With the defeat of the Ottomans in Syria, British troops, under General Sir Edmund Allenby, entered Damascus in 1918 accompanied by troops of the Arab Revolt led by Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Faisal established the first new postwar Arab government in Damascus in October 1918, and named Ali Rida Pasha ar-Rikabi a military governor.
The "Kingdom of Syria" in 1918
The new Arab administration formed local governments in the major Syrian cities, and the pan-Arab flag was raised all over Syria. The Arabs hoped, with faith in earlier British promises, that the new Arab state would include all the Arab lands stretching from Aleppo in northern Syria to Aden in southern Yemen.
However, in accordance with the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement between Britain and France, General Allenby assigned to the Arab administration only the interior regions of Syria (the eastern zone). Palestine (the southern zone) was reserved for the British. On 8 October, French troops disembarked in Beirut and occupied the Lebanese coastal region south to Naqoura (the western zone), replacing British troops there. The French immediately dissolved the local Arab governments in the region.
France demanded full implementation of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, with Syria under its control. On 26 November 1919, British forces withdrew from Damascus to avoid confrontation with the French, leaving the Arab government to face France. Faisal had travelled several times to Europe, since November 1918, trying to convince France and Britain to change their positions, but without success. France's determination to intervene in Syria was shown by the naming of General Henri Gouraud as high commissioner in Syria and Cilicia. At the Paris Peace Conference, Faisal found himself in an even weaker position when the European powers decided to ignore the Arab demands.
In May 1919, elections were held for the Syrian National Congress, which convened in Damascus. 80% of seats went to conservatives. However, the minority included dynamic Arab nationalist figures such as Jamil Mardam Bey, Shukri al-Kuwatli,
Ahmad al-Qadri, Ibrahim Hanano, and Riyad as-Solh. The head was moderate nationalist Hashim al-Atassi.
In June 1919, the American King–Crane Commission arrived in Syria to inquire into local public opinion about the future of the country. The commission's remit extended from Aleppo to Beersheba. They visited 36 major cities, met with more than 2,000 delegations from more than 300 villages, and received more than 3,000 petitions. Their conclusions confirmed the opposition of Syrians to the mandate in their country as well as to the Balfour Declaration, and their demand for a unified Greater Syria encompassing Palestine. The conclusions of the commission were ignored by both Britain and France.
Seal of the states under French mandate after WWI (among them Syria) around 1925. The text is 'DOUANE DES ÉTATS SOUS MANDAT FRANÇAIS' (Customs of the states under French mandate)
Unrest erupted in Syria when Faisal accepted a compromise with French Prime Minister Clemenceau. Anti-Hashemite demonstrations broke out, and Muslim inhabitants in and around Mount Lebanon revolted in fear of being incorporated into a new, mainly Christian, state of Greater Lebanon. A part of France's claim to these territories in the Levant was that France was a protector of the minority Christian communities.
In March 1920, the Congress in Damascus adopted a resolution rejecting the Faisal-Clemenceau accords. The congress declared the independence of Syria in her natural borders (including Southern Syria or Palestine), and proclaimed Faisal the king of all Arabs. Faisal invited Ali Rida al-Rikabi to form a government. The congress also proclaimed political and economic union with neighboring Iraq and demanded its independence as well.
On 25 April, the supreme inter-Allied council, which was formulating the Treaty of Sèvres, granted France the mandate of Syria (including Lebanon), and granted Britain the Mandate of Palestine (including Jordan), and Iraq. Syrians reacted with violent demonstrations, and a new government headed by Hashim al-Atassi was formed on 7 May 1920. The new government decided to organize general conscription and began forming an army.
These decisions provoked adverse reactions by France as well as by the Maronite patriarchate of Mount Lebanon, which denounced the decisions as a "coup d'état". In Beirut, the Christian press expressed its hostility to the decisions of Faisal's government. Lebanese nationalists used the crisis to convene a council of Christian figures in Baabda that proclaimed the independence of Lebanon on 22 March 1920.
On 14 July 1920, General Gouraud issued an ultimatum to Faisal, giving him the choice between submission or abdication. Realizing that the power balance was not in his favor, Faisal chose to cooperate. However, the young minister of war, Youssef al-Azmeh, refused to comply. In the resulting Franco-Syrian War, Syrian troops under al-Azmeh, composed of the little remaining troops of the Arab army and Bedouin horsemen and civilian volunteers met the better trained 12,000 strong French forces under General Mariano Goybet at the Battle of Maysaloun. The French won the battle in less than a day and Azmeh died on the battlefield along with many of the Syrian troops, while the remaining troops possibly defected. General Goybet captured Damascus faced with little resistance on 24 July 1920, and the mandate was written in London two years later on 24 July 1922.