Colonial Origins of the Syrian Security State

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Qanawati neighborhood of the Syrian capital Damascus, dated 1900. (Photo: AFP)

By: Michael Provence, Jamal Wakim

Published Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On the morning of 14 August 1925 intelligence officers working in the French League of Nations mandate for Syria and Lebanon recovered the following poster. It had been pasted the previous night on walls in the market place in Hums, Syria’s fourth largest town, in between Hamâh and Damascus.

To all Patriots:

The time has come to rise from our slumber and cease our silence. The hour of vengeance, of sacrifice, and of liberty has arrived. We shall cast off the chains of silence and gain our liberty by spilling our blood to save our homeland from the clutches of the tyrants and give voice to independence and liberty...

Long live Syria, independence, and liberty.[1]

The authorities immediately identified and sought seven boys for writing and posting the tract. The commander in chief of the intelligence service, or Service des Renseignements (SR), received a telephone report from the SR chief of Homs:

Four young men, one of whom was ‘Adnân, son of Hâshim Bey al-Atâsî, were arrested by local authorities for writing tracts posted in the town on the night of August 13. Three other young men are implicated in the plot. All belong to the Atâsî family. Four have confessed. Investigations continue. The Mutasarrif has requested that the accused be transferred to his custody. (end transcription).[2]

SR intelligence officers immediately investigated the revolutionary posters. The municipality, or mutasarrifiyya, attempted to assert legal jurisdiction, but mandatory intelligence took control of the investigation. The local SR officer telephoned the Damascus SR chief, who conveyed the tract and initial report to mandate SR headquarters in Beirut. Suspicions centered on young men of the prominent Atâsî family, eight of whom the SR and police detained on August 15. Interrogations took place during the night of August 15-16 , and police seized and interrogated five more suspects on the 16th.[3] Several of the young men were questioned more than once, and the inquiries took place over the course of three days. Many interviews took place at night, and suspects were detained in the Homs police station. Intelligence officers took handwriting samples from several boys for comparison with the handwriting on the unsigned tracts.[4]

The secret interrogation transcripts of the investigation were translated into French and preserved. The original Arabic transcripts were not preserved, and while the documents contain what purport to be the actual testimony of the young men being questioned, the interrogators are silent; their questions, techniques, and actions are completely absent from the record. In many places, drastic changes in a single testimony are only separated by a paragraph break. The reader is left to wonder what made the young interview subject suddenly contradict all his preceding testimony. The breaks and dramatic reversals within many of the statements suggest torture or violent coercion, and while there is no direct evidence in the investigation record, such methods were a regular feature of mandate rule.[5] There were no lawyers present.

The investigation illustrates the subversion of the supposed legal structures of the mandate. In theory, investigatory jurisdiction lay with the mutasarrifiyya, or local government, and the local police. When the governor, or mutasarrif, determined a crime had been committed, jurisdiction to prosecute lay with civilian criminal courts. The martial law decrees, however, had established military authority above civilian authority at the discretion of the High Commissioner, and military courts, above civilian courts, which had effectively ceased functioning for criminal cases during the revolt.[6] SR intelligence officers took custody of the Homs suspects from the municipal police, conducted interrogations without lawyers present, and tried the accused without legal representation in a secret military court. The local governor and the boys’ families repeatedly requested that they be placed in civilian custody, but this request was merely recorded and ignored.[7]

Liberal language and legal structures characterized French mandatory rule. From the beginning, however, there was an irreducible contradiction between liberal ideals and the imposition of a system of colonial rule by violence or threat of violence. When mandate functionaries encountered resistance from the population, the predictable response was an abandonment of liberal theory and recourse to military suppression, secrecy, and attendant undemocratic practices. Liberal language shrouded illiberal practice and established habits of rule that endured beyond the end of the mandate. The idealism of French liberty and republicanism could not withstand the periodic imperative to employ mass violence against a hostile population. It was at such a moment that the boys from Homs were arrested, interrogated, secretly tried, and imprisoned.

Ultimately four boys were tried, and all the others were released “due to lack of evidence and in consideration of their young ages.”[8] A closed military court found ‘Abd al-Razzâq Khânkhân, Samîh al-Atâsî, Ahmad Chalabi, and ‘Abd al-Hay al-Atâsî guilty of acts of provocation against the mandate. Notably the boys tried and jailed were clearly from the most modest families among those questioned. Only 17-year-old ‘Abd al-Razzâq Khânkhân was still a student, all the others, including 16-year-old carpenter Samîh al-Atâsî had been working in trades. They were each sentenced to between two and three years in prison and fines of 3,000 francs each.

The trial took place on 3 December, 1925, by which time they had already been in prison for three and a half months. The court was convened under article 150 of the French code of Military Justice, which covered crimes committed under martial law and allowed for the suspension of civil law with its attendant legal guarantees. The boys were charged with crimes under the articles 87, 89, and 91 of the French Penal Code, number 24, of the Law of 29 July 1881. These articles covered crimes against internal state security, specifically, efforts to overthrow the government by incitement to armed revolt against the state, punishable by imprisonment, and incitement to civil war, massacre, and pillage, punishable by death.

In late April 1926, after eight and half months in jail, the four boys were released. Commander in Chief of the French Army of the Levant, General Maurice Gamelin, had written a letter to the Minister of War, and the director of the Bureau of Military Justice arguing that the political interests of the mandatory government would be best served by releasing the four prisoners. The political prominence of their relatives doubtlessly played a role, and the timing of the release request corresponded with the launch of a massive French counterinsurgency campaign in the regions held by rebel forces south of Damascus. The release of the four prisoners was approved shortly thereafter by a presidential request conveyed via the Minster of War in Paris.[9] The sentences were commuted, but their families had already paid the 3,000 francs, which was a colossal sum of money in 1925, sufficient to finance tuition, room, and board for four years at Damascus University.[10] While the case of the Atâsî boys had obviously received special attention, hundreds of other Syrians received perfunctory military trials in late 1925 and 1926.

In 1926 alone the Damascus military court sentenced, condemned, and executed 355 Syrians without any legal representation. Public hangings were a regular spectacle. Hundreds were tried and sentenced to death in absentia. Scores more were sentenced to varying terms including life at hard labor.[11] Between 1925 and 1927 mandate troops summarily executed hundreds and perhaps thousands of Syrians in their villages, towns, and urban quarters. Mandate military forces publicly displayed the mutilated corpses of “bandits” in the central square in Damascus and in villages throughout Syria.[12]


Mandate intelligence blamed the appearance of the Homs tracts on privileged young law students. And while the investigation and trial eventually focused on younger boys of more modest origin and education, the law students and the elite families of Homs remained in the background. Based on other information, apparently unavailable to mandate intelligence, three young law students were more intimately involved with the tracts than authorities realized. It is impossible to say if the investigation and trials were part of a government campaign to silence and terrorize some among it most prominent critics, or conversely, if the very prominence of the Atâsî family served to protect its young men from harsher punishment. Perhaps some deal was struck to offer up younger boys for punishment, and protect the town’s most promising young men.

All the Middle East mandates of the interwar years were challenged by revolts. The uprisings mobilized humble members of society, particularly former Ottoman army officers and conscripts. All the revolts featured eloquent appeals to nationalist struggle, human rights, and patriotic sacrifice in the form of anonymous postings and leaflets. Many of the leaflets evoked the Rights of Man, the ideals of the French Revolution, rights of free association and religion, and the wish for constitutional law.[13] In Damascus, at the same time as the appearance of the Homs tracts, mandate intelligence surmised that such postings were the work of university law students, and yet none were caught or even identified. Syrian elites were generally unsympathetic to the rebellion. But the young, particularly former and current law students, were, according to a special mandate intelligence report on elite Syrian opinion, “unable to contain their enthusiasm and were imbued with ideas of revolution and independence.” Young law students saw the revolt as part of an international struggle against European colonialism. They wrote to newspapers and sympathetic political organization in Europe, and eventually several young lawyers joined the rebels.[14]

The role of radical lawyers in anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century is obvious and well known. It should thus not be a surprise that revolutionary agitation in Syria was not the work of rebellious peasants and army veterans, but rather the work of intellectuals of a new and radical generation, raised under colonial rule after the end of the Ottoman state. Just as legal structures legitimated French mandate rule, the mandate’s most sophisticated critics used legal arguments to attack the hypocrisy and violence of France’s empire.

French mandate legal and constitutional structures were not designed to protect the rights of mandatory citizens. As observers noted at the time, so-called liberal imperialism was designed to earn praise from the international community, affirm French national prestige, and dull-leftist criticism back in France. Under the imperatives of mass opposition to mandate rule, however, the cosmetic façade of liberal and constitutional rule fell away to be replaced by hasty structures of military rule, mass violence, arbitrary detention, and secrecy. Actual mandatory practice undermined the application of the rule of law and constitutional legal structures at every juncture. Colonial advocates and civil servants offered liberal structures and language as a justification for the imperial project, not as goals to be achieved by mandatory government. It is certainly not a coincidence that many such practices have been lasting features of Syria’s post-colonial governments.[15]

Syrian lawyers challenged the colonial security state with arguments for durable democratic and constitutional structures and the application of legally guaranteed rights for citizens. It seems likely that the experience of military occupation and colonial rule cemented an aspiration for constitutional government and the rule of law. At least two of the young men named in the Homs investigation went on to illustrious careers as legal scholars and political activists. The father of Adnân al-Atâsî, Hâshim al-Atâsî, was soon elected president of Syria’s constitutional assembly. Hâshim al-Atâsî was among the authors of the 1928 constitution, and later twice served as democratically elected president of independent Syria.

The French mandate and its debasement of political culture have had lasting influence on Syria. Façades of liberal rule masked illiberal practice as intelligence and security bureaucracies intruded into every area of life. Martial law decrees, emergency laws, extra-judicial detention, and habits of military rule trace their roots to the mandate and continue to subvert rule of law and meaningful constitutional government. And today, as in 1925 Syrian lawyers and human rights advocates are at the forefront of the struggle for a state governed by laws.

Michael Provence is the director of the Middle East Studies Programs at University of California San Diego

Jamal Wakim is chairperson of Communication Arts at Lebanese International University

An Arabic version of this article appeared in the series “The Great Syrian Revolt” published in al-Adab Magazine (, Issue 7-9-2011). Al-Adab was founded by author, literary critic, and renowned linguist Suheil Idriss in 1953. Currently it is published by his son, Samah Idriss, who is also an author, critic, and activist. Al-Adab is a primary source and record of Arab cultural, social, and political debate and discourse


[1] MAE-Nantes, carton 1704, BR 149, 17 August 1925. The individual entry in this intelligence bulletin was dated 18 July 1925, while all other entries are dated 17 August. The date of July is probably an error, and other intelligence documents indicate the accused were arrested in mid-August, days after the tract appeared.
[2] Handwritten phone message, and typed transcription, 17 August 1925. MAE-Nantes, carton 1593, tracts divers, commandement superieur des troupes du Levant, Justice Militaire, no. 2993/J.M., 29 April 1926. This file is a 22 page documentary history of the case, including interrogation transcripts.
[3] MAE-Nantes, Carton 1704, BR 149, 17 August 1925, p.4-5. The translated tract and initial telephone report was included in the general intelligence bulletin for 17 August 1925. The final intelligence file included 22 pages of reports, correspondence, judgments, and translated interrogation transcripts with 13 suspects.
[4] MAE-Nantes, Carton 1593, “tracts divers,” DROGMANAT:-Beyrouth, 7 September 1925, p.13 of 22.
[5] See Bennett J. Doty The Legion of the Damned: The Adventures of Bennett J. Doty in the French Foreign Legion as Told by Himself (New York: 1928), John Henry Harvey, With the Foreign Legion in Syria (London: 1928), Alice Poullea, À Damas sous les bombes: Journal d’une Française pendant la révolte Syrienne, 1924-1926 (Paris: 1926).
[6] Haut-Commissariat du mandat français, La Syrie et le Liban sous l’occupation et le Mandat francais, 1919-192, p.51-57.
[7] MAE-Nantes, Carton 1593, “tracts divers,” DROGMANAT:-Beyrouth, 17 August 1925.
[8] MAE-Nantes, Carton 1593, “tracts divers,” DROGMANAT:-Beyrouth, 17 August 1925, p.22 of 22.
[9] MAE-Nantes, Carton 1593, “tracts divers,” Commandement Superieur des Troupes du Levant, Justice Militaire, No. 2993, 29 April 1926.
[10] ‘Abdul-Karim Rafeq, “The Syrian University,” an unpublished paper delivered at the Fourth International Conference on Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, July 2005, Friedrich-Alexander Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.
[11] Haut-Commissariat du mandat français, La Syrie et le Liban sous l’occupation et le Mandat français, 1919-1927 (Paris: 1928), p.53. See the 'Great Revolt Mixed Court' files at the Syrian National Archive, mu×âkamat al-mukhtaliåa, Markaz al-Wathâ’iq al-Târîkhiyya, Damascus.
[12] “un splendide tableau de chasse,” headline in the French language official newspaper La Syrie quoted in Alice Poullea, À Damas sous les bombes, p.80-81, and The Times, “Parade of Corpses,” 27 October 1925.
[13] The best example among many is the rebel manifesto signed, but probably not written, by Sultân al-Atrash on 23 August 1925. MAE-Nantes, carton 1704, BR 155, 28 August 1925. It appeared in the archives of France, Britain, and the League of Nations, as well as newspapers in Cairo, Paris, London, and Detroit.
[14] MAE-Nantes, Carton 1704, BR 328, 2 December 1925.
[15] On this point see Hâshim ‘Uthmân, Muhâkamât al-siyâsiyya fî sûriyya (Beirut: 2004) [Political Trials in Syria].


This article is right to point out the repressive and authoritarian nature of the French colonial presence. But it tells little about "the colonial origins of the Syrian security state". The current Syrian regime is a security state; the French colonial regime was a security state. But is there really a genealogy between the two? Was the Baathist administration directly inherited from the French colonial system? Do we find the same administrative processes? I don't think so. Or at least the article does not prove it.

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