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Syrian French Mandate – HBC CHANNEL
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Syrian French Mandate


11. French Syria (1919-1946)

  1. French Syria (1919-1946)


Crisis Phase (July 2, 1919-July 17, 1925):  Syrian nationalists, meeting in Damascus on July 2, 1919, called for the independence of the Syrian territory from France.  French troops took control of the Syrian territory on September 15, 1919, and General Henri Gouraud was named French High Commissioner for on October 9, 1919. Syrian nationalists rebelled against the French government beginning in December 1919.  Syrian nationalists declared Syria’s independence on March 8, 1920, and proclaimed Faisal Hussein as King of Syria on March 11, 1920.  During the San Remo Conference held in San Remo, Italy on April 19-26, 1920, the Supreme Council of Allied Powers (SCAP) assigned a mandate over the Syrian territory to the French government.  On July 14, 1920, General Henri Gouraud issued a surrender ultimatum to King Faisal Hussein, who shortly surrendered to French authorities.  French troops took control of the city of Aleppo on July 23, 1920.  French troops commanded by General Mariano Goybet clashed with Syrian rebels commanded by Yusuf al-‘Azma near the town of Maysalun on July 23-24, 1920, resulting in the deaths of some 400 Syrian rebels and 42 French soldiers.  French troops took control of the city of Damascus on July 25, 1920.  King Faisal Hussein formally relinquished the throne of Syria on July 25, 1920.  France established the states of Damascus and Aleppo, along with the autonomous Alawite territory, within the French Mandate of Syria on December 1, 1920.  France established the autonomous Druze territory in the southern part of the state of Damascus on May 1, 1921.  French troops suppressed a rebellion in the Alawite state led by Shaykh Saleh al-Ali on June 15, 1921.  On March 4, 1922, the French government transformed the autonomous Druze territory into the Souaida state (Jabal Druze state).  Government police suppressed Syrian nationalist demonstrations in Damascus on April 8-12, 1922, resulting in the deaths of three individuals.  France established the Syrian Federation on July 1, 1922, comprising the Damascus state, Aleppo state, and autonomous Alawite territory.  Subhi Bay Barakat al-Khalidi was elected president of the Syrian Federation.  The League of Nations (LoN) Council formally approved the French Mandate of Syria on July 24, 1922.  General Maxime Weygand was named French High Commissioner for Syria on April 19, 1923.  The League of Nations Mandate of Syria and Lebanon under French Administration formally entered into force on September 23, 1923.  General Maurice Sarrail was named French High Commissioner for Syria on November 29, 1924.  The French government dissolved the Syrian Federation, and combined the states of Damascus and Aleppo to form theState of Syrian on January 1, 1925.  The People’s Party (Hizb al-sha’b), a Syrian nationalist group headed by Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar and Faris al-Khuri, was formally established on June 5, 1925.  On July 11, 1925, government police arrested three Druze sheikhs in Damascas and imprisoned the sheikhs in Palmyra in central Syria.

Conflict Phase (July 18, 1925-June 1, 1927):  Druze tribesmen led by Sultan Pasha el-Attrash rebelled against the French government in the Souaida state beginning on July 18, 1925, and Druze rebels took control of the town of Salkhad on July 20, 1925. Druze rebels ambushed some 160 French-led troops commanded by Captain Gabriel Normand near Al-Kafr (Kafer) on July 21, 1925, resulting in the deaths of some 115 French soldiers.  Some 500 Druze rebels and Bedouin tribesmen commanded by Sultan al-Atrash attacked French government troops near the town of Al-Mazra’a on August 2-3, 1925, resulting in the deaths of some 600 French soldiers.  Some 600 French troops commanded by Major Kratzert occupied the village of Al-Musayfirah (Mousseifré) on September 15, 1925.  Druze rebels attacked French troops in the village of Al-Musayfirah (Mousseifré) on September 16-17, 1925, resulting in the deaths of 47 French soldiers and more than 300 Druze rebels.  French troops withdrew from the city of Al-Suwayda (Soueida), the capital of the Jabal al-Druze state, on September 24, 1925.  French government troops suppressed a rebellion led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji in Hama in the state of Damascus on October 4-5, 1925, resulting in the deaths of 344 civilians and 76 Syrian rebels.  Druze rebels commanded by Hassan al-Kharrat and Nasib al-Bakri attacked French troops and took control of the Damascus on October 18, 1925.  French military force bombarded Damascus on October 18-20, 1925, resulting in the deaths of 1,416 civilians and 137 French soldiers.  Some 15,000 individuals were displaced as a result of the bombardment of Damascus.  The French government declared martial law in Damascus on October 20, 1925.  Druze rebels captured Hasbaya on November 9, 1925, but French troops recaptured the city on December 5, 1925.  President Subhi Bay Barakat al-Khalidi resigned on December 21, 1925.  Henry de Jouvenel was appointed as French High Commissioner for Syria on December 23, 1925.  French government troops re-captured Al-Suwayda (Soueida) on April 25, 1926.  Ahmad Nami was elected as president of the State of Syria on April 28, 1926.  French troops clashed with Druze rebels in the Maydan (Midan) quarter of Damascus on May 6, 1926, resulting in the deaths of several French soldiers.  French military forces bombarded the Maydan (Midan) quarter of Damascus on May 7-9, 1926, resulting in the deaths of some 500 civilians and 100 Druze rebels.  French troops launched a military offensive against Druze rebels in the Ghuta region on July 18-26, 1926, resulting in the deaths of some 1,500 individuals.  Auguste Henri Ponsot was appointed as French High Commissioner for Syria in August 1926.  French troops suppressed the Druze rebellion on June 1, 1927. Several thousand individuals, including some 2,000 French soldiers and 6,000 Syrian rebels, were killed during the conflict.  Some 100,000 individuals were displaced during the conflict.

Post-Conflict Phase (June 2, 1927-April 17, 1946):  The French government renamed the Souaida state as the Jabal Druze state on June 2, 1927.  The National Bloc (al-Kutla al-Waṭaniyya), an alliance of nationalist groups led by Ibrahim Hannanu and Hashim Atassi, was established in 1928.  High Commissioner Auguste Henri Ponsot appointed Taj al-Din al-Hasani as head of state (head of government) of Syria on February 15, 1928.  Elections for a 70-member constituent assembly were held on April 10 and April 24, 1928.  The Constituent Assembly convened on June 9, 1928, and presented a draft constitution to the Syrian assembly on August 7, 1928.  Several parts of the draft constitution were unacceptable to the French government.  André François-Poncet, the French High Commissioner, dissolved the Constituent Assembly on May 14, 1930.  The French high commissioner promulgated a constitution for the Syrian State on May 22, 1930, which provided for an elected parliament and president.  Legislative elections were held on December 20, 1931 and January 4, 1932, and the National Bloc won 17 out of 69 seats in the Syrian Chamber of Deputies.  The Syrian Chamber of Deputies elected Mohammed Ali al-Abid as president on June 11, 1932.  The Syrian Statewas renamed the Republiof Syria in July 1932.  Damien de Martel was appointed as French High Commissioner for Syria on July 16, 1933.  The governments of France and Syria signed the Franco-Syrian Treaty on November 16, 1933, promising French support for an independent Syria within four years.  On November 3, 1934, the French high commissioner suspended the Chamber of Deputies in which there was strong opposition to the Franco-Syrian Treaty.  Following the closure of the National Blocoffice in Damascus and the arrest of two National Bloc leaders (Fakhri al-Barudi and Sayf al-Din al-Ma’min) by government police, the National Bloccalled for a general strike starting on January 20, 1936.  Government police killed two demonstrators in Allepo on January 21, 1936.  Government troops killed four protesters in Damascus on January 21, 1936. and killed two individuals in a funeral procession in Damascus on January 22, 1936.  Government troops killed three demonstrators in Homs on January 22, 1936.  Some 40 demonstrators were killed by government troops in Hama on February 6, 1936.  Three demonstrators were killed by government troops in Homs on February 8, 1936.  Five demonstrators were killed by government police in Dayr al-Zur on February 10, 1936.  The French government declared martial law in Damascus on February 10, 1936, and declared martial law in Aleppo, Homs, and Hama on February 12, 1936.  Jamil Mardam and Nasil al-Bakri, leaders of the National Bloc, were arrested by government police and deported in February 11, 1936.  On March 2, 1936, the French government agreed to negotiations with theNational Bloc, which called off the general strike on March 6, 1936.   Representatives of the French and Syrian governments signed the French-Syrian Treaty of Friendship and Alliance on September 9, 1936, which provided for the end of the mandate within three years.  Legislative elections were held on November 30, 1936.  The Syrian Chamber of Deputies elected Hashim al-Atassi of the National Bloc as president on December 21, 1936.  On December 26, 1936, the Chamber of Deputies ratified the French-Syrian Treaty of Friendship and Alliance (although the treaty was never ratified by the French government).  President Hashim al-Atassi resigned on July 7, 1939.  Gabriel Puaux, the French High Commissioner for Syria, suspended the Syrian constitution on July 10, 1939.  On the same day, High Commissioner Gabriel Puaux dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and appointed a Council of Commissioners headed by Bahij al-Khatib to administer Syria. The French Mandate of Syria came under the control of “Vichy France” on July 10, 1940.  Henri Dentz was appointed as Vichy French High Commissioner for Syria on December 6, 1940.  “Free French” troops and British troops liberated Syria from Vichy France on June 14, 1941.  Georges Catroux was appointed as General Delegate of “Free France” (led by General Charles de Gaulle) for Syria on June 24, 1941.  General Charles de Gaulle appointed Taj al-Din al-Hasani as president of Syria on September 12, 1941.  Georges Catroux, General Delegate General of “Free France” for Syria, declared the independence of the Republic of Syria on September 27, 1941.  President Taj al-Din al-Hasani died of a heart attack on January 17, 1943.  Georges Catroux, the General Delegate of “Free France” for Syria, restored the constitution of the Republic of Syria on March 25, 1943.  Jean Helleu was appointed as the General Delegate of “Free France” for Syria on June 7, 1943.  A newly-elected Chamber of Deputies convened and a elected a president on August 17, 1943.  Yves Chataigneau was appointed as General Delegate of “Free France” for Syria on November 23, 1943.  Etienne Beynet was appointed as General Delegate of “Free France” for Syria on January 23, 1944.  On May 17, 1945, French troops landed in Beirut, Lebanon in order to restore French administration over Lebanon and Syria following the end of the Second World War.  French troops shelled the Syrian parliament and attempted to arrest Syrian government leaders in Damascus on May 29-31, 1945, resulting in the deaths of some 500 individuals.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain demanded a ceasefire on May 31, 1945.  TheLeague of Arab States (LAS) Council expressed support for Syrian independence on June 6, 1945, and demanded the withdrawal of French troops from Syria on June 8, 1945.  The French government agreed to transfer command of the Syrian military to the Republic of Syria on August 1, 1945.  The Republic of Syria achieved independence when the last remaining French troops withdrew on April 17, 1946.

[Sources: Bercovitch and Jackson, 1997, 50-51; Brogan, 1992, 358-367; Clodfelter, 1992, 629-630, 1031-1032; Jessup, 1998, 712-716; Langer, 1972, 1088-1090, 1298-1300; Survey of International Affairs (SIA), 1928, 328-332.]


Selected Bibliography

Arslan, Emir Chekib. 1924. “Syrian Opposition to French Rule.” Current History 20 (May): 239-247.

Khoury, Philip S. 1987. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.




Brief History of Syria

Syria fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1516 and remained a part of their Ottoman Empire for four centuries. During this period, Syria witnessed great deterioration in economic, social, and political fields. In 1916, the Arabs took the opportunity of World War I to revolt against the Turkish rule. Arabs received British military help and promises that after the War ends, Arab countries will be granted full independence. On 6 May 1916 , the Ottoman authorities hanged tens of Syrian national leaders in Damascus and Beirut . This day is still celebrated in Syria and Lebanon as the Martyrs’ Day. The Arab armies under leadership of Sharif Hussein of Mecca soon achieved victory over the Turks, and in early 1918, Arab and British armies entered Damascus ending 400 years of Ottoman occupation.

Later in 1918, Syria was declared an independent kingdom under King Faisal I, son of Sharif Hussein. However, France and Britain had their own plans in mind. In an agreement known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, they decided to divide the Middle East into French and British ‘spheres of influence’. Syria was to be put under French mandate. In early 1920, French troops landed on the Syrian coast, after several battles with poorly equipped Syrian rebels, they managed to get the country under their control. In 1923, the League of Nation officially recognized French mandate over Syria .

Syrians decided to resist the new invaders. In 1925, they revolted against the mandate. Several battles took place in Jabal al-Arab region and in Damascus . The capital was severely damaged during French air raids in retaliation for the city’s support for rebels. It was until 1936 when France finally accepted to give Syria partial independence according to the Franco-Syrian treaty signed in Paris , but French troops remained on the Syrian soil and continued to influence the Syrian policies. During World War II , Syria witnessed military confrontations between French troops loyal to the Vichy government, allied with the Germans, and Free French troops allied with the British. In 1941, the British army, along with its French allies, occupied the country, and promised full independence after the end of the war.

Again, the French did not live up to their promises. Syrians protested again, and in 29 May 1945 , French troops attacked the Syrian Parliament building in Damascus , sparking more anger and demonstrations. The matter was discussed in the United Nations Security Council, which came up with a resolution demanding France ‘s withdrawal from Syria . The French had to comply; their last soldier left Syria on 17 April 1946 , which was chosen to be Syria ‘s National Day.

The early years of independence were marked by political instability. In 1948, the Syrian army was sent to Palestine to fight along with other Arab armies against the newly created State of Israel. The Arabs lost the war, and Israel occupied 78 percent of the area of historical Palestine . In July 1949, Syria was the last Arab country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel . However, It was only the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1949, Syria ‘s national government was overthrown by a military coup d’etat led by Hussni al-Zaim. Later that year Zaim was overthrown by his colleague Sami al-Hinnawi. Few months later, Hinnawi was overthrown by Colonel Adib al-Sheeshakli. The latter continued to rule the country until 1954, when growing public opposition forced him to resign and leave the country. The national government was restored, but again to face instability, this time coming from abroad. In the mid 1950s, Syria ‘s relation with the West witnessed some tension with the improving Syrian-Soviet relations. In 1957, Turkey , a close ally of the US and a member of the NATO, massed its troops on the Syrian borders threatening to invade the country.

The western threat was also one of the reasons that helped achieve Syria ‘s union with Egypt under the United Arab Republic (UAR) in February 1958, with Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser as president. Nasser ‘s condition to accept union with Syria was dissolving all Syrian political parties. This was one of many reasons that led to the collapse in of the UAR on September 28, 1961 , with a bloodless military coup in Damascus .

In 8 March 1963 , the Baath Arab Socialist Party came to power in a coup known in Syria as the March Revolution. The Baathists dissolved the Parliament and introduced a one-party regime that was destabilized by conflicts within the Baath itself. In February 1966, the right wing of Baath assumed leadership of the party, establishing radical Salah Jadid as the strongman of the country.

In the spring of 1967, severe clashes erupted on the borders between Syria and Israel . In April, Israeli officials publicly threatened to invade Syria . Those threats were among other major events that led to the Six Days War between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. On 5 June 1967, Israel started its war against the Arabs, first by invading the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank of Jordan and then on June 10, the Syrian Golan Heights. Within two days of fighting, Syria had lost the strategic region including its main city of Quneitra . On June 11, the warring parties accepted the UN’s call for cease-fire. Later in 1967, the UN security council issued its famous 242 resolution calling for complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the Six Day War, in exchange for peace talks and Arab recognition of Israel ‘s right to exist.

November 16, 1970 ; Hafez al-Assad, then the defense minister, led the Correction Movement that brought Syria stability and security after years of political disturbance. Assad, elected president in 1971 with an overwhelming majority, started to get the nation ready to fight for its occupied land. He mobilized the major political powers in Syria under the National Progressive Front, and got the People’s Council (Parliament) back to work. The Syrians did not wait too long. On October, 6th 1973 , Syria and Egypt launched a surprising attack against the Israeli forces in the occupied Sinai and Golan Heights . In few days, Syrian troops nearly managed to liberate all the occupied territories, but Israeli forces managed to recover with a massive US airlift. Syria soon found itself fighting US and Israel together; and with the fighting on the Egyptian front ceased, the Syrians accepted a UN brokered cease-fire. The security council issued another resolution, 338, calling for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories and for peace talks to achieve a just peace in the Middle East .

Obviously, the Syrians did not want the war to end this way. In early 1974 they launched an attrition war against the Israeli forces in the Golan. The continuous fighting and the Arab moral victory pushed the US into mediating a settlement between Syria and Israel . The US secretary of state Henry Kissinger succeeded in reaching an agreement to disengage Syrian and Israeli troops in the Golan. According to the agreement, Syria regained control over a strip of territory in the Golan including the major city of Quneitra . President Assad raised the Syrian flag over the liberated land on June 26, 1974 , but the Syrians were surprised to find that Quneitra and many other towns and villages in the Golan were deliberately destroyed by the Israelis. The city was never rebuilt. UN troops were deployed in the liberated area to prevent any violations of the cease-fire.

In 1975, the Lebanese civil war started. In 1976, Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon upon request from the Lebanese Government. The troops in Lebanon stood against the invading Israeli army in 1982, and full-scale land and air battles took place between the two sides. In 1990, Syria and its allies in Lebanon succeeded in putting an end to the 15-year-old civil war, and Syrian troops remained in Lebanon to maintain security and stability. In 1978, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat signed a separate peace agreement with Israel , which was a serious blow to Arab solidarity. Syria was among other Arab nations that opposed Sadat’s move. If Israelis really wants peace, Assad proposed, they should simply withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967.

In 1980, Iraq launched a war against Iran . Earlier in 1979, the Islamic revolution in Iran had ended its alliance with the West and declared its support for the Palestinian cause. Syria thought this was a wrong war, at a wrong time and against the wrong enemy. Very few Arab countries supported the Syrian position. Only two years after his war against Iran ended with nothing but heave losses and casualties, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded the small Arabian Gulf State of Kuwait in August 1990, sparking wide spread international condemnation. Syria participated in the US-led international coalition that was formed to defend Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait . The Gulf War that followed resulted in the destruction of the Iraqi and imposing harsh international sanctions on Iraq . Another major Arab power was now practically out of the conflict with Israel .

After the Gulf War, Syria accepted the US invitation for an international peace conference on the Middle East . The conference, held in Madrid in November 1991, marked the launch of bilateral Arab-Israeli peace talks. The talks were based on the UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, and on the so-called ‘land for peace’ formula. However, they were stalled for years because of Israel ‘s continuous refusal to give back any Arab territory. The Arab position was more weakened when the Palestinians and the Jordanians signed separate peace agreements with Israel in 1993 and 1994. Syria and Lebanon , however, vowed to sign peace together or sign not. Syria continued to support the Lebanese resistance fighters led by Hizbollah against the Israeli occupation forces in South Lebanon . In May 2000, Hizbollah succeeded in driving Israel out of Southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation.

Syrian-Israeli peace talks reached a dead end in 1996 with Israel refusing to discuss the complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights . In late 1999, Israel signaled its will to accept such move, and the talks were resumed in the US , this time at a high level between Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sahara’a and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The talks were again stalled in early 2000 when Barak tried to exclude the northeastern shore of the Lake Tiberis from the proposed Israeli withdrawal plan. Syria made it clear that no single inch of the Syrian soil will be given away.

On June 10th 2000 , President Assad died of a heart attack.

His son, Bashar al-Assad was elected President on July 10th, 2000.

source : Syrian Embassy Washington Jan 2005