Anniversaries provide opportunities for reflection on both the past and present, and the recent centenary of the San Remo conference was full of thought-provoking reminders about the Middle East in its historic transition from Ottoman rule to the Mandate system for Syria, Iraq and Palestine.
The Allied conference was held from 19-26 April 1920 in a villa on the Italian Riviera. Britain and France agreed to recognize the provisional independence of Syria (then including Lebanon) and Iraq (Mesopotamia), while claiming mandates to govern them until they were able to “stand alone.”
Earlier, at the Versailles conference in 1919, the US president Woodrow Wilson, on the basis of his famous “14 points” for a new postwar world order, had supported the ambitions of the Hashemite Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, to rule Syria.
But the other Allied leaders schemed against the independence demanded by the Syrian Arab Congress that crowned Faisal as king of “a representative monarchy” in March 1920. France and Britain refused to recognize his authority and in July the French defeated Syrian forces at the Battle of Maysalun. Faisal was then sent into exile.
The American historian Elizabeth F. Thompson argues in her meticulously-researched new book, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs*, that in the case of Syria, “the fragile coalition of secular modernizers and Islamic reformers that might have established democracy in the Arab world was destroyed, with profound consequences that reverberate still.
“The defeat of Syria sounded the death knell of post-war justice,” she continues. “The Paris peace conference’s reactionary efforts to restore that pre-1914 world order infamously provoked a second world war and decades of anti-colonial revolt.”
In the wake of Maysalun, Faisal’s departure and the conquest of Damascus, the French general Henri Gouraud, visited the city’s Umayyad Mosque, prompting persistent rumours that he had stood at the tomb of Saladin – who had defeated the Crusaders in the twelfth century – and declared: ”We have returned.”
Other British and American historians have tended to focus on the war years, on individuals like the intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) who supported the Arab revolt against the Turks. Arab scholars have presented the story as “national martyrdom” rather than democracy denied. Modern Syrians refer not to the Mandate period but French “occupation.” Thompson, however, insists bluntly: ”Democracy did not fail at Damascus; it was purposely stolen.”
San Remo serves as a useful starting point for considering a turbulent century across the Arab world. In Israel, by contrast, the anniversary has been celebrated as marking the moment when Britain’s Balfour Declaration in November 1917 – promising to “view with favour” the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine – was anchored in international law.
The significance of San Remo was that it converted the controversial terms of Balfour’s promise into a binding treaty, setting the stage for the League of Nations Mandate, which was finally approved in 1922 and was a landmark achievement for the then fledgling Zionist movement. The legal rights of Jewish people in Palestine were incorporated into the UN charter in 1945.
San Remo is far less well-known than Versailles or the Geneva conferences that followed the second world war. Indeed, many people have never even heard of it. But it – and related Franco-British diplomatic manoeuvring – left legacies that are still relevant to the Arab world today, because the consequences of the Allied betrayal of Wilson’s ideas proved lasting.
A key role, as Thompson shows, was played by the Lebanese-born cleric and Islamic reformer Sheikh Rashid Rida. He oversaw the drafting of a Syrian constitution that disestablished Islam in favour of equal rights for non-Muslims. But after the betrayal by France he then went on to influence the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a few years later.
So it was not just about national sovereignty but about the appeal and credibility of rival political movements. ”Arab liberals who stood up to European imperialists in 1920 were discredited by their defeat, jailed and exiled,” she writes. “The French and British Mandates were colonial in all but name. With no venue for legal opposition, political leadership passed to those who employed violence in their resistance. By the time the British and French evacuated after World War II, power in the post-Ottoman world had passed to anti-liberal army officers, landowners and religious populists.”
Zooming ahead to recent years, Thompson sees significant implications for the failed Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 in both Syria and Egypt: “The very possibility that Liberals and Islamists might unite to build a democracy was beyond their imagination,” she concludes. “The rupture of 1920 continues to divide Syrian and Arab politics today.”
Thompson’s book has won high praise from fellow historians – and accusations of long-standing hypocrisy by western governments: “The perpetual hand-wringing in London, Paris and Washington over the lack of democracy in the Arab World is sort of like Jack the Ripper complaining about the high murder rate,” wrote Juan Cole. “Breath-taking in its moral clarity.”