Ibrahim Hananu Puts the Settlement on Trial

The withdrawal of French forces from Anatolia, and the removal of Anatolian nationalist support for the Syrians, was the end for Ibrahim Hananu’s movement. In July 1921 he fled to Transjordan where he was arrested and returned to French custody by the British. The French authorities considered Hananu an outlaw and rebel leader, but in defining the mandate and its rivals, French authorities seriously underestimated Hananu. In 1921, Hananu was 53 years old, and had served as an Ottoman reserve army officer, prominent Aleppo politician, and Ottoman provincial official. He had received an Ottoman civil education in Aleppo’s Sultani civil preparatory school, followed by study and graduation from the elite Mulkiye civil service academy in Istanbul and a certificate and license in Ottoman law. He had taught briefly at the Ottoman Imperial Military Academy in Istanbul. Hananu was in jail awaiting trial until early the following year.74

General Gouraud announced Hananu’s prosecution by public court martial. Hananu turned out to be a skilled lawyer and orator and the trial was a disaster for the mandate authority. According to the British consul, the extradition of Hananu from British-mandate Transjordan caused intense criticism of the British, and when Hananu was tried, in mid March 1922, thousands of people gathered outside the courtroom. He was accused of organizing rebel bands, of engaging in brigandage, and atrocities, murder, and the destruction of state property. Hananu challenged the legality of his extradition, the legality of mandate martial law, and the French Mandate itself. The judge replied that the League of Nations had given the mandate to France. Hananu pointed out that the King Crane Commission had already received full testimony of Syrian opposition to the French Mandate, and consequently the League violated its own charter to safeguard the wishes of the mandatory populations. Neither the court nor the mandate itself was a legitimate body, he argued.

Hananu declared that he was a patriotic politician and not a brigand. The Syrian population evidently agreed, and the British consul opined that the local police and gendarmes were considered to be his enthusiastic supporters, and were likely to release him to the embrace of the crowd whatever the outcome of the trial. Hananu noted that before the war he opposed Ottoman laws he felt limited the autonomy of his region, but after the war, France and Britain had partitioned the region, curtailed liberty, censored the press, and jailed sincere patriots.

Hananu opposed the settlement, and had been appointed diplomatic envoy to Syria by Mustafa Kemal and the Anatolian nationalists. He had papers to prove it. General Gouraud had considered Kemal’s nationalist government sufficiently legitimate to negotiate and sign treaties with it. As a documented representative of that government, he was immune from French prosecution. Anyway, he had been merely a diplomatic envoy and the military operations were in the hands of serving Ottoman officers. “In response to the charge that he had always opposed the French mandate, he admitted this, but stated this was not a crime punishable by death.”75 After numerous witnesses attested to Ibrahim Hananu’s good character, and patriotic heroism, the court acquitted him by a vote of three to two. His acquittal provoked joyful celebrations, not only in Aleppo, but throughout the region.76

Also in March 1922, French Mandate official Colonel Catroux fired well-known Damascus intellectual, journalist, and publisher, Muhammad Kurd cAli, from his job as chief of public instruction. Kurd

cAli is a famous figure in the history of the Arab nationalist movement. He founded the Arabic Academy at Damascus in 1918, and is known for his multi-volume work on Damascus, Kitab al-Khitat al-Sham, and his publication of al-Muqtabas, the nationalist newspaper of record through the early mandate. In a surprising subversion of his Arab nationalism bonafides, Kurd cAli was fired because he visited Germany and France, paid a cordial visit to the exiled former Ottoman governor of Syria, Cemal Pasa, in Berlin, and failed to visit Colonel Catroux while in Paris. Catroux considered his visit to Cemal, and his failure to call on him, symbolic of his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the mandate.77

Two weeks after the end of Hananu’s trial, in early April 1922, American businessman Charles Crane visited Damascus. Crane had been the president of the American mandates (King Crane) commission appointed by President Wilson to survey the wishes of the inhabitants of the former Ottoman realms in 1919. The Syrian countryside was increasingly restive after Hananu’s release and on the day of Crane’s arrival in Damascus, seventeen French soldiers and one officer were killed outside Aleppo. Upon his arrival, Crane met his friend from his 1919 visit, Dr. cAbd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar.

cAbd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar was briefly Faysal’s foreign minister in 1920. French authorities exiled him in 1920 and allowed his return in 1921, after which he became the leading nationalist political figure in Damascus. He had spent the early years of the war in Damascus, until he felt in danger from Ottoman governor Cemal Pasa, in 1916, and left for Cairo, seeking refuge for a time at the village of a Druze shaykh named Sultan al-Atrash, about a hundred kilometers south of Damascus.

Shahbandar welcomed Crane back to Damascus with a large picnic along the verdant Barada river gorge, a short train ride from Damascus. Crane gave a speech and noted that in Europe people assumed the Syrians welcomed France in their region. Crane pointed out that the League of Nations was the last forum available for Syrians to make their case to the world. After a series of meetings and dinners, Crane left by car for Beirut a couple days later. As Crane left from the square in front of the Victoria Hotel, Shahbandar gave a fiery speech in opposition to the mandate. Once Crane was out of sight, on the road to Beirut, French police arrested the nationalist leaders who had hosted him, including Shahbandar. The prisoners were immediately transferred to prison outside Damascus.78

Larger demonstrations followed on Friday in front of the main Umayyad Mosque. Shops were closed and concentrations of police and mandate soldiers met angry protesters who called for the release of Shahbandar and the other leaders. When the crowds refused to disperse, armored cars and mounted troops advanced, and police fired into the air. Scores more were arrested. Gouraud declared martial law, and imposed a curfew on the city. Mandate soldiers barricaded streets with machine guns and tanks. Mandate authorities determined not to repeat the mistake of Hananu’s trial, and a closed military tribunal tried and sentenced the nationalists. This established a precedent of military trials for political prisoners, which lasted for the entirety of the French mandate in Syria until 1946. Syria’s post-independent governments also reinstated martial law under the euphemism “emergency laws.” After the demonstrations and arrests of the first week, prominent women, several of whom were married to the jailed political leaders, led a march of thousands through the city. Shops were closed in protest. The mandate authority posted notices threatening shop owners with heavy fines if they failed to open for business. The notices were immediately torn down. The “Women of Damascus” presented a petition to the High Commissioner and the British consul, signed by the wives of the imprisoned nationalists, calling for the release of the prisoners and the institution of rule of law and freedom in Syria. The petition noted the imprisoned leaders had simply called for the freedom of their country. The military tribunal released most of the hundreds of people arrested, but Shahbandar, Sacid Haydar, Hasan al-Hakim, and four others were sentenced to prison terms of up to twenty years.79 (See Figure 3.1.) Circulars appeared in Damascus addressed to “the Syrian Patriot Brothers,” and signed by the Fida’in al-Filistin, or “Patriots of

Dr. Shahbandar Prison Postcard, 1922 (Lemke Collection)

Figure 3.1. Dr. Shahbandar Prison Postcard, 1922 (Lemke Collection)

Palestine.” The circular noted that the jailed Damascenes had declared they preferred “prison to shame,” and that the Syrians’ fervent desire for freedom from occupation and against the colonizers would surely prevail. Mandate intelligence attributed this notice to Haj Amin al-Husayni and his nationalist friends.80

Meanwhile, events in Anatolia were widely known and greeted rapturously in Damascus, Jerusalem and many other places. French authorities had hoped jailing Damascus’ most popular nationalist politicians would calm the population, but the atmosphere of ferment and excitement was inescapable. The press declared Mustafa Kemal “a new savior of Islam,” and a “Hero of the Ottoman East,” and people throughout the region publicly anticipated the return of Ottoman armies of liberation.81 A month or so later, a group of prominent Damascus citizens, not already in jail, organized to agitate for renewed union with the Ottoman state. Among the members were a number of former supporters of both the wartime Ottoman governor Cemal Pasa, and Arab revolt leader Amir Faysal. They called themselves The Society for the Salvation of the Near Eastern Peoples, or Jamfat lil-Takhlis al-Sharq. They wrote and printed pamphlets, which were distributed throughout the cities of the Syrian Mandate, calling for union with the brother Turks, and resistance against the French. Weapons were supposed to be forthcoming from nationalist forces north of the 1918 armistice line.82

In July 1922, Adham Khanjar, the would-be assassin of General Gouraud of 1921, crossed the border between Transjordan and the Syrian Mandate. Khanjar and a band of guerillas were on their way to sabotage the Damascus electrical generating plant by means of explosives. Mandate police dispersed the band at the border, and with the French authorities in pursuit, Adham Khanjar sought refuge at the house of Sultan al-Atrash, a Druze shaykh and well-known enemy of the French mandatory government. Sultan al-Atrash was not in his village, and French officers captured and arrested Adham Khanjar. When Sultan al-Atrash learned that Khanjar had sought refuge at his house and had been captured, he protested that the prisoner was his guest and he was honor-bound to protect him until the authorities made a formal request for him, with which he promised he would cooperate.

Sultan al-Atrash sent a series of telegrams to the native and French authorities protesting the breach of customary law.83 Sultan al-Atrash gathered his brothers and a few friends to launch an attack to free Khanjar. The group, several Ottoman army veterans, including Sultan al-Atrash, among them, blocked a roadway with stones at a blind curve and ambushed a French armored car convoy in dramatic fashion. Khanjar was not in the convoy, and French authorities hanged him in Damascus shortly after, but the news of the convoy’s destruction was greeted enthusiastically throughout the region and Sultan al-Atrash become regionally famous. French forces responded to the destruction of the convoy by issuing death warrants for the rebels, and dispatching the full French Mandate air force of thirty airplanes to bomb villages and fleeing rebels. The High Commissioner ordered the destruction of Atrash houses, and the burning of the fields of Sultan al-Atrash and his brothers. With French warrants on their heads, the guerillas fled to Transjordan.84

From exile, Sultan al-Atrash wrote to the League of Nations Mandates Commission at Geneva. Shakib Arslan forwarded a translation. The petition addressed the League of Nations in resolutely secular terms on behalf of the Arab nation (Al-Umma al-cArabiyya). The letter refers to the Syrian nation, which they note is a geographical entity under occupation. The petition complains of the “broken promises of the allies, the division of Syria into four states and more territories, the curtailment of liberties previously enjoyed, and the persecution of intellectuals, exiled, imprisoned and tortured in the name of the mandate.” Two years had passed since France had entered Syria, and despite the League of Nations, and the fine words of the civilized world, Syria had still not obtained justice, or the right of “self-determination.” The petitioners noted that the mandate required their consent, which they did not give, and that France had entered their country by military force. They consequently wanted an end to the mandate and the recognition of Syrian independence within its natural borders. They finally noted that the Syrian Palestinian Congress spoke for them and protested the bombing of their towns and villages by French aircraft.85

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