The Final Days of the Last Ottoman Generation, 1936-1938
Events in the Former Ottoman Realms, 1936 1937
January February Syrian General Strike
March September France Syrian Treaty negotiations
April October 1936 Palestine General Strike
August 1936 Fawzi al Quwuqji arrives in Palestine from Iraq
August October Iraqi chief of staff General Taha al Hashimi travels to
1936 Istanbul, London, Berlin, Prague, and Ankara on a
diplomatic and weapons buying trip
October 1936 Bakr Sidqi coup in Baghdad overthrows Yasin al
Hashimi’s government. Leading figures flee into exile. Coup occurs on eve of Taha al Hashimi’s return to Baghdad
November 1936 Peel Commission in the Palestine Mandate
December 1936 Syrian parliament unanimously ratifies the Franco
January 1937 Yasin al Hashimi dead of apparent heart attack in
Beirut at 53. Funeral and interment takes place in Damascus
The Syrian People, who formed a part of the Ottoman Empire without any distinction between them and the Turkish people, in rights and obli gations, enjoyed suffrage rights for all councils and assemblies, controlled revenue and expenditures, and levied taxes through their deputies in the Ottoman Chamber. Their Constitution was safeguarded, their resources protected, and their liberty was respected. There were no Customs bar riers between themselves and other parts of the Empire. They engaged in trade, made profits, and came and went as they pleased.
At the present time Syria, which was united, has been turned into several States with various ministers and Governments. There is not a single Syrian department which has not at its side another French department, from the ministry to the local police station. Elections are abolished, the Constitution has been torn up, and the Chamber of Deputies has been suspended ...
Petition from Dr. Tawfiq Shishshakli, Hama, February 4, 1936
to the High Commissioner1
Hananu’s death coincided with a regional explosion of frustration and disappointment. Forty days after the funeral, in January 1936, National Bloc leaders in Damascus organized a march from the Umayyad Mosque, through the central market Suq al-Hamidiyya, along Jamal Basha street (today’s al-Nasr Street) to Damascus University. Yasin al-Hashimi, Amir cAbdallah, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, and the Maronite Patriarch sent eulogies and condolences that were read to the crowd. Faris al-Khuri’s younger brother, also a lawyer and president of the Damascus Bar, Fa’iz al-Khuri, gave a fiery speech demanding the unity and independence of Ottoman Greater Syria, the cancellation of the Balfour Declaration, Pan Arab Union, and the legal equality of all citizens regardless of religion.2 High Commissioner de Martel summoned al-Khuri and the Bloc leaders to register his displeasure with their insolence. De Martel remarked that he could readily order the Senegalese sentry at his office door to take Fa’iz al-Khuri away in chains. The British consul noted wryly, “teaching subservient races the languages of their alien rulers is a two edged sword.”3 Mass demonstrations followed, beginning in Damascus and soon including other cities under the mandate. The demonstrations brought an impromptu strike, which was only belatedly adopted by the Bloc leaders. Mandate police met the demonstrations in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama with mass arrests and live fire. Toward the end of January, mandate police killed four protesters, and 20,000 Damascenes marched in a funeral procession the following day for their funerals.4 Cautious Homs politician Hashim al-Atasi had become National Bloc president. Deprived of Hananu’s decisive and steadying influence, al- Atasi and the Bloc declared a general strike at the end of January, by which time the younger activists had long seized the initiative and shut down the mandate’s cities. As in 1925, Syria’s nationalist politicians found themselves scrambling to keep up with popular anger and opposition to the mandate. By mid February, mandate troops had killed scores of demonstrators and High Commissioner de Martel had declared martial law. Tension and popular outrage spread throughout the region. The example of independent Iraq under Ottoman and pan- Arab hero Yasin al-Hashimi was the new inspiration.
The General Strike continued in all Syrian cities for nearly two months. Unlike the Great Revolt of 1925 7, which began in Hawran, and did not spread north of Hama, the 1936 strike involved all the regions of the mandate, and paralyzed the normal civic and commercial activities of every town and city, including remote Dayr al-Zur, on the Euphrates, and border towns closer to the urban centers of Iraq and Turkey than to Damascus. Activists strung thick green cords across the entrances to the covered markets to symbolically close the suqs. Students, ranging from those in primary schools to those in universities, stayed home till the mandate officials capitulated and ordered the schools closed until further notice. Food became scarce, and people openly shared what little was available. Some hoarding and profiteering occurred, but the general feeling emphasized communal sacrifice and effort. The major cities of Greater Lebanon, Beirut, Saida, and Tripoli all struck in sympathy and support. Marches and demonstrations took place daily, culminating in the largest weekly protests on Friday.5
Damascus had long been the most important Ottoman Arab city, and the principal focal point of Ottoman State modernization and infrastructure projects. Members of the politically engaged public in Iraq and Palestine customarily followed the news and trends from Damascus, and notice of the strike and demonstrations spread widely. Yasin al-Hashimi was the most famous Arab politician, and nominally independent Iraq the envy of politicized Arabs everywhere. The Baghdad press covered agitation in Syria and Palestine exhaustively and the Iraqi cabinet welcomed one Arab delegation after another to Baghdad.6 In the middle of the Syrian General Strike in February, Yasin al-Hashimi sent thirty Baghdad University law students on an official political study tour of Syria and Palestine. Demonstrations and donation drives in Baghdad gathered food and money for the relief of striking cities in Syria.
Neighboring Palestinians struck in solidarity with the Syrians and demanded action from the political leadership. Shopkeepers and labor leaders had tried to shutter their shops and strike alongside their Syrian cousins, but British Mandate officials threatened striking laborers with their permanent replacement by Jewish workers.7 They threatened merchants with closure of their shops and seizure of their goods. Demonstrations nevertheless took place in every city under mandate in Greater Syria, including Transjordan. In Damascus, mandate authorities blamed opposition on nationalist troublemakers in the cities and “bandits” in the countryside. High Commissioner de Martel ordered the arrest, imprisonment, or exile of the Bloc political leaders. De Martel publicly argued that agitation and fear of nationalist violence kept ordinary Syrians from cooperating with the mandate and reopening their shops and returning to work. But merchants and tradesmen protested his assertions vigorously and refused the “protection” he offered. Mandate martial law courts arrested, tried, and sentenced 3,080 people during January and February.8
Bloc president Hashim al-Atasi declared the nationalist program the only solution to the impasse in Syria. “Seventeen years of the Mandate had passed with continuous bloodshed, terror and harsh sanctions, which had long suppressed the voice of justice.” Syrians’ demands remained as they had at the beginning of the miserable ordeal: the unity and independence of the country, and a nation in control of its own destiny.9 Two days after the manifesto appeared in Damascus’ al-Qabas newspaper, the largest demonstration yet took place in Damascus. Police fired on protesters, killing four and wounding many. Most Bloc leaders had been jailed or exiled to Turkey, but Hashim al-Atasi had seemed sufficiently nonthreatening to remain free. The prospect of growing unrest spurred De Martel to dismiss the cabinet of notorious toady Taj al-Din al-Hasani and appoint a new Syrian cabinet headed by 59-year-old Mulkiye-trained Ottoman statesman cAta al-Ayyubi, and including three Bloc cabinet members. High Commissioner de Martel, under urgent orders from Paris, invited Bloc president Hashim al-Atasi, new prime minister al-Ayyubi, and members of the cabinet to Beirut for intensive negotiations to end the strike.10After two days of closed discussions, De Martel ordered the release of the Bloc leaders from jail, and Bloc president Hashim al-Atasi declared an end to the strike at the beginning of March 1936.
De Martel announced immediate treaty talks in Paris. A National Bloc delegation including Hashim al-Atasi, Jamil Mardam Bey, Faris al-Khuri, and a few others, sailed from Beirut for France, and arrived in Paris at the end of March 1936. Treaty negotiations opened as before: French priorities included the permanent sectarian partition of the country, the imposition of French governors, and French military garrisons. But French elections loomed, and at the end of April, the French centrist Radical government fell and a leftist coalition was elected. The election of Leon Blum’s Popular Front government rescued the treaty negotiations from complete breakdown, but also postponed their resumption till June. The delegation remained in Paris, waiting for the new government to take office. Yasin al-Hashimi paid their hotel bills.