In 1919, the idealistic American President Woodrow Wilson brought with him to the Paris Peace Conference his 14 Points. Among these points were the doctrine of self-determination (the idea that all peoples have the right to determine the nature of their own governance) and an idea for a coalition that enhanced international security (the League of Nations). While progressives lauded Wilson’s ideas in principle, the European powers who had won The Great War were skeptical and bitter. Unlike the United States, Britain and France had suffered immensely during the war and they wanted reparations for their losses. Moreover, most of the officials who made up the French and British states were not ready to surrender their empires. Even though anti-colonial movements had gained strength during the war, they were still the minority, and very few activists were in positions of power. To limit colonial power in a world that was apprehensive about it, a liberalized colonial schematic was created and called a mandate. The mandate would be granted by an international coalition that would be known as the League of Nations. These events transformed the peace-making process into something that was quite different from those of the past… or WAS it? We’ll soon find out! This week, as part of our border series, we’re telling the story of France’s League of Nations mandates in Syria and Lebanon.

Transcript for France’s League of Nations Mandate in Syria and Lebanon

Researched and Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Marissa: The fronts of The Great War had barely come to a close when it became clear to all of the belligerents involved that this process of peacemaking would be different from all of those that came before it. The Ottoman and German empires would be no more. But what would be done with their colonial territories?

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which concluded the Thirty Years War, is often considered to be the first modern peace treaty. It was the first peace agreement to articulate the concepts of territorial sovereignty. For 250 years after Westphalia, peace negotiations took a certain form. The victorious authorities and their allies gathered around large maps where they redistributed territory up for grabs, in part to reward themselves for a war well fought, but also to punish wayward transgressors or weak, ineffective states. This often led to the grouping of hostile populations together under an even more hostile imperial administrative structure.

Averill: In the early-20th-century political climate, this traditional approach no longer seemed to be an option. Anti-colonial sentiment had risen in Europe, and the Americas during the 1800s as demonstrated by the Haitian Revolution and the Spanish-American Wars for Independence. Anti-colonial movements in Africa, India, Ireland, Vietnam, and elsewhere intensified after the start of the Great War in 1914. Africans, for example, had been chafing under the colonial rule of European powers since the “scramble for Africa” at the Berlin Conference of 1884. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, anti-colonial sentiment gained even more steam.

In 1919, the idealistic American President Woodrow Wilson brought with him to the Paris Peace Conference his 14 Points. Among these points were the doctrine of self-determination (the idea that all peoples have the right to determine the nature of their own governance) and an idea for a coalition that enhanced international security (the League of Nations). While progressives lauded Wilson’s ideas in principle, the European powers who had won The Great War were skeptical and bitter. Unlike the United States, Britain and France had suffered immensely during the war and they wanted reparations for their losses. Moreover, most of the officials who made up the French and British states were not ready to surrender their empires. Even though anti-colonial movements had gained strength during the war, they were still the minority, and very few activists were in positions of power.[1]

Marissa: Nonetheless, the French and British were obligated to convince anti-colonial factions that their claims to the former Ottoman territories were benign and in the territories’ best interests rather than their own. To limit colonial power in a world that was apprehensive about it, a liberalized colonial schematic was created and called a mandate. The mandate would be granted by an international coalition that would be known as the League of Nations. These events transformed the peace-making process into something that was quite different from those of the past… or WAS it? We’ll soon find out! This week, as part of our border series, we’re telling the story of France’s League of Nations mandates in Syria and Lebanon.

I’m Marissa

And I’m Averill

Marissa: And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig

Marissa: Though mandates were rewarded for territories all over the world, including Africa and Oceania, we’ll focus most on the Class A Mandates, which applied to the Levant (or the Eastern Mediterranean region in the Near East). Class A territories were former holdings of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Because of the Ottoman Empire’s loose administrative style and recent political deterioration, these areas were regarded as territories that had; in the words of conference attendees “reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”

Averill: These areas were well on their way to being sovereign nations and, according to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, they merely needed guidance and mentorship from more mature nation-states. The areas in question included Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). You may notice that some of these areas are particularly unstable today. Many historians believe that the contemporary problems in some of these areas have deep roots in the mandate system. Today we’ll explore that possibility through the example of the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon.

Marissa: Traces of orientalism or anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice can be found in the proceedings of the Paris Peace Conference. During the Conference, Eastern European, Balkan and Norwegian areas were proclaimed to be “sufficiently capable of statehood” but areas inhabited by more Muslims and Arabs were considered to be “deficient in the qualities of statehood.” Some educated Frenchmen outside of the diplomatic realm superficially noted the Syrians’ level of civilization but deemed the mandate necessary because of Syria’s unfamiliarity with republican government. Jean Luquet, holder of a doctorate in the administration of colonies, wrote in 1923:

Since the Levantine peoples are worthy of independence, why impose on them the servitude that is the mandate? It is being imposed for three reasons… (1) First precisely because the peoples for whom the mandate was anticipated, having neither the habit of independence, nor the political education, nor the administrative framework, nor the statesmen, nor the functionaries capable of managing the new state, will have risked finding themselves suddenly in anarchy.”[2]

Averill: It was difficult for the European powers to conceive of a political modernity that did not look like their own. This perception that Muslim or Arab culture was devoid of worth and reason was repeated again and again. For example, in an article by Clennel Wilkinson in the London Mercury, he writes  “The fact is that everything worth having in the Arabs comes to them from Saladin, who was born a Christian,” to which Lawrence of Arabia, as T.E. Lawrence was colloquially known, replied, “’The fact is’ who told the idiot that? The supreme assumption of it! And Saladin was born a Kurd, which I’ve never heard tell was the same thing as a Christian. Poof! Piffle!”[3]

Marissa: Similar prejudices were voiced by British Prime Minister Lloyd George when writing his memoirs, though his statements were couched in seemingly benign terms. Lloyd George made romantic allusions to history, as the French would soon do, to historicize a relationship between the Europeans and the Arabs. He did so when commenting on Sherif Hussein’s ambitions in Turkey writing, “Here, indeed, is a flash of the old Arab spirit that carried the banner of Islam from Mecca through Northern Africa, over the Spanish Peninsula, across the Pyrenees, and fought a battle for the faith of the Prophet in the Valley of the Loire.”[4]

Lloyd George’s reference to Arab imperialism is especially interesting because it reveals the belief in a long-standing Christian/Islamic binary. The binary begins with the Arab conquests in Europe, and is continued in the medieval interactions between Saladin and Norman Richard III. The implication of such historicizing is that the French meant to take back what was theirs, once and for all.

Averill: So, within this well-meaning mandate system there was not only the problems of latent colonial ambitions, and bitterness over the casualties of war; there was also the issue of how these European powers were assessing the readiness of these regions for self-rule. In their arrogance, Western Europe saw no issue with assessing the Levantine regions by their own standards for a nation-state. In their attempts to evaluate political structures in the Levant in comparison to their own, “obviously superior” states, they failed to appreciate the extent to which the Levant had developed its own organic system of rule over the past couple centuries.

Marissa: During Ottoman rule, Levantine regions were divided into administrative units called sanjaks and then further into millets. Millets were small groups with a sense of community based on ethnicity or religion. These small groups were essentially sovereign and had engaged in self-governance for decades if not centuries though in some areas, where cooperation was possible, regional communities developed. For example, the diverse and sovereign groups within geographical Syria, historically called Bilad-al-Sham, formed a greater community.

Averill: Turks held the highest positions, such as governorship and that of imperial troops, but local government, responsible for day-to-day functioning of Syrian society, was run by Syrian urban notables who had their own independent power source derived from cultural and economic foundations. The Turkish governors did not speak Arabic or know much about Arab culture. Nor did they have enough military power in their own right, so they had to rely on mediators. Ottoman subjects always identified first with their smaller religious, ethnic, linguistic, or village groups and secondly with the empire.  But these smaller groups functioned within the greater Bilad-al-Sham, including the mountains of Lebanon, the coastal area of Palestine and the cities of Alexandretta and Edessa and what was known as Syria under the mandate. A distinctly Syrian political culture arose though its governmental units were still Ottoman sanjaks. We will talk a little more about this distinctive Syrian political culture in a bit.

Marissa: Though the British were not faultless in the implementation of their mandates (at some point we’ll do an episode about their handling of Palestine and Iraq), the French often flouted the principles behind the League of Nations mandates from the start. The French imperial apparatus sought to administer their Mandates in Syria and Lebanon the same way they administered their empire in the Maghreb (Mediterranean North Africa). Let’s look at the Syrian example. The Mandate for Syria and Lebanon amounted, legally, to one mandate. However, the mandate was split by the French into six distinct territories: Damascus, Aleppo, Alawites, Jabal Druze, the autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta, and Greater Lebanon. From these districts, two distinct states would eventually emerge: Syria, which was majority Muslim, and Greater Lebanon, which was majority Christian. However, there were several failed attempts at state crafting along the way which we’ll talk about soon. Why so many failures? Most historians believe the French approached their mandates in the Levant with ulterior motives.

Averill: Making matters worse, the League had no way to enforce the mandates. It was on rare occasions that the League was even aware of abuses wrought by the Paris Peace powers. The French kept the League in a state of misinformation, so the foreign press served as their main source of information. This is made evident by the letters of British archeologist Gertrude Bell who was working in Syria at the time the League of Nations mandates were established,“ The League can scarcely pretend to take the very thin French explanations at the foot of the letter; too much information has come through by means of foreign journalists.” They had no better way of discovering the realities of the mandate in Syria and when they were made aware of the mandate’s instability, internal politics kept them from revoking the mandate.

Marissa: Even before they were awarded the mandate for Syria and Lebanon, the French hopefuls’ approach to the Levant was clear. The French were convinced that they had a special relationship with Syria and that it was divine providence that they would be in charge of Syria and Lebanon after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, French statesman Stephen Pinchon, speaking on behalf of  France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, declared France’s claim on Syria. Pinchon emphasized the leading role of the Franks in the Crusades, through the rule of Louis XIV, and on to the 1860 expedition to aid persecuted Christians. Pinchon drew a straight line between the Frankish Crusades to the end of The Great War, claiming France and Syria had always had a special relationship.

To most Europeans and Americans, this logic made sense. In November of 1925 the New York Times stated matter-of-factly:

The choice of France as agent for the protection of Syrian Christians was determined by a traditional special interest in those lands, claimed by France and acquiesced in by the Powers. If we wish, we may trace this sentimental claim back to Crusades, when all the armies of the West were known to the Moslem owners of Palestine as ‘Franks,’ a name perpetuated in the Feringhi of today, the common designation for all Europeans.[5]

Averill: The author of this NYT article also assumes that France was granted the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon so that they could act as protectors to the Christians there. Communities of Syriac Christian Maronites were concentrated around Mount Lebanon. By depicting themselves as Crusaders-turned-civilizers, the French expected to teach what they knew to the “backward  religious warriors” in Syria. What the French failed to realize was that the Crusades, central to their own interpretation of Syrian and Lebanese politics, were not terribly relevant to modern Syrians and Lebanese. Tabitha Petran writes in her survey of Syrian history and society, “The Crusades were but an episode which had little influence beyond convincing Syrians of the inferiority of Western civilization.”[6]

Bernard Lewis says something similar about Arabic histories, “Muslim historians show little interest in whence or why the Franks had come, and report their arrival and their departure with equal lack of curiosity.” Levantines, having first encountered the Franks as Byzantine auxiliaries and later as oafish marauders,[7] surely saw the difference between the semi-tribal Frankish Crusaders of history and the post-Enlightenment superpower with whom they were confronted in the 20 century. The power balance had certainly changed.

Marissa: The French conception of Syrian Muslims, as crude, fanatical and in need of French civilizing efforts, can be seen in their press releases and interviews in the New York Times. During the 1920s, the New York Times was rife with headlines like the following: “Fever of independence again seizes Moslems” “The French in Syria face seething races”, “Damascus again is put to the sword”, “Tribesmen fight on”, “War lords are gone but war is going on”, “[Syrian] Leading men interested more in upheavals than developing” and, “A Western Power’s Protection Is Declared Essential Until Islam Learns to Be Tolerant—Situation Unchanged Since the Crusades.”[8] According to the French, the Syrians were wild primitives, willing to risk the country’s stability in pursuit of an antiquated past.

Averill: At the Paris Peace Conference Emir Faisal, speaking on behalf of the Arab peoples, became incensed at a remark by an unnamed delegate who implied the Arabs were not as civilized as Europeans, “I belong to a people who were civilized when every other country represented in this room was populated by barbarians.” Before the representative of Rome had a chance to protest Faisal cut him off, “Yes, even before Rome came in existence.”[9] Muslims in the Levant would have likely chafed at the orientalist insults hurled at them from Western European super-powers but the idea that France should administer the Syrian territory because of a centuries-old war would have been preposterous. T. E. Lawrence, who was in attendance at the Paris Peace Conference,  giddily commented on Faisal’s interruption, “But, pardon me, which one of us won the Crusades?”[10]

Marissa: However for the French, little had changed in Damascus since their ancestors made their cross-bearing pilgrimage to the Levant as they released to the foreign press “there is no other city where customs have changed so little during the ages.”[11] This has been made exceedingly clear through the statements of French and British officials, the Allied press and especially through French polemical literature and song. Thus, it was in a political environment that championed self-determination and a new-found enlightened humanism but still held fast to orientalist attitudes and centuries-old war-borne grudges, that the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon were implemented.

Averill: France set the scene in Syria as one of religious fanaticism, playing out in the constant tumult of religious war with the minority Christians on the wrong end of the sword. These religious divisions played up by the French were subsequently turned into geographical divisions upon occupation. Within months of being in possession of the mandate,  the French segregated the predominantly Christian Lebanon away from Muslim Syria in 1920. In 1922, the Jabal Druze and Alawite Latakia became separate states as well, both under French protection. In 1924, the Sanjak of Alexandretta (almost exclusively Turk) was declared a separate state as well. The predominantly Sunni Arab cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Horns and Hama were under the same administration for virtually all of the mandatory period.[12]

The French saw Syria in terms of sectarianism, portraying its pluralism as an ailment in a sick, backward Syrian polity. “In emphasizing communal differences and aspirations, the French claimed to be bowing to political reality and popular desire. However, their interpretation of political reality conveniently fit their desire to weaken pan-Syrian sentiment and Arab nationalism…”[13] It is fair to argue that the French were attempting to sabotage the Syrians by instituting artificial geographical divisions that emphasized differences rather than commonalities.

Marissa: In line with this mission, the French made much of the presence of a Lebanese Christian community, the Maronites, within their Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The Maronites were the medieval guardians of the Franks, were in communion with Rome, and they were hated by the majority of Syrians. But there is considerable evidence that the dislike of the Maronites in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a response to their antagonism of the predominantly Sunni Syrians upon the arrival of French troops during WWI. Syrian Christian Dr. Farrs Nimr said in 1919, “The hatred between Moslems and Christians which I watched gradually disappearing, and rejoiced to watch it disappear, has revived with astonishing speed since the French have been in Beyrout. Maronites openly boast that their day has come and exasperate the Moslems.”[14]

Averill: The Maronites did indeed believe their day had come. The Maronite hierarchy had aspirations for a “Great Lebanon” and they are probably responsible, in part, for France’s misinformation as they championed the idea of separation, citing their plight as a Christian minority. However, the small Christian community could never maintain a state of their own without pulling in the adjacent Muslim communities.

The Maronite clergy, relishing the idea of presiding over the majority in a small state, assured the French that the inclusion of non-Maronite areas into the state of Lebanon would not be a problem. However, the request was never feasible because such a small Maronite state was so weak that it would have always had to depend on the French for survival.[15] Such dependence was hardly sovereignty, which was the goal of France’s mandate. What is more is that the Lebanese state further injured anti-French agitators by waving their new flag described as the “tricolor of France with a cedar tree on the white ground.”[16] The cedar tree represented protection[17], more specifically protection from a Christian God, another nudge to the Sunni nationalists who were already embittered by the truncation of geographical Syria.

Marissa: Determined to reward their co-religionists who had so dutifully lobbied for a French Mandate at the Paris Peace conferences and agreeable to the creation of a tiny Christian state ripe for civilization by the French Empire, the French annexed Lebanon from the rest of Syria in 1920. The state of Lebanon was three times larger than the Ottoman sanjak that had designated the area for centuries prior. It included communities of Orthodox Christians, Shias, and a considerable amount of Sunnis as well as a few geographical areas that were important to the Syrian economy.[18]

Averill: The separation allowed a Christian minority to exercise authority in an area where non-Christian communities still resided. It was impossible for the French to exclude any and all Muslim communities from the autonomous area because that would have rendered the state economically deficient. These Muslim communities in what the French declared to be Greater Lebanon were angry at their isolation from the rest of the region and campaigned side by side with nationalists for reunion with Syria. The Lebanese Christians, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to be the majority for once, a temptation they could not pass up.[19] The result was what appeared to be religious hostility the likes of which had not been seen in the area for centuries, such as Nimr described.

Marissa: Most scholars agree that French nation-making in Syria/Lebanon was disastrous. Before the arrival of the French, the Syrians had, over time, created a way to co-exist as loosely united sanjaks under Ottoman rule, relying on localized governments and economic networking. They were geo-politically divided along religious lines but these divisions transformed, over time, into separate political units. The population in each individual unit was united by a common religion, language, ethnicity, geography and economy. Hostility between these units was relatively minimal under the Ottoman-style organization. Hostilities escalated when France tried to group different units into a nation because these small political units never had to collaborate as co- citizens in a European-style state.

Averill: Operating according to a paternalistic, religion-based campaign, the French were unwilling to dignify the native structures already in place at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Unable to reconcile this current system to the only concept of ‘nation’ that they considered civilized, the French viewed Syria’s unique geo-political organization as the religious separatism of an uncivilized people. In doing so, they radicalized Syrian religious groups and emerged as bipartisan protector of the various groups in the Muslim world. They also debased Syrian political culture by creating a European-style nation in Lebanon and blaming the fanaticism and stubbornness of the Syrian people for its failure.

Marissa: The French did something similar with two other ethnic groups occupying the mandate territory. The separation of the Jabal Druze and Alawite Latakia from the rest of Syria is even more indicative of how France’s imperial efforts sabotaged political unity. Both groups– the Druze and the Alawi– were apostolical to Islam and therefore afforded less tolerance than people of the book according to Sharia law. Nonetheless, the gradual shift of importance from religion to other categories within Syrian politics applies to these groups as well.

Averill: The gradual secularization of Syrian society had already taken root by 1860, which is apparent upon closer examination of what is traditionally considered a religious war. The French intervention in the Maronite-Druze wars of 1860 was, much like their mandatory administration, a mixture of French aid and French sabotage. A controversy erupted over who would receive governorship of a sanjak to which Maronites and Druze belonged. One candidate was favored by the Maronite peasants, the French, the Ottomans and the Maronite clergy, and the other one was backed by the Lebanese overlords, many of them Druze, and the British. To gain support for their favored candidate, the French encouraged the Maronite and Druze peasants to rebel against their overlords, inciting long-standing peasant grievances. Upon eruption of this peasant revolt the Druzes sought to fight alongside the Maronites against their overlords. But Ottoman authorities warned them not to join in the class struggle with the Maronites, so they protected their land in case the destruction reached their area.[20]

Marissa: The revolt did, in fact, intensify, compelling more and more Maronite peasants to rebel against their overlords, some of whom were Druzes. The Druze peasants then came to the rescue of Druze overlords against the French-backed Maronites, which is no surprise as it was the Druze overlords who put food on the peasants’ tables and could just as easily take it away. The Druze, being more skillful fighters, killed greater numbers of Maronites than vice versa, hence the misnomer ‘Christian Massacres of 1860.’

One may argue that what was essentially a class struggle was elevated to the status of an ethnic war thereafter. Some, like the imperial French, argued it was a religious war, “In 1860 Damascus was the scene of a terrible massacre of the Christians. More than 6,000 were killed by the Moslems, whose minds had been greatly excited by the Indian mutiny.[21] But many Sunnis sided with the Maronites, Shias protected Maronites and other Christians from Druze attacks and most Greek Orthodox were on the side of the Druzes. Cross-religious alliances during the rebellion make its designation as a religious war inaccurate.[22]

Averill: As we mentioned before, France used its involvement with the Maronites during the Crusades and its intervention in the conflict of 1860 to stake its claim on Syria. These contentions rested on the notion that the Syrians were socially and politically divided along religious lines and that it was only natural that aid should come from the traditional knights in shining armor, the French. A critical examination of the 1860 skirmishes not only reveals France’s hand in the eruption of the skirmishes but it also reveals that religious loyalties were secondary to others, in this case class and ethnicity, even at this early time.

A French officer overlooking the Jabal Druze territory
A French officer overlooking the Jabal Druze territory | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The creation of the independent Jabal Druze in 1921 (which was supposed to be one of France’s obligations under the mandate) was unsuccessful, resulting in its reattachment to Greater Syria in 1936. The state of Jabal Druze was disorganized and disunited from the start, deemed as an unviable national entity. One reason for this was the class of Druze professionals who, vying for political power in the urban notable scene, joined forces with predominantly Sunni Syrian nationalists. France’s unsuccessful separation of the Jabal Druze from Greater Syria suggests that this movement away from religious identification was even more advanced by the early mandatory period. Khoury writes, “Under the Ottomans, [Druze and Alawi] religious differences, cultural and political backwardness, and physical isolation kept these two minorities out of the mainstream of political culture. Between the wars, the French authorities spared no efforts to promote and exploit this separatism.[23]

Averill: Unfortunately for the French, Syrian separatism had its limitations. According to Khoury, “Despite the insular defensive attitude of the Druze community, with its esoteric religious beliefs, feudal social structure, physical isolation, and long history of armed resistance to external interference in the Jabal’s affairs, by World War I the Jabal had been irretrievably lured into the orbit of Damascus.” Damascene merchants and bankers financed the Druze cereal crops and Druze notables visited or spent winters in the city among the Sunni urban notables. Druze leader Sultan Al-Atrash communicated with urban nationalists using a Druze-run office in Damascus called the Druze Agency. The Druzes enjoyed the sovereignty they thought they were being awarded upon declaration of their separate state in 1921 but seeing that this sovereignty was in name only and still rendered them dependent on the French, the Druzes used these connections to instigate the Great Syrian Revolt in 1925.[24] In this way, the failure of the Jabal Druze can be attributed to France’s politicization of religious pluralism in Syrian politics.

Marissa: This same overemphasis led to the similar failure of the Alawite State (1922-1936) within the mandate. With its capitals at Latakia, the Alawite state was another nationally unviable unit. As the French granted autonomy to the Alawis, they once again isolated Sunni Arabs from Greater Syria, as complete political separation of the religions was impossible. A Sunni Arab landowning class in Latakia, rendered impotent by French geographical divisions, aligned with Syrian nationalists, just as Lebanese Muslims and Druze notables had. The Alawite State was in disarray, resulting in its reincorporation into Greater Syria in the 1930s.[25] The Alawi case is exponentially more complicated than that of the Druze, however, because after reincorporation and French evacuation of the country in 1946, the Alawis became the most powerful class in Syria. Far from indicating the success of French minority-favoring policies, the case of the Alawis is one that supports the argument for a sophisticated Syrian political culture and how the French underestimation of that culture resulted in the radicalization of Syrian religious groups.

Averill: According to Daniel Pipes, “For many centuries, the Alawis were the weakest, poorest, most rural, most despised and most backward people of Syria.”[26] Today they are the ruling elite, at only 12 percent of the population in Syria; they govern the majority Sunni Arab population. Religious dissimulation—taqiya or in other words, ‘faking it’—contributed greatly to the Alawi rise to power. The French favored the Alawi most likely because of their “secret Christian proclivity.” The Alawi conception of the fourth caliph, Ali, is akin to the Christian conception of Jesus Christ. They have a holy trinity, venerate Christian saints and celebrate Christian holidays, like Christmas, Easter and Palm Sunday.[27] T.E. Lawrence wrote that the Alawi are “disciples of a cult of fertility, sheer pagan, anti- foreign, distrustful of Islam, drawn at moments to Christianity by common persecution.”[28]

Marissa: Though Lawrence’s words make known the suspicion felt by many toward the Alawis, he also suggests a rationale for the Alawi attachment to the Christian French Empire. In support of the French, the Alawis refused to send delegates to Faisal’s General Syrian Congress in 1919 and used French arms to instigate a revolt. Depicting themselves as Christians gone astray, Alawi chiefs sent General Gouraud a telegram asking for an independent Alawi state under French protection.[29] The French conspired with the Alawis to create with them a shared past, and with it, a stronger political alliance. Rene Dussaud and Henri Lammens attempted to connect the colloquial designation for the Alawi—the Nusayris—to the word for Christians meaning followers of the Nazarene, nasara.[30]

Averill: However, when it suited them soon after, the Alawis rebelled against the French, claiming they ascribed to Arabism above all else. Taqiya was practiced by the Alawis in the past as well and would be in the future. In the late 19th century, the Ottomans noticed the Alawis’ religious vacillation and practice of attaching themselves to powerful forces who could improve their minority status. To prevent the growth of European influence, the Ottomans launched a Muslim missionary expedition of sorts, building Mosques and Islamic schools and pressuring chiefs to ascribe to Muslim orthodoxy. During this era they identified as Muslim. A decade after French rule, the Alawis again demonstrated their dissimulative skill. Unbeknownst to Sunni Damascenes, 10,000 Alawis lived among them for an undetermined amount of time. As their true religious identity was of no political use in former eras, only after the Alawi rise to power did these same Alawis reveal themselves. Pipes writes, “Taqiya permitted the Alawis to blow with the wind,”[31] a testament to flexibility necessary to survive in a society characterized by pluralism.

Marissa: It would be reductionist to conclude that in light of their dissimulative practices, the Alawi were atheists or anticlerical. But their case implies that in Syrian society during the Mandate, economic and political power was more important than doctrinal matters. The Alawis only used Christianity as a tool to gain French favor because they justified their occupation using religion. More important is their willingness to adopt any religious practice. Matters of doctrine were less important than improving the lot of their social group. This social set-up was in place before the mandate and continued long after the French left, allowing the Alawis to rise to power.

Averill: Nimr’s observation of a decrease in tensions between Christians and Muslims in Syria prior to French control is supported by Khoury’s research. Evidence points to a decline in the role of religion in Syrian society beginning in the 19t’ century. During this time, many religious figures lost their power base. Of the three main groups that composed the newly consolidated ruling class of urban notables, only one group gleaned its power even remotely from a religious base. The ulama and the ashraf composed this group but in Syria, they were authorities because they “were the guardians of urban civilization and Islamic high culture” and not because theological scholarship or primogeniture gave them such authority. Moreover, these groups had always been strongly ensconced in commercial activity and by the end of the 19th century, their secular power may have been said to overshadow their religious authority, “…hence their wealth came not only from their control of pious trusts but also from their control of production and trade, and, by the eighteenth century, from hereditary tax farms {malikane) around the towns.”

Marissa: Further proof of the declining role of religion in Syrian society was the relaxation in marriage customs among religious authorities. “Just after the mid-nineteenth century, religious leaders broke with social custom by supporting marriages outside their family networks.[32] The families of the Syrian upper crust, instead of maintaining their affluence through careful marriage arrangements, made marriage arrangements with those whose power base was not religious. This suggests that religious-based status was no longer a sufficient source of power. This new networking created an ethnically heterogeneous upper class with a strictly economic power base. Though religious authorities were sometimes powerful, by the time of WWI they did not owe their power to their religious status but rather to the clientele they earned outside of the religious realm.

Averill: In fact, the case of the Alawi suggests that Syrians were adept at leveraging religious and ethnic pluralism to achieve unity and political stability. Most scholars have found that dissimulation, or feigning assimilation but maintaining a specific tradition underneath a front, best characterizes not only the Alawis but Syrian society as a whole. “Sect members participate in society at large and work in everyday occupations widespread in the polity. But they dichotomize their lives, all members feeling they are living in a special religious world valuable in itself and distinguished from all others.” From day to day, the Maronites, Druzes and Alawis practiced the separation of religion from politics.[33] This dichotomy explains how the Alawis could so easily assume different religious identities. This feature of Syrian society is especially interesting because it approaches secularism, a separation of church and state that is known to France but unknown to the Sunni Arab majority in the Near East.

Marissa: Dissimulation (taqiya), rather than assimilation is the prevalent social practice in Syria and has been for hundreds of years.[34] Syrians are adept at “the art of rapid and superficial [acculturation] and that of preserving, beneath new modes of behavior and in new forms, their old beliefs and ways of living.”[35] Richard Antoun, for one, notes the grace with which syrian society acclimatizes to their intense cultural diversity, making Syria an academic goldmine for sociologists and political scientists alike.

The reaction of Syria’s people to the contrasting cultural, demographic, economic, and political currents from across the Mediterranean and Europe on the one hand and across the desert and Arabia on the other, has been absorption and accommodation, and often at the same time tension and conflict. Accommodation has taken place at the socio-cultural level in the development of a mosaic society well adapted to the geographical diversity of the country, in which a number of ethnic groups and sects (Sunni Muslims, Alawis, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Kurds, Circassians, Ismailis) find their niches in various regions of the country or in various ethnic divisions of labor in urban centers.[36]

Averill: The ethnic division of labor is very apparent in Syria where there is a long tradition of urbanity. The Druzes and Alawis, confined within relatively isolated mountain units, were poorer, less educated and focused more on agriculture than the urbanized Sunnis. Nonetheless, there were many Sunni Muslims who also lived in rural communities. It was not unheard of for people of different religions to join together with grievances against the exploitative classes, implying that class loyalties challenged religious loyalties at this time. The example of the Druze peasants initially preparing to join the Maronite peasants against their overlords in 1860 is a good example of class trumping religious loyalty. Considering the socio-economic divisions between the different religions can, however, make religious persuasion look like a point of contention. Hannah Battatu holds that these groups always act in terms of class interest though class structure is based on ethnic and religious convention. “Alawis and by implication others with ethnic identities, invoke relations with other Alawis to advance personal and ideological ambitions rather than to promote the common interests of the sect… fealty is far more important criterion than religion for the distribution of power in Syria.”[37]

Marissa: Fealty, the faith pledge to a lord by his vassal, is perhaps a good way to describe why the Druzes in 1860 eventually sided with Druze overlords instead of Maronite peasants in their class. Far from an example of religious loyalty overtaking class loyalty, the Maronite-Druze example proves the point. There were of course Maronite peasants and Druze overlords but generally speaking, the Druzes were poorer and less educated than the Maronites. The Druzes, as a group, based their bond on their economic status vis à vis the other Syrian minorities. So in the 1860 war, when they eventually unified against the Maronites, the thrust of their discontent with the Christian Maronites was not religious as much as it was based on geo-political survival.

Averill: To better understand the function of thèse religious-come-political groups in Syrian society, Khouri breaks them up into two different categories. ‘Sects’ like the Druzes, ‘Ibadis, Zaydis, Maronites, Yazidis and Alawis who live on the peripheries, have historical tendencies of rebellion, cluster into a ‘homeland’ and use dissimulation to operate in society. But ‘minorities’ like Copts, Greek Orthodox, Jews and Ismailis live in cities under foreign government or Sharia protection. This helps to understand Syrian society in that it reminds scholars that “The terms ‘Alawi’ and ‘Shi’a’ or ‘Maronite’ refer not simply to an ethnic identity or a religious ideology, but also to a territory, a politico-economic system, a wide-ranging cultural repertoire, and a history.”[38]

Marissa: These social theories imply that in modern Syria, divisions between the different religions in Syria are no longer doctrinal; those lines have been blurred over time by dissimulation. The divisions in Syrian society therefore represent a localism based on culture, class, and geography rather than religious and political disagreement.[39] The implication of such theories is that each group creates not just a spiritual, social or geographic community but a distinct political unit within the Bilad-al-Sham. What emerges is a uniquely Syrian flavor of politics revolving around pluralism, using dissimulation to achieve political unity when it’s needed. Despite this high degree of political sophistication, the French, under their mandate, were able to politicize Syrian pluralism and sow disorder where there had previously been little. This disorder culminated in the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925.

Averill: Evidence of the declining importance of religion in Syrian politics may be found in the slogan for the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925: “Religion belongs to God; the Motherland to all!”[40] This slogan was probably created by the political elite but it was uttered by popular Syria nonetheless, indicating they were aware and accepting of the religious pluralism that characterized geographical Syria. Moreover, they insisted that they all belonged to geographical Syria in some way even if they could not form a nation like the French or British nation. From the French, Syrians asked for national sovereignty, a loosely united Syria, a decentralized government and a liberal constitution. Unfortunately the units which were to be loosely united were not specified.

Constitution of the Syrian Republic, May 1930
Constitution of the Syrian Republic, May 1930 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The Great Syrian Revolt was sparked when Druze leader Sultan Al-Atrash attacked French forces after they arrested a Lebanese man accused of trying to assassinate Gouraud and the French responded by raiding and bombing his home. From that point on, Sultan Al-Atrash had enough support to start insurgent activities. He was covertly supported by Damascene nationalist notables and familiar with the nationalist platform, Al-Atrash declared his grievances were nationalist ones. Meanwhile, Maghreb veteran Captain Carbillet began administering the Jabal Druze “directly, and with a distinct flavor of personal demagoguery. His aim was to destroy the Jabal’s ancient feudal system which he considered retrograde. Carbillet was intent on instituting a Moroccan-style system though did so imperfectly. His biggest mistake was his agricultural policy which sought to abolish the communal property system in the Jabal which favored Druze notables. Discouraged by the notables who stood to lose power in the case of the policy’s success, the peasantry was apprehensive toward Carbillet’s reforms. Soon thereafter, Carbillet instituted forced peasant labor to facilitate the building of roads, designed for wheeled vehicles they did not possess.

Averill: Carbillet’s agricultural policies were successful enough to agitate Druze notables but not successful enough to appease the Druze peasantry to whom he promised so much. Sultan Al- Atrash, the Druze peasantry and the notables who presided over them, united against the French in July 1925. Seeing a channel for their nationalist program and an opportunity to convince the French that Syrians of all walks of life were unified against them, Damascene nationalists joined the revolt. These Damascene notables, losing their power to both the French and the other Syrian elements who the French favored in a divide-and-conquer technique, transformed the 1925 Druze revolt into a power struggle between these urban notables and the French occupiers.

Syrian Druze leaders meeting in 1926
Syrian Druze leaders meeting in 1926 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The international community, with French encouragement, believed that the Syrian revolt reflected a vibrant Syrian nationalist movement. This so-called national movement for Syrian independence, led by the Western-educated elite did not reflect the ideology of the Syrian people. Rather, it was the reaction of these elite to their exclusion from the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war. Nationalism was a way for notables to demand an audience within the French political structure so as to maintain their delicate balance of power. The French benefited from this misconception because it implied that five years into the mandate, the Syrians were united more than they were before and that they were merely annoyed with French presence.

Averill: The belief emerged that the French colonial administration was succeeding in quelling it by convincing the Syrians of their beneficent intentions, bringing Syria one stop closer to the status of a nation. In actuality, the revolt was not nationalist in character; rather it was a reaction to France’s attempts at marginalizing the Syrian political elite. The end to the revolt therefore reflected the Syrian elite’s recapturing of power and not France’s military or diplomacy skill; Syria was not pacified but vindicated by its end.

Marissa: Because the French were unable to fund direct administration of Syria and because the League of Nations demanded that the mandate be only temporary, it was necessary for the French to operate with the help of native elements.”[41] Therefore the Syrian elite exercised power by aligning itself with the foreign government of the time but they were obligated to maintain an independent power base as the foreign government itself never conferred official power to them. “Given the intrinsic illegitimacy of France’s position and its penchant for dictatorial policy without regard for the position and interest of the local elite, many urban leaders became forces of opposition. They had to appear more as the spokesmen of the people in the halls of power than as agents of the French.” It was easy for nationalist notables to extract support from the disaffected Syrian classes because it quietly emphasized religious solidarity against the Christian French. This was the case even though the movement was bourgeois in character, as can be gleaned from the nationalists’ failure to make economic and social equality a part of their program.[42]

Averill: Unable to risk losing their popular support by consorting with an illegitimate imperial administration, urban notables resorted to the only method available to gain access to administrative positions. They built a coalition against the French, created further-reaching alliances with other towns, other Arab territories, popular societies, any alliance that could gain them the trust of large parts of the population. The notables hoped to compel the French to grant them the influence to which they had become so accustomed before the Mandate. In a way, the French, by alienating the Muslim population in their colonial campaign, encouraged the growth of dissident movements, but not because Syrian Muslims were culturally offended and lashing back at their antagonists. Rather because the politically astute notables could assume the role of the ‘protectors of culture’ and ‘guardians of the faith,’ in the wake of an illegitimate Christian power that was bent on empowering non-Muslim minorities. This notoriety gave notables immeasurable amounts of influence in the movement.[43]

Marissa: This exact tactic was employed by Syrian notables for use against attempts by the Ottomans at revitalization. During the Tanzimat in the mid-19th century, some urban notables lost their government positions to Turks as part of the Young Turks’ program of Turkification. Those who lost their livelihood espoused pan-Arabism as a means of combating Turkification and its encroachment on notables’ positions. As one historian puts it “Thus, during the war, when many notables began to jump from the sinking Ottoman ship, they grabbed, as they fell, the rope of Arab nationalism. They really had no other choice. It was this rope that enabled them to enter the interwar years with their political and social influence intact.”[44]

Averill: But those who kept their jobs, did not espouse Arab nationalist beliefs, “By contrast, many notables who managed to hold onto their posts supported the empire until the collapse of its authority in the Syrian provinces in 1918.[45] Likewise during the French Mandate, the powder keg of Arab nationalism was only tapped by Syrian notables whose status was in jeopardy. Moreover, notables only mobilized their nationalist forces in the short term with very specific goals in mind for fear of isolating the French and therefore losing the French support they sought to earn. “At times, the elite feared mobilizing the streets, the mosques and the schoolyards even more than they feared the French.” Should the movement spin out of control, it would destroy their chance at an exchange with French administration.[46]

Marissa: Scholars disagree about the consequences of the Great Syrian Revolt. Miller holds that after the revolt, the French were aware that the local officials held all political power, the Syrian national movement was artificial and that Syrian society was so fragmented:

[Notables] joined the revolt in the hope of reinforcing their power. Ironically, many of them who were in power at the start of the revolt were out by its end. In many ways, this revolt marks more clearly and decisively than the end of the war the disintegration of the political structure of the Ottoman Empire in Syria.[47]

Averill: Koury maintains that the notables were hesitant to participate in the revolt but their inability to maintain power in any other way made it a necessity. As the revolt spread beyond the Jabal Druze, they saw the opportunity to get the attention of the French while appearing as popular champion. The difficulty the French had at putting down the revolt inspired them to make certain dispensations that they had otherwise been hesitant to grant. The result of the revolt was that urban notables were able to revert to the method of mediation that they were best at; they continued from that point on to rely on diplomacy and limited protest to achieve their political goals as far as the French were concerned. This “way of achieving independence” as Khoury calls it, was the notables’ preferred method and saw them through the rest of the mandatory period. They operated exactly as they had during the 19th century.[48] This is in opposition to Miller who claims that the notables lost power as a result of the revolution, implying that the French had won that power struggle. But this power balance was exactly what these notables had been seeking in the first place, making their politics successful.

Marissa: Therefore, the espousal of radical ideology was a way of maintaining the delicate status quo that the French had interrupted rather than a show of destabilizing might against French control. This can be said not only of the Syrian notables who were openly nationalist but also of the Druze notables who espoused nationalist ideology once the French began depriving them of their influence. This goes against everything the French were saying about Syrian politics at the time. Blaming the lack of order in Syria on its Muslim citizens rather than on deluded, high-handed French policy, High Commissioner Jouvenel said:

If the people are not enjoying the fruits of such free institutions today, Syria has none to blame but those who are fighting you at the present moment… It is better to prefer peace to victory, the enemy by his attacks, pillaging and massacres, forces us to continue the fight… until we have set up that degree of independence and prosperity which the people of Lebanon and Syria aspire to and which only the rebellion of today retards.’… The Commissioner has made clear that the Christian population and all foreigners will be protected with the full force of the French army.[49]

Averill: The Druzes particularly were singled out by the Francophile press as being the inherent wrench in the gears of the French Mandate in Syria. According to them in all cases were the Syrians in support of the French “save among the ever-intransigeant [src] Druses, whose very religion made them opposed to all compromise.[50] To the international community, the revolt reflected the fanatical mayhem of Muslim nationalists who espoused views based on independence but had neither the level of civilization to achieve it nor the sense to welcome French aid in achieving such goals. As the French gave in to the demands of the Syrian political elite, the revolt wound down, telling the world that the French were back in control of their mandate. But upon closer examination it becomes clear that “[the revolt] revealed that the Syrian entity created at Versailles was a fiction, bearing little relevance to the loyalties of articulate Syrians.[51]  The French Empire merely took the place of the withering Ottoman Empire.

Peasants were still exploited, government was still highly localized, religious loyalties continued to decline, and powerful Syrian politicians went about life as usual.

Marissa: Arab Muslims, Druzes, Alawites, Maronites and all other groups in pre-mandatory Syria, though they did clash, did not draw their anger from cross-century holy wars harkening back to the time of the Crusades. Rather, their pre-Mandate quarrels were based on complex ethnic, geographical and political rivalries that did not involve the French or the feranji in any way. In fact many historians argue that these ‘sectarian conflicts’ were not conflicts at all but just the outward appearance of a geo-political localism that did actually function in a stable way without European interference. As historian Joyce Laverty Miller puts it, “The attitude at Versailles was that the death of the Ottoman Empire left a void which would soon become chaos if a rational structure were not developed. In fact, no complete void existed.”

Averill: Instead of resolving conflicts in Mandatory Syria and Lebanon, the French indulged in this patriotic, historical fantasy that they were modern-day Christian Crusaders, there to save the Christians in the Levant from Muslim hostility. Historian Philip Koury put it this way: “Given the skew of French moral influence, Frenchmen preferred to emphasize social and cultural differences among Syrians and to interpret these as the products of endemic sectarian conflict.”[52] Where the French saw Syriac peoples of two different religions engaged in separatist or hostile behavior, they saw it only in the form of a dialectic between a less civilized version of themselves (the Maronites) and the modern version of medieval “Mohammedan infidels”, a Muslim fanatic, hell-bent on preventing national unity.

Marissa: Thanks for joining us today for this long and complicated episode. I know it’s a little more geopolitical than we normally do, but I felt like we needed one of these for our Borders series. So be sure to listen to all the other episodes in this series, and you can find transcripts for the episode at Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @dig_history.

Ave: If you’re looking to bedazzle yourself in some epic Dig swag, visit our Tee Public store! Find the link to our Swag store, as well as transcripts and bibliographies for all of our episodes, at

[1] Neil MacMaster, “Imperial Façades: Muslim Institutions and Propaganda in Inter-War Paris,” in Promoting the Colonial Idea, ed. Tony Chafer and Amanda Sackur (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 65

[2] Luquet, 27. Translated by Marissa C. Rhodes, original read: “Puisque les populations Levantines sont dignes de l’indépendance, pourquoi leur impose-t-on cette servitude qu’est le mandate. Elle s’impose pour trois raisons… (1) D’abord justement parce que les populations pour lesquelles ce mandate a été prévu, n’ayant ni l’habitude de l’indépendance, ni éducation politique, ni cadres administratifs, ni hommes d’Etat, ni des fonctionnaires capable de diriger le nouvel Etat, auraient risqué de se trouver brusquement dans l’anarchie.”

[3] T.E. Lawrence to Edward Marsh, 10 June, 1927.

Lloyd George, 662.

[4] David Lloyd George, Memofrs of the Peace Conference (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), 416.

[5] “The French in Syria,” New York Times, 1 November 1925, p. E8. Note this author also presumes that the mandate in Syria was given to the French so that they could protect the victimized Christians in the Levant.

[6] Tabitha Petran, Syria (New York: Praeger 1972), 11

[7] Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press 1993), 13.

[8] New York Times, 3 February 1924, p. XX4; 8 November 1925, p. XX5; 15 November 1925, p. SM5; 4

December 1925, p. 5; 20 June 1926, p. XX20; 15 July 1928 p. N8; 29 November 1925, p. XX12.

[9] Lloyd George, 674.

[10] T.E. Lawrence to Robert Graves, 28 June, 1927.


[12] Khoury, Syrian and The French Mandate, 58-60.

[13] Khoury, Syria and The French Mandate, 58.

[14] Gertrude Bell to Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, 2 October, 1919, Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University,

[15] Stephen Hemsley Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (New York: Octagon Books, 1972), 117.

[16] Littlefield, “Syrian revolt stirs new anxiety in Iraq,” p. XX6.

[17] Karlsen, Kathleen, “The Deep-Rooted Symbolism of Trees,” Living Arts Enterprises, 26 April, 2009,

[18] Petran, 61.

[19] Khoury, Syria and The French Mandate, 57.

[20] Leila M.T. Meo, Lebanon, Improbable Nation: A Study in Political Development (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1976), 28-32.

[21] Rapp, “Damascus again is put to the sword,” p. SM5.

[22] Meo, 28-32.

[23] Khoury, Syria and The French Mandate, 59-60.

[24] Khoury, Syria and The French Mandate, 154-161.

[25] Khoury, Syria and The French Mandate, 59-60.

[26] Daniel Pipes, “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1989), 429.

[27] Pipes, 431; Fuad I. Khuri, “Land reform and class structure in rural Syria,” in Syria : society, culture, and polity, ed.

Richard T. Antoun and Donald Quataert (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 51.

[28] T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars oyWisdom, a Triumph (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & company, 1935), 329.

[29] Pipes, 438.

[30] René Dussaud, Histoire et religion des Nosairîs (Paris, 1900). Reference to Henri Lammens is found in

Khuri, 50.

[31] Pipes, 434, 438.

[32] Khoury, “Continuity and Change,” 1378-9, 1382

Philip Khoury, “Syrian Urban Politics in Transition: The Quarters of Damascus during the French Mandate,” International Journal ofMiddle East Studies 16 (1984), 508.

[33] Philip Khoury, “Syrian Urban Politics in Transition: The Quarters of Damascus during the French Mandate,” International Journal ofMiddle East Studies 16 (1984), 508.

[34]Richard T. Antoun, “Ethnicity, Clientship, and Class: their Changing Meaning,” Syria. society, culture, and polity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991),10-11.

[35] A. H. Hourani, Syria and Lebanon. A Political Essay (New York: Lebanon Bookshop, 1968), 14. Hourani uses the word ‘assimilation’ but then defines what modern sociologists now call ‘acculturation.’

[36] Hourani, 1.

[37] Hourani, 7.

[38] Antoun, 9-10.

[39] Ivor Lucas, “The Paradox of Syria,” Asian Affairs 25, no. 1 (March 1994), 4.

[40] Miller, 556-7.

[41] Khoury, “Continuity and Change,”1387

[42] Khoury, “Continuity and Change,”1390.

[43] Khoury, “Continuity and Change,” 1389

[44] Khoury, “Continuity and Change,” 1386.

[45] Khoury, 1384

[46] Khoury, 1391

[47] Miller, 549.

[48] Khoury, “Continuity and Change,” 1391.

[49] Robert Poulaine, “French Attacking Druses in Hasbeiya,” New York Times, 4 December 1925, p. 5.

[50] Littlefield, “Syrian revolt stirs new anxiety in Iraq,” p. XX6.

[51] Miller, 563.

[52] Khoury, Syria and The French Mandate, 27-28.


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