This article examines the ways in which French imperialism in Syria—understood as an interaction involving both French and Syrians, rather than as an agent in its own right—constructed a hierarchy of civilizations which justified French dominance. This construction took place in the speech and writings of French and Syrians. To describe it I will use the term ‘rhetoric’ rather than ‘discourse’, because the hierarchies under discussion existed purely in words, written and spoken, particularly in the dictionary sense of the word ‘rhetoric’: to persuade or influence others. Rhetoric here is a subset of ‘discourse’ in the Foucauldian sense. The practices of the colonial state—the administrative divisions it imposed, the intelligence networks it created, the soldiers it deployed, and much else be- sides—could all be subsumed to ‘discourse’ in this wider sense. But the hierarchies discussed here are far more discernible in rhetoric than they are in the other perhaps more concrete aspects of discourse, where French dominance is less the natural order of civilization and more a question of brute (and contested) power.
My sources for this article include published French writings on Syria from the mandate era, some of them written by mandate officials; French parliamentary debates; the internal and external correspondence and other records of the High Commission, including a large amount of material generated by Syrians; Syrian journalism of the mandate era; and memoirs of the mandate era by Syrian politicians.
It will come as no surprise that in French imperialist writings about France’s role in Syria, France is constructed as a civilized nation (a nation whose status as such is never questioned)—a source of enlightenment and moral leadership for the world. Nor is it surprising that this idealized version of ‘France’ existed in contradistinction to an uncivilized Syrian non-nation: a society divided religiously, ethnically, racially; prone to outbursts of irrational savagery and fanaticism; and generally in need of the mandatory’s kind but firm discipline. The disciplinary metaphor of ‘tutelage’ fitted French conceptions of empire neatly, and explicitly: “The half-wild races must spend numerous years in tutelage before governing themselves. [...] A great power must accept the man- date to administer their country and make the teachings which among other nations are the fruit of the experience of centuries enter their hearts.”
So far, so commonplace. The purpose of this sort of talk—which is a common feature of everything from imperialist bulletins to academic monographs to correspondence among French officials, and between them and various Syrian interlocutors—was to justify the French presence in Syria, mostly to a French audience. When it occurs in internal official correspondence, it also aims to reinforce the sense of mission of French personnel: “It is... into the civilizing battle that we go, and it is France’s greatest honour to begin it.” A little less obvious are the ways in which Syrians contributed to the construction of such a rhetorical hierarchy. (I will explain later how the binary French-Syrian relationship was constructed as part of larger hierarchies.)
The first sense in which Syrians contributed to this construction is a passive one, whereby Syrians actions were understood in French sources in a way which supported the French imperialist conception of Syrian society. Strikingly, it is the most vehement Syrian mobilizations against French rule which in this version of events do most to reinforce the imperialist order. Thus the French understanding of the great revolt of 1925-1927. For Syrians, then and since, this was the great national revolt against an unjust and oppressive foreign regime. Contemporary French sources, however, mostly construe it as a sectarian (particularly anti-Christian) outburst and/or simple banditry. As well as being evident in innumerable articles, books, and official documents of the mandate period, this construction is clear from the way material on the revolt made its way into the
High Commission’s archives: the sectarian/criminal interpretation of the revolt was given a literally physical manifestation by the organisation of the historical record into boxes, folders and files with titles like “Druze insurrection”; “Druze atrocities”; “Crimes committed by the insurgents”. This sectarian or criminal behaviour was just the sort of regrettable indiscipline that required the imposition of order by France, as demanded by the mission laid upon its shoulders by the League of Nations. Within this interpretation it is in a sense the function of Syrians to resist French rule, thereby fulfilling the role laid out for them in the disciplinary model—just as children are expected to misbehave at school, an institution which is supposed to teach them to behave. (This is, admittedly, a somewhat old-fashioned understanding of the purpose of schools.)
Naturally this French account contains many question-begging gaps. Even when the events described are real rather than apocryphal they are deprived of the political and socioeconomic con- text which could make ‘irrational savagery’ seem more like rational political action. French sources also emphasise Syrian violence while downplaying the far more destructive and indiscriminate violence with which the French themselves put down the revolt. In a long letter about the political and military situation in Syria, sent to Paris by the acting High Commissioner in August 1926 when the French grip on Syria was finally becoming secure again, the author lingers over picturesque descriptions of rebel brutality: two aviators, caught in rebel territory, were “tied to their aeroplane and
burned alive with it”; in an attack on the Beirut-Damascus train, not only were several French soldiers killed, but “the other native travellers were pillaged” and an Armenian couple and their daughter were “massacred after the young girl had been raped”. By contrast, French military activities involve little blood or fire: when the 65th Moroccan regiment swept through the oasis surrounding Damascus, “The impression caused on the population was considerable”; “It was necessary to make a few severe examples...”. But no more than that. Indeed, in response to criticism of the extremely brutal French response to the revolt the High Commission compiled a great deal of material which set out to “make [the truth] known to the civilized nations and enlighten their consciences about the Druze mentality” while exonerating the French troops of blame for atrocities. Any that did occur were themselves pushed back on Syrian society, blamed on locally-recruited irregular troops, “who have the tendency of all natives to act by reprisals”. It is clear enough from all this that in the French conception, Syrians resisting French domination were demonstrating precisely why they needed French discipline. All of this is not to say that there were no atrocities on the rebel side— merely to highlight the different values that French imperialist rhetoric attached to violence com- mitted by Syrian and French actors.
As I said, Syrians’ contribution to this sort of rhetoric is passive. It is not the Syrians who decide how French sources retell events: the notion of a civilizational hierarchy is here imposed from above. But there were also more active Syrian contributions to the construction of that hierarchy.
The next section outlines the different ways in which Syrians contributed to or contested the rhetorical hierarchy: by accepting it; by subverting it in a way that was friendly to France; by subvert- ing it in a way that was more hostile to France; and by rejecting it outright. This outline is necessarily schematic, intended to elucidate several recognizable and analytically useful ‘ideal-types’ rather than categorize all Syrian responses to French rule; a number of factors complicating the picture will be described afterwards.
My sources here are particularly letters and petitions that were sent by Syrians to the High Commission, and sometimes thence to the League of Nations. These were written by people from a wide variety of communal and class backgrounds—by no means all belonging to an elite. Although they were mostly literate, it was quite common for illiterate people to add their stamp to a petition once it had been read out to them.
Acceptance. This comes when certain Syrian actors who are happy with the French presence produce writings in which they accept the notion of French civilizational superiority. But this is included here for purely schematic purposes: there is no reason for a Syrian to simply accept French rhetoric, or at least not to write to the High Commissioner and say so. In practice Syrians who favour the mandate do more than simply accept the rhetoric: they accept it in order to instrumentalize it, by what I call ‘friendly’ or ‘positive subversion’.
Positive subversion. This is particularly common when actors or groups within Syrian society adopt French rhetoric in order to place a moral obligation on France to act in their interests, and/or go beyond immediate French interests in Syria. Indeed, adoption of imperialist rhetoric is almost mandatory (as it were) in the letters and petitions written to such ends by Syrians. That is to say, they are not passively written into the rhetoric, nor do they passively accept it: they actively adopt and adapt it. Examples come in all sorts of contexts, but they are particularly common when a group suspicious of Syrian Arab nationalism requests political autonomy from Damascus, or the protection of a French garrison.
Many such requests were made, by individuals belonging to numerous communities. For example, throughout the mandate period Kurds in north-eastern Syria petitioned the French authorities for an autonomous Kurdish region analogous to the cAlawi statelet. One such petition, organised by Mustapha Bey Chahine and his brother Bozan Bey in 1924, stated that Arab nationalist sentiment “is most prejudicial for the French Mandate, a mandate which has nothing in view but the vital interests of the nations entrusted to its tutelage. As for us, the Kurds, we do not at any price want to lose the benefits resulting from such a salutary Mandate.”
Again, in 1930 a group of Kurdish notables requested special status for the Kurds, arguing that France had reached the “happy result” of stability and prosperity in Syria by according such status to every other group under the mandate—the Kurdish ‘race’ (their term) was “the only one not to have had the full enjoyment of this civilizing work”.
Similar requests made by Christians are usually accompanied by appeals to France’s historic and benevolent role as the ‘protector of the Christians of the Orient’—a role which by the 1930s, in a revealing terminological shift, was recast as ‘protector of the minorities of the Orient’. When a Franco-Syrian treaty was being negotiated in 1936, the Syrian Catholic patriarch Tappouni sent the High Commissioner a memo detailing the guarantees of communal and individual rights that any such treaty should contain. His covering letter praises France’s “glorious role of Protector of Minorities”, but such purple talk ornaments a pragmatic political agenda. The sting comes in the final page of the memo: it says that the treaty should guarantee the right of the head of a Christian com- munity (such as himself) to call, at need, for outside intervention on that community’s behalf— intervention not only from France, or even the League of Nations, but from any state. Unlikely to endear the patriarch to Syrian nationalists, this suggestion was also a threat to France. French imperialism had often worried about British meddling in Syria, but by the 1930s Italy was an even greater fear—and Tappouni, as a Catholic cardinal, was well-connected in Rome.
It must be stressed, though, that not all Syrian Christians were pro-French even in this pragmatic way. Some, as nationalists, protested against the inclusion of ‘minority’ clauses in the Franco- Syrian treaty; a group of them provides an example of the next way in which Syrians contributed to the construction of such rhetoric: not friendly, but hostile or negative subversion.
Negative subversion. My example here is a letter, signed by 180 mostly Greek Orthodox Christian inhabitants of Aleppo, to the High Commissioner Damien de Martel in March 1936—the same month as Tappouni’s letter above. Negotiations between the French government and a delegation of Syrian nationalists, on a Franco-Syrian treaty and Syrian independence, were just beginning. At this stage the question of ‘minorities’ flared up. The issue was the same one that made Minorities Treaties so unpopular with the newly-independent states of central and eastern Europe, successors of the Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman empires, which were compelled to sign them in order for their independence to be recognized by the League of Nations. Guarantees of minority rights were backed up by the right of outside powers to intervene on behalf of the minorities—a right that nationalist governments saw as an intolerable breach of their sovereignty. The Syrian nationalists were keen to exclude any such guarantees from the Franco-Syrian treaty, recognizing that they would give France carte blanche to interfere in Syrian affairs.
It was in this context that the High Commissioner remarked to the New York Times correspondent in Syria that France’s role in the country was to protect its ‘Christian elements’. In their response to this rather careless comment, the signatories of the letter—Christians but nationalists— display a fine, dry sense of humour. They begin by saying “permit us first of all to be surprised to find such a declaration on the lips of the authorised Representative of a secular nation such as France.” These are well-informed people: not only are they able to follow reports in the New York Times, they are quite aware of the recurrent political tension over laïcité in France.
The rest of their letter asserts the unity of the Syrian territory and population, and the right of its people to self-determination, making strictly limited references to the ‘ideal France’ of imperial- ist rhetoric. For example, they question the notion of a France, protectrice des chrétiens d’Orient. In Ottoman times, they say, France’s authority to protect European Catholics (specifically Catholics) on Ottoman territory may also have been extended to Ottoman Christians—but this was “in particular cases only”. All Syrian Arabs were oppressed under Ottoman rule, they claim, whether Muslim or Christian, because they were Arabs—and at this time “Muslims and Christians found in [France] a friendly nation which has always placed itself as champion of the liberty of peoples”. This France is for them the one which “will succeed in the task for which she is present in Syria: to create a free and independent State”. Thus they are employing the rhetorical device of the ‘ideal France’, but not in order to cajole a legitimate occupying power to stay longer or intervene more effectively on behalf of one particular group: now they are calling on France to live up to the ideal, and give Syria its independence.
Rejection. As well as this negative subversion of the rhetoric, there were of course Syrian nationalists who sometimes or always simply rejected the rhetoric of an ‘ideal France’: France was an illegitimate occupier, and the Syrian nation alone was the source of legitimacy. The nationalist journalist Najib al-Rayyis often made it his mission to rebut French press reports about Syria, and in an editorial of April 1929 he took a swing at a series of articles published in L’Europe nouvelle by Robert de Caix, France’s (and Syria’s) envoy to the Permanent Mandates Commission. Syrians, said al-Rayyis, were long familiar with de Caix and his writings, “whose essence is that France’s mission is to bring civilization and education, and fulfill the international obligations laid on her shoulders by 45 states”. His recent articles are “full of these words that have become [...] clichés: they always contain a justification of the actions of all the French commissioners, a demonstration of the nobility and munificence of France, and refractoriness on the part of the Syrians”. Mean- while, de Caix treated any attempt by Syrians to assert their rights “as ignorance of the facts and rejection of the blessings of civilization and education”. “This”, says al-Rayyis, “is an old song, and the time has come for it to change.” (Reprinted in al-Rayyis 1994, vol.2:85-88.) As we can see, he is specifically rebutting the sort of French rhetoric I’ve described above.
Still, it should be noted that as soon as Syrians rejected French rhetoric in this way and refused to contribute to the construction of a civilizational hierarchy they could be treated in French sources as ‘extremists’—thereby once again ‘passively’ contributing to the rhetoric they sought to challenge. And anyway, merely by engaging with imperialist rhetoric they were accepting imperial- ism’s right to set the terms of the debate. Of course, nationalist counter-rhetoric about the Syrian nation is no less open to criticism than imperialist rhetoric about the Syrian non-nation—a topic for another paper.
As noted earlier, the foregoing is not a rigid typology but a schematic outline intended to identify certain trends within French and Syrian writing (and speech) about French imperialism in Syria. The distinctions between these rhetorical positions are less clear in practice than they are in theory, and there was nothing to stop one person adopting different rhetorical strategies from one day to the next—from one paragraph to the next—according to circumstance. Some of the problems created by such ‘inconsistency’ will be examined below.
Having discussed some of the ways in which Syrians contributed to imperialist rhetoric, albeit usually in order to instrumentalize or subvert it, the next section considers some of the implications of this acceptance that the idealized France of the mission civilisatrice was in some way the ‘real’ France.
French officials, officers, politicians could assert that their country was bringing peace, order, and eventual independence to Syria against all the evidence. In their relations with the mandatory authorities and with the League (in the shape of the Permanent Mandates Commission, for example), Syrians—whether friendly or hostile towards France—largely had to accept those assertions as to some extent true, especially if they wanted to be accepted as interlocutors by the French. At the least, they had to accept the truth of the ‘ideal France’ even if they were using it as a measure against which the reality was found wanting. Thus they contributed to constructing that rhetorical hierarchy. There were few if any Syrians who could be taken seriously either by France or at the League of Nations while rejecting absolutely France’s legitimacy as mandatory power. This doesn’t mean that all the Syrians I have mentioned genuinely believed in the ‘ideal France’. Some of them may have; but for the most part there is no reason to think that Syrians were doing any more than paying lip service to the ideal—even those who genuinely admired aspects of France were keenly aware that the France of the imperial presence in Syria was not the France they admired. The point is that this public acceptance of the ‘ideal France’ by Syrians well aware of the reality demonstrates the link between the rhetoric and the brute reality of political power.
A useful comparison could be made here with Lisa Wedeen’s work on Syria under Hafiz al- Asad. She argues that Syrians did not really believe in the elaborate propaganda of his personality cult—but nor did the regime. The point was that the Bacth regime’s absurd claims, and Syrians’ public acceptance of them, formed part of the regime’s symbolic domination of Syrian society and reinforced its domination in other, more concrete fields. As she puts it (Wedeen 1999:73), “power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world. No one is deceived by the charade, but everyone... is forced to participate in it.”
The mandatory state was nowhere near as all-pervasive as the Ba‘thist state. But still, the public acceptance by Syrians living under the mandate that France (whose imperial rule in Syria had been maintained by, amongst other things, press censorship, rigged elections, summary imprisonments on political grounds, and aerial and artillery bombardment of civilian populations) was par excellence the country of civilization and les droits de l’homme represents not a belief that this rhetoric was factually accurate but an awareness of France’s symbolic domination of Syrian society—a domination that was enforced by all of those other, more concrete forms of domination.
In the final section of my paper I come to an overdue explanation of why this rhetorical positioning of France and Syria constitutes more than a two-tier hierarchy. This is because of the broader hierarchies within which France and Syria existed. One was the French empire, which included groups—‘races’—which in the imperial worldview were both higher and lower on the scale than Syrians. Another was the League of Nations hierarchy in which Syria, provisionally recognized as a ‘nation’, was in a more advantageous position. For one reason or another, French and Syrians frequently made rhetorical allusions to these two hierarchies—French imperial/League international—which do not sit at all comfortably together. I will examine here some of the problems such rhetorical allusions posed.
For France. The French presence in Syria was not just rhetorically but legally justified by the League of Nations mandate. It therefore served French purposes, much of the time, to present France as the dutiful servant of the League, i.e. of the comity of ‘civilized’ nations. Invoking the League in this way was not only a matter of vague rhetoric: sometimes such allusions were quite specific. Justifying the administrative divisions imposed on Syria by France, and countering pro- nationalist, pro-Syrian unity mobilizations in the regions which had been given autonomous status, Damien de Martel wrote in January 1936 that “the mandates commission has already expressed its opinion definitively by sanctioning the policy followed thus far by the mandatory power of autonomy for the governments of Lattakia and the Jabal Druze.” The invocation of the League’s authority is emphasised by the use of the term mandatory power to mean ‘France’, effacing the French imperial identity of the mandate—France here is one among equals, and carrying out the collective will, not merely acting in its own national interests.
The payoff for such invocations did not just come in the nebulous form of moral legitimacy: although it is now remembered for its slow and pitiful death in the later 1930s, for much of the interwar period the League of Nations was the foremost international organisation. Its endorsement represented a form of political capital that was not negligible—as is evident from the great effort that both the French and the Syrian nationalists put into gaining that endorsement, even as successive crises drained the League of its credibility. Institutionally the League tended to support French authority over Syria, however brutal the French ‘discipline’: this was because it was dominated by nations like France. Yet rhetorically invoking the League of Nations also raised problems for France. First, while the mandate justified French rule in Syria it also implied a term to France’s dominance: if the League’s charter provisionally recognized the independence of Syria, it recog- nized that French rule was also provisional. So even if institutionally the League tended to support France, philosophically it guaranteed Syria’s right to accede, sooner rather than later, to equal status with France as an independent nation—and Syrians constantly reminded the mandatory authorities of this, using League institutions such as the Permanent Mandates Commission as a forum for doing so. French speakers preferred to combat such opposition by referring not to the higher authority of the League but to the other hierarchy, that of the French empire, within which France dominated by dint of its “moral radiance” (Weygand 1927:243-244) rather than by decision of the League.
The problem with such flickering between different rhetorical hierarchies was that they were incompatible. If France was not in Syria to fulfill a mandate then Syrians had every right to condemn France before the League as an illegal occupier, and act accordingly. If France was there to fulfill a mandate then Syrians could legitimately condemn French actions which went against the mandatory’s commitment to prepare Syria for independence (of which there were very many). The dissonance between the hierarchies threatened to render them meaningless almost as effectively as the oppressive nature of French power, whose often unrestrained violence could not easily be assimilated to a rhetorically constructed ‘moral’ France. As a mandate, Syria fitted badly into the French empire as a whole—one reason why France never really reached a long-term vision for its role there beyond maintaining French control, and why Syria soon came to be an unfavoured posting for French officers and officials (Khoury 1987: ch2&3).
For Syrians. Similar problems presented themselves for Syrians opposed to French rule. Accepting the League’s authority offered the best guarantee that France would one day leave—but it also meant accepting (amongst other things) that France had a right to be in Syria, and that there ‘minorities’ in Syria that needed protecting. On the other hand, taking the Syrian nation alone as the ultimate and only touchstone of national sovereignty—as nationalists sometimes chose to do— meant giving up the guarantee offered by the League, flimsy as it was, that Syria would one day be independent. Rhetorically invoking the entirely different hierarchy of Islam, meanwhile, which some nationalists also chose to do at times, posed a different set of problems.
A subtle example of how the League’s authority could work simultaneously for and against both sides is contained in the following extract from the statement to the League Council of the 24th Session of the Permanent Mandates Commission. The Commission, it said, "wishes the mandatory Power every success in the difficult task it is engaged on, of reconciling the aspirations of the populations placed under her tutelage towards a full independence with the guarantee of the rights and interests of the minorities among these populations."
Reasserting the authority of the mandatory power, and granting cover to French attempts to use the ‘minorities’ as an excuse for prolonging the mandate, this statement by the Commission would be favourable to France—if it did not simultaneously assert the right of the populations under French control to “full independence”. Looked at in the other direction, this statement’s assertion of the right of the populations under French control to “full independence” would be favourable to the nationalists—if the Commission did not simultaneously assert France’s authority, and the rights (indeed, existence) of ‘minorities’.
What, then, is the significance of these rhetorical hierarchies—how did they shape the course of events, the lives of those involved in the history of French imperialism in Syria?
I have already mentioned the symbolic domination of Syrian society that is represented by the acceptance (however complex) by Syrians of a rhetorical hierarchy within which they were civilizationally inferior to the French. The long-term effects of that domination—what might be called in French a colonisation des esprits—are so large as to be almost immeasurable; former imperial societies rarely recognize the depth of the trauma that colonization inflicts on the colonized society and are rarely forgiving or understanding of the problems colonialism continues to throw up long after the formal independence of ex-colonies. For that matter, former imperial societies rarely recognize the continuing influence of the imperial past in their own present—and not only in their relations with, and their attitudes to immigrant communities from, the formerly colonized world. The role of the imperialist enterprise in reinforcing a sense of national identity in European states was significant (Charle 2001; Colley 2003 ; Kedward 2006, amongst many other titles), and the end of formal European empires has had a marked effect on identities in the former imperial states, no longer able to use the rhetoric of an imperial mission as a factor of cohesion—however hard it is to measure the importance of that factor (Porter 2006 ).
More measurable are the ways in which the rhetoric adopted by French and Syrian actors affected their political behaviour at the time of the mandate. For example, the French response to the 1925-27 revolt was clearly influenced—how could it not be?—by the imperial vision of Syrian society. The interpretation of the revolt as a sectarian and/or criminal phenomenon, an outbreak of half-savage ‘indiscipline’, imposed a disciplinarian response—a purely military response rather than an attempt to find a political solution. A ‘bandit’ cannot be invited to the negotiating table, and nor can a ‘fanatic’: atavistic bloodlust is not a negotiable political aim. (By contrast, things such as an end to forced labour, greater Syrian control over Syrian affairs, and ultimately a French withdrawal clearly are negotiable political aims.) A similar phenomenon can be observed at the time of the 1936 negotiations between France and the nationalists over the terms of a Franco-Syrian treaty bringing the mandate to an end, when French intelligence reports frequently referred to the nationalist delegation—accepted as a legitimate interlocutor by their own government—as the “extremist delegation”.
Likewise, the rhetoric adopted by Syrians to further their political aims was not neutral: it gave shape to those aims, and to the ways in which Syrians sought to achieve them. For example, in an international order structured by the League of Nations and its philosophy of the nation-state, there was clear political mileage to be gained by seeking to mobilize one’s community either as a nation or as a ‘minority’. To take the first case, adopting nationalism certainly made sense as a political strategy in a world of nation-states (and in the context of a Syrian nation-state that had inter- national recognition from the League). But nationalism implied a particular relationship between state and population: it often implied hostility towards culturally-distinct groups, for example, and/or the populations of border zones. This point can be generalized—all the nation-states that succeeded the dynastic empires (Habsburg, Czarist, Ottoman) destroyed in World War One proved markedly more hostile to cultural diversity among their populations than the empires they replaced. Choosing to become a nationalist also involves, inevitably, choosing to exclude other individuals from the national community. The reaction of those others is difficult to predict.
Rhetorical Hierarchies in France and Syria During the Mandate
A similar observation can be made about the rhetorical use of the concept of ‘minority’ by some Syrians who were, for whatever reason, hostile to nationalism. In a world of nation-states there is a value to mobilizing one’s community as a minority: it can be a useful way of improving one’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the state, particularly given the protection offered to minorities by international law since 1920. But there is a risk involved. Once a community is defined in its own eyes or those of the ‘majority’, or both, the community as a whole or its individual members may well find their political options limited. This is even more insistently the case if they have come to be associated with external actors (the League of Nations, for example, or an imperial power). The Syrian nationalist Edmond Rabbath, a Christian, understood this. In a series of articles about the Franco-Syrian Treaty and the ‘minorities’ question, published in that same controversial month of March 1936, he specifically argued that the legal protection of minorities tends to disadvantage the establishment of equality for all citizens of a state. Members of minority communities should be assured full rights not on the basis of their membership of a community, but as citizens. He says, I think accurately, that minority treaties “will be more useful to the Powers than to the minorities. The latter will find their true guarantee not on paper, but in the creation of an atmosphere of reciprocal understanding and sympathy.” He is no doubt being over-optimistic about the possibility of such an atmosphere being created and sustained in any state, especially for a man writing in the middle of the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s—but his point is an important one.
It would not do to adopt too idealist an interpretation of events. Rhetoric was hardly an independent variable in the history of Syria under French mandate. The rhetoric different actors chose to adopt was very much contingent, shaped by their interests and goals as well as many other contextual factors (political, social, material). To take a perhaps excessively obvious example, it was only because of French rule in Syria that Syrians adopted French imperialist rhetoric—whatever they did with it once they had adopted it. Nevertheless, rhetoric is an important enough political tool to deserve study in its own right, particularly if we are interested in how contemporary actors perceived themselves and others. And rhetoric is not purely a function of other factors: the rhetoric that the various actors adopted in turn shaped the courses of action they followed and the way other actors responded to them. Whether they were French imperialists, Syrian nationalists, or Syrian non-nationalists, the outcome was frequently unexpected.
1. This paper was originally developed at the 2006 SIAS Summer Institute ‘Hierarchy, marginality, and ethnicity in Muslim societies (7th century AD to WWII)’, convened by Gudrun Krämer and Mark Cohen. It grew out of a paper given at the 2006 conference of the Society for the Study of French History. I would like to thank the conveners of these events and those participants who provided me with useful critical feedback, as well as the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, which funded my research.
2. St Antony’s College, Oxford.
3. ARCHIVES DIPLOMATIQUES (In text as AD-SL box) box 1054, dossier Kurdes 1924. This quote comes from the conclusion of a long study of the Kurds, included here in a copy which unfortunately lacks a title-page (and thus attribution).
4. AD-SL box 412, Extrait du rapport mensuel 1606/SR.RL. [Service de renseignements, République libanaise] (May 1928).
5. On the revolt, see Provence 2005 and Bokova 1991. Provence addresses the French interpretation of Syrian violence at some length.
6. These examples come from AD-SL box 2389, Dossiers isolés - Insurrection Druze - 1926. One dossier, Les atrocités druzes et reproches faits au commandement français, is divided into subdossiers named by (Christian) religious community (e.g. 4 - Grecs catholiques, 5 - Maronites); these contain reports on ‘Druze’ atrocities solicited from Christian clergymen. The sectarian interpretation of the revolt is thus inscribed in the historical record from the very beginning.
7. This and following quotes from SHAT box 4H 134, dossier 2. Acting High Commissionner [de Reffye] to MAE, Bei- rut, 11/8/1926.
8. AD-SL Box 2389, dossier Les Atrocités Druzes & Reproches faits au Commandement et aux Troupes françaises, sub- dossier Les atrocités druzes, undated document La révolte druze — les crimes commis par les insurgés. In what may be
a variant on the ‘burned alive’ story, this document describes the horrible fate of two French aviators, Moreau and Gog- nard, downed in rebel territory. One was killed immediately; the other tried to escape, but was shot. His heart was then
supposedly torn out and eaten by a Druze warrior. (No source is given for this story.) This alleged practice of the Druze was also described to the journalist Joseph Kessel by French aviators as he joined—in an earlier version of ‘embedded reporting’—a bombing mission over Suwayda’ while reporting from Syria during the revolt (Kessel 1990:121-125).
9. AD-SL 2389 “Insurrection Druze 1926”: “Les atrocités druzes et reproches faits au commandement et aux troupes françaises”: “1926 Insurrection druze – Atrocités druzes”: pp14-15 of General Gamelin’s 41-page response to criticism of French military command by the Syro-Palestinian Congress.
10. This system was of course open to abuses.
11. It should be added, too, that in more or less every community—itself a debatable, and debated, term—there were also individuals who favoured nationalism.
12. AD-SL box 1054, dossier Kurdes 1925, subdossier III l00. Mazbata and French translation included with letter from Billotte to acting High Commissioner, Aleppo 6/5/1924. Billotte states that the brothers were motivated by “personal ambition”, and had already asked them to cease militating for a Kurdish state. I have described elsewhere the reasons why the French authorities were hostile to this idea: White 2007: 72-73.
13. AD-SL box 571, dossier La question des Kurdes en Syrie. Correspondance. Les Comités Kurds. Petition to High Commissioner, enclosed with letter from the High Commissioner’s Délégúé-Adjoint for Aleppo vilayet, 16/5/1930.
14. AD-SL box 494, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien — Application — Question des minorités, letter and memo from Tappouni to High Commissioner, Beirut 9/3/1936. Tappouni, Syrian Catholic Patriarch since 1929, had been elevated to the purple in 1935 with French diplomatic help in Rome (temporarily chilling France’s relations with the Maronite pa- triarch in Beirut). As a cardinal, he had useful ‘clout’ for the French not only in Syria but internationally—but he clearly did not feel that France deserved his undying loyalty for the help it had given him.
15. AD-SL box 494, dossier: La question des minorités à la suite de l’évolution du problème syrien. This and following quotes from letter enclosed with Information nº 214, Sûreté Générale, Aleppo 3/3/1936. Their rhetorical sophistication is evident before the letter even begins: it is addressed, not to the High Commissioner, but to Monsieur l’ambassadeur. While the High Commissioner was indeed France’s ambassador to the mandate states, the title was rarely used outside of letterheads. By adopting it, these writers assert the High Commissioner’s status as the representative of a foreign state, not the ruler of Syria, and make Syria formally equal with France—a sovereign state to which France has sent an ambassador.
16. Europeans were at the top. Arabs and Indochinese were in the middle: the Arabs more physically robust; the Indochinese more commercially skilled. Both were considered to be more developed than the Africans, who came at the bot- tom. This hierarchy corresponded to the way colonised peoples from different regions of the empire were fitted into the imperial economy—and military (Bancel and Blanchard 2003; Deroo 2003).
17. AD-SL box 410, dossier B13 Rattachement des Alaouites à la Syrie. High Commissioner to MAE, 24/1/1936.
18. French writers commonly used this tactic when they wished to emphasise the legitimacy granted to the French occu- pation by the mandate, as when the editor of one colonialist publication wrote that “the power to which the mandate over the northern part of Syria has been entrusted has taken its role as educator very seriously” (L’Asie Française, Janu- ary 1924:7). Najib al-Rayyis referred to such allusions when he spoke of French claims to be fulfilling international obligations “laid on her shoulders by 45 states”.
19. Extrait du procès-verbal to League Council of 24th Session of PMC. Included in AD-SL box 410, dossier B13 (1933).
20. Or, looked at another way, the attempts by certain Syrians claiming to represent ‘minorities’ to further their own in- terests by securing permanent French backing.
21. See for example AD-SL box 494, dossier La question des minorités à la suite de l’évolution du problème syrien, In- formation No. 802, Sûreté Générale (Beirut), 6/3/1936, reprising a report from the Sûreté in Aleppo. On the French in- telligence apparatus in Syria, and the attempts of its officers to influence French policy in Syria and at home, see Thomas 2002.
22. Articles (from Le Jour, 6-10/3/1936) included as press-clippings in AD-SL box 494, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien – Application – Question des minorités.
SERVICE HISTORIQUE DE L’ARMÉE DE TERRE (Vincennes), series 4 H. In text as SHAT box [number], dossier, document, date.
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