Foreign occupations

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MAR. 23, 2020

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After a millennium of being conquered by various invading forces from Alexander the Great through the arab conquests, the christian crusaders, and the Egyptian Mamluks, the area known as modern-day Syria was incorporated into the vast and expanding Ottoman Empire in 1516 by Selim the Grim. As fellow-muslims and an important stop on the way of their holy hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Ottoman-ruled Syria was given some degree of self-determination and the Greater Syria area existed in relatively peaceful co-existence the following 300 years under foreign administration. As the over-stretched Ottoman Empire joined World War I on the side of the Central Powers and suffered defeat in 1918, it lost control of its Near East territories to the victorious British and French empires. During the Ottoman Empire’s partition, the French diplomat Francois George-Picot and his British counterpart Mark Sykes thereafter drew up the arbitrary and historically unfounded borders of the new Middle East, including those of modern day Syria.

After the short-lived Kingdom of Syria tasted a moment of independence under the Hashemite King Faisal I in the immediate aftermath of the war, the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN) disregarded previous promises to the strong arab nationalist forces and casted Syria under French mandate. Subsequently, the French General Gouraud in the summer of 1920 defeated Faisal’s arab army and took control over Syria in yet another de facto foreign occupation. The territories covered by the newly established mandate was then by imperial design divided into six administrative units, creating both powerful city states in Damascus and Aleppo, the sectarian Jabal Druze state (south-east of Damascus), the Alawite State (on the western coast), the Turkish territory of Sanjak of Alexandretta (in the north-west), as well as the semi-autonomous state of Greater Lebanon. With the exception of the christian maronites of Lebanon who realised their aspirations of a relative autonomous entity, all sects distanced themselves from the French colonial mandate and revolted frequently during its 25 years of various Syrian federal constellations.

During World War II and the fall of France in 1940, the mandate authorities declared their allegiance to the Vichy regime, but due to fears of the Axis powers using the territories to build airbases from which they could attack Allied positions in North Africa, British and Free French Allied forces launched the so called Syria-Lebanon campaign and took control of the area in 1941, and once again gave a highly dubious promise of independence. The victorious General de Gaulle wanted to revive the greatness of France and his Middle East policy became part of the alliance-turned-rivalry with the British. Instead of fulfilling the promises of unconditional independence, de Gaulle did not accept to grant more autonomy to Syria and Lebanon than the British would grant to Iraq. The Lebanese and Syrian nationalist sentiments had however already grown very strong and as the British cleverly used the opportunity to pressure its French rivals, the last years of the mandate became a disgraceful exercise in suppressing public aspirations, political arrests and even intensive bombardment of Damascus. Paradoxically, the French mandate had thus prepared the local Lebanese and Syrian populations for independence, not by building strong sustainable state institutions (as was the original raison d’être of the mandate structure), but by unintentionally (re-)demonstrating the absolute worst facets of foreign colonial rule.

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