The Nationalists’ Dilemma: Minorities, Revolt and Violence in French-Occupied Syria


We are proud to publish here the second post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Joel Veldkamp (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva), looks at the nationalists’ dilemma of how to include minorities in their national project through the case of the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-27. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The “Great Syrian Revolt” of 1925-27 was the largest and bloodiest uprising against European rule in the interwar Middle East. The leaders of this uprising, nearly all of whom were Sunni Muslims or Druzes, strove determinedly to include other religious groups in their coalition. These efforts largely failed, as did the revolt itself. In this article, I explore the reasons for that failure.

In February 1926, Fawzi al-Qawuqji was feeling frustrated. He had already served as a military officer for two defeated states – the Ottoman Empire, vanquished in World War I, and Amir Faysal’s Kingdom of Syria, which had been destroyed by a French invasion just a year and a half after it was born. Afterwards, Qawuqji had reluctantly joined the French Syrian Legion as a cavalry captain. In July 1925, however, an uprising against French rule had begun in Syria’s Druze region, an uprising which quickly scored some stunning victories and gave hope to erstwhile nationalists like Qawuqji. That October, he and his men mutinied and joined the revolt. But the momentum of the revolt had stalled over the long winter, and Qawuqji had been reduced to fighting a bloody guerilla war in the Damascus countryside. From his headquarters on Mount Qalamoun, Qawuqji sent an angry letter to the leaders of Salamiyya, a village inhabited mostly by Ismaʿili Shiʿite Muslims:

I would never have believed that the Ismaʿilis, our brothers in religion, nationality and soil, would carry the arms of the enemy to fight their Syrian brothers and walk down the path of the Armenians… I pity enormously those who will, in our country, have a fate similar to the Armenians in Turkey. …If you don’t want to join us, then at least be neutral.[1]

This letter (unearthed by Laila Parsons in her indispensable biography of Qawuqji), and its clear, disturbing reference to the recent murder of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman State, calls for close examination. Although he was a pious Sunni Muslim, Qawuqji was no religious extremist, nor is there any evidence that he was prejudiced against Shiʿites. On the contrary, as this letter shows, he wanted the Ismaʿilis to join him. Moreover, the revolution itself had been launched by leaders from another religious minority group, the Druzes in southern Syria. The leader of the Druze forces, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, proclaimed that Druzes, Muslims and Christians were “brothers in nationality”[2] and said, “We make no distinction in religion or sects, as our only aim is to obtain our legitimate rights, which are for all the sons of the Syrian nation, regardless of class or sect.”[3] For the leaders of the revolution, the liberation of Syria was and had to be an ecumenical project.

Why, then, this outpouring of sectarian venom in Qawuqji’s letter? I argue that it stems from the “nationalists’ dilemma” – the inability of nationalists to persuade minorities to forget their past alienation and join the national cause without using means that were in themselves alienating.

At the time of the revolt, even more so than today, the lands of Syria were home to an array of religious and ethnic groups – Sunni Muslims, Ismaʿilis, ʿAlawis, Druzes, Yazidis, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Circassians, and more. Although Sunni Islam had been the politically supreme religion in the region for nearly a thousand years, in 1925, only 56% of people in the French-ruled territories in Syria and Lebanon were Sunni Muslims; only 49% were Arab Sunni Muslims.[4] France perceived this diversity as Syria’s all-defining political feature, and often sought to use religious and ethnic minorities as a wedge against a potential resistance movement led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim elites. Among other policies, they created five distinct administrative regions in Syria for Christians, ʿAlawis, Druzes, Sunnis and Turks,[5] recruited Armenian refugees to fight against rebels in the region, patronized Catholic leaders and institutions, and distributed weapons to Christian villages.

The classic descriptor for these colonial tactics, both in the academic and popular literature, is “divide and rule.” While accurate in many ways, in other ways this phrase masks the scale of the challenge Syria’s nationalists had taken on. They were not simply trying to unite and liberate a nation – they were trying to create one. Despite the decisive rejection of “methodological nationalism” by historians in recent decades, it is still all too easy for modern historians to receive the rhetoric of the rebels of 1925 uncritically, to accept that they were fighting for the independence of a preexisting entity called “Syria,” a real whole that the French were trying to “divide.” But in 1925, “Syria” had never existed as an independent nation-state. (Indeed, since the rebels’ vision of “Syria” included Lebanon, Palestine, and Alexandretta, it arguably still has not.) Not even the borders of the Ottoman-era provinces in the region could be claimed as a precedent for the creation of such a state. Thus, when Qawuqji addressed the Ismaʿilis as “brothers in nationality,” he was, as Benjamin Thomas White observes, “not reflecting the actual existence of such a whole, but rather attempting to bring it into being.”[6] He was, as it were, trying to create a “myth of homogeneity.”

The rebel leadership clearly understood that sectarian divisions could be their undoing, and that the French would exploit that possibility. The rebels acted accordingly. Michael Provence cites an August 1925 letter from Sultan Pasha al-Atrash to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus, “apologizing for rebel misdeeds, promising to compensate losses, guaranteeing security in the name of the insurgent government, and pledging to eliminate further problems.”[7] When Fawzi al-Qawuqji tried to seize Hama in October 1925, he designated a special unit to protect the city’s Christian neighborhoods.[8] A remarkable American diplomatic report from 1926 says, “Four men from the Bab-Sharki section of [Damascus] were kidnapped on March 25th but were allowed to return when it was found that they were Christians. …The rebels apparently are eager to avoid all signs of a religious struggle.”[9]

Unfortunately for the rebels, this solicitousness rarely motivated religious minorities in Syria (other than the Druze) to support them. Their gospel of a homogenous “Syrian nation,” in which sect would not matter, was simply not believed. One month before receiving Qawuqji’s letter, the Ismaʿilis of Salamiyya wrote to the French authorities, asking for support to form a 200-strong all-Ismaʿili cavalry unit to fend off attacks by rebels (and raids by Bedouin tribes who did not believe the gospel of Syria either).[10] While some Christian intellectuals supported the revolt, and some Christian villages like Saydnayya gave it material support (under varying degrees of duress), Christians who actually took up arms for the armed revolt appear to have been few in number indeed. (In my research, I have found three individuals.)[11] Overall, the reaction of a Christian jeweler in the village of al-Ruhaybah north of Damascus appears to have been representative: “We were warned on October 14 that the Druzes were coming to attack the region,” he told French investigators in September 1926, “and as I was the only Christian in the village, I left my home and came to seek refuge in Damascus.”[12]

These incidents testify to the enduring ways in which sectarian categories structured the thought and rhetoric of political actors in Mandate Syria. If Qawuqji did not have sectarian goals, he did have a sectarian vision. He perceived the Ismaʿilis as acting as a group against the revolution, he addressed them as a group, and he threatened them with the fate of another ethnoreligious group. Qawuqji took it for granted that the Ismaʿilis should be addressed as Ismaʿilis, just as the Christian jeweler of al-Ruhaybah took it for granted that his religious identity would make him a target for the rebels. And just as Qawuqji carried the memory of the extermination of a troublesome ethnoreligious group by the empire he had once fought for, so members of minority religious groups in Syria carried the memories of past large-scale violence against them.

During the mid-19th century, for reasons that scholars continue to debate, the lands of Syria witnessed unprecedented communal violence, culminating in the massacre of thousands of Christians by Druze fighters in Mount Lebanon, and the subsequent murder of thousands of more Christians by Sunni rioters in Damascus. The killings triggered a French military expedition to Mount Lebanon, which forced thousands of Druzes to leave their homes and relocate to southern Syria, where their descendants and coreligionists would launch the Great Syrian Revolt 65 years later.  Throughout the Revolt, Christian publications in Syria and Lebanon drew parallels between it and the 1860 violence. In August 1925, the second month of the revolt, the American consul in Damascus reported that after a minor quarrel between peasants outside of Damascus, “The sound of shooting aroused the Christian quarter, the inhabitants of which became panic stricken believing that the Druses had arrived in Damascus to massacre them” [13]  (again).

Rebel solicitousness towards religious minorities, and the rebel gospel of a non-sectarian Syria, were thus working against a long and complicated legacy: a religious hierarchy created by more than a millennium of Muslim rule in Syria, a colonial-era practice of Western intervention on behalf of Christians and other minorities, and powerful memories of large-scale communal violence.

Nevertheless, the rebels could not tolerate the minority groups’ reluctance to join them. The assertion that the revolution was for all “Syrians” regardless of sect would be meaningless if only “Syrians” from certain sects embraced the cause. The success of the rebels’ national vision required the enthusiastic assent and cooperation of groups which would be religious minorities within the nation they planned to create. If the rebels could not win their cooperation by solicitousness, they would have to try to compel it.

Qawuqji’s threatening letter to the Ismaʿilis is one of an entire genre of letters written by rebels to religious minorities. Elizabeth Thompson cites a rebel leaflet which charged Christians in Lebanon with being “complicit with foreigners against your brothers,” and urged them to “abandon resignation, which is sterile, and run for your sword.”[14] Provence documents a demand sent to “a prominent Greek Orthodox Christian” in December 1925, for either 800 Ottoman gold pounds or fifty rifles and thirty Greek Orthodox men to join the uprising. “The unmistakable impression,” Provence concludes, “is that [this rebel leader] sought men more than money and wanted to include Christians among his rebels.”[15] The American consul in Damascus reported in April 1926 that a Christian leaderin Damascus had received another rebel demand for money or men for the fight, “saying that so far, although the rebel cause was likewise theirs [the Christians’], they had done nothing to aid it.”[16] Qawuqji himself, in leading an assault on the Christian mountain town of Maʿalula, demanded that twenty men from the town join his rebel force in exchange for breaking off his attack.[17] The demand, like most, possibly all, of the others, was refused.

The effortless toggling in these letters between embrace and menace, between hailing religious minorities as “brothers in nationality and soil” and accusing them of treason and threatening them with genocide, exemplifies the nationalists’ dilemma. The rebel leaders felt compelled to resort to coercion to bring minorities into the fold. But the inherently threatening nature of this coercion made minorities even more loath to cooperate. The result was a spiral of exclusion and self-exclusion that imprinted a violent alienation onto minority status from the very birth of the Syrian nation-state, an alienation which resonates in Syrian political culture to this day.

In the event, the rebels’ attempts to coerce Christians into joining the Revolt often drove them further towards the arms of their ostensible protectors – the French. At the same time, the refusal of Christians to join the revolt strengthened the already-present perception among the rebel rank-and-file that the Christians were pro-French, and numerous incidents of anti-Christian violence ensued. Maʿalula was besieged repeatedly. Across southern Syria and Lebanon, thousands of Christians fled or were pushed out of their homes. When the Druzes arrived in al-Ruhaybah, the Christian jeweler’s Muslim neighbors burned his house down and looted his belongings. Events like this created new memories of violence, to which Christians and other minorities would return again and again. When France entered into negotiations over Syrian independence with Syrian nationalist leaders in 1936, leaders from religious minority communities across the Mandate territory wrote to the French authorities and to the League of Nations, warning of the dangers they would face as “minorities” in an independent Syria. They often cited the 1925 violence as an example.[18] 

Much recent scholarship has emphasized the historical novelty of “minorities” as a political category. This scholarship has tied the emergence of this category to the emergence of the modern nation-state in Eastern Europe and the Middle East after the destruction of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires in World War I. The reasoning goes that it was only with the establishment of states whose raison d’être was to embody the will of a majority that the concept of “minorities” made sense. The modern nation-state, we are led to conclude, changed everything.

But in highlighting the novelty of minority politics and the nation-state, historians also should attend to the ways in which people’s experience of the past informed the way they integrated these new ideas into their politics and life experience. This calls for attention to historical continuities as well as novelties. The identification of Arabs and Sunnis as “the majority” and of Christians and Druzes as “minorities” within the “nation” of “Syria” might have all been new, but the way that Syrians received these new concepts was to a large extent determined by memories of past violence. That very process of reception, in turn, engendered more violence. Under French colonialism, the Syrian national state had a long and painful gestation, and the “minority” category in this state was marked from the beginning by violence and exclusion – not as a consequence of the functioning of the modern state, but because of the past’s long shadow.

Today, Syria is once again passing through a revolution. And once again, despite concerted efforts early on by the revolutionaries to create cross-sectarian bonds of solidarity against the regime, strikingly few religious minorities have been willing to shed the regime’s protection, and fewer still to make common cause with the rebel movement, which has become increasingly sectarian and extreme over time. The sobering power of these historical continuities should be a subject of reflection for historians.

Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, where he is writing a dissertation entitled “The Politics of Aleppo’s Christians and the Formation of the Syrian Nation-State: 1920-1936”. His research interests include modern Middle Eastern history, the history of sectarianism, U.S.-Syrian relations, and the history of Christianity.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] Laila Parsons, The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016),83.

[2] Secret Despatch No. Pol/306/4 from Colonel G.B. Symes to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 4 September 1925, [FO371/10851]. Original text not available; quote is from a (poor) British translation. Reprinted in ed. Bejtullah Destani, Minorities in the Middle East: Druze Communities, 1840-1974, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Archive Editions, 2006),399

[3] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 295, December 3, 1925, 890d.00/328, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA. Letter from Sultan al-Atrash enclosed.

[4] N.E. Bou-Nacklie, “Les Troupes Speciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916-46, » International Journal of Middle East Studies, 25:4, (Nov 1993), 646

[5] The State of Greater Lebanon, the State of the ʿAlawis, the State of Jabal Druze, the State of Syria and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, respectively. The latter was annexed by Turkey in 1939, the former still exists today as the Lebanese Republic; the others were eventually absorbed into the Republic of Syria.

[6] Benjamin Thomas White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 83

[7] Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005),62

[8] Parsons, Commander, 72

[9] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 351, March 29, 1926, 890d.00/378, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA

[10] White, Emergence of Minorities, 89

[11] Two Christian officers from Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s unit in Hama, and a mysterious figure named ʿUqla al-Qitami, a village leader from the Druze region who some French officers insisted was the bastard son of a Druze leader. See N. E. Bou-Nacklie, “Tumult in Syria’s Hama in 1925: The Failure of a Revolt,” Journal of Contemporary History 33, No. 2, (April 1998), 286, note 48; Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 61

[12] Enquête du Colonel Raynal, 3ème Partie : Damas, Dossier de Procès-verbaux à Témoins, September 10, 1926, Levant, Syrie-Liban 1918-1940, Vol. 237, #156, Centre des Archives diplomatiques de La Courneuve.

[13] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 267, August 15, 1925, 890d.00/202, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, NA

[14] Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 47

[15] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 119

[16] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 355, April 12, 1926, 890d.00/384 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA

[17] “Al-Thawra fii Jabaal al-Qalamoun,” [The revolution in the Qalamoun mountains] Al-Maҫarrat, No. 16, (July 1926), 419-429

[18] For example, on March 7, 1936, the bishops of Aleppo for seven different denominations wrote to the French High Commissioner, copying in the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandates Commission, to express their concern over the treaty negotiations: “In 1925, during the revolt in Syria, the Armenians of Damascus and the peaceful Christian farmers of Syria and Lebanon were pillaged and massacred.”

“PETITIONS, au nombre de 98, en six catégories, relatives à L’UNITE SYRIENNE,” May 28, 1936, p. 83, Syria: General,  Carton 4097, Jacket 4, 6A-4892-1469, UN Archives

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