America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
THE functioning of the Syria-Lebanon mandate was perverted from the very outset. Neither the English nor the French nor the Syrians believed in the value of the obligations it entailed, and none of them played entirely fair.
Various shrewd dealings during the First World War left the Arabs defiant and embittered. They had not foreseen that the liberation from the Turco-German yoke promised them by Sir Henry McMahon in exchange for their coöperation could result in another form of subjugation. With their territorial claims reduced to the boundaries of Arabia and the inaccessible peripheral lands, they felt that they had been the victims of a breach of trust. Nor were the British and the French better satisfied. From the day after the Sykes-Picot agreement, each party felt that he had been swindled by the other, and their mutual relations in that area were in a state of tension. Faced with the Emir Feisal's expulsion as a fait accompli, the English in the Near East never forgave France for the concessions their diplomats had agreed to make to her. Juridically obliged to recognize the mandate, they nullified it in practice and became the technical advisers of the Syrian nationalists in the latter's struggle to destroy it either by sapping operations or by open violence.
This coalition would have been less effective if France had herself pursued a fair and straightforward policy. But from the period of the war she had weakly supported the insurgents for fear of increasing the prestige of the Sherif Husein. After having opened the road to Damascus in July 1920 by artillery fire, and having crushed the ephemeral kingdom of Syria in a single battle, she aroused a spirit of hostility that did not subside until 1936. Holder of a double mandate, she refused to admit that if Lebanon had requested her protection, Syria, on the other hand, rejected it. To have made her rule bearable in Damascus she would have had to assert a sincere desire to prepare the way for eventual independence. But the French statesmen played a deceptive game as regards their obligations. Badly informed public opinion believed that France had acquired a new colony, and the high commissioners acted in that spirit. They made every effort to paralyze demands for nationhood instead of stimulating and at the same time canalizing them. The attitude of the minor officials aggravated the situation still further. Unlike England, France had no corps of specialists in Eastern affairs; and she was unable to constitute one since, legally, the mandate was to be of only a temporary character. Accordingly, she had recourse to a colonial personnel which imposed on the politically advanced Syrians an authoritative paternalism of a sort little likely to gain their support. The manner of applying this rule spoiled even the best intentions.
The officer in charge of the Jebel Druze district in 1925, honest and zealous for social improvement, engaged in a commendable struggle to protect the interests of the peasants against the influential classes; but at the same time he instituted requisitions, forced labor, collective fines and imprisonments that exasperated the masses and provoked a revolt which extended as far as Damascus and actually jeopardized the mandate. The French officials believed that community of creed guaranteed the loyalty of the Christians. They were blind to the evolution by which nationalism was gradually securing the ascendancy over religion. Indeed, their policies achieved the paradoxical result of creating a coalition between Mohammedans and Christians against the mandatory power! Though France succeeded in large measure in equipping the country and developing its cultural institutions, she nevertheless compromised these successes by her political incapacity.
Within the framework of her international obligations France ran afoul of exasperating covert resistances: ambiguous attitudes, promises immediately belied by contrary acts, intrigues with foreigners, agitations initiated in the Mohammedan countries of North Africa, chronic street brawling. By means of these Levantine tactics the nationalists signified their refusal to accept the delays foreseen by the League of Nations and their determination to obtain immediate independence. The mandated states, too, were evidently shunning their obligation to assist even the regular operation of the mandate.
Progressing from one crisis to the next, the situation had become tragic when Léon Blum's government came into power in 1936. His secretary of state for foreign affairs, Pierre Viénot, resolutely undertook to find a solution of the problem, and for the first time the Syrian and Lebanese delegates felt that France was not trying to deceive them, nor to impose a dictatorship. A proposal was made to them to liquidate the protectorate by a double treaty of independence. One granted Syrian independence after a probationary period of three years, in consideration of guarantees analogous to those accorded Great Britain by 'Iraq, while the other secured from Lebanon more important military advantages and an alliance renewable over an indefinite period. France retained substantial privileges in the regions where her traditional influence had been exercised effectively, and elsewhere established her position through freely accepted engagements. The signing of the protocol registering this agreement reversed the psychological situation. Achem bey Attasi, head of the delegation, declared that it marked "a great date in the history of Syria: the date on which the Syrian nation had rediscovered France." The tremendous enthusiasm of the Arab world was emphasized by the approbation of Chekib Arslan, the native Syrian who was the head of the Pan-Arab movement. In Syria the High Commissioner was acclaimed in cities which for several months had been in a state of chronic insurrection.
This amazing success was very soon compromised, however, by the opposition of the military. The French general staff in Lebanon regarded the concessions as proof of weakness. General Huntziger initiated a violent campaign against the treaty. Officers in Syria provoked revolts in Upper Djezireh to prove that the minorities did not consent to it. In Paris the influential press screamed abdication and even treason, while Henry Haye led the old Senatorial militia to the assault. Turkey's demands for Alexandretta favored the plot. A coalition of the military, the clericals, parliamentarians of the Right, and the newspapers backing them prevented ratification of the treaty. After the fall of the Front Populaire, Georges Bonnet, Minister of Foreign Affairs, felt he could not do less than promise the President of the Syrian Council that he would secure ratification by the Chambers before January 31, 1939. Furthermore, he consented to reduce the probationary period. But a month had not elapsed before, under pressure of the military and parties of the Right, he forswore his pledge and postponed examination of the treaties sine die.
This retraction sounded the death-knell of the mandate. France lost face throughout the Mohammedan world. Caught in the toils, she thenceforth was reduced to a policy of force in Syria and Lebanon: dissolution of the native parliaments, dismissal or arrest of the ministers, installation of appointees whom the native peoples did not trust. Because of the war and consequent necessities of national defense, France liquidated what remained of Syrian liberties.
Then came the débâcle of 1940. The blow it gave to the prestige of France was aggravated by the behavior of the Vichy Government. Marshal Pétain's entourage included the bitterest opponents of Syrian liberties, notably General Huntziger, who was Minister of War, and Henry Haye, who became Ambassador at Washington. In Syria, General Dentz inaugurated a police government against the patriots and to the profit of Germany. The Hotel Métropole at Damascus became the headquarters of German propaganda which from 1941 functioned actively in the cities and among the tribes under the direction of one of the best of the Wilhelmstrasse specialists, Minister Plenipotentiary von Hentig. Its object was in the main to depreciate the French and prove their incapacity to fulfill their tutorial rôle. France's withdrawal from the League of Nations was presented to the Syrians as an abandonment of the mandate. If Germany's propaganda proved, in the end, of no great profit to her, it nevertheless contributed to accentuate the discredit of France.
The 'Iraq affair in May 1941 revealed fully the dependent condition of the Vichy authorities. On instructions from General Huntziger, General Dentz authorized the utilization of three airdromes by 106 German planes, the fictitious sale of sequestered munitions and their transport to the frontier. The general staff even lent itself to fraudulent transactions to obtain transit authorizations across the Turkish zone. By the protocol of May 28, which Admiral Darlan signed after his return from Berchtesgaden, he agreed to furnish the German Government with all the information at the disposal of France "with regard to English war measures in the Near East," and to defend the Levant "against all attacks, with all means at his disposal." This submission to Hitler's exactions, revealed by the English radio and confirmed by the contradictory declarations of General Dentz, increased the demoralization of the French patriots and the audacity of the Syrian nationalists.
The intervention of Free France saved the honor, but did not restore the authority, of the mandatory power. It was General de Gaulle who took the initiative in the Syrian campaign and succeeded in obtaining British support. The entrance of troops into Syria was preceded on June 8, 1941, by a proclamation of General Catroux to the Syrian and Lebanese peoples recognizing their status as sovereign and independent states, with which Great Britain associated herself simultaneously by a separate declaration. In July, General de Gaulle and Captain O. Lyttelton, British Minister of State for the Middle East, signed at Beirut an accord which determined the respective prerogatives of the two allies. The strategic command was assigned to Britain, while to France fell the responsibility of maintaining order and general security. Mr. Churchill on September 9 confirmed in the Commons "that among all the nations of Europe the position of France in Syria is one of special privilege, and that in so far as any country will have special influence there, France will be preëminent."
On the one hand, France had guaranteed independence to the Levantine states; on the other, she had received the assurance that she enjoyed a privileged status in them. A delicate problem remained. A formula must be found satisfactory to the mandatory Power, which was anxious to liquidate rights recognized in international engagements still in force, and at the same time to the mandated states, which considered themselves endowed with a right to immediate independence. One solution would have been to go back to the Viénot treaty of 1936. Diplomats well versed in Near Eastern affairs claim that Syrian exiles who had returned from banishment proposed this, but that the Free French rejected it. When Mme. Viénot raised the question in the Consultative Assembly, General de Gaulle vehemently replied that his government had not had authority to sign such an accord, since its legitimacy was not officially recognized. He limited himself to confirming the independence of the Levantine states. This was done in two proclamations issued by General Catroux on September 27 and November 26, which also laid down how it was to be accomplished. Syria and Lebanon were immediately to enjoy the rights and prerogatives of sovereign states, with the power of (1) appointing diplomatic representatives; and (2) constituting national military forces. But their relations with France would be determined by treaties.
The drama of the Franco-British condominium was heralded by the entrance of the Allied troops. After the armistice of St. Jean d'Acre (July 14, 1941), the English, far from supporting the de Gaullist propaganda, showed partiality for the Vichy military and officials. A control commission sat at Beirut, consisting of three Britons and two Frenchmen. General Catroux assumed the prerogatives of the former high commissioners, but the government on which he depended was not recognized and he had very few effectives. Great Britain, on the contrary, disposed of the numerous and active diplomatic mission of Major General Sir Edward Spears and of the Ninth Army, whose political officers swarmed everywhere, even into the smallest villages. Collaboration would have been possible only if British power had supplemented the weakness of the French. Since it did not, General de Gaulle gained the impression that the British Government wished to oust France and become itself the arbiter of the Near East by creating a fait accompli. That is why de Gaulle fiercely maintained the principle of French rights against all encroachments. His stand resulted in four bitter conflicts between Britain and France. The first occurred on the morrow of the St. Jean d'Acre armistice, when General Spears asserted the policy which he was to pursue for three years -- encouraging the local Levantine governments, giving advice that was humiliating to France, intervening in a way that was at times menacing, and evicting France from her least contestable rights, such as the utilization of her share of the Mosul oil, the exploitation of the Tripoli refineries and the Haifa-Tripoli railroad.
In August 1942 General de Gaulle, who had gone to Syria to secure first-hand information, had two interviews at Cairo with Mr. Churchill. The British Prime Minister attempted to reassure him without success. After rather bitter polemics, the situation became so tense that, on de Gaulle's return to London, but for the intervention of Mr. Eden, it would perhaps have ended in a rupture.
In the Levant it would have been good policy to make friends with the Syrians and Lebanese and bring the expected reforms to fruition. Official circles say this was impossible, since France no longer had either sufficient prestige or authority. It seems that the representatives of Free France had set their hearts on playing their worst cards. Against the English technicians they chose to oppose blasé old functionaires, foolhardy officers or arrogant and inexperienced young men. They did not seem to wish sincerely to keep the promises that had been made, and delighted in making subtle interpretations of General Catroux's proclamations which deprived them of their imperative character. Over a year passed in inaction. Not until March 1943 was constitutional life reëstablished. The elections which took place in the autumn fully revealed the rivalries and anarchy in the administration and ended in the triumph of the nationalists.
In Lebanon, Prime Minister Riyad es Solh profited by the absence of the Delegate General, M. Helleu, who had gone to Algiers for instructions, to "abrogate" by decree the League of Nations mandate. The Premier in this acted contrary to solemn promises he had made; and he did not deny that he did so. Upon his return, M. Helleu thought it incumbent on him to affirm his authority in a forceful way. He arrested the President of the Republic, the President of the Council, seven ministers and a deputy, declared the dissolution of the Chamber and installed in power a friend of France, Emile Eddé. The extent of the disturbances which at once broke out at Beirut was exaggerated in the Arab and Anglo-Saxon press. The Lebanese appealed to General Spears; and the Egyptians, through the intermediary of Nahas Pasha, solicited American intervention in an appeal to Ambassador Kirk.
At Algiers the blunder was soon realized and the responsibility was thrown upon M. Helleu, who, however, refused to accept it. Unquestionably the Delegate General believed he was acting according to the spirit of the instructions he had just received from General de Gaulle. General Catroux, hastily dispatched to the focal point of turmoil, had to yield to the threatening pressure of the British by reëstablishing the ejected government. He is said to have told his colleagues that it was a "second Fashoda." The failure of the French resort to force led the Levantine states to conclude that the mandate was definitely abrogated. Nevertheless, so long as Minister Yves Chataigneau guided French policy at Beirut, that is, from November 1943 until March 1944, there was no friction either with the Syro-Lebanese or with the British or the Americans. M. Chataigneau, former secretary of M. Léon Blum, did not consider as insoluble the problems of the mixed tribunals, the police, and even of the army; and the transfers of the services began without any clashes.
The appointment of General Beynet and the restoration of military primacy, however, threw the entire matter back again into the melting pot. More than a year later, the question which the Syro-Lebanese considered as essential, the transfer of the special troops, had still not been solved.
In the meanwhile several events modified the general situation in the Near East. The French Provisional Government, having been recognized by the Powers, judged it necessary for reasons of prestige to exact treaties which the Lebano-Syrians refused to grant, especially since they did not know whether the British, Americans or Russians favored them. The formation of the Arab League transformed the Syrian question into a problem of world politics. Finally, the scope of Britain's actions in Greece seemed to proclaim her determination not to permit any impairment of her position in the eastern Mediterranean. A kind of obsession grew up, especially among British officers in Cairo, that the protective crust would crack in Syria. This obsession harmonized with the general mistrust felt by the English in the Levant with regard to the French authorities. The municipal elections in France, which assured the success of a coalition of the Left, were represented in Egypt and the Levant as heralding the imminent installation of a French government devoted to Moscow, and this increased British anxieties to the highest degree.
Under such circumstances prudence should have been the order of the day. The French Government received plenty of advice to that effect, both from London, which twice advised against sending transports with reinforcements, and from diplomatic and political groups in Paris. On the spot, too, democratic organizations multiplied their appeals for moderation. On May 18, 1945, General Beynet informed the Syrian and Lebanese Ministers of Foreign Affairs that the transfer of the special troops to the Levantine states would be subordinated to the establishment of a cultural treaty and economic agreements as well as to the concession of strategic bases. The delivery of this note was followed by a debarkation of troops. Actually these were of small strength but they assumed a symbolic value. The gesture was both useless and dangerous. On May 19 the Syrian and Lebanese Ministers jointly refused to continue the negotiations. The conflict, thought to have been appeased by the action of M. Bidault, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in favoring the admission of the Levantine states to the San Francisco Conference, was resumed and took on a sanguinary character. French officers, soldiers and even civilians were pursued not only by the mob but by the local gendarmerie. All Frenchmen in the Levant affirm that the British troops which were present made no attempt to defend them against these attacks, when they did not, in fact, aid the assailants.
The artillery and air attacks against Damascus, the second in 20 years, aroused the Syrians to a climax of hysteria. The French lost 28 killed, as well as 25 of their native troops. It is difficult to estimate the Syro-Lebanese losses, which probably amounted to about 600 killed and 300 wounded. On May 30 General Beynet asserted that he had the situation in hand. That same evening the French Government received from London an urgent request to give the order to cease fire and to allow the British command to take over the authority in Syria and Lebanon. The next day the British Commander in Chief in the Middle East notified French headquarters in Damascus that if their troops opened fire, even to defend themselves, their barracks would be bombarded. Everywhere the British Army off-handedly eliminated not only the military but the civil authorities.
The gravest consequences of the Syrian affair were on the international plane. Mr. Churchill's message to General de Gaulle was in the form of an ultimatum. This was bitterly resented by French public opinion, the more so since it emanated from the most popular Allied personality. Instead of attempting to appease the conflict, General de Gaulle and other generals who do not usually give press conferences carried their case to the public through newspapers and the radio. It was like the palmy days of Vichy; and this the upholders of old-style politics noted with satisfaction.
During the controversy the attitude of both sides fell distinctly short of moral grandeur. General de Gaulle's appeal to international arbitrage was nevertheless singularly powerful. It seemed difficult to deny that Syria was only one element in Near Eastern policy, about which the Arab League had just made a pronouncement, and that this policy was of interest to all the Great Powers. The refusal of Britain and the United States to recognize this, just after the end of the San Francisco Conference, was not founded on very convincing arguments. It does not seem that the United States has ever had a really autonomous policy in the Middle East. In Syria, Mr. Wadsworth constantly supported General Spears and the United States aligned its policy in general with Britain's. This attitude was explained in France as due to the American appetite for oil. Declarations made by Mr. Ickes in 1944 revealed the importance that the United States attaches to fuel reserves in the Middle East. Of the seven planned pipe-line routes from Arabia, two end at Tripoli or Beirut. The companies prefer to deal with independent states; and American diplomacy doubtless had to take account of such interests.
But neither should one overlook the cultural factor. Instruction at the American University in Beirut, basically a Protestant institution, can make progress only to the detriment of Roman Catholic teaching by the French Jesuits. It is to be noted that one of the first Lebanese laws brought studies into line with American programs. The elimination of French as a study in the primary schools, and the growth of Anglo-Saxon political and economic prestige, may well result in English becoming the second language of the entire Near East. The prospect may please Americans as much as Englishmen.
It is difficult to isolate cultural interests from political attitudes. An educator in a foreign land cannot be an unconcerned spectator of events. American public opinion, moreover, sympathizes with Arab aspirations for independence; and the Arabs, on their side, look on Americans as a generous people and on the United States as free from imperialistic ambitions. In part, too, the American attitude in the Syrian affair was doubtless determined by the blunders or delays of the French authorities. More recently it has been reinforced by the opportunities which such disturbances offer to Soviet penetration.
The conflict in the Levant likewise had repercussions in French internal politics. It made the first dent in General de Gaulle's prestige and in informed circles it stimulated the demand for a regular régime under parliamentary control. The Government's defense of its policy was not received with enthusiasm by the Consultative Assembly, which gave strong evidence of its desire to clear up misunderstandings and reëstablish cordial relations with England. Despite General de Gaulle's acceptance of the transfer of the special troops, the Syrians and Lebanese, fearful now of an Anglo-French understanding, became more intransigent.
General de Gaulle persists in believing that the solution of the Syrian question should precede a general agreement. The British Labor Government, while realizing the mistakes of British policy, do not wish in any way to help reëstablish French authority. The staffs of the French Foreign Office and the British Colonial Office are far from showing a very conciliatory spirit. Indeed, it cannot be said that Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant has lost any of its sharpness. If any solution is to be found, the problem of the Mid dle East must be treated as a whole.