A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 30, 2013

Colonial Echoes: 1925-1926: France Bombs Damascus

Damascus, 1925
Americans did not get drawn into the Middle East (except as Christian missionaries) until the Second World War; prior to that time US imperial experience was in Latin America and the Pacific,  and as a result there is often a remarkable myopia about how Middle Easterners see the West, due to a lack of context/historical memory of the European colonial era.  During the campaign in Iraq, US planners often seemed only barely aware of the British colonial experience there in World War I and the 1920s; if the US strikes Syria with only France as an ally, it may be well to remember the French role in Syria, where its League of Nations Mandate was used to create a divide-and-rule confessional partition of the country, and during which aerial bombing was used extensively, including in 1925-26 against Damascus itself. Even Syrians who support the downfall of the regime will be aware of historical echoes if French bombs fall on the capital again.

Aerial bombing, in fact, was a prime tool of European colonial power projection in the Middle East. Eight years after the Wright Brothers first flew, on November 1, 1911, an Italian aircraft bombed Turkish positions from the air during Italy's colonial invasion of Libya, the very first aerial bombing, as I noted during the air campaign against Qadhafi. During the Iraqi uprising against the British Mandate in 1920-21, Britain, having honed its bombing skills in World War I, used aerial bombing against Iraqi villages.

In the ancient city of Damascus, between the famous Suq al-Hamidiyya and the Suq Midhat Pasha, southwest of the Umayyad Mosque, is an area still known today as Al-Hariqa, and even a Hariqa Square:
Al-Hariqa, as many of you will recognize, means "the fire." In October, 1925, French aerial and artillery bombardment set the ancient quarter afire and burned much of it to the ground. The French bombed again in March 1926. (Other, later revolts also saw bombing.) Al-Hariqa was rebuilt from the rubble up.

Maurice Sarrail
The cause was the Great Syrian Revolt in 1925-1927. Begun as a Druze revolt under Sultan al-Atrash, it spread to most of France's Syrian Mandate and at its height saw some 50,000 French troops deployed to put it down. French Governor-General Maurice Sarrail bombed the city for 48 hours and it is said that some 1,500 died. Bombardments continued into March 1926. An account of the use of French Air Power is here. Photos and a video of the damage below.


David Mack said...

Very timely. Woe to us if France is the only member of our "coalition" in this venture. We may want to deliver a quick slap on Bashar's wrists, but he and his allies may find ways to extend the fallout. Some collateral damage is nearly certain, and it can have a great psychological effect.

Unknown said...

there's some footage of arial bombardment around that time in this newsreel - could be damascus? http://www.britishpathe.com/programmes/review-of-the-year/episode/asc/playlist/3