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The Franco-Syrian Treaty and Syrian “Independence”

While the Palestine strike became an armed revolt, the Syrian treaty delegation waited through spring 1936 in Paris. Yasin al-Hashimi’s government continued to pay their bills, and in June the new left-wing French government took office and negotiations resumed and continued over the summer. By early September, they had reached an agreement and initialed the Franco-Syrian Treaty. Leon Blum’s leftist government had accepted the National Bloc, and appeared to have succeeded after a decade and a half of failed negotiations. Regional instability and a threatening climate in Europe had dictated imperial retrenchment for Britain and for France. It was a moment to compromise with the nationalist critics of colonial empire.

“The Treaty of Friendship and Alliance between Syria and France” was modeled on the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, but with clauses concerning Syrian sectarian minorities.47 A similar treaty for Lebanon followed in November, but demonstrators in Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli called for rejection of the treaty and demanded union with Syria. Like Britain in Iraq, France retained a security presence at two airbases in Syria and the sea ports. The large Ottoman-era rail junction and airbase at Rayaq in Lebanon’s Biqac valley would allow France to militarily dominate both Lebanon and Syria, and would come to be the stronghold of Vichy French forces during the battles of 1941. The treaties were supposed to be ratified by the Syrian parliament, the French senate, and the League of Nations, and govern the relations between the newly independent republics and the former mandatory for twenty-five years. In the event, only the Syrian parliament fulfilled its role, and both the French Senate and the League of Nations failed to ratify the treaty. Anxiety over the prospects for European war and the strength of the European Right hobbled both bodies.

The question of Syrian unity remained contentious. Arab nationalists in both mandates objected to the separation of Greater Lebanon from Syria, but consoled themselves that once France was gone, the borders could be erased and Damascus might resume its place as regional capital. Unlike Lebanon, the separate autonomous regions for the Druze and Alawite minorities were to be absorbed into the Syrian Republic with clauses insuring minority rights. The Hawran Druze leaders mostly accepted the treaty. Their region had played a leading role during the 1925 revolt and had been thoroughly drawn into the world of nationalist politics in Damascus. The more remote and inward Alawite region, between Homs, the coast, and the Turkish border, was less accepting. The Permanent Mandates Commission received at least four petitions arguing strenuously against incorporation of the Alawites, Christians, and Ismailis into a state presumed to be dominated by urban Muslims.

The League of Nations Mandate Commission and the French Mandate claimed from the outset to be tutoring new nations and protecting the rights of minorities. At Geneva, William Rappard struggled to reconcile the new French policy of conceding Syrian unity with the previous French policy of social and geographical fragmentation in the name of the rights and privileges of Christians and other non-Muslims. In the Mandate Commission meeting he again confronted Robert De Caix, the original architect and ideologue of France’s minority mandate strategy. “Could it be believed that minority rights had the slightest chance of being safeguarded when, in place of the mandate, there stood a Treaty concluded between two countries on equal footing which was the only possible footing under international law? A choice must be made between two irreconcilable ideas the emancipation of Syria and Lebanon, [or] the protection of their minorities.”48 Rappard’s protest, like every other Mandate Commission proclamation, meant little in practice. The League was powerless to confront Great Power priorities, and in the face of a looming European war, France’s priorities had changed.

The National Bloc delegation returned to Damascus on September 29. In the brief period of early October 1936, the long-awaited dawn of independence seemed in view. Syrian politicians of the National Bloc marched triumphantly in Damascus and the cities of the mandate and nationalist youth fell in step behind them. News of Qawuqji’s adventures in Palestine was still encouraging, and Yasin al-Hashimi in Baghdad seemed to be leading an ever-stronger Arab nation asserting its independence on the world stage. Radical youth marched side by side with the aged members of the last Ottoman generation, both anticipating a future of self-determination and dignity.

Young nationalists of the cUsbat al-cAmal al-Qawmi, or the League of National Action, had emerged to prominence in Damascus. They had pushed those of their parents’ generation toward confrontation with the mandate authorities, and been rewarded by the promise of independence. The older civilian nationalists of the Syrian National Bloc had been targets of youthful disdain in past years, and the younger Syrians admired military figures like Yasin al-Hashimi, Fawzi al-Quwuqji, and exiled politicians like cAbd al-Rahman Shahbandar and Shakib Arslan.

Syrian politicians who had managed to avoid exile or jail appeared less heroic and more compromised, and young activists criticized their cooperation with the mandate authorities.

A young lawyer named Munir al-cAjlani had emerged as a leading figure of the League of National Action. cAjlani joined the National Bloc, and during the period of the Syrian General Strike in the early months of 1936 he started a paramilitary youth movement called the Steel Shirts, or al-qumsan al-hadidiyya.49 Yasin al-Hashimi had led the way in organizing a paramilitary nationalist youth movement after coming to power the year before, and al-cAjlani followed the Iraqi model closely. The Steel Shirts recruited educated Syrian youth, received athletic and military training, wore splendid uniforms including the distinctive Iraqi army sidara hat, and marched and paraded throughout the cities and towns. Ex-Ottoman officers trained the young men and emphasized the ethos of the Ottoman Unionists: discipline, patriotism, and sacrifice.50

 
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