The Influence of Ideas
A Podcast About History

Colonial Quicksand - Episode 3:

Liberty, equality, and consent of the governed, the last three ideas that come to mind when I think of Syria. Due to the country's chaos, brokenness, and authoritarianism today, I may not be that far off. For Faisal and the Syrian people living over 100 years ago, I would be. Although the First World War left millions dead and many more displaced, hope for a constitutional monarchy that relied on principles of decentralized government that preserved the rights of minorities was found in the son of a king. With the help of popular self-determination, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and the openness of the Paris Peace Conference, Faisal, son of Hussein bin Ali, and the popularly elected Syrian Congress, lead the Syrian-Arab nationalist movement to found their own country, the Syrian-Arab Kingdom, against the power of French Imperialism.

What Erez Manela called “The Wilsonian Moment” was an ideological fever that spread across the globe after The First World War. Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States at the time, laid out in his Fourteen Points to Congress a vision for world peace that all nations, small or large, should aspire to achieve. To Faisal and the Arab-Nationalist, this was exactly what they were looking for. Wilson preached of “self-determination”, the idea that a group of people who shared a national consciousness had a right to form their own state and elect their own government. The Arabs, who had just fought with the British against the Ottoman Empire for a promise of popular sovereignty, relished in the idea that a former colony of Britain preached of such grand ideals, and they, along with many other countries, lobbied under the right of self-determination due to their shared language, beliefs, and goals. Faisal’s argument for independence was further grounded in Wilson's Fifth point, that all colonial claims must consult the interests of the people living in them, and that their say must be equal to the governments involved. Due to the revolutionary new idea that native inhabitants were not just resources to be exploited, the Supreme Council, part of the Paris Peace Conference, sent an independent poll to Greater Syria, and, to no one's surprise, found unanimous support for an independent Syria. However, due to Wilson's failing health and pushback in Congress, the poll was not released.

Due to many traditional 19th century views of the day, Imperialism was still fresh in the minds of many of the winning powers, especially France. France had made a deal with the British during a low part of the war called the Sykes-Picot Agreement which gave France control of most of the Mediterranean coast and left only a semi-independent landlocked Syrian state under indirect French influence. Historically, colonial powers had not treated their colonies with respect or dignity, and to Faisal and the Syrian people, who the Supreme Council found to be “civilized” enough for gradual independence, France was going to treat them the same way they treated their other colonies in North Africa, with dominance and force.

In Syria at the time, the democratically elected Congress started pushing for full independence, against any sort of “mandate”, or European oversight. Faisal, the moderate who sought compromise, pushed back, and factionalism ensued. But through the debates and protests, compromises were reached, similar to the constitutional conventions in America in the 18th century. Syria, with the support of Faisal, declared its independence. And shortly after, in an effort to sharpen its “civil weapons” and prove they were their own nation, started drafting up a constitution. Based on the natural rights of man, their constitutional monarchy created a decentralized form of government that protected the rights of minorities, something very important since they needed Jews and Christians on board. It also created a system of checks and balances, had its own bill of rights which included protection from unreasonable search and seizures, torture, and arbitrary arrest, and provided public education for both woman and children. All the articles totaled up to be 148, which included many more liberalist ideas.

After conflict between the Syrians and the French continued, the French assembly voted 478-83 in favor of invasion. French troops invaded from the east, and due to poor Syrian defenses, won by lunch. Faisal and many Syrian representatives escaped to neighboring countries and vowed to fight back, but for the time, they had been defeated. The conflict does not end there, in fact, the remnants can still be seen today. It makes me wonder how things would've been if the Syrians were left to be completely sovereign under no mandate with their own democratic form of government that protected people’s rights. Or at the very least an American mandate. To the French, and many others, death and destruction did not end after their victory over the central powers in World War 1. Their invasion and occupation of Syria quickly swallowed up more men, more resources, and more freedoms, almost like a form of colonial quicksand.

I did not know much about the history of these events before picking up Elizabeth Thompson’s “How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs”. It is a fascinating and engaging read that goes into the characters and details of the events. I also put out a podcast ( ... or see linkbar) that goes a little more in-depth and allows for a deeper understanding of the why and how, so please check it out and give it a rating! Follow for more and I hope you all have a great day!