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Armed Insurgency in the French Mandates

Between 1920 and 1922, Robert de Caix, secretary general to the first French High Commissioner General Gouraud, directed the further partition of the Syrian Mandate. De Caix designed the separation of the mandate territory into a series of religiously tinged micro-states, starting with Greater Lebanon, and including the states of Damascus and Aleppo, and the territories of Jabal Druze (Hawran), and the Alawites. De Caix imagined the great cities of Damascus and Aleppo to be hotbeds of “Sunni extremist opposition” to the French role, and prescribed direct military rule and isolation from other regions.40 French colonial functionaries devised complicated color-coded ethnographic maps to help manage the mandate territory, breaking the population into the smallest sectarian components, but significantly not admitting the possibility of more inclusive national categories such as “Syrian,” or “Arab.”41

Lebanon was expected to be compliant and supportive of the mandate due to its Maronite Christian population. The territories of Jabal Druze and of the Alawites were intended to be quasi autonomous homelands for the esoteric Muslims who formed a majority in the regions. De Caix expected the Druze and Alawi to be grateful to the mandate authorities for liberating them from what he claimed was Islamic tyranny. De Caix signed autonomy agreements with cooperative local families in both territories. In Jabal Hawran, the de Caix Agreement sponsored the ascendance of a formerly secondary faction among the leading families, and thus split the local leadership. Some families signed the agreement, and others opposed it and refused to sign. Sultan al-Atrash rejected the autonomy agreement, and maintained that the Druze were Syrians and that Syria should be a united, independent state made up of all its people. In September 1922, Sultan al-Atrash sent a petition to the League of Nations, via Shakib Arslan, in protest of the de Caix agreement. He demanded in the name of the Syrian nation the right of “self-determination,” an end to the mandate, and the preservation of Syria within its natural, pre-partition, borders.42

In Damascus, the anti-Balfour demonstrations in April and the People’s Party rally in June brought a feeling of expectation, and as the weather heated up in early summer 1925, confrontations with the mandate government increased. Newspapers in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey followed events in Damascus closely, and next to Mustafa Kemal and Sacd Zaghlul in Egypt, Dr. Shahbandar became the most famous political figure of the day. High Commissioner Sarrail responded to antimandate agitation in the southern countryside by arresting several leading Druze shaykhs under the guise of an invitation to dine and discuss grievances in mid-July. A few days later, on July 19, a group of 250 horsemen fired on and shot down a French airplane, above the Druze mountain region, 100 kilometers south of Damascus. The horsemen then forced the surrender of a French garrison and occupied several villages.

The next day, Sultan al-Atrash led Druze fighters in the occupation of Salkhad, the second town of the Jabal Hawran region, south of Suwayda, the provincial capital. The following day, insurgents destroyed a French column of two hundred men sent to retrieve the pilots and restore order on the road to Suwayda. The rebels continued to the regional capital, occupied it, and besieged the government citadel. In early August a French punitive column of 3,500 troops, including trucks and artillery, under the command of a general, had arrived at the foot of Jabal Hawran. Owing to sabotage of the rail line, scorching mid-summer heat, water shortages, and rebel-damaged roads, the French march was exceedingly difficult. The column suffered continual harassment, but when the commanding general resolved to retreat rather than continue to march on Suwayda, the rebels attacked in force and destroyed the column, leading to the battlefield suicide of the second-in-command.

French officials attempted to keep the defeat secret, but Damascenes learned of the rout immediately, as remnants of the devastated column straggled back. News spread quickly, and newspapers in all the surrounding countries announced the dramatic French reversal. The rebels captured 2,000 rifles with ammunition and supplies, a number of machine guns, and some artillery. Experienced ex-Ottoman officers and veterans were soon operating the artillery and more sophisticated modern weapons. Much of the capital and the surrounding countryside joined the revolt. The revolt began as a local protest, and conformed to patterns established under Ottoman rule during the second half of the nineteenth century, when revolts in rural frontier regions had occurred regularly. But unlike earlier uprisings, the 1925 revolt spread to include nearly all the territories under French Mandate, and drew participants from neighboring regions.43

The revolt originated with the Druze. Several close to Sultan al- Atrash had attended the Ottoman Imperial Tribal School and gone on to the military academy and wartime service. Sultan had been conscripted into the Ottoman army and been sent to the Balkans in 1910 and 1911. The Druze of Jabal Hawran had fought against centralized Ottoman rule in their region repeatedly during the previous decades, but in 1925, several of the insurgent leaders were ex-Ottoman officers and had been in close and continuous contact with Dr. Shahbandar and other nationalist politicians in Damascus. They called the revolt “The Syrian Patriotic Revolution” (al-thawra al-suriyya al-wataniyya), and supported the uprising, particularly in its dramatic first months. Once the revolt began, and news of its early successes spread, war veterans and ex-Ottoman officers flocked to southern Syria to take part. Damascus members of the People’s Party met secretly to discuss supporting and spreading the revolt.

Their goal was rejection of the settlement, and the independence and unity of greater Syria on the model of Anatolia. Mandate intelligence officers arrested the leaders of the People’s Party on the night of 27 August, after the conclusion of a secret party meeting, including Christian lawyer Faris al-Khuri, and Najib al-Rayyis, the editor of the banned nationalist newspaper, al-Muqtabas.44 The meeting roster listed mostly lawyers or ex-military officers, including several journalists and prominent mer- chants.45 Shahbandar, along with several civilian politicians and a dozen ex-Ottoman army officers, slipped the police dragnet. Some of those who escaped had already taken part in attacks on mandate troops in Hawran and outside Damascus. They scattered in the early morning hours after the arrests, and most made their way to rebel areas in Jabal Hawran. The arrests did not pass unnoticed in Damascus. 28 August was a Friday and the bazaars were closed. Protesters converged on the area outside the Umayyad Mosque after noon prayers, and were met by police gunfire.

Madam Shahbandar assumed the mantle of her fugitive husband, and held a series of meetings with the wives of exiled and jailed Damascene nationalists and with other prominent women. She organized women’s marches, and decried the lack of courage among the men of Damascus and the failure of merchants to close the markets completely.46 Madam Shahbandar held meetings at her house and drafted petitions to the League of Nations dispatched to Shakib Arslan. Twenty or thirty women routinely attended and comprised the most accomplished and publicly visible Damascene women. They included several school and orphanage directors and teachers, and at least one lawyer. The women discussed the valor of the fighters in the countryside, the readiness for patriotic martyrdom, and the work of bringing the rebellion to all of the country. They met at the Shahbandar house and the house of a jailed merchant. They also met at the Damascus- American Girls’ School.47

Sacid al-cAs resigned his job as policeman in Amman and traveled to Syria. Ramadan Shallash, who had also been working as an emissary to bedouin tribes for Emir Abdallah in Transjordan, slipped over the border to Syria. There they met at least twenty other ex-Ottoman officers who certainly hoped to replicate the example of the Anatolian insurgency. At least a few hoped to be the Mustafa Kemal of Syria.

By mid 1925, Fawzi al-Qawuqji was a cavalry captain in the French Syrian Legion. Like some of his lesser-known former army comrades, Qawuqji had managed to avoid exile and earn a livelihood within the colonial state. He had joined the legion, and had been sent to the French Military Academy Ecole Speciale Militaire at Saint-Cyr for advanced training. He was stationed in the central Syrian town of Hama. Qawuqji grew dissatisfied with his pragmatic choice of service to the mandate government, and began plotting an uprising during the summer of 1925. In early October, Qawuqji led a mutiny against the mandate and led his cavalry troop in an attack on the French garrison and government offices in Hama. Qawuqji had spent the previous weeks organizing citizens groups and surveying the French defenses. He reasoned that with the Rif Revolt in Morocco, and Syrian in revolt, French forces would be easily routed and forced to evacuate the mandate.

Qawuqji defeated the garrison and captured the town with the backing of its inhabitants. But Hama’s wealthier citizens did not support the uprising, and were vindicated when the French, lacking reinforcements, subjected the town to a sustained aerial and artillery bombardment.48 Qawuqji and his comrades withdrew from the town, after the French command threatened to resume a more intensive bombardment, and the mayor begged that they leave. French intelligence documents were self-congratulatory over the suppression.49 Qawuqji and his men rode to the dense gardens surrounding Damascus and began what would be an ultimately futile two-year campaign against the mandate.

Ten days later, Ramadan Shallash and several former Ottoman officers led the ill-fated assault on Damascus. Some Damascenes initially welcomed the insurgents and celebrated their arrival. The garrison commander had expressed his hopes that “the Damascenes would give France a chance of dealing with them as the Hama rebels had been dealt with.”50 The bombardment commenced without warning and continued for 48 hours. Unlike Hama, foreign newspapers reported the bombing of Damascus and brought unwelcome international attention to mandate policy and embarrassed the League of Nations. A major section of the old city was destroyed so thoroughly the streets were redrawn when it was rebuilt.

The week preceding the bombardment, Damascenes had witnessed a series of public hangings in the central Marja square. Bodies had been left strung up for hours after morning executions, and signboards around the necks of the corpses described their alleged crimes. Mandate forces had repeatedly failed to flush out insurgents from the dense gardens around Damascus, but a few days before the bombing, an infantry patrol had returned with a column of pack animals loaded with twenty-six dead rebels, which were laid out in the square for public viewing. A large crowd gathered and the Damascenes claimed the dead had been ordinary peasants murdered in their fields, since mandate forces had been unable to engage any actual insurgents.51

Insurgents and their ex-Ottoman officer leaders returned to the agricultural gardens and villages surrounding the capital. In the hamlets of rural Syria they preserved an advantage and continued to engage the colonial army with typical guerrilla tactics till 1927. Each night insurgents fought mandate forces in the Damascus neighborhood of Maydan and the surrounding orchards and gardens. Many villages joined the uprising. In December two thousand rebels attacked the barracks and mainline Damascus rail station at Qadam, south of Damascus. Druze Ottoman military academy graduates and ex-Ottoman officers led this attack.52 Rebel bands were organized and active in the area around Homs, Hama, the eastern and southern regions of Lebanon, north to Aleppo, and in the areas around the Turkish border.

Ramadan Shallash mobilized and led villagers from the mountain region west and north of Damascus. Bedouin horsemen and local peasants, some armed only with farm implements, accompanied them. Shallash began to call himself a commander of the National Army, which evoked dreaded French memories of the withdrawal from Cilicia three years earlier.53 Shallash would call the villagers to arms by announcing that they were all engaged in a struggle like that of Ghazi Mustafa Kemal and their village was like Ankara in 1920. Such talk was popular, including among Christians.54 Shallash, who had become literate in the Ottoman Tribal School, wrote letters to the leading rural citizens and big landlords demanding their contribution to the “national struggle.” Shallash’s appeal to villages mixed patriotism, popular religion, and class warfare against landlords. Many letters relied upon threats of violence. His letters bear striking resemblance to the calls to arms signed by Mustafa Kemal a few years earlier.

To the mukhtars and shaykhs of the village of Qutayfa,

Greetings and blessings of God.

We need you to gather your mujahidin and leave one part to guard your village from the [French] troops and bring the other part to Yabrud tomorrow for the greater glory of the religion of Islam. If you bring them late, you will be responsi ble before God and before the partisans. If you do not respond to this appeal, and assemble [the mujahidin] today, we will come and take them tomorrow.

October 1925

General Ramadan Shallash

168 League of Nations Hopes and Disappointments: 1923 1927 France Salvages its Mandate

The international outcry and crisis that followed the bombing of Damascus led to the recall of High Commissioner General Maurice Sarrail. Sarrail was the most famous leftist general in France. And so upon the electoral victory of the leftist cartel des in 1924, Sarrail had become High Commissioner early in 1925. The pro-Catholic Right had its own celebrated colonial general in Marechal Hubert Lyautey, who, after the leftist electoral victory, and the embarrassing defeats during the Rif War rebellion in Morroco, was recalled to France, and resigned as Governor General of Morocco in September 1925. Lyautey’s many admirers in rightist circles in Paris felt the new government had humiliated their hero, and when the revolt in Syria became news the same month as Lyautey’s resignation, several newspapers attacked Sarrail with enthusiasm.55

Henry de Jouvenel was appointed as new High Commissioner to suppress the revolt and salvage the mandatory mission. De Jouvenel was the first civilian High Commissioner and a prominent and well-connected liberal journalist and politician, well-respected at Geneva. His open style contrasted favorably with Sarrail, but de Jouvenel soon made clear that colonial policy was inflexible. In London he declared that France would not give up Syria.56 As de Jouvenel was embarking on his journey, the Mandates Section was daily receiving letters and petitions protesting French war crimes and calling for Syrian independence and selfdetermination. British and French officials agreed any external investigation was unwelcome, and de Jouvenel aligned his position with his British counterparts, and proposed that he constituted a commission of inquiry, in order to preempt calls for international action.57

Before his departure from Paris, de Jouvenel invited Shakib Arslan to come to Paris for a meeting. Shakib Arslan was flattered by the attention and felt himself qualified to negotiate rebel demands with de Jouvenel. The rebel leadership in Syria, most under sentence of death from French military tribunals, objected to Arslan’s presumption, and so de Jouvenel managed by his modest cultivation of Arslan to fracture the internal and external political leadership of Syria.58

De Jouvenel made a still more important visit on his journey when he called upon Mustafa Kemal. Upon his landing in Istanbul, de Jouvenel told a Turkish newspaper: “Ghazi Mustafa Kemal Pasha is the outstanding genius of the present day.”59 His visit aimed to ensure the solidity of Franco-Turkish peace agreements over the border region of northern Syria and southern Turkey, and to gain assurances that Kemal would not supply weapons or assistance to his Syrian former compatriots.

When the Syrian rebels sought help from Kemal, they learned that de Jouvenel had already visited and evidently had more to offer than they.60 De Jouvenel flattered Arslan by granting the attention he craved, and then turned to Kemal to ensure the Syrians would be unable to seek military help from their former comrades. 10,000 additional French troops arrived in Syria before de Jouvenel had completed his tour.

De Jouvenel approved the renewal of martial law before his arrival. Martial law had been in effect with few interruptions since the beginning of the mandate, and de Jouvenel’s renewal preceded a series of new counterinsurgency decrees, the most notable of which was seizure of property and the destruction of houses connected to insurgents. Leading families in Damascus accused of connection to the insurgency found their homes and lands seized. Destruction of houses was a commonplace method of punishment and often houses of suspected rebels were bombed from the air as punishment. Rural villages were required to formally submit to mandate forces, and if they did not, the village and its property would be subject to seizure and destruction under martial law decrees. Collective punishment for suspected crimes against the authorities could include a fine of money, labor, or detention levied on a village or neighborhood. Male villagers were occasionally gathered together and executed randomly.61

Martial law decrees also allowed hundreds to be condemned without formal trial in military tribunals. The “military tribunals” were no more than lists compiled by mandate intelligence officers. Once a name was known to the mandate intelligence service, the individual would be listed as wanted, and eventually tried, and condemned. During 1926, the Damascus military tribunal sentenced, condemned, and executed 355 Syrians without legal representation or civil due process. Many were publicly hanged in the central square and left hanging for hours to intimidate the population. Hundreds were tried and sentenced to death in absentia. Scores more were sentenced to varying terms, including life at hard labor.62

Since 1920, all local police forces and civil authorities had been subordinate to the jurisdiction of the French military. The military authority claimed the right to search the home of any citizen, day or night, without prior notice or arrangement, to remove and detain suspects from their homes or from local jurisdiction without charge or explanation, to suspend rights of speech and of the press and of public association at will, and to seize the property of any citizen without explanation or compensation. The High Commissioner delegated to the military commander the right to detain, and kill, if necessary, any citizen at any time without judicial or administrative oversight or review.63 French authorities actively prevented League of Nations Mandates Section efforts to learn about the functioning of martial law in Syria.

De Jouvenel’s arrival in Syria brought a flurry of well-publicized offers and decrees. De Jouvenel met a delegation of prominent Syrians not involved in rebel activity. De Jouvenel replied to the delegation’s moderate demands with studied vagueness, and the delegates returned from their meeting dissatisfied that he had agreed with nothing and disagreed with nothing.64

De Jouvenel sought to enlist Syrian elites in suppressing the revolt. But when he published his reply to their demands in the days after the meeting, he made clear his policy of no concessions before the country was fully pacified, whether by the surrender of the rebels, or by their complete defeat. He declared that restoration of peace was the condition under which amnesty and a constitution would be granted. A negotiated peace settlement between the insurgent leadership and mandate authorities was consequently impossible. Once the formalities of rhetorical conciliation were out of the way, a fully military counterinsurgency strategy prevailed, outside of international view, and after the bombardment of Damascus in October, away from the foreign residents and witnesses of the capital city.

Rebels controlled the countryside and villages surrounding Damascus. The train lines, roads, and telegraph lines to Beirut in the west and Palestine in the south were regularly severed.65 Newly arrived soldiers were garrisoned in and around Damascus, to protect the city and prevent renewed rebel infiltrations. Forces were mixed, including a small force made up mostly of European Great War veteran Foreign Legionnaires, a somewhat larger force made up of French-officered colonial troops from Senegal, Algeria, and Morocco, and a shifting number of locally raised and trained irregular troops, mostly comprised of Armenian refugees. French generals established a defensive cordon around Damascus, and implemented a new doctrine of offensive operations.

The outlying sections of the city were cut off by means of barricades, barbed wire, and roadblocks. Mandate forces established permanent posts astride all the entries into the city, and between the surrounding villages. French military spotters could quickly call artillery fire from the citadel or other artillery batteries, or air strikes from bases just to the south-west of the city. Bands of rebels remained active in the city, but getting in and out was harder. Mandate forces punished neighborhoods where insurgents had been active.66 After a neighborhood was bombed from the air and shelled from stationary artillery batteries, Foreign Legion troops in armored cars and tanks would drive along the larger streets. Memoirs of soldiers who took part noted that these punitive expeditions were not intended to actually engage rebels but to intimidate the population. General Charles Andrea ordered the summary execution of anyone found in possession of firearms.67 After the armored sweep, colonial and irregular troops would move through the neighborhood on foot and enter houses. The irregulars were mostly Armenian refugees from Anatolia, and the use of Christian refugee troops to pacify Muslim neighborhoods provoked hand-wringing among the European consulates. At least a few revenge murders of Armenian refugees and Syrian Christians took place. Syrian petitioners accused the irregulars of the worst outrages, but from the perspective of the mandate commanders, they were considered sufficiently unimportant to risk in direct contact with the population.68

Pacifying the regions around Damascus was slow, and the French command resolved to launch a spring offensive through the region south of the city. The volcanic mountain region of Jabal Hawran remained the rebel stronghold and origin point of the revolt. Despite daily bombing raids, the region could only be subdued by a massive offensive across the plain of Hawran stretching 100 kilometers south of Damascus. Everyone expected French forces would march south in the spring.

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