The Arab Government in Damascus

An Early Experience of the Modern Arab State (1918-1920)
28 January, 2021

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published TheArab Government in Damascus: An Early Experience of the Modern Arab State (1918-1920), the outcome of specialist researchers presenting papers in an ACRPS Beirut conference held 26-27 April 2019. The book (820 pp) includes eighteen papers approved by the Conference Committee for presentation at the conference, distributed across five sections.

The first section is composed of three chapters. In the first chapter Mahmoud Ghazlan traces and chronicles the history of the original Sykes-Picot Agreement, highlighting the problem that Mosul posed during initial British-French discussions, and the “amendment” that Lloyd George and George Clemenceau came to agree orally in early December 1918. This stipulated that in exchange for a French share of Mosul’s oil, Mosul and Palestine would both belong to Britain, and Syria to France. He then discusses the details of conditions governing this arrangement.

Between Local and Regional

The second chapter, by Muhammad al-Arnaout, is concerned with 'The Black Book' or policy document of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, a product of a secret scientific committee commissioned by President Wilson to develop a new and precise map of the world and reflecting his concept of a science-based peace in preparation for the post-war peace conference and building a new world order. (The report’s cover was black.)

In the third chapter Mahmoud Haddad presents a historical view of the complex local, regional and international position of the Arab government (known also as The Arab Kingdom of Syria), focusing on the interconnections between them while assessing three interrelated dilemmas that the Arab government faced after Its rise: the local dilemma represented by the attempt to reconcile the leadership coming from outside Damascus with popular local leaders and internally influential notables; the Syrian local and regional dilemma represented by the need to reconcile hope of achieving Syrian geographic unity with treatment of a Mount Lebanon that enjoyed autonomy since 1861; and the dilemma posed by changes in the cohesion of the Syrian Arab leaderships wrought by the Balfour Declaration, leaderships who considered Britain to be an ally.

Building the Arab State

The second section includes five studies. In Chapter Four, Khaled Ziade thoroughly introduces the main stages of the evolution of the idea of Arabism in the modern “Arab awakening” (or Nahda), leading to the formation of the Arab government in Damascus, its subsequent transformation into a center of Arab nationalism, and the role played by three types of Arab graduates of Istanbul's leading legal Ainstitutes (pre-Arab government era decentralized Arab Muslims; secularism-leaning French- or other Western-educated intellectuals; and graduates of modernist institutes of Astana) in rallying around the Arab government, as well as in developing the idea of Arabism with dimensions of pluralistic reform in a society of complex identities.

Chapter Five by Ammar al-Samar sets out from the view that what arose in Damascus was not a state but a government with an apparatus inherited from the previous Ottoman legal system – from which it sought to build the desired broader Arab state – only to see it contract owing to mistakenly classified decisions and high-level government decrees effected in the first phases of the Arab government and during the French mandate as well.

 Government, Elites and the Syrian Congress

In Chapter Six, Ahmed Qurbi identifies the prevailing constitutional culture of the Syrian 1920 Constitution and the impact had by the intellectual formation of the political elites drafting it. This is presented in analysis of sections of the constitution in the context of the political situation of greater Syria (bilad al-sham), in comparison with preceding constitutions.

In the seventh chapter Farouk Hablas focuses on building state institutions and on Muhammad Rashid Rida’s vision of the Arab Government and the Syrian National Congress, detailing the latter’s composition and institutional structure.

Bassam Btoush in Chapter Eight surveys Rashid Rida’s seminal political and intellectual references, and key issues disputed with Sharif Hussein in the wake of the Arab Revolution’s outbreak. He considers the intellectually and politically transformative milestones in Rashid Rida’s life, his scholarly and activist roles, and his stance in Egypt on the Syrian question. He then assesses the core intellectual and political dialectics of Rida’s relationships with the Arab government (the “Arab Kingdom of Syria), King Faisal, and political parties and associations within the framework of the Syrian National Congress.

The Arab Government and Turkey

The third section is composed of two studies; in the ninth chapter, Fadel Bayat analyzes prominent Ottoman documents that testify to Ottoman engagement with what was going on in Syria under the Arab government, assessing the reports Ottoman officers sent secretly to Syria, the status of state-affiliated persons following the Ottoman withdrawal from Syria and of Arab families stranded in Anatolia, the discharge of Arab soldiers from the Ottoman army, and Ottoman tracking of the Arab government’s policies and procedures in order to expand control over the territories and consolidate relations with the clans.

In the tenth chapter Muhammad Jamal Barout examines the specialist complex historical debate prevailing over the veracity of documents – or the extent to which it may be suspect – and the place of methodological controversy in the approach to Arabic and Turkish historical documents.

Positions and Trends

Five research papers are included in the fourth section. In chapter eleven, Ahmed Mohamed Bou Said considers the prominence of Algerian independence fighter Emir Abdelkader al-Jazairi’s family in the declaration of the first independent Arab government (which lasted only three days) under the Hashemite banner, after the withdrawal of the Ottoman forces from Syria: following Abdelkader, al-Jazairi’s descendants became rooted in the history of the Levant.

For the twelfth chapter, Ayman Ahmad Mahmoud presents the first integrated study on the Arab Kingdom of Syria as seen in the Egyptian press of the period concerned. Papers such as al-Moqattam, al-Ummah, al-Manar and al-Ahram played a prominent role expressing the views of the large intellectually and politically active Syrian community in Egypt, as well as influencing this community through its various clubs and associations in Cairo and Alexandria.

On the Nation’s Freedom

Bilal Shalash contributes Chapter Thirteen to the problem posed by the presence of the Palestinians and the reactions of Palestinian elites and masses to the Arab rule in Damascus, as well as the roots and evolution of these positions in light of the political transformations and dangers witnessed, in the region generally and in Palestine in particular, in the wake of the British occupation and the British declaration of support for the Zionist project.

In Chapter Fourteen, Sayyar al-Jamil takes up the historical dimensions of an elite of former Iraqi officers who joined the Arab revolution through captivity or recruitment, and who were distinguished by the moniker “Sharif;” a term widely used in Iraq, in contrast to its use in Syria, where it was more associated with the French.

In chapter fifteen Simon Abdel Masih discusses the problematic relationship between the Administrative Council of Mount Lebanon and the Arab government in Damascus – once established – and the French. His scrutinizes the internal institutional and functional structure and history of the Administrative Council up until the foundation of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, as well as the evolution of its political roles following the Paris Peace Conference, amidst the decentralization policies adopted by the Arab government in its relations with other Levantine regions.

Factors of Internal Collapse

The fifth section, beginning with Chapter Sixteen, features Muhammad Jamal Barout’s analysis of financial and monetary conditions in the phase of Arab government and their impact upon its interventionist social policies, drawing upon Arabic language information provided by the two official Arab Kingdom of Syria newspapers, al-Asima and Halep, as sources for studying Syrian social, economic, and financial history in the 1920s and 1930s.

For the seventeenth chapter, Munther Jaber considers each of the first interim transitional governments of less than four days, the first military government, the two “governments of administrators,” and lastly the constitutional independence government. He keeps the focus on the establishment of a grouping of local governments in various Syrian regions, especially the coastal regions of Sidon, Tyre, and Jabal Amel, in addition to East Jordan in the Arab government’s region.

Finally, in the eighteenth chapter, Fathi Laisser analyzes the significance of the 24 July 1920 French rout of the Arab Kingdom of Syria’s army of 2,000 volunteers at Maysalun in ending the first post-Ottoman experience of the construction of an independent Arab state. Instead of the usual approach that awards primacy to decisive external factors, the author here spotlights internal factors and influences that – to a greater or lesser extent – facilitated or led to (or contributed to) the Maysalun defeat, with or without the awareness of the Arab actors.

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