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The Colonial-Era Division Of Spoils Draws A Map Of Syria’s Uncertainty


Syrians used to tell a joke about a survey that asked "what is your opinion of eating meat?" This was during the Cold War, so people in Poland answered, "What do you mean by 'meat'?" In Ethiopia, the response was, "What do you mean by 'eating'?" But in Syria, the universal response was, "What do you mean by 'what is your opinion'?

Nothing much has changed, as Syrians confront the choice between a government they never voted for and a violent opposition dependent on foreign powers.

On the rare occasions when Syrians have been asked their opinion, their preferences were ignored. The most famous instance was in 1919, when Dr Henry Churchill King and Charles R Crane led a commission to assess what type of government the Arabs of the former Ottoman Empire desired.

The British and French, having determined the region's fate in their secret agreement of 1916, refused to participate.

So the Americans, in that innocent era before the discovery of oil in Arabia made them as avaricious as their imperial predecessors, set out on their own. From June 10 to July 21, 1919, the commission travelled from one end of Greater Syria to another, received 1,863 petitions and met 442 delegations from most ethnic and sectarian groups.

More than 80 per cent of the petitioners demanded full independence and the continued unity of Syria, which then comprised today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the areas that became Israel and Turkish Hatay (or Alexandretta).

The programmes presented to the commission by all the Muslims and about two-thirds of the Christians of Syria were nationalistic; that is to say, they called for a United Syria under a democratic constitution, making no distinctions on the basis of religion. In response to repeated questions in many places, it was steadily affirmed by the Muslims that they had no desire whatever for Muslim privilege in the government, nor for political union with the Arabs of the Hejaz (now western Saudi Arabia), whom they felt to be in another state of civilisation.

Most inhabitants favoured a constitutional monarchy under the Emir Feisal, who had led the Arab insurrection against the Ottomans. A year earlier, however, Feisal had learnt from the British General Edmund Allenby that his struggle, in which he raised a force of nearly 30,000 men from all parts of Syria, had been futile.

TE Lawrence was present at the meeting on October 3, 1918 in newly conquered Damascus and later wrote of it, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: "Allenby gave me a telegram from the Foreign Office, recognising to the Arabs the status of belligerents; and told me to translate it to the Emir: but none of us knew what it meant in English, let alone in Arabic: and Feisal, smiling through the tears which the welcome of his people had forced from him, put it aside to thank the Commander-in-Chief for the trust which had made him and his movement."

More significantly, although Lawrence did not mention it in Seven Pillars, Allenby told Feisal that France would assume the government of Syria. The Arabs had risked their lives not for freedom but for British and French domination.

All along, Britain and France, with imperial Russian acceptance, had been operating under a 1916 secret agreement to divide the Ottoman Empire into British and French zones. The treaty, negotiated by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, carved borders across a region that had not known them before and whose people did not want them. Britain's paramount concern was not what the Syrians wanted or needed but what The Times of August 21, 1919 called "the traditional rights and interests of France in Syria".

Al Azmeh, the brave former Ottoman general who had been Feisal's minister of defence, gave his life to save the country from foreign domination. It was too late. Damascus fell to France, although the "natives" rebelled continuously throughout the quarter-century of French rule.

Soon after the French conquest of Damascus, The Times admitted that Feisal had "maintained public security throughout 1919 and 1920, along the desert edge of Syria, to a degree never attained by the Turks".

Of course, this standard is comparative only, and his government was emphatically a native government, run by Syrians for Syrians – needy, informal, long-suffering. But he was a ruler of a country broken by four years of war, deprived of customs duties (that had been more than half the revenue) by the terms of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, distracted by the activities of his Turkish, French, British and even Jewish neighbours and forbidden all foreign advice or technical assistance.

On August 7, 1920, The Times reminded its readers that Feisal's army had been in effect an adjunct of the British army during the war:

"The Arab army was equipped from the stores of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Cairo, and it was accompanied in the field by a small staff of British specialists in irregular war, who acted as advisers and as liaison between Feisal and Allenby."

As a British tool, Feisal's Arab army had to accept British occupation of Transjordan and Palestine, and French dominion in Syria and Lebanon.

In 2012, a new armed force, calling itself the Free Syrian Army, is rising in Syria. It has taken temporary hold of many Syrian towns and parts of its main cities. Like Feisal's volunteers, its members are a mixture of idealists and opportunists.

There are other similarities: they receive weapons, training and commands from outsiders; they have no idea what demands the foreign powers – among them the old imperialists Britain and France, as well as the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – will make of them if they should seize power in Damascus; and they do not know where their insurrection will lead the country.

When the rebellion's foreign patrons discuss Syria's fate, their own interests will inevitably prevail – as Britain's and France's did in 1920 – over the desires of a "native government". 

Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books. 

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