Faisal bin al-Hussein respected the power of the British, and in January 1919 he signed an agreement with them, accepting Jewish migration into Palestine on condition that the Arabs receive the independence promised them and that the rights of Arab peasants and tenant farmers in Palestine be protected. The British were for the agreement, but what they meant exactly by independence and when the Arabs were to get that independence were perhaps not clear to Faisal.
Faisal attended the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919, representing the interests of Arabs. The Allies, wanting to carry through on their decision to divide the Middle East among them, resorted to a rationale: that the Arabs, just freed from Ottoman domination, were not yet ready for self-government. The Allies believed that the Arabs were in need of their tutoring. President Wilson accepted this and was appeased by the claim that eventually the Arabs would gain their independence.
Right away there were people who rebelled against being ruled by foreigners, or Christians. It was the idea that the poison of colonialism was being forced upon people in Palestine and Arabia that was to have a hold among the Arabs into the 21st century.
Faisal returned to Damascus. He appointed a new Council of Directors. A congress was also organized, and on March 7, 1920, it declared independence and chose Faisal as king of a Greater Syria. But the League of Nations mandate ruled Syria and Lebanon to be under French control — with precise boundaries not specified. On July 14 the French commander in the area, General Henri Gouraud, sent an ultimatum to Faisal, saying that he, Gouraud, would take over Syria by force unless the Arab government in Damascus accepted without reservation France’s mandate, among other things. King Faisal ordered that the French not be resisted, but he was ignored. Syria’s Minister of War, Yusuf al Azmah was determined to fight the French, resulting in the Battle of Maysalun Pass, on July 24, 1920 — about 12 miles west of Damascus. Gouraud’s army easily defeated a few hundred Arab soldiers and some hastily-summoned citizen volunteers. Yusuf al Azmah died in the fighting and into the 21st century remains a hero to Arabs. Gouraud is said to have celebrated his victory by going to the tomb of Saladin, to have kicked it, and to have said: “Awake Saladin, we have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”
In Damascus a pro-French government was formed. In August, Faisal was expelled from Syria, and he went to live in Britain. In Syria unrest remained. A train that the pro-French prime minister was on was attacked and the prime minister killed. A new pro-French prime minister was appointed.
In November 1920, Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, was planning to take a force from the British controlled Hejaz to restore his brother’s throne in Damascus. Winston Churchill, Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, invited Abdullah to a “tea party” where he told Abdullah that French forces were superior to his and that the British did not want any trouble with French. He convinced Abdullah to refrain from attacking the French. The British rewarded Abdullah with rule in an area to be called Transjordan. Abdullah accepted. Britain recognized Transjordan as a state on May 15, 1923, with Abdullah clinging to his plan for an eventual unity of the Arabs — under Hashimite authority.
By the end of 1921 the French had quelled rebellions north of Damascus, including the city of Aleppo (Halab). In 1922 the French and League of Nations divided Syria and Lebanon — Syria the larger of the two, its population numbering about 2.2 million, 85 percent of whom were Muslim (about four-fifths of them Sunni) with about one-quarter of them living in urban centers. The artificial boundaries left Lebanon a mix of Muslim (some of them Sunni, some Shia and some Druze) and Christians, the latter reduced to barely 50 percent of the population.
In Mesopotamia (Iraq) meanwhile, the British occupation force was being attacked. There were disgruntled former officials under the Turks who had been marginalized. There were Arab nationalists who wanted independence, tribesmen who resented British taxation and Shiites hostile to the presence of a Christian foreign power. For the first time, Sunnis and Shiites, tribes and cities, came together in a common effort. The British were still suffering from the Great War, and the public support for war in Iraq evaporated.
In 1921, a conference presided over by Churchill was held in Cairo to settle Middle Eastern affairs in British ruled areas. Faisal was nominated to the Iraqi throne with the provision that a plebiscite be held to confirm the nomination. Faisal was considered suitable to both Sunni and Shiites because of his descent from the Prophet Mohammad. Rival candidates were rejected and a plebiscite of dubious authenticity was held in July, which gave Faisal overwhelming approval. Faisal arrived in August, to an unenthusiastic reception, and on August 23 he was formally crowned. Agreements were signed. The League of Nations mandate was to be respected, as was religious freedom and the rights of foreigners. Britain, it was agreed, would “offer advice” on foreign and domestic affairs, including military, judicial and financial matters.
Faisal at Paris. That is “Lawrence of Arabia” behind his left shoulder. Faisal’s slave is at the top and far right
Abdullah the First, Faisal’s brother,
the grandfather of today’s King of
Jordan, Abdullah the Second.
Yusuf al Azmah, Syrian hero
into the 21st century