrender. In Syria, after France had conquered Damascus, Prime Minister Millerand proposed the terms and length of how much of Syria he expected France to rule and for how long. His words were simple and haunting: “The whole of it, forever.”
For all of the racist propaganda that circulates in the United States and Europe claiming that internecine Arab and Muslim enmities date back to the Middle Ages or even further back than that, it was imperialist European powers that introduced and imposed sectarianism as a legal system (which should be distinguished from the mere existence of sectarian prejudices). This was certainly what France did in Syria. In order to try to prevent the spread of Arab and Syrian nationalist ideas that might unite diverse religious and ethnic groups against them, the French imperialists created two separate states in Damascus and Aleppo with French advisors. Jabal al Druze was declared its own administrative unit with French protection, complete with its own governor and elected Congress. The predominantly ‘Alawi area of Latakia was declared its own state. Quoting Ayse Tekdal Fildis, “Except for a brief period from 1936 to 1939, the Alawite and Druze states were administratively separate from Syria until 1942.”
By resorting to the direct rule of Syria, and by pairing with that rule the policy of dismembering Syria into ethno-sectarian sub-units, France was in violation of international law. Of course, international law was written by a minority of core European nations with no meaningful input from the representatives of periphery nations, but by occupying Syria and acting as its de facto dictator, France was violating the very laws it helped to write. According to Article 22 of the League Covenant, the mandate system was created for “the well being and development of such peoples,” “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” Mandatory governments were to “encourage local autonomy,” and were allowed only to provide “administrative advice and assistance.” These terms are undoubtedly plenty racist and condescending on their own. But the point again is that French imperialism failed even to abide by the few limited legal protections provided for the Syrian people contained within them. In 1965, the iconic revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara gave a speech comparing the “beastiality of Hitler’s armies” to “the North American beastiality, like that of the Belgian paratroopers, and like that of the French imperialists in Algeria.” He warned the masses of the periphery nations: “Make sure that we never trust imperialism. In no way at all. Not an iota.” For any Syrian nationalists who’d placed their faith in King Faisal’s attempts to placate imperialists, Guevara’s warning came four decades too late.
The Great Syrian Revolt, 1925-1927
As related by Michael Provence, on July 19, 1925, “Druze farmers shot down a French surveillance airplane circling above their mountain home, Jabal Hawran, some 100 kilometers south of Damascus.” The shots marked the beginning of an anti-colonial war against France that would last two years. The identity of the shooters, farmers in the countryside, would serve as a helpful indicator for how the war would be fought and the kinds of changes it would bring to Syrian society. This was not the resistance of a small coterie of notables. It was an uprising incorporating elements of nearly all social classes, religious sects, and ethnic groups. It was an upheavel in which nationalist ideas were propagated by and among rural peasants in addition to urban workers, professionals, and religious and tribal leaders. Widespread participation precipitated a popular guerrilla war supported by newly formed councils, unions, and political parties—a national alliance of the popular classes and the nationalist bourgeoisie against French imperialism. Shortly after the Druze farmers’ shots were fired, an aspiring hero of what would become known as the Great Syrian Revolt, the Druze leader Sultan al ‘Atrash, led his fighters into an armed occupation of the town of Salkhad in Southern Syria. As resistance thereafter continued to spread across Syria, French propaganda took to smearing the resistance fighters “feudalists,” “bandits,” and “extremists.” Michael Provence suggests smartly that the modern equivalent of these terms would likely be the all-purpose scare word “terrorist.” But what actually is a “bandit” and what is a “terrorist”? If a “bandit” is to be defined violence committed for the sake of petty theft, how could it possibly apply to those whose violence is aimed at military targets for the sake of a cause—the cause of their country’s independence from foreign occupation?
Sultan al Atrash did not make his military start in his war against French imperialism. At the age of 20, he was conscripted into the Ottoman Army. He served six months in the Balkans, during which time he learned to read and write. Like many other leaders of the revolt, many of whom were from lower class backgrounds and found upward class mobility in Ottoman military institutions, Atrash had been primed for assimilation into Ottoman codes and eqiquette. These were the sort of men who assumed leadership roles in the revolt: trained military officers who turned to Arabism or Syrian nationalism in the wake of the Ottoman era. Atrash’s personal sense of Ottomanism was smashed when he returned home from his Balkan tour to discover that his father was publicly hanged by the Ottoman authorities, a no doubt harrowing experience that might explain his embrace of Arab and Syrian nationalism. In the words of Provence, leaders like Atrash and other former Ottoman soldiers, “identified themselves as nationalists and patriots, but their nationalism was practical and unsystematic; they focused on expelling the French from Syria and sometimes mixed in popular Islamic religion, anti-Christian agitation, and even class warfare against urban landlords and notables.” In this brief description, we can from our position of comfortable hindsight in the year 2019 very easily brush off these notions as a confused stream of mixed consciousness. And yet, if we dwell for only a moment, we can actually detect in it signs of nationalism transforming in the heat of revolt, particularly in the point of class warfare, which indicates that the class base for nationalism had shifted. Time had slipped past the days of pure and purely abstract nationalisms spearheaded by aspiring kings, the aging reactionary nationalisms of the high and privileged proposing uncomplicated visions undisturbed by the messy business of social and class conflicts. Energized by their war with imperialism, Arab nationalists drawn from the last generation of Ottoman army officers were also beginning to press beyond the idea of the nation as merely a simplistic slogan offered up as little more than a one word antidote to imperialism. They began to ask questions: to whom does the nation belong? Is the substance of the nation expressed through a few select kings or through the whole of its people? And what good is a war against imperialism if the poor and the have-nots, who are in the fact the primary victims of imperialism, are still left stranded and wanting at the war’s end?
At the same time, this generation of armed strugglers were not starting from scratch. They were contributing to what was becoming a tradition of anti-French resistance. For example, on July 24 of 1920, when French forces were barrelling from Lebanon towards Damascus to overthrow Faisal’s government, they encountered sharp armed resistance in the mountain region of Maysulun. Although the Syrian forces were overwhelmed and defeated, their attempt at resistance became known as the Day of Maysalun, a symbol of defiance still remembered and cherished in Syria today. Similarly, the campaigns in the countryside of Aleppo led by the Kurdish Syrian Ibrahim Hananu, aided by Arab nationalists and Turkish republicans, does, despite its ultimate defeat, continue to inspire Syrians to this day. It was through the legacy of these pleas for national unity and independence, asserted with arms and paid for in blood, that Sultan al Atrash was able to find the language necessary for his campaign. In coordination with resistance bands operating in Damascus, Atrash made the move to travel Southern Syria with his fighters, moving from one Druze town to another, calling for villagers to join their struggle. The fighters sang war songs as they passed: “It’s no secret, the wars have begun, In the years past, the rebellion has lain, Hidden in the depths of the valleys, Finally today, it is known, To the peaks of the mountains.” As they moved, the rebels fired on French airplanes, set flame to French police stations, and rode into the heart of Suwayda to provoke a battle that lasted two months. Their attack was formidable enough to compel significant French reinforcements to Syria and an escalation in counterinsurgency tactics announced by the explosion of bombs on rebel positions launched from French war planes circling in the sky above.
The ‘Atrash campaign in Jabal al Druze formed only one front in a war that was being fought over, as Millerand had instructively put it, “the whole of Syria, forever.” Beyond ‘Atrash there were new parties forming and new leaders ascending. One approach was that offered by the People’s Party, which sought intervention from the League of Nations to restrain the war and restore order. The party’s president, Dr. ‘Abd al Rahman al Shahbandar, had gained vital experience in the world of political organizing years earlier as part of a secret underground organization he helped lead in the days of Ottoman rule. He’d previously been exiled by the French imperialists for his political activities until he was granted amnesty to return to Syria in 1924. His efforts in the People’s Party were assisted by members who’d supported Sharif Hussein’s revolt against the Ottomans in the First Inter-Imperialist War. The party’s core demand was clear and basic: the independence and unity of Syria within the territorial boundaries set forth by the French and British Mandate. The existence of the People’s Party provided space for women to organize for independence as well, as Mme. Shahbandar organized women’s marches, called for merchants to go on strike, and welcomed women into her home to discuss politics and draft petitions to the League of Nations. Elsewhere, in Hamah and its countryside, the military veteran Fawzi al Quwaqji helped to form Hizbollah (no, not that Hezbollah), in English, the Party of God. In the span of his life, Quwaqji’s time in Hamah marked only one of many war campaigns in which he participated or which he personally commanded in his storied military career. As a young officer in the Ottoman army, he took part in fighting the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912. During the First Inter-Imperialist War, he was stationed in Palestine all the way until the day Jerusalem was overtaken by the British Army in December of 1917. He would go on to participate in the Palestinian revolt of 1936 and return again to Palestine to lead the volunteer Arab Liberation Army against Zionist militias in 1948.
The seemingly fungible loyalties of Quwaqji should not be explained solely as a symptom of a uniquely quixotic personality. His travels reflected and embodied an important operating principle of all Arab nationalist revolts against imperialism in the period, that of Pan-Arab coordination and solidarity across the borders imposed by Britain and France. He was far from the only roving Arab nationalist soldier to grace multiple uprisings. For example, another volunteer of the Great Syrian Revolt, Munir al-Rayyis, joined Quwaqji for purposes of anti-British agitation in Palestine in 1936 and Iraq in 1941. This Pan-Arab spirit punctuated the very means by which the Great Syrian Revolt was fought. Soldiers of the Arab cause did not, and in fact could not, play by the rules instilled by national borders. Throughout the years of Syrian revolt against France and Palestinian revolt against Britain, solidarity cadres ran weapon smuggling routes from Transjordanian territory, much to the dismay of the country’s king, Sharif Hussein’s son Abdullah. But the fervor driving those smugglers was such that Hussein knew better than to try too aggressively to stop them.
As with any war waged against a power as technologically equipped as imperialism, recrimination was cruel, and the Great Syrian Revolt was drowned in blood and smashed with bombs, while its participants were executed, exiled, or punished with torture. The extent of French barbarism in Syria is not quite as well known in the West as, to use Che Guevara’s words once more, “the beastiality of the French imperialists in Algeria.” On the one hand, this ignorance is understandable if evaluated on a purely comparative basis. After all, French cruelty was so depraved in Algeria, nicknamed the Land of a Million Martyrs, that French troops resorted to collecting the skulls of slain Algerian mujahadin, grotesque trophies of an anti-human war-turned-sport that were disgustingly still displayed in French museums until only last year, when they were finally returned to Algeria. But on the other hand, the Western ignorance of French crimes in Syria is the inexcusable and unforgivable product of imperalist privilege, especially at a time when France has decided to re-invade and re-occupy Syria, as it now does in cooperation with the United States. In order to defeat the Great Syrian Revolt, a chapter of struggle which concluded in 1927, France went so far as to render entire expanses of Syria smoldering and depleted. Throughout the revolt the French forces used poison gas on local populations; committed summary executions of male villagers and demolished their homes; and, in some particularly cruel episodes, forced Syrian resisters to pile the corpses of their fallen comrades, only to execute the forced laborers after their grisly work was completed.
Perhaps the spirit and aspirations of the Great Syrian Revolt could best be summed up in Sultan al-Atrash’s famous address, quoted here only in part:
“To Arms! Syrians:
At last the day has come when we can reap the harvest of our struggle for liberty and independence. Let us arouse ourselves from our torpor and disperse the dark clouds of foreign oppression which weigh heavily on our land. For ten years we have struggled for the cause of liberty and independence. The written and spoken word no longer avails us; let us pursue the struggle with the sword.
“A right claimed with sufficient persistence must be conceded in the end. Syrians, experience has proved that rights are never given, but must be won. Let us arise then and wrest these rights from the usupers at the point of a sword. Let us seek death that we may win life.
“Syrians, remember your forefathers, your history, your heroes, your martyrs, and your national honor. Remember that the hand of God is with us and that the will of the people is the will of God. Remember that civilized nations that are united cannot be destroyed.
“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 seperated 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…”
As a final demand in the speech, Atrash, the Commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Armies, called for, “The application of the principles of the French Revolution and the Rights of Man.”
The National Bloc and the Parliamentary Path (1929-1936)
The aftermath period of the Great Syrian Revolt brought new challenges to Syria’s independence movement. In 1926, France appointed Henri Ponsot as High Commissioner of France’s “Orient-Africa” affairs, a man still dedicated to France’s ostensible mission in Syria, to safeguard the prestige of the so-called “liberalism of the French Republic” in the Levant, but determined to do so with more caution, so as not to further damage the image of France in the region, as had been accomplished during the days of the Revolt. In the name of caution, he proposed a new solution to the so-called “Syria Question”—for Syrians, in the words of scholar Peter Shambrook, “to hold elections, elect a Constituent Assembly and vote an organic law (constitution)… as required by the League of Nations.” France then granted at least partial amnesty to national liberation leaders on its “Black List,” including Dr. Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar, Shukri al-Quwwatli, and Sulan al-Atrash. On this new political terrain, many Nationalist opted to attempt to sweep the Constituent Assembly. In 1928, nationalist Hashim al-Atassi was elected president of the Assembly while Ibrahim Hananu was elected Chariman of the Assembly in order to draft a new Syrian constitution. The consitution Hananu wrote up, along with Fawzi al-Ghazzi and Fa’iz al-Khoury, advanced the case for full independence: it declared that Syria, including Lebanon, Transjordan, and Palestine was one and indivisible; that the Syrian government maintained the right to its own national army; and that the President of the Republic had the full right to conduct the state’s diplomatic affiairs. This constitution was the fruit of the revolt.
The constitutional path was forwarded amid mass demonstrations and mobilizations on Syrian streets and in public squares. At one demonstrations, which brought out roughly 6,000 participants in August of 1928, National Bloc leader Abdel Rahman al Kayyali gave a speech that struck at the core of his movement’s demands. In his words: “I proclaim that the Syrian nation—competant and responsible, has never recognized the mandate, does not recognize the mandate and never will recognize the mandate, whatever sacrifices that may entail. The Mandate, it’s slavery! The division of Syria, it’s colonization!” The parliamentary struggle for independence produced an extended push and pull until the late 1930s, when the Second World War exploded the Syrian struggle into a new stage where political struggle, a global crisis of capitalism and imperialism, and new avenues for armed resistance all combined to create radically new conditions and opportunies in the long struggle for national independence.
The Second Inter-Imperialist War, aka the Great Anti-Fascist War (1936-1945)
In 1936, a general strike in Syria, combined with uprisings in Egypt and Ethiopia, pushed the French to strike a deal with Syrian nationalist leaders. A lot more happened that year. In June, the left-ish Popular Front government came to power in France. More significantly for Syria, the French ceded northern Syrian territory, in Iskanderun, to Turkey. But despite very gradually increasing concessions, France was not interested in vacating Syria over imperial interests that now included deeply entrenched commerical investment, which included, as laid out by scholar Philip Khoury, “D-HP, the Societe du Chemin de Fer Nord de Paris, the Societe des Chemin de Fer et Travaux Publics de Paris, the Societes des Tramways et d’Electricite of Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo, the Banque du Syrie, and the IPC Group for oil exploration in the Jazira.” By 1937, the left-ish government of Edward Daladier and the so-called “Radical Socialists” was vowing to “Defend France’s menaced colonial empire, the security of French territory, [and] French communications in the Mediterranean.” This attitude, one of colonial extremism, showed vividly that forces of both the right and the left in colonial metropoles and imperial heartlands can come to serious consensus on the supposed wisdom of colonial expansion and the supposed necessity of imperialist violence. In order to strengthen the French grip on Syria, and to undermine prospects for nationalist unity, the Daladier government implemented a series of policies designed to create and promote sectarian divisions between Syrians along lines of ethnicity and religious sect, including supporting separatist movements in Latakia, Jabal Druze, and the Jazira.
As the Syrian independence movement barrelled forward in the late 1930s, it was split between hardline nationalists and those who wanted to accept French treaty terms from 1936. Relucantly embracing the treaty was Jamil Mardam Bey, the upper class leader of the Al Fatat Party, which, when it came to the issue of the treat, was poised against the Istiqlal (Independence) Party. (Shahbandar became Mardim’s most public opponent on the issue of the treaty.) The most egregious terms of the treaty embraced by Mardim were to renew Banque du Syrie privileges, permit oil exploration, guarantee a place for the French language in the Syrian education system, and allow for a permanent cadre of French officers in Syria. The dilemma of Mardam in large part traced back to issues of class. He descended from notables with strong, positive ties to the erstwhile Ottoman government. His primary interest was securing formal independence for Syria. He did not share the same concerns as the majority of Syrians from the popular classes, who were increasingly inspired by development unfolding next door in Palestine, which also happened to be emboldening Mardam’s hardline nationalist opponents: it was a revolt against British colonialism and the umbrella of protective support that it was giving to the Zionist settlement movement. It was a revolt that received overwhelming popular support across Syria from its beginning in 1936.
The rise of the revolt in Palestine put the Syrian National Bloc into a bind. On the one hand, it had to take some kind of position on the matter in order to placate rising popular pressure. On the other hand, they felt that by mobilizing resources to assist a rebellion in Palestine they might take away from their stated task of negotiating independence with the French. For the popular classes in Syria, the struggle for Palestine against British imperialism and Zionism indicated the broader horizons of their struggle. As Philip Khoury notes, after the First Inter-Imperialist War ties between elites of Palestine and Syria transformed into political bonds under the rubric of Arabism. In this sense, Pan Arabism was the predominant political form taken among Arabs for resisting the colonial division between Syria and Palestine. The gestures of solidarity between Syrians and Palestinians were bountiful and plentiful in this period. Palestinian newspapers printed calls to support the Syrian resistance to French occupation. To give just one example, the editor of ‘Alif ba, a Damascus based newspaper, Yusuf al-Issa, was a Palestinian Christian and a relative of Issa al-Issa, the editor of the nationalist newspaper Filastin. Syrians also staged mass actions in favor of the Palestinian revolt, such as demonstrating in 1925 against the visitation to Syria of Lord Arthur Balfour, who in 1917 signed off as British Prime Minister on the so-called “Balfour Declaration,” a British imperial guarantee of historic Palestine, then under British mandate, to the Zionist movement. In order to stifle Zionist settlement in Palestine, organized sections of Syrian society pressured Syrian nationalist leaders to any cash-strapped Syrians who owned land in Palestine from selling it to the Jewish National Fund at inflated prices.
Some Syrians worked to establish a Palestine Defense Committee, eventually taken over by the Syrian Istiqlal Party; some Syrians even snuck themselves into Palestine as guerrilla fighters. For these Syrians, what we have noted went for Algeria and Syria also went for Palestine and Syria: that is, if you remember: the liberation of Syria and Palestine are one! But as we see again and again in this history, the project of the popular classes was never necessarily that of the nationalist leadership, which in this event fell short of mobilizing behind a mass uprising. They instead focused on securing a state through a political path of negotiation with the French authorities—a goal consistent with their class position as a nascent national bourgeoisie. They wanted formal independence and not a “revolutionary situation” across the region. Representing yet another class pole, at odds with both the popular classes and the national bourgeoisie, were the old aristocratic guard of (with some notable and important exceptions of class treason) notables, land barons, tribal chieftans, and wealthy clerics. For instance, in 1939, when Shahbandar expressed a desire for King Abdullah of Jordan, with whom he was allied, to declare himself the “King of Syria,” France expressed the counter-desire for Syria to fall into the orbit of the Saudi royal family, the tactical rivals of Shahbanar and the Hashemites of which Abdullah was part. This desire alone explodes the French ruling and military classes’ claims that they were in Syria to modernize a country under the sway of a supposedly retrograde Islamic faith through the transformative powers of republican nationalism, which had been arguably consecrated in the modern world on the stage of the 18th century French Revolution. No, French imperialists in the 1930s apparently preferred Islam to Arab nationalism so long as Islam was represented by the reactionary Wahhabism promoted by Saudi royals. This logic, essentially a pretext for imperialist ambitions, finds historical echoes today when representatives of the United States claim to be launching wars against Muslim extremism while also propping up the Saudi regime lording over the people of Arabia.
By 1940, the Second Inter-Imperialist War arrived to Syria right as the Palestinian struggle was temporarily halted by British repression, ranging in tactics from torture to assassination, and even to concentration camps. (I use the word “temporarily” because subsequent generations of Palestinians took up the mantle of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist revolution to honor the memory of the 1930s revolt and continue its work.) This was the year when Nazi Germany established its own puppet state in France, the Vichy regime. The Nazis took over occupation duties in Syria, assigning their own chosen enforcer, General Henri Dentz, to be High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon. A year later, in 1941, Vichy France offered its Syrian airbases to Nazi Germany at a time the British-backed monarchy was facing a mass-supported coup attempt in next-door Iraq led by the Arab nationalist ‘Ali Rashid al Gaylani. The combined threat to its seat of power in Iraq—Nazi military machinations and a local nationalist uprising—compelled Britain to organize a counter-invasion of Syria employing French units called the Free French forces led by the Charles de Gaulle. As the Anglo-French forces gripped Syria, the British authorities transferred Mandate duties to de Gaulle’s forces, but not without some tension between British and Free French forces. The British felt their strategic purposes in the world war would best be served by France granting independence to Syria—a concession they evidently did not care to make to nearby territories under its own control, such as Palestine and Iraq. De Gaulle, however, was a French nationalist in the full 20th century meaning of that word, which is to say in the full imperialist sense. He was intent on seeing France become a superpower again after the war, and the key for realizing that aim was the restoration and renewal of France’s ties to its old colonies. In a word, De Gaulle had a dream and plan for the second coming French Empire; naturally, it did not include the dreams and plans of the Syrian people.
With the Allied Declaration of War on Germany, France felt encouraged to strengthen its military grip on Syria. The Vichy authorities clamped down ferociously on any organized anti-imperialist and nationalist activity, closing down the Syrian Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Arab Club, and the Bureau for National Propaganda. They even went so far as to impose martial law. When finally the Allies took control of Syria in 1941, De Gaulle pledged support for Syrian independence in words, but did not follow up with his actions. Shukri al-Quwwatli of the National Bloc thus decided to take advantage of existing inter-imperialist tactical differences between France and Britain, effectively seeking assistance from the latter against the former. Through backdoor diplomacy, the National Bloc was able to secure elections in 1943, through which Quwwatli became Syria’s first elected president. Alas, the elections did not mark the end of French military presence in Syria. The situation came to a head in 1945, when France escalated military presence and reinforced garrisons. The popular response in Syrian and Lebanese mass demonstrations led to a military response from France, which went so far as to bomb the nation’s capital in Damascus (in addition to Aleppo, Hama, and Homs) and even shell the parliamentary building in the summer months of 1945. A British intervention, in the form of a warning that further incursions would cause hot war to break out between France and Britain, ultimately forced a ceasefire. With a year’s time—specifically on April 17, 1946, valorized in Syria as “Evacuation Day”—the last French troops vacated Syria. The independence Syria had gained from the United Nations in 1944 on paper had finally come to fruition on the ground.
Before we move on, let us consider two interrelated analytical points about Syria’s experience in this period of world war. The first is about whether the term “inter-imperialist” war remains as applicable to the Second World War as to the first. While the First World War is largely remembered as caused by ruling class avarice—a war for business and profit that treated the working class conscripted into as mill grist and the world as a charnel house—the Second World War is often remembered as an anti-fascist war on account of the Allied Forces’ defeat of the mass murdering machine that was Nazi Germany. This account is certainly undeniable in light of Nazi Germany’s invasions and wars of aggression and its genocidal extermination campaigns against Jewish, Roma, Slavic, disabled, and homosexual people, as well as communists. But must we understand the war as being either one or the other. Must it be that an anti-fascist war and an inter-imperialist one are mutually exclusive, or can those two possibilities overlap? I would say they overlap if one considers the experiences of and perspectives on the war in the so-called colonies, the peripheral nations, or what was later to become alternatively known as the Third World or the Global South. On the one hand, that war was marked by heroic military opposition to the menace of fascism, mostly notably by the peoples of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, in places like Syria, the war doubled as a turf war between empires, and by proposing to assert independence from France and Britain, most Arab nationalists fought for their own dignity from invasions and wars of aggression. Here it helps to remember that the Nazi leadership viewed its attempted conquer of Russia in classic colonial terms, as a search for so-called “living space” for a favored race that required the systematic extermination of other peoples. Nazi Germany was therefore imperialist as much as it was fascist. And as the long struggle of the peoples of West Asia reveal—against France and Britain, and as we will see, the United States as well—their and much of the world’s encounter with the horrors of imperialism had not ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The second point relates to class struggle in Syria, which continues to be inextricably linked to the issue of imperialism. With its independence, Syria had for a time resolved a problem of national oppression. As a territorial unit trapped in the imperialist world system, Syria had managed through the combined strength of war and political struggle to break from the impositions of outsiders, the mandate of Europeans with guns that denied the people a voice in the future of the very society in which they lived. What remained to be resolved in 1946 were social questions. In recognizing Syrian independence in 1944, the European powers that effectively controlled the newly formed United Nations were in a way acknowledging that Syria earned a place among the sovereign nations of the world. But who or what was “Syria”? In that sense, the UN was also acknowledging the class authority of a Syrian national bourgeoisie. But did Syrians? What was to be the place of workers, peasants, and women in the new republic? This tension had bubbled to the surface many times before Syria’s formal independence was achieved. Many Syrian Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds had been flocking to the Communist Party under the leadership of Khaled Bakdash, who’d spent two years in the Soviet Union acquiring ideological training at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East where he came under the wing of an aide of Stalin. In 1943, a young radical named Akram Hourani had rallied support from the peasantry of Hama to become elected to Syrian parliament, where he called for agrarian reform to split up old estates and give land rights to the impoverished peasantry. With national independence achieved, he was one of many preparing to raise the social question, a task which was to be carried on by Communists and Ba’athists on the left and the Muslim Brotherhood on the right. A new generation in politics, and with it a new challenge to the authority of the National Bloc, was set to emerge.
Exporting Revolution: Syria and Algeria (France’s Worst Nightmare)
If achieving national independence did not resolve social questions of class power and class rule in Syria, what did it accomplish? There are many possible ways to answer that question, depending on what realm of Syrian politics and life we choose to consider. A consideration of Syria’s foreign relations reveals that the Syrian people’s struggles for national rights in the imperialist world system—that is, for its sovereignty—held world-historic significance extending beyond Syria’s borders. To understand why this would be the case, ponder for a moment one of the reasons the Soviet Union took a policy to support national liberation struggles against colonialism and imperialism in the 20th century. The party leadership of the USSR were after all Marxists and communists. If we reduced these words to their simplest definitions, we could say they at the very least denote a fundamental belief in the virtue of class struggle waged by the working class to overthrow the bourgeois class towards a new classless society in which human relationships are not mediated by capital. In theory, it is possible to limit the scope of class struggle to battles between workers and bosses in factory floors or loading docks and so on. So if Marxists and communists are chiefly concerned with the economic classes within nations, why should they in any way concern themselves with wars between some nations, in this case colonized nations, against other, colonizing nations? The answer goes back to my introductory remarks to the effect that capitalism is a world-system.
By heralding a global system of nation-states, capitalism effectively divided the world by borders even as it simultaneously connected the world in unprecedented ways through trade. This inherited contradiction of capitalism continues to ensure that no sovereign state is ever truly sovereign in the purest sense of that word. To provide just one brief example, the United States and Europe lack the tropical climate necessary for growing bananas and coffee and therefore, despite formal independence, must extract these goods from tropical countries so long as they wish to have access to bananas and coffee—or tea and sugar for that matter, or even for the lithium that powers the laptops and cell phones sold by US-based monopolies such as Apple. The list of examples could go on. In such a global system, the USSR’s class war could only have been extended to the world stage by positioning themselves within the struggles that transpire on an international level, between and across countries. The theorists of the Soviet Union met this challenge by taking a position in support of countries demanding political independence from Western imperialist states. They understood that a single victory for national liberation in one country alone could not defeat or overthrow capitalism, but they also understood that many national liberation victories combined could weaken capitalism’s position, with every nation-state capable of using the tools of national sovereignty afforded by customs borders to shut the Western imperialist bloc out of a market potentially vital to its profit circuits. In a sense, this strategy was to use the political system established by capitalism—the nation-state system—against it. The basic idea was that what happens in one country inevitably effects events elsewhere. Communists hailing from the USSR’s Marxist-Leninist tradition believed world revolution could be advanced against imperialism nation by nation, shattering the chain of world imperialism one link at a time.
If we think about it, the Western imperialists intuitively grasped this same dynamic, even if they were fighting on the other side of the Cold War fence. The French ruling class, if we recall, understood very well that what happened to them in Syria could affect their position in North Africa as well. The early leaders of independent Syria also intuitively understood this underlying dynamic. Although on paper Syria’s achievement of the rights of state- and nationhood was merely a classically bourgeois political right limited to its own UN-recognized territories, the ability for Syrian leaders to determine Syria’s foreign policy made possible something that had been impossible back when the French authorities were calling the shots: the Syrians could now marshal an entire nation-state and society’s resources to support a revolution elsewhere in the world. Now we return to the earlier mantra: “The liberation of Syria and Algeria are one!” As we noted before, this scenario was nothing short of French imperialists’ worst nightmare. Several notable French figures had noted that a major reason for France’s crusade in Syria in the first place was to extinguish the rising flame of Arab nationalism, which could have potentially energized or assisted nationalist movements in the French colonial territories of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Of course, if we believe the false premise that nations are purely self-contained units as bourgeois ideology posits, then we’d have to conclude that Syria’s revolution against French imperialism ended in 1946 with independence. But if we instead take an internationalist view, then we must conclude that Syria’s liberation from France would have been impossible unless the rest of its colonies were liberated, from Mali and Senegal, to Vietnam, and of course to Algeria. In the 1950s, the links that bound together the system of French imperialism were beginning to shake and break. A particularly major blow came in 1954 when the communist revolutionaries of the Viet Minh defeated the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. at Dien Bien Phu. Nationalist revolutionaries in Algeria took the Vietnamese victory as a sign. On November 1, the National Liberation Front, or the FLN, carried out an armed guerrilla attack on French targets in Algeria, effectively launching the Algerian Revolution, which would last until FLN victory in 1962.
By the 1950s, independent Syria had gone through a series of power transitions, starting with a CIA coup in 1949 that placed Husni al-Zaim at the head of a military government, which exiled Quwwatli to Cairo. After a series of coups changes, Quwwatli was allowed back into Syria by President Hashim al-Atassi in 1955. Later that year he was once again elected to the Syrian presidency through national elections. Quwwatli’s eventual policy in support of the Algerian Revolution would not have been the first flash of Syrian support for Algeria against French colonization. For example, Damascus all the way back in the 19th century served as the refuge city of Abdel-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, an Algerian religious and military leader who led resistance to French invasion beginning in 1830 until his imprisonment and exile. This history, along with the common experience of suffering under French imperialism, ignited a deep burning sympathy among the Syrian people for Algeria’s struggle. They pressured representatives of the Syrian state to boycott France and to place diplomatic pressure on the Arab League to take an “effective, clear, and supportive position without reservation to liberate all occupied Arab territories.” Popular advocacy turned into popular criticism after the Soummam Conference of 1956. This conference aimed to bridge the FLN’s strategy from a purely military one into a political path by formally establishing, even as the liberation war still waged on, an Algerian government bound by international law. With the FLN making such enormous strides in self-organization, many Arabs began to question whether the Arab League was actually doing everything it could to support the struggle of the Algerian people. Syrian deputies were especially vocal in voicing this criticism at the conference.
The Quwwatli government took a strong position in support of the Algerian Revolution on the diplomatic level, on the world stage. Quwwatli himself denounced all attempts by major powers, increasingly led by the late 1950s by the United States of America, to interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries. He attempted to raise the profile of the Algerian Revolution internationally. He spoke of the Algerian Revolution at the Damascus International Affair in 1957, an event where Algerians were able to meet with delegates from other governments, serving to further legitimate the government they’d formed at the Soummam Conference. That same year he assured visiting Algerian delicates of Syria’s full support, saying to them: “Syria is involved with you in the fighting. If you want a weapon, we have supplied you with weapons, and if you want money, we have what we can do… and I am speaking to the commander of the Syrian army here before you to open ammunition stores so that the Algerian mujahideen take what they want. We have the ultimate determination to die or live together, and we will have a free and decent life, God willing.” In 1958, the City of Damascus declared March 30 to be “Algeria Day” and hosted cultural festivals attended by all major figures of the Syrian state, from Quwwatli’s National Party to members of the Ba’ath Party. Initiatives for financial and military assistance then began to take shape. A body commissioned to collect donations for the FLN office in Damascus successfully raised 1,800,000 Syrian pounds in Algeria Week of 1957 alone. The Syrian government opened its border with Iraq as a transit channel to faciliate the transfer of weapons from Iraq to the Algerian arms commission. Syria also put its rapidly modernizing military to use by training FLN cadres in the mountains. Some Syrian troops even joined the FLN volunteers to share their fight on the ground in Algeria.
The story of Syria’s national liberation thus shows beautifully the interconnectedness of national liberation struggles, a flipside of the interconnectedness of imperialism. It stands as a testament to the power of anti-imperialist internationalism as a lived experience, as something more than a mere aspiration or dream, and it demonstrates as a matter of historical record how one victory beget another, and another, and then another. For just as the national liberation of Syria had an afterlife in the liberation of Algeria, the liberation of Algeria had in afterlife in the struggle to liberate Palestine from military occupation and settler colonialism. Just as the Syrian people had opened Syria to the FLN to equipment and training, the Algerian people utilized their newfound independence after 1962 to equip and train Palestinian cadres. As Karma Nabulsi and Abdel Razzaq Takriti note, “Algeria was the first country the first country to train Fateh fidaʾi fighters (starting in 1965), the first to offer official financial support for the armed struggle (in 1966), and the first to offer large scale diplomatic connections as well as practical facilitation for Palestinian political activities.” (Note: Fateh was the largest and most influential Palestinian party in the Palestine Liberation Organization, which it joined in 1969.) Quoting Nabulsi and Takriti further: “Algeria offered a platform for introducing the Palestinian struggle into other international revolutions, and made sure to support the Palestinians in regional and international gatherings. For one such occasion (the Conference of Arab Socialists, Progressives, and Nationalists held in Algiers at the end of May 1967), a significant Fateh pamphlet on the theory of armed struggle was authored under the title The Liberation of Occupied Countries.”
Although the liberation of Palestine has yet to be achieved, we can with the benefit of historical hindsight think of Fateh’s near foundational presence in Algeria as a moment poetically dovetailed to Syria’s moment of national liberation. Let’s think all the way back to the 1930s. In 1936, the revolt in Palestine helped to inspire the Syrian people to action, both for the sake solidarity with Palestinians and for the sake of their own struggle against France. Although strictly speaking the Palestinian people revolted against British imperialism and the Syrian people against French imperialism, the circular path of solidarity that unfolded from Palestine in the 1930s, to Syria in the 1940s, through Algeria in the 1950s, and back to Palestine in the 1960s, provides an example of how competing imperialisms, despite their conflicts over territories and resources, are ultimately united by a single system of world imperialism. And pitted against that force of world imperialism, the liberation movements I have invoked in this section—those in Syria, Vietnam, Algeria, and Palestine—each possessed torches that they proved able and willing to pass on.
The Rise of the Ba’athists: A Brief Description
For the sake of being able to spend some time detailing the relevance of France’s legacy in Syria to Syria’s present day war, I am going to skip over the majority of Syria’s post-independence history, most of which has transpired under the governing authority of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. The Ba’ath Party emerged as one the three major left-nationalist currents of the Arab world in the mid 20th century, alongside the Movement of Arab Nationalists and Nasserists. The nationalist consciousness of the Ba’ath Party founders, mainly Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, was formed during their student years in Paris in the 1920s. Around the same time they became influenced by the organizing methods of the French Communist Party. Together Aflaq, al-Bitar, and Arsouzi founded the “Arab Resurrection Movement” in 1939. The Arab Ba’ath Party was founded in Syria in 1947. Its merger with Akram Hourani’s party to become the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party in 1952 provides some idea of its origins in Syria’s ongoing class struggles, distinct for its willingness to raise social struggle alongside national struggle. The party’s platform made the point clear: freedom from Western colonialism; a single unified Arab state, uniting lands from North Africa to the Gulf; and socialism. The party was led by intellectuals, but found a loyal rank and file from the previously neglected peasantry, who were attracted to its land reform program that challenged the property holdings of the old landed notables.
Ba’athists came to power through a series of coups, beginning in 1963; extending through 1966, when one wing of the party overthrew another; and finally in 1970, a wing led by Hafez al-Assad took power. The party’s rule has been shaped by a multifaceted class struggle in Syria. Locally, its land programs and secularism has brought it into conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as old notables to its right, many of whom moved to Saudi Arabia to ally with reaction and imperialism; Ba’athism’s nationalist line has at times brought it into conflict with communists to its left intent on escalating class struggle. At the same time, its staunch nationalist, in particular anti-Zionist commitments, has brought it into frequent conflict with the State of Israel and the United States, both of which have taken to launching open warfare against Syria after 2011. For more on the long period of Ba’ath Party rule, feel free to consult my work on the podcast The East is a Podcast, on the episodes titled “A Century of Failed Imperialism in Syria” and “A History of Ba’athism.”
2020: The New Franco-American War in Syria
In September of 2015, French fighter jets launched bombing operations targeting locations in Syria, in the process expanding a campaign France had inaugurated in Iraq a year previous. The operation was named Chammal, apparently after a northwesterly wind that blows over Iraq. The alleged target was the Islamic State following a grisly attack on civilians carried out under the organization’s auspices in Paris. The Islamic State has certainly been a horrific scourge, to the peoples of Syria and Iraq most of all. But subsequent actions committed by the French military in Syria discredit official claims that its objectives in Syria are truly about defeating the Islamic State. The biggest military opponent of the Islamic State since its very emergence has been the national Syrian Army and its allies. But rather than allowing the Syrian Army to advance its position against the Islamic State, French policy has been to attack and weaken it. On April 17, 2017, the United States catapulted 59 tomahawk missiles from two of its Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea, directing them at Syria’s Shayrat Airbase. France’s president at the time, Francois Hollande, voiced strong support for the US attack. With a healthy dose of déjà vu, the US again carried out missile strikes on Syrian government locations one year later, almost exactly to the day, on April 14 of 2018. This time, under the directive of France’s new president Emmanuel Macron, France went beyond offering the US diplomatic support and actually participated in the strikes, contributing twelve missiles out of the total 103 collectively fired by France, the US, and the UK. The justification provided by the three powers for the missile attacks was in both cases allegations that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on civilian populations. In both cases, US president Donald Trump moved to strike Syria before independent investigations verifying the culprit of the alleged attacks had been conducted. Meanwhile, Macron has pressed a full-throated case for regime change in Syria, remarking in August of 2018 that allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power would be a “grotesque error.” With these words, it became clear that the French ruling class maintains ambitions in Syria unrelated to the fate of the Islamic State, which has anyways since lost its bases in both Syria and Iraq. Once again, almost a century after the Great Syrian Revolt, French officials have expressed a belief that Syrian sovereignty should not be honored and that they, members of the French ruling class, should instead have the right to dictate Syria’s future.
Little known is that France’s contemporary role in waging war on Syria has not been limited to airstrikes. There is more to the story, but one has to consult the French-language press to find about it, as these details have barely been reported in English-language media. As this series has noted from the beginning, to understand imperialism through the policy patterns of nation-states alone would be inadequate—when studying contemporary imperialism, we must account all times for the role of private monopolies. In the case of France and Syria, just as French-owned corporations such as the Societe du Chemin de Fer Nord de Paris and the Bank of Syria played a major role in French imperialism in Syria in the 1920s, so too has the French company Lafarge Cement played a dubious role in the current Syrian war. The company began to maintain a major cement factory in North Syria, specifically in Jalabiyya, after 2007, when Lafarge became one of the Syrian state’s major foreign investments, meeting Lafarge’s hope to break into new markets in West Asia. Shortly after the new factory opened in 2011, the European Union—pressured by both France and the UK—imposed unprecedently severe sanctions on Syria, including an oil embargo. Many European companies then vacated Syria. Lafarge chose to stay. On the surface, this decision might have appeared admirable. After all, sanctions are one tactic of imperialism among many, one used to deprive a target nation of essential goods needed for peoples’ material needs or commerce needed for financial liquidity, and Lafarge’s plant had also been constructed to offer job opportunies for locals in the Jazira region, which had historically lacked major industrialization initiatives. But internal company documents obtained by the French newspaper La Monde in 2016 revealed that Lafarge paid taxes to none other entity than the Islamic State in order to continue the corporation’s commercial operations in Syria between the years 2012 and 2013.
Le Monde also went on to report that, after the US began to take over the North of Syria in 2014 in coordination with the Kurdish nationalist YPG/YPJ forces, the Lafarge plant began to serve as a housing base for both US and French Special Forces officers. Although this military occupation has been advertised as an anti-ISIS operation, much the same as the US-French bombing campaigns, US Special Forces have frequently targeted the Syrian government while outright stealing Syria’s natural resources. The biggest confirmation that US imperialists have been interested in seizing Syria’s resources came after Trump announced a supposed withdrawal from Syria’s territory in October of 2019. What actually happened was that Turkey took over occupation duties in most of Syria’s north—thereby expanding an occupation that began earlier in 1938 when France handed Syria’s Iskanderun province over to Turkey—while the US military moved its troops over and concentrated them in Deir Ezzor, or what Trump has described as “the oil region.” In August of 2018, the US’s occupation of Syria existed on 30 percent of Syrian territory where 90 percent of Syria’s pre-war oil production took place. The United States is now the world’s leading oil producer, in addition to having favorable oil trade agreements with massive oil-exporting nations such as Saudi Arabia. The US is clearly not starved for access to oil, so why does it insist on taking Syria’s relatively meager natural oil supplies? The answer is purely political. While Syria’s oil may not be essential to the United States, its oil is in fact essential for now to Syria itself, which finds itself unable to import goods essential to war reconstruction on account of US, EU, Canadian, and Japanese sanctions. US theft of oil will deprive also deprive Syria of the ability to access much needed cash through oil exports, or even to access much needed oil itself. The sanctions and the oil theft are effectively punishments on Syria for its political relationships with entities seeking to chart a course independent from US imperialism in the region, from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Palestinian factions, proving yet again the interconnectedness of the fate of Syria to that of neighboring Palestine.
US theft of Syrian oil is clearly illegal under the Geneva Conventions, as has been noted by even a US publication as politically anodyne as The New Yorker. But the truth is that the entire Franco-American war on Syria is, at base, illegal under international law. Before the United States took to launching its bombings, it launched a covert war, starting under the Obama Administration as far back as 2011, an arming program outfitting so-called rebel forces so they could carry out armed attacks against Syrian civilians and the Syrian government, something that has been reported by newspapers sources as mainstream as The Washington Post and The New York Times. It was these armed groups that became Jabhat al-Nusra, which at one time billed itself as the Syrian front of Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. And these are not even the only unsavory militias to benefit from CIA and Pentagon covert weapons program. For instance, one group that was openly backed by the US as a “moderate rebel” alternative to other “extremist” elements pitted against the Syrian government, named Nour al-Din al-Zinki, was reported in 2016 to have beheaded a Palestinian boy on camera in an act of anti-Palestinian terror.
Between both the covert arms programs and the bombings carried out ostensibly against the very groups the US armed, today’s war against the Syrian state and society is above all a US war that France has taken to aiding. It is unlikely that French war managers adopt this subordinate position out of choice. When Lenin was theorizing world imperialism in the early 20th century, he posited that rivalry between nation-states, defined by the competition for markets and zones of influence, was a main characteristic of imperialism as a system. While much about imperialism appears to have changed since Lenin wrote about it, certain statements from Macron give the impression that inter-imperialist tensions continue to persist between the US and France just as they once boiled between France and Britain when it came to slicing up lands in West Asia. To be specific, Macron made explicitly clear that he does not intend on giving up ambitions for France to rival the US in size and influence when he announced, on the Centenniary of the First Inter-Imperialist War’s Armistice of all days, his plans to establish a “true, European army,” one presumably led by France. Macron’s argument was two-fold. First, Macron argued that Europe could no longer depend on the United States for protection, citing Trump’s withdrawal from a 1987 nuclear treaty with Russia, banning medium-range ground-launched missiles, about which Macron told French radio station Europe 1, “Who is the main victim? Europe and its security.” Second, Macron claimed that France and Europe would require protection not only from countries like China and Russia, but also from the United States, saying: “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.” France’s subordinate position to the US in this war on Syria is thus an outcome of objective changes in West Asia and the world system after 1945 through which the United States became the leading imperialist power both in the region and in the world.
The current war on Syria repeats some of the logic used by France to wage a bloody war of conquest a century ago. When French imperialists imposed its mandate on Syria following the First Inter-Imperialist War, they effectively broke their own laws that they helped to create by treating Syria as a colony. The very idea of the mandate, based on the fantastical belief that European imperialist powers could (let alone would) safeguard the sovereignty of peripheral nations, was a delusion of a particular time and place—that is, the international law of the early 20th century and the First World War. At this time, the national liberation movements had yet to make their mark on the norms of international law to the fullest possible extent. The French conquest of Syria was after all a bipartisan project between the hard Catholic right and the social democratic left. In some cases, self-described leftists were directing and executing the violence against Syrians, such as the third French high commissioner for Syria and Lebanon General Maurice Sarrail, described by Michael Provence as “a republican anticlericalist freethinker and a darling of the French Left.” The convergence between forces of right and left in France then and now, and in the US now, show how the entire political spectrum—the assumptions and premises that form the basis of what constitutes acceptable points of debate across a society—becomes shifted radically to the right in a core country built on the exploitation of other peripheral, poor countries. It is a convergence that ensures Syria’s struggle for national liberation wages on into the 21st century. As one crudely arrogant French imperialist believed, France was to hold onto the whole of Syria, forever. That attempt did not last.
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