The French Interest in Syria

By Dr. George Samné

[The Living Age, December 7, 1918; from L'Europe Nouvelle]

The reasons why France must not shun the task which Syria expects her to perform are numerous and evident.

Leaving aside considerations of a sentimental order, which induce her to abandon her secular policy and to maintain the great traditions by virtue of which the oppressed and feeble peoples have never appealed in vain for her assistance, she need look no further than her most strictly material interests: the attitude which they dictate to her corresponds exactly to the programme worked out by the intangible elements of Syrian sympathy and of French tradition.

The arguments derived from the economic interest which cooperation, in making manifest the real value of Syria, might present to France, are not unimportant, though they sometimes give rise to violent objections. These are of three kinds: Syria is not a rich country; France will not after the war have at her disposal sufficient capital to assume the task of organizing a new protectorate; she will have no men to send to Asia Minor to undertake new colonization work there.

The poverty of Syria and Palestine is a tradition against which one cannot protest enough. The wheat fields are vast and fertile; tobacco, olive, the vine fruits are cultivated with profit. The native population succeeds in living after a fashion on the soil, without excessive work, and yet they are trebly hampered in their efforts by lack of credit, ignorance of modern agricultural methods, and insufficiency of means for transport. The establishment of an agricultural bank, the creation of rational technical instruction, the construction of new railroads, roads, and irrigating canals, which could easily be accomplished and would not require large capital, would quickly transform this region into one of the most fertile of agricultural countries.

Syrian industry is not less important than agriculture; manufactures of silks and woolens, of jewelry, furniture, weapons, sponges, mother-of-pearl, and perfumes, and the preserving of fruit furnish an export business, the volume of which speaks for itself. At the outbreak of the war, the total trade of Syria reached 500,000,000 francs. This amount is scarcely less than the commerce of Algeria; it is about equal to that of Indo-China. Therefore, it would not be for France a question of setting about the exploitation of a new country, but of participating in the augmentation of the riches which already exist, of cooperating in the development of a territory, on which there is no more unprofitable work to be done.

The sub-soil, which is as yet little known, contains all the particularly valuable metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, nickel, lead, petroleum, bitumen, coal, marble, phosphates, hot mineral waters. The enumeration of these abundant resources will surely not cause any disappointment.

Finally, the tourist and hotel business cannot be considered contemptible, when Jerusalem attracts pilgrims from the whole Christian world, Damascus those of the Mahometan world; when the ease and safety of traveling will attract an increasing number of visitors to a more accessible and always alluring Orient.

The economic situation of Syria, considered impartially, presents, in short, a favorable aspect and opens wonderful prospects for the future. Now, it does not seem, that the realization of these prospects would demand the immediate use of capital exceeding the financial capacity of France. Whatever the economic situation may be after the war, it would be very extraordinary, if many years should pass before she once more assumes her traditional rôle of banker of new countries. Will Syria, then, not be as worthy of receiving heir attention, as such exotic countries as those of South America, for instance, to which she has imprudently entrusted some 12,000,000,000 francs?

Moreover, Syria is less in need of money than of honest administration. In spite of the exactions of the Turks, her budget, taking one year with another, produces a surplus of about 50,000,000 francs. A little order and a rigid cutting down of expenses would suffice to find easily in this budget the few millions necessary for the progressive carrying out of urgent public works. The example of Algeria, which has succeeded in providing in a satisfactory manner for the needs of colonization and transport service, without imposing too heavy charges on the tax-payers and without contracting a heavy debt, is convincing in this respect. The wise utilization of the budget surplus, in a fertile and progressive country, makes it possible to capitalize in some measure the wealth acquired, and to complete the necessary economic outfit without requiring a resort to credit.

The situation is identical for individuals, for there can be no question of creating in Syria a colony to be supplied with colonists. The country has a relatively large population, of which a sense of security would without doubt assure a speedy augmentation. And this population, composed of civilized and educated people, has no need of European cooperation, either for economic enterprises, or for the detail of administrative life. The only thing that is needed is a small number of advisers and guides. There are enough Frenchmen of eminence easily to provide these.

In addition to the direct material advantages which might accrue to France from a Syrian protectorship, it is pertinent to consider the valuable assistance, which people of Syrian birth, living in foreign countries would give in propagating her economic and moral influence.

Driven from their homes by Turkish tyranny and exactions, the Syrians have become emigrants and have, little by little, established active and laborious colonies all through the world. We can to-day estimate the number of Syrians scattered over all countries, two thirds of whom are in America, at about 800,000. Everywhere they distinguish themselves by their assiduity in work, their spirit of order and economy, their aptitude for business. 'The volume of transactions handled by them is enormous, and France already derives a considerable profit from them. In fact Syrian merchants make excellent customers for her, and are perhaps the most valuable agents of her export business. Their traditional and invariable affection for France makes them regard it as their duty to call upon French manufactures for all the goods which they can sell abroad. They take pride in never failing in this duty, and thus they spread abroad the products of France at the same time as. her language and her civilization.

Such a service is an invaluable prize for a country suffering from a scarcity of emigrants and from the inadequate number of merchants established abroad. Would it not be increased tenfold on the day when the Syrians were united to France by a political bond?

But let us lay aside economic interests and material profits. Assuming that they are, indeed, unimportant, there are certain extremely potent political interests which make it the duty of France to obtain a preponderating influence in Syria.

One cannot study, the map of the Mediterranean basin and the routes to the Far East, without being struck. By the difference between the two European powers which have the largest colonial establishments beyond Suez. The British flag flies on a magnificent line of stations, marking the route to the Indies, from Gibraltar to Aden. We can but admire the perseverance with which our Allies have followed up the organization of the advance-guards of their Asiatic empire in Afghanistan, in Persia, and in Mesopotamia. This network of roadsteads, wisely conceived and planned in exact conformity to geographical conditions, has been for more than a century, one of the guiding thoughts of British policy; the progressive carrying out of this idea has procured for Great Britain one of the most valuable elements of her power.

Which are the stations established by France on the route to Indo-China and Madagascar? Djibouti, and that is all. From Marseilles to Cape Saint Jacques, from Bizerta to Majunga, the small settlements on the French Somali coast, are the only points where the French tricolor flies. This situation during the latter part of the nineteenth century, constituted a real disadvantage from a military point of view. In case of a conflict with a great maritime power, France would at once have been deprived of communication with the Far East; two of her most important possessions would immediately have been lost to her, and the fruits of the long series of efforts, beginning with the piercing of the isthmus of Suez, followed by the conquest of Indo-China, and concluding with that of Madagascar, would have been almost immediately destroyed.

This strategic point of view has become unimportant since Great Britain, by placing herself at the side of France, has insured liberty of communications by sea, and guaranteed the safety of her colonial empire. As far as the future, is concerned, the British alliance permits us to be without apprehension during as long a period as human forethought can provide for. But moral and commercial strategy is not less important than military strategy. Its rôle is permanent, and its action is felt in time of peace as well as in war-time. Now, the absence, or, better, the scarcity, of French ports on the routes to the Far East is very disadvantageous. We might almost reckon this disadvantage in cash by adding the expenses of different kinds incurred by French ships in British ports, between the Western Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Even then, the total resulting from such a calculation would be much too low, because a French route would invite French vessels and French goods. The development of the French navy and of the export merchant would have been greatly stimulated by the occupation of a few bases on the most important line of communication of the whole world.

The preponderance of France in Syria—completed, if that is possible, by the allotment to her of a port beyond Suez, on the Arabian coast—would after a fashion make amends for the negligence of the past.

Beirut and Jaffa, although a little aside from the direct Marseilles to Suez route, would offer valuable centres for supplies. These ports would be very important from a commercial point of view, because the relations existing between the Near East and the Far East are well developed and are still capable of a large extension. Before the war they were chiefly carried on under the Greek flag. Therefore the operation would be profitable.

The last argument in favor of an enduring bond between Syria and France surpasses in importance all those which have been summarily indicated, which, however, might be sufficient to call forth on behalf of French diplomacy a little more activity and real understanding of the national interests.

France became a Mussulman power on the day she landed troops at Algiers, and for nearly ninety years her rôle in the Mussulman world has constantly grown in importance. Extending little by little her authority over the whole of Algeria, establishing herself in Tunisia, penetrating into the Soudan, and finally rounding out her African domain by the conquest of Morocco, she has reached the point of being interested by the same right as Great Britain, in all the movements of ideas and sentiments which agitate Islam.

Two qualities are indispensable in order to exert a useful prestige over the Mussulmans: one must be strong and just. Their manners and customs must be respected, services rendered must be recompensed, all signs of insubordination suppressed with energy and speed. These are questions of tact and management which a long experience of native politics has allowed the French administration to acquire.

But, in politics, persuasion has an incontestable superiority over repression; it is better to convince one's protégés of one's power and justice than to have occasion to prove them by deeds.

Now, the best way for a European people to acquire great prestige over Mussulmans lies in a loyal and profitable cooperation in the places which are frequented by pilgrims, or which have famous mosques or celebrated universities. If once this prestige is established, it is the part of a discreet diplomacy and experienced administrators to gain the confidence and attachment of the most intelligent, whose advice or opinions are of weight with their coreligionists.

Now, what are the religious and moral centres, toward which the eyes of the Mussulman world are ever turned, from which they await religious instruction and political guidance, where the powerful persons live who can, according to their passions or their interests, arouse devotion or revolt, peaceful cooperation or hatred?

Outside of Mecca and Medina, these centres being too exalted for any European power to think of becoming predominant there, there are Fez, Kairouan, Koufra, Cairo in Africa; Constantinople in Europe; Broussa, Damascus, Jerusalem, Baghdad, in Asia Minor; Ispahan, Chiraz, Samarcand, Kabul, Lahore, Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, in Central and Southern Asia.

Of these seventeen places from which the intellectual and moral life of Islam is diffused, France possesses only two, Kairouan and Fez—which is evidently disproportionate to the importance of her Mussulman empire. Great Britain has six: Cairo, Baghdad, Lahore, Delhi, Benares, Calcutta; and exerts a preponderant influence over a seventh, Kabul; two others, Chiraz and Ispahan, are situated in the zone of influence which has been allotted to her in Persia. Russia had Samarcand, the fate of which has become uncertain. Constantinople will remain Turkish, Koufra is a part of the colonial domain of Italy and it is for that power to strengthen her authority for the greatest good of all the colonizing peoples of Northern and Western Africa.

France then is far from having the share-of-influence in Islam which she needs. Does not a sane comprehension of her interests make it her duty to claim Damascus and Jerusalem? Does not strict equity call upon her Allies to satisfy this legitimate claim? It seems as if there could be no doubt as to the answer.

But there remains another consideration of great importance from the point of view of essential Mussulman interests.

The Arabian kingdom, the birth of which was greeted by the Allies with suitable, promptness and satisfaction, constitutes a new political element, whose rôle and influence it is hard to measure. The diplomacy of the French Republic very fortunately foresaw that this rôle and this, influence would be considerable, and she was first to demonstrate her sympathy for the Chérif by sending him an official mission, composed of the most eminent personalities from the French Mussulman centres. This act of wise policy will not fail of its result. The consolidation and cohesion of her vast Mussulman empire demands that France should keep in as close relations as possible with the new Arabian kingdom, that she may exert a permanent influence on its policy, that she may always be, in the eyes of the rulers of Mecca and Medina, the nation strong and just par excellence.

A common frontier with the Kingdom of the Chérif would bring her enormous and indisputable moral advantages. The Republican Government must neglect nothing to realize this aim, for the peaceful development of our most important possession is at stake.

We have said enough to show that the preponderance of France over Syria and Palestine is in conformity to historical, moral, political, and economic interests, in face of which the country must not continue to observe a passive attitude. The objections raised against such preponderance are without value and do not stand the test of a close examination. Their authors are the few rare partisans of the, smallest possible France, whose detestable propaganda, if it were followed, would lead to the worst of renunciations and to the gravest catastrophes.

Events now happening will dictate for a century the fate of European nations. Those who maintain that France, during this century, should abandon her place and let all that makes her grandeur and her wealth go adrift—those persons would assume the most terrible responsibility to their descendants.

Thus, the interest of Europe, the interest of the French-English Entente, the interest of Syria, the interest of France-—everything, in short, militates in favor of this solution of the Syrian question.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury