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Maysalun

MAYSALUN

site of armed combat between french and arab forces immediately prior to the french mandate over syria.

Khan Maysalun, a quiet market town on the highway between Beirut and Damascus just east of Alayh, won notoriety as the site of the 24 July 1920 clash between French troops and the armed forces of the Arab government in Damascus. The outcome eventuated in France's taking control of Syria for the ensuing quarter century.

British imperial troops occupied the cities of central Syria as soon as the Ottoman garrisons evacuated them in September 1918. With British acquiescence, an Arab government quickly established itself in Damascus, and Arab nationalists announced the creation of a similar administration in Beirut on 1 October. But when British forces entered Beirut a week later, the nationalist government was disbanded and French military governors took charge of Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre in the name of implementing the League of Nations mandate. The Arab leader in Damascus, Faisal I ibn Hussein, nevertheless toured Lebanon the following month and received an enthusiastic welcome from the populace in each city he visited. On 21 November, he returned to Beirut on his way to the Versailles peace conference.

While Faisal was in Europe, Britain and France negotiated the boundaries separating their respective zones of control in Syria, according to the terms of the wartime Sykes-Picot agreement. The division of Syria into British and French zones was confirmed at Versailles, over strenuous objections from the United States. By the next summer, it was clear that Britain intended to withdraw its troops from central Syria, prompting Faisal to press the British government to take over the mandate for the region. Britain refused to do this, and on 1 November 1919, while the amir was once again in Europe, British commanders in the Syrian interior turned over their positions to forces loyal to Faisal, while those in Lebanon relinquished their garrisons to French units. In the Biqa valley, Lebanese Christians attacked Syrian outposts, providing French commanders with a pretext to move into the area in force at the end of the month.

Faisal returned to Syria in mid-January 1920 and attempted to salvage his reputation, which had been badly tarnished during the months of fruitless negotiations with the French. He acquiesced in the General Syrian Congress's decision to declare Syria independent that March and accepted the title of monarch of the new unified kingdom of Syria. Not only did Britain, France, and the United States refuse to recognize Syrian sovereignty, but the authorities in Beirut responded to the declaration by proclaiming Lebanese independence under the mandatory authority of the French. Syria then set up a ministry of war under the leadership of Yusuf al-Azma, and King Faisal delivered a series of strongly worded speeches reaffirming the country's independence. Meanwhile, French troops pulled out of Cilicia and took up positions along the Lebanon-Syria border.

On 9 July 1920, the French military command in Beirut issued an ultimatum to the Arab government in Damascus, demanding immediate acceptance of the mandate throughout central Syria. Publication of the ultimatum sparked rioting in Damascus and Aleppo, but the Syrian cabinet reluctantly agreed to its terms on 20 July and dispatched a telegram to inform the French of its decision. The next morning, the Third Division of the Armée du Levant, made up of Senegalese, Moroccan, and Algerian battalions, advanced from Shtura and Zahiya toward Damascus and on 23 July encamped outside Khan Maysalun. An Arab force of some six hundred regular troops and two thousand volunteers led by al-Azma attacked the encampment at dawn the following day and were routed before noon. The Third Division pursued the retreating Arabs and marched into Damascus unopposed on 25 July. Three days later, the French commander ordered Faisal to leave for British-controlled Palestine, and the mandate era began. Maysalun became a symbol of heroic Arab resistance, in the face of insurmountable odds, to European domination.

see also faisal i ibn hussein; sykespicot agreement (1916).


Bibliography


Al-Husri, Abu Khaldun Sati. The Day of Maysalun: A Page from the Modern History of the Arabs, translated by Sidney Glazer. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1966.

fred h. lawson

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