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The Syrian Revolt of 1925

  • Joyce Laverty Miller (a1)

In the summer of 1925, a revolt erupted in the French mandated territories of Syria and Lebanon and rapidly spread throughout the area. The French army of the Levant seemed powerless to halt it. By autumn, no part of Syria or Lebanon was secure against sudden disruption of life and property. Stories of French incompetence, impotence, and arrogance were widely circulated in the Syrian and European press. The Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, in a rare exercise of its limited powers, refused to accept the French report for 1925, which covered only the comparatively calm period preceding the revolt, and demanded instead a full account of the disturbances, as well as the restoration of peace in the mandate. In October, when rebels infiltrated Damascus, the French military administration took a drastic step to end the revolt. Without warning, General Sarrail, the high commissioner, ordered the ancient city bombarded continuously for nearly twenty-four hours. When the smoke lifted, much of Damascus was in ruins; the reported loss of life and property appalled world opinion and galvanized Arab dissidents. A torrent of violent and emotional criticism was unleashed. In some quarters it was even hinted that the League of Nations would remove the mandate from French control. Yet less than a year later, the revolt had been quashed and France's hold on the mandate was so secured internationally that it survived into World War II.

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1 Permanent Mandates Commission, Minutes of the Seventh Session (1925), pp. 1080. The extent of the revolt and press coverage are reported variously in: Centenaire de la Légion Etrangère, Livre d'Or de la Légion Etrangère (Paris, 1931), p. 269; Gamelin, General, Servir (Paris, 1946), pp. ix–x; “Le Mystère syrien”, Journal des Débats, 09 4, 1925; LaMazière, Pierre, Partant pour la Syrie (Paris, 1926), pp. 2025 (LaMazière, a journalist, went to Syria at the same time as Henry de Jouvenel, the new high commissioner, appointed in November 1925 to settle the revolt and liberalize the mandate. LaMazière's book provides a valuable eyewitness account of daily life in Syria during the revolt); and letters and newsclippings retained in the Fonds Henry de Jouvenel. (The Fonds Henry de Jouvenel, hereafter the Fonds, comprise some 110 portfolios of personal and governmental documents spanning Jouvenel's career as a journalist, senator and statesman. Forty of the folios pertain to the period Jouvenel spent in Syria, November 1925-June 1926. The Fonds, deposited in the Archives Départmentales de la Corrèze, were consulted with the permission of Jouvenel's son, Bertrand de Jouvenel.)

2 Bombardment of towns and villages was a common procedure used by both the French and the British to punish recalcitrant villages in their overseas holdings. It had not previously been used against a major city like Damascus in the Middle East and in this instance foreign diplomatic missions did not receive prior warning as required by international law. Doty, Bennett J., The Legion of the Damned (New York, 1928), pp. 7679, 172176; Cooper, A. R., The Man Who Liked Hell (London, 1933), pp. 248249; Harvey, John, With the Foreign Legion in Syria (London, 1928), pp. 157162; “Le Mandat syrien et la commission de Rome”, Journal des Débats, 02 26, 1926; and Vinogradov, Amal, “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of the Tribes in National Politics”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3, 2 (1972), 123139.

3 Wright, Quincy, “The Bombardment of Damascus”, American Journal of International Law, 20 (04 1926), 264279; MacCallum, Elizabeth, The Nationalist Crusade in Syria (New York, 1928), pp. 132145; L'Oumran (Damascus), 10 26, 1925, translated and reprinted in Revue de la Presse de Damas (unpublished intelligence report) in Fonds; New Statesmen (19251926), pp. 101102; Le Temps (Paris), 10 23–25, 1925. Some 5,000 Arabs were killed or wounded, 137 French killed, and 500 neutrals killed or wounded during the assault. Property losses amounted to nearly $9 million.

4 The interpretation that this was a nationalist revolt gained currency at the time and has persisted to the present. See: intelligence reports submitted to the High Commissioner in Fonds; MacCallum, , Nationalist Crusade in Syria; de Jouvenel, Henry, editorial in Le Matin (Paris), 11 7, 1925; Georges-Gaulis, Berthe, La Question arabe (Paris, 1930); Chastenet, Jacques, Les Années d'illusion (Paris, 1960); Seale, Patrick, The Struggle for Syria (London, 1965). This same sentiment was expressed in interviews with the author by two men (Arabs) who lived in the mandate at the time of the revolt: Haccache, Georges, an editor of La Syrie (Beirut) and M. Mahassen, a former Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Textbooks skim over the revolt, sometimes labeling it nationalist if they mention it at all, leaving the impression that it was insignificant. Sorel, Jean-Albert, Le Mandat française et l'expansion economique de la Syrie et du Liban (Paris, 1929), treats it as unimportant. Longrigg, S. H., Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (London, 1958), devotes much space to chronicling the events but attaches little significance to the revolt in the larger scheme of Syrian history except to demonstrate how unpopular the French were. Joarder, Safiuddin, “The Early Phase of the French Mandatory Administration in Syria”, Harvard Ph.D. diss. 1968, treats this revolt as one of many revolts against the French administration in the first five years of the mandate.

5 Howard, Harry N., The King-Crane Commission (Beirut, 1963), pp. 194205.

6 Prior to 1925, the French had to deal with revolts among the Alouites (1920–1921), the notables of Aleppo (1921), the Bedouin (1920–1921), and the inhabitants of the Hawrān (1921) (Joarder, , Early Phase of the French Mandatory Administration, pp. 6366). An agreement with the Druzes was negotiated in 1923 (d'Outre-Mer, Les Armées Françaises, Histoire des troupes du Levant [Paris, 1931], p. 22).

7 de Jouvenel, Bertrand, unpublished correspondence with Rudolph Binion, 19531954, at tributes this belief to his father, Henry de Jouvenel. This theory is still widely subscribed to; see Glubb, John, A Short History of the Arab Peoples (London, 1969), p. 280; Iskandar, Adnan G., Bureaucracy in Lebanon (Beirut, 1964), p. 12.

8 Gouraud, Henri, La France en Syrie (Paris, 1922), pp. 1021; executive order of Gouraud establishing this format, April 22, 1921, reprinted in Oriente Moderno, 1 (19211922), 26; speech of Gouraud, at Damascus, , 06 20, 1921, in ibid., pp. 156–157; reports of the new order in Lisān al-Hāl, translated from the Arabic and printed in ibid., p. 24; Jones, John Morgan, La Fin du mandat français en Syrie et au Liban (Paris, 1938), p. 85; Nobecourt, J., Une Histoire politique de l'armée 1919–1942, Vol. I, (Paris, 1967), pp. 119121.

9 Helbaoui, Youssef, La Syrie: mise en valeur d'un pays sous développé (Paris, 1956), p. 60.

10 Dawn, C. Ernest, “From Ottomanism to Arabism: The Origin of an Ideology”, The Review of Politics, 3 (1961), 378400, as well as his “The Rise of Arabism in Syria”, Middle East Journal, 2 (1962), 145168. See also Lewis, Bernard, The Middle East and the West (London, 1964), pp. 7294; and Zeine, Zeine N., Arab-Turkish Relations and the Emergence of Modern Arab Nationalism (Beirut, 1958), p. 58.

11 Hitti, Philip, Lebanon in History (New York, 1957), pp. 362363; Zeine, , Arab-Turkish Relations, pp. 2957; Harik, Ilya F., “The Ethnic Revolution and Political Integration in the Middle East”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 3 (07, 1972), 307309.

12 Dossier: Pourparlers avec les Druzes in Fonds.

13 Militaire, Cabinet, Bulletin des Renseignements (printed daily) and Service des Rensiegnements, Rapports sur la situation politique de Syrie (frequent), both unpublished govern ment documents in Fonds. These reports provided constant summaries of the situation in Syria along with exhaustive and often sympathetic analyses of the various elements involved in the revolt.

14 Polk, William R., The Opening of South Lebanon 1788–1840 (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), describes the geographic conditions that confronted any power trying to cope with uprisings in the area. Bennett J. Doty and the other legionnaire writers cited above bear witness to the inexperience of the troops and the predicament of the garrison in Jabal-Druze. See also Andréa, General, La Révolte druze et l'insurrection de Damas (Paris, 1937), p. 26.

15 de Jouvenel, Henry, various letters and press statements, 11 1925 in Fonds.

16 The classic study of Druze origins is Hitti, Philip K., The Origins of the Druse People and Religion (New York, 1928). More recent studies are Arberry, A. J., ed., Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Conflict (Cambridge, 1969), Vol. 2, and Polk, , The Opening of South Lebanon.

17 Hitti, , Origins of the Druse, pp. 24; Arberry, , Religion, p. 340. As early as 1167 Benjamin of Tudela in his book of travels depicted the Druzes as violent and ferocious (ibid.).

18 Andréa, , La Révolte druze, pp. 2327.

19 Arberry, , Religion, pp. 339340: “Our master commanded us to hide under the wings of the majority religion”. See also Tibawi, A. L., American Interests in Syria 1800–1901 (Oxford, 1966), pp. 7581; and Polk, , The Opening of South Lebanon, pp. 125132.

20 Ibid.; and Bordeaux, Henri, “L'Orient en marche: dans la montagne des Druzes”, Revue des Deux Mondes (11 1925), p. 500.

21 League of Nations, Permanent Mandates Commission, Minutes of the Fourth Session (Geneva, 1924), p. 31.

22 Hirschberg, H. Z., “The Druzes”, in Arberry, , Religion, p. 343.

23 Notizie storiche sulla famiglia el-Atrash”, Oriente Moderno, 5 (09 1925), 465467.

24 “Situation politique au Djebel-Druze au cours des années 1923–1924”, unpublished information report, 1925, in Dossier: Pourparlers avec les Druzes in Fonds.

25 “L'Opera dei Francesi nel territorio dei Drusi”, Oriente Moderno, 4 (1924), 38; and Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Rapport…1925, pp. 1417.

26 “Situation politique au Djebel Druse”, Dossier, in Fonds.

27 Gautherot, Gustave, Le Général Sarrail: Haut-Commissaire en Syrie (Paris, 1925), p. 25. Anabtawy, Nazmie H., “The French Occupation in Syria”, The Nation, 01 13, 1926, p. 42. Coblentz, Paul, Le Silence de Sarrail (Paris, 1930), pp. 200203. François Goguel, interview with the author, Paris, 08 4, 1967.

28 LaMazière, , Partant pour la Syrie, p. 125n.

29 Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Rapport… 1925, pp. 1018.

30 Rabbath, Edmond, L'Evolution politique de la Syrie sous mandat de 1920 à 1925 (Paris, 1928), pp. 100102. In 1920, the French had an effective force of 70,000 in the Syrian mandate. In 1925, their number had been reduced to 14,397 men and officers with an additional 5,902 Syrian auxiliaries in the police and gendarmarie. See also: Turnbull, Patrick, The Foreign Legion (London, 1964), p. 145; Gamelin, , Servir, p. x; and Waterhouse, Francis A., 'Twixt Hell and Allah (London, ?), p. 65.

31 Andréa, , La Révolte druze, p. 26; Samné, GeorgeLa Rebellion druze”, Correspondance d'Orient, 332 (08 1925), pp. 5253; and Waterhouse, , ‘Twixt Hell and Allah, pp. 12. As for the fighting ability of the ill-fated Michaud column which consisted of seven officers and 166 men (two-thirds Syrian and one-third Algerian spahis), Michaud is said to have characterized the troops under him as “ridiculous”, “untrained”, and “an army incapable of fighting” (ibid., p. 65).

32 d'Outre-Mer, Les Armées Françaises, Histoire des Troupes du Levant (Paris, 1931), pp. 2529.

33 Jouvenel, various correspondence in Fonds.

34 The French failures added credence to the stories the soldiers heard daily about the Druzes as fanatical soldiers, with no fear of death, giving no quarter, torturing any unfortunates who survived a battle, and emitting blood-curdling screams as they charged en masse, screams that froze their opponents with fear. See Doty, , The Legion of the Damned, pp. 80–115, 120, 167169.

35 “Petition à M. le Général Andréa, Commandant des Troupes de Damas et du Hauran”, 01 24, 1926, unpublished, signed by 354 notables of the Hawrān, in Fonds.

36 François, René, Historique de la mission de M. Henry de Jouvenel en Syrie et au Liban (1925–1926), unpublished, p. 44. See also Jouvenel, to Berthelot, , 01 20, 1926, unpublished, in Fonds.

37 Atroun, P., Service des Renseignements, Situation dans le Vilayet d'Alep, 03 1926, unpublished, in Fonds. Soussa, Nicolas, a citizen of the mandate, wrote to Jouvenel on 12 14, 1925 (unpublished): “Give us peace and tranquility. We need it in order to live and prosper”.

38 François, , Historique de la mission de M. Henry de Jouvenel, p. 12.

39 Vayssié, George, “La Soumission des Maoulis”, La Syrie (Beirut), 12 16, 1925; and Le Temps (Paris), 01 30, 1926.

40 Imann, Georges, “Angora et le mandat français en Syrie”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 08 1, 1926, p. 605; and Atiyah, Edward, An Arab Tells His Story (London, 1946), p. 40.

41 Dossier: Pourparlers avec les Druzes in Fonds; Dawn, , “The Rise of Arabism in Syria”, p. 164.

42 Atiyah, , The Arabs (Edinburg, 1955), p. 121; MacCallum, , The Nationalist Crusade, p. 54; Al-Haqīqah (Arab biweekly, Beirut), 03 16–26, 1921, in Oriente Moderno, 1 (1921), 25; Al-Karmel (Caiffa), 08 31, 1921, in ibid; Dossier: Négotiations de paix, Dejebel-Druze, 1926 (unpublished) in Fonds.

43 Lewis, , Middle East and the West, pp. 9394.

44 This conclusion is surmised from the material relating to Chahbandar and the nationalists of Damascus in the Fonds: specifically, see Service des Renseignements, Personalistés—Damas (unpublished, 12 1925) and the various Fiches individuelles prepared at the same time.

45 Coustillen, Gervais, Rapport (unpublished, 11 12, 1925) in Fonds.

46 Arslan, Emir Emin, La Revolución Siria contra el Mandato Francés (Buenos Aires, 1926), pp. 4249.

48 The favorite atrocity of the rebels stemmed from the fact that local military commanders had money at their disposal which was being used to pay the Bedouin to support the French; pay was determined by the number of heads they brought into French camps. All of the Legion accounts cited above make mention of this policy. Arslan's book contains pictures of beheaded rebels; Emir Chekib Arslan sent several such pictures with a letter (June 6, 1926) to the Permanent Mandates Commission, a copy of which is in Fonds. Money was sent from the French government to pay the Bedouin: Jouvenel mentioned receiving 800,000 francs from Paris to divide among the most powerful Bedouin chiefs in exchange for their promises not to cause the French any trouble for three months. There is no mention of how this money was channeled to the Bedouin. See Jouvenel, to Diplomatie-Paris, 02 23, 1926 in Fonds.

49 Coustillen, , Rapport, Fonds.

52 Ibid. See also Service des Renseignements, Personaltiés—Damas and the various Fiche individuelle in Fonds.

53 According to Longrigg, Chahbandar “bestowed” the title of King of Syria on Sultan Atrash in the early autumn of 1925 (Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate, p. 157).

54 Jouvenel, to Berthelot, , 01 28, 1926, unpublished correspondence in Fonds.

55 François, René, Historique de la Mission de M. Henry de Jouvenel, pp. 1114, and de Jouvenel, Henry, “Note pour MM. les Délégués” 01 13, 1926, unpublished in Fonds.

56 Alype, Pierre, Rapport confidentiel à Jouvenel (unpublished), 01 11, 1926 in Fonds.

57 Jouvenel, to Alype, , 01 13, 1926 (unpublished) in Fonds.

58 Résumé de la conversation entre Alype et les notables de Homs, 01 11, 1926 (unpublished) in Fonds.

59 Jouvenel, to Briand, , April 20, 1926 (unpublished) in Fonds.

60 Resumé de la conversation entre Alype et les notables de Homs, in Fonds.

61 Atiyah, , The Arabs, pp. 146147.

62 Le Temps (Paris), Jan. 21, 1926, and Jan. 28, 1926.

63 See articles in the; Journal des Débats (1920–1925), especially for the period of the revolt. In addition: Weygand, Maxime, Mémoires: mirages et realités (Paris: 1957); “Le Mandat syrien” in Revue de France, 05 15, 1927; and “L'Avenir de la Syrie” in Revue de France, 10 1924; Gouraud, H., “La France en Syrie” in Revue de France, 04 1, 1922; and Robert de Caix's various reports to the Permanent Mandates Commission throughout the first five years.

64 Alype's reports to Jouvenel, and Jouvenel's reports to Briand, as well as his more detailed accounts to Berthelot, his representative in Paris (all unpublished), in Fonds. Haddad, Although George M. (Revolutions and Military Rule in the Middle East: The Arab States Pt. 1: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan [New York, 1971] states that the theory that Syrian society is a mosaic of races and religions which has mitigated against the achievement of national unity is “one of the most common misconceptions about Syria”, he offers little evidence to support this refutation. Far more convincing is Harik, Iliya F. (“The Ethnic Revolution and Political Integration”, p. 304): “social engineering may be the main, if not inevitable, course for the new states of the Middle East to take in their search for national integration…recognition of the legitimacy of ethnic identification and … organization within the broader confines of the state…” He claims differences have intensified in the twentieth century because “communications have brought strangers together suddenly and without preparing them for the encounter. The result has been a clash of different social images and interests” (ibid., p. 309).

65 François, , Historique de la mission de M. Henry de Jouvenel, p. 11.

66 Jouvenel-Alype, correspondence (unpublished) of Jan.-Feb. 1926, and Jouvenel-Berthelot correspondence of same period in Fonds. See also François, , Historique de la mission de M. Henry de Jouvenel, p. 12

67 Dossier: Negotiation de paix: Djebel-Druse, 1926 in Fonds. Jouvenel to diplomatie-Paris, April 26 and 04 27, 1926 (unpublished) in Fonds. Le Temps (Paris), 05 1, 1926.

68 Haddad, , Revolutions and Military Rule in the Middle East, p. 11; and Vinogradov, , “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered”, pp. 123139.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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