T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

Part IV
The National Movement in the Arab East

<p. 151>

Chapter XVII
The National Movement in Syria

It has already been remarked that when the Western Powers first penetrated into the Arab East, they came upon territories in very different stages of development, and they, on their side, added to this unevenness and strengthened it very much. And so while the national movement in all the countries of the Arab East is basically one, whose aim is liberation from imperialism and the overcoming of feudal splitting, in every country the movement has a somewhat different character. All the while that the national movement is led by members of the exploiting classes the revolutionary character of the national movement must needs be blunted, while local side issues push their way to the fore, the differences between the various parts of the national movement in the different Arab countries is brought into prominence, and its basic unity is blurred over.

The impress of the feudal class on the economic, social and political life of Syria is very deep indeed. It is not at all monolithic. While the landowners in the relatively developed parts of Syria and Lebanon, such as Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut, work hand in glove with the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia (many of them following the free professions, unlike their fellows in Palestine or Egypt), merging nationalism with religion, the struggle against France with the struggle against the abolition of the veil on the Moslem woman’s face, the feudal lords in backward regions such as Jebel Druze and Al-Jezira know nothing of nationalism and fight only for local interests and the authority of the feudal families.

I. The Communal Question in Syria and Lebanon

Except for some tens of thousands of Armenians, Kurds and Jews, all the inhabitants of Syria are Arabs, and the main minorities problem is not that of national minorities, but of religious ones.

The populations of Syria and Lebanon were divided according to religion as follows [1]:–

Religious Communities


SYRIA (1938)


LEBANON (1942)





% of pop.


% of pop.


% of pop.




















Maronite Christians







Other Christian Communities














When the minorities problem is discussed, the Maronites, Alawites and Druzes are meant in the main, each of these being concentrated in a specific region, while the other Christian communities are not.

The differences in the geographic conditions have very definitely given their mark to the differences in the economic structure. Commercial development strengthened the ties between the different parts of the country, but at the same time, as long as it did not bring about a complete revolution in the mode of production, as long as the development of commerce remained within relatively narrow bounds, it encouraged economic development in certain areas rather than in others, and strengthened the unevenness in the development of <p. 152> the different communal groups inhabiting different territories. The fact that in the feudal regime attachment to a certain economic calling (as has already been illustrated in the chapter Feudalism in the Arab East) also caused the economic structure of the communal minority very often to be different to that of the majority. There is of course, a certain antagonism between these two factors: territorial concentration obliges the community to establish an all-sided economy with all the necessary fundaments and accessories thereof – from agriculture to artisanry and commerce – while the existence of the communal-economic caste means that the minority fulfils only one special economic function within the economic body as a whole, viz that the minority is dispersed among the communal majority. But nevertheless it may be pointed out that in the shaping of the form of the communities in Syria these two moments act not only excluding each other, but also in combination: such a combination may come about if the division of labour in the general economy is congruent in a certain measure with the geographic division. Thus the special geographic position of the Lebanon, and its special place in the general Syrian economy – being next to the sea in a commercial zone – determined the economic character of the Maronite minority. In addition the intervention of French capital and French imperialism caused the deepening of the difference between the economic structure of the communal majority and that of the Maronites who were the main supports of the French. The French companies took Maronites as their agents. The missions attended to the needs of the Maronite community, raising its cultural standard much above that of the communal majority and thus much influencing the economic situation of the community. [2]

A further factor in this process which itself is a combination of others (mainly geographic, but also religious) is that the Maronite centre, Mount Lebanon, is an important goal of tourist traffic.

The difference in the occupational structure of Moslems and Christians is shown in the following table (1937):–


% of total

% engaged in
handicrafts, industry,
transport and building










Thus while the Christians make up only a quarter of the population, they make up about a half of the workers in handicrafts, industry, transport and building.

The economic situation gives its colour to the cultural superstructure too. Thus in 1938 students made up 17 per cent of the Christian population, while they made up only 5 per cent of the Moslem. And as the number of children in a Moslem family is larger than that in a Christian one, it is clear that the difference in the educational level of Moslems and Christians is even greater than the figures show.

The great extent of the difference between the economic and cultural levels of Moslems and Christians is due to the fact that the Syrian economy did not develop to any great extent, commerce and industry are still very backward, and the feudal mode of production prevails over wide areas. Multi-lateral development of the Syrian economy would give rise to socio-economic mobility – that is, it would break up the castes; and it would bind the various parts of the country together – that is, it would abolish communal and territorial particularism.

The Druzes and Alawites are very different to the Christians. The Alawites occupy a continuous stretch of territory which is not only backward in comparison with Mount Lebanon, but even with Syria as a whole. If any Alawite <p. 153> communal problem arises, it is because imperialism, to kindle communal strife, exploits both the fact of the backwardness of the region and its being almost wholly cut off from the rest of the country, and the fact that in this region the antagonism between Sunnite Moslems and Alawites is congruent with that between landlords and tenants (See the Chapter Imperialism’s Methods of Rule). The Druzes live in two places; slightly more than half inhabit Jebel Druze which borders on the desert in Eastern Syria, and the rest live in Lebanon. The inhabitants of Jebel Druze are very backward and primitive. Commercial relations left the Jebel practically untouched, allowing the feudal order to remain intact. Here it is the particularist family interests of the big feudal lords which dominate everything, and determine the relation to Damascus and the attitude to France. The Druze in Lebanon are very much more developed, some of them being allies of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie in the leadership of the Arab national movement. But even here the antagonism between the big feudal families play a decisive role: thus, for instance, the Janbalat family is pro-French and against the unity of Lebanon and Syria, while the Arselan family is active in the Arab national movement.

Thus the focal reason for the existence of religious antagonism is the general backwardness of the country, whose source is feudalism and imperialism.

French imperialism does all in its power to sharpen the antagonism between the Moslems and the Christians. To do this it adopts different measures. For instance, Mount Lebanon, which under Ottoman rule was inhabited almost solely by Maronites and was an autonomous region with a Christian governor and a council having a majority of Christian members, has now had regions whose great majority are Moslem joined to it (this was done in 1920): in the north the region of Tripoli, in the south the regions of Sidon and Hasbeya, and in the East the region of Baalbek. Thus today the Moslems constitute 46 per cent of all the inhabitants of the Lebanon. Naturally a strong irredentist movement has arisen whose centre is Tripoli, which strives to unite with Syria; and a convenient background is created for disputes between Moslems and Christians.

Another never-failing source of friction is the state income and expenditure among the different zones. In this, as in the community-dominated elections and nominations to the Lebanese government and the municipalities, French imperialism has found useful explosive material.

The activity of the missions, too, adds fuel too the fire. Thus of all the school-going Christian children in 1938 only 7.6 per cent attended government schools, while 56.7 per cent attended private schools and 35.7 foreign (i.e. mission) schools. Of Moslem school-going children 67.9 per-cent attended government schools, 26.1 private schools and only 6 per cent foreign schools. Thus not only is there a difference, as we have seen, between the percentages of Moslem and Christian children attending school, but the character of the education given the children is also very different. Of course the education given in the mission schools is not calculated to infuse a non-communal spirit into the pupils.

French imperialism also from time to time recruits troops from among the minorities in order to suppress anti-imperialist uprisings. In this way it tries to kill two birds with one stone, firstly getting cheap soldiers and secondly diverting the mass struggle from a national, anti-imperialist struggle to a communal one.

The main weapon for increasing inter-communal tension, however, more important to French imperialist politics than all the others, is the hindering of economic, social and cultural development and the support given to the black social forces – the feudal class and clergy – for whom the incitement of communal friction is a pivotal measure for fortifying their influence in society. The French sharpen the friction between the Maronites and the Moslems by strengthening the influence of the Maronite clergy over their community. This Maronite clergy is the most extreme example of theocracy in our times.

But French imperialism has become enmeshed in contradictions and involuntarily undermines its own policy of inciting inter-communal discord. <p. 154> This it does first and foremost by smashing the traditional economic position of the Maronites through seriously damaging the traditional industries of the Lebanon. The flooding of Syria and Lebanon with overseas industrial products, their being separated from the other regions of the Ottoman Empire which had been their markets, and France’s currency and commercial policy (which has been dwelt on at length in the chapter The Economic Structure of Syria) affect traditional industry most severely. The total number of people employed in industry (old and modern) fell from 309,525 in 1913 to 203,928 in 1937, i.e. a drop of 34 per cent. The traditional industries, in which Christians worked, were particularly affected. Thus the number of Christians employed in handicraft, industry, transport and building fell from 175,053 to 99,763, i.e. a drop of 43 per cent.

The deterioration of the economic position is made apparent in the great drop in real wages. Between 1913 and 1937 the cost of living rose by 73 per cent, while nominal wages rose by less than 20 per cent. Thus the real wage fell by more than fifty per cent. Great unemployment and a low wage caused quite large-scale emigration from the country, mostly of the Christians. The statistics do not differentiate between Moslems and Christians, but they do differentiate between Syria and Lebanon. During the years 1925-38 38,302 people emigrated from Syria while from the Lebanon which contains half the population of Syria, 49,586 people emigrated. For the emigrants from Lebanon there are figures of their distribution according to communities, but they tend, for political reasons, to exaggerate the numbers of Lebanese Christians who emigrated, and to minimise the numbers of Moslems. They nevertheless give an indication of the large extent of Christian emigration from the Lebanon (31.12.42): Maronites – 22.3 per cent of the community, Other Christians – 17.2 per cent, Moslems – 3.2 per cent, Druzes – 6.4 per cent.

The damage French imperialism caused to the economic positions of the masses of Christians reached such proportions that even the Maronite patriarch, Anton Arida,

the staunch supporter of French rule who was against the unity of Lebanon with Syria, was forced to declare in connection with the setting up of the French tobacco monopoly (Nov. 1934):

‘We do not differentiate between a Moslem and a Christian in defending the rights of the people. In fighting against the tobacco monopoly I represent Syria and the Lebanon. Their inhabitants are going from bad to worse. The economic policy of the Commissionership will not bring salvation.’

When the Syrian ‘National Bloc’ proclaimed a boycott against the French electric company, the same Anton Arida was compelled to declare his solidarity with this struggle against French capital. Such radical declarations from such a man bear full witness to the desperate state to which the Syrian and Lebanese have been driven, and to no lesser, but if anything, greater, extent than the Moslems, the Christians.

II. The National Movement and the Communal Question

The feudal class, the rich intelligentsia of feudal origin, the commercial bourgeoisie, usurers and the industrial bourgeoisie are incapable of radically overcoming communal differences and antagonisms, as first of all the feudal lords cannot raise themselves above their narrow particularism; secondly this particularism casts its influence over other strata connected with the feudal class (merchants, rich intelligentsia etc.); thirdly the Moslem – Christian communal antagonism is often congruent with the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the feudal class; and fourthly the pressure of French imperialism in harming the old industries, the merchants connected with them and the intelligentsia maintained by them, strengthens personal and communal competition for economic positions, competition which encompasses the whole middle class from the merchant and high official to the small shopkeeper. Only a liberatory struggle which will pose high aims before the masses and will open wide gates before them is capable of eradicating the communal antagonisms. But the Syrian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia is not capable of waging such a struggle as the broad economic and cultural developments of Syria demands the abolition of feudalism and imperialism. The ruling classes are therefore wholly entangled in the network of communal antagonisms.

This revealed itself clearly even when the Syrian national movement led by these elements reached the climax of its militancy, in the great uprising of 1925–27. A relation of the unfolding of this event will show how feudal, particularist and religious moments, which have nothing of nationalism in them, interlace in the position of the leaders of the Syrian national movement. Even at the climax of the anti-imperialist activity of the feudal and bourgeois leaders, when they emphasised the necessity of <p. 155> overcoming communal differences, they were quite incapable of looking at the communal question as any but an isolated question independent of the general problem of the rule of backward social relations. To do so would involved considering the abolition of the existing relations. Their declarations therefore lack virility, their all-Syrian unity is devoid of flesh and blood, and the equality of rights promised the Christian minority remains but an abstract proclamation, not based on any socio-economic changes, or even on changes in the law. And so instead of the real and full unity of the masses of people without distinction of community, came proclamations directed at most towards the neutralization of the Christians towards the national war against France. Thus Sa’id Al-Aas, commander of the partisan forces in the north of the country, wrote in a letter to the Maronite notables of Zagarta:

‘Your remaining neutral is the right way to preserve the peace … As a proof of this it has been agreed as a rule in all regions of the revolt to prevent attacks on any individual irrespective of race or creed … and we do not object to your supplying all families with a pass on condition that they remain neutral and follow their occupations without anyone of them being used as a spy against our military movement.’

This lukewarm attitude towards the Christian community suited the mingling of the national spirit and religious ideas, which at bottom are not only not identical but in fact contradict each other. Thus the same commander, Sa’id Al-Aas wrote in a leaflet to the inhabitants of Al-Jabel Algarbi (a Moslem region which the French annexed to Lebanon):

‘Our heroic brothers, leaders of the glorious tribes of Al-Hamdiah! We, the people of the Emir of the Faithful … Must act according to the works of God (the Koran) who fought against idolaters where they were to be found! … You are the defenders of honour and religion.’

If inability to overcome local communal pettiness was true for the Syrian exploiting classes as a whole, it was certainly true, in particular, for the Druze leaders of the revolt. As a matter of fact it was their own egoistic interests, containing no essence of nationalism, which drove them to the all-Syrian revolt of 1925–27.

In 1919 the feudal lords of the Jebel had signed a request in favour of the French mandate. Various Druze leaders, among whom were some of the Al-Atrash family which later produced many leaders of the national revolt, joined the French army in its fight against the Arab government of Faisal which had fortified itself in Damascus. From1920 to 1925 the Druze leaders struggled for the autonomy of the Jebel from Damascus, consenting wholeheartedly to the French mandate. But with the death of the Druze who was the governor of the Jebel on behalf of the French mandatory government and with the disputes that arose between the heads of the Druze families and the French governor – Captain Carbillet – dissatisfaction with French rule began to be felt. But even then the dissatisfaction was not directed against imperialist rule as such. In April 1925 the Druze heads sent a delegation to put their demands, which were very mild and embodied the continuation of the Mandate, before the French High Commissioner. But the French authorities found even these very humble demands of the ‘natives’ presumptuous, and attempted to arrest Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, the leader of the Higher Committee of the Druzes. Following this, the first armed clashes took place. But even after this the Druzes leaders never dreamt of fighting against French imperialism as such, and much less so even of hoisting the banner of national struggle of all Syria. Even after the first armed clashes the Druzes turned to France with peace proposals. Their demands were now: 1) The dismissal of Carbillet, 2) The Druzes would consent to a French governor on condition that they elected him, 3) No reprisals and no confiscation of arms, 4) A special constitution to be drawn up for Jebel Druze. Only after these conditions too were not accepted by the French authorities (mainly for reasons of prestige), did the Druze leaders despair of any fruitful negotiation with France and turn to the national leaders in Damascus.

Despite the leaders’ lukewarmness as far as the Christians were concerned, this community in many places joined in the fray. They participated in Hasbeya, Jedida, Al-Arkov among other places, and also took part in the general strike in Damascus. But a great part of the Christian masses remained immersed in the influence of their feudal clerical leadership which opposed the national uprising. Only the class struggle could bridge the gulf between the masses of the different communities and simply national generalities could not altogether eradicate the fear of the Christian minority before the majority who themselves were under a semi-feudal clerical leadership.

<p. 156>

III. The Bourgeois-Feudal Leaders Compromise with Imperialism, and are Firm with the Masses

Even at the very height of the national uprising of 1925–27 the bourgeoisie and the feudal leaders turned their faces towards imperialism, being ready at any sign to compromise with it. Thus in a declaration on its programme of the Syrian government – a coalition of the National Party which stood at the head of the uprising, and various non-party personalities – given at the time when the revolt was still going on, the leaders expressed themselves in these words:

‘We say that action must be taken in constitutional ways and through the means of the law… and our rights demanded through legal channels, channels of peace … M. de Juvenal (the High Commissioner – T.C.) … is considered among the French geniuses full of a spirit of freedom and justice … He has outstanding qualities of support for truth and help for righteousness … there is a need that we and the French rely on each other and co-operate truly and entirely, in order that we may be able to draw advantage from their activity and their skill, and in order that peace and quiet may return to the land…’

It is also necessary

‘to turn the mandate into an alliance between France and Syria to last 30 years … which should resemble the alliance between Britain and Iraq … which would preserve France’s political influence and economic priority with only the condition that this should not damage national sovereignty …’

If during these years these same leaders have shown firmer opposition to French imperialism, this is by no means because they have turned anti-imperialist but simply because they have become the agents of another imperialism which has to a large extent stepped into the shoes of the French. The Syrian Prime Minister himself put the matter in a nutshell at the time of the English intervention in Syria and Lebanon when England and France were on bad terms: ‘The only way to stand against the barbarian force (France – T.C.) is by using a stronger force (England – T.C.).’ On 2nd June it was decided at a meeting in Beirut of the ‘national’ parties to express to the British military and civilian authorities the appreciation by Syria and Lebanon at their activity for the restoration of security and order. To fight against foreign capital as such – no matter where it comes from – this, on no account, as it may open the door to an attack against local capital!

When, therefore, for example, in January 1944 the workers of the tobacco monopoly, which is in the hands of a French company, went on strike, the government hastened, not to the aid of the hungry strikers, but to that of the company (which in 1943 extracted the fat net profit of £LS 15 millions). 210 workers were dismissed and 15 arrested. On the renewal of the strike the police, not satisfied with arrests, broke out in sanguinary attacks on the workers. When in August of the same year the railway workers struck, the government hastily put 300 of them behind bars. Instances to illustrate the same attitude of the Syrian and Lebanese governments to foreign capital on the one hand and the workers on the other are sufficient to fill volumes.

There is no doubt that the transference of the management of the Common Interests – which include customs, the tobacco monopoly and a few other French concessionary companies, the railways, port, broadcasting station, water and electricity – from the hands of France to those of the Syrian and Lebanese governments was indeed accelerated by the strikes of the workers, but simply for the reason that national governments can ‘deal’ with the workers better than foreign ones. The words of the Syrian Minister of Finance light the way for the Syrian and Lebanese governments in their task of subjugating the country to foreign capital: ‘We wish to declare that the rights of the companies of foreign capital which have concessions here will be looked after in exactly the same way as if they were national companies.’ And it is true that despite ‘independence’, the positions of foreign capital have not been cut down one iota; the only change that has taken place is that here and there British capital has stepped into the shoes of French.

The leaders’ fear of the masses was revealed in their cruel suppression not only of the workers’ strikes, but also of the national, anti-imperialism demonstrations. In May 1945 when large-scale anti-imperialist demonstrations swept over Syria and Lebanon their governments used harsh measures against them. On 21st May it was announced from Beirut that the Lebanese government had decided to take steps to stop the strike in order ‘to avoid incidents and create a peaceful atmosphere’ for the assembly of parliament. A day later it was announced from Damascus that the strike was continuing, ‘but the gendarmerie dispersed the demonstrators who wished to <p. 157> come to Government House.’ On 25th May a large demonstration took place in Damascus which the Syrian gendarmerie dispersed, on 29th May the Syrian foreign minister declared:

‘We fear that the tumult taking place at the moment will bring about an armed struggle; we fear that events will precede us; quite a few times already have we drawn the attention of the Allies to the fact that it is impossible to assure order and security with a gendarmerie whose numbers do not exceed five thousand.’


1. As the figures for Lebanon and Syria are only estimates, and as there is no estimate for 1942 for the Syrian population, nor one for 1938 for Lebanon, we have been forced, in calculating the weight of the communities in Syria and Lebanon together, to add the 1938 figures for Syria to the 1942 figures for Lebanon. The error, however, will not be very big in the calculation of the percentage of the communities in the population.

2. It is interesting to note that at the same time as bourgeois republican France was fighting against the Catholic church and prohibiting the existence of the Jesuit order, it wholeheartedly supported the activity of the Jesuits in the Lebanon.

Last updated on 28.5.2011