Myths of Protection and Pacification: Syria and Greater Lebanon under Early French Mandate Colonialism

By John Boonstra
Submitted to Session P4903 (Colonial Regimes and Anti-Colonial Revolts between Maghrib and Mashriq, 1920-1950, 2017 Annual Meeting
Europe; Lebanon; Mashreq; Syria;
Colonialism; Mediterranean Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Nationalism;
In the summer of 1920, at opposite ends of the Beirut-Damascus road, two events took place that would shape the divergent colonial histories of the region. At Maysalun, some 25 kilometers from Damascus, French forces under General Henri Gouraud defeated the remaining Arab Army of King Faisal, who had proclaimed an independent Syrian kingdom four months earlier. The battle’s outcome became a reference point in narratives of French imperial triumph and duplicity, and functioned as a potent symbol of Arab nationalism and martyrdom in the coming years. Yet it also brought into sharper relief a division articulated just over a month later, when Gouraud, as High Commissioner of the newly formed French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, proclaimed from Beirut on September 1 the formation of the state of Greater Lebanon. The juxtaposition of these two occurrences, this paper suggests, offers key insight into the distinct colonial trajectories of post-war Syria and Lebanon. While Syria was envisioned as a terrain of rebellion and discontent, to be pacified and repressed through colonial violence, the newly aggrandized Lebanese state was presented as a loyal “younger sister” of France, grateful for French intervention. Through these opposing discursive frameworks, I argue, French officials sought to reconcile a long-standing mythology of influence and prestige in the Levant with the complex politics of war and colonial occupation.

Moving beyond interpretations that focus primarily on dynamics of nationalism or sectarianism to explain the contrasting experiences of Mandate Syria and Lebanon, this paper queries how this partition functioned within an unstable imperial ideology, one that balanced contemporary colonial tactics of divide-and-rule with adherence to older notions of France’s supposed “long historical tradition…of protection, honor, and reciprocal affection” in the Near East. Attempts to preserve a conviction in the “intimately linked” history and “indestructible” bonds between France and the broader Levant co-existed with appeals to the particular status of Lebanon within both the region and the French imperial imaginary. Drawing from press reports, official public statements, and the recently deposited personal papers of General Gouraud, this account will closely analyze political discourses surrounding the pronouncement of Greater Lebanon, which occurred against a backdrop of colonial violence and counterinsurgency in Syria. It will seek to explain how imperial myths persevered alongside colonial practices, harnessing languages of amity and enmity to cultivate a fiction of French benevolence amidst the repressive colonial measures of the interwar period.