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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East

William Rappard, the League of Nations, and France

The situation is inconvenient for the League of Nations. What has happened and is happening in Syria is no longer a secret. Clouds of journalists from various parts of the world have descended on the country. The Syrians are making a determined effort to get a hearing at Geneva. No doubt they will fail, but their failure will not strengthen the authority of the League.69

In 1925, Robert de Caix had become Accredited Representative for the mandate authority to the League of Nations. In his description the uprising was the “Druze Revolt,” and did not represent any form of unified Syrian movement or aspiration. In explaining the insurgency to the Mandates Commission, de Caix claimed that Syria comprised seventeen or eighteen separate, mutually antagonistic, religious sects. Without France they could be expected to annihilate one another. In explaining the mandate policy to arm and recruit Christian irregulars, de Caix claimed that Muslims killing Christians was endemic to the country. Only France could save them. “In cases of disorder in these countries, there is no need of any special resentment to explain a massacre of Christians.” French colonialism was the solution, not the problem.70

Mandate policing and counter insurgency proceeded by the recruitment, arming, payment, and minimal training of those segments of the colonial populations considered friendly to the mandatory government. In the region of Lebanon and the mountains more generally, this meant arming Christian villagers. In the southern and northern regions it meant arming Bedouin, Ismaili, or cAlawi Muslims. Some were concerned that such policies had the potential to ignite sectarian civil war, but the mandate faced continual crises of both indigenous opposition and insufficient finances. Sectarian conflict confirmed French prejudices about Syrian society and served as rhetorical support for the colonial mission. Middle Eastern governments in Israel, Syria, and Jordan have continued to recruit local minority troops for security duty. Such policies have the added benefit of fragmenting unified movements of national opposition, and insuring a loyal core of supporters.

In September 1925, Shakib Arslan left his unhappy exile in Mersin and moved to Switzerland permanently. The Syrian Revolt gave Arslan, and the Syrian Palestinian Congress, a renewed chance to become the voice in Europe for the mandatory populations. Arslan wrote articles for the French-language and Arabic press, and collected innumerable petitions from inside the mandate states, translated them, and forwarded them to the Mandate Commission, thus circumventing British and French efforts to prevent protests from reaching Geneva.

The congress submitted a detailed report in response to the public claims of the mandate authority.

The French have done everything in their power to stir up religious antagonism and to favour one community at the expense of another. [In Ottoman times] the people were divided into two main categories Moslems and non Moslem. The new decree pronounced by the High Commissioner has divided the nation into fifteen religious communities, viz. Moslems, Chiites, Druses, Nosseris, Ismailians, Orthdoxes, Greek Catholics, Latins, Protestants, Armenian Catholics, Orthodox Armenians, Syrian Catholics, Orthodox Syrians, Maronites, and Jews. The seats on the representative council are distributed between these commu nities. If a community has less than 6,000 members, it is regarded as a minority and is not entitled to representation.

At Damascus, a distinguished barrister, formerly an Ottoman parliamentary deputy and minister at Damascus, at present President of Corporation of Barristers, professor of law and member of the scientific institute, is not entitled to stand for the sole reason that he is a Protestant. All this goes on in Syria under cover of mandate, and yet article 8 of its terms is quite explicit on this point. “No discrimination,” it says, “shall be made between different religious communities.”

This is how France, the home of liberty and the proclaimer of the rights of man, applies her noble precepts in Syria and the Lebanon.71

The lawyer mentioned but not named was jailed People’s Party leader and eventual Syrian Prime Minister and first Syrian UN delegate, Faris al-Khuri. The system of sectarian proportional representation, exactly as described, still operates today in Lebanon. Sectarian proportional representation is regularly denounced by Lebanese citizens of all religions.

By early February 1926, the revolt had dragged on for more than six months, and Syrians believed the League of Nations was their only hope. Both insurgents and ordinary Syrians were exhausted, the countryside was devastated, and everyone craved peace. As it became clear that no conciliation would be forthcoming from de Jouvenel, Syrian hopes for relief and justice shifted to the international community and the League of Nations. The Mandates Section announced an extraordinary session devoted exclusively to Syria, and the discussion of a comprehensive French report on the causes and suppression of the revolt in Rome in mid February.72 The announcement of the extraordinary session provoked a wave of petitions and intensive press coverage. William Rappard had resigned from his post as director of the Mandates Section, but had agreed to continue to serve as a member of the Mandates Commission. The Commission met over the course of more than three weeks during February and March.

Shakib Arslan and Ihsan al-Jabri traveled to Rome and sent a formal request to address the Commission as representatives of Syria. Arslan had been told to submit his request only after the Commission had sat, and this he did on the fourth day of the session. Arslan pointed out that only by hearing from the Syrian people could the Commission hope to have the full truth of events in Syria. He argued that the truth required a League commission of enquiry to Syria to judge the claims and actions of France. He knew as well as anyone, however, that sending a commission was beyond the powers granted to the PMC and the League.

If the Commission feels unable to decide upon such an enquiry, it can at least grant an interview to the duly appointed delegates of the Syrian nation, who, failing such an enquiry, are alone able to explain and rectify the inaccuracies of the statements made by the representative of the mandatory power.73

After waiting in his hotel room for the next two weeks, Arslan received a short reply two days before the end of the session. “The Commission considers that circumstances do not permit it to accede to


your request.”

Despite the terse dismissal, the discussion over Arslan’s request had consumed many hours. Ernest Roume, former colonial administrator in French West Africa and Indochina, objected to Arslan’s calling himself “a delegate of the Syrian nation.” This, he opined, was “a qualification to which he had no right.”75 Roume represented the official French position: the uprising was much smaller and more marginal than reported or claimed by the Syrians, rebels were sectarian fanatics, common criminals, and a small number of foreign-inspired political instigators who sought to profit from the circumstances. It would serve no one’s interests to give too much attention to such people. His more critical colleagues were unconvinced.

Rappard cut to the heart of the matter. Petitions and the right of representation had long preoccupied the Commission, he noted. The Commission had to somehow divide its responsibility between the mandatory power and the mandatory inhabitants. There was, however, a five-year precedent of denying such delegations. Furthermore, the Syrian Palestinian Congress delegation had submitted voluminous petitions, which had been used in questioning Robert de Caix, the Accredited Representative, and some had even been quoted in the minutes. Most importantly, there was the matter of legal procedure.

The rules determined that a petition could not be presented to the Commission before the mandatory power had seen the petition and had a chance to respond to it. If, on the other hand, the Commission received a delegation of petitioners, it would be hearing information and charges unknown to the mandatory power. The only remedy would be to have the delegation appear before the Commission together with the Accredited Representative of the mandatory power. This, however, was an impossible prospect, because “it would place the mandatory on a footing of apparent equality with the petitioners, whereas the tutor ought to maintain a real position of authority, even as regards appearances, with respect to his pupil.”76

Rappard had glimpsed the implications, and stepped back. If mandatory inhabitants could challenge their mandatory rulers on equal footing, from a position of equality, the entire mandate edifice sat on a foundation of sand. The mandates could only function in an atmosphere in which national and racial hierarchies were operable and claimed to be based on something other than a preponderance of force. The unspoken assumption existed that “advanced” European Christians had essential characteristics entitling them to rule other people without consent. The characteristics of self-rule might be transferable through education, or “tutelage,” to the subordinate nations and in this the mandate blurred the lines separating its conception from earlier models of colonialism. The mandatory power would be charged with education, fostering development, and so on. But when the functions of education, development, and eventual self-rule suddenly seemed to require endless martial law, mass public executions, and tons of explosives dropped from airplanes, the Mandate Commission’s more insightful members appreciated the problem they faced.

Shakib Arslan had compiled and submitted detailed lists of damages, including exhaustive tallies of Syrians killed and injured, and the time and place of their deaths. The congress composed sophisticated petitions, citing an array of League of Nations documents, and legal precedents, including the covenant itself. He and his colleagues collected and translated hundreds of signatures and endorsements from prominent mandate citizens from all religious communities and vocations in Syria and Lebanon.77 They forwarded letters from Syrian politicians, repeating precisely the demands of the delegation that had met de Jouvenel in November. Arslan and the Syrian Palestinian Congress provided the only copies of French Mandate martial law decrees received by the Commission. They documented decrees denying due process and dozens of cases of extra-judicial detentions, internal exile, seizure of property, and deportations. The French government had repeatedly ignored Mandate Section requests and reminders of its legal responsibility to provide such documents.

Several commission members were mystified by the lack of petitions originating in Syria.

The Commission had received a large number of telegrams and despatches from Cairo and from Syrian colonies abroad. There was one striking fact. The Commission did not receive petitions from the country itself ... How did it happen that they did not endeavour to make themselves heard? ... The Commission had received nothing at all.78

De Caix attributed this lack to lingering fear instilled by the “Turkish regime.”79 It is likely that none of the commissioners knew that the Ottoman archives contain uncounted thousands of petitions from Ottoman Syria, which had sent many deputies to the elected parliament in Istanbul. Former Ottoman parliamentarians, including Shakib Arslan himself, were among the most prolific petition writers protesting French rule in Syria.

Members of the Commission asked Robert de Caix specific questions based on things they had read in petitions or in the press. How, one asked, could he explain the policy of bombing villages for the crime of harboring rebels, when they had no means to resist the rebels when they appeared? Other villages were forced to pay a collective fine in rifles that they did not possess. These villagers were forced to purchase rifles to hand over to the mandate authorities, under threat of their village being bombed.

De Caix personally regretted the need to bomb villages forced to receive pillagers, but the facts were unclear. “In these countries things were much less certain. A village which did not refuse hospitality was in many cases a village which willingly accorded it.” De Caix noted bombing from airplanes was better than sending a column, which would certainly have meant greater losses of soldiers. But why did de Caix claim the choice was between bombing and sending a column when the villages under discussion had not been accused of attacking mandate forces? De Caix replied to this line of questioning to say that the villagers were habitual liars. Furthermore, airplanes were the accepted method of counterinsurgency, as Great Britain had shown in Iraq.80 Women and children might be killed, but more might have been killed if other methods were used, and airplanes could be heard from a distance, allowing villagers to take cover. The mandatory power considered the lives of its soldiers foremost, as any other country would under the circumstances.

Rappard noted that the mandate forces seemed to be made up of colonial troops, from territories “less advanced” than Syria, by which he meant African soldiers or troops with darker skin than Syrians typically possessed. De Caix pointed out that France could hardly be expected to recruit and send her own sons to fight colonial wars. Rappard asked how it was that the mandate could be called a guardianship of civilization if colonial troops were in charge of the educational process in other colonies? How, he asked, had “such exhibitions as the corpses on pack animals helped the guardian to develop in his ward the idea of human dignity?” Rappard claimed Syrians were known for their aversion to trouble, and yet “their exasperation must accordingly have been very great to encourage them to meet an army equipped with aeroplanes, guns, and tanks.”81

De Caix claimed that the average Syrian supported France. Indeed, ordinary people had never fought against the mandate at all. “The colonial soldiers had not been sent to Syria to spread civilization, they were [there] for the necessary work of repression, and war was not an education enterprise.” As far as the bombardment of Damascus was concerned, there were few troops available and the response was a moderate display intended to create a strong impression on the population. “If there had been a really effective bombardment, nothing would be left of the town.” De Caix considered the exhibition of corpses as personally repugnant, but it had been in response to complaints of Damascenes that the mandatory was insufficiently serious about fighting the insurgency. The display was in keeping with what the natives understood and expected and was anyway “in conformity with the procedure under the former regime.”82

The final report of the Eighth Session made clear the Commission’s displeasure and embarrassment over events in Syria. The mandatory power had ignored the covenant of the League of Nations, ignored its responsibilities to the Mandates Commission, and ignored requests for martial law codes. It had brought negative attention both to the mandatory mission and the League of Nations itself. The promised comprehensive report was not comprehensive and did not discuss the causes of the uprising, or the methods of repression employed. The government had refused to respond to appropriately submitted petitions. Since France had not provided a report on its suppression of the revolt, the Mandate Commission could not make any comment on the methods employed in its report. It seemed likely that in this omission, at least, the Mandates Commission was relieved to avoid discussion of what had been done in Syria to protect the mandate.83

The Mandate Commission did not recount the bombardment of Damascus or similar episodes in its final report. French reticence made this easier. The Commission members wanted to know how France understood its mission as League of Nations mandatory power over Syria. Robert de Caix provided a statement of philosophical intent that the Commission endorsed enthusiastically.

In the view of the Mandatory Power, the independence of the country was recognized, but the exercise of the free rights accruing to a sovereign and inde pendent nation was deferred until such time as it was able to exercise them. During this period it was in the position of a minor, and the guardian exercised powers of control as well as of advice and assistance. It was the duty of the guar dian to hasten by all means in its power the time when the minor would be able to stand alone. The present discords in Syria and Lebanon showed that this time had not arrived.

The Commission and the Accredited Representative agreed that only by surrendering and cooperating with France and the League of Nations could the Syrians make any progress toward self-government. British Commission member Lord Lugard noted finally, “the commission has done what it can and it has received every possible assistance and collaboration from M. de Caix, whose knowledge, ability, and goodwill it desires to bear testimony.”84 Meanwhile little had changed in Syria.

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