The Origins of Syrian Nationalism

Bashar al-Assad stickers. Aleppo, March 2010.

The difficulty of determining Syria’s political boundaries is primarily due to the fact that Syria’s population is not an ethnic unit. Syrians are Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Druses, Hebrews, Assyrians, Circassians, and people combining the blood of these various elements.

The Syrian Arabs are the most enlightened representatives of their race, and among the most advanced Moslems in the world. The larger part of the Syrian population is Arabian in origin and Mohammedan in religion.

The Moslems are in the majority, but the Christians are a strong minority. The Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have large followings, with the latter predominating. There are some non-Christian and non-Moslem sects in Syria, of whom the most notable is that of the Druses.

Among the Catholics, the most powerful and progressive element is that of the Maronites, of Assyrian origin, who form the vanguard of Syrian nationalism.

A national consciousness has manifested itself among all Syrians, regardless of faith. Thousands of Moslems, for instance, who had emigrated to America to accumulate some money, returned later to their native villages and cities. These would invariably bring with them a higher state of civilisation and a realisation of international conditions, contributing greatly to the spread of Syrian nationalism at home.

While the Syrian Christians produced several brilliant nationalist leaders the Moslems did not lag much. One of them. Sheikh Abdul-Hamid Zehrawi played an important role in the Syrian nationalist movement. He was executed by the Turks in 1915 in Damascus, together with nineteen other prominent Syrians including officers, magistrates and journalists, for instigating an insurrection against the Ottoman government.

Syria was martyred by the Turks in the course of the Great War. Court martials established at Aleppo, Damascus and Beyrout sentenced to death thousands and to terms of imprisonment tens of thousands.

As in the case of the other oppressed nationalities, these persecutions only solidified national feeling among the Syrians. A central committee was created in Paris, aiming at the complete severance of Syria from the Ottoman Empire and her erection into a distinct national entity under French protection.

In a speech delivered to the Central Syrian Committee in Paris, several months before the British occupation of Syria and the collapse of Turkey, Sir Mark Sykes, the noted authority on the Near East said :

“Now suppose that the Turks are ejected from Syria, suppose that the Allies have saved Syria, but that the people are not united (I mean the intellectual leaders of the people), what might happen then? If you are not united some sort of a government will have to be imposed upon you, and a government which is imposed has neither the strength nor the stability of a government which is desired by the people. I see Syria starting on a life with a government which is not congenial, with agitation and discontent at the root of everything. It is therefore of the greatest importance that there should be a firm will and a policy for unity among Syrians…. I imagine that all the religions and all the races of Syria can unite on such a program.”

However, while the Syrians are all agreed as to the idea of separate national existence, while they are almost unanimous in the belief that their country is not
yet in a condition to function as an independent state, they are by no means agreed as to the power under whose aegis Syria should be placed.

Perhaps the majority of the active Syrian nationalists are for a French protectorate. However, there are those who would like to see Great Britain assume control of Syria. A strong pro-British current has developed among the Syrians. The Syrian Mohammedans always preferred the British to the French.

With the Arabs of Mecca advancing with the British into Syria, British influence rose even higher. Another faction, largely hailing from the United States, is clamouring for an American protectorate.

The roads open before Syria are many. Some of them lead to autonomy under French, British, or even American protection. One proposal, emanating from Syrians in the United States, is to place Syria under the joint suzerainty of these three powers. Another proposal, sponsored by the Shereef of Mecca and many Pan- Arabian nationalists, is to unite Syria with the Hejaz.

Still another plan would divide Syria into two parts, the Lebanon and Syria proper, putting the former under French and the latter under British guidance. Finally, there is the proposal to have a league of nations take charge of Syria and all similar countries.

Syrians all over the world are agreed, however, on the need for “the complete and permanent elimination of Turkish rule from Syria” and the introduction of self-government there under some friendly guardianship. The roads open before Syria are many.

Adapted from The Resurrected Nations, by Isaac Don Levine (1919). Photograph courtesy of Gavin Bannerman. Published under a Creative Commons license.