Insurgent Syria, 1925

by Bill Weinberg and Michael Provence

World War 4 Report, NY

University of Texas, Austin, 2005
July 31 2007

The comparison is nowhere made explicitly, but the subtext for
most readers of Michael Provence’s The Great Syrian Revolt will
inevitably be the current situation in Iraq-even if it was not the
author’s intention. The irony is that Provence poses the 1925 revolt
against French Mandate rule in Syria as the watershed event in the
emergence of Arab nationalism. In Iraq, where Ba’athism is rapidly
being superceded by Islamism in the vanguard of resistance to the
occupation, we may be witnessing its death throes.

The revolt also represented a watershed in counter-insurgency and
clinical mass killing. It culminated in French aerial bombardment of
Damascus-predating by 12 years the Luftwaffe’s destruction of Guernica,
which claimed an equal number of lives but is far better remembered.

The revolt began in July 1925, when Druze farmers in the Jabal Hawran,
a rugged frontier zone some 50 miles southeast of Damascus, shot
down a French surveillance plane. Provence chronicles how the revolt
quickly evolved from a local Druze rebellion to a Syrian revolution
with a nascent Arab nationalist consciousness.

The Druze had been deported to the harsh Hawran from Lebanon by
a joint French-Ottoman force following a civil war with their
Maronite Christian neighbors in the 1860s. There they established
their dominance over Bedouin raiders and developed a "frontier
warrior ethos." Provence writes: "They sought to preserve their
independence both from the state and from provincial elites and
would-be landlords." The initial leader of the revolt, and its
eventual military commander, Sultan al-Atrash, was an heir to this long
struggle. In 1910, his father, Dhuqan al-Atrash, had been hanged by
the Ottoman authorities on charges of insurrection. Sultan al-Atrash
was then serving with the Ottoman military in the Balkans-experience
which would serve him well back home.

Al-Atrash was involved in the early resistance to the French when
they took over Syria in 1920 under the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot
agreement, ousting the recently-installed Hashemite King Faisal with
reluctant British connivance. Faisal’s loyalists put up a struggle
before the king was enticed by Britain to accept the throne of Iraq
as a consolation prize. Druze villagers took up arms for Faisal on
a pledge of regional autonomy for the Jabal, and many fought at the
battle of Maysalun, the brief war’s most significant engagement.

The 1925 revolt would prove a greater challenge. The French cast their
colonial project in anti-feudal terms, and the armed resistance that
exploded that year as sectarian, not nationalist: the work of local
chiefs whose power was threatened by the Mandate’s reforms.

Provence writes: "Sectarian conflict was a theoretical necessity
for French colonialism in Syria, since the entire colonial mission
was based on the idea of protecting one sectarian community, the
Maronite Christians, from the predations of others. Without sectarian
conflict, colonial justification evaporates." The French encouraged
such conflicts by imposing territorial divisions based on religious
and ethnic lines. The rebels were immediately labeled "bandits,"
"extremists" and "feudalists."

>From the start, Provence dismisses France’s self-serving "narrative"
of a civilizing anti-feudal mission. He informs us that Druze village
sheikhs were not absentee landlords, and in fact served to protect
village interests in dealings with Damascus merchants who purchased
their grain. But the village political orders they oversaw seem to
have been fairly authoritarian, and the Bedouin were made to pay
tribute to the sheikhs for access to pasture and water.

Paradoxically, trouble started brewing with the Druze when the
old-guard military administrators-who were of a "right-wing,
pro-Catholic political bent"-were cycled out under a new high
commissioner for Syria, Gen. Maurice Sarrail, "a republican
anticlericalist freethinker and a darling of the French Left."

Sarrail appointed as governor of the Jabal Hawran one Capt. Gabriel
Carbillet, who zealously sought to break the grip of Druze "feudalism"
in the region. Carbillet conscripted the sheikhs for forced labor
(officially in lieu of taxes) on modernizing projects such as
road-building. Protests were met with repression, villages raised
militia, and the regional capital Suwayda was besieged.

As always, the forces of "civilization" quickly resorted to
barbarism. France responded to the rebellion with aerial bombardment of
villages and "collective punishment" measures: wholesale executions,
public hangings, house demolitions, forced removal of the populace
from disloyal regions. There were rebel claims of poison gas used
against Jabal villages. Meanwhile, leaflets air-dropped on the Jabal
read: "Only France can give you wheat, running water, roads, and the
national liberty you desire."

At its inception, the revolt used the "language of Druze honor and
Druze particularism," and French counter-insurgency measures sought
to encourage this. The French used Christians-especially Armenian
and Circassian refugees from Ottoman rule-as shock troops against the
rebel Druze villages. "Irregular troops" were also conscripted from
the lumpen, who committed some of the worst atrocities-an echo of
the "Salvador Option" apparently now being employed by the Pentagon
in Iraq.

Yet the rebellion also exhibited the beginnings of a national
consciousness from the start. In defiance of the divide-and-conquer
strategy, al-Atrash wrote the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Damascus
apologizing for rebel reprisals against Christians, pledging
reparations, and calling for mutual solidarity against the French.

The real turning point came when the rebel leadership, following ties
already established through trade, made contact with the prominent
Arabs of Damascus who supported independence. The Hizb al-Shab
(People’s Party), whose leader Shahbandar had already been imprisoned
and seems to have been operating in semi-clandestinity, embraced the
Jabal revolt and called for a general revolution. At this point, the
rhetoric of Druze particularism was decisively abandoned in favor of
an Arab nationalism that was at least tentatively secular.

In an August call "To Arms!" addressed to all Syrians and distributed
in Damascus by the People’s Party, al-Atrash (now "Commander of the
Syrian Revolutionary Armies") delineated French crimes, including:
"The imperialists have stolen what is yours. They have laid hands on
the very sources of your wealth and raised barriers and divided your
indivisible homeland. They have separated the nation into religious
sects and states. They have strangled freedom of religion, thought,
conscience, speech and action. We are no longer even allowed to move
about freely in our own country."

Rebel propaganda emphasized that Druze, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Allawis
and Christians alike were "sons of the Syrian Arab nation." As the
Druze rebel army (now swelled with volunteers from Bedouin tribes)
advanced on Damascus in October, and urban militants erected street
barricades in preparation for the coordinated uprising, brigades
were organized to protect the Christian and Jewish quarters of the
city from potential mob violence. "These Moslem interventions assured
the Christian quarters against pillage. In other words it was Islam
and not the ‘Protectrice des Chretiens en Orient’ which protected
the Christians in those critical days," wrote the British consul in
Damascus (arguably not the most objective source).

On the other hand, al-Atrash apparently called for the amputation of
the hands of informers (albeit with anesthesia and under a doctor’s
supervision, a touching nod to modernity). Captured Circassian fighters
were summarily killed and mutilated. Rebel demands that prominent
Christians and Jews provide taxes and conscripts for the independence
struggle were often made under explicit threat of retaliation-which can
be read as either embrace or persecution. And in a grim harbinger of
a generations-long ethnic struggle to follow in both Syria and Iraq,
there were episodes of internecine violence between Arab and Kurdish
rebel bands.

As guerillas besieged the city and the uprising broke out, Sarrail
approved the bombardment of Damascus. Nearly 1,500 were killed as the
bombs fell for two days. Then, in a gesture of stupendous arrogance,
the French demanded a large fine be paid by leaders of the rebellion in
the city. It was eventually paid by the Mandate’s own puppet president,
Subhi Barakat, in a bid to buy peace.

In the aftermath, when the guerillas had withdrawn, the
pro-independence forces once again mobilized brigades to protect the
city’s Christians from reprisals. Interestingly, the leader of this
effort was Said al-Jazairi, grandson of Amir Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi,
the famous Sufi warrior who was exiled to Ottoman Damascus after a
failed 1856 uprising against the French in Algeria.

The post-bombardment peace was illusory. France had regained control of
the capital, but guerilla control of the countryside around Damascus
was nearly total. Paris realized a change of direction was called
for. Sarrail and Barakat were both removed, and the more popular
Taj al-Din al-Hasani, son of Damascus’ leading Islamic scholar, was
installed as president. Moves towards greater self-government were
pledged. These measures weakened the links between the urban movement
and guerillas. In the summer of 1926, a French counteroffensive drove
al-Atrash first into the mountains and then, the following year,
into Transjordan, where the British authorities expelled him and his
followers across the border to the new Saudi Kingdom.

Al-Atrash and his comrades spent the next ten years in exile and under
sentence of death. They continued to agitate for Syrian independence
from their refugee encampment at Wadi al-Sirhan oasis.

In Jerusalem, their supporters launched the newspaper Jamiat
al-Arabiyya (Arab Federation), which protested Zionist designs on
Palestine as well as the continuance of Mandate rule in the Fertile
Crescent. In an early example of anti-imperialist solidarity, one
issue protested the US intervention in Nicaragua, where Marines
dispatched by President Calvin Coolidge were also pioneering the use
of the airplane to deliver terror and death to peasant villages.

In Syria, a new party called al-Kutla al-Wataniyya (National Bloc)
displaced the pro-independence leadership of 1925, and pursued a
course of "honorable cooperation" with the French. They called for
establishment of a constituent assembly to draft a constitution,
and a timetable for self-rule. Full independence, of course, did not
come until a full 20 years after al-Atrash’s revolt had been put down.

Provence writes that the history of resistance to French rule in
Syria has been "recolonized" by the Ba’athist regimes that have held
power since 1963. As the Allawi minority holds sway in the regime,
the new version favors the Allawi revolt in Latakia, led by Salih
al-Ali, which Provence downplays as one of a "series of uncoordinated
resistance movements" that followed the transition to French rule,
lacking the significance of the later 1925 revolt in terms of emerging
national consciousness.

Given Provence’s thesis, it is an irony as well as a testament to the
continuing efficacy of imperial divide-and-rule strategies that the
Druze today have been pitted against Arab nationalists. The relatively
favored status of the Druze under Zionist rule, and their widespread
use in the security forces against their Palestinian neighbors,
dates at least to 1948. In Lebanon, the Druze political patriarch
Walid Jumblatt is one of the harshest opponents of Syria-and recently
called openly for US military intervention against Damascus. (Druze
in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights continue to wage an anti-colonial

Provence makes only the most cautious and tentative references to the
obvious contemporary analogue to the 1925 Syrian revolt. "Resistance
against occupation remains a potent theme in the Middle East," he
states rather obviously. "Few scholars today would use words like
‘bandit’ or ‘extremist’ to describe insurgents against colonial rule,
though ‘terrorist’ is perhaps one equivalent."

The US makes no blatant claims to be protecting one minority in Iraq,
as France did with the Maronites in Syria and Lebanon, but does
purport to be defending secularism against sectarian fanaticism.

Groups such as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia play into the self-serving
propaganda of Bush’s "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to a far greater degree
than the petty authoritarianism of the Druze sheikhs ever could have
with French auto-justifications for their colonial venture. If the
trajectory of the Syrian revolt was from sectarian particularism
to secular nationalism, in Iraq since 2003 it has all been in the
reverse direction.

Independent Syria would degenerate into the ugly Ba’athist regme of
Hafez Assad-due, in no small part, to ongoing US attempts to subvert
the more moderate nationalist regimes which preceded it. The world
will be lucky if Iraq now manages to avoid a far greater disaster.