The Syrian Question, As the French See It

By Dr. George Samné

[The Living Age, November 30, 1918; from L'Europe Nouvelle]

There exists a Syrian question as there exists a Polish question, a Czech question, an Armenian question, etc., because the liberation of each one of these peoples, oppressed by Germany, Austria, or Turkey constitutes a problem which Europe has to solve in a definitive manner, without mental reservation and without equivocation. The stability of future peace depends on it.

Before examining the Syrian question from a double point of view—the Syrian and the European—and before determining the respective interests which after all are the same in Syria and in France, it may not be profitless to recall that the state of war has irretrievably annihilated the too famous principle of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries—one might almost say since the crusades—the European Governments have not ceased to proclaim, and which has constituted the pivot of their Oriental policy.

This integrity has indeed suffered serious blows for a hundred years or so, whether from the event of the liberation of the Balkan peoples, or when France, England, Italy got a foothold in Algeria, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Tripoli. But in the Balkans the great powers generally limited themselves to the role of more or less impartial spectators of the struggles which were to end in the independence of the oppressed nationalities. If they did violate the Ottoman soil, it was only in Africa, that is to say, in countries more or less independent in fact and which could be considered rather as Turkish colonies than as forming an integral part of the empire.

Each one of the three powers which in the North of Africa have substituted their authority for the nominal power of the Sultan, has moreover made known in a striking manner their intention not to take the initiative in a division of Turkey. Thus did France when, after having reestablished order in Syria in 1860, and obtained guarantees for the Christians of Lebanon, she loyally evacuated the territory which had been occupied temporarily by her troops; England, when she maintained to the end of 1914, the suzerainty of the Sultan over Egypt; Italy, lastly, in 1910, when she kept the war exclusively colonial and abstained from sending an expedition against the Dardanelles or to the shores of Asia Minor.

We must, moreover, remember that the disinterested attitude which Europe maintained so long with regard to the Ottoman Empire was really a simple manifestation of egotism. The difficulties of a division made even the most resolute hesitate and imposed the status quo in spite of the extortions and the crimes, the massacres, the provocations of the Sultan, the breach of his promises, and the desperate appeals of the Armenians, Syrians, and so many other races now under a barbarian domination. Everybody feared, by attacking resolutely the Ottoman Empire, to kindle a fire that would destroy the whole of Europe; everybody preferred the temporizing and sacrifice of his political and economic interests to the fear of seeing a fortunate rival settle in Constantinople, and reorganize for his own benefit an Oriental empire dangerous to the Mediterranean equilibrium.

To put off the problem was not to solve it. At least Europe intended to profit by lost time, in order to take a mortgage on the different parts of the Empire. Whence this effervescence of religious and other works, the aim of which was sometimes selfish, sometimes unselfish; whence, the extraordinary ardor with which all the powers exerted themselves to extort concessions of mines, of railroads, of public works, in order to fix themselves more firmly in the country; whence the repeated attempts to procure military instructors and technical counselors for the Sultan, in order to monopolize the banking business, industry, etc. We must admit that Germany has been more skillful in this line because she has manoeuvred in such a way as to get hold of the essential machinery of Ottoman politics; so that, on the supposition of a German victory, the whole of Turkey would be nothing else than a dependence of the German Empire, and would be reduced to a degrading vassalage.

Now that the fire has been kindled and is ravaging the whole of the civilized world; the policy of delay which has been pursued for a century has consequently no raison d'etre. There can no longer be any question of trying to obtain vain concessions or an illusive autonomy for the Christians of the Orient, nor to take securities, with a view to an eventual cutting up of Turkey.

But let us be more specific. This does not mean that the Allies are now to consider the Ottoman Empire as a prey to be divided, but only that to the Orient as well as to the rest of Europe there should be secured a strict application of the principle of nationalities, and the right of each group to be the master of its own destiny; Turkey has a right to exist and her right to existence is equal to that of the other peoples; it is equal to the right which her victims have to separate from her.

The only advantage of the Russian revolution has been to free Constantinople from the menace of annexation to the empire of the Tsars. In fact, the interest of Oriental equilibrium, the liberty of those who live on the shores of the Black Sea as matter of absolute equity, alike demand the preservation of an independent Turkey in purely Turkish territory, that is to say, in Thrace and in Anatolia. This homogeneous Turkey, released from the burden of governing Christian and Arabian peoples, which was a cause of weakness to her, will be a healthy nation and will no longer be a constant source of trouble in Europe. She will turn to works of peace, and will be able to work and thrive peacefully.

Likewise, the coming into the war of Bulgaria and Turkey on the side of the Central Powers will make possible the solution of this, ancient, thorny question, the Oriental status, according to the wishes of the nations concerned. Yes, supreme justice has slowly but surely brought about the victory of democracy. Henceforth Russians, Bulgarians, and Turks will place no obstacles in the way of the independence of the peoples simply to satisfy their imperialistic ambitions.


But let us return to the Syrian question, and in the first place examine it from a purely Syrian point of view.

Centuries of the most barbarous oppression do not prevent the existence of a Syrian public opinion, because this race, the cradle of the civilized world, is distinguished by its advanced culture, its subtlety, and its highly developed practical good sense. What then are the aspirations of this Syrian opinion?

Though it has no official organ to make its sentiments known, there can be no doubt about them. Syria is unanimous in claiming the strict application of the principles of the independence of nationalities and the liberty of the peoples, for which the Allies have been fighting since 1914.

Consequently she asks to be organized as a free nation. Moreover, she demands that this freedom be extended to the whole of the country; she demands unity within her natural boundaries, from Taurus to Sinai, from the Mediterranean to the desert. She would not understand a parceling out which would amount to an attack upon her natural rights, which would violate all the teachings of history, of geography, of ethnography, of the economic situation. She will not admit a dismemberment by which the Allies would place themselves in flagrant contradiction to all the guiding principles of their policy.

And yet, however illogical and dangerous that may seem, the question of the parceling out of Syria has been seriously considered: we are not sure, at the present moment, that the governments have given up this undesirable idea.

What superior interest could they have invoked, to propose the mutilation of Syria? None, because the more one examines the problem from all points of view, the less one finds of valid reasons—or even mere pretexts—to approve the system of parceling out. This idea has been suggested and impressed on the diplomatists by the sophism of narrow-minded colonial agents, devoid of imagination and originality, who have learned nothing from the war, from the overturning of friendships or enmities. These men do not understand that the present grouping of the Allies must outlast the war on pain of missing its goal completely and bringing upon civilization new disasters. Hence they have kept their conceptions of a quarter of a century ago and persist in wanting to cut up the world according to out-of-date formulas. Thus they want to interpose between Syria, now under French influence, and Egypt, under a British protectorate, one of these hybrid buffer States, not likely to live, which at one time it was customary to sandwich in between two colonies in order to set bounds to rival ambitions and to avoid comparisons which might provoke conflicts.

As there does not exist between Egypt and Syria any country capable of having an independent existence, these belated theorists have decided to create one out of the whole cloth, to the prejudice of Syrian unity. Thus came the idea of a Palestine politically separated from the country to which it belongs geographically and by bonds of the past, by community of race and identity of material interests.

Then, as Palestine was manifestly incapable of forming a State in the full conception of the term, they have finally proposed a scheme for her, the application of which has always produced deplorable results and brought about serious disappointments. We propose now to speak of internationalization or a protectorate shared by several.


The first complete and loyal attempt of this bastard system was made in Tangier. Everybody knows what became of it. For want of guidance and responsibility, the city and its suburbs are without government; the confusion of interests bars all reform and all organization; the economic situation is uncertain, and commercial progress thwarted. In short, this city which by its exceptional geographical situation was called to be the moral and economic capital of Morocco is condemned to vegetate, while the rest of the Empire of the chérifs is developing so wonderfully.

The Albanian adventure affords a second and striking example of the futility of internationalization.

Under the ephemeral rule of the Prince of Wied, condemned by the Powers to be nothing but a pitiable puppet, Albania has continually been plunged in complete anarchy.

Let us recall the history of Crete, with its high commissary appointed by Europe and its international garrison. Here we find another sample of the weakness and precariousness of anomalous combinations. They are condemned to death from their birth; because internationalization carries in itself the germ of impotence. What makes the unity and strength of the peoples is the national sentiment; if this sentiment is suppressed, there can be room only for revolt and anarchy, or for the sleep which is the forerunner of death.

What international interest claims an exceptional form of government for Palestine? None. Cannot the liberty of conscience, the right of the pilgrims of all nationalities to have access to the Holy Places without impediment, be assured otherwise than by a blow to the primordial rights of the Syrian people?

The duty of keeping order in Jerusalem has for a long time been incumbent on Turkey, who, however, did not seem to be designated to protect impartially the pilgrims of all races and religions, and to oblige them to respect each other mutually. Disturbances have often burst out in the vicinity of the Holy Places, but nevertheless they were never of a serious character. Why then should not France be able to attend to this which is one simply of tact and impartiality, as well as Turkey? The example of the Vatican, which, wedged in the Italian capital, has always found its independence scrupulously respected, teaches us that an exceptional political constitution is not necessary to guarantee the integrity of a religious centre; a few simple arrangements about the internal management, like the Italian law of the pontifical guaranties, conceived in a broad spirit of tolerance, and loyally applied, is entirely sufficient to insure the respect for conscience. France, who surely cannot be reproached with showing preference for any particular faith, or with being animated by tendencies to proselytism, would not be less incapable than Turkey or Italy to assume such a task. She would apply to Jerusalem the particular municipal government corresponding to the local needs, and would scrupulously guarantee all rights, without its being necessary to have numerous flags flying next to her own and that of free Syria.

What power has, moreover, an interest in dividing Syria? Vast fields are open to Italian activity, and a mere glance at the map suffices to admit with the engineers, that it is easy for England to construct a direct route to Baghdad via Gaza, without settling at Caïffa. A neutralized railroad following approximately the future boundary separating Syria from the Arabian Empire, would give entire satisfaction to the political and economic needs of our Allies.


There remains the Zionist point of view, because we must consider all interests and all eventual objections. The idea of a Jewish State has long ago been dropped; its most ardent advocates abandoned it when they realized that such a resurrection would be more harmful than useful to the interests of their race. To-day the most representative spokesmen of the Jewish people agree to limit their aspirations to a purely local autonomy, allowing the Jews who might wish to reestablish themselves in the country of their ancestors to settle there unhindered, to work as they please, and to exert a political influence corresponding to the importance of their group. The former and the future Jewish colonists of Palestine will respect the rights and liberty of other races and religions, as Christians and Mussulmans will respect the Jewish community. In order to obtain these results, is it necessary to mutilate Syria? Is it necessary to inflict on one of its provinces a form of government destined to speedy failure? Would not the Jews find the highest guaranty in the protectorship of a nation like France, whose Government never during modern times has manifested either prejudice or distrust with regard to them?

In spite of their respect for the definitive decision of the Allied Powers who are about to free them from a secular yoke, the Syrians are bewildered, and ask why and in what interest their national unity is threatened, why their liberators hesitate to adopt frankly the only form of government in harmony with the needs and wishes of the country—that is to say a federative republic, including all the Syrian provinces without exception, each one of these provinces to enjoy the greatest autonomy. This regime would safeguard all interests; it insures the liberty of creeds, and religious tolerance, more indispensable in this country than anywhere else. It is not in contradiction with the safeguard of British interests or with the sovereign rights of the young Arabian kingdom, or with the aspirations of the Jews, who will find in this democracy the large share to which they are entitled.

Every other conception is false, ill-considered and unreasonable; the voice of the people protests in advance against it and will not ratify it.

© 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