The Last Battle of Syria

Yusuf al-Azmah

This is a story of a Syrian hero. His name is still honored, his statue stands in the center of Damascus and stories about him are still being told in the noisy cafes of the Syrian cities. If you wish to understand that country, this is a story you should read.

In 1920 a new kingdom was born. Basing on promises given by the British Empire, prince Faisal, the commander of the Arab Revolt against the Turks and son of Hussein, the ruler of Hejaz, declared himself king of Greater Syria. Back then the map of the ME looked nothing like today. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel didn’t exist and those lands were all one piece, with Damascus as center. Jerusalem was a remote, minor city, and Jewish settlers only began building the future Israel. World War I was just over and the region was still troubled. Future was unclear.

Some time before, Faisal met Haim Weizmann, president of the British Zionist Federation and future president of the state of Israel. This meeting and others that followed produced an agreement between the two national movements. Faisal declared that if the British will stand behind their promises and an Arab kingdom will be created, he would like to see the Jews creating their home in the ME and assisting the development of his kingdom. But the British didn’t.

Haim Weizman (left) and prince Feisal, 1918

During World War I, the British Empire fought the Turkish one. The British base was in Egypt and from there they wished to move north and east. But moving wasn’t simple. Unfriendly climate, difficult terrain and long supply lines stood between them and their victory. The Turkish army, although not being the greatest fighting force in the history of warfare, still was a serious opponent.  

But the Brits were professional soldiers and masters of diplomacy, excellent students of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. They knew that the best victory is gained without fighting at all. They knew that it is good to have someone else fighting your wars. They knew that promises are cheap, but for a desperate man they are a treasure. So they went and found themselves desperate men.

In the last years of the war at the ME they promised everything to everyone. To the Arabs they promised their kingdom, and the Arabs rebelled, attacking the Hejaz railway, taking Aqaba and moving to Damascus. To the Jews they promised a “national home” in Palestine, and the Jewish people rallied around Britain, creating fighting regiments and collecting intelligence in Palestine. And to their French allies they promised a segment of the ME, a fair part of the loot. This was a promise they meant to keep.

And so, only a month after the Syrian kingdom was born a French mandate over it was declared by the League of Nations. The newly created and independent Syria was given to France. One state was presented as a trophy to another.

French forces were already active on the Syrian borders by 1920 and now General Henri Gouraud issued an ultimatum, demanding the Syrians to accept the mandate and to disband their army. Invasion was about to begin. King Faisal, understanding that he was betrayed and that he has no chance against the French forces, agreed. He was ready to accept foreign rule and the army was dissolved. However, his message never reached Gouraud, or so he claimed. The French invaded.

Yusuf al-Azmah was a Syrian born officer in the Turkish army. When WWI ended, he returned to Damascus and became minister of war. His main mission was creation of an army – which he did. That was the same army that now went home, following the king’s orders. In this state of anarchy, al-Azmah began to act, some say despite the king’s will. He called for volunteers and gathered 3000 men – both former soldiers and civilians. There were no uniform for all, no ammunition, no clear chain of command and no chance of winning the battle. They marched to Maysalun, 20 kilometers west to Damascus, in order to make a stand.

He met the French at the morning of July 24th. They had tanks, he had horses. They had troops from all over their empire. He had 270 rounds per rifle. They had planes. He had guns that went through the revolt in the desert or the Turkish tranches. They won. He and half of his men perished. They entered Damascus the next day.

The day they French took the city, General Gouraud, soon to become the first High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon, went to the tomb of Salah a-Din, the man who crushed the crusaders 733 years before. He kicked the grave, saying: “The crusades have ended now! We have returned!” And the French mandate began.

al-Azmah square, Damascus

Yusuf al-Azmah is a national hero in Syria. For the Syrian people he symbolizes the will of freedom and the readiness to pay the price. He became what so many leaders and self-proclaimed leaders in the ME tried to become – a mythical figure, accepted by all. Today, his story is still relevant, and even though this is written on the other side of the border, and from the other side of the conflict, his courage is to be respected and he is a man that one should know, if he wishes to understand Syria a bit more.

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