A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 24, 2012

Vanished States: The Four Month Life of the Syrian Arab Kingdom

A couple of months back I posted about the short-lived (slightly over a year) Republic of Hatay in 1938-39. Today I thought I'd talk a bit about an even more evanescent 20th century Middle Eastern state.
The photo at left may be recognizable to many of you. That is Faisal ibn al-Hussein (1885-1933), and since he was King of Iraq from 1921 until his death, the crown leads one to assume this shows him in that role. But look closely at the flags. Those are not Iraqi flags. One's first instinct is to assume that they are Jordanian flags, due to the seven-pointed stars in the triangular field. But the Jordanian flag's horizontal stripes are black-white-green with white in the middle; these have the white stripe at the bottom (they are in fact black-green-white). In fact, they predate the creation of [Trans-]Jordan. So what are the flags and why are they adorning a portrait of Faisal?

These are the flags of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, which crowned Faisal as its King in March of 1920 and collapsed under French conquest four months later. Here's the Royal Standard version of the flag:
Arab Kingdom of Syria Royal Standard


After the fall of Damascus in World War I, General Allenby allowed Faisal's forces to proclaim an Arab state, though the Sykes-Picot agreement had reserved Syria as a French sphere of influence.  Throughout 1919 Faisal, Britain, and France sparred over the future at the Paris Peace Conference, which Faisal attended. The US set up the King-Crane commission to determine the will of the inhabitants; and found they wanted independence. But the British and French cut a deal: Britain got the Mandate over Palestine/Jordan and added Mosul to Iraq, in return for unrestricted influence for France in Syria and Lebanon. Faisal was left hanging to cut whatever deal he could with the French. British forces, which had protected Faisal in Damascus, were to be withdrawn from Syria.  In January 1920, Faisal negotiated an agreement with the French but had to scrap it when his Syrian nationalist supporters rejected it.

In March of 1920, the Syrian National Congress declared the Arab Kingdom of Syria, a constitutional monarchy with Faisal as King and  Hashim al-Atassi as Prime Minister. Though it did not control all the territory, it claimed to embrace today's territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and the Hatay and Cilician regions now part of Turkey. Meanwhile the San Remo conference confirmed Syria as a French Mandate.
Proclamation of Faisal as King of Syria, March 1920
The Syrian Kingdom was more or less doomed from the start. The League of Nations, Britain and France had all aligned against it, and despite the King-Crane Commission, Faisal's hopes that the United States might come to his aid were disappointed; President Wilson's illness had left the US without clear leadership, and rejection of the League by the US had sent the US back into isolationism. Though it managed to issue some coinage, and remains a point of pride for Arab nationalists and supporters of the Hashemites, it was doomed.
Coins of the Syrian Kingdom


Gen. Yusuf al-Azma
The Franco-Syrian War of 1920 was the result. The French forces under Henri Gouraud met the Syrian Kingdom's Army under Defense Minister Gen. Yusuf al-Azma  on July 23, 1920 at Maysalun west of Damascus. The French easily defeated the Syrians, and General al-Azma was killed. The next day the French besieged Damascus, which quickly fell.
Gouraud reviews French troops at Maysalun

Syrian Kingdom troops at Maysalun


Maysalun became a symbol of Arab resistance to colonialism; Sati al-Husri wrote a well-known book about it. The short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria became a symbol of emergent Arab nationalism and a rallying point during uprisings against the French in the 1920s.

The British, of course, found a consolation prize for Faisal by making him King of Iraq. When his brother Abdullah showed up in Amman intending to fight the French, the British created Transjordan for him. The Hashemites, having lost the throne of Syria in 1920, lost the Hejaz in 1925 and Iraq in 1958, but Abdullah's great-grandson still rules in Jordan.

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