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Syria: The Analogies of History

RUSI Newsbrief, 17 Jan 2013 By Daniel Neep

Syrians critical of defiant President Bashar Al-Assad often remark with bitterness that his regime treats its own people worse than an army of occupation would. Indeed, in its brutality, its narratives of sectarianism and its refusal to recognise the political legitimacy of the Syrian people’s call for freedom, the Assad regime bears an uncanny resemblance to its French counterpart of the 1920s, which suppressed a series of uprisings against its occupation of the country as it implemented its official mandate from the League of Nations. At first sporadic and localised, this culminated in the Great Syrian Revolt that lasted over two years and united Syrian rebels, peasants and politicians across class, ideological and sectarian divisions. During this uprising, rebels formed a decentralised umbrella body essentially comprising units from individual villages and neighbourhoods, a structure distinctly echoed by today’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), which, in consequence, shares many of the same structural problems faced by its revolutionary predecessors.

In particular, winter 2012 saw rogue elements of the FSA accused of fomenting sectarian strife by targeting Shia shrines in the province of Idlib, of adopting the strict interpretation of religious doctrine preferred by their financiers in the Gulf, and of inadequately co-ordinating the diverse units that have raised the FSA banner. These three issues – discipline, financing and sectarianism – were also faced by Syrian rebels in the Great Revolt of 1925–27, with the experience of this revolt providing insights that are surprisingly pertinent to the conflict in Syria today. As such, this article considers the ways in which the challenges faced by today’s rebels relate to those faced by the rebels of the 1920s, positing that historical solutions may well help the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad regime nearly ninety years later.

Such an analysis requires a brief examination of the background to the Syrian uprising of the 1920s. After the First World War, the extension of French and British control into the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire was mediated through the new system of mandates approved by the League of Nations. Temporary trusteeships that would in principle last only until the populations of the Levant were capable of governing themselves, the mandates system provided a legal formula by which the new imperatives of self-determination championed by Woodrow Wilson could be reconciled with the old prerogatives of colonial dominion. In the early 1920s, French troops moved from the Mediterranean coast to the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and from there further east into the countryside and across the desert.

French colonial forces soon faced a string of rebellions in areas resistant to their control: in Syria’s coastal mountains, Alawi leader Salih Al-Ali and his supporters rebelled from 1919 to 1921; rebel bands roamed the region between northern Syria and southern Anatolia under the nominal leadership of Aleppo notable Ibrahim Hananu until his capture in 1922; and guerrilla bands from the Druze community led by Sultan Al-Atrash found hospitable terrain in the southern mountains until 1922, when their first rebellion abated. Yet only in the Great Revolt of 1925–27 did co-ordination between local rebel leaders result in an uprising inspired by explicitly nationalist considerations. This co-ordination offers potentially important lessons for the situation on the ground today.

The Great Revolt began in the Druze region of southern Syria in July 1925 as a reaction to the particularly invasive and brutal regime of the local colonial governor, Gabriel Carbillet. Led by Sultan Al-Atrash, who adopted the title of ‘Commander of the Revolt’, what began as a Druze rebellion soon spread northwards to the largely Sunni populations of rural Damascus, Hamah and Homs. Although the Damascene nationalist elite were largely disinclined to support a popular insurrection that might challenge their political monopoly, their hesitations were overwhelmed by the torrent of public anger against the mandatory power, and they soon acquiesced to the strategies of violent opposition advocated by rebel leaders from the Druze villages and the popular masses of Damascus.

France responded to the threat of a nationwide revolt with unprecedented force. Collective punishment was firmly entrenched: villages suspected of complicity with the rebels were targeted by aerial and artillery bombardments; French colonial troops were permitted to loot freely and kill civilians; and local communities were raided for hostages to guarantee their good conduct. Individual activists, especially political leaders and rebel commanders, were also punished with sanctions ranging from house arrest and imprisonment to the demolition of property, exile and, ultimately, public execution. As if this were insufficient deterrence, the mandatory power frequently piled rebel corpses in public squares in a macabre attempt to persuade the local population that resistance was futile.

But French troops soon discovered that the rebels they had initially dismissed as mere bandits were surprisingly effective at modern warfare. Many had practical experience as officers, first in the Ottoman army and then in the army of King Faisal, who had briefly ruled in Damascus prior to the French. Formally schooled at Ottoman military academies in guerrilla warfare tactics known as ‘Harb Al-’Isabat’ (the ‘war of the bands’) – including teaching on the importance of lightning raids, mobility, erratic movements and maintaining the support of the local population – former officers disseminated this doctrine widely among their peers.

The military manuals penned by these rebels offer a useful corrective to assumptions about how colonised populations reacted to the superior military technology of the West during the interwar years. Airplanes, for example, were often held to represent the peak of colonial techno-fetishism and to have a ‘moral effect’ in colonial contexts. But one manual, written by the prominent rebel leader Sa’id Al-’As in the late 1920s, describes them as ‘no more than weapons of fear, terror and delusion’, and as having no great effect on cities and villages, with rebels quickly learning that French airpower was vulnerable to well-targeted rifle fire.

Rebel bands were grassroots organisations: their size and membership was necessarily fluid, at times swelled by peasants whose lives had been destroyed by French reprisals or the failing economy, at others diminished as they returned to their farms or grew tired of a life on the move. The loose-knit leadership of the Great Revolt, meanwhile, comprised radical Druze notables, Damascene bourgeois nationalists and uneducated leaders from popular urban quarters and outlying villages whose military prowess had won them a seat at the table. This leadership faced three main challenges – discipline, financing and sectarianism – in its efforts to unify the rebel forces, challenges that resonate clearly with the Syria of today.

The difficulty of ensuring discipline, including the failure of some rebels to abide by the doctrine of Harb Al-’Isabat, was blamed for a string of military failures, including the botched attempt to take Damascus in October 1925, with bitter criticism of two rebel leaders who had incited their men into a frenzy, then abandoned them in the capital without leadership or a battle plan. Following this failure, revolutionary councils were convened to decide upon the principles that would subsequently guide rebel activities. These included an agreement to co-ordinate operations through a unified military command, to elect the rebel leadership through votes, to forbid independent raids, and to establish both an accounting and an administrative system to collect taxes from local villages. In many respects, this agreement laid the foundations for an embryonic state that might replace the one imposed by the occupying power, showing a keen awareness of the importance of institution-building for the military struggle.

The second challenge to rebel unity in the 1920s concerned struggles over financing. Despite the regulations set out by the revolutionary councils, various rebel leaders were accused of fomenting disorder in order to extort funds from local villagers and landowners. Yet punishing plunderers was a highly politicised affair, rooted in rebel leaders’ efforts to dominate decision-making in the revolutionary council. In December 1925, for example, a rebel leader named Ramadan Al-Shallash was accused of coercing money from the inhabitants of Duma and Al-Midan and attacking women in Hamura, and although some contemporary sources suggest the accusations were politically motivated, he was consequently expelled from the revolt. At the same time, the revolutionary leadership distributed pamphlets to villages explaining that any individual demanding money in the name of the revolt would be caught and punished, thereby jealously guarding its monopoly over legitimate taxation.

The final obstacle to the development of a unified rebel force concerned sectarianism. While the Great Revolt emerged as a nationalist uprising that united Syrians from the Druze and Sunni communities, rebel leaders recognised that the rebellion was susceptible to being portrayed as a sectarian revolt by French authorities, which had long argued that Syria’s religious diversity required a firm hand to prevent this ‘mosaic society’ from further fragmentation. Rebel attacks on Christian villages, which were sometimes accused of complicity with their Catholic protector, therefore threatened to compromise the unity of the uprising.

Rebel leaders in the 1920s, however, were able to dismiss such attacks as a simple desire for plunder. ‘These raids were not legitimate,’ Al-’As wrote, as he acknowledged further the danger of hostility towards Christian villages alienating ‘the hearts of the Christian sons of the one nation, our brothers in nationalism and the homeland.’ At the same time, even though rebels from a Sunni background would frequently refer to themselves as mujahideen, the term held no explicitly religious connotations, being used merely as a synonym for thuwwar (rebels). ‘Religion belongs to God,’ the Syrian saying went, ‘but the nation belongs to us all.’

From this examination, it is clear, therefore, that the Syrian rebels of the 1920s encountered a number of the challenges now facing those fighting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, notably those of discipline, funding and sectarianism. While meeting these challenges head-on, it was arguably the inability of the rebels of the 1920s to mobilise sufficient numbers to allow for a sustained uprising that led to the failure of the Great Revolt: Syria did not gain independence until 1946. With today’s uprising having swept the country from southwest to far east, from the suburbs of Damascus to the northern fringes of Aleppo, the opposite problem occurs: today’s revolutionary leaders have yet to address decisively the question of how to maintain unity on the ground. One way in which they might do so is to turn their attention to Syria’s anti-colonial uprising, which offers not only useful practical insights into managing a revolt, but also a rich reservoir of heroism, stories and images from which all members of the Syrian nation can draw solidarity, pride and inspiration.

Dr Daniel Neep
Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, Research Director (Syria) at the Council for British Research in the Levant, and author of Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Space, Insurgency and State Formation (Cambridge University Press, 2012).



Further Analysis: Syria, Middle East and North Africa

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