100th Anniversary of Colonial
– Dougal MacDonald –
The Middle East as we know it emerged from decisions made by colonial powers Britain and France during and following the First World War. This was after what is now Syria had been under the ultimate authority of the Ottoman administration for over 400 years. The Ottoman Empire emerged in 1299 and was finally dissolved in 1923. At the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Empire controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
The partition lines demarcating the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire were originally laid down in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, signed on May 16, 1916. The treaty defined the future spheres of influence of each country, once the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia had defeated the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. This new division was based on the colonialist doctrine, the “right of conquest.” As well as defining the borders of Syria and Iraq, the treaty created conditions for the Israeli occupation by proposing an international administration for Palestine. The British gained control of what became known as “mandatory Palestine” until the creation of Israel in 1948, which immediately attacked the Palestinian people, giving rise to the Palestinian resistance.
The Russian Tsarist government was a minor party assenting to the Sykes-Picot agreement and, following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Bolsheviks exposed the secret agreement to the world. It was revealed that the agreement negated British promises made to the Arabs through Colonel T. E. Lawrence for a national, independent Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria. Instead, it “gave” Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Gulf and the regions bordering Palestine to Great Britain, and “gave” Syria and most of the eastern part of the region to France. France hoped to gain a strategic and economic base in the eastern Mediterranean, ensure cheap imports of cotton and silk, and prevent Arab nationalism from infecting her North African empire.
While the Allied Powers were gathering in Paris to sort out their conflicting colonial interests, Amir Faisal Ibn Husayni, field commander of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, was forming an independent Arab government in Damascus. British troops withdrew from Damascus in November 1919. On January 20, 1920, Alexandre Millerand’s government replaced Clemenceau’s in France, with Millerand refusing to recognize Faisal as king of Syria. On July 14, France sent Faisal an ultimatum that included five demands to be accepted or rejected within four days, basically calling for Syria to completely capitulate to French colonial rule.
Although Faisal accepted the ultimatum in principle, the French had already decided to seize Syria by force. On July 24, 1920, they defeated the heavily outnumbered Syrian forces at the Battle of Maysalun, using troops mainly from Algeria and other French colonies. On July 26, the French occupied Damascus, overthrowing Faisal and his nationalist government. Faisal fled to Iraq where he ruled from 1921-33. The League of Nations, which was basically the tool of Britain and France, officially recognized French rule or “mandate” over the Syrian territory which then included present-day Lebanon. After the French occupation of Damascus, French prime minister Millerand arrogantly proclaimed that Syria would be ruled by France: “The whole of it, and forever.”