Reviving a Century-Old French Plan to Partition Syria

While the borders of the modern Middle East result largely from negotiations between the French and the British to divvy up former Ottoman territory during and after World War I, the story of their origins is more complicated than often assumed. Michel Gurfinkiel examines the original French plans for Syria, and their relevance for the country’s situation today:

[After World War I], in line with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the French and British divided the former Ottoman Middle East between themselves. While the British took over the southern Levant (Palestine on both banks of the Jordan River) and oil-rich Mesopotamia, the French occupied the northern Levant, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River and beyond—a 200,000 square-kilometer area they renamed Syria.

This arrangement was seen by Arab nationalists—who had been promised an independent and united state by the British and had convened a national congress in Damascus—as a cynical betrayal. This was exacerbated when their British-appointed king, Emir Faisal of Hejaz, was ousted from Damascus by the French in 1920 and had to resign himself to a diminished realm in Iraq only. The word nakba (“catastrophe”), which now applies primarily to the Palestinian plight, then came into use in the Arab press for the first time to describe the dismemberment of a stillborn Arab empire. . . .

The French quickly realized that their Syrian dominion—two million inhabitants in 1920—was a patchwork of conflicting communities. Charles de Gaulle, stationed as a young staff officer in Beirut from 1929 to 1931, dryly observed: “The people who live here never contented themselves with anything or anybody.” Still, some administrative framework had to be devised. The secretary-general of the French High Commissioner’s Office, Viscount Robert de Caix de Saint-Aymour, took up the challenge. . . . According to de Caix, Syria did not exist and would never exist. It had to be partitioned into smaller but more homogeneous entities. His first draft, in 1919, provided for two main states, centered around Damascus in the south and Aleppo in the north, and three smaller states: Lebanon, an Alawite state, and a Druze state. . .

These plans were interrupted by World War II, which led to independence for Lebanon alone, with the rest of the territory lumped together to create Syria:

In a nutshell, the Alawites coopted all non-Sunni and non-Arab minorities in order to check the Sunnis. The system was cemented by socialism—in effect, family and sectarian patronage—and a close alliance with the USSR. Once the Soviet empire fell, that started to unravel. The civil war that started in 2011 brought back to the surface a geopolitical Atlantis: de Caix’s map with only one major difference, namely, the assertiveness of Syria east of the Euphrates [in the territory now dominated by the Kurds].

Also back in Syria since 2015 have been the post-Soviet Russians. While they see the preservation of their Alawite ally as a priority, they are realistic enough to commend federalization as a long-term solution—especially since they know they are bound to compete with their Iranian allies and their Turkish allies-in-the-making. The Americans and the Europeans should not, at that point, leave it to the Russians alone. Nor should the Israelis.

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More about: France, History & Ideas, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Syrian civil war

European Aid to the Middle East Is Shaped by a Political Agenda

Feb. 18 2019

The EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Unit dispenses millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance to dozens of countries every year. Although it claims to operate on principles of strict neutrality, independent of any political motivation and giving priority to the neediest cases, a look at its activities in the Middle East suggests an entirely different approach, as Hillel Frisch writes:

[T]he Middle East is the overwhelming beneficiary of EU humanitarian aid—nearly 1 billion of just over 1.4 billion euros. . . . The bulk of the funds goes toward meeting the costs of assistance to Syrian refugees, followed by smaller sums to Iraq, Yemen, “Palestine,” and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, receives less than one-third of that amount. The problem with such allocations is that the overwhelming majority of people living in dire poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Bangladesh. . . . The Palestinians, who are richer on average than those living in the poorest states of the world, . . . receive over six euros per capita, while the populations of the poorest states receive less than one-eighth of that amount. . . .

Even less defensible is the EU’s claim to political neutrality. Its favoritism toward the Palestinians on this score is visible as soon as one enters terms into the general search function on the European Commission’s website. Enter “Palestine” and you get 20,737 results. Enter “Ethiopia” and you get almost the same figure, despite massive differences in population size (Ethiopia’s 100 million versus fewer than 5 million Palestinians), geographic expanse (Ethiopia is 50 times the size of “Palestine”), and degree of sheer suffering. The Syrian crisis, which is said to have led to the loss of a half-million lives, merits not many more site results than “Palestine.”

One of the foci of the website’s reports [on the Palestinians] is the plight of 35,000 Bedouin whom the EU assists, often in clear violation of the law, in Area C—the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. The hundreds of thousands of Bedouin in Sinai, however, the plight of whom is readily acknowledged even by Egyptian officials, gets no mention, even though Egypt is a recipient of EU aid. . . .

Clearly, the EU’s approach to aid allocation has nothing to do with impartiality, true social-welfare needs, or humanitarian considerations. [Instead], it favors allocations to Syrian refugees above Yemeni refugees because of the higher probability that Syrian refugees will find their way to Europe. . . . The recipients of European largesse who are next in line [to Syrians], in relative terms, are the Palestinians. [This particular policy] can be attributed primarily to the EU’s hostility toward Israel, its rightful historical claims, and its security needs.

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More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians