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French Colonial Dreams Linger as Raison d’être in Syria

BREAKING: Baguettes Not Bombs: Hollande may be forced to take ‘French leave’ with Syria

Andrew McKillop
21st Century Wire


The simple question with a lot of answers is why did France boycott the 2003 Iraq war of the US and Britain, but remained heavily committed to a “punitive attack” with the US on Syria, following the shock of Cameron’s defeat for his war plan in the British parliament?

Under pressure to conform to Obama and Cameron’s democratic route to authoriszation of military forces, French leader Francois Hollande has since backed down from his previously hawkish stance, saying he will wait for a parliamentary vote before committing France to an attack on Syria. So why the imperial overtures from France to begin with?

History can provide us with a few answers. Syria was a French colony. Why have the British decided to take French leave from Obama’s punishment mission? Syria was not a British colony, but was the meat and bones of imperial dogfights between the British and French, during the interwar Mandate years.

French political leaders, including President Hollande and major figures in his Parti Socialiste, August 30, despite massive public opinion opposition have multiplied their dogged and trenchant support for this “limited military action not designed to topple al Assad”, without the Brits and whether or not (we mean not) the attacks gets UN Security Council approval.

French media including political talk shows on prime time are providing the infill, harking back to France’s civilizing mission and “unfinished business” in the Middle East – a reference especially focused on France’s League of Nations mandate in Syria. This mandate was treated by France as proving it had a Great Power civilizing mission, unlike the goals of French colonialism in North Africa where economic gain was uppermost.

As French economic historians, notably Jacques Marseille in his book “Empire Colonial et Capitalisme Francais” have however shown in great detail, both regions and their different colonial “adventures” were an economic disaster for France.

IMAGE: Current balkanization trends could mirror the French mandate days of Syria and Lebanon.


Outside these future potential separate nation states in the French mandate’s divide-and-rule plan for Syria, the rest of the country was divided into five semi-autonomous areas. These were the Jebel Druze, Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus and Turkish-speaking Alexandretta, now in Turkey and called Iskenderun. As the French wanted, this accentuated religious differences and added regional rivalries, diluting nationalist pan-Arab sentiment which French had already identified as their worst threat.

The semi-autonomous regions lived up to their designation, becoming a constant focus of Arab nationalist criticism, but with the unexpected result for the French of nationalists moving to and becoming concentrated in Damascus. Furthering the French divide-and-rule strategy, in southern Syrian Palestine, not controlled by the British, European Jews were promised a Jewish homeland long before their counterparts in British Palestine. Supposedly to reduce the “centripetal” tendencies in France’s Greater Syria, which had no cohesion due to deliberate division, the French imposed rigorous and repressive “cultural unity”. The franc was the base of the economy, and the currency was entirely controlled by French bankers. All larger enterprises needed French-majority capital and management, the French language was compulsory in schools, legal contracts and the legal system. Syrian schoolchildren were required to sing the “Marseillaise” every day. Their school curriculum was almost exclusively concerned with “metropolitan” France and the history of Alsace and Lorraine. French weather forecasts came before local Syrian forecasts on Syria’s French-controlled radio. Nearly every possible feature of Syrian life came under French control, including eating habits and dress styles.

Without much surprise except to the French, the Syrians became embittered and disillusioned, and their political leaders had few problems keeping them in ferment. All the main population groups – Alawi, Sunni, Druze, Christians, Assyrians, Kurds, bedouins – periodically revolted, but they rarely demanded a unified and independent Syria nation-state. These were in fact exactly the same type of revolts that had been faced by the Ottomans during their 300-year rule of the region. These were uprisings against foreign interference – not for national unity.

The focus of Arab nationalism was in Damascus. It was led by educated, wealthy Muslims who had previously been royalist, supporting King Faysal. In major part due to the French, they became anti-royalist and reproduced the almost identical movement by wealthier and more educated Muslims in Iraq. They also were aggrieved by censored newspapers, pro-British bias, the lack of civil rights and stilted political activity, leading to the British allowing an elected assembly in March 1924 – which the French refused to Syrians. French repression was intensified by the suppression of newspapers, political activity and civil rights and the refusal to frame a constitution for Syria providing for eventual sovereignty – that the League of Nations mandate had ordered. The sole French concession was the 1925 placating move to allow nationalists to form the Syrian People’s Party.

Led by Faris al Khuri, this of course started by demanding French recognition of Syria’s right to independence in a united nation state.


At the time Greater Syria was divided into 6 parts or semi-autonomous entities. In 1925, the Aleppo and Damascus provinces were joined together, and in 1926 Lebanon was hived off as an independent republic under French control. The League of Nations ending its session in Rome of March 1926 stated in a masterwork of jargon: “The Commission thinks it beyond doubt that these oscillations in matters so calculated to encourage the controversies inspired by the rivalries of races, clans and religions, which are so keen in this country, to arouse all kinds of ambitions and to jeopardize serious moral and material interests, have maintained a condition of instability and unrest in the mandated territory.”

This meant that even the League of Nations could see the time bomb ticking.

The Druze revolt of 1925-26 was the first major attack on French power – based solely on the Druze demand for an end to French interference in Druze affairs. The Ottomans never successfully subdued these mountain fighter people. Although fighting among themselves on a regular basis they could unite whenever they were subjected to foreign rule. The Druze rebellion spread throughout Syria and ignited revolts in Aleppo and Damascus among Syrian Arab nationalists. United on a short-term basis, Druze and Arab nationalist forces were able to invade and occupy Damascus. The French began systematic air and ground-based shelling and bombing of the city, resulting in the death of about 5 000 Syrians. Corrected for today’s population numbers, this would represent about 25 000 dead today.

When the French had re-imposed their power, by 1927, they made a number of concessions to Syrian political movements. In 1928 the French allowed the formation of the Syrian National Bloc (Al Kutlah al Wataniyah), composed of various nationalist and Islamist groups centered in Damascus. While Al Kutlah included leading members of large landowning families it also included the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, a descendant of the Al Fatat secret society of Shukri al Kwatli. Istiqlal was to some extent influenced by Muslim Brotherhood concept and policies, as well as Marxism and Arab nationalism but in no way promoted “Islamic terror or radicalism”.

Elections of 1928 for an assembly put the National Bloc in power, and the Bloc set out to write a constitution. It provided for the reunification of Syria and ignored the authority of the French. In 1930 the French adopted and imposed this constitution – minus the articles that bypassed French authority and would have given Syria unified self-government.

Again influenced by Iraqi nationalists, Syrian nationalists continued to assert that they at least should have a treaty with the mandate power – setting out French aims – similar to a British-Iraqi treaty first signed in 1922. In the Syrian case, it was only in 1936 following a general strike that France’s liberal-socialist government of Leon Blum came up with the Syrian-French Treaty of Alliance. The French parliament never ratified this treaty but its provisions were partly applied.

During 1937 Al Kutlah scored further victories. France allowed the return of Jebel Druze and Latakia to the Syrian state and handed over selected local government functions to the Syrian government. After more than 16 years of French presence, the French administration started major construction and infrastructure works, including urban development in Damascus and Aleppo and roads and schools throughout much of the country. At the same time, French “cultural colonialism” was intensified, for example in the school system, the arts, the press and social activities.

Unfortunately for the French but a spinoff from the Great War of 1914-18, Syria was a refuge for persecuted groups from neighboring countries. Most of its Kurdish population, now estimated at 3 million arrived between 1924 and 1938, fleeing Kemalist repression in Turkey. Major immigration by Armenians occurred between 1925 and 1945 also due to Turkish persecution. Assyrians, under attack in Iraq and not protected by the British in the 1930s, settled in eastern Syria. One immediate result was even less prospect of national unity, made surer by Turkish claims to the Alexandretta region, the Arab revolt in Palestine, the long economic crisis of the 1930s and repeated devaluations of the French franc. Inside the Al Kutlah National Bloc, dissension and rivalry mounted, and certain rival movements, such as the Jebel Druze separatist movement were given French support, to weaken the nationalists.


The Alexandretta conflict was an example of French Great Power dithering and refusal to search for compromise solutions, always resulting in conflict and more extreme final results. The Sanjak of Alexandretta, a semi-autonomous province of Syria had a large Turkish minority and received a special administrative status under the 1921 Franco-Turkish Agreement, but when the case was submitted to the League of Nations in 1937, it decided Alexandretta should be a separate, self-governing state. On the eve of World War II in July 1939, France claimed it was forced, by a heavily rigged referendum where massive numbers of votes were by cross-border Turks allowed in for the vote by French authorities, to completely cede Alexandretta to Turkey. This sparked civil disturbances in Syria against France, and sharp criticism by the Al Kutlah government saying that France had not defended the national interest. Syrian President Atassi resigned and the institution of parliament were abolished. France imposed direct rule through a Council of Director and the previously agreed, but never ratified Syrian-French treaty was set aside “sine die”.

In 1940, when France itself was split between the Nazi occupied north and collaborationist Vichy south, Syria came under the control of Vichy France until the British and Free French occupied the country in the short Syria-Lebanon campaign of July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence in 1941, but it was not until 1 January 1944 that it was internationally recognised as an independent republic.

The very slow pace of French withdrawal led to civil disturbances in 1945, and France only withdrew the last of its troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government still heavily influenced by the Al Kutlah Bloc. Less than two years later, in 1948, Syria was involved in the first Arab-Israel War, aligning with other local Arab states opposed to the establishment of the state of Israel. The Syrian army entered northern Palestine but, after bitter fighting, was driven back to the Golan Heights by the Israelis. An armistice was agreed in July 1949. A “supposed demilitarized” zone under UN supervision was established; but the status of the Golan territories has been a flash point for all future Syrian-Israeli relations and negotiations. Apart from a predictable exodus of Syrian Jews facing discrimination, the political outcomes of this war certainly favoured the March 1949 Syrian coup d’état led by Colonel Husni al-Za’im, described as the first military overthrow in the modern Arab World, and a template for Colonel Nasser, Colonel Gaddafi, and the 1968 colonels coup in Iraq.

The later father-and-son al Assad regimes at no time resolved the sequels of French Great Power tinkering, called nation building but in fact based on divide-and-rule, because they aimed for wielding maximum possible territorial power. They therefore repressed all forms of regional, sectarian and political opposition, in a state that under French rule had often been administered as an assembly of 6 different sub-nation states.

For the French, today, to pretend they have ‘unfinished business’ building and civilizing the nation (or nations) in Syria, is as extreme or laughable as imagining that “I have a drone” Barack Obama merits his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.




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