A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Back to the Future? The French Mandate's Confessional Partition of Syria

On several occasions we've looked at "vanished states"of the 20th century Middle East, among them some in Syria: including the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria, and the briefly independent Republic of Hatay. As the Syrian tragedy continues to unfold, we are hearing talk of a disintegration into ethnic/confessional enclaves, including a possible ‘Alawite enclave in the northwest.

As a much older Middle Easterner once put it, there is nothing new under the sun. When the French mandate was first created after World War I, they partitioned the hell out of Syria:
Initially, in 1922, there were actually five separate states in what would be the French Mandate: a Syrian Federation consisting of two states, Aleppo (including after 1923 the Sanjaq of Alexandretta, the later Hatay, which had briefly been autonomous) and Damascus; a separate ‘Alawite ("Alaouite" in French) state in the northwest, initially (1922-24) part of the federation but thereafter autonomous, a Druze state in the Hawran (Jabal al-Druze State), and Greater Lebanon (Gran Liban), combining the Maronite and Druze Mount Lebanon, the Sunni north around Tripoli, and the Shi‘ite south and Baqa‘a, creating the mix that would become the republic of Lebanon.

Flag, State of Syria
Each of these "states" had its own flag, with the French tricolor in canton. The "State of Syria" was formed in 1924 out of the federation of the states of Damascus and Aleppo. The Alaouite State did not join.

Flag, State of Damascus
This "State of Syria" was created in 1924, but the next year a full-scale revolt broke out, led by the Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash in the Druze state, but becoming Syria-wide. The French crushed it with aerial bombardments and sieges of cities, including Damascus.

Flag, State of Aleppo
The Syrian revolt would ultimately lead, in 1930, to the French renaming the State of Syria as the Republic of Syria, though still under French mandate.

Flag, Alaouite State
As for the Alaouite state, it had been less affected by the uprising, though in 1930 it was renamed the District of Latakia. Finally in 1936 it was merged into the "Republic" of Syria. Lebanon always remained a separate entity. Efforts toward independence were sidetracked by World War II and Vichy control, but after Britain expelled Vichy Lebanon and Syria declared their independence and had secured it by 1946.

Flag, Jebel Druze State
In short, Syria has been partitioned before, under colonial divide-and-rule strategies, but nationalism ultimately overcame internal division in the name of fighting a common enemy. Whether that will happen again is of course another question entirely.

Flag, Gran Liban

1 comment:

Al Moxtar said...

Thank you for that historical note. I bet many have no idea there was a federal state in Syria or what components it had. I certainly did not know that. I was led to believe by Syrian historical dramas that Syria was a single, centralised state. Propaganda obviously. I should know better than to get my facts from tv, but then I wonder how this was portrayed in Syrian school manuals.

I don't know how will communities live along each other let alone share power in a future Syria. Nationalism might have federated them in the past, I guess it won't be as powerful a sentiment in the future.