In 1920, the League of Nations (LN) entrusted France with a mandate in Syria and Lebanon. It was supposed only to be a transitional phase towards the formal independence of these two states, as had been the case in 1932 for Iraq, which had until then been under a British LN mandate. But a terribly patriotic France took up this Middle-Eastern mission with its eyes fixed on Lebanon. As early as 1923, the Tharaud brothers were speaking of a “new crusade”, while inscribing their “Chemin de Damas” to General Henri Gouraud, who governed Syria from Beirut. All of France’s attention was focused on a “Greater Lebanon”, while Syria was divided into five distinct entities. This territorial cut-up did not prevent the revolutionary uprising of 1925-26, which was brutally put down in Damascus and in the Druze territories, despite the protests of the LN.

France may have triumphed militarily, but Syrian nationalism remained vibrant, under a flag with three green stars, standing for Damascus, Aleppo, and any other town wanting to join an independent Syria (the same flag reappeared in 2011, used by the Syrians rebelling against the Assad regime).  After ten years of political deadlock, a general strike in March 1936 forced France to accept negotiations for a treaty putting an end to the mandate. The Syrian delegation was taken to Paris by a nationalist “veteran”, Hashim al-Atassi, who was from Homs, and had been imprisoned in 1930 for months by the mandatary authorities. However, it was only the victory of the Front Populaire during the elections in France in May 1936 that gave any substance to the negotiations. Because Pierre Viénot, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Blum government, was already convinced about the idea of Syria’s unification, as opposed to the colonial lobby and the army administrators, who were quick to mobilise their clients coming from different “minorities”.

Despite such underhand manoeuvres, a “treaty of friendship and alliance” was signed by Blum and Atassi, on 9th September 1936, in the Salon de l’Horloge at the Quai d’Orsay. Syria, now completely united, would be committed to a 25-year alliance with France, which would keep its military bases in the country for five years. The announcement of this signing was hailed by great public displays in Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, in streets decked with colours that were nationalist (the “three stars” of Syrian unity) as well as French.

In December 1936, the Syrian Parliament ratified the treaty with France and helped to make Atassi president of the republic. But Blum left the presidency in June 1937 without having been able to get the treaty ratified by his own parliament. For the colonial lobby and the conservative right had been running a virulent campaign against the project. For example, the “Revue des questions coloniales et maritimes” opposed Syrian unity with a “divide and rule” approach, explained quite candidly: “It would be a great mistake to believe that the endless hostility of the Jews and the Arabs would make Great Britain’s situation in Palestine precarious.  On the contrary, this antagonism provides just the right pretext for its domination and to make it permanent”.          

The Tharaud brothers recycled these same antinationalist ideas in their “Alerte en Syrie”, published after a stay there in summer 1937. Partisans for the ratification of the Franco-Syrian Treaty had even greater problems making their voices heard after July 1938, when France concluded a treaty of friendship with Turkey, which was immediately ratified. So as to reassure Ankara, and in a context of rising perils in Europe, Paris authorised the placement of Turkish troops in the Syrian province of Antioche. In June 1939, Turkey formally annexed this “Sanjak of Alexandretta”, now calling it “Hatay”. Tens of thousands of Arabs and Armenians fled the province for Syria.

Atassi, now completely powerless, gave up the presidency in July 1939. The French High Commissioner suspended the Syrian Constitution and decided to dissolve the Parliament. Two months later, the entry of France into the Second World War was accompanied by a state of siege in the Levant. The opportunity for a real Franco-Syrian had now quite clearly been lost. It was only in December 1943 that France formally recognised the independence of Syria (and Lebanon), and then in April 1946 French troops finally left the country. This withdrawal took place under the watchful pressure of the new United Nations (UN), without any treaty being signed, and thus with no guarantee of any special relationship with France. Ten years after the hopes raised by the Blum-Atassi treaty, the conclusion of France’s Syrian adventure was bitter for both parties.

Image caption : La délégation du Bloc national syrien signant les accords en 1936.