History is repeating itself in the cruellest ways in Eastern Ghouta

Less than 100 years after the 'Great Syrian Revolt', the Damascus countryside has been torched again.
Sunday 11/03/2018
Women from the family of Umm Saeed grind corn using a traditional method in Saqba in Eastern Ghouta.(AFP)
Long history. Women from the family of Umm Saeed grind corn using a traditional method in Eastern Ghouta. (AFP)

BEIRUT - As the Syrian conflict approaches its seventh anniversary on March 15, all eyes are trained on Eastern Ghouta, the Damascus countryside presently the scene of one of the bloodiest chapters of the Syrian war.

Held by the armed opposition since 2012, it has been a thorn in the backside of Damascus, raining the Syrian capital with mortar shells whenever Russian and Syrian firing on rebel pockets became too intense.

The opposition strikes were amateurish and imprecise, often landing in civilian neighbourhoods rather than military targets, whipping up a big death toll in eastern Damascus, where the Christian districts are located, along with the ancient Old City.

A massive operation started in mid-February, aimed at retaking Eastern Ghouta fully from the rebels, with 11,000 ground troops and cover from the Russian Air Force. Three weeks later, government troops had retaken 35% of Eastern Ghouta, promising to finish off the rest in weeks.

Residents of the agricultural fields surrounding Damascus, known as Eastern Ghouta, rose in revolt against French colonial rule 93 years ago, bringing the “Great Syrian Revolt” to the gates of Damascus. They were responding to a call to arms from veteran Druze commander Sultan Pasha al-Atrash in the summer of 1925. Rifles were smuggled into Eastern Ghouta’s villages on mules, with military instructions carried on the wrappers of cigarette packs or sown into the sandals of messengers from Damascus.

The Eastern Ghouta revolt was the brainchild of Abdul Rahman Shahbandar, a ranking Damascus physician, statesman and former foreign minister educated at the American University of Beirut (AUB). He aimed at creating havoc against colonial rule in the countryside of Damascus, hoping to distract French forces from their onslaught in the Druze Mountain or, by some miracle, succeed in crushing the French Army and marching on to liberate the Syrian capital.

That was a far stretch, he knew only too well, impossible without the cooperation of his fellow Damascenes, who were unenthusiastic about bringing the revolt to the Syrian capital, seeing that it would disrupt the flow of their commercial activity. When the revolt reached the gates of Damascus, some even refused to close their shops.

The French responded to the Eastern Ghouta uprising with great force, setting entire villages ablaze. They poured gasoline on homes, torching all those within them. It was a brutal punishment for the residents of Eastern Ghouta and for the Damascenes who supported them. They were collectively rounded up and sent to jail, either to Arwad, off the coast of Tartus or to the Great Citadel of Damascus.

On October 18, 1925, the French went a step further, shelling Damascus for 48 hours. They were responding to the advance of 400 armed horsemen from Eastern Ghouta to Damascus, all headed for the ancient Azm Palace, home of the 18th-century governors of Damascus, within the walls of the Old City.

The French had used it to lodge its top officers since occupying Syria in 1920. The Syrians hoped to ambush the French high commissioner, whom they believed was based inside, and trade him for thousands of prisoners in French jails. No sooner had they entered the Old City, than bombs began falling on and around the Azm Palace. Damascene merchants begged the rebels to leave the city, with no luck. The shelling continued for two days, non-stop.

Nearly every shop in the old market surrounding the Umayyad Mosque was destroyed, especially Midhat Pasha and the Al Hamidieh Market, whose roof was blown off and nearly 100 metres of its market collapsed. The streets of the Old City, usually swarming with people busy with commercial activity, were showered with broken glass, destroyed merchandise and remains of the dead. In the areas of Bab al-Jabieh, al-Kharabeh and Shaghour, 150 homes were destroyed.

Among the mansions that suffered the most was that of the Quwatli family in Sidi Amoud, home of future President Shukri al-Quwatli, founder of Syria’s independence. The intense shelling led to the death of 1,416 Syrians and the displacement of 336 others.

During the raid, several US companies, including Socony-Vacuum Oil, sewing machine manufacturer Singer Corporation and the liquorice firm MacAndrews & Forbes, were accidentally hit by French bombsThe US State Department deployed emergency aid to Syria through Near East Relief and the Red Cross officially demanded that the French government provide compensation for the damage to the US companies. It was quickly made clear, however, that this aid would go to US citizens in Syria and not to Syrians.

So angry were the Americans that they requested that two destroyers, USS Coghlan and USS Lamson, be dispatched to the shores of Beirut, to serve as a deterrent to the French Army. The US Consul to Syria wrote to the State Department: “It is the presence here of American destroyers alone that have given a sense of security to the population.”

Meanwhile, international papers reported on the developing story, showing great sympathy with the residents of Eastern Ghouta and Damascus.

Worried that anti-French activity would spread to North Africa, Paris recalled General Maurice Sarrail. Onboard the Sphinx, an Egyptian liner headed to France, the disgraced Sarrail spoke to a journalist from Le Petit Parisien on November 10, 1925. “What could have I done?” he asked. “Give the city over to the bandits? Attempted to fight them on the streets?” When he arrived in Paris, demonstrators marched outside his home shouting “Assassin!”

The new commissioner started talks with Syrian nationalists but did not end military operations until 1927. By that time France had regained the entire countryside, ending the Syrian revolt.

Neither the residents of Eastern Ghouta nor those of Damascus imagined that less than 100 years later, the Damascus countryside would get torched again and bombs would land on civilian neighbourhoods of the city — yet again — repeating history in the cruellest of ways.

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