The Syrian Revolution of 1925: A Gramscian Redemption

Spenser R. Rapone I Social Movement Studies I History I September 6th, 2017

Revolutionary movements bring societies to a precarious moment of truth: either radical change takes hold, or a reversion to the status quo subjugates the potential for change. Syrians found themselves at this junction during the Great Revolt of 1925. Walter Benjamin believed that the historian's work presents "a revolutionary chance in the struggle for a suppressed past,"[1] and this work seeks to examine that suppressed past which chronicles the lived experience of 1925 revolutionaries. Numerous Syrians spilled their blood in the Great War, only to face imperial encroachment in its aftermath. France occupied Syria in 1920, and five years later, a militant, radical movement took place in the hopes of escaping occidental domination. [2] This momentous occasion neither happened overnight, nor did the aftermath of World War I alone account for the spilling over of tensions. Joyce Miller argues that "[t]here have been two major interpretations of this [1925 Syrian] revolt - one linking it romantically with the rise of Syrian nationalism, the other dismissing it as an unsuccessful, unimportant rebellion." [3] I reject both of these claims. Instead, following Michael Provence's popular outline and Philip S. Khoury's two-volume, encyclopedic account of the era, I will argue that the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 was a radical, emancipatory movement. Though Provence and others would try to link it with the rise of Syrian-Arab nationalism, as we shall see, the radical nationalism of 1925 would prove to be vastly different from later projects.

To understand the Great Syrian Revolt, one must examine the previous hegemonic structure instituted by the Ottoman Empire. Specifically, the imperial edicts of the 19th century demonstrate a desire for the reformation and reorganization of rule in the region. These reforms aided the entrenchment of imperial prerogatives, but also set into motion their eventual unraveling. Khoury's characterization of Arab nationalism progressing through three stages of "loosely structured Arabism," the Arab Revolt of 1916, and finally a concerted movement in the wake of French occupation proves useful, albeit reductive, in understanding the socio-political currents of 1925. [4] Provence effectively expands upon this elitist modality of historiography by focusing on the grass roots of the rebellion, and how the masses of Syria embraced and transformed European-inspired nationalism into their own ideological movement.[5] Moreover, Provence downplays the dominant politics of the urban notables in characterizing a radical, collective action that comprised nearly all of Syrian inhabitants from the rural frontier to the urban centers. [6] This type of broad-based movement was unheard of up until its time. Revolutionaries aside, so too were there collaborators, in this case the aforementioned urban notables, who aspired to secure their aims through "an incremental process of negotiation with the French." [7] Nationalist sentiments espoused by the upper classes of Syria never appeared to acquire a revolutionary content.[8] In spite of the urban notables' passive resistance to the French, the Syrian masses challenged western imperialism; in turn, they called the economic and ideological agendas themselves into question. France, as well as Britain, Germany, and other western powers exported finance capital in the 19th century in order to maximize profits and consolidate gains; competition among the Great Powers trended inexorably towards war after 1870.[9] Yet, while the economic base provides a vector for analyzing western, colonial expansion, the superstructures of this mad race for domination cannot be ignored. With respect to the French Mandate of Syria, while this work seeks to emphasize that the Syrians rose up against their economic exploitation, 1925 also showed (if only momentarily) an attempted rejection of the ideological domination wrought by the Mandate period.

Since 1920, Syria lay under the umbrella of French imperial hegemony in the crudest sense of the word, but also in 20th century Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci's sense of "cultural hegemony." [10] Thus, while many battles were fought with bullets and bombs, there too existed a profound struggle of ideas, cultural variances, values, and other abstract notions. Gramsci himself primarily dealt with the analysis of European countries, but Gramsci's work illuminates colonial rule and anticolonial resistance. In describing the Great Syrian Revolt, its early successes and its eventual failure, Gramsci's notions of a "war of position" and "war of maneuver," (i.e. the ideological war and the armed struggle itself), will be the lens in analyzing these historical events. [11] According to Provence, this mass uprising was undoubtedly a "heroic episode in the colonial history of Syria."[12] Initially, the mass mobilization of the rebels undermined the ideological dominance of the French; the rebels' efforts were exemplified in political efforts best understood as a war of position. Yet, while the ideological war of position was waged successfully at first, the fierce response by French forces generated cracks in the Syrian popular opposition, which suddenly lost ground. With the restoration of elite-driven politics, and a newfound cooperation between the urban notables (who were previously the power brokers within the Ottoman system) and the French, the rebellion soon failed and French imperialists quashed the revolt. [13] While the masses of Syrian rebels continuously proved tenacious and courageous, by 1928 the lack of a clearly articulated and established alternative to the hegemonic power of the French proved ruinous. [14] The elitist ideology formed by the Franco-Syrian notable alliance once again subjugated the region, and resultantly, armed resistance only lasted a short while before reactionary forces secured their victory.

Throughout the course of this work, context, ideology, and praxis will be employed in understanding the historical epoch of French-controlled Syria from 1920-1928, the key event of which is the revolution of 1925. Accordingly, the structure followed will be as such: establishing the historical context of Mandatory Syria, the theories utilized in constructing a robust historical analysis of the key peoples, actions, and places, and the events of the armed rebellion themselves, and how and why the French were able to outmaneuver and outlast the efforts of the Syrian masses. For over two more decades, the Syrians would suffer under colonial rule. Even later independence never seemed to capture the nationalist spirit of 1925. Above all, this work seeks to embody Michel Rolph-Trouillot's maxim that "historical representations cannot be conceived only as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge." [15] Rather, in narrating the events leading up to, during, and following the 1925 revolution, there is a praxis at play here that seeks to redeem and recast the most radically transformative and emancipatory aspects of this historical moment. The Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 was a concentrated movement carried out by the Syrian masses that ultimately failed due to the rebels' inability to fundamentally alter the ideological and societal constructs of Syrian society. This further engendered the capitulation of urban notable elites in their attempts to maintain status and power, leaving the hopes for a new society extinguished not only by European imperialism, but the existing traditional structures favorable to notable rule.

Gramscian Approach to History

Antonio Gramsci developed his theoretical contributions to Marxist thought and revolutionary struggle primarily through the study of history. First, though, the role of his predecessors, Karl Marx, followed by Vladimir Lenin, must be discussed. In looking at the development of human events, Marx's historical materialism argues for an understanding of the "economic structure of society," otherwise known as the base, in conjunction with a superstructure, upon which varying levels of social consciousness are then derived.[16] In the early 20th century, Lenin expanded upon Marx's theory, seeking to explain how capitalism had driven some imperialist powers, namely France and Great Britain, to maximize profits through their export of capital. [17] Simply put, capitalist aspirations gave birth to the colonial venture. Yet, while both Marx's and Lenin's indictment of the capitalist system remained salient, Gramsci sought to emphasize the superstructural elements of society to further develop the revolutionary doctrine. Gramsci insisted that the political aspect of a revolutionary movement was far more complex, [18] and this complexity manifests itself in the ideological struggle, or "war of position," whereas the armed resistance itself comprises the "war of movement." [19] These dual strategic approaches attempt to reconcile both the contradictions of the state and civil society encompassing the larger superstructure itself. [20] Civil society is the mode of economic behavior, or as Gramsci saw it, the "cultural hegemony of a social group over the entire society." [21] In order for civil society to conform to specific economic relations, the state necessarily exists to carry out legislation and coercion. [22] Thus, Gramsci declares the task of radically transforming civil society most critical, accomplished through a seizure of the state structure, in order to effectively transform the mores of old. [23] To effect such change, one must engage in a political, and eventually an armed, struggle. In sum, the war of movement cannot be won until the war of position is first secured.

Resistance movements require the support of the greater population. In the face of an entrenched civil society, the war of position finds its strength in the social foundations of an emancipatory movement. [24] Mass movements that win the war of position secure a clear victory. [25] The decisive nature of the struggle manifests itself in what Dr. Kathleen Bruhn describes as a "counterhegemonic cultural bloc," wherein the cultural hegemony of the now deposed ruling class ceases to exert effective control or ideological dominance.[26] Innovation and subversion are also key tasks for revolutionary moments according to Gramsci, who declares that "in political struggle one should not ape the methods of the ruling classes, or one will fall into easy ambushes." [27] Furthermore, revolutionaries must also recognize their inherent disadvantage from the moment they take up arms, as "one cannot choose the form of war one wants, unless from the start one has a crushing superiority over the enemy." [28] Upon such a foundation of a dialectical historical analysis, Gramsci insists that changing society exists in a dual sense: materially and ideologically. On the subject of ideology in regards to nationalism, Benedict Anderson insists that nationalism itself is not an ideology, but more a superstructural phenomenon akin to religion or community. [29] Hence, he treats Syria and France as two imagined political communities each seeking to carry out its nationalist aims in varying fashions. [30] Given that France was knee-deep in capitalist ideology by 1925, it follows that their nationalism manifested itself as imperialism. However, while there did exist a difference in nationalistic aims, many Syrians, primarily the Sunni merchant class that comprised the urban notables, were just as driven by profit motives as European aggressors. Revolutionaries who took up arms in 1925 not only differentiated their nationalist aspirations from the French, but also from their urban notable countrymen.

Gramsci would have argued that the Revolt of 1925 demonstrated a rush to a war of maneuver without preparatory success in a war of position, though he acknowledged that sequence is not unalterable. Depending on the class relationships, certain tactics may be more or less beneficial; in any case, politics is the heart and lifeblood of revolutionary praxis. [31] Yet, as the events from the Late Ottoman period up until 1925 demonstrates, no alternative society or institutions were effectively articulated by the rebellion's leaders. In conjunction with Provence's work, Marxian-Gramscian thought provides an analytical vehicle through which "historical change is understood as, to a substantial degree, the consequence of collective human activity."[32] In other words, Gramsci's historical approach properly rejects any notions of Great Man theory, or the idea that particularly influential individuals turn the axis of history. With respect to Syria, one can certainly recognize how individuals, e.g. Amir Faisal (1885-1933), General Maurice Sarrail (1856-1929), and Sultan al-Atrash (1891-1982) were significant. Yet, to merely focus on the exploits of individuals is to engage with hagiography, not history. By way of outlining a specific narrative, detailing economic interests of the French vis-à-vis Syria, or examining the influx of capitalist ideology first through Ottoman hegemony and then later French, the Gramscian line of thought remains implicit throughout this work. Provence's claim that "[o]rderly categories and tidy theories exist principally in the minds and representations of intellectuals" rings true, as theory is not a be-all and end-all, but rather an analytical aid. [33] The starting point for such an analysis begins in the Late Ottoman period of the 19th century.

The Late Ottoman Period in Syria

Long before the Mandate period, Ottoman Syria and the Lebanon came under the watchful eye of French financial interests. No other European power invested more of its financial capital in the Ottoman Empire than France during the nineteenth century, and by 1900, French interests honed in on Syria itself.[34] While Greater Syria (Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon) came under the Ottoman yoke in 1516, the later Ottoman period marked the series of events that set the stage for imperial ventures. [35] Egypt occupied Syria from 1831 to 1860, and instituted "centralization and modernization" schemes, which also had the dual effect of curtailing the influence of theulama or religious establishment. [36] This time period also saw the Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876), which established a fixed taxation system, property rights, and equal citizenship for all Ottoman subjects[37], in an attempt to centralize Ottoman authority through a nationalist platform. [38] The Syrian people were forced to respond to changing social and material conditions in the face of Egyptian and Ottoman interests. Such actions cultivated an "Ottoman Patriotism" in which an imperial elite experience state-sponsored schooling, training, and therefore, ideological conditioning. [39] By mid-1860, in keeping with the mosaic of peoples who populated Syria (such as the Bedouin, Druze, Kurds, and other ethnic and cultural groups) took part in a series of brutal uprisings throughout Damascus for over a week, leveling the ancient Christian quarter of Bab Tuma. [40] Seizing opportunity in the chaos, the Ottomans reasserted imperial authority over the city, and subsequently, Greater Syria itself. [41] This reassertion of authority provided a fertile ground for cultivating a specific Ottoman ideology.

In a stroke of calculated diplomacy, Ottoman foreign minister Fuʿad Pasha (1814-1869) effectively spread the burden of responsibility amongst all Damascenes, even Muslim urban notables, to curtail any thought the French might have in terms of intervening on behalf of Christendom. [42] Ottoman authorities executed a number of the leading figures of local majlis (councils), but preserved the more prestigious figureheads; accordingly, balance of power shifted back to the Ottomans from the locals. [43] Interestingly enough, this episode was not a mere lingering effect of Crusader-era animosities. As Khoury notes, most Christians felt betrayed due to Muslims shirking sharia law in failing to protect Syrian ahl al-kitāb .[44] One can deduce that the betrayal Syrian Christians perceived speaks to a previously established sense of trust, lending credence to the existence of a proto-Syrian nationalistic identity, or at least to an identity of a non-confessional variety. Despite this crisis, in which one may examine the existence of a sense of shared identity, the urban notable dominance, under the auspices of Ottoman control, persisted.

Ottoman focus on Damascus demonstrated the growing stratification of a structure that asserted urban officials as the ruling class of Syria. The notables, or ayan, served as "intermediaries" in carrying out the dual interests of (urban) Syria and the Ottoman Empire itself. [45] By 1880, these notables had so distanced themselves from lower class urban dwellers, not to mention those of the countryside, that they possessed certain "aristocratic" pretenses, according to Khoury. [46] This notion of "aristocratic" seems to be anachronistic; more accurately, the notables functioned as a developing, Syrian bourgeoisie. Urban notables, the Syrian elite, occupied a position of secular status with their role as the facilitators of Ottoman policy in Syria. Ottoman centralization in the nineteenth century eroded the role of religious authority, with spiritual leaders steadily losing their once prestigious authority. [47] By the turn of the century, prominence once held by religious leaders gave way to those of a secular variety. Conscripting Syrians into the army, coupled with "elite state education," provided the ideological conditioning necessary to transform the region.[48] Of course, religious rhetoric, leaders, and ideology would still factor into the dealings of the region, but the nineteenth century secularized many Syrian political dealings.

Land reforms of the Tanzimat period critically altered the material conditions in Syria. European capitalist ideology, and one of its most powerful subsets, commercialization, creeped into Syrian life during the late Ottoman period. [49] Even more so than the growing secularization, the influx of capitalist ideology manifested itself in an ever-growing prevalence of European interest. From cash cropping to the manufactured products of mainland Europe, the basis of local modes of production shifted from the community to private ownership and profit. [50] With the Land Code of 1858, Ottoman policy sought to empower peasants in allowing private land registration; however, a series of inefficient bureaucratic features led to prominent notable families acquiring said lands outright. [51] Moreover, these policies proved critical in that they extended the imperial reach to "geographical terrains that it had never before touched." [52] Resultantly, the urban notables grew even more powerful and influential.

While the urban notables basked in their burgeoning status as Europeanized elites of the Ottoman court, those of the Syrian hinterlands felt differently. Despite how far the tentacles of capitalist ideology reached, the "frontier warrior ethos" of the rural populace appeared to remain untouched.[53] Peasants lost their land to urban notables who seized communal property under the guise of registering it under individual peasants' names. [54] While the urban modes of production became thoroughly Ottomanized, the rural economy remained independent, leading to the establishment of partnerships with the mercantile urban class.[55] In terms of trade, culture, and ideology, the rural inhabitants of Syria thoroughly perplexed and frustrated the Ottoman state and its urban notable emissaries.

Eventually, the obstinacy of Syrian frontiers people reached a critical mass. The Ottomans spared little time in the process of carrying out violence against the rural peoples in an attempt to suppress their recalcitrance.[56] Additionally, the prevalence of Ottoman schools increased greatly, in an effort by Istanbul to further indoctrinate its Syrian subjects. [57] When Ottoman strategy bore little fruits outside the city, their directives changed; the turn of the century saw a shift best described as "enticement rather than punishment."[58] The Ottoman state attempted to use infrastructure to lure impressionable youths from the rural areas. These improvements were met with intense scrutiny by the rural Syrians, especially the state-sponsored scholarships that Istanbul proposed.[59] Even so, these newly implemented measures attracted substantial numbers, linking the rural inhabitants with the fate of the urban centers in these final traumatic, but hopeful, decades of Ottoman rule. [60] Yet while the Ottoman state grappled with internal issues, the supposed "sick man of Europe" would soon enter into global conflict.

Syria and the Great War

World War I marked a turning point in the growing nationalist sentiment and class consciousness of Syrian peoples. Certainly, the "war to end all wars" catalyzed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and brought about incomprehensible carnage and suffering for the Ottoman subjects of Syria. [61] Yet, this period also marked the beginnings of a rejection of Ottoman identity in favor of a Syrian-Arab construct.[62] The Arab Revolt of 1916 played a key role in such developments. Thus, in terms of imperial aggressors within this analysis, while France remains the primary agent, its actions have improper context without examining those of the British, as well.

To begin, the promises of the Great Powers to the Arab peoples of an independent state proved false. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in declaring that "France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and protect an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States," seems to speak to an authentic commitment by the West. [63] From the start, such claims were carried out in bad faith. Historians such as Zeine N. Zeine claim that the Great Powers negotiated from a position of honesty and goodwill,[64] insisting that both la mission civalisatrice of the French and the "good order" of the British were rooted in an attempt to uplift their colonial subjects.[65] Such notions were merely hollow justifications. Even imperial agent T.E. Lawrence admits that "these promises would be dead paper," [66] going so far as to maintain "had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have told them to go home."[67] Sykes-Picot, coupled with other secret, contradictory agreements, such as the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence, dealing with the fate of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, indict Western perfidy when it came to supporting Arab independence. [68] Western motivations for influence in Syria and other former Ottoman territories were merely a manifestation of what Said insists as "positional superiority;" that is, whatever the context, the Westerner possesses the proverbial upper hand. [69] Largely due to "French initiative," the Great Powers sought to exploit the Arab peoples from the beginning.[70] Much like the Ottoman reforms of the 19th century, the chaos of the post-war years fundamentally altered the social and material conditions for Syrians. This time, however, the effects would be far more alienating, especially for those of the hinterland.

After the Allied victory in 1918, France and Britain arbitrarily carved borders into the Arab domains of the Ottoman Empire. Amir Faisal, one of the key leaders of the Arab Revolt, was crowned Syria's king. [71] Yet, the relevance of the Arab Revolt warrants further examining beyond Hashemite aspirations. Despite what its lasting legacy might suggest, Faisal did not command the loyalty of all Arabs, let alone the other peoples of Syria. [72] Many did support him, at any rate, including Druze Leader Sultan al-Atrash who triumphantly marched alongside the Hashemite prince into Damascus in 1918. [73] As Provence indicates, Hawran Druze involvement in the Arab Revolt was key, as they provided the grain supplies to feed Faisal's army. [74] By the time of Faisal's independent Syria, the Damascene were divided into two camps: junior and mid-grade officers who tended to support him, and the urban elites who were inclined to oppose the quasi-populist leader. [75] At any rate, while in part the product of imperial machinations, this newly-formed Syrian state was founded, according to Khoury, on the tenets of (Arab) national unity and independence.[76]

As stated previously, a sense of Syrian-Arab identity became more widespread during, and after the war. Particularly, the four towns of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo all seemed to possess a sense of cohesion that sloughed away "Ottomanism" for Syrian nationalism after the war. [77] This particular brand of nationalism, while distinct from the previous Ottomanism, was primarily embraced by the upper classes. [78] Not long after his coronation in March 1920, the French ousted the British-supported Faisal, and by July 1920, had established their imperial, mandatory occupation. [79] French forces achieved this task relatively easily, as the main power brokers of society, the urban notable elites, stood idly by as Faisal's loyalists led a futile resistance against a major world power. [80] Finally, with this moment, the stage was set not only for an anti-imperial struggle, but for a contest of ideologies. While nationalist fervor had gripped Syria, the European-imported, moderate, urban notable version remained the dominant ideology.

In many ways, the removal of Faisal from power spoke to the cultural hegemony of urban elites. That Hawrani grain suppliers had played such a role in supplying Damascus and other urban centers during the Arab Revolt solidified a new paradigm of commercial relations that linked the "perennially rebellious Jabal Hawran to Damascus much more firmly than ever before."[81] This economic link led the masses of the urban and rural centers to offer soon an alternative voice, for as Khoury describes, the French Occupation of Syria represented a "conflict between bourgeois and radical nationalism." [82] Consciousness had changed dramatically after the Great War. Lower urban and rural centers alike begot a new generation of nationalists comprised of dispossessed groups of veterans.[83] The bourgeois nationalists of the urban elite now faced a growing segment of the population who had re-appropriated these European-inspired beliefs in a far different sense. This radical consciousness encouraged the Syrian masses to secure victory in the war of position against their own "veteran nationalist elite."[84] Before the radical moment of 1925, however, French Mandatory policies and structures must be examined, in how they interplayed with both urban elites and the urban/rural populations.

Mandatory Syria, French Policy, and Growing Consciousness

The initial French occupation of Syria produced policies that only intensified the radical aspirations of the urban and rural subaltern class. This intensification was in large part due to the myopia of French policymakers themselves, who perceived of such an emancipatory movement as an unimaginable prospect or a veritable fantasy. [85] That the French organized Mandatory Syria along sectarian lines speaks to their shortsightedness.[86] The official League of Nations document outlining the French Mandate of Syria prescribed a "progressive development" for the peoples of Syria." [87] In terms of spiritual and religious questions, the document also stated: "[r]espect for the personal status of the various peoples and for their religious interests shall be fully guaranteed." [88] Article 11 of the Mandate Law provided Mandatory authority with a carte blanche access to natural resources and an ability to tax the trade and transportation of goods.[89] Finally, the designation of French and Arabic as the major languages of state confirmed Mandatory Syria's status as little more than a satellite of the greater French imperial project. [90] Such was the French strategy of imperial rule: divide and conquer, allow the "natives" a thin veneer of religious autonomy, and ensure that economic control remained firmly within imperial grasp.

Early on, occupation as outlined by Mandate Law had a number of implications that seemed to trend inexorably towards the unraveling of French authority. As Khoury notes, the French Mandatory paradigm did little to alter an already established political life; what changed however, was that France possessed no legitimacy to rule. [91] While the Ottomans were occupiers as well, the status of the Sultan-Caliph's legitimacy and authority ran deep for both the majority Sunni population and minorities alike.[92] And for all the talks of infrastructural investment outlined by the Mandate Law, France proved "unwilling to promote any recognizable financial interests, other than her own."[93] Any infrastructural improvements were intended only, Daniel Neep argues, to facilitate mobility, which he describes as the driving force of colonial warfare.[94] French authorities did not build roads to benefit the locals; on the contrary, they, according to Neep, "set about creating an infrastructural network along which the violent pulse of power could pound at any time." [95] The lifeblood of French colonial policy in Syria was violence. Through violence, France hoped to siphon wealth, goods, and services from Syria. Yet, in order to maximize violence, France needed to meet its infrastructural demands. Roads, then, allowed imperial forces to penetrate the country and conduct military movements across its surface. [96] Of course violence is seldom carried out for violence alone, and usually exists as a means to an end. French Syria fits what Michel Foucault articulates as panopticism.[97] In other words, French infrastructure increased imperial presence. This panoptic structure was not power for power's sake, but, in the words of Foucault, "to strengthen the social forces - to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply." [98] Urban notables occupied a crucial mediatory place in the French imperial panopticon, and such harshly repressive measures would illicit responses. Colonial violence would soon be met with anticolonial violence. Frantz Fanon was correct in his assertion that "decolonization is always a violent event." [99] French violence and dominance sowed the seeds of rebellion.

The Syrian Revolution of 1925

Resistance to French rule had its origins in a number of economic, social, and ideological factors. French policies had brought about crisis and instability in Syria. [100] Specifically, southern Syria experienced severe inflation due to France's own monetary issues, in addition to intense drought for roughly four years, increased taxes despite declining harvests, and growing distaste of the "illegality and illegitimacy" of French rule. [101] To again invoke Fanon, the course of an anti-colonial movement "implies the urgent need to thoroughly challenge the colonial situation." [102]

The developments of the 1925 revolt validated this assertion, accordingly shattering the sectarian myth propagated by the French. Imperial propaganda painted the early Jabal Druze resistors as "bandits" or "extremists," in a manner which is similar, as Provence notes, to the use of "terrorist" today as a blanket pejorative for subversive activity. [103] The Druze and other rebels would need to wage a fierce war of position to counter the claims of the French. At first, the rebels' ideological struggle would prove relatively easy, due to the ignorance and arrogant intransigence of imperial authority. As noted earlier, the Hawran Druze had already penetrated Damascene life since the late 19th century, eroding the lines between a supposed urban/rural divide. [104] The most prominent tribe, the Atrash, had effectively "formed commercial bonds with newly prominent Damascene commercial families," showing little interest in cultivating a relationship with urban elites. [105] Hawran Druze tribesmen were not viewed as barbaric or uncouth rural dwellers, but a respected and integral part of a changing commercial relationship between city and countryside. [106] Thus, through developments regarding trade and production, as well as the shared state-sponsored military education that linked the lower classes of both urban and rural Syrians, the revolt acquired a strong mass base. [107] This is not to say that differences were nonexistent, but merely that by 1925, French efforts to foster sectarian divide between different religious groups were failing. [108] Syrians had formed an inextricable bond, and imperial aggression only served to tighten the shared experience of the dispossessed.

The aims, motives, and goals of the 1925 revolt fluctuated initially. Though the mass base of the revolution was lower class, even a number of well-off Syrians would join in the uprising. Khoury outlines the participants as follows: the urban absentee landowning class, the commercial bourgeoisie/artisanal class, the middle class intelligentsia, the Muslim religious establishment, the peasantry, and a number of Bedouin tribes as well.[109] He also emphasizes the primary non-participants: non-nationalist urban notables, and certain swaths of Syrian Christians (as noted earlier, however, many in did fact take up arms alongside the rebels). [110] At the forefront of these various walks of life was the revolutionary vanguard of the countryside.[111] Syrian resistance was also able to draw on past movements to further bind the classes together. When France arrived to oust Faisal in 1920, Damascenes of numerous social classes took up arms to defend their independence; the countryside also answered the call, but arrived too late. [112] In any case, this shared past experience established a legitimacy for unity in the face of a colonial aggressor. Syrians of all persuasions, from the frontier to the urban centers, took up a common effort.

Certain key events pushed the region towards violent response. The first major beginnings were the actions taken by French officers, particularly General Sarrail and Captain Gabriel Carbillet. Interestingly, both officers were considered "leftists" for their time, yet appear to have harbored chauvinist tendencies that were far more imperialist than socialist. [113] French officials perpetuated a fantasy of "Druze feudalism," which served as a justification for heavy-handed interference in local governance and life of the Jabal Druze.[114] Despite a peaceful petition, followed by demonstrations, Sultan al-Atrash and his Druze comrades were unable to get French officials to budge. [115] Sarrail then took part in a deception that marked the flashpoint of the revolt. He invited five prominent Atrash chiefs, Mitʿib, Hamad, Nasib, ʿAbd al-Ghaffar, and Sultan al-Atrash himself to discuss peace negotiations. [116] Upon arriving at their Damascus hotel, Hamad, Nasib, and al-Ghaffar were immediately arrested; Sultan al-Atrash did not attend as he had suspected a trap, and Mitʿib declined to appear under the guise of illness. [117] Without hesitation, Sultan al-Atrash began the organization and mobilization of resistance forces, as word spread among Syrians and Europeans alike of Sarrail's treachery.[118] While the revolt was in its nascent stage and its goals not explicitly articulated, Sultan al-Atrash demonstrated his guile in linking the cause of the Druze to Damascus.[119] Shortly thereafter, the first pitched battle of the revolt took place, with the Druze revolutionaries routing the unprepared French at the Battle of al-Kafr.[120] Word of the early victory galvanized other Druze tribesmen and further exposed the repressive French policies of martial law, censorship, executions, and violent military tactics. [121] As Provence notes, even in its early, localized stages in the south, the revolt included Druze as well as Muslim Bedouins and Christian villagers. [122] Thus, from the beginning, a localized revolt had the characteristics of a popular movement. Brutal French policies had only further exposed the repressive nature of the Mandate, and in reaching out to vast swaths of Syrian walks of life, Druze rebel leaders effectively had begun to consolidate gains in the war of position.

A radicalizing of Damascus soon followed these early successes. While there was a nationalist political persuasion of Damascenes seen in the People's Party, its members did not initially have any notions of carrying out armed struggle against the French. [123] Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar, an established Syrian nationalist, represented one of the few Damacene radicals, and had already reached out to Sultan al-Atrash and other Druze leaders in the hope of eventually mobilizing resistance. [124] With the stage set on the backdrop of early victories, the French launched a final attempt to negotiate with the rebels, but it was too late. [125] Both Druze and Damascenes felt compelled towards independence. If there were any lingering doubts among urban nationalists, when the French began to jail Damascenes suspected of revolutionary sympathies, the movement's radical, popular nature was secured. [126] As Khoury notes, the Druze-People's Party connection led a revolutionary vanguard, "calling upon the popular classes to revolt in the name of the nation, but also in the name of Allah, the Prophet, and religious solidarity."[127] The ability of the vanguard leadership to inspire such inclusive sentiments cannot be emphasized enough. Indeed, such proclamations proved compelling, but as Miller notes, the traditional power structure of Syrian society was not directly challenged, at least for Damascenes. [128] That Shahbandar displayed a "willingness to work through the traditional local power structure" demonstrated a flaw in the rebels' war of position. [129] While seizing the opportunity of armed struggle proved timely, the lack to fundamentally break down established power structures factored in substantially to the revolt's eventual failure.

Revolutionary fervor and rebellious ambition spread across Syria. In Hamah, renegade French-Syrian Army officer Fawzi al-Qawuqji led an uprising against French authorities, striking not only a tactical, but a psychological blow to French authorities. [130] Thereafter, the focus shifted once again to Damascus. Nasib al-Bakri dispatched a contingent of insurgent forces, led by Hasan al-Kharrat, who launched an assault on ʿAzm Palace, the seat of Damascene power. [131] The implications of the victory were profound, for soon after al-Bakri's entire force arrived, the city began to fall to the rebels, who were virtually unopposed. [132] In keeping with revolutionary praxis, Muslim leaders amongst the rebel forces, qabadayat, circulated through the Christian and Jewish sectors of the city, ensuring their protection and maintaining their connection to the greater Syrian cause. [133] Much to the chagrin of the French, Islam had secured the confidence and protection of the Christians, not the Mandatory Power. [134] Revolutionary fervor could not be contained. In its inability to counter the Syrian rebels' war of position, the imperial power turned to its one remaining advantage: overwhelming force. Unhesitatingly, Sarrail ordered an aerial bombardment of Damascus, which lasted two days, killing 1,500. [135] With the bombardment, the French reasserted dominance over Damascus, and the nationalist fervor of the city had changed; however, the rebellion further intensified in the regions surrounding the city. [136] Aerial bombardment would become a major French tactic throughout the revolt. What remains significant, to this day, as Provence notes, is that the uprising of 1925 was "the first time in history that civilian populations were subjected to daily systematic aerial bombardment," and consequently gruesome collateral damage.[137] Urban nationalist leadership, among whom Shahbandar was prominent, proved their ineffectiveness in the wake of the bombings. By not constructing an alternative to the elite-driven structure of urban centers, French pacification efforts proved successful. Precisely because of this failure to establish a robust war of position and premature rush to armed struggle, as Provence points out, the French aerial strike "ended any organized mobilization in [Damascus]." [138] While the fight continued until 1928, the movement would steadily lose ground.

Despite the initial tenacious commitment of rebel forces, certain feuds within the revolutionary ranks would aid the French in crushing the movement. Even with the best efforts of the French, villagers routinely supported and joined the rebels, or at least supplied them with food and shelter.[139] Yet, the loss of Damascus loomed over the revolutionaries. While sectarian narratives propagandized by the French and West at large were fantasies, certain moments of divide did take place. By late 1925, in a stunning moment, the dashing rebel leader, Ramadan Shallash, surrendered to the French, becoming a collaborator, [140] and providing the French with more ideological ammunition against the fledgling revolt. The French launched a counteroffensive, far more prepared than the previous year, in mid-1926.[141] Also in 1926, a feud between the Akash Clan and Syrian Kurds nearly dealt a serious blow to the revolt's popular status. [142] A war of position required utmost solidarity amongst its ranks. With the French closing its jaws on the rebels, the movement sputtered and splintered. Shallash took money from the French to send his sons to school, later penning a letter instructing his fellow revolutionaries to acquiesce. [143] The French counteroffensive had pushed the most militant and dedicated of the rebel leaders, to include Sultan al-Atrash himself, out of the country. [144] Thus, the strongest counterrevolutionary force, the urban elites, seized an opportunity. With French military dominance firmly established, the Damascene notables entered into a deal that secured Franco-notable hegemony for the foreseeable future.[145]

Miller claims that there was a lack of unity and common purpose from the outset of the revolt. [146] Given the unity of the early stages, this claim is reductive and undermines the popular nature of the struggle. The ordinary rebels themselves carried the success of the revolutionary vanguard. It was not until the leadership itself gave into factionalism that Miller's assertion becomes valid. Provence's testimony that the ordinary Syrian masses "fought and often defeated the mandate army day after day for more than a year," demonstrates even in the dying days of the movement, the radical spirit remained. [147] Unfortunately, that spirit only went so far, and the war of position became irretrievable. Thereafter, the French, alongside the urban elite, dictated the country's future, shrouding Syria in the darkness of imperialism for years to come.

Conclusion and Parting Thoughts

With the failure of the Great Syrian Revolt, reactionary forces seized the initiative. Moderate politics drove Syria's destiny, up to and during independence, in the form of a new variation upon the old pattern, with the bourgeois urban elites operating "under the auspices of, and in cooperation with, the imperial power." [148] The greatest tragedy of the 1925 revolution was not merely in France reasserting colonial dominance, but the symbiotic relationship cultivated between the urban notables and the French, which colored independence in 1946. As Khoury notes, independence was ultimately a restoration of the status quo, giving notables their autonomy to govern affairs; that these elites sought British support in the process shows just how completely moderate politics had subsumed substantive change. [149] Thereafter, even when the likes of Michel Aflaq and Baʿathism took hold in the 1940s and 1950s, followed by the Alawite movement of the Assads in the 1960s, the nationalism had taken a narrow focus, merely trading one flag for another. [150] Even if these newly minted forms of nationalism brought about varying degrees of "progress," Syria merely traded foreign oppressors for local ones. As Oso Sabio insists, Baʿath ideology inherently contained elements of "reactionary characteristics" and "ethnic chauvinism." [151] Precisely because of these later betrayals of Syrians, and other Middle Eastern peoples, the 1925 revolution must be remembered.

Understanding the Great Syrian Revolt will help future generations break the chains of ethnic divide, imperial encroachment, and alienation. Trouillot claims that while the historian seeks to understand the past, "our authenticity resides in our struggle for the present." [152] Counter-hegemony and securing the war of position today remains imperative now more than ever before. As a bloody war and struggle rages on in Syria today, advocates of radical transformation can look to the uprising of 1925 for inspiration. Kurds in Northern Syria currently fight for emancipation in the Rojava Revolution, demonstrating radical democracy in which people have "total control over their own destinies and that of their community." [153] Today, the struggle for authentic freedom and independence in the Middle East carries on against imperialism and native oppression. Recognizing the radical, transformative implications of the 1925 Syrian Revolution will help to propel current and future generations towards securing the hope for an authentically just society.

Spenser Rapone is a US Army infantry officer and recent graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the DSA's Veterans Working Group, and Socialist Alternative. In addition to his political activity, Spenser has marched alongside activists of various other leftist organizations.


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[1] Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, trans. Dennis Redmond, 1940, (accessed March 18, 2016).

[2] Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 12-13.

[3] Joyce Laverty Miller, "The Syrian Revolt of 1925," International Journal of Middle East Studies 8, no. 4 (1977): 546.

[4] Philip S. Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860-1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 97-98.

[5] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 8.

[6] Ibid., 12-13.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 6.

[9] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 32.

[10] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks , trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 333.

[11] Ibid., 229.

[12] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 14.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 139-141.

[15] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 149.

[16] Karl Marx, Preface to "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2 nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 4.

[17] Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline , (New York: International Publishers, 1917), 108.

[18] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 229.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 206-209.

[21] Ibid., 208.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Robert W. Cox, "Gramsci, Hegemony, and International Relations: An Essay in Method," in Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations , ed. Stephen Gill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 53.

[26] Kathleen Bruhn, "Antonio Gramsci and The Palabra Verdadera: The Political Discourse of Mexico's Guerrilla Forces," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 41, no. 2 (1999): 41.

[27] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 232.

[28] Ibid., 234.

[29] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism , (New York: Verso, 2006), 5.

[30] Ibid., 6.

[31] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 232.

[32] Stephen Gill, "Epistemology, Ontology and the 'Italian School,'" in Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations , ed. Stephen Gill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 22.

[33] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 22.

[34] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 30-31.

[35] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 5.

[36] Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism, 23.

[37] Stephen F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 283-284.

[38] Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism, 17.

[39] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 9.

[40] Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism, 8.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., 9.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 9.

[46] Ibid., 11.

[47] Ibid., 13.

[48] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 9.

[49] Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism, 26.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 27.

[52] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 9.

[53] Ibid., 10.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., 10-11.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 19.

[63] Sykes-Picot Agreement, World War I Document Archive, 1916. (accessed March 18, 2016).

[64] Zeine N. Zeine, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Western Diplomacy & the Rise and Fall of Faisal's Kingdom in Syria , (Beirut: Khayat, 1960), 222-223.

[65] Ibid.

[66] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, (Salisbury: J. and N. Wilson, 1922), 8.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 11-12.

[69] Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage, 1979), 7.

[70] Zeine, Struggle for Arab Independence, 12.

[71] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 12.

[72] Ibid., 42.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., 43-44.

[75] Ibid., 45-46.

[76] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 19.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 12.

[80] Ibid., 45.

[81] Ibid., 46.

[82] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, xiii.

[83] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 47.

[84] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, xiii.

[85] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 47.

[86] Ibid., 48.

[87] "French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon," in The American Journal of International Law 17, no. 3 (1923): 177.

[88] Ibid., 178.

[89] Ibid., 179-180.

[90] Ibid., 182.

[91] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 4-5.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Daniel Neep, Occupying Syria under the French Mandate , (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 103.

[95] Ibid., 107.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage, 1977), 207-209. Foucault expands on Jeremy Bentham's concept of the Panopticon, describing a panoptic schema.

[98] Ibid., 208.

[99] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, 1961), 1.

[100] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 5.

[101] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 27.

[102] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 2.

[103] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 29.

[104] Ibid., 33-34.

[105] Ibid., 35.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Ibid., 46-47.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 205.

[110] Ibid., 206.

[111] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 48.

[112] Ibid., 49.

[113] Ibid., 50-51.

[114] Ibid., 51-52.

[115] Ibid., 53-55.

[116] Ibid., 56.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Ibid., 57.

[119] Ibid., 58.

[120] Ibid., 60.

[121] Ibid.

[122] Ibid., 61.

[123] Ibid., 69.

[124] Ibid., 70-71.

[125] Ibid., 74-80.

[126] Ibid., 86.

[127] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 218.

[128] Miller, "Syrian Revolt of 1925," 559.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 95-99.

[131] Ibid., 103.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Ibid.

[135] Ibid., 104.

[136] Ibid., 106-108.

[137] Ibid., 128.

[138] Ibid., 109.

[139] Ibid., 121.

[140] Ibid., 138.

[141] Ibid.

[142] Ibid., 120.

[143] Ibid., 138-139.

[144] Ibid.

[145] Ibid., 141.

[146] Miller, "Syrian Revolt of 1925," 563.

[147] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 139.

[148] Ibid., 141.

[149] Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 617-618.

[150] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 152-153.

[151] Oso Sabio, Rojava: An Alternative to Imperialism, Nationalism, and Islamism in the Middle East (An introduction), (San Bernardino: Lulu, 2016), 12-13.

[152] Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 151.

[153] Sabio, Rojava, 125.