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France and the Levant/Chapter 8

 

VIII. The Lebanon

Shortly after the Crimean War events provided France with another opportunity which she was quick to seize. Syria had suffered grievously in the long duel between Mahmud and Mehemet Ali; and, though the Ottoman Empire was enabled by Palmerston to maintain its possession of the province, its prestige had suffered and the administration was weak and inefficient. Liberated from the firm hand of Ibrahim, the races and creeds of Syria resumed their quarrels. During the Egyptian occupation Christians were told by their priests that Mehemet Ali was the friend of France; but the consideration shown to non-Moslems was bitterly resented by their neighbours. Till 1840 the Maronites (Christians) and Druses (Mohammedans) of the Lebanon were governed by Sheikhs and Emirs, the central power being exercised by the (Moslem) Shehab family, which received its investiture from the Sultan. Before the Egyptian occupation an annual tribute was paid to the Porte; and in certain circumstances a contingent of soldiers had to be provided for service in the Ottoman army. In 1841, after the expulsion of the Egyptians and the Shehab Emir Beshir, Druses and Maronites flew at each other's throats. When, by 1843, Turkish efforts to restore direct government had failed, the five Great Powers intervened and compelled the Sultan to cancel the appointment of a single Turkish Governor and to divide the region into a Maronite mountain and a Druse mountain, with a Christian chief for the Maronites. A renewal of war took place in 1845, when the Maronites determined to expel the Druses and demanded the reinstatement of the Shehab family. The Porte refused and sent a strong force into the Lebanon, but ultimately conceded a council composed of Christians and Druses. After the Crimean War the reiteration in the Hatti Hamayun of the promise of equal rights to Christians and Jews led the Druses to believe that the Maronites were to be supreme in the Lebanon; and in 1859 blood again began to flow.

The fighting in the Lebanon was followed in 1860 by fierce attacks on the Christians of Damascus. The Turkish Governor, finding that Moslem lads had been insulting the Christians by making crosses on the roads in the Christian quarter and then trampling and spitting on them, ordered some of the culprits to be put in chains and to clean the district. They were quickly liberated by the passers-by; and the excited mob then attacked the Christians and plundered some of the European Consulates. On the eve of the Damascus massacres the Sultan had sent Fuad Pasha to restore order in the Lebanon, and when he heard of the new explosion he issued a stern threat of reprisals against individuals and towns which should insult a Christian.

Had these events, so common in the Ottoman dominions, occurred elsewhere, little notice would have been taken of them; but Syria was bound to France by the ties of memory and ambition, and nothing that happened there could be indifferent to her ruler, himself the nephew of the invader of 1799. It was no longer a question of supporting a rival claimant to Syria, as in the reign of Louis Philippe, but of occupying the country with French troops. On the news of the Damascus massacres the French Minister of Foreign Affairs informed the French Ambassador in London that France merely desired to discover, in concert with other Governments and with the Porte, the best means of obtaining the compensations due to humanity and of re-establishing peace in Syria. His proposal was for the joint occupation of Syria by French and British troops; and Great Britain assented, but in the end sent no military force.

On August 7 the Emperor addressed the departing troops:

 

"Soldiers, you are going to Syria, not to make war against any Power, but to aid the Sultan to bring back to obedience those of his subjects who have been blinded by fanaticism. In this distant land, rich in glorious memories, you will prove yourselves worthy descendants of those heroes who have gloriously carried there the banner of Christ."

 

The troops (barely 6000 in all) landed at Beirut, marched to within a few miles of Damascus, restored order, and withdrew. So far as the Lebanon was concerned, the problem was solved by the Organic Statute of 1861, confirmed in 1864, which constituted the district a Vilayet and granted autonomy under a Christian Governor approved by France and Great Britain. In theory the integrity of the Ottoman Empire was maintained; but French prestige had been enhanced, and her intervention secured peace to the Lebanon till the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.