The revolt turned civil war has held all Syrians by the throat since 2011. Entire cities have been pounded to dust. The social fabric of the ancient land has collapsed, and so has the economy, along with the people’s moral. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have drowned in blood — others in the waters of the Mediterranean fleeing their war-torn country. Ancient mosques have been levied to the ground. Innocents have been decapitated at the hands of the Islamic State of Abu Baker al-Baghdadi. The country as we knew it is now history.
The regime still holds Damascus proper and the port cities of Latakia and Tartous but Idlib in the Syrian north has fallen to Turkish-backed rebels, and al-Raqqa has become capital of the Islamic State. With so much happening today, entire chunks of Syria’s modern past have become rather irrelevant. People are tired, hungry, homeless — and stateless. They care little to know about Ottoman Damascus, for example, or to read about the glorious struggle of their grandfathers against French imperialism, or the coups and counter-coups that rocked Syria in the 1950s and 1960s. The pain and anguish, however, ought to have triggered the exact opposite interest among ordinary Syrians. With so much destroyed today and the future looking painfully bleak, all Syrians have left now is a glorious past for them to thump chests. At one point, just four years ago, people were dying to re-discover the story of pre-Baath Syria. The decline of traditional values, topped with the lack of trustworthy politicians should have sparked interest in the nation’s founding fathers who embodied traits that are completely lacking in what remains of Syria today. King Faisal I, although never really a Syrian, was one of them.
Twenty years ago, American historian Richard Brookhiser published a book called Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. In light of “moral decay” in the upper echelons of Washington DC and coming at the heals of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he reminded readers how the United States was at the times of the founding fathers, and where it stood in the mid-1990s. The only way forward would be to follow in the footsteps of George Washington, he said. Brookhiser described his work as a “moral biography,” serving as a substitute to the “contemporary failure of (political) fatherhood.” In this light, King Faisal was the George Washington of Iraq and one of the co-founders of modern Syria. This specifically is why his new biography, Faisal I of Iraq by Ali Allawi, is vital for the Middle East library.
In fact, published by Yale University Press in 2014, it is one of the best books yet published on the Faisal Era, either in Arabic or in English, surpassed perhaps only by the highly acclaimed The Emergence of Arab Nationalism (1958) by AUB Professor Zein Zein, and the little known but meticulously well-researched The First Modern Arab State: Syria under Faisal I (1985) by Malcolm Russell. Unlike his Arab and American predecessors, Ali Allawi is a red-blooded Iraqi author, academic, and politician with family roots interwoven with the modern history of Iraq. He served as Iraq’s first civilian defense minister in the post-Saddam government of his uncle, Iyad Allawi. Ali Allawi is of very different creed than most Arab writers and politicians of today; he knows his subject matter well, and clearly, he is very passionate about Faisal and the Iraq that was — and probably will never return. He is also passionate about Damascus and does it good justice in his new book.
Faisal I (1885-1933) served as monarch in both Syria and Iraq; a total of 21 months in Damascus and 12-years in Baghdad. Myself being a specialist on pre-Baath Syria, I have focused in this review on Allawi’s portrayal of Faisal’s years in Damascus, from October 1918 to July 1920. They are covered in chapters 8-14, a total of 170-pages. What makes his findings so interesting is that Allawi goes where no Faisal historian has gone before — into the nitty-gritty details of his Damascus years, his relationship with the Syrian upper class, who pledged their allegiance to the man but always considered him as something of an “imported” monarch. The book fails to mention Faisal’s relationship with Syria after his exodus of 1920. The young Emir continued to harbor an ambition to rule Syria and offered himself as a suitable candidate every time a vacancy emerged in the seat of power in Damascus. Shortly before his death at a Swiss hospital in 1933, Faisal traveled to Paris, proposing a merger between Syria and Iraq. The capital would rotate between Damascus and Baghdad, he said, and he would reside six months in each. The idea of course was flatly rejected by the French and Faisal died that September, never setting eyes on Damascus again. It also fails to tell us much about the inner working of Faisal’s family and palace in Damascus, keeping this for the Iraqi section of the king’s career.
Ali Allawi tells us how Faisal first came Damascus to meet with the terrible Jamal Pasha, the hated and loathed military governor of Ottoman Damascus, in 1915. This is where he joined al-Fatat, a clandestine society of Arab revolutionaries bond by protocols of secrecy bent on bringing an end to Ottoman rule in the Arab world. In 1916, he led an army of Arab rebels, headed by his father Sharif Hussein of Mecca and aided by the famous British colonel TE Lawrence, better known by his mythical name, “Lawrence of Arabia.” The last Ottoman troops evacuated Damascus at 6:00 AM on 26 September 1918, putting an end to four centuries of Ottoman rule. On 1 October 1918, Arab troops marched into the liberated city, destroyed by four days of looting, fires, rape, and theft. The breakdown of law and order gave hoodlums and thieves a free hand to terrorize Damascene society. Emir Faisal marched triumphantly on a splendid Arabian into Damascus on 3 October, accompanied by 1,500 horsemen.
The dramatic scene is described in meticulous detail by Allawi. History was being made, as women threw rice and rosewater from balconies, young men danced on sidewalks, and shots were fired in the air from old rusty weapons. Children waved for the young Emir, carrying flags of the Arab Revolt. Faisal’s troops headed toward Marjeh Square, the scene of Jamal Pasha’s 1916 execution of Arab nationalists, and before sunset, hoisted the Arab Flag over the Damascus Town Hall. Lawrence’s boss, General Edmund Allenby made an even more dramatic entrance into the Syrian capital, wearing his shining English coat of arms and driving a convertible white Rolls Royce. The proud Damascenes watched in bewilderment and awe, having never before seen such an automobile. In his all-time classic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Colonel Lawrence describes the scene: “Every man, woman, and child in this city of a quarter-million souls seemed on the streets, wanting only the spark of our appearance to ignite their spirits. Damascus went mad with joy! “
While the Ottomans panicked out of Damascus, Faisal watched them destroy their weapons and set their stockpile of ammunition ablaze. Lawrence adds: “They fired the dumps and ammunition stores, so that every few minutes, we were jangled by explosions, whose first shock set the sky white with flames. I turned to (Colonel) Stirling and muttered, ‘Damascus is burning,’ sick to think of the great town in ashes for the price of freedom.” At the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, prayers were conducted the following Friday in the name of Faisal’s father Sharif Hussein, “king of the Arabs.” Emir Faisal declared that an Arab government would be established in Damascus, appointing an ex-Ottoman officer, Rida Pasha al-Rikabi, as military governor and prime minister of “liberated Syria.” The young Emir pardoned all those arrested during the Great War, confiscated Ottoman property, abolished the Turkish system of education, and packed his new state with Arabs from all stripes and colors to give them a share in nation-building.
The Rikabi Government, hailed as one of the most progressive in modern times, supervised the country’s first parliamentary elections in 1919 and debated important legislature, like giving women the right to vote. Faisal restored electricity to Damascus, which had been deliberately cut off by the Ottomans in 1917, and re-opened the faculties of medicine and law, which became cornerstone of the Syrian University in 1923. He also created the Arab Language Assembly, the highest authority of Arab men of letters worldwide—a prestigious institution that survives in Damascus until today. Faisal also commanded the Arabization of the Syrian bureaucracy and education sector, hiring distinguished academics to translate all textbooks, manuals, and correspondences from Ottoman Turkish into Arabic. He also had brilliant legal minds draft a new constitution for Syria—considered by lawmakers as the finest charter in Syria’s modern history. It never saw the light, however, due to the French onslaught of 1920.
This is where Islam had its first empire, with a proper bureaucracy, internal security, navy and postal service. Faisal himself was inspired by the Umayyads and saw himself as a natural successor to their founder, Muawiya I. The Umayyads were Islam’s first dynasty. They created an empire that grew rapidly in territory, incorporating the Caucasus, Sindh, the Maghreb, and the Iberian Peninsula, known as al-Andalus. At its peak, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 13.4 million km2. This made it the largest empire the world had ever seen and the fifth largest to ever exist in history. Deep inside, Faisal hoped to revive that lost glory for the Muslims and Arabs.
The relationship between Emir Faisal and Damascus nationalists was lukewarm, to say the least. It started out on a positive note and turned sour by early 1920. Faisal had all the necessary ingredients to make a good king. He had religious legitimacy, being the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. He also had plenty of war medals to his record, obtained during the Arab Revolt. Faisal traveled to France to attend the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and failed to obstruct European mandate claims to the Middle East. The British, in their famous correspondences with Sharif Hussein, had promised him an Arab kingdom to be ruled along with his sons Ali, Abdullah, and Faisal. Now that the Great War was over, Hussein wanted the British to fulfill their wartime promise.
French troops began landing on the Syrian coast that year and marched on Damascus in 1920, crushing Faisal’s troops at the Battle of Maysaloun, a massacre of Syrian troops that led to the killing of Faisal’s War Minister Yusuf al-Azma and to his permanent expulsion from Damascus. Syrian nationalists inherited the failed state that Faisal had left behind in 1920, and they spent their entire lives attempting to repair what Faisal — along with the Great Powers — did to Syria between 1918 and 1920.
Maysaloun left behind 1,400 dead and 1,600 wounded, along with four cannons destroyed from the French Army. Faisal’s defeat reeked of high treason from the Syrians. Around 1,700 people had volunteered for battle from the Zabadani suburb near Damascus, but did not show up on the day of Maysaloun, fleeing with the arms that had been distributed to them. Soldiers carried old and out-dated weapons, some dating back to the Arab Revolt and others to the 1890s. Some carried swords and even slings. Nothing could have had a more dramatic effect on King Faisal, than sitting behind his office desk in Damascus and hearing the horrific news of the battle, emerging slowly from Maysaloun. Bitter and crestfallen, Faisal bit his lips in sour fury, seeing everything he had dreamed of collapse before his very eyes. The next day, King Faisal fled Damascus to al-Kisweh, a small town on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.
It must have seemed an infinite distance, made unbearable by all the torment and anguish. He continued to entertain an illusion—that somehow, someway — he could reach an agreement with the French and return to his throne in Damascus. French airplanes dropped leaflets on al-Kisweh asking its residents to eject Faisal, or suffer military consequences. He was given twenty-four hours to leave Syria, with orders never to return. He eventually left on 27 July, heading to Haifa in Palestine via Daraa, a sleepy town near the border with modern Jordan. He then went to Europe, where he complained at having been left with no throne in Damascus, despite all goodwill gestures shown to the Great Powers. He was eventually compensated with a throne in Baghdad in 1921.
Apart from a major street carrying his name, and a battered plaque at the Faculty of Law at Damascus University, which he personally unveiled in 1919, there is monument to prove that King Faisal passed through Damascus less than one hundred years ago. His palace, which has since become the seat of power in Damascus, carries no photograph of the Bedouin Emir. No stamps were issued in his honor and the date of his crowning, 8 March 1920 — once celebrated as Syria’s original Independence Day — has since 1963 become the annual anniversary of the Baath Party coup. History books at Syrian state-run schools make passing reference to the man, and he has only once been depicted on screen, in a lopsided and historically flawed television drama produced in the 1990s. Consecutive generations of young Syrians have grown up barely knowing anything about the first — and last, king of Syria.
Anybody wanting to understand why Syria collapsed today, in 2015, needs to read its modern history more accurately, with a critical mind rather than blind eulogy and homage for a bygone era. This is where Ali Allawi’s book becomes a bible for Syrian scholars. Faisal suffered from systematic character slaughter by all those who succeeded him in Damascus. Because he was defeated, he became an easy target for nationalists, French collaborators, republicans, and pro-Saudi politicians who graced the scene between the 1930s and 1950s. When the Baathists came to power in 1963, they crossed off entire chunks of Syrian history; anything that came before them, they claimed, was capitalistic, imperialistic, elitist, backward, and flawed. By being Syria’s only 20th century monarch and founder of the first post-Ottoman Arab rule, Faisal should have received more than just passing mention. His political career was riddled with adventure and dashed dreams. He certainly lacked the patriotism of someone like President Shukri al-Quwatli, or the charisma of Gamal Abdul Nasser, but he nevertheless was an ambitious politician who laid the groundwork for what ensued in Syria’s modern political history.
Huffington Post, 4 May 2015