April 17 marks the 72nd Syrian Independence Day, which is also known as ‘Evacuation Day’ as it denotes the day when the last of the French troops left Syria in 1946. Syria, a French mandate since 1920 till independence in 1946, had been under the domain of the Ottoman administration for more than 400 years, which encompassed most of the Arab countries and protected them from European imperial powers. World War I (1914-18), however, witnessed the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which formed a part of the losing Central Powers, along with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.
The League of Nations, which was formed after the end of the World War I, ratified the mandate system which allowed the victorious allied powers to retain the former German and Ottoman territories without, in theory, contradicting their pre-war declaration that territorial annexation was not a motive of war. The partition lines in the Ottoman empire had been drawn in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France in 1916, the terms of which gave Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the southern part of Ottoman Syria (Palestine, Transjordan) to Britain, and rest of the Ottoman Syria to France. ‘Syria,’ under the Ottomans, denoted a geographical rather than a political entity, comprising of modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine.
According to the principle of the mandate, an “advanced” state was to tutor a “less-advanced” state in the complexities of democratic self-government until it was ready to rule itself. “In contrast to a colony or protectorate, the mandate was officially a provisional arrangement, although its length was unspecified,” writes scholar Ayse Tekdal Fildis. Essentially, however, the obligations of the mandate meant little in practice and France came to regard its Middle Eastern mandates as imperial possessions. It however could not claim the legitimacy of an overlord in a region that had been opposed to becoming a mandate and especially a French one.
While the Allied Powers gathered in Paris to sort out their conflicting interests, Amir Faysal Ibn Husayni, field commander of the Arab revolt, was forming an independent Arab government in Damascus (1918-1920). On October 5, 1918, Amir Faysal had claimed an “independent Arab constitutional government with authority over all Syria”. The will of the people of Syria to become a unified nation, as found by one American King-Crane commision was ignored by the European powers and Faysal was forced accept the French mandate which allowed him to rule, provided Syria was to rely entirely on French military and economic help and allow it to manage its foreign policy.
“France had the dubious, even in Western eyes, legitimization conferred by the weak and imperfectly conceived Mandate system,” writes scholar Philip Shukry Khoury in his book, ‘Syria and the French Mandate’. This was because that the Greater Syria was a Muslim majority area that had been under the Caliphate for centuries and France had historically tried to establish and strengthen her position in that area by posing as the protector of Christians. Further, French monetary policies only encouraged further instability. As Khoury puts it, “The devastation wrought by World War I, the debilitating reorientation forced on the Syrian economy by the partition of geographical Syria and the creation of distinct and separate mandatory regimes, and the continued erosion of Syrian industry by the spread of the European economy helped to create and maintain a situation of widespread unemployment and high inflation”.
Following Divide and Rule, the French deliberately patronised religious minorities and gave different ethnic and religious groups in the Levant their own lands in the hopes of fragmenting the nationalist impulses among the locals. It chose a dictatorial approach that disregarded the position and interests of even the elite locals, France however early on cut itself short of cooperation from them and remained unpopular. This further spurred the existing ideas of Arab nationalism, which had already begun taking root under the Ottoman empire, due to a number of factors such as increasing profession education, exposure to European ideas, Turkish insensitivity to local Syrian needs and the pull factor of common language and ethnicity among Arabs. However as Khoury puts it, nationalism became a dominant ideology only after the demise of the Ottoman nation of Arabs and Turks and the imposition of French rule in 1920.
When France fell under Nazi control, Syria came under the Vichy French regime. The Allied invasion by Britain and free France in June 1941 introduced direct British influence into Syria and the possibility of re-establishing a more equitable balance of power between foreign rule and local leadership, which the nationalists were pushing for. At the time of invasion, Britain was already in control of Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, and Egypt and easily dwarfed the French presence in the region. Owing to its own substantially different views towards Arab nationalism, Britain was able to put subtle pressure over the already weakened French High Commission and forced them to pull out of Syria in 1946.
Thus even 20 years of the mandate, Syria and Lebanon remained without independence, without institutions of self-government and without territorial unity. As Fidlis puts it, “A fundamental social and political reconstruction that might, in the longer term, have generated a democratic and stable society was not a part of the French plan … The mandate ultimately did little to train indigenous officials with the subsidiary charges” and failed to give Syria any real exercise in self-government. The outcome was that Syria emerged after 1945 as a unitary state with very little experience of unity and prone to instabilities.