Syria's Quest for Independence, 1939-1945, by Salma Mardam Bey. Reading, UK Ithaca Press, 1994. xxxii + 227 pages. Append. to p. 232. Bibl. to p. 235. Index to p. 242. $55.
Reviewed by Philip S. Khoury
Scholarship on Syria during the Second World War has focused principally on Anglo-French wartime relations and rivalries.(1) It has paid some attention to the activities of the Syrian and Lebanese independence movements, but only as secondary phenomena or an afterthought. There is no satisfying history, told from the Syrian perspective, of how Syria achieved independence during World War II.(2)
Salma Mardam Bey has attempted to fill this void. Her history is idiosyncratic because it is based in large measure on the unpublished correspondence and memoranda of her father, the late Jamil Mardam Bey, a leading Syrian nationalist politician of the French mandate era. Although she also uses British and French archival material and the published memoirs of some of the main British and French political actors, her narrative stresses the role her father played in the events of that period.
Jamil Mardam Bey was a major actor in Syrian politics during the first half of the 20th century. He was the Syrian nationalist most engaged in daily diplomacy with Free French officials--including General Charles de Gaulle and General Georges Catroux (Commander-in-Chief of the Free French in the Levant)--and the nationalist the French most respected. This was because he was fundamentally moderate in his views and spoke excellent French. In many ways, Mardam Bey was the model Syrian politician of the period. He hailed from a prominent Damascene family of absentee landlords and was educated in Paris. During World War I he joined the secret Arab nationalist society, al-Fatat. He participated in the Syrian Revolt of 1925-27, and was a founder of the most important inter-war Syrian nationalist organization (the National Bloc). In the late 1930s he served as Syria's first nationalist prime minister, and when Syria became independent at the end of World War II he became its first foreign minister. Although he continued to be politically active in the years after independence, he earned his reputation in the pre-independence era.
Syria's Quest for Independence begins with an article Jamil Mardam Bey wrote in 1939, just after the French High Commissioner had suspended the Syrian constitution and dismissed parliament. Mardam Bey himself had resigned as prime minister a few months earlier. He had been roundly criticized by other nationalists for making unfavorable concessions to the French in an attempt to get them to sign the independence treaty he had helped to negotiate in 1936. Mardam Bey's article is a subtle defense of his own actions cast in the light of French equivocation over the rights of Syria to national self-determination.
The rest of the book is mainly about Mardam Bey's wartime efforts, in and out of government, to negotiate Syria's independence from France without first having to sign a treaty. The author reveals much interesting information about Syrian, or at least about Mardam Bey's, perceptions of Britain's military and diplomatic presence in Syria during the war, and, in particular, about the controversial role of Edward Spears, who was Winston Churchill's representative in the Levant. …