Syria and Maysalun

Gouraud had made a series of truculent ultimatums to Faysal. Faysal, without British support, without diplomatic allies in Europe, and without the effective military mobilization Generals al-cAzma and al-Hashimi urged, conceded everything to Gouraud. Faysal wished to discuss Gouraud’s demands with Allenby, but Allenby ignored him. Faysal eventually replied to the ultimatum, but Gouraud ordered the advance on Damascus without waiting. As the march continued, Gouraud conveyed his complaint to Faysal that the concession was insufficiently detailed, to which Faysal replied in more detail within the allotted time. Gouraud implausibly claimed later that he considered Faysal’s reply a legal ceasefire, and that he ordered his troops to retreat, but before they could retreat from the plain of Maysalun in the mountains just west of Damascus, they were attacked by Arab bands, and thereby forced to counterattack and march on and occupy Damascus.

The British, in disavowing support for their former client, had become increasingly hostile, and sought to blame Faysal for his inability to placate the French. As the battle loomed, the quarters of Damascus had been emptied of young men as crowds walked west, some armed only with swords or sticks, to meet the mechanized French column. Chief of staff Yasin al-Hashimi warned Defense Minister Yusuf al-cAzma there were only a couple hours worth of ammunition for the inadequate forces. Al-Hashimi noted, “Orders to fight for the sake of honor are easy for ministers, but hard for soldiers.”53 Tahsin al-cAskari, brother of Jacfar al-cAskari, and Ramadan Shallash had left Iraq and returned to Damascus with other ex-Ottoman officers only days before.54 French commanding General Goybet reported that the Syrian defenders had created impressive fortifications and a comprehensive defense given their meager resources. A French artillery burst killed minister of war Yusuf al-cAzma, as he commanded the defense.55 When the family of Yasin al-Hashimi heard the leader of the army had been killed they were seized with grief, only to learn, when he walked through the door, that Yasin had survived and Yusuf al-cAzma was among the fallen. With the Battle of Maysalun, France occupied and claimed Syria. Ex-Ottoman officers like Yasin al-Hashimi scattered and went into hiding. General Gouraud visited the tomb of Saladin and gave a speech proclaiming victory not only over Syria, but over the Crusades, and Saladin himself.

The surrender and partition of the Ottoman state was supposed to be formalized in the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920. Ottoman German concessions and oil resources would be reconfigured to benefit the victorious allies. Existing Anglo-French commercial privileges would remain. The Middle Eastern mandates would follow the agreement of San Remo, with a close resemblance to the lines drawn in 1916 in the Sykes Picot agreement. Western Anatolia would be given to Greece, South West Anatolia to Italy, an Armenian state would be formed in eastern Anatolia, and the French zone would extend to Sivas and east to Van. Istanbul and the straits would be under international (British) administration and the demilitarized Ottoman government would control a shrunken core including Ankara, Bursa, and some Black Sea coastline.56

But things did not go according to plan. The Ottoman army returned to the field, along with irregular elements everywhere, and the victorious powers lost the struggle to enforce their partition plan. By forcing the treaty on the sultan’s government, they precipitated its final break with the nationalist movement in Anatolia. After Sevres, the nationalist movement could credibly declare the sultan’s government and the Entente Powers the enemy of the Ottoman homeland and people.

In September 1920 General Gouraud declared the creation of a new state called Greater Lebanon. The creation of the separate mandatory state was based upon an expansion of a special Ottoman administrative district of Mount Lebanon (Mutasarrifiyya Jabal Lubnan), and French desires to foster a loyal client population among the Maronite Christians. The Maronite community, which had long had ties to the French Catholic church, was a majority in certain mountain districts east of Beirut, stretching along the mountain range to the south and north. The French plan to create Greater Lebanon expanded this district to include areas where the majority population was Muslim, both of the Shici and Sunni rite.57 General Gouraud and his secretary, Robert de Caix, designed the new state in modest collaboration with a selection of pro-French former Ottoman politicians and Maronite clergy. Eighteen months later, Gouraud announced the sectarian electoral law for Greater Lebanon. The law was partly based on the principle of an Ottoman parliamentary representative for each 50,000 residents, but in an innovation of Robert de Caix, the seats were allotted by religious sect, with clear favoritism for Maronite Christians, based on the results of a likely-rigged recent census. The sectarian division in the administrative council, with seats reserved by religion, was a

French invention. The sectarian apportionment forms the electoral basis of Lebanese parliamentary politics until today, and has been long- criticized as a source of instability and electoral injustice.58

In late summer 1920, and after occupying Damascus and Aleppo, France resumed the fight in Cilicia. French colonial troops landed at Mersin to fight their way back to the towns of the interior. France abandoned support for the Armenians and brought thousands of Armee du Levant colonial troops. Desire to wrest a suitable settlement from the Anatolian nationalists, and secure Syria drove these policies. Having fomented a sectarian war in Cilicia with the Armenian Legion, France publicly abandoned the Armenians as a colonial client population. The president of the National Assembly argued in the chamber that the motives of France in the East were entirely altruistic: French colonies would bring civilization to all people, but France did not come for imperialistic motives. And yet, the president noted, the previous policy of support for minorities in the former Ottoman territories could not stand when those same minorities were unable to recognize the benefits and limits of French support. The Greeks and the Armenians could not stand in the way of friendly relations with a new Turkey, and France would not fight a major war in Anatolia on their behalf. It was necessary to negotiate with the Turkish leaders, who seemed to be, the president argued, reasonable people.59 France could protect her interests and rest secure in the promises that non-Muslim minorities would be protected.

By December 1920 Mustafa Kemal was personally commanding a re-formed Ottoman army division at cUrfa and promising to advance into the French zone in Syria. French forces in the Taurus mountains were defeated and withdrawing to the coast. Ibrahim Hananu had defeated a series of French patrols in the region of Aleppo. The mandate government controlled a radius no more than eight kilometers from Aleppo, and the French controlled no areas of the surrounding countryside. Salih al-cAli in the cAlawi Mountains south of Antakya and along the coast and other regional rebels had likewise defeated a series of French patrols, and were collaborating with nationalist forces to the north.

The Anatolian nationalists were widely considered capable of capturing and occupying Aleppo at their pleasure. According to British intelligence reports, the prevailing opinion held that Kemal’s forces would be in Homs by spring. Kemal himself was said to have promised to blow up the Homs Beirut railway line by the end of February. British intelligence forecast a warm welcome for returning Ottoman military forces. The French administration had summarily fired all former Ottoman officials, and was consequently unable to assemble a functioning colonial bureaucracy. General Gouraud was increasingly desperate to seek terms with Mustafa Kemal.60 Meanwhile, British airpower had temporarily cowed Iraqi insurgents, though at great cost in lives and the British public treasury.

Faysal was a refugee king, but the rebellion and costly suppression of Iraq led to a British effort to draft him as king of Iraq, a job he evidently welcomed after his expulsion from Syria.61 Faysal’s friend, and former British army officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence, had become a major celebrity in London, as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence had begun a well-publicized campaign against direct rule of Iraq, which happened to coincide with the public outcry over the costly suppression of the Iraqi Revolt. Lawrence knew the fiscal argument against direct rule was persuasive, and he began to agitate for a new role for Faysal. Two days after General Gouraud brought an end to Faysal’s government in Damascus, Lawrence published a letter in The Times. The letter was widely read and crossed many desks in England, France, and the Middle East.

Freedom is enjoyed when you are so well armed, or so turbulent, or inhabit a country so thorny that the expense of your neighbour occupying it is greater than the profit. Feisel’s government in Syria has been completely independent for two years, and has maintained public security in its area.

The expense curve will go up to 50 million pounds in Mesopotamia this year. Mesopotamian desire for independence grows. The government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people. In Turkish days the two army corps in Mesopotamia were 60 per cent Arab in officers, 95 per cent in other ranks.62

 
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