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France, Syria and the meaning of historical responsibility

France, Syria and the meaning of historical responsibility

13.09.2013 • France/Syria •

France has a duty to care for Syria because of its “historical responsibility”. But things are not as simple as that. If there is any responsibility at all, what are we really talking about?

Whenever someone claims that France has “a historical responsibility” in any country in either Africa or the Middle East, things don’t look too good. This is what I was thinking recently while reading an interview with Ahmed Assi Jarba, in which the new president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) reminded Le Monde readers that “France has a historical responsibility in Syria, which would justify the presence of French forces alongside anti Bachar al-Assad opposition forces.

It does not sound good, as it broadly means that, if things go wrong, France, who played some sort of role in that country’s past, is now responsible for the existing mess, and would be well advised to help sort things out.

To put it straight: When you, French people, were there, you drew up arbitrary frontiers, bet on communitarianism, oppressed our people, imposed your values and language, plundered our resources; finally, if today the country is in a mess, it is your fault. Thus the conclusion: “It is high time you should clear your debts, as you have much to atone for”.

A heavy responsibility

As far as Syria is concerned, France’s “historical responsibility” is indeed heavy. On 16th May 1916, France and Great Britain secretly signed the Sykes-Picot agreements, thus carving up the Middle East and dismantling a region previously placed under Ottoman rule. Four years later, the League of Nations adopted and officialised French rule over Lebanon and Syria, while Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine were placed under Great Britain’s care.

Disregarding the League’s mandate to bring these countries to autonomy and independence, France brutally repressed Syrian nationalism. A strong believer in “divide and rule”, the French High Commissioner General Gouraud proceeded with the breakdown of the mandatory territory into 5 smaller states: the State of Great Lebanon, the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, to which was added the Sanjak of Alexandretta, the Jabal Druze State and the Alawite State.

 The French carving-up of Syria. Don-kun via Wikimedia Commons


In 1939, on the eve of WW2, France simply handed the Sanjak of Alexandretta over to Turkey, hoping to buy its neutrality in the looming conflict. Syria would never accept France’s arbitrary amputation of its territory. Only after another world conflict, a confrontation between the French free forces and Vichy’s regime, and a new bloody crackdown took place, did France eventually give in and accepted Syria’s independence.

Today, it is impossible to understand anything about the Syrian conflict if you know nothing about the history of the carving-up once done by the French along religious and ethnic lines: today’s map of the Syrian conflict is a cut-and paste of General Gouraud’s hundred year old map. Thus, the presumed “historical responsibility” of mandatory France in today’s conflict fault lines.

The French model and Baasist ideology

The president of the Syrian National Coalition may nevertheless have another reference in mind. It is not impossible he might be thinking of the “French model” which inspired the Baasist ideology that has been ruling the country since 1963 and which still serves as a reference for Bachar el-Assad who mainly kept the authoritarian aspect of it.

The Baas Party, founded in Syria in 1947 (before expanding to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon during the 50’s), combined Arab socialism with pan-Arabic nationalism. Its founders were French-speaking Syrian intellectuals such as Christian Michel Aflaq and Sunni Salah al-din al-Bitar. Its ideological cornerstone will sound quite familiar to a French ear: a secular and republican nation-state – such are the foundations of Baasism (also present in Turkey’s Kemalism).

From Jean-Pierre Chevènement to Michel Jobert and Jacques Chirac, from the republican and sovereignist Right to its equivalents in the Left, Baasism found many supporters in France. This is another lesser-known aspect of what could be seen as the “historical responsibility” of France in Syria.

Things get more complicated when people invoke this “historical responsibility” in an attempt to convince France that it should intervene in Syria, while others, on the contrary, use it as an argument to reject any form of intervention.

France has caused enough damage, it should stay where it is: we reject neo-colonialism, we can manage on our own”: how many times have I heard progressive Africans, mainly Algerians, say such things?

A second Libya

Back in 2011, during the fist months of the Syrian conflict, another version of this argument was quite common in the ranks of the opposition to Bachar el-Assad. In that instance, outstanding personality and co-founder of the Syrian National Council Bassma Kodmani was adamant France and the international community should not intervene at all – in no way could a “second Libya” be allowed to happen.

Today, the rhetoric has changed. Proof of it was Ahmed Assi Jarba (him again) speaking at the Arab League on 1st September. Pre-empting possible criticisms against Western interventionism at a time of looming air strikes, the president of the Syrian National Coalition declared:

“In the face of current events, empty slogans have no place anymore”


“National sovereignty makes no sense when dealing with a regime that opens its doors widely to any type of foreign intervention”

That was quite a turnaround.

Possible boomerang effect

Things remain ambiguous. Despite Ahmed Assi Jarba’s words of caution when advocating for a French intervention in the light of its “historical responsibility”, his argument might work like a boomerang. There no reason why the opposite side, that of the regime, should refrain from denouncing “France’s neo-colonialism or imperialism”.

François Hollande is probably well aware that the “historical responsibility” argument is a double-edged one: over the past few weeks, he has aligned himself on Barak Obama, not on Ahmed Assi Jarba. Just like the American head of state, the French president invoked France’s “moral obligation” to intervene in order to “punish” Bachar el-Assad, in virtue of a crime of universal magnitude which must be unanimously condemned. In that case, if I understood things well, we are dealing with a moral responsibility that all democracies must share, and no longer with France’s sole and only “historical responsibility”.

Ariane Bonzon

Photos: DR General Gouraud in Aleppo, July 1921. Vartan Derunian via Wikimedia Commons

Original french version (dates back to 13.09.2013) : Syrie: ça veut dire quoi, une “responsabilité historique”? 



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