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Dividing Up The Middle East - The Creation of Lebanon

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New Great War episode on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQruBj4EhCA

It’s September 1920, and after months of violence and tense negotiations, French authorities in the Middle East announce the creation of a new state that France will oversee on behalf of the League of Nations: Greater Lebanon.

In the fall of 1920, the French were ready to re-organize the Middle Eastern lands where they held a League of Nations mandate. These included the territory of what is today Lebanon, Syria, and part of southern Turkey. The French decided to divide these lands into five separate states which they would oversee – officially to help them achieve independence, but unofficially as colonial possessions. But of course, there were competing interests, and the French and their Lebanese supporters would have to meet the challenge of British interests and Arab arms to achieve their goals. In today’s episode, we’re going to focus events surrounding the creation of Greater Lebanon in September 1920, exactly 100 years ago.

The territory that would eventually become Greater Lebanon in 1920 had belonged to the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and by 1914 was divided into several administrative regions, the largest of which was Mount Lebanon. Mount Lebanon had formally come into being in 1861 thanks to pressure from the European Great Powers on the Ottomans to create an autonomous province for the Christian majority there. French influence in Lebanon was quite strong over the following years, both in terms of religion and the economy, particularly the French-led introduction of silk-worm farming, and the construction of the port of Beirut and the Beirut-Damascus railway.

The Ottoman Lebanese provinces were inhabited by a mix of different groups, who did not always get along. The population of Mount Lebanon was mostly Arabic-speaking Christians belonging to the Maronite church. Given the Maronites’ historic and religious connections to France, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, they felt the time was at hand to lobby for independence - independence with very close guidance from France.

The other major group within Mount Lebanon were the Druze, who practiced a religion based on Islam but were not considered orthodox Muslims. Some of them actively resisted the Ottomans during the war, and now that the war was over, Druze community leaders hoped for a British mandate.

To the north, east and south of Mount Lebanon, there were also large communities of Orthodox Christians and Muslims, both Sunni and Shia. Some in these communities supported Pan-Arabism, the idea that all Arabs ought to be united into one large independent state – a goal that was at odds with Maronite aspirations. Nearly all the Muslims and some of the Orthodox Christians living in areas next to Mount Lebanon wanted British rule instead.

So the Lebanese provinces were home to several communities with different political goals in the crucial postwar period, which would determine the fate of the region. And the coming political struggle came on the heels of a wartime humanitarian catastrophe that had caused all to suffer.

The Great War was a catastrophe for the people in Mount Lebanon and the surrounding areas. The region was cut off from French support, and suffered political repression at the hands of the local Ottoman commander-in-chief, Jemal Pasha, who had dozens of suspected opponents killed and thousands exiled, especially Arab nationalists. Jemal also imposed conscription, still remembered today by its Turkish name, Seferberlik, or mobilization. There was also a serious shortage of coal, which meant the forests were cut for fuel, which led to a growing problem of deforestation. This problem continued after Allied troops arrived, as the British began shipping lumber to Egypt. Silk production, which was one of the main economic activities, stopped completely, and under the strains of war the Ottoman administration struggled to govern effectively.

But the worst disaster to hit what would become Greater Lebanon during the war was starvation. There was widespread hunger in the Ottoman Empire, made worse by the Allied naval blockade, but the Ottomans themselves also cut off supplies to the region. This led to a terrible famine, which killed about 1/3 of the population and was still raging when Allied forces arrived in 1918.

French naval medic Dr. Pierre was struck by the suffering of the local people: “When our first detachments arrived, the scene in the streets of Beirut was horrible. One could believe he has landed in a medieval town at the time of the great famines of history. Passers-by covered in rags, emaciated, with earthy complexions, their eyes shining with fever in the depths of their orbit, drag themselves miserably, stretching out their hands. Corpses lie everywhere. Carts load up with corpses picked up from all corners, dumping up to a hundred a day into the mass grave” (Gontaut-Biron, 128).

To feed the population, the French, British, local churches, Muslim councils and the new Arab-led provisional government in Damascus all worked to bring in and distribute supplies. French missionaries who had been active in Lebanon before the war, and who had been conscripted into the French army, assisted in the program. By the end of the year, the Allied blockade was lifted and the famine had been brought under control. The French also soon began the first efforts to begin reforestation and restore agriculture.

Throughout 1919, conditions in future Lebanon remained difficult. There were hundreds of thousands of Armenian refugees spread throughout the Middle East after the wartime genocide, and French British authorities now made efforts to relocate them. One of the main camps was in Beirut, from which refugees could travel to new homes abroad or return to Anatolia. There was also some movement into Lebanon, as prominent locals who had been exiled to Anatolia by the Ottomans now returned home. The high civilian mortality during the war also left about 20,000 orphans in Lebanese lands, half of whom were Armenian. A major relief effort was organized to place them into orphanages so they could be cared for.

So the Lebanese provinces had been decimated by war and famine when Allied forces arrived. Humanitarian efforts were not the only concern for the French and British, as both had important political aspirations for the region as well.

 

Allied war aims in the Middle East had generally been worked out back in 1916, when the Russians, British and French sealed the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Russians were now out of the picture, but British interests in Palestine and Iraq, and French hopes for Syria and the Levant remained intact despite the fact that the war had robbed France of the soft power influence it had built up before 1914. British troops had done most of the fighting against the Ottomans, and so it was they who at first occupied most areas as the Ottomans withdrew. French troops soon arrived in late 1918, even though they remained under British command at first. Several zones of occupation were set up: the French predominated in the Lebanese provinces and the Syrian coast, Hashemite Arab forces in Damascus and Aleppo provinces, and the British further east. French diplomat François Georges-Picot was put in charge of overseeing the French return, and a role taken over by General Henri Gouraud in 1919.porary measure, as French instructions to their local commanders made clear: “(Gontaut-Biron, 77). But tensions soon surfaced with the British, and General Edmund Allenby even suggested that French control be limited to the coast.

France wasted no time in making its intention to claim its part of the Sykes-Picot agreement, regardless of the rivalry with the British or desires for independence among some local actors. In December 1918 French Foreign Minister Stephen Pichon declared the French position: “We have incontestable rights to safeguard in the Empire of the Turks; we have rights in Syria, in Lebanon, in Cilicia, in Palestine. They are based on historical titles, agreements, and contracts... They are also based on the aspirations and wishes of the populations, who have long been our clients. We will do our utmost to assert them ... But we consider that these agreements, established with England, continue to bind England and us, and that the rights which have been recognized to us, and of which we will request the extension to the Conference, are now acquired rights.” (Gontaut-Biron, 199).

Pichon’s speech made French intentions clear, and also set off riots in Damascus, since there was another force in the region: the Arab nationalist movement. When the British had pushed out the Ottomans in 1917 and 1918, they were helped by an Arab force under the command of the Hashemite family. Faisal had led Arab troops in the field as they entered Syria, and he now hoped to establish himself as king of an Arab kingdom stretching from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia – though when push came to shove he was also willing to compromise. The Syrian National Congress in Damascus, however, took a firmer line, and their vision of Greater Syria included the Lebanese provinces in a future Arab kingdom. Faisal even appointed General Shukri el-Ayubi as governor of Beirut, although the French had already appointed a governor of their own. Faisal also visited the Lebanese district of Bekaa to rally the locals, and soon after issued this memorandum in January 1919: “The aim of the Arab nationalist movements (of which my father became the leader in war after combined appeals from the Syrian and Mesopotamian branches) is to unite the Arabs eventually into one nation.” (Miller, 297). These claims did not bode well for relations with a French government determined to have a strong presence in the region.

So the Lebanese provinces were part of the great political changes coming to the former Ottoman Arab provinces now under Allied occupation in 1919 and 1920. Though the war was over, violence continued.

 

The future Lebanon was surrounded by violent outbreaks on nearly all sides as a result of the power vacuum left by the collapse of Ottoman power. Arab, Turkish and Kurdish revolts against the French presence broke out in the Ansarieh mountains and around Aleppo, and spread southwards to nearby Antioch and Jabal Qusayr in early 1919. These were put down by the French, but in July it was the turn of the Alawites to rebel in Kawabi. The French sent troops, but this led to a diplomatic incident with the British, who still had troops in the region and nearly fired on a French officer travelling with a French-friendly tribal leader.

In nearby Cilicia, Armenian-Turkish clashes led to French and Armenian troops becoming embroiled in full-on war with Turkish nationalist forces under Mustafa Kemal. Fighting here continued until costly battles at Marash, Urfa and

With so much fighting and chaos in the area, it was no surprise there was disorder in 1919 and 1920 within the future Lebanon as well. Various groups of bandits raided the districts of Tyre and Marjeyoun. In these same towns, local Christians, Druze and Shia Muslims also clashed against each other, which resulted in French attacks against the Shiite stronghold of Bint Jbeil and hundreds of Christian refugees fleeing to British-occupied Palestine. Bedouin tribes were also active and raided several districts, including Baalbek. The Bedouins also raided French and ANZAC outposts – which caused the British to attack the tribes with aircraft, and send a formal protest to Faisal even though Faisal was trying unsuccessfully to stop the Bedouin attacks. Not to be left out, Australian troops also rioted, killing 40 civilians as revenge for the murder of an Australian soldier.

It was against this background of Anglo-French tensions, Arab nationalist ambitions, and ongoing violence that the future of the Lebanese provinces was to be decided. The stage was set for a complicated series of negotiations, and eventually war, to decide the fate of Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East – starting with the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris.

Almost as soon as Allied forces had replaced the Ottomans, the jockeying for political advantages began. On December 17, 1918 the Administrative Council of Mount-Lebanon was already beginning to form its demands regarding a Lebanese state. They felt that the Ottomans had broken the 1861 agreement for an autonomous Lebanon, and resolved to send a mission to Paris: “A delegation will represent the autonomous government of Mount-Lebanon at the Peace Conference to transmit […] the following claims: extension of the territory of present-day Lebanon to its historical and geographical limits […] and the support of the French government for the fulfillment of the aforementioned wishes.” (Le Temps, Jan 13, 1919).

The Mount Lebanon delegation led by Daoud Ammoun would press their case of territorial additions and independence from their neighbours under French protection. The areas they wished to add to Mount Lebanon included the cities of Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, and the districts of Akkar, Baalbeck, Hasbaya, Rachaya, and Marjeyoun. The French, unsurprisingly, supported these claims as the ‘natural and historic’ borders of the country-to-be.

But the Syrian nationalists also had their own delegation in Paris, and were lobbying hard for an independent Greater Syria – though they disagreed about who would rule it. Syrian National Committee chair Shukri Ghanem argued that historic Syria ought to include both the Lebanese provinces and Palestine, and rejected the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This proposal, however, was not supported by the British or the French, who were still hashing out the implementation of Sykes-Picot amongst themselves. Faisal was in Paris too, and tried to convince the Allies to accept a unified Arab state from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia under his rule, but he eventually abandoned this position and instead argued for Greater Syrian kingdom. Lloyd George showed some sympathy for this at first, but the French were opposed, since they were determined to gain control over Syria as foreseen in Sykes-Picot.

In response to the Syrian claims, another Lebanese delegation under Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoayek went to Paris in August 1919 to press the Lebanese claims. . At around the same time, the Supreme Council was discussing the Middle East, and the British and French finally came to an agreement about what to do with Syria.  British forces would withdraw to the east of the Sykes-Picot line dividing Mesopotamia and Syria. Their place would be taken by the French in the west, and Faisal’s troops in the occupation zone in Syria. The French also accepted that they would have to come to a border agreement with Faisal.

In October and November 1919, the French heard the claims of the Lebanese and Faisal. After these discussions, Clemenceau and Faisal reached an agreement that Lebanon would be separate from Syria, the disputed Bekaa region would become a neutral zone, and Faisal would be permitted to become King of Syria – in return for accepting French influence over his kingdom. Faisal would get his coveted kingdom, and, as far as French bureaucrat Étienne Flandin was concerned, France would quote “Safeguard our moral and political preponderance in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean.” (Gontaut-Biron, 330)

1920 would bring a resolution to the Lebanese question, but only after more political wrangling and another war. In January, Alexandre Millerand replaced Clemenceau as Prime Minister of France. Millerand was a colonialist and put more emphasis on French ambitions in the Middle East. And since the Americans had left the peace conference at the end of 1919, the way was now open for Britain and France to impose their will. In February 1920, Britain and France decided on the future frontiers of much of the Ottoman Empire, including a preliminary agreement on Lebanon’s borders.

Patriarch Hoayek sent a 3rd delegation to Paris to ensure that the Lebanese claims for expanded borders, known as Greater Lebanon, would be implemented by the French. This last Lebanese delegation included not only Christians, but Druze and Shiite representatives as well. This occurred just as the French and British were coming to a final agreement about the future Lebanon’s southern frontiers, which had been a bone of contention. The result was that a small strip of territory around Lake Hula claimed by France and the Lebanese delegations ended up in British Palestine, and the border established along the Deauville Line – in accordance with the claims of the Zionist movement.

By mid-1920, the British and French had managed to come to a broad agreement on where the borders of their respective League of Nations mandates in the Middle East would lie. This certainly did not correspond to the aspirations of either Faisal or the Syrian National Congress, which declared him King of Syria in March 1920. On March 8, the Syrian National Congress declared an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria under Faisal. This surprised and angered the French, since it went against their agreement with Faisal and the proposed borders of Syria were to include the Lebanese provinces. The French were not amused, and despite Faisal’s offer of a generous compromise, French troops invaded Syria from their Lebanese bases in July 1920This meant that the last barrier to France implementing its plans in Syria and Lebanon had now been removed. There was some discussion of how to divide up the mandate territory: Gouraud favoured a federation of four Syrian states, which would be joined in a loose confederation with Lebanon. Millerand argued for a separate Lebanon and dividing Syria into 8 smaller statelets. Both agreed that the Ottoman province of Mount Lebanon should be expanded according to the claims of the Lebanese delegations and the old French military map of 1862.

Eventually they reached a compromise. Syria was divided into four states: Jabal al-Druze, Damascus, Aleppo, and the Alawite State – a solution that was unpopular with most of the locals. Mount Lebanon was joined with the surrounding areas, including Tripoli, Baalbek, Bekaa, Sidon, and Tyre

 

The creation of Greater Lebanon was controversial from the start, as the French newspaper Le Temps admitted: “No doubt the creation of Greater Lebanon will not be unfavourable to the Muslims, whose political influence will grow […] A Lebanese policy is nevertheless a policy of protecting Christians in the Orient. In Greater Syria, which we now guide, one must not forget that Muslims outnumber Christians by three to one, and it would be disastrous if we continue to excite the Muslims against us in the future.” (Le Temps, September 3, 1920)

For many Christian Lebanese, it was a long-awaited nation-building project that had finally come true. For Arab nationalists, it was one more political step away from a united pan-Arab state. For Christian, Druze, and Muslim Lebanese, building a new state that was surrounded by an unstable French Syria and British Palestine would prove to be a difficult task. Nonetheless the proclamation of the State of Greater Lebanon in September 1920 is considered a major step on the road to Lebanese statehood and eventual independence in the 1940s – and efforts to restore the economy, replenish the forests, and grant equal rights to all groups began immediately. But the future of this new state was uncertain, as a historian would later note: "The new Grand Liban now encompassed areas that gave Maronite Lebanon a large Muslim population, providing the basis for the inter-communal conflicts that would repeatedly ravage the country in the future." (Sicker 69)

 

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