Damage Control at Geneva, 1926
In November 1926, the mandates commission finally received the promised comprehensive report. Robert de Caix appeared at Geneva, and spent three days discussing the report and answering questions. De Caix claimed that both peasants and large rural landowners had turned against the insurgency. He reported that peasants were now eagerly notifying mandate authorities of the presence of insurgents in their areas, a goal the army had been working toward all along. But Rappard noted that the written report documented mandate forces forcing villages to pay hundreds of gold pounds for the crime of failing to report rebels passing through their areas. He alone seemed to find the collective punishments levied on Syrians troubling. De Caix claimed the fines were calculated based on what villagers would understand and expect, and should not be judged by other standards.86
De Caix and the majority of the commission had synchronized their collective interests and the confrontational character of February’s session did not return. The only hostile exchange concerned the tarnished reputation of the Mandates Commission. Months earlier, in a general assembly meeting of the League Council, High Commissioner de Jouvenel had publicly blamed the Mandates Commission for prolonging the revolt. Rappard and others complained vigorously about his statement and demanded an explanation.
De Caix explained patiently that extremist Syrians had somehow felt that the Commission would take their side against France. De Jouvenel was frustrated by the Commission’s excessive receptivity to petitions produced by extremists. Taking such petitions seriously encouraged those who felt they could separate the League from the mandate power. De Caix explained gently that
Among a population like that of Syria, whose active imagination was not restrained by a sufficient knowledge of the elements of politics, it had been possible to main tain at certain moments that the mandates commission, or more exactly the League of Nations, would intervene in a sense hostile to the French mandate. It was clear that the Commission was not responsible for such a state of affairs.
After some discussion, the commissioners decided that de Jouvenel’s remark had been a simple misunderstanding. In any case, Portuguese diplomat Freire d’Andrade pointed out, the Syrians had no idea how seriously the Commission took petitions since they could not read the report. The mandatory power had banned its distribution in Syria.87
The mandatory government had finally given a written accounting of a sample of the petitions submitted to it. The petitions alleged arbitrary destruction of property, widespread pillage, numerous acts of extrajudicial execution and murder, and torture of prisoners among other similar acts, all committed with the knowledge and implied approval of high-ranking French officers. Many of the petitioners claimed that the worst atrocities had been committed in revenge for the deaths of soldiers in the immediate neighborhood.88
De Caix deftly parried discussion of the petitions, though the Commission had lost its taste for tough questions. He repeatedly disputed the facts of petitions, noting that there was no proof that the events as described had happened, while acknowledging that unpleasant and regrettable things had surely occurred in individual circumstances. When petitions cited specific facts, de Caix explained that the individuals in question were involved in the insurgency and had brought events upon themselves. No one had been murdered, and no one had been punished without cause. Prisoners had not been tortured, but in fact had been treated very well. The unfortunate fact was that regrettable episodes were unavoidable under the circumstances of widespread disorder. And those charged with the restoration of order were certainly not responsible for the consequences of insurrection.89
Commission member Freire d’Andrade read an excerpt from a representative petition into the minutes of the session. The petitioner wrote, “No one in Syria has any doubt that the crimes mentioned have been committed with the approval and consent of the French authorities. The pillagers carried out their depredations under the protection of tanks and under the orders of French officers.” A Colonel Raynal had written the report and vigorously disputed the charges made by petitioners.
Freire d’Andrade emphatically stated that the “Commission should believe the word of such a man as Colonel Raynal, whose courage and character were beyond doubt, and who was incapable of not stating the whole truth.”90 In response to multiple charges of murder, pillage, rape, and official corruption, the commission had this to say: “The French nation had accumulated sufficient glory and prestige in the history of civilization to make it impossible for anybody to think that in her policy she had had recourse in any respect to methods such as murder, burning, pillage and rape to satisfy the pleasure or mere caprice of her officials.”91 Freire d’Andrade did not exactly deny that such things could have happened, only that any official could be directly responsible.
Mandate martial law decrees had never appeared. The commission had repeatedly noted the absence of operative statutes and martial law decrees in French submissions. Texts of decrees and laws had been promised often to the commission, but when a list finally appeared, mid way through 1926, it only covered to the end of 1924, completely ignoring the period of the revolt. The suppression of the revolt had been carried out in conformance with decrees that formally legalized summary executions, public hangings, preemptive destruction of villages, and military courts. Such laws, all with a colonial pedigree, are still operative in all post-colonial Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. De Caix offered yet another excuse for the requested materials never arriving. The members of the Commission apparently nodded and murmured their approval.92
The rebellion was over and Syria had disappeared from the pages of European newspapers. The Commission could file its last report without public scrutiny. Damascus had been repeatedly shelled, several outlying neighborhoods had been flattened and rendered uninhabitable, and a massive offensive had moved through the southern countryside, driving the remaining insurgents and their families into Transjordan, and eventually into the new Sultanate of cAbd al-Aziz al-Sacud. According to the standards of the mandate and the League of Nations, civilization had triumphed over barbarism.
The commission, after carefully examining the reports submitted by the man datory power, considers that there is no reason to affirm that the suppression of the revolt was carried out in abnormal manner or was accompanied by reprehensible excesses. If there have been acts of harshness, if there have been distressing incidents, if there have been innocent victims, these events are unfortunately such as usually occur in the course of all forcible measures of this kind. The commission can only hope that such measures will never be necessary again and that a lasting state of peace will be established without delay.93