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The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle EastThe Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria$

Benjamin Thomas White

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780748641871

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748641871.001.0001

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The Franco-Syrian Treaty and the Definition Of ‘Minorities’

The Franco-Syrian Treaty and the Definition Of ‘Minorities’

(p.131) Chapter 5 The Franco-Syrian Treaty and the Definition Of ‘Minorities’
The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East

Benjamin Thomas White

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The question of who was a minority was subject to disputes. However, the more important but lesser obvious question is: why, around the 1930s, did all of the people start calling themselves or others ‘minorities’? At the outset of the mandate, few people thought Syria had ‘minorities’; however, by the 1930s, as French observers entertained the possibility of Syrian independence, they were commonly using the term as well as the Syrians. This chapter places the emergence of the language of minorities in Syria in the context of developments in international law between the wars, as the nation-state became the standard state form. The change was not just terminological: the existence of a body of international law relating to ‘minorities’ meant that the term had a specific legal content and political implications. But as has been noted here, it was not until the treaty negotiations of the 1930s that the term became widely used in Syria. The chapter also elucidates why and how different group individuals and groups within the different communities stood to gain, and lose, by adopting this language.

Keywords:   minority, Syria, international law, treaty negotiations, nation-state


Ignace Nouri thought that the meaning of ‘minority’ was self-evident when he wrote to the High Commissioner in 1936 about treaty guarantees for ‘the minorities, that is to say the Christians and Jews’.1 A few years earlier, the Aleppo deputy Latif Ghanimé – like Nouri, a Syrian-Catholic – took a different view. He told the French intelligence services that the Syrian parliament would be more likely to ratify a treaty containing minority guarantees if they applied to ethnic minorities as well as religious ones: this would make it possible to ‘range among the minoritarians the Kurdish deputies of the North and the Djézireh, the Tcherkess deputy of Kuneitra, even Soubhi Bey Barakat and the deputies of the Sanjak of Alexandretta as representatives of the “Turks”’.2 His own patriarchate apparently disagreed. Ethnolinguistic minorities, meanwhile, were not only defined from the outside: ‘the Tcherkess of Syria’, said a petition signed by Circassians from several parts of the country, ‘have always claimed their national minority rights as a community having its own race, language and traditions different from those of the Syrian majority’.3

So who was a minority? The answer was evidently open to dispute. But there is another question, just as important but perhaps less obvious: why, around 1930, did all of these people start calling themselves – or others –‘minorities’? At the outset of the mandate, few people thought that Syria had ‘minorities’; by the 1930s, as French observers seriously entertained the possibility of Syrian independence (of a sort), they were commonly using the term – and Syrians were too. This chapter explores the reasons why the term came into use in Syria when it did, and what different actors sought to gain by using it. The question of minorities was part of a wider contest over the insti- tutional relationship between the population and the state, which was being (p.132) redefined by Syria's transformation from province of a non-national empire to nation-state.

The Legal Status of Minorities as a Measure of States' Independence in the post-First World War World

After the establishment of the League of Nations, the nation-state became the only internationally legitimate form for independent states. The League itself was the guarantor of this legitimacy: at international level, only the League – as the representative of the international community – could recognise a state as independent. But this recognition was granted in different degrees: the independence of states was measured by their relationship to the League. If this was the gauge of a state's independence, the legal protection accorded to ‘minorities’ might be seen as the needle.

During the inter-war period different states accorded different measures of legal protection to defined minorities, in a system regulated by the newly established League of Nations. The most independent and least independent states, imperial powers and their colonies, had no minorities as such: that is, no legally-recognised minority communities whose rights they were obliged to protect or on whose behalf the League was competent to intervene. The ‘old’ nation-states without imperial possessions also had no minorities in this sense. The independence of countries such as Sweden or Argentina was not dependent on the League for its recognition, and their membershipof the League was not dependent on their offering guaranteed protection to minorities.

This was not the case for the wholly new nation-states of post-First World War Europe, or the nation-states (such as the Balkan states) which had been establishedbefore the war but, during it, had expanded their boundaries and acquired substantial ‘non-national’ populations. Without using the term ‘minority’, since the nineteenth century, and especially since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the international treaties by which the Great Powers recognised new states – notably the Balkan states that seceded from the Ottoman Empire – had includedguaranteesof the rights of subordinate religious groups. The Supreme Allied Council meeting in Paris in 1919 did adopt the term, sought to include in that category not just religious but also ‘racial’ and linguistic groups, and attempted to regularise the protection of minorities in such states. A Minority Committee set up this wider definition of the term and a system of supervision, based on minorities treaties with standard articles, to be overseen by the League of Nations and the International Court of Justice – with a policing role for the victorious Allied powers. The new and newly- expanded nation-states were obliged to sign up to these treaties to obtain the recognition of the League, and therefore of the international community. Since these obligations limited the authority and formal independence of the (p.133) state, the new states (and their new majorities) accepted them grudgingly. They also saw the treaties as an encouragement to separatist or irredentist groups, and as an invitation to other states – either the imperial powers, or neighbouring states with links to one of the minorities so defined – to interfere in their internal affairs.4

Next came the states under mandate, like Syria, whose independence the League had provisionally recognised, but which were obliged to accept mandatory tutelage. Like the ‘ordinary’ protectorates and colonies, they had no minorities treaties and no legally-constituted minorities: the protection of various religious and other groups which enabled France to justify its presence in Syria was not expressed in these terms. The mandate charter obliged the mandatory to favour local autonomies (Article 1); to guarantee the personal status and religious interests of diverse populations (Article 6); to prevent unequal treatment of the inhabitants on the grounds of race, religion or language, and to protect the right of each community to keep its own schools (Article. 8) – though the latter article does not define ‘community’; and mentions only the right to instruction in each community's own language, not religion. These and other articles provided legal justifications for France to impose or encourage divisions within Syrian society; but none of them refer to ‘minorities’.5 This highlights the fact that at the outset of the mandate, French actors did not necessarily think of Syrian society in terms of a majority and minorities. The charter had been composed by a partly French commission, with French interests in mind. Yet this commission saw no minorities in Syria, even as minorities treaties were becoming an established part of League-related international law.

Thus, mandates, like colonies, had no legally-constituted minorities.6 They did, however, have recognition from the League (and therefore its members, mandatory powers included) that they would sooner or later accede to the status of independent nation-states: through a treaty of independence to be signed with the mandatory, in the first instance, then recognised by the League. When negotiations for such a treaty took place, in the 1930s, Syrian nation-alists hoped to raise Syria to the rank of the new states that had avoided the indignity of the mandate. But achieving formal independence and membership of the League of Nations would also place Syria under the developing body of international law that had arisen to regulate the accession to membership of new states – which included the minorities treaties. This opened the possibility to France of granting Syria ‘independence’ while reserving the right to intervene on behalf of the newly specified minorities. For certain political actors belonging to these communities, meanwhile, it offered the possibility of appealing to a higher authority than the Syrian government, be it the League, France, or another power. Both possibilities were unwelcome to nationalists, who opposed any external limit on the authority of the state within its own borders.

(p.134) This was the international context – of minorities treaties and the League of Nations – in which the negotiations for a Franco-Syrian treaty occurred, and a treaty was (eventually) signed then revised, though never fully ratified. I have discussed that context here to avoid an error easily made in studies in imperial history, especially those focusing on a single colony or a single empire: the assumption that the only international relationship that mattered for the colonial state and its inhabitants was that with metropole.

Previous accountsof the Franco-Syriantreatynegotiations, the treaty itself and its gradual failure, have rightly highlighted the controversial role of minorities clauses. But they have tended to consider the treaty largely as a bilateral affair, with France on one side and Syria on the other.7 Taken at face value, the title of the treaty suggests this reading. But the treaty was more than simply bilateral. It was meant to take effect at the end of a transition period marked by Syria's admission to the League,8 and therefore of the international community of nation-states; it built on established precedents for recognising states' independence, including treaties signed directly between the ‘new’ nation-states and the League, as well as between mandate states and mandatory powers.

Existing accounts have noted some of this: they recognise the relevance of the Iraqi precedent, for example, or mention (however passingly) the link between the treaty and Syria's admission to the League.9 But minorities clauses only acquired such importance in the treaty negotiations because of this wider context provided by the League of Nations, the global order it represented, and the international public discourse that developed around them – not because Syrian society was already divided into a majority demanding independence and numerous minorities that needed protecting (or not). It was the debate about the treaty that gave meaning to the terms ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ in Syria, as actors on all sides referred to the wider context and invoked its precedents and principles to argue their case. There was nothing self-evident about the adoption of this language. Through the debate over the terms of Syria's accession to independence, certain groups in Syrian society came to be constituted, by themselves or others, as minorities and a majority – a reconstitution that was of more than merely terminological significance.

From Mandate to Independence: L'Asie française Discovers ‘Minorities’ in Syria

French officials had been aware from the beginning of the mandate that Syrians would judge them partly according to how Britain governed neighbouring countries. In 1921 High Commissioner Gouraud wrote to Aristide Briand that ‘if the countries of the neighbouring English [sic] zones have native governments, subject to a single and relative control by the Mandatory Power, the more evolved Syrian elements will demand an analogous regime at the (p.135) least’.10 As Gouraud predicted, the British mandates became a reference point for Syrians protesting against the divisions France had imposed on the territories under its control. Britain granted a nominal independence to Transjordan in 1928 and terminated its mandate for Iraq in 1930; under the provisions of the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty, Iraq joined the League in 1932, putting pressure on France to follow a similar policy in Syria. Against this pressure for a treaty, minorities became one of the principal means by which the French planned to maintain their influence in the country.

This was not because minorities simply existed in Syria, although the conditions for their emergence were much more developed by the early 1930s then they had been a decade earlier. Rather, it was because the category had become important within the developing body of international public law that informed the debate about a Franco-Syrian treaty, and later the treaty itself. This international legal context influenced French thinking about a treaty, and encouraged French officers and officials to apply the term to certain groups within Syrian society, where previously they would have used other concepts. The shift is visible in the coverage given to Syria by L'Asie française, the bulletin of the Comité de l'Asie française – one of four related committees set up between 1890 and 1910 to lobby for French colonial expansion.11 Closely connected with the most influential figures in the large, cross-party colonial lobby in parliament, these committees were the heart of the parti colonial in France. They drew in diplomats, colonial officials and military officers serving in the colonies, and received support from a much larger interested public in the metropole; but their officers, financing and policies came largely from French business circles with interests in the colonies.

The Comité de l'Asie française had originally been founded to press for French expansion in southeast Asia, but moved towards a preference for establishing French ‘spheres of influence’ and indirect rule in the continent, including the Ottoman Empire and Persia12 – a policy well suited for adaptation to the strictures of the mandatory role. The committee's bulletin was edited until 1919 by Robert de Caix, and thereafter by Henri Froidevaux, a specialist in colonial geography and history and indefatigable publicist for French colonialism.13 It was read, and frequently written, by colonial officials; in addition, it often reported on the activities of colonial officials and concerned politicians in France, sometimes quoting them at length. The bulletin can therefore be taken as broadlyrepresentative of currents of opinion within French colonialist circles more widely; it also offers the historian a continuity of coverage across the whole period that can be hard to assemble from archival data or from one-off publications such as books. Within the limits of the bulletin's editorial policy, it thus gives an insight into the colonial debate as it developed over time. The direct links between the L'Asie française and the French mandate are, in any case, many. Robert de Caix, who in 1919 went from being its editor to being Secretary-General of the High Commission in Beirut, and from (p.136) there became France's (and Syria's) representative to the League's Permanent Mandates Commission, is only the most noteworthy.14

L'Asie française 's interest in the Levant pre-dated the mandate. During the First World War, the bulletin published many articles on the region and France's interests (even ‘rights’) there.15 It paid special attention to the wartime Ottoman government's mistreatment of its own population, particularly Christians. The term ‘minority’ was not appliedto Ottoman Armenians, Greeks and others, however: rather than persecuting ‘minorities’, the Young Turk government was perceived to ‘have decided to settle the questions posed by the existence in the Ottoman Empire of allogenous populations by the suppression, pure and simple, of the latter’;16 or, again, to be planning ‘the destruction of the Christian nationalities which, in the minds of the Young Turks and their German advisers were to be suppressed as posing an obstacle to the turkification of the Ottoman Empire’.17 On the one hand, this makes sense: even at this late stage the empire was not a nation-state and had no ‘majority’ ‘minority’ in the modern meaning was only just coming into use in any context. On the other hand, while we may question whether the Ottoman Christian communities constituted ‘nationalities’, they certainlywere not ‘allogenous’, or non-native, to the empire.18

At the end of the war, the notion of legally protecting (national) minorities in the states created or expanded by the peace settlement, and making international recognition of those states dependent on that protection, became wide-spread. As it appears in L'Asie française, this development is clearly linked to the establishment of the League of Nations – even before the League itself was founded: the Ottoman regime could not be preserved in Anatolia, wrote the bulletin in its first issue after the armistice, because

it has shown itself to be incompatible with the improvement of the lot of the Turkish peasants themselves, and would be even more so with the loyal play [jeu loyal] of the guarantees that the group of Allies, embryo of the future League of Nations, wishes to ensure for the national minorities, Hellenic and others.19

This is the first mention of ‘minorities’ I encountered in my survey of articles about the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Levant in L'Asie française, and it refers not to the former Arab provinces but to the contest of nationalisms in Anatolia. It is worth repeating here that the post-war minorities treaties that created the legal category from which the wider (and more indiscriminate) modern usage of the term derives generally restricted themselves to national minorities, most often understood as groups identified with one nation-state but resident in another. In the Anatolian case this applied to the Greeks, identi- fied as a national minority here, because there was an independent Greek state – which, as it happened, was one of the Allies.20 But Syria was different: ‘There, in the Arabic-speaking countries, it is not nationalities but religious groups (p.137) that a traditional opposition divides in almost as serious a way.’21 More pertinently, there was no internationally-recognised independent Arab nation-state; the point of this article was to press France's claim for ‘our fair share of the mandates that will be conferred on Western tutors’.22 The bulletin did justify the French claim to Syria by reference to the League, but at this point protecting minorities was not presented as part of the task of the mandate in Syria, though it was recognised as an important function of the League elsewhere. There was no nation in Syria, said the bulletin: the country

has neither the civic education nor above all the unity required to constitute, in the aftermath of Turkish oppression, a nationgoverning itself in full independence; there, as elsewhere in the Orient, before calling peoples to exercise the right to self-determination, they must be constituted.23

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there were no national minorities either.

In the early years of the mandate, the bulletin's articles about Syria continued in this vein: the League context was explicitly taken to enframe the French mission in Syria, but without reference to minorities. Since Syria was not yet a ‘nation’, nor independent, the newly-established legal category of minority did not apply there. The keynote was rather the dividedness of Syrian society as a justification for the mandate. The divisions could be religious, ethnic, ‘racial’, regional or any combination of these, but articles usually followed the 1920 assessment of the editor, Henri Froidevaux: while noting ‘the multitude and … the diversity of the races of Syria’, and without forgetting that ‘languages as well as races must be taken into account’, ‘how little importance these factors present next to the religious factor!’24 This was why the ‘heavy task of presiding over the raising-up of Syria’ was a delicate one.

Against this picture of division, the French presence (‘a gentle, benevolent, and educative tutelage … leading the countrygraduallyto prosperity, to liberty while waiting for independence’25) was usually justified by reference to the League and the ‘heavy task’ that France had accepted from it: it added an appealing new dimension to the older notion of an imperial mission civilisatrice. It should be emphasised, though, that invoking the League was not just a rhetorical strategy: the mandate was what made the French occupation of Syria legal under international (and internationally recognised) law. It also provided an external guarantee of Syria's existence as a state. In this context it is significant that these frequent references to the League rarely include mention of minorities, despite the new body of international law that the League was supervising on the protection of minorities in newly-independent states. To labour the point, this was because Syria was not independent. The Minorities Commission was concernedwith overseeing the application of the minorities treaties; Syrian questions at the League were dealt with by the Permanent Mandates Commission.

(p.138) The French depiction of Syrian society as hopelessly divided would remain constant in L'Asie française throughout this period, but it was not until the aftermath of the 1925–7 revolt that the bulletin began more systematically to attach the concept of minority to those perceived divisions. Still tightly bound to the League context, the concept could be used to justify French policies such as the territorial division of Syria:

pretending to impose another method [the creation of a unitary state], wishing to drown the voice of the minorities in an electoral consultation common to the entire territory of the Mandate, is to support a policy that is not in harmony with the obligations that the facts, and the terms of the Mandate, make for the Mandatory Power.26

References to Syrian ‘minorities’ became more frequent in the years after the revolt, usually, though not exclusively, referring to religious communities. But the term by no means displaced other categories (‘religious community’, ‘nationality’, ‘race’). Rather, it slotted into the existing discourse to complement them, as in a long article on ‘Nationalities and Arab nationalism in the Near East’: this recognised ethnolinguistic communities such as Turks or Kurds, but only applied the terms minority and majority to religious groups, whether in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq. For the latter two, it used the term ‘Arab’ more or less explicitly as a synonym for arabophone Sunni Muslim: in Iraq, ‘the majority … is Shiite and there are barely 900,000 Arabs out of a total of over two million arabophones’.27

Moreover, the term's application remained scattershot. It only became systematic – if not overnight, then from one year to the next – in 1933: thereafter, L'Asie française 's interest in the Levant focused on the question of minorities, so defined. To give a rough, but not entirely unscientific, estimate of the scale of the change: I surveyed twenty-five years' worth of the bulletin's articles on the Levant, from 1915 to the end of 1939, looking for material relevant to the question of minorities – that is, any articles about communities that would today be called minorities.28 My notes on the period 1915–32 run to seventy pages, and the term itself appears infrequently. For the years 1933–9 – a period barely more than a third as long – they run to just over seventy pages, and the term is extremely common.29 What had changed?

The difference can be explained quite simply. Once Iraq had been admitted to the League of Nations in autumn 1932, French intentions in Syria came under greater scrutiny in Geneva.30 In Syria, too, Iraq's admission to the League focused attention on France's plans. Before 1933, the French preference was for its mandate over Syria to continue indefinitely. After 1933, this gave way to a grudging acknowledgement that to ensure the continued stability of French control, France would have to follow – or at least, seem willing to follow – Britain's example by putting an end to the mandate, granting independence, (p.139) and backing Syrian membership of the League.31 The text of a treaty had been drafted in Paris in 1931; in early 1933 the High Commissioner Ponsot sought to resurrect it, unsuccessfully, but a little later his successor, Martel, managed to get it signed by the Syrian government – not without heavy pressure, even though that government was a ‘moderate’ one.32 Although the 1933 treaty was blocked by the National Bloc in the Syrian parliament (which Martel duly suspended), for the rest of the 1930s the question regarding a treaty leading to Syrian independence was ‘when?’ rather than ‘if …’.33

This meant that the entire body of League-derived law regarding the independence of new nation-states, including the law on ‘minorities’, did now apply to Syria – or would soon. It would replace the mandate law, under which, as L'Asie française had pointed out,

the rights and duties that result for the Mandatory from the Declaration of the Mandate, instrument of application of article 22 of the Charter, are the common affair of it [that is, the Mandatory] and the League of Nations alone [ne sont affaire qu'entre lui et la Société des Nations] and do not depend on the consent of the countries which are entrusted to the Mandate.34

France's ‘rights’ in Syria would be more limited as a friend and ally than as a mandatory power, but the new body of law provided possibilities for asserting them nonetheless. Particularly as it applied, in theory and in practice, to Iraq, this body of law now formed the framework for the writers of L'Asie française to construct their vision of the future French role in Syria. It is important to understand that this framework was more than a handy rhetorical vehicle for French imperialism (though it was certainly used as one): it also gave juridical form to the new categories of the modern period – among them the nation-state, national independence, and minority.

The implications of this were clear to the writers of L'Asie française, and at least implicit in their treatment of this newly topical question. Over the next years the bulletin sought to keep its readers informed of ‘the precarious situation’ of certain ‘groups in which France had the duty not to lose interest [dont la France a le devoir de ne pas se désintéresser ]’.35 On the grounds that they were ‘minorities’, it lobbied for legal guarantees to be applied to these groups, subject to a higher authority than the Syrian government. This could involve extending the understanding of the term: arguing for communal electoral representation for Circassians, for example, who had not previously been considered a minority: ‘Syrian nationalist circles have not been minded to recognize rights particular to the Tcherkess minority, under the pretext that they are Sunni Muslims like the Muslim majority.’36 The anonymous writer of these lines, described as an ‘eminent personality’, did not mention that a few years earlier the mandatory authorities had used precisely the same ‘pretext’ to avoid granting such recognition.37 At that time the disadvantages of doing (p.140) so evidently outweighed the benefits; but the new context of anticipated Syrian independence made it worthwhile to revisit the issue, at least. Interest in the Circassians soon waned, however: while this article lamented that Syria's 1930 organic statute ‘only recognizes the right of representation of confessional minorities’,38 L'Asie française 's own coverage of minorities remained heavily weighted towards religious groups.

In this question, Iraq during and after the British mandate was important not simply as a point of comparison, but because Iraq's independence set a legal precedent on which the French in Syria were expected to draw. In the mid-1930s L'Asie française returned frequently to the situation in Iraq, particularly the situation of those groups now defined as its minorities. It usually did so to draw unsubtle implications for Syria. Whether discussing Iraq directly or referring to it in articles on Syria, L'Asie française 's assessment of that precedent was that it had been altogether too hasty. Its readers, the bulletin asserted in June 1933, would remember

the fine promises made to the national minorities of Iraq, at the time of that kingdom's admission to the League of Nations, and the haste with which, to give satisfaction to England, the [League] assembly declared that admission, without taking account of the wise recommendations of the Mandates Commission.39

Fine promises notwithstanding, the Iraqi military was currently‘in the process, with the collaboration of the British air force, of exterminating the Kurds subjected to their domination’, because they had asserted ‘the safeguarding of rights and the respect of liberties which have been solemnly guaranteed them by international pacts’.40 The following issue returned to Iraq's national minorities, this time talking about a group who would interest the bulletin more than the Kurds over the coming years because they were Christian: the Assyrians.41 For L'Asie française, their mistreatment by the Baghdad government, enthusiastically applauded by the Muslim population, posed questions: ‘is Iraq truly capable of governing itself, and would it not be more suitable to place it back among the Amandate countries?’42 The point being drawnfor the Syrian treaty was obvious, and explicitly argued:

It is not fitting … at the moment when the well-known events have just taken place in Iraq, to deliver Syria's national minorities to the mercy of the Arab majority; instructed by experience, the League of Nations will surely not permit it, and such an action would be contrary to all of our country's traditions.43

Between the failure of the 1933 treaty and the initially successful signature of a treaty in 1936 – this time negotiated on the Syrian side by a nationalist delegation rather than a ‘moderate’ government – L'Asie française returned (p.141) frequently to the Iraqi case. In December 1933 it described the conflict between the Assyrians and Iraqi government forces, ‘whose origin is difficult to unravel, but which certainly seems, in one region, to have turned into systematic massacre’; it then reproduced the ten-article declaration on the protection of minorities made to the League by Iraq, but with no external guarantor, upon termination of the mandate in 1932.44 More articles on the Assyrians, in both Iraq and in Syria, followed.45 They were joined in November 1935 by the Yazidis:

The conflict with the Assyrians of Iraq [having] hardly eased, another minority of Mesopotamia in its turn becomes the victim of the haste with which the English had the independence of Iraq proclaimed by the L.O.N., without worrying themselves about the fate of the populations living on the ground and practicing another religion than that of Mahomet.46

Conflict had broken out between the Iraqi state and the Yazidis of the Jabal Sinjar region on the Syrian frontier over the latter's refusal ‘to have themselves enrolled on the army register, as the law on military service recently voted by the Baghdad Parliament order[ed]’; martial law had been proclaimed and a punitive column sent to crush resistance. The article's subtext is so clear it is virtually a headline:

One cannot … not notice that under the British mandate the Yazidis lived very peacefully, and have only become agitated under the Iraqi regime. One thus finds oneself led to wonder if they have enjoyed the same religious tolerance under the Arab kings as under the regime of the mandate.

The next month the point was repeated after a number of Yazidis – and two Assyrians – had received harsh sentences from a military court in Mosul, with the bulletin quoting the French-language newspaper La Syrie to ask ‘if minorities are really defended in Iraq and if the guarantees of the League are anything other than scraps of paper’.47

These articles were supporting evidence in L'Asie française 's campaign either to forestall the signing of a Franco-Syrian treaty, or to ensure that such a treaty contained the minorities clauses – permitting continued outside involvement – that the British–Iraqi treaty had lacked. When the decision came, in 1936, to negotiate a treaty with a delegation dominated by the National Bloc, L'Asie française stated its position clearly:

The Iraqi precedent can provide a good basis for examination and we accept it as such; but it must not be forgotten that it consists not only in a text but also in its application, which has rendered certain precautions necessary and legitimate, as much in the eyes of the League of Nations as of France.48

(p.142) This quote comes from an article published in March 1936; its coverage of the French decision to negotiate is a hastily-added afterword to an article about the widespread unrest in Syria – the ‘nouvelle crise’ of the title – that led to that decision. Two more articles on Syria reinforced the point the following month. If the negotiations had now begun, both sides had already recognised ‘the necessity of a comprehensive treaty between France and Syria, [and] also how the principles set out by the L.O.N. must be applied to the minorities of the country’.49 The bulletin also observed that ‘as of now, certain apprehensions are manifesting themselves among the minority groups’.50

Despite this seeming clarity, many aspects of the ‘minorities question’ remained confused in the bulletin's coverage of the negotiations, the treaty's signature and its slow demise over the three years to 1939.51 These points of confusion are echoed in other primary sources for the period, on both the French and Syrian sides, and in some cases in the historiography of the mandate as well. Earlier, L'Asie française had at least sometimes referred to Syrian ethnolinguistic communities as minorities; but by the later 1930s, in its discussions of the actual Franco-Syrian treaty, it only mentioned religious minorities. When the issue of modifying the 1936 treaty came up, as it frequently did, the question of minorities was always cited as the major sticking point, but the groups concerned were always religious groups.52 (The bulletin's authoritative diagnosis of Syria's needs was slightly undermined by the fact that it consistently misspelt the name of Syria's prime minister, Jamil Mardam, as ‘Mardan’ throughout this period – and up until January 1939, shortly before his resignation.) When the bulletin explained the need for added guarantees for minorities it always did so with reference to Christians first.53 More, the frequent references to Christians in its coverage of the situation in Syria in 1936–9 are to the Christians of the Jazira – mostly recent immigrants or refugees from Turkey and Iraq – rather than the various arabophone Christian communities dispersed through the ‘Arab’ cities and agricultural areas of western Syria, or the Armenians who were mostly settled in the cities (principally Aleppo).54 The precise place of the Alawis and the Druzes in the minorities question, meanwhile, was never quite clear.

Nevertheless, the example of L'Asie française demonstrates the development of the language of minorities in French discourse about Syria, showing the links between its development and Syria's status in international law. This language was well established by the time of the 1936 treaty. It was not without its inconsistencies and blind spots, but there is nothing troubling to the historian in these: they are inherent to the category of minority itself, as a subjective rather than an objective category. It would be a great deal more surprising to encounter consistency.

The process outlined above explains why the term was adopted in Syria, as elsewhere. As a body of international public law relating to the independence of new nation-states emerged, a subset of it – the minorities treaties – emerged (p.143) to address one of the problems posed by the establishment of such states. Since nation-states were developing in other parts of the world too, and posing the same problems, groups not touched by the central and eastern European minorities treaties began to demand similar protections. Syria was one such place, especially once the question of its ‘independence’ arose. This explains how Syrians, too, came to use the term, but not the specific reasons why they used it. In the next part of the chapter I outline some of the ways in which members of such groups, both ‘minoritarianist’55 and nationalist, chose to use the term – among others – in the debate about a Franco-Syrian treaty, and what motivated them to do so.

Syrian Uses of the Language of Minorities

When Syrians contributed to the debate about minorities clauses – in newspaper articles, petitions to the League of Nations or correspondence with the High Commission – they were doing several different things. First, implicitly or explicitly, they sought to define who was a minority, either saying ‘community X is a minority’ or ‘a minority is community X’. Second, and more interestingly, they argued for communities defined as minorities to be treated in a certain way – defining what the category of minority should mean. By applying that category to the communities they claimed to speak for, they sought to redefine those communities, notably in relation to the state: this was part of a wider debate in Syria over the institutional form that should be given to the relationship between state and population. Third, they put forward a vision of legitimate authority within their own communities. With a little digging, this rich content can be excavated quite easily – provided that we understand that the category of minority was not a neutral, descriptive label.

This section considers several examples in detail to show how they work on these different levels. Illustrating each analytical point with a different example would have been quite possible, but returning to the same examples allows us to understand the ‘thickness’ of the debate, the many meanings contained in any given mobilisation on the part of one particular group or individual. Most of these examples come from members of communities that were being redefined as minorities, crossing a number of minoritarianist viewpoints with the nationalist counter-arguments made by Edmond Rabbath, a prominent nationalist Christian.

We have already met Ignace Nouri, who wrote to High Commissioner Damien de Martel during the 1936 negotiations expressing his confidence that they would result in a treaty containing ‘certain clauses and bonds for the protection of the minorities, that is to say the Christians and Jews’.56 A group of Catholic bishops, writing to Martel just before the negotiations began, approached the issue from the other direction: whereas Nouri started with the concept of (p.144) minority and then explicitly took it to mean non-Muslim religious communi- ties, these clerics introduced themselves as ‘leaders and representatives of the Christian communities’57 and then used ‘minorities’ as an implicit synonym for ‘Christian communities’. While they expressed the desire ‘of each of us to see his country evolve towards independence and acquire a place in the concert of nations equal to that of other countries’, and stated that ‘the patriotism of the minorities cannot be doubted’, they also asserted that that patriotism must ‘square with the measures of protection indispensable so that harmony may always exist between all nationals without distinction of religion’. The purely religious understanding of the term is evident.58 The nationalist delegation in Paris, they said, could not claim to represent minorities.

Other Christian figures had already pushed the definition of the term beyond the circle of Christian communities. In late 1932, receiving a courtesy visit from a French official, the papal delegate to Syria and Lebanon, Monsignor Giannini, ‘addressed spontaneously and in the most precise terms the question of the Christian minorities in Syria’.59 At issue was the place of minorities in the treaty that was then thought to be forthcoming: Giannini insisted that the Christians should be protected by (French) external guarantee. But ‘Lastly, this time in terms lacking in precision, Mgr Giannini indicated that he would wish this guarantee to be extended also to the “other minorities”.’ Whether he meant non-Christian religious minorities, ethnolinguistic minorities, or both, is unclear.

Two months earlier, in conversation with the French intelligence services, a secular Christian figure had been more specific as he sought to widen the application of the term: ‘Latif Ghanimé, Syrian-Catholic deputy for Aleppo, deeming that the principal task of the next government – of which he expects to be a part – will be the conclusion of a treaty, emphasises the importance of the question of minorities.’60 For Ghanimé as for Giannini, what had given the question of minorities its importance was the prospect of a Franco-Syrian treaty and Syrian independence. As we saw at the start of the chapter, it was with an eye on the future discussion of minorities clauses in the Syrian parliament that he proposed a broader legal application of the term:

Latif Ghanimé also fears that the numerical weakness of Christian representation in the Syrian Chamber – aggravated by the fact that the Orthodox deputies for Damascus and Hama cannot be counted on in practice – may render very precarious the parliamentary base necessary for the discussion of the problem. He is therefore disposed to understand ‘minorities’ in the broad sense, ethic [sic – éthique] rather than religious, and range among the minoritarians the Kurdish deputies of the North and the Djézireh, the Tcherkess deputy of Kuneitra, even Soubhi bey Barakat and the deputies of the Sanjak of Alexandretta as representatives of the ‘Turks’. Here again, he does not seem to be quite in line with [il ne semble pas rejoindre entièrement] the views of his Patriarchate.

(p.145) Unlike the Christian clergymen mentioned above, then, Ghanimé stretched the term to cover ethnolinguistic as well as religious minorities.61

Ethnolinguistic communities were in fact quite capable of seeing for themselves the advantages that a treaty might bring them if they had official minority status. A few months after Ghanimé made his suggestions, with French policy still focused – unsuccessfully, at this point – on getting a treaty signed, Circassian notables in the predominantly Circassian muhafaza of Qunaytra forwarded a petition to their fellows in Homs. It was addressed to the High Commissioner; the French Sûreté générale reported that it ‘demands that the future Treaty guarantee the rights of minorities’ and listed what the Circassians considered those rights to be.62 Although the Sûreté claimed that Circassian notables in Homs ‘hesitate to sign this mazbata which they find useless and untimely’, it was almost certainly the same petition that was sent to the High Commissioner less than two weeks later signed by prominent Circassians from Qunaytra and the region of Hama as well as Homs.63 I cited this in Chapter 3, and mentioned in passing that it came in the context of a treaty. In fact, the petition's wording is very clear: ‘on the occasion of the forthcoming end of the Syrian mandate, and its replacement by the treaty between the French and Syrian Republics’, the signatories wrote that ‘the Circassians resident in Syria’ had claimed and would continue to claim ‘recognition of their national minority rights [huqūqihim al-aqalliyya al-jinsiyya] as a community having its own race, language and traditions different from those of the Syrian majority’.64

These examples offer a range of definitions of the term ‘minority’: a purely religious meaning attached to Christians and Jews; an emphasis on Christian communities, but a willingness to apply it to unspecified other minorities; a definition that starts with religious communities, but specifically stretches to include ethnic minorities; and a definition that comes from (and only covers) an ethnolinguistic minority. These different uses hint at the range of groups to which it could be applied. Some other religiously and linguistically-defined groups, such as Isma ilis or Kurds, made similar claims.65 Yet others to which the term could have applied seem not to have used it much. The stream of petitions from Alawis and Druzes to the League reached its peak flow during the treaty negotiations of 1933 and 1936, motivated by a desire to fix the status of these communities and their regions relative to an independent Syria. But it focused on whether the statelets attributed to each community should be part of a unitary Syria or not, and neither pronor anti-unitarians seem to have used the term ‘minority’ to describe themselves, for reasons discussed in Chapter 2.

It is unsurprising that there were different and inconsistent applications of the term: in fact, consistency would be more surprising. As I observed in Chapter 1, my concern in this book is not with whether ‘minority’ is an objectively valid category of analysis nor with defining particular Syrian groups as minorities myself. Rather, I am interested in how and why particular actors (p.146) used it at the time – as they would not have done only a few years earlier – and what specific historical conditions made the term meaningful for them. Syria's legal redefinition as a nation-state, first under mandate and then (putatively) independent, was partly responsible for creating those conditions, as the term's sudden importance in the debate about the treaty shows.

But for what reasons did Syrians choose to use it? Having stated that such-and-such a community was a minority, what meaning did they seek to give to the term? We have already seen that they thought it should imply a community having certain externally-guaranteed rights, and at need, protection. The rights different groups sought to guarantee for their communities, as minorities, involved a redefinition of those communities' relationship to the state.

Latif Ghanimé, for example, wanted the minorities to have ‘not only a [defined legal] status, but guarantees coming from the exterior, and in their absence would prefer an indefinite continuation of the mandate’.66 He therefore requested that the text of any treaty drawn up by France be passed unofficially to the Christian deputies in the Syrian parliament before reaching the parliament as a whole, so that they could ‘make their observations heard, and refine [perfectionner] the guarantees offered’. If the text were discussed from the outset by the parliament in plenary session, Ghanimé feared that any minority clauses would be ‘taken … by the extremists as a maximum to be beaten down’,67 making it difficult for him and his Christian colleagues to request stronger protection. If passing the text directly to the Christian deputies were impossible, Ghanimé suggested that it could be communicated to them via the Patriarchs – though his own, Monsignor Tappouni, was apparently unenthusiastic.

As should be clear from the earlier quote about minorities in parliament, meanwhile, Ghanimé was afraid that if only Christians were covered by the proposed clauses, the ‘minorities’ might be in too much of a minority to make their voices heard. Better, therefore, to widen the definition of the term to ensure that a sufficient number of deputies would feel that they had an interest in defending minority clauses.68 But this implied redefining a number of communities – Kurds, Circassians, even Turks – as minorities: a redefinition that would change their formal relationship to the state, and by extension to the ‘majority’.

The example of the Circassian notables shows that some members of such communities were making similar claims for themselves. The purpose of their petition was ‘to demand the following articles in the forthcoming Treaty’: a list of ten, which I outlined in the earlier chapter, covering issues like guaranteed representation ‘for the Circassian minority’ in parliament and in state jobs, access to and control over (Circassian-medium) education, participation in the state Waqf administration, and various other cultural freedoms.69 More Circassian mobilisations as a minority occurred in the period 1936–9. A petition from March 1936, just after the French had put an end to serious unrest (p.147) in Syria by agreeing to negotiate a treaty with a nationalist delegation, asserts the Circassians' loyalty to France and alludes to the risks that this has entailed. It does not list specific rights they should be guaranteed in the treaty, but it is specific about both the diplomatic context and its desire for explicit French protection:

We know very well, Your Excellence, that noble France will never abandon us; but we come, by this request [bi- arīdatinā hādhihi ], following recent events and the likelihood of the signing of a treaty between your state and Syria, to ask that Your Excellence work effectively to protect the rights of minorities including our Circassian race [wa minhā unsurunā alsharkasī] in the treaty … and to take them under French protection.70

Another petition comes from 1938, by which time the National Bloc government elected under the treaty regime was floundering – in large part because of French obstructiveness. The Bloc was under constant French pressure to revise the 1936 treaty by, among other things, adding greater minority protection. In this context, a group of Circassian notables from Homs71 sent a long statement to the High Commission, to be communicated to the Quai d'Orsay and to the League of Nations. It started, as such statements commonly did, with a history lesson, stating that ‘despite [their] forced exodus, and after long years’, the Circassians had maintained their sense of communal cohesion in exile.72 ‘The Tcherkesses still conserve their national customs, their language, their habits, their civilisation; and this thanks to their own schools, their writings, their associations, which prove their attachment to their social existence.’ The statement explainedthe community'sprevious attempts to have its communal existence formally recognised under the mandate, notably in 1925, 1934 and prior to the signature of the 1936 treaty. ‘Despite all these petitions, the Tcherkesses have noted with regret and emotion that the Treaty included no articles safeguarding their rights and recognizing them as those of a national minority in Syria.’

As Syria was supposedly in a transitional period to full independence under the terms of the treaty, they were now lobbying for it to be revised in their favour: the Circassians

do not want to run the risk of being aggressed by the ‘Majority’ of their compatriots, which will surely happen since Tcherkess youth has spilled its blood to show its attachment to its national principles and its sympathies towards the mandatory power.

They adduced a number of incidents of tension between ‘the Tcherkess minority and the “Majority”’ in the Faysali and mandate periods, as well as citing the case of the Assyrians in Iraq, to support their claim for the Circassians to (p.148) be recognised as an ‘ethnic minority’ by the treaty and afforded protection accordingly. That protection should take the form of eleven explicitly-stated rights: the first ten were more or less the same as those outlined five years earlier; the eleventh was French oversight ensuring that the others were acted upon.

Whetherthey were arguing for or against them, when political actors debated the granting of defined minority rights of this kind they were taking part in a wider debate about the relationship of state and population. The discussion over the distribution of seats on representative bodies is only the most obvious example: Circassians requesting a particular kind of relationship between state authority and their community, in which Circassians were represented in the Syrian parliament as members of a Circassian minority rather than Syrian Muslims, or even simply Syrians; Latif Ghanimé seeking to define and represent any number of religious and ethnic minorities in the same way. Such a measure would fix the boundaries of these communities: anyone allotted to the Circassian electoral college would ‘be’ a Circassian in the state's eyes, regardless of, for example, his or her language of ordinary use, habitual manner of dressing, or place of residence. Likewise, a member of the Syrian-Catholic college would ‘be’ a Syrian-Catholic regardless of whether or not he or she was religiously observant or even a believer. Without this state ‘fixing’, the boundaries between communities would be rather more fluid; communities themselves would not have external coherence.

These communal identities would be non-territorial: a Circassian would be a Circassian wherever he or she voted. Other suggestions for parliamentary representation were territorial, but likewise concerned themselves with defining the relationship between population and state. At least in the case of the Jabal Druze and the Alaouites, for example, L'Asie française argued for allocating seats to distinct territories (that is, gerrymandering). The aim of guaranteeing representation to particular communities was the same – the justification was that any ‘electoral consultation common to the entire territory’ would be a deliberate attempt to ‘drown the voice of the minorities’ – but the effect on the institutional relationship of population and state would be different.73 Provided they wanted to vote along communal lines, for example, this arrangement might benefit Alawi voters within the circumscription of the Alaouites. But that advantage would not stretch to anAlawi peasant living just beyond the internal frontier in the muhafaza of Homs. Nationalists, mean-while, thought that any of these positions meant allowing the amplified voice of the minorities to drown out the majority.

Edmond Rabbath did not discuss the subject of parliamentary representation when, at the end of 1932, he drew up a policy on minorities clauses to guide the National Bloc leadership in treaty negotiations.74 But in his study of the question, the Christian nationalist intellectual from Aleppo touched on many othercontroversial topics in the debate about the institutional (p.149) relationship between population and state. Among them was whether the presidency of the Syrian republic would be open to any citizen or restricted to members of one community: his answer, no doubt controversial, was that as part of the process of guaranteeing the rights of minorities in the treaty of Syrian independence, the article of the constitution stipulatingthat the president be a Muslim should be abrogated.

Rabbath addressed another question which we have already encountered, and frequently: access to state jobs. The minoritarianist Circassians mentioned above, like other groups discussed in this and earlier chapters, wanted pro-portionate access to state jobs for their community – especially where those jobs concerned the community's own administration, education or policing. Rabbath, by contrast, argued that recruitment should be ‘carried out by means of competitive examination [par voie de concours] and with no confessional distinction[s]’.75 If such French-style exams were marked anonymously one might consider this a laudable aim; but a non-nationalist might point out that Rabbath does not specify what language the exams would be written in, perhaps taking for granted that it would be Arabic. Muslims, meanwhile, might observe that such a ‘blind’ competition would tend to benefit Christians, who were more likely to be educated and particularly to have received – like the Paris-educated lawyer Rabbath himself – a ‘modern’ education of the sort that such exams would favour. This is not to accuse Rabbath of acting in bad faith, or slyly seeking advantages for Christians under the cover of nationalism; it is simply to point out that a nationalist position on these issues, too, is an attempt to define the relationship between people and state, and one which would offer advantages and disadvantages to individual citizens.

These are not the artificial quibbles of a picky historian. It was because the debate over access to state jobs was so hot, at a time when the state apparatus was expanding, that Rabbath addressed it.76 Different ways of defining communities had different implications. As we have seen, some Circassians wanted the right to Circassian-medium education, which wouldrequirequalified teachers literate in Circassian rather than Arabic. This would imply official status for the language; and a multilingual state, in turn, would by implication be a different animal than the ‘Arab’ nation-state proposed by the Syrian nationalists. From the latter's point of view, the dangers of a liberal language policy were pressingly illustrated by Alexandretta, where Turkish had official status. This had contributed to a steady strengthening of ‘Turkish’ identity; a growing identification, among Turkish speakers, with the Turkish nation-state over the border; and, in the period under discussion, the sanjak's gradual removal from Syria.77

Another aspect of this question, which the debate over minorities clauses raised, was the competence of state courts over the entire population. It might seem obvious to us today that states should have exclusive jurisdiction over their territory and any person upon it, but this is a view conditioned by the (p.150) age of the nation-state. In Syria's recent Ottoman past many local inhabitants had been able to abstract themselves from the Ottoman judicial system by becoming the protégés of foreign consuls and placing themselves under the jurisdiction of the mixed courts set up to try cases involving foreign subjects. A version of these still existed in the mandate period. Rabbath noted that ‘certain bishops in Aleppo [had] expressed the desire to see the minorities accorded the right to request to be subject to the tribunals competent in foreign law [la faculté de demander à être justiciables des tribunaux statuant en matière étrangère ]’. Rabbath believed that ‘this demand [was] incompatible with the quality of Syrian citizens and that it would not be in the interest of the minori- ties [minoritaires] themselves to raise it’.78 The first part of this opinion shows that for Rabbath full citizenship meant full participation in uniform state institutions: a modern understanding of what it means to belong to a state. The mixed courts had been a serious obstacle to Ottoman attempts to establish a common Ottoman citizenship. The second part, meanwhile, suggests that he understood how unpopular Syrian Christians would make themselves if they sought to place themselves under extraterritorial jurisdiction – a major source of tension in the Ottoman period.

This question leads to another: what external authorities had a right of intervention in the relationship between population and state, and which parts of the population could invoke it? For the Catholic bishops of Damascus cited above, ‘The question of minorities goes beyond the framework of an internal settlement [règlement interne] and appertains to international law’.79 But the notion that certain citizens of a state could, under international law, be guaranteed access to an external power has profound implications for the authority of the state. For nationalists everywhere in this period, limiting the state's authority in this way was deplorable – not a rare opinion today. When the question is phrased in this way – limiting the authority of the state – it might sound like a good thing, given what states are capable of inflicting on their populations. But as Edmond Rabbath pointed out, the legal protection of minorities would tend to disadvantage the establishment of legal equality for individual citizens.80

Thus, the debate over minorities clauses was also a debate about the limits of the authority of the state. In different forms the same debate is a constant of state politics. That it was particularly intense in this period, when state authority was expanding and intensifying rapidly in Syria, is unsurprising. In these circumstances, it is understandable that some Syrians looked beyond the country's borders for guarantees of their status, both to international law and to particular powers. But in doing so they ran a risk, emphasised by Rabbath when he wrote in a Beirut newspaper that such guarantees ‘will be more useful to the Powers than to the minorities. The latter will find their real guarantee not on paper but in the creation of an atmosphere of reciprocal comprehension and sympathy.’81 Rabbath's vision of the citizen's full participation in (p.151) state institutions, as we have seen, included the constitutional guarantee that a Christian could become president of the republic like any other Syrian. The structured and permanent political separation of Christians from other Syrians sought by minoritarianist Christian clergymen would hardly have permitted such a thing.

It is important to understand that this debate was not mere sectarian or ethnic bickering. Modern states, which claim to represent their populations, must somehow decide how the population is to be represented; likewise they must decide on what grounds the population is to be incorporated into the much expanded structures of the nation-state. These questions give rise to permanent contestation – which is not the same as saying that they make conflict inevitable. What we see in the debate over minorities clauses in the Franco-Syrian treaty is political figures who identified themselves with various groups advancing answers to that question in line with their own political interests and the interests of those groups as they defined them. (The ‘majority’ was one of those groups.) The questions are so contested because Syrian independ- ence was only a prospect, raised by the treaty negotiations but not yet fully achieved, nor fully defined. The institutional relationship of population and state in post-mandate Syria therefore also remained to be defined.

Finally, the debate over minority guarantees also reveals struggles over leadership, legitimate authority, and representation within the communities being (re)defined as ‘minorities’. When certain Circassian notables demanded guaranteed seats in the Syrian parliament for ‘two Tcherkess members pro- posed by the Tcherkesses’,82 for example, what did they mean by ‘proposed by the Tcherkesses’? Or rather, who did they mean? One can assume that pro-nationalist Circassians put forward in elections by the National Bloc would not count – that if the community were redefined in this way only minoritarianist Circassians like these notables would be electable to the ‘Circassian’ seats. But these notables did not represent the only current of opinion among Syria's Circassians: during the 1936 treaty negotiations, for example, 150 Circassians from Manbij – one of the largest Circassian settlements in northern Syria, about fifty miles east of Aleppo – drove to the city to display their adhesion to the nationalist cause. One of their vehicles carried a banner with the slogan ‘The struggle for the Fatherland, and obedience to the Bloc’.83

This issue is explicitly present in the letter that the six Catholic bishops wrote to Martel. When they stated that ‘minorities are not represented’ in the nationalist delegation in Paris, this was not on the grounds that nationalists were Muslims and minorities were Christians, but because ‘the members composingit, Christians included, [were] linked by engagements, the first towards the Nationalist Bloc to which he belongs, and the second towards the government of which he is a part’.84 The two Christians mentioned are Faris al-Khoury and Edmond Homsi, respectively. The implication is that a nationalist Christian like al-Khoury could represent nationalists but not Christians. (p.152) Homsi, meanwhile, was not even a member of the Bloc: they disqualify him simply because he was a minister in the existing caretaker government. So who could legitimately represent Christians? The answer is categorical: ‘It is only fair [de toute justice] that these minorities should be represented within the delegation by independent persons duly authorized by the supreme heads of the communities …’

At issue, then, is not only the place of ‘minorities’ in an independent Syria, but also the source of legitimate authority within the Christian communities of Syria. These Catholic archbishops saw themselves as the source of that authority: no-one might represent their communities without their blessing. (We have already seen that they started their letter by calling themselves the ‘representatives’ of Christian communities.) They were seeking to constitute Syria's Christians as legally-defined ‘minorities’, within which authority would reside with the church leaders. As I noted in Chapter 2, this was a vision – rooted in the Ottoman millet past – that the French were generally keen to accommodate, but it posed greater problems in the context of a (secular) nation-state form than in a religiously-legitimated empire. Many Christians, particularly younger ones, were comfortable with and supportive of Syrian nationalism. But even a nationalist might envisage a political role for the patriarchs. Edmond Rabbath, outlining the guarantees that a treaty might propose for minorities, suggested that these guarantees be placed under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations and the International Court in the Hague. ‘The right to petition these bodies would be recognized to the Patriarchs – and to them alone – each for his own community.’85


In the inter-war years, as Syria went from being part of the Ottoman Empire to being a separate nation-state, the institutional relationship between population and state was substantially re-formed. ‘Nationalising’ reforms in the late Ottoman period had begun this process, but the elaboration of nation-state institutions – and the scale and intensity of their impact on population and territory – now changed up a gear. The institutional form and legitimacy of the state were put on quite new bases, not only internally but also externally. The Ottoman Empire was a dynastic empire whose existence required no external institutional sanction other than God's. Syria under the mandate was a nation-state-in-waiting, provisionally recognised as such by the League of Nations; to become a fully independent state it would also require the external sanction of international law.

For newly independent states that sanction depended partly on the legal protection they gave to ‘minorities’ within their populations. The question of minorities was a point of articulation between the external institutional form of the state (a nation-state recognised by other nation-states) and its internal (p.153) structure (how the state related to its population). The importance of this question was only heightened by the fact that Syria was passing to independence from the position of being a mandate under French imperial control: an external power was present on the ground, and already had well-established links with groups within the population – and reasons to support their claims to minority status. Within the debate about a Franco-Syrian treaty, the legally-defined category of minority became a vehicle for the political claims of competing groups and individuals within Syrian society. Different political actors could advance their particular claims by harnessing them to the concept. Syrians could use it, for example, to demand special support from the imperial power (because France, faced with the necessity of a treaty, had adopted the language of minorities to justify its own political claims in Syria), and to attract attention and perhaps political support from other international actors (since the international community and notably the League now expressly concerned themselves with protecting minorities, as defined in international law).

At the same time, the concept also became the terrain on which their competition played out. The debate over how minorities were to be defined and what distinct legal status was to be granted to them, if any – in other words, the debate about what the term meant – was itself an arena in which different groups and individuals could advance their political claims. This was part of the contest over the institutional form of the population's relationship to the state, including the degree of control over it exerted by groups within the population: a contest which naturally involved the majority just as deeply as it did minorities. Within that wider contest, the debate over minority guarantees also reveals struggles over leadership, legitimate authority and representation in the communities being (re)defined as minorities. It would be a serious over-simplification to assume that the debate over minorities was about no more than how to balance correctly the interests of discrete groups – a majority and some minorities – whose own internal coherence and structure was already defined. The suggestions made by participants in the debate as to how minorities should be defined and protected were intended to shape the groups they claimed to represent. The debate itself was one means by which the work of redefinition was carried out.

Writers claiming to speak for particular communities rarely raised the question of how their communities were to be defined: instead, rather like nationalists, they took it for granted that these groups existed and that their members both know who they were and accepted the speaker's right to speak for them. But, just as nationalist claims about a ‘nation’ should be understood less as evidence for the existence of that nation than as an attempt to persuade such an entity into being, so the claims of a minoritarianist should not be taken as simply reflecting the existence of a coherent and self-conscious ‘minority’ – still less as reflecting the uniform political opinion of such a group. If successful, though, those claims would enshrine the existence of the minority in state (p.154) structures, just as nationalist claims would enshrine the existence of the nation. This is what the minoritarianists discussed here hoped to achieve, as should be clear. Granting a distinct legal status to minorities would not just attach neutrallegal categories to existing defined communities; it would in itself redefine those communities as political and social entities, both in relation to the state and internally (by fixing structures of political and judicial authority within each of them).

It is easy to see how the treaty diplomacy of the 1930s – itself influenced by a constellation of other factors – defined the territory of the Syrian state: the Alaouites, the Jabal Druze and the Jazira were included; most of the Sanjak of Alexandretta was in the end excluded. Along with the internal development of the state apparatus, treaty diplomacy was part of the process that defined this territory as Syria (or not). It would take an anachronistic, nationalist view of the state to argue that the Jazira simply was a part of ‘Syria’, or Alexandretta a part of ‘Turkey’, prior to this period. Because the results cannot be traced on a map, though, it is a little harder to see the ways in which treaty diplomacy and the debate about it also shaped both the Syrian ‘nation’ and the commu- nities redefined as ‘minorities’ within the Syrian nation-state. But shape them it surely did. And just as the effect of the treaty diplomacy on territory went beyond mere geographical definition, diffusing a notion of the national territory in the minds of Syrians, so the debate about minorities clauses shaped ‘minorities’ – and the ‘majority’ – in ways that went beyond the mere definition of legal status.


(1.) D-SL Box 493, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien. Minorités. Sous-dossiers. Nouri to HC (7/8/1936).

(2.) AD-SL Box 572, untitled dossier (material released under sixty-year rule), sub- dossier Les Kurdes en Syrie – Informations. Unnumbered Information ‘a/s Latif Ghanimé et la question des minorités’ (17/10/1932).

(3.) AD-SL Box 568, dossier Tcherkess, petition from Circassians in Qunaytra, Homs, Hama, and Marj Sultan to High Commission for forwarding to League of Nations (1/4/1933).

(4.) Roger Owen kindly provided this information in an unpublished paper (see Bibliography). See also Mark Mazower, ‘Minorities and the League of Nations in Interwar Europe’, Daedalus (1997), 126(2): 47–63, and No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 108; and Susan Pedersen, ‘Back to the League of Nations’, review essay, The American Historical Review (2007), 112(4) online, paras 16–21.

(5.) References to the Charter come from Nadine Méouchy (ed.), France, Syrie et Liban 1918–1946. Les ambiguïtés et les dynamiques de la relation mandataire (p.155) (Damascus: Institut français d'études arabes de Damas, 2002), Annexe. The English text is available in Hourani, Syria and Lebanon, Appendix A, No. 1.

(6.) The closest to such a thing in Syria was the Turcophone community in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which after the 1921 Ankara agreement had specific guaranteed rights. These included official language status within the sanjak for Turkish, which – Article 8 notwithstanding – no other ‘minority’ language in Syria had. Unlike the rights assigned to unspecified ‘communities’ in the mandate charter, Alexandretta Turks' rights were not guaranteed by the mandatory's obligation to the League – which had no real autonomous power of its own – but by a bilateral treaty with a neighbouring state, which did have autonomous power that could be brought to bear to ensure those rights were respected. It is no coincidence that the Alexandretta Turks were the only ‘minority’ community whose existence led to a major alteration in the shape of the Syrian nation-state constituted by the mandate.

(7.) See, e.g., David Commins, Historical Dictionary of Syria (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996): ‘Franco-Syrian Treaty of 1936’; Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, pp. 464–8, 479, and chs 18 and 20; Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon, ch. 6 s. 2, ch. 7; Peter Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria, 1927–1936 (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1998), pp. 205–28.

(8.) Hourani, Syria and Lebanon, p. 203.

(9.) Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria, pp. 247–8; Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, p. 467.

(10.) Briand was both foreign minister and président du conseil (prime minister) at the time. AD-SL Box 412, dossier containing material on the question of Syrian unity/the Syrian federation. Extract from Note Nº 138, HC to Briand (27/3/1921) included in document (dated only 1924) from the Service des Renseignements, service central, section d'études.

(11.) The Comité de l'Afrique française was founded in 1890, the Comité de l'Asie française in 1901. The Comité du Maroc followed in 1904, and the Comité France- Amérique in 1910. They shared one address and formed ‘a single colonial–imperial pressure group’ (L. Abrams and D. J. Miller, ‘Who were the French colonialists? A reassessment of the parti colonial, 1890–1914’, The Historical Journal (1976), 19(3): 685–725, quote at 687).

(12.) Abrams and Miller, ‘Who were the French colonialists?’, p. 687. This article con- tains much useful background information on the colonialist committees and their place in the wider milieu of French politics.

(13.) An idea of his activities can be gained from his author details in the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationalé de France, and the ninety-nine items listed (albeit with much repetition) under his name there.

(14.) For more on de Caix see Gérard Khoury, Une tutelle coloniale.

(15.) Such as ‘L'Opinion française et les intérêts nationaux dans le Levant’, L'Asie française (henceforward AF) 162 (Apr.–Jul. 1915), pp. 42–5. NB: please see note in Bibliography on authorship of articles in the bulletin.

(p.156) (16.) ‘La politique turque de suppression des allogènes’, AF 162 (Apr.–Jul. 1915), pp. 57–60.

(17.) ‘L'extermination des Nestoriens’, AF 167 (Oct.–Dec. 1916), p. 174.

(18.) The word is slightly less obscure in French than in English, and has a slightly differ- ent meaning. The OED, under the variant spelling allogeneous, gives ‘Of different nature, diverse in kind’; for allogène, the Trésor de la langue française first gives it as an anthropological term (‘Said of an ethnic group installed since a relatively short time ago on a territory’ – hardly the case here – ‘and still presenting racial or ethnic characteristics distinguishing it from the autochthonous population’) then in other senses as non-native.

(19.) ‘La question de Syrie et la paix’, AF 174 (Oct. 1918–Jan. 1919), pp. 121–9, quote at 121. The phrase jeu loyal implies ‘playing-out according to the set rules’.

(20.) Once again I am glossing over the complexities of Greek identity as ‘national’ iden- tity, such as the fact that many Anatolian ‘Greeks’ spoke Turkish as their language of ordinary use. Needless to say, similar complexities apply to other ‘national’ identities also.

(21.) ‘La question de Syrie et la paix’, AF 174 (Oct. 1918–Jan. 1919), pp. 121–9, quote at 121.

(22.) As above, quote at 122.

(23.) As above, quote at 129. Emphasis added, to render an emphatic tone in the original.

(24.) This and following quotes from Henri Froidevaux, ‘Les difficultés de la France en Syrie – leurs causes’, AF 179 (Feb. 1920), pp. 43–7; quotes at 43. For the bulletin, if not in reality, the ‘religious factor’ if anything gained in importance at the end of 1924, when Aleppo and Damascus were reunited in one state of Syria: from then on, only religious divisions affected the territorial division of the mandate territories, so highlighting the regional rivalry between the two main cities became redundant.

(25.) ‘Ce que les Syriens attendent de la France’, AF 178 (Jan. 1920), pp. 13–16, quote at 16.

(26.) ‘Le programme politique déclaré par le Haut Commissaire en Syrie et au Liban’, AF 253 (Sep.–Oct. 1927), pp. 283–9, quote at 287.

(27.) ‘Nationalités et Nationalisme arabe dans le Proche Orient’, signed F.T. AF 277 (Feb. 1930), pp. 52–65, quote at 56.

(28.) I ended my survey in 1939 because the outbreak of the Second World War marks the end of the period covered in this book. The bulletin ceased publication in May 1940, for obvious reasons.

(29.) This does not mean that it is ever examined or defined by those who use it, however.

(30.) Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria, p. 247.

(31.) Both in France and among the personnel of the High Commission there were many who did not even grudgingly accept this necessity, and sought to torpedo any plan for Syrian independence: ‘To the missionaries, Jesuits, and military caste the Treaty was anathema.’ (Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon, p. 224.)

(p.157) (32.) Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria, p. 248.

(33.) 1933 also saw the worst drought in Syria since the First World War, if not in living memory, with a sharp rise in famine proportionate to a steep decline in wheat pro- duction. Major social consequences included banditry in the countryside, an influx of peasants to the cities and the temporary emigration of as many as 30,000 people from the hardest hit region, the Hawran. (Philip S. Khoury, ‘The paradoxical in Arab nationalism. Interwar Syria revisited’, in Jankowski and Gershoni (eds), Rethinking Arab Nationalism, pp. 273–87 at p. 278.) If it seems odd to relegate this catastrophic social backdrop to a footnote, it is because it is nowhere men- tioned in any of the Syrian or French sources I have read on the minorities ques- tion. Nor do French sources on the treaty negotiations of 1933 and 1936 refer to the effects of the great depression in France. These telling lacunae should be borne in mind.

(34.) ‘Le programme politique déclaré par le Haut Commissaire en Syrie et au Liban’, AF 253 (Sep.–Oct. 1927), pp. 283–9, quote at 288.

(35.) ‘***’, ‘La situation actuelle des Tcherkesses en Syrie’, AF 308 (Mar. 1933), pp. 94–5. This quote is from an editor's note at the head of the article.

(36.) As above, quote at 94. Note the common confusion between religious and ethno- linguistic factors: if the Circassians were demanding communal recognition as a minority it was by distinction from an Arab, not Muslim, ‘majority’.

(37.) See Chapter 2.

(38.) ‘***’, ‘La situation actuelle des Tcherkesses en Syrie’, AF 308 (Mar. 1933), pp. 94–5, quote at 94.

(39.) ‘Le sort des minorités nationales en Irak’, AF 311 (Jun. 1933), p. 210. L'Asie fran- çaise later reproduced these ‘wise recommendations’ from the Commission's 1931 report: AF 313 (Sep.–Oct. 1933), pp. 268–71.

(40.) ‘Le sort des minorités nationales en Irak’, AF 311 (Jun. 1933), p. 210.

(41.) See Husry, ‘The Assyrian Affair’; Zubaida, ‘Contested nations’.

(42.) ‘Les minorités nationales en Irak’, AF 312 (Jul.–Aug. 1933), p. 257. It is worth noting here that prior to Iraqi independence, ‘national minorities’ had been rare in L'Asie française 's coverage of Syria and the wider Arab world: more common were arguments that the ‘nationality principle’ simply did not apply in the Arab countries.

(43.) ‘Le traité franco-syrien’, AF 314 (Nov. 1933), p. 328.

(44.) ‘L'Irak et la question assyrienne’, AF 315 (Dec. 1933), pp. 338–48, quote at 338.

(45.) E.g., on Iraq, ‘La question des Assyro-Chaldéens’, AF 327 (Feb. 1935), p. 27; ‘La question chaldéo-assyrienne’, AF 328 (Mar. 1935), p. 97; on Syria see below.

(46.) This and following quotes from ‘Les Yézidis du Djebel Sindjar’, AF 334 (Nov. 1935), p. 307.

(47.) ‘Répression de la révolte des Yézidis’, AF 335 (Dec. 1935), p. 341, quoting La Syrie, 27/11/1935.

(48.) ‘Une nouvelle crise syrienne’, AF 338 (Mar. 1936), pp. 74–8, quote at 78.

(49.) ‘A la suite de l'accord du 1er mars’, AF 339 (Apr. 1936), pp. 129–30, quote at 130.

(p.158) (50.) ‘La question des minorités’, AF 339 (Apr. 1936), p. 130.

(51.) In its own right and as a point of comparison, the situation of Iraq's minorities continued to get coverage: e.g., ‘Causes des révoltes des minorités nationales en Irak’, AF 340 (May 1936), pp. 163–4; ‘Le traité Franco-Syrien’, AF 344 (Nov. 1936), pp. 281–92.

(52.) E.g., three articles all entitled ‘Le traité franco-syrien sera-t-il modifié?’: AF 354 (Nov. 1937), p. 289; AF 355 (Dec. 1937), pp. 320–1; AF 356 (Jan. 1938), p. 31.

(53.) This is noticeable from the start of the 1936 negotiations: ‘La question des minorités’, AF 339 (Apr. 1936), p. 130.

(54.) See, e.g., ‘Le traité franco-syrien et les minorités chrétiennes de Syrie’, AF 359 (Mar. 1938), pp. 94–5.

(55.) I use this barbarous neologism to distinguish a person seeking to enframe and mobilise a political constituency as a minority (a ‘minoritarianist’) from a member of a minority (a minoritarian). French officials in Syria used minoritaire in the latter sense, though usually when talking about people who might be described as the former.

(56.) The Arabic phrase, containing a grammatical error, is ‘ma a ba d al-bunūd wal-rawābit lil-muhāfadhat al-aqalliyyāt ayy al-masīhiyyīn wal-yahūd’. AD-SL Box 493, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien. Minorités. Sous-dossiers. Nouri to HC (7/8/1936). A French translation is included.

(57.) This and following quotes from AD-SL Box 493, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien. Minorités. Sous-dossiers. Letter from six Catholic archbishops to HC, 18/3/1936, forwarded under covering letter from Meyrier to MAE, 27/3/1936. (It is not clear whether this is a translation or if the original document was in French.)

(58.) This insistence on religion alone is interesting, in a letter from leaders of Catholic denominations using Greek, Syriac and Armenian as their church languages (some of them – especially the Armenians – likely using languages other than Arabic at home).

(59.) This and the following quote from AD-SL Box 620, dossier Mouvement minori- taire Chrétien, subdossier La question des minorités en Syrie et en Irak (Généralités – correspondances, informations). Information Nº 103 (21/12/1932). Giannini might be considered both an internal and external actor in Syrian politics: the rep- resentative of the Holy See, he could also claim with some authority to speak on behalf of the Catholic churches of Syria and Lebanon.

(60.) This and following quotes from AD-SL Box 572, untitled dossier (material released under sixty-year rule), subdossier Les Kurdes en Syrie – Informations. Unnumbered Information ‘a/s Latif Ghanimé et la question des minorités’ (17/10/1932).

(61.) In his brief memoir ‘Syrie 1929, itinéraire d'un officier’, in Anne-Marie Bianquis (ed.), Damas. Miroir brisé d'un Orient arabe (Paris: Autrement, 1993) pp. 95–104, Pierre Rondot reproduces (p. 100) his diary entry of an encounter with Ghanimé, whose forceful personality was evidently quite marked.

(62.) This and following quote from AD-SL Box 620, dossier Mouvement minoritaire (p.159) Chrétien, subdossier La question des minorités en Syrie et en Irak (Généralités – correspondances – informations). Information No 1203, 18/3/1933.

(63.) The petition described by the Sûreté gives the same demands as those received by the High Commission, in the same order. It lists nine rather than ten demands because two items regarding education are conflated.

(64.) AD-SL Box 568, dossier Tcherkess, petition from Circassians in Qunaytra, Homs, Hama and Marj Sultan to High Commission for forwarding to League of Nations (1/4/1933). Although references to minorities, majorities and the treaty are clear in both, checking the original Arabic against the French translation reveals small but significant differences. The translation gives ‘the Circassian population of Syria’ for the original's ‘the Syrian Circassian people [al-sha b al-sharkasī al-sūrī ]’ – a warmer assertion of Syrian identity?

(65.) The Kurds are discussed in Chapter 4. For the Isma ilis, see, e.g., contents of AD-SL Box 410, untitled dossier, subdossier Requête de la communauté Ismailieh a/s sauvegardee [sic] de leurs droits. Most of these documents are in French trans- lation only; the Arabic originals that are present use the term tā'ifa to describe the community, but do refer to ‘minority rights [huqūq al-aqalliyyāt ]’.

(66.) This and following quotes from AD-SL Box 572, untitled dossier (material released under sixty-year rule), subdossier Les Kurdes en Syrie – Informations. Unnumbered Information ‘a/s Latif Ghanimé et la question des minorités’ (Beirut, 17/10/1932).

(67.) This document being a French report on Ghanimé's views – though clearly one based on discussions with him – the term ‘extremist’ may not be Ghanimé's own.

(68.) This explains the aberrant presence of this document in a box otherwise dedicated to the Kurds, in which few documents call them a ‘minority’: Ghanimé's proposal, although it mentions them only in passing, would recast them as such.

(69.) AD-SL Box 568, dossier Tcherkess, petition from Circassians in Qunaytra, Homs, Hama and Marj Sultan to High Commission (1/4/1933).

(70.) AD-SL Box 494, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien – Application – Question des minorités. Petition from Circassian village chiefs and members of ‘councils of elders’ addressed to HC via assistant delegate for muhafazas of Homs and Hama, 11/3/1936. A French translation is also enclosed.

(71.) Not, as far as I can tell, the same ones – though two Daghestanis head the list of signatures, and the earlier mazbata was supposed to be ‘sponsored’ in Homs by another. However, Daghestani is not a rare name among Circassians in Syria, many of whose families originated in Daghestan.

(72.) This and following quotes from AD-SL Box 494, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien – Application – Question des minorités. Statement to the League of Nations by Khaled Daghestani et al., Homs, March 1938, included with letter to assistant delegate for Homs and Hama muhafazas. French translation (original not present) forwarded by HC to MAE (22/3/1938).

(73.) ‘Le programme politique déclaré par le Haut Commissaire en Syrie et au Liban’, AF 253 (Sep.–Oct. 1927), pp. 283–9, quotes at 287.

(p.160) (74.) I do not know if his study became the Bloc's official policy, but it was at least carried out ‘at the demand of Djémil Mardam Bey and with [Ibrahim] Hanano's knowledge’. My knowledge of it is from a High Commission document evidently drawn up after an interview with Rabbath himself: AD-SL Box 620, dossier Mouvement minoritaire Chrétien, subdossier La question des minorités en Syrie et en Irak (Généralités – correspondances, informations). Information Nº 101 (21/12/1932).

(75.) AD-SL Box 620, dossier Mouvement minoritaire Chrétien, subdossier La question des minorités en Syrie et en Irak (Généralités – correspondances, informations). Information Nº 101 (21/12/1932).

(76.) I have already pointed out in Chapter 3 that individuals could also use regionalism as a means of demanding – and getting – guaranteed access to state jobs.

(77.) This was not ‘because’ of those linguistic rights themselves, but because of the use to which nationalist Turks had successfully put them. The nationalist assump- tion that this was a natural expression of Turkish national feeling, whether stated overtly in nationalist historiography or implicitly reproduced by historians who do not question the categories of nationalism, elides the actual history of the process – notably the generational change in the 1930s – as well as the alternative outcomes that not only could have existed but did exist. Many ‘Turks’ in northern Syria became ‘Arabs’. Subhi Bey Barakat, with his poor Arabic and strong Turkish accent, might not have been an Arab nationalist, but he seems to have been content to remain a Syrian politician, and not to become a Turkish one. Sati al-Husri, one of the most influential ideologues of Arab nationalism, also spoke Arabic with a Turkish accent.

(78.) AD-SL Box 620, dossier Mouvement minoritaire Chrétien, subdossier La question des minorités en Syrie et en Irak (Généralités – correspondances, informations). Information Nº 101 (21/12/1932). These words are presented as direct quotes from Rabbath.

(79.) AD-SL Box 493, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien. Minorités. Sous-dossiers. Letter from six Catholic archbishops to HC (18/3/1936), forwarded under covering letter from Meyrier to MAE (27/3/1936).

(80.) See following note.

(81.) AD-SL Box 494, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien – Application – Question des minorités. Press clippings from Le Jour (Beirut): series of articles by Rabbath enti- tled ‘Les problèmes du Traité Franco-Syrien: Les minorités’, 6–10/3/1936.

(82.) As cited above.

(83.) AD-SL Box 568, untitled dossier (material declassified 1998), Information No 2092 (15/6/1936). Such a display of loyalty should not, of course, be taken simply at face value.

(84.) This and following from AD-SL Box 493, dossier Traité Franco-Syrien. Minorités. Sous-dossiers. Letter from six Catholic archbishops to HC (18/3/1936), forwarded under covering letter from Meyrier to MAE (27/3/1936). As noted above, it is not clear whether this is a copy of a French original or a translation from Arabic – the (p.161) latter might explain the odd grammar of the sentence. NB: al-Kutla al-Wataniyya can be translated as both National and Nationalist Bloc. I have used the former; this source uses the latter.

(85.) AD-SL Box 620, dossier Mouvement minoritaire Chrétien, subdossier La question des minorités en Syrie et en Irak (Généralités – correspondances, informations). Information Nº 101 (21/12/1932).