The Mandate in Syria and Lebanon
French colonialism in the Middle East began and ended as a military affair. The first High Commissioner, General Henri Gouraud, appointed in October 1919, was also the commander of the Army of the Levant. Generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Sarrail followed Gouraud between 1923 and late 1925, when in the midst of the Syrian Revolt, Sarrail was removed, and Henry de Jouvenel, a civilian politician and journalist, stepped in to salvage the mandate. Civilian diplomat Henri Ponsot succeeded de Jouvenel in 1926, and was the longest- serving High Commissioner, between 1926 and 1933. The last civilian diplomat High Commissioner, Damian de Martel, arrived in late 1933, negotiated a never-ratified treaty with Syrian politicians in 1936, and left Syria after the beginning of the World War II in October 1939. His successor, military intelligence officer Henri Dentz, who was pressed into service as Vichy High Commissioner, allowed German access to mandate ports and airfields, and was eventually sentenced to death for collaboration with the Nazis.
Gouraud and his General Secretary and chief strategist Robert de Caix established the principal patterns of the French mandatory regime in Syria and Lebanon. As noted above, de Caix served as the accredited representative to the League of Nations for the French Mandate between 1924 and 1939. The mandate government identified educated Ottoman Muslim Arabs of the cities as its main enemies, and sectarian minorities and rural populations as its potential allies, in subduing and ruling the country. The members of the minorities were arranged in a hierarchy with Lebanese Maronite Christians in alliance with Jesuit priests at the top, followed by the other Christian rites, cAlawite, and Druze Muslims, and Bedouin.
Two months after the conquest of Damascus, in September 1920, General Gouraud announced the formation of the State of Greater Lebanon with its capital at Beirut. The state would take its place as the Maronite homeland, based on an expansion of the Ottoman autonomous governate of Mount Lebanon (mutasarrifiyya Jabal Lubnan) from about 5,000 to 10,450 square kilometers.55 The Ottoman State had formed the governate of Mount Lebanon in 1860 after the Druze- Maronite war that brought unwelcome French and British intervention. Famous mid-century Ottoman statesman Fuad Pasa intended to create a semi-autonomous Maronite state in order to limit potential sectarian conflict and keep France out of Ottoman affairs. Gouraud and de Caix considered the Maronite clergy France’s greatest local allies, and so consulted them about the new arrangement. They desired a larger
Lebanon, under Christian domination, to include Beirut, the fertile plain of Biqac and the mountains surrounding it to the north, east, and south. The problem with this territorial dream was the dilution of a Maronite majority in an expanded territory. Gouraud and De Caix placed Maronites in a dominant position despite their numbers.
When General Gouraud declared the existence of Greater Lebanon he also announced a fifteen-member Administrative Council organized by sect, and 66 percent dominated by Christians. The council was organized by religion and locale and Gouraud appointed its members. When General Gouraud selected his Administrative Council, he ignored the existing Ottoman Administrative Council. The Ottoman administration had included a Christian governor, always originating from outside Lebanon, and a loose representative structure in which each district was supposed to be represented on the Administrative Council by a member of the “dominant sect.” Modifications could be made, and in practice the representative usually came from the leading family of the districts, with less regard for religion than status and position.56 The Ottoman pre-war council resented their exclusion and objected strongly to the mandate. Seven of the twelve members wrote a petition to the League of Nations, and protested the expansion of Lebanon, the French Mandate, and the denial of the full independence they felt they deserved. Among the signatories were the most prominent Christians in the country, including Saad Allah Hoyek, the brother of the Maronite Patriarch, the leading proFrench figure and supporter of General Gouraud’s plan.57 They pointed out that under Ottoman rule they had enjoyed great autonomy.
How could the colonial power assure its Christian clients political domination as a sectarian minority? A doctored census and sectarian electoral roles followed shortly, but the acknowledged result was a Muslim majority colonial state under the control of indigenous Christians with a colonial sponsor.58 The system of sectarian proportional representation and the division of Lebanon into seventeen separate and legally defined sectarian communities was an invention of Robert de Caix and has prevailed in Lebanon until the present. Lebanese of all religions regularly denounce sectarian proportional representation, but the country seems to be stuck with it, along with many other lesser-known colonial institutions.
Having defeated Faysal’s army, conquered Syria, occupied Damascus, and invented Lebanon during summer 1920, Gouraud and de Caix turned their attention to arranging Syria’s regions and religions. The colonial idea of protecting eastern Christians from the imagined savagery of their Arab Muslim neighbors was more complicated in inland Syria. Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs all had large, cultured, multireligious elite families who expected to exert their influence on local and regional politics as they had done as Ottoman provincial elites. People like Shakib Arslan, Musa Kazim al-Husayni, Yusuf al-cAzma, Faris al- Khuri, and Rustum Haydar were representatives of such families. A strategy emerged of separating the troublesome cities from rural areas, which were expected to be more quiescent and more easily convinced of the benefits of French rule.
Robert de Caix designed the partition of the Syrian Mandate into five separate micro-states, each with a specific sectarian majority, beginning after the occupation of Damascus and Aleppo in summer 1920.59 First the two major cities were separated and governed separately by an appointed native governor with French military advisors. In 1922 the State of Jabal Druze was formed in a mostly Druze region south of Damascus, and the coastal mountain area north of Greater Lebanon was declared the territory (later state) of the Alawites. Later that same year, the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama were brought back together in an entity called the Syrian Federation, mostly for reasons of economizing on direct rule.
Under Ottoman rule both Damascus and Aleppo had been separate provincial capitals, and they had never been united within one administrative unit. The Ottoman Wilayat Suriyya with its capital of Damascus had extended from Hama to the Red Sea port of ‘Aqaba. The Wilayat of Allepo ran north from Hama to east central Anatolia. The Wilayat of Beirut had encompassed the coastal regions from what is today the Turkish Syria border to just north of today’s Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In 1924 the region around Antakya and the historic port of Iskandarun were separated from Aleppo and became the autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta. Alexandretta with its strategic location and mixed Turkish- and Arabicspeaking population was set aside as a future bargaining chip to be used in maintaining friendly relations with the emerging Turkish Republic.60
De Caix perceived the society of the region in simple terms melding sectarianism and French colonial interests seamlessly. The Uniate Christians were reliable “friends of France,” and should be rewarded accordingly. The rural heterodox Muslims were isolated from the major cities and should remain so, governed by their tribal leaders with a strong guiding French hand. The major cities were the preserve of Muslim nationalist Sharifian extremists, who should be ruled directly, closely dominated, and kept from spreading their contagion of nationalism and fanaticism to other regions. De Caix saw urban Muslims and ex-Ottoman elites as what he called “nationalist extremists” and consequently potential clients of Great Britain, the imperial ally and rival that provoked endless official anxiety. French sponsorship of Arab Christians opposed to Arab nationalism fit neatly into this schema.
French Mandate policies and politics remained relatively constant in the first years of the mandate. Things changed, however, with the election of a leftist coalition in France in 1925 and the appointment of a leftist and anti-clericalist High Commissioner. After the costly and destructive suppression of the Great Revolt in 1926 and 1927, mandate policy came to be driven by fiscal retrenchment and the more indirect forms of rule over Aleppo and Damascus came to prevail, coupled with a fully militarized though somewhat remote structure of intelligence and repression. The more optimistic and ideological claims for mandate rule faded away.
Under Robert de Caix’s guidance, the French mandates began as a more ideological undertaking than the British mandates. At the outset, mandate officials announced that they would institute a new legal system, regularize land tenure and survey all landed property, regularize taxation and customs, and build modern infrastructure. Direct rule and colonial ideology meant the wholesale rejection of much of the Ottoman governing apparatus. By the end of the mandate twenty-six years later, most of these plans had long been abandoned and forgotten, but some lasting changes had materialized. The mandate had been endowed with an authoritarian executive in the office of the High Commissioner, and an overriding legal structure of martial law and unchecked intelligence services answering directly to the High Commissioner.61
Infrastructural improvements had mostly served military ends in the form of paved roads, airfields, and other communication and transportation structures. Land tenure, taxation, and educational reforms had been mostly still-born. The announcement of such wholesale reform in 1920 took place in an atmosphere of ignorance and ideological selfdelusion, ignorance of the existing Ottoman system, and self-delusion about the motives and capabilities of the colonial power.