In the Djebel Druz
THE whole story of the Druze rebellion against the French in Syria has never been told in the press, and for good reasons, since no European or American journalist ever undertook the difficult and hazardous journey through the desert to the headquarters of the rebels in the Djebel. The information in the French press was scanty and unreliable: the French authorities ordered the strictest censorship in Syria, and not a word was allowed to be reported except communications which bore the imprimatur of General Sarrail’s secretariat. No one can doubt that the French Administration in Syria was doing its best to make the world, and in particular the French people, believe that nothing was wrong in that quarter and that, except for a localized rebellion of a few Arab chieftains, order was being perfectly maintained. The representatives of the English press in Palestine had to depend on reports coming from Arabic sources, and these, representing every move made by the Druze forces as a great victory, gave quite as onesided a picture as the French news.
All this moved me to proceed from Jerusalem to the heart of the Druze country, and observe the situation there with my own eyes. Such a journey is not without its trials, though it must not be imagined worse than it actually is; for, real as are the dangers from bandits and semisavage insurgents, there is no danger of death so long as one refrains from carrying firearms — with firearms upon him, a white man could be certain of being murdered. But under the circumstances I could not take the easiest route. To avoid the suspicion of the rebels, I had to penetrate into their country from some other direction than that of the French frontier. The French posts placed along the Syro-Palestine frontier as far north as Bosra and Deraa prescribed for me the best route to the Djebel Druz. From the east or southeast across the wild and unmastered Harrah Desert, a natural barrier of the mountainous land, the Djebel resembles an angry sea of stones, allowing only in a few places a little room for camels to pass; at any other point, passage by a vehicle would be absolutely impossible. The area was a terra nuova to me, and my maps were entirely inadequate. I lost myself in a formidable labyrinth surrounded by lava, and was misled by mirages at least ten times.
Only after a great many attempts, when I gave up all hope of getting across the Harrah, did my driver succeed in driving the car at a speed of five kilometres an hour through the volcano peaks, while I cleared away with my own hands the bulky volcanic rocks which were strewn in the path. At length we had the good fortune to find in the path to Bekkah the tracks of a Transjordanian automobile which apparently had crossed the same route a few days before. The way through the open, into the land of the Druze, was now in sight. Through Christian villages in the Djebel, my automobile finally rattled into Bekkah.
This territory has been occupied by the Druzes ever since the Christian massacres in the Lebanon in 1860. The all-powerful Atrash family, under the leadership of Tanach the Great, purchased an estate there and gradually ousted and supplanted the original Arab population, until the land came to be known by its new name — the land of the Druze. It is a very small territory, extending some forty or fifty miles from east to west, and some thirty miles from north to south, with a population of hardly sixty thousand, of whom about one tenth are Christian Arabs. The land is barren and desolate. The eye can stretch across dozens of kilometres and see nothing but stone-strewn country, which, in spite of the wheat growing therein, lines the roads with hard basalt walls; here and there a few squalid villages built of stones, left from Græco-Roman days; no springs of water or signs of rhulets; hardly a single bush or tree; only occasionally a little orchard standing as a monument to the indomitable will of French Colonial administration. The villages are tiny and poor in appearance, and there are practically no cities, unless Sueida, with its 4500 inhabitants, is allowed that status. The other towns — Salkad, Arrah, Bekkah, Kenevat — are spots of no particular significance. Every village is laid out like a fortress; steep and narrow streets lead to houses arranged in strange confused lines as a rather primitive protection to the place.
The ‘Burg’ of the feudal lord and chieftain is situated on the highest peak. No other word occurs to me when I search for a term to describe the impression first made upon me by the tribal castle of the Atrash built in 1860 by Ismail Pasha: powerful outside walls, more than a metre thick; a gate, not too wide, opening into a passage some seven metres long, turning in a sharp right angle. After crossing this queer passage, my automobile stopped in a wide square bordered on three sides by residences of the prince and leader. The fourth side constituted an open reception-hall, in which sat some sixty Druzes, armed to the teeth, awaiting, as his vassals, the orders of the Emir. This somewhat mediæval picture, which reminded me of the romance of the Knight-Errant in Mark Twain, was confirmed by the chief of the Atrash family. My host, who received me like a brother without even asking my name, sat by my side in a kind of meditative gloom. Even in his own house the Emir carried a rifle, sitting in readiness to fight at any moment. From his own lips — from the lips of Sultan Pasha El Atrash — I heard the story of the outbreak of hostilities with the French. It reads like a saga of olden days, of the days of Saladin, in whose ranks the Druzes — once tursi, the shield of the Orient — fought against the Crusaders.
‘It was in 1921,’said the Sultan.
‘ A man from the Lebanon — Adham Khayim, a leader of a band who had been persecuted by the French — sought shelter in my house, and was arrested in my absence by Commandant Tranca, the acting governor. I never saw the man again, nor had I ever seen him before, but he was my guest, and it was my duty to protect him. Since the acting governor refused to surrender him I attacked a motor detachment. . . .’
To avenge his unknown guest Sultan Pasha killed a French officer and four soldiers, and was compelled to fly to Transjordania until he was granted an amnesty. And this knight of King Arthur’s Court is not a figure in a Mark Twain romance, but commanderin-chief against the French Syrian army of to-day, head of the ‘National Government of Syria.’
I shall not go into details in narrating the very interesting story of the antecedents of the revolution. The immediate reasons for proceeding to arms were that Governor Carbillet called upon the Druzes to receive him solemnly whenever he passed by their villages, and that General Sarrail, who gave too much credence to the dispatches of his subordinate officials, refused to receive a deputation of thirty-five sheiks and begs, who came to Beirut to complain of the misconduct of Captain Carbillet, giving as his reason the absence of this officer on leave. Gravely insulted by the behavior of the High Commissioner, the Druzes prepared themselves to prevent Captain Carbillet from reinstating himself in his post as Governor of the Djebel Druz. The French were aware of this movement, and to put it to an end they invited to Damascus five of the chiefs of the family of Atrash, the real rulers of the Djebel Druz, including the head of the family, the Emir Hammad. In Damascus they put them under arrest and deported them to Palmyra and other places of the desert. At the same time they sent troops to Kafr, halfway between the seat of Sultan Pasha, the village Kurieh, and Sueida, the headquarters of the Governor of the Djebel. Sultan Pasha learned about the imprisonment of his relatives and the approach of French troops on the same day. Before taking time to reflect, he gathered a handful of his cavalrymen (the Druzes told me there were only some eighty of them), attacked the French detachment, and almost annihilated it. On this step followed speedily the occupation of Sueida itself, where he besieged the French garrison in their barracks: the Djebel Druz found itself under arms.
The French did not take their new foe too seriously. A brigade under General Michaud, some thirty-five hundred strong, was dispatched in grea t haste to Sueida to rescue the besieged garrison. The brigade proceeded, perhaps too hastily, not reckoning with the old Oriental war-usages of the Druzes or with the difficulties of the terrain. The Druzes, who had in all ten thousand men under arms (of whom, however, only two thousand were concentrated along the road from Ezra to Sueida), attacked the train first, and looted the provisions and ammunition. Then they proceeded with the nearly helpless detachment itself, which they suddenly attacked on all sides. General Michaud ordered retreat, which resulted almost catastrophically, owing perhaps to the lack of war experience of the French colored troops. It appears that in this encounter the French had some two thousand casualties; according to English reports there were, after the battle, over a thousand wounded in the hospitals of Damascus.
The brigade of General Michaud was smitten. In Damascus there were only a few French companies and gendarmes. Had the Druzes grasped the significance of the situation and attacked Damascus immediately, an unavoidably dangerous situation would have been created, not only for the French in Syria, but perhaps also for the English in Palestine.
Notwithstanding their incredible courage, however, the Druzes are inefficient soldiers, not so much tactically as strategically. Their war against France was in no way prepared for, and so they could not benefit by their victory. It was a criminal folly of Sultan Pasha, and a treachery to his small, courageous people, to assume the fight under such circumstances, without any sort of preparation. I realized this first when Sultan Pasha asked me to stay a few days longer in the Djebel Druz to examine the seriously wounded and to attend them. There was not a single physician among the whole people, nor any medical instruments to be had, no bandages, not even any medical material to treat a first-aid case. The army was no better equipped in any other direction. They had, for instance, neither hand-grenades nor guns; and, having captured a number of machine guns (not only light guns, as the French communiqué stated; I myself saw a 105 mm. operative fiela-gun not far from Sueida), they did not have a single officer who knew how to use them. They attacked tanks and captured five of them, — the writer saw three burned French tanks on the road between Es Sijn and Mezraa, — but they attacked them without arms. They thrust themselves against the vehicles, caught them with their naked hands, overturned them, and put them to ashes. . . . I was shown one of their leaders who threw away his hint, and, sword in hand, attacked the French infantry at the front of his men.
Thus is war conducted in the Djebel Druz.
The landscape was undoubtedly of some help to the Druze warriors. One should not, however, imagine the Djebel Druz only as wild, moimtainous land, with impenetrable rocks and ditches. On the contrary, the battlefield of Es Sijn and Mezraa, which witnessed the defeat of Michaud’s detachment, is situated a good fifteen miles away from the foot of the real mountain; it is in the very middle of a wide, fairly flat plain which is crossed by a tolerable road from Ezraa to Busr El Hariri to Mezraa to Walgha to Sueida. The danger of war against the Druzes consists neither in the geological formation of the land nor in the lack of passable roads. One may go further and say that not even the frightful drought of the land caused the first French defeats, for the trenches dug by the French, which the writer himself saw, covered the water places of the Druze village, Mezraa, which were already in French hands. The real explanation of the catastrophe is to be seen in the stones. The lava and the enormous basalt blocks which were dragged thousands of years ago to the south and the west formed in the north of the Hauran the formidable and terrific wall of the Leja, which is therefore called Kalaat Allah, or God’s Fortress, while in the south a sea of stone has overflowed the fertile, arable soil.
The Bedouins, and afterward the industrious Druzes, slowly cleared away a part of the stones. Here they heaped hills of stones, two, three, and even four metres square, which resembled small fortresses; there they accumulated large blocks along the ‘streets,’ which can be recognized as streets only because they arc bounded on both sides by this stone-wall enclosure.
As I drove down the plain of the old Basan I saw the whole field tom into innumerable rectangulars of varying sizes. Black granite walls stretched parallel and in a vertical direction, every wall for itself. An unimportant obstacle, you may say, which an infantryman could pull down in one jump. But when they are infinitely repeated, and are invariably met at a distance of thirty, forty, or fifty metres, they form in their entirety a military obstacle of no mean value — indeed, a more dangerous one than the best-protected iron-wired enclosure.
In this fight against the European power, the Druzes do not defend anything like definite strategic points of importance to them. There will not even be a ‘decisive direction,’to use the strategic expression, which would indicate the locality in which the French could hope to end the war. The Druze will fight where he can attack the enemy most safely. He will clear villages, sending away his women, his children, and his flocks to the neighborland. He will retreat even to the desert, if need be, and then attack once more the Europeans whom he finds on his way, penetrating from time to time his lost positions. Any troops going to fight the Druzes must therefore be ready to be attacked at any time. Every heap of stones, every wall, every hill, may serve as a battlefield.
Even airplane reconnaissance is almost useless. ‘If we want to observe well we must fly three hundred or four hundred metres high,’ complained a French airman, whose machine was shot by the Druzes, ‘and at this height the fire of the Druzes is very dangerous.’ Another feature to which no one gave any credit in the World War: infantry fire might have its effect upon airplanes. And really, not only were one or two French airplanes forced down by rifle fire, but indeed eight or nine machines. Flag operations in this terrain are therefore of limited use. Furthermore, ground reconnaissance is very difficult. In the intolerable heat and drought of the stony land, in a country where there is no shade and no water, the least step aside from the track is of fatal consequence. The French under Michaud refused to admit this. Instead of advancing step by step, they expected to put an end to the whole battle by dealing the Druzes one single blow. The blow was indeed dealt. In the stone field at the plain of Mezraa, where no tank can move and no automobile can go forward, their brigade was smashed to pieces.
Emir Hammad — whom the French exchanged, together with four other prisoners of Damascus, for forty French prisoners who were in the hands of the Druzes — showed me triumphantly the bodies of the fallen Madagascarese enemies and their white officers and X. C. O. ‘ No nation has succeeded in subjugating us in the last century, as you can see here for yourself. . . .’ He — and still more his cousin Sultan Pasha el Atrash — sincerely believed that the French would never overthrow the Druzes completely. When I told him that the French demand for a contribution of £5000 was rather modest, and very acceptable, he retorted: ‘But we are the victors. It is true that five thousand gold pounds is a ludicrously small amount; but it is not money — it is our honor which is at stake. If anyone has the right to claim a contribution, it is we, not the French! We ask nothing from them, but we shall not pay them anything in any case. Neither money nor weapons shall we give them. We have paid them with our blood. . . .’
While Sultan Pasha was speaking thus, with an air of extraordinary selfpossession, while he was indulging in his exaggerated dreams of redeeming the whole of Syria, General Sarrail was busy gathering his reenforcements in Europe, clearing from the Hauran, and concentrating his forces in Damascus to prevent any rebellion in the Syrian capital. The Druzes were very much behind in a military appreciation of the situation. They did not believe that the French Parliament woidd agree to send European regiments to Syria, and they hoped to gather new allies among the Syrian and Transjordanian tribes, and above all in Damascus itself. And therefore they lost the decisive four weeks between the battle of Mezraa and the attack on Damascus on August 25.
Nor was their political immaturity, amounting to a childish naivete, any less detrimental to their fate than their utter military incapacity. (Once more, incapacity only from a strategical point of view!) I do not know whether Sultan Pasha himself believed in all that his adherents represented him as believing, but it seems to me quite probable that, at least as an encouragement to his own followers, the rumor was spread by himself that the English — who since 1860 maintained a traditional friendship with the Druzes — would intervene in favor of the rebels. Sultan Pasha himself, however, spoke to me not a word of any help from England, but the simple Druzes did not fail to communicate to me secretly that Sultan Pasha felt sure of England’s help if needed.
Now every student of Eastern affairs knows perfectly well that, at least since the Conference of Lausanne, England and France have only one common interest in Syria — that is, to see the anti-European movement in the Near East suppressed as completely as possible. The fact that some of the French press believed in this nonsense is only a black spot on the French press of the Right; it is no justification for the Druzes, whose business it was to understand Near Eastern questions better than the Écho de Paris. Unfortunately, Sultan Pasha did not understand them at all.
He explained to me his demands: ' We cannot accept the French conditions even if they grant us autonomy. We cannot accept them, not only because we do not want to pay any contribution, not only because we do not want to surrender any of the weapons we captured, but above all because we have no confidence in France. What it promises to-day it may deny to-morrow. Hence we do not accept its offers of a Druze governor, of amnesty, and so forth. We shall be safe only when France gives Syria back her liberty. Therefore we fight, not for ourselves, but for Syria at large, and our rebellion is not a local rebellion but the beginning of the general revolution in Syria. And our conditions are — independence for Syria. ‘
‘What do you understand by Syria, and what do you understand by independence, Pasha?’ I asked.
He consulted one of the revolutionary deputies who had come from Damascus to Mejdel, the headquarters of Sultan Pasha, to prevent him from accepting the French peace conditions. After this consultation the Pasha repeated almost literally the same opinions and sentences I had learned a few hours before from the Syrian delegates in his camp. ‘We ask freedom for the whole French mandatory area excepting the Lebanon. We ask for a government of our own, with a king or president as head of the State. We ask for a parliament elected by free and voluntary ballot, controlling its government. We ask for an army of our own, with supreme command of our own. If it is absolutely necessary, — I generally dislike foreigners, — but if it is absolutely necessary the French should have as many economic privileges as they want. They should be advisers of the various departments — but nothing more. In brief, they may play the same rôle that the English play in the Irak. ‘
I asked him whether he believed the French would accept such conditions. The Pasha curtly answered: ‘They will have to. They have not enough troops in the country to wage war. At their first attack upon us, a general revolution will break out all over the country. They cannot bring reenforcements from Europe — they already have enough trouble in Morocco, and here in Syria there are not more than six thousand or seven thousand men.
The unfortunate chieftain of the rebels was fooled by the delegates of the people’s party of Damascus. He counted on the help of the Damascenes, and the Nationalists themselves were earnestly believing they would be able to come to his help and even to his rescue, and that they would beat the French at the very doors of Damascus. I did not believe in these exaggerated hopes and I was most unequivocal in the expression of my doubts. Since the fatal overthrow of Emir Feisal in 1920, in Damascus, I formed my opinion of the Damascenes — a people who, however ready to prepare a Putsch at any time, are utterly incapable of fighting seriously. And these great warriors, the Druzes, were mistaken in sacrificing themselves for town-people who, generally speaking, did not merit the sacrifice.
But even the Druzes will suffer their fate not quite undeservedly. It is true, they are most chivalrous, like knights in the service of Sultan Saladin. If, for instance, two heroic Druze gangmen meet a horseman in their way, one will tell the other: ‘Ride forth! I will attack the man — you can continue your way. ‘ It would be scandalous for them both to raid one single adversary. The captured French pilots whom I met at the castle of the Atrashes in Aereh — they were privates, not officers! — were eating from the same plate as the Emir Hammad, together with me, the honored guest, and together with the respected French emissary to negotiate peace. And other captured French soldiers who could not be led under custody were sent home with: ‘Give our regards to General Sarrail.'
The Druzes are warriors, but nothing else. Their rebellion against France was more or less the rebellion of the sixteenth century against the twentieth.
They are a small people, small and poor. Their feudal lords master them to-day even as they did nine centuries ago. Their history is only a history of quarrels between their noble families, under the secret influence of their religious leaders. I, for one, have the impression that the appointment of Christians to posts of teachers in the new public schools was one of the contributory causes to the rebellion, but I may be mistaken. They are, however, a lively and chivalrous and most hospitable people, for whom death spells no fear; for whom the words ‘honor’ and ‘freedom,’ which have lost their meaning elsewhere in the world, have still kept their significance.
It is a thousand pities that this nation has no leaders, at this critical moment, who could understand that 55,000 people could not go to war against Europe’s great military power. It is a pity that the same leaders who a few months ago led the people into an unexpected victory have led it now into a most humiliating defeat. Sultan Pasha, however, understands only how to win a victory, not how to make the best use of it. He exploited his victory neither in the military sense — else he would have attacked Damascus — nor in the political sense — else he would have paid the live thousand pounds contribution, would have returned the arms, and would have concluded peace as a victor.
When I said good-bye to the Pasha and to Emir Ilammad, I gazed at the dim and sad-looking Sultan, with his thick, black moustache, and at the fair, young, almost childlike Emir, with his little brown moustache over his sharp lips. They looked serious, but not at all weary and not at all peaceful. I came to like these brave men in the few days I spent with them. I know that I shall probably never see them again, for over them hangs France’s sword.