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Saladin’s Companions and the Beginning of the End for Anglo-French Colonialism in the Middle East

The death and funeral of Yasin al-Hashimi overshadowed the other momentous events of fall and early winter 1937.1 But historical judgment is changeable and the sensation and symbolism of Yasin al-Hashimi’s death are forgotten today among the events of 1936 and early 1937. In the immediate period surrounding his death, the Great Palestine Revolt faltered, both Syria and Lebanon seemed to finally achieve treaties promising independence, one enshrining sectarianism and minority rule, the other eschewing it, and France, Britain, and the League of Nations confronted the consequences of the rules they had brought to the region. In 1936, the Turkish Republic declared the protection of an oppressed Turkish population compelled it to intervene in the Syrian north coastal province of Iskandarun, including Aleppo’s historic port, in an episode that came to be called the Alexandretta Crisis. At about the same time, the Peel Commission, destined to bring the first partition plan to the conflict over Palestine, began its work. The League of Nations, weakened and diminished by the various crises and contradictions at the core of its mission, endorsed the increasingly perverse outcomes of the settlement of 1920 and the mandates system.

Within days of al-Hashimi’s elaborate funeral, news emerged that France had been negotiating the fate of the north coastal region of Iskandarun with Turkey and the League of Nations. By the time of the announcement of the Franco-Syrian Treaty in September 1936, the Turkish Republic had been a fully independent country under the presidency of Mustafa Kemal for thirteen years. Syria, in contrast, was only beginning its emergence as a nominally independent state, contingent upon the French Senate’s ratification of the treaty. France had occupied the region in 1918, committing to be the “Protector of the Oriental Christians” and the champion of minorities against the claimed tyranny of Muslim rule. French colonial functionaries had envisioned the development of several friendly Christian nations among the former Ottoman realms.

Lebanon had just received a treaty as a nominally independent state constituted as the homeland of a Christian Maronite minority. The League of Nations had officially recognized and still clung to the Palestine Mandate as the “national home for the Jewish People,” an immigrant minority uncomfortably placed amongst an indigenous former Ottoman majority. Syria, by contrast, had apparently wrested the hard-won principal of Syrian unity within mandate borders and presumed majority rule from French Mandate officials. The unity of Syria included the cosmopolitan Sanjaq of Iskandarun, but the Turkish Republic protested to the League of Nations against the claimed oppression the Turkish population suffered among the Sanjaq’s diverse population.2

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