07 April 2018

The Great Syrian Revolt

As so often happens with such monographs, The Great Syrian Revolt by Michael Provence edified me in a number of ways. It confirmed a couple of things I had already suspected; it taught me a great many more things I simply did not know; and, showing me where my knowledge of the subject was lacking, it expanded my reading list considerably. For example, Philip Khoury’s book (cited often here) on Syria and the French Mandate is now on my shelf.

A convincing overview and analysis of the primary source documentation and ‘official history’ of the Syrian Revolt, Provence’s work not only sets out to provide a different angle on the revolt which doesn’t reduce it to class, tribal or sectarian dimensions; but in the process it also demonstrates a certain set of patterns of orientation and behaviour that are helpful in understanding the modern war in Syria going on as we speak. It tackles the Syrian revolt from the point-of-view of those most directly affected by it and those who most directly participated in it. Provence argues effectively not only that the revolt was more than just a ‘feudal’ Druze uprising. He also demonstrates that it served as a crucible for a flexible and expansive definition of the Arab nation, in which localist and religious concerns played key rôles, and which would come to colour the various liberation movements which arose in its wake.

Provence uses the official French propaganda surrounding the revolt as a kind of literary foil for his study. As I noted briefly in my prior polemical piece touching on this book, the mandatory government’s ideology positioned it as the protector, patron and enlightener of an unchanging, hopelessly-primitive ‘oriental’ society. France saw herself – and her mandatory administrators did also, of both political left and right – as bringing technology, infrastructure, liberal rule of law, civilisation tout court, to the backward tribal Arabs, mired as they were in ‘feudalism’, tribalism and barbarism. In short, France’s view of her mandatory mission was precisely the sort of orientalism described and criticised by Dr Edward Sa‘îd. Provence, rejecting this view as simplistic and outdated, instead shows that the Syrian Revolt was motivated by genuine attempts at building an alternative multi-ethnic, multi-religious and sæcular order in place of the French mandate. Far from being an exclusively ‘feudal’ or rural revolt, its œconomic basis lay in routes of trade that linked the peasantry and smallholders of Hawrân to the independent grain dealers of Damascus.

Although Provence places himself in diametric opposition to the French self-image and perspective on the conflict, he is far too shrewd a scholar to omit where the French had judged the situation rightly. The colonial French were masters of manipulating tribal conflicts, and thus not only had a keen understanding of the religious and ethnic differences that divided Mandatory Syria, but were experts at exploiting them. The French carefully cultivated client-patron relationships with Uniate churches in Mandatory Syria and the Lebanon – to wit, the Maronites and the Melkites. They dexterously isolated troublesome Druze and Alawites with religious propaganda aimed at the Sunni majority. And they fanned ethnic tensions – in particular, by using North African and Armenian mercenaries to commit the worst acts of ethnic cleansing and plunder.

Provence does not deny that these tactics were effective. After all, it was no ideological slogan that the city-dwellers shouted as they rose up against the French, but rather: ‘The Druze are coming!’ Religious and ethnic differences did matter. Orthodox Christian families and even monasteries tended to support the revolt; Uniate Catholics tended to support the French government. But the French had somewhat misread the milieu. Countervailing against the tribalist tendencies they assumed obtained within Mandatory Syria, were not only the œconomic linkages between small Damascus merchants and the peasantry of southern Syria which Provence takes pains to illustrate, but also the old Ottoman institution of the state-funded military academy, which Mandatory Syria under French rule left largely intact. The military academy served two major purposes: it was the instrument of social advancement for boys of poor peasant families, and it exposed these boys to both practical knowledge and a broader awareness of nationalism.

Thus, there were in rural areas a number of well-educated, erudite and effective military commanders of humble peasant origins, who took command of the revolt and stuck it good to the French for two whole years despite their colonial opponents’ overwhelming military superiority and total lack of humanitarian scruple. Sultân al-Atrash, the Druze leader of the revolt and the chief protagonist of this study, was one of these. Hâfiz al-’Asad, too, would later rise to prominence through the military from similar poor peasant stock. As one might expect, the guiding principles of the Revolt were quite vague from the start. Were they guided by Muslim pieties, or by French Revolutionary principles about the equality and dignity of man? Was the ‘homeland’ they sought to defend, merely the village? Was it Mandatory Syria as a whole? Was the Lebanon included? What about Iraq and Palestine? Provence notes, with perhaps a trace of mischievous enjoyment, that the governing ideas of the Syrian Revolt were kept deliberately vague, pragmatic and adaptable to the exigencies and needs of the moment. This reader might fancifully imagine in this broad take a certain echo of the Byzantine order of a previous age, even though the natural reference is instead to the Ottoman.

Though there were some exceptions, the urban élites of Damascus – the well-connected landlords from Ottoman days, big businessmen and politicians – did not join the revolt, and indeed sought a negotiated settlement with the French government fairly early on. In the rare cases where they did join the revolt, indeed, they tended to do so with an eye to their own political and material advantage. In their setbacks and failures, the rural and petit-bourgeois leadership of the Syrian Revolt did not forget the compromises and betrayals of the élite class.

Another point of interest for students of postcolonial theory, is that for this ragtag, motley assortment of rural peasants, state academy officer-graduates, craftsmen and grain merchants, localism and local networks of contact took on a paramount importance – both tactically and in terms of the ‘national idea’, which was deliberately kept vague. It’s often implied that the only way to stay one step ahead of French propaganda – which was aimed, as often as not, at keeping Damascus quiet while the modern, civilised French systematically shelled, bombed, butchered and torched entire villages – was to rely on word-of-mouth from trusted sources, and clandestine village or neighbourhood meetings. Local affinities and loyalties were also one of the key appeals used to bring various families and village leaders into the revolt. Many working-class Arabs in rural areas still did not respond well to highfalutin nationalist ‘theories’, but they could sympathise readily with the more immediate and concrete demands of hospitality, brotherhood, honour and revenge. On such firm foundations the unique, flexible and rich understanding of Arab nationalism could readily take root.

As a result of this highly-localised, highly-personalised character, the revolt was sometimes tinged with banditry. At best, this banditry took on a Robin Hood aspect – it was patriotic and aimed at taking from the wealthy to liberate the poor. At worst, it was simple selfish robbery and feuding. The two tended not to be easily distinguished, either at the time or even with the benefit of hindsight; Provence offers what primary-source data exists, but it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Al-Atrash was forced, in several instances, to rein in his fellow commanders, institute discipline among the rebels, make restitution to ‘inconvenienced’ villages and make assurances that repeat incidents would not occur.

Provence’s book is fantastic at highlighting all of these different aspects, but could probably have done with a bit more commonsensical organisation. He groups events and sources thematically rather than chronologically, and thus it can be hard to tell who did what, to whom, when. On the other hand, this book sheds a certain degree of light of understanding on why and how the current civil strife in Syria has taken the shape and character that it has. The escalation of sectarian tensions by foreign powers, the horrific total war tactics, the back-and-forth bombing and shelling, the use of poison gas, the ‘humanitarian’ propaganda from a Western power aimed to mislead a Western audience, the importation of foreign mercenaries to commit the worst atrocities – these were all presaged in the original Syrian Revolt. For this reason, the book becomes more important as a resource for the serious student of Middle East history and current events.

No comments:

Post a Comment