USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Greater Syria?

A persuasive argument could be made that the most logical state for the Levant (today’s Israel/Palestine, Syria, Lebanon as well as western Iraq and Jordan) formed a single entity, a “greater” Syria by 1919. The prewar region had seen infrastructural development that linked the historic cities in the area, fostering economic exchange. Marriage between kinship groups provided another bond. Nonetheless, the concept of an Arab-controlled Greater Syria had little chance of overcoming the competing colonial ambitions of the French and British, who had staked their claims on the region in the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the territory. Sykes-Picot, however, did not stand the test of time and the whole arrangement between England and France would be painstakingly renegotiated in Paris after the conclusion of the war. A unified future for a greater Syria was not to withstand these negotiations.

France pushed for, and eventually took control of, a more limited Syria, which they soon split into the seven mandate states, which would eventually coalesce into two mandate states: Lebanon and Syria. The reason for the initial separation of “Greater Lebanon” from Syria was to carve out an independent state that included Mount Lebanon’s Maronite Christians, reflecting France’s “crusading past” and its Catholic mission, despite resolute secularism at home. But this desire for a Christian state in the Levant ran into serious problems. In order for the state to be viable geographically and economically, Muslim dominated territories needed to be included. While still holding a Christian majority, Lebanon would be set on a path of religious and sectarian conflict between Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shi’ite Muslims. These conflicts still plague Lebanon today.

In Syria, the French divided the territory into six administrative units, each of which reflected a dominant ethnic or religious group. The two largest states—Damascus and Aleppo—would soon be joined together to form the state of Syria in 1925. The other smaller and more restive states would be added to Syria over the next decade, expanding the territory to its present form.

French domination of Syria did not take place without local resistance. The French fought back first a more general challenge to its authority and then localized rebellions from 1920 through 1923. Internal resistance continued even after the pacification of the state. The Great Syrian Revolt, which lasted from 1925 to 1927, led to a French bombardment of the ancient city of Damascus, killing fourteen hundred people and reducing huge swathes of it to rubble. Some six thousand rebels died during the revolutionary attempt to shake off French rule. Such violence and instability came on top of tremendous dislocation and suffering caused by the war itself, all culminating in a restive society chafing under foreign occupation, domination, and military justice.

Brutal, direct governance of Syria and Lebanon had proven ineffective. After the tumult of the mid-1920s, the French chose the British model of “indirect rule”: that is, ruling a colonial or dependent territory through advantageous relationships with local elite. This would become the model of European involvement in the Near and Middle East until the end of WWII and the rise of the independence movements. Despite French designs to control Greater Syria, it was clear that France’s colonial power would wane over time. In the 1920s and even the 1930s, however, it was still unclear in which direction an independent Syria would go.

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