Damascus, 1925: The Bombing of the City, Humanitarian Relief and Petitioning for Syrian Independence to the League of Nations

Rubble in Damascus (22 October 1925), League of Nations Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1925 bombing of Damascus was part of a wider conflict that became known as the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-26. France had occupied Syria and Lebanon in the early 1920s under the aegis of the League of Nations mandates system. French occupation, despite its justification as a temporary and developmental arrangement, bore the marks of colonial paternalism and economic extraction that had led to widespread disillusionment and resentment among the Syrians by 1925. The division of the country into separate statelets and the increasing militarisation of the mandate government combined with more immediate causes leading to a full-blown revolt. In the Jabal Druze, local governor Gabriel Carbillet set out to transform the region through a program of road construction and land reform that made extensive use of forced labour. As disgruntlement grew and French repression followed, local leader Sultan Al-Atrash led a Druze revolt that fast became a national rising.

The French responded violently. They used airplanes to bomb villages accused of harbouring or assisting the rebels and employing colonial troops to ‘pacify’ the country. When the revolt reached Damascus, the French burned numerous villages around the city accused of sheltering insurgents, and, in early October 1925, paraded the dead bodies of two dozen of them through the streets of the city, leaving them exposed in a public square. On October 17, 1925, the members of the population assisted by insurgents attacked French troops in Damascus. The next day the French sent tanks into the city and began evacuating all troops before starting a vast bombardment. Between October 18-21, 1925, Damascus was under heavy fire from French airplanes and tanks. Whole neighbourhoods were destroyed and hundreds of its inhabitants were killed.

Well before the Syrian Revolt, humanitarian relief efforts had played a decisive role in the gradual establishment of French imperial occupation. Since the 1880s, Ottoman Syria’s economy had relied significantly on remittances from the diaspora in places such as Egypt and the Americas. Yet the wartime maritime blockade imposed on the territory led to a great famine. By 1918, as the Entente army arrived in Syria, food relief efforts became part of a wider plan of transformative occupation. Men such as Charles Corm, a Lebanese writer and business man and the civilian coordinator of food relief, partnered with the French army to lay the foundations of a pro-French humanitarian notability in Beirut. From starving the Ottoman population during the war to feeding it after the end of the conflict, the French employed a strategy of what Illana Feldman calls “tactical government”, in which humanitarian assistance played a vital role. Combining developmental agendas and emergency relief conducted by government and non-governmental actors such as the French Red Cross in Lebanon (CRFL), tactical government meant the piecemeal, temporary mode of rule that operated without long-term planning and made limited claims about governmental capacity. Through humanitarian assistance, questions concerning the legitimacy of mandatory power and occupation were held in abeyance, perpetually deferring the issue of national independence.

The bombing of Damascus marked a turning point in the politics of occupation and humanitarian assistance in Syria. By the 1920s colonialism was no longer a subject of discussion merely in the French press or parliament, where most critics stopped short of demanding its end and instead defended a ‘compassionate model’ of colonial domination. As the Syrian Revolt progressed, other humanitarian actors such as the Soviet Red Cross and Save the Children got involved in the resulting refugee crisis. Moreover, European colonial domination in general came under scrutiny by a host of new actors, from national liberation movements and the Communist International to liberal international institutions such as the Permanent Mandates Commission and the International Labour Organisation of the League of Nations. Geneva emerged as a new centre for debate about European empires and colonial policy.

Rubble of the Azm Palace (22 October 1925), League of Nations Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Damascus started to emerge, the revolt in Syria and its suppression gained increasing press attention and diplomatic censure. Reports of villages burned to the ground, the parading of rebel corpses and the bombing of a beautiful and ancient city – including the destruction of historic and cultural icons such as the Azm Palace – turned the assumption of a civilizing mission on its head. Hundreds of people were killed during the bombardment and entire districts were flattened. The neighbourhood of Al-Hariqa, referring to the great fire triggered by French bombs, keeps its name today from that episode.

As Susan Pedersen notes, no other controversy so rocked the very foundations of the mandate system as did the bombing of Damascus. Mandatory rule and humanitarian relief could no longer rely on easy assumptions about hierarchies of civilizations, “barbaric” rebels and Arab “fanatics” when even some within the West, including journalists and professors, began to see the revolt as a war of national liberation against an occupying power. The Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) of the League of Nations was inundated with telegrams and petitions from all over the world, a great share of which came from the Syrian diaspora.

From Rio de Janeiro to Berlin, Detroit to Lahore, appeals for humanitarian relief were replaced by telegrams calling for Syrian liberation and the intervention of the League. They condemned French atrocities and the betrayal of the “civilising mission”, denouncing the “unnecessary and coldblooded bombing of an ancient and open city” and the “killing of thousands of children and women”. The bombing turned a campaign for independence – mostly pursued by the Syrian-Palestinian Congress in Geneva – into a global mobilisation, exemplified by an American resident of Damascus in his disillusioned report to the Commission, claiming “the system of mandates has become a modern method of embraced colonisation and annexation”.

The PMC became a major centre for cataloguing, documenting and forwarding petitions to mandatory powers. Its archives contain a vast array of telegrams and appeals related to the bombing of Damascus. The incident consolidated the practice of petitioning, being an early precursor to this procedural aspect of most human rights regimes set up in the United Nations era. Petitioning was one way in which previously bilateral relationships between coloniser and colonised were triangulated, adding an international forum where new participants could have a voice and where some limited confrontation took place. Yet as many petitioners soon discovered, their letters were deemed “irreceivable” as the Commission’s Secretariat considered they brought no new information or consisted “chiefly of general abuse”. This was not a surprise since members of the PMC included the former French Governor General in Indochina, Jean-Baptiste Paul Beau, who was succeeded by the former French Governor General of French West Africa, Henri Merlin.

The widespread attention brought by the bombing of Damascus eventually led to the call for an extraordinary session of the Mandates Commission, which was held in Rome between February and March 1926. By then, however, the French representative could be sure that he would be taken for his word, while reports from Syrian nationalists and Western critics would be taken as misrepresentations. As the Commission reached its conclusions on the matter in its tenth session, it found that “there is no reason to affirm that the suppression of the revolt was carried out in an abnormal manner or was accompanied by reprehensible excesses”. International oversight, which was supposed to guarantee a more humane treatment of mandated peoples, instead sanctioned new forms of killing such as the aerial bombing of cities.

Historians like Michael Provence, Philip S. Khoury and James Daughton have explored the social and political circumstances of the Great Syrian Revolt and of the French mandate in Syria during the interwar period, but only recently has the role of international organisations such as the League of Nations been explored in more depth. Susan Perdersen’s work is a reference in this shift of focus, drawing attention to the interplay between humanitarianism and imperialism in the work of the Permanent Mandates Commission. There is also a growing number of historical works that look critically at the history of human rights and of humanitarianism, focusing on international law and on international institutions. Antony Anghie’s work has been fundamental in fostering critical histories in this field, and in drawing together histories of humanitarianism, international organisations and international law.

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Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Luís Paulo Bogliolo is a PhD candidate with the Laureate Program in International Law at Melbourne Law School. He researches across the fields of history and international law, with a focus on the laws of war, use of force and human rights. His interests include the history of the idea of distinction between combatants and non-combatants, aerial warfare, and critical approaches to international law. His doctoral thesis examines the bombing of civilians in the peripheries of empires and the idea of distinction in the history of the laws of war. He was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2017.