One of the parallels between Syria as a French mandate and Syria under Bashar Al Assad is that government was a one-sided affair. The Assad family and the Ba’ath party have ruled with relative stability since the 1960s, yet it has been an exclusionary regime. The rebellion against Assad began as a response to this. Syria underwent a similar experience during its formative years as a mandate of France from 1919 to 1946. Compared to other former Ottoman territories, nationalist sentiment ran especially high in Syria; from December, 1919 to July 1920, Syrians waged an unsuccessful rebellion against France. Faisal Ibn Hussein, a leader of the Arab uprising against the Ottomans, led resistance against the French and tried unsuccessfully to claim Kingship of a new independent Syria. After they removed Faisal from power, France re-organized Syria into smaller states. The largest of these were the States of Aleppo and Damascus, centered around the cities of the same name. In addition, the French created territories for the ethnoreligious Alawites, and Druze. Finally, the territory that makes up modern-day Lebanon was split off into a separate mandate, distinct from Syria. With a few adjustments, this remained the basic makeup of Syria until its independence. Historians have characterized the French strategy as one of “divide and rule.” They effectively compartmentalized the mandate, making it difficult for nationalists to create a unified front to resist French rule.
The Druze were the first to resume open rebellion, beginning on July 18, 1925. For the next two years they and their allies across Syria clashed with French forces. Druze-led Syrian rebels occupied the city of Damascus in October of 1925. However, the French were able to roll back rebel gains due to far superior firepower. In 1928, after the end of the Druze-led rebellion, a constitutional convention was held. The resulting constitution pushed for an independent Syria that included more of the mandate territory, including Lebanon. This was presented to the French government, who promptly rejected it. Two years later in 1930, French authorities arranged a new constitution which kept Syria dependent on France. During subsequent elections the French successfully created a puppet government and kept Syrian nationalists in the minority.
In January 1936, a series of demonstrations caused the French to shut down the Damascus office of the National Bloc, which was the primary Syrian Nationalist party. The National Bloc and other allied parties responded by organizing a fifty day strike throughout Syria. The strike paralyzed the country as dozens of Syrians were killed in clashes between demonstrators and French troops. We witnessed echoes of this historical moment during the March, 2011, protests against Assad, which quickly engulfed all of Syria and triggered a violent response. Much like in 2011, Syrian nationalists in 1936 found substantial support outside of Syria, both in other Arab nations and in France itself. A key development was the rise of the radical left-wing Popular Front in France, which added internal pressure on the French government to change its Syria policy. Following the strike, a new treaty was signed guaranteeing an independent Syria. Initially, it would be recognized as a sovereign nation, and full independence from France would be achieved over a 25-year period. In return, the French retained military access to Syria. Like so many steps towards independence, however, this treaty went unfulfilled, largely due to the gathering clouds of World War II. Syrians would have to wait for independence until 1946 when Great Britain finally forced the French to relinquish all claims in Syria.
French policy in Syria was problematic chiefly because they did not fulfill the purpose of the mandate. England and France both leveraged the mandates for economic and military reasons, including access to oil. However, the League of Nations had also tasked them with helping build the infrastructure and political institutions necessary for the mandates to eventually function as nations in the Western model. Too interested in their economic and military prestige, the French instead thwarted Syrian efforts to self-govern. When Syria abruptly achieved full independence in 1946, it was entirely unprepared for self-government. The early years of Syrian independence were dominated by a series of coups, political instability, and war with Israel. It was the Ba’ath Party, led by the Assad family, who were able to finally create a viable long-term government when they took power in 1963. The Assads, and the Syrian Ba’ath party got their start as a nationalist movement in the highly homogeneous Alawite state. Under the French, the semi-autonomous Alawi state was safe from Sunni influence and Alawis became over-represented in the French-controlled Syrian military, which was the instrument used to repress rebellion during the mandate era, and which eventually became the most powerful body in Syria. As a result, the Assads were the first to bring long-term stability to the mess left by France. As the tide of the Syrian Civil War continues to rise and fall, it is worth remembering that Syria is still in an experimental phase as a nation. We cannot blame all of Syria’s problems on the French or on Bashar Al Assad, but both the Assad regime and the war are products of issues that date back to the mandate period.