Daniel Neep, Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space, and State Formation. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Daniel Neep (DN): Scholars who work on state formation have tended to have little to say about the phenomenon of colonial violence. This seemed to me curious, given that violence is arguably the most central, and certainly the most visceral, dimension of the colonial encounter. In historical sociology, that line of scholarship on war and the state most often associated with the name of Charles Tilly has largely studied war-making and state-making in European colonies at the aggregate level, with little analysis of the broader social and semiotic patterns in which that violence is embedded. Postcolonial studies, on the other hand, has focused on the symbolic and material relations of power between colonizer and colonized, but its focus on the subtle working of productive power has disinclined its practitioners to study anything as brutal or unsophisticated as organized military force. In a sense, one of my aims in this book was to bridge this divide by writing a “cultural historical sociology” that analyzes the practices and meanings of colonial violence through a framework that both draws on and critiques Foucauldian understandings of power.
Theoretical concerns aside though, my decision to work on Syria was fairly automatic: since the late 1990s, I’ve spent several years living, working, and studying in Damascus, so it was for me a natural choice. As it happens, I didn’t originally intend to write about Syria during the French Mandate. When I started the project, I toyed with the idea of looking at state formation in Syria under Hafiz al-Asad, but it soon became clear that the available empirical material for this period would not allow me to adopt the kind of theoretical approach I was interested in using. Focusing on the 1920s and 1930s allowed me to exploit a surplus of documentation from inside the French colonial military, as well as memoirs and contemporary materials written by Syrian rebels themselves. Additionally, before returning to academia, I had spent a couple of years working on contemporary Middle East politics at a think-tank in London, where I’d had a privileged position to observe British policy debates about the 2003 Iraq war. I consequently became interested in thinking about the nature of colonial occupations in a way that I hoped was a little bit more intelligent.
I actually completed the final version of the book manuscript while living in Syria in 2011-12, during the first year of the revolution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I began to doubt the relevance of writing about insurgency in the 1920s when an uprising and its bloody repression was happening all around me. But the parallels between spatial strategies, collective punishment, and even the political tactics of the governing regimes in the 1920s and the 2010s are striking. While I would shy away from the language of drawing lessons from the past, especially in the field of so-called “counter-insurgency,” I would argue that the country has a much longer and more ingrained experience of rebellion, uprising, and resistance than is often recognized in academic work that has focused on the persistence of authoritarianism in Syria. Hopefully this book will shed some light on one important episode of the Syrian people’s experience of revolution.
J: What topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DN: The book explores the logic of colonial occupation in Syria during the 1920s and 1930s. Although I examine the politics of conquest during the French Mandate, I understand conquest not as a process defined by tactics or domination alone (as military historians might), but as a process by which a fabric of social control is woven and warped by specific practices of occupation, patterned violence, and spatial order. My argument is that colonial violence was not a neutral instrument in the hands of the Mandatory Power, but an assembly of practices whose deployment fundamentally transformed how the colonial state controlled, organized, and understood Syrian society, geography, and population.
The French occupation of Syria encountered numerous instances of local armed resistance during the early 1920s. As our understanding of the broad social and political dynamics of these revolts has greatly advanced in the last twenty-five years—thanks to the contributions of scholars such as Philip Khoury, Keith Watenpaugh, Michael Provence, Nadine Méouchy, and Jean-David Mizrahi, among others—I instead focused my attention on the minutiae of the historical record: the micro-practices and mundane mechanisms that governed the employment of violence in French Mandate Syria. In the course of the book, I explore a wide array of governmental technologies, including discourses of (French) progress and (Syrian) primitivism; the quantification of death and physical destruction; the application of the principles of scientism to the arts of war; the indirect relationship between abstract military doctrine and concrete military operations; the techniques, categories, and classifications used by military intelligence to understand Syrian society; the compartmentalization of military space; and the military regulation of movement.
The largest and best-organized episode of armed anti-colonial resistance was the Great Syrian Revolt (1925-27), which represented the most serious challenge to French rule and which provides the empirical focus for several chapters of my book.
But what I also seek to demonstrate is that, in a context of occupation, the distinction between military and civilian logics is hazy and blurred. Constructions of space provide an especially rich field in which to illustrate this point. Evidence from Damascus, Aleppo, the Ghuta oasis, and desert policing, amongst other locations, shows how the colonial spatial order was complex, variegated, and uneven, rather than neatly categorized as civilian or military. In addition to coercive techniques, technologies such as urban planning, civil engineering, and public hygiene were also commandeered in the effort to undermine rebel advances and reshape the Syrian body politic, blurring the lines between violent and non-violent forms of power in occupied Syria.
In the course of discussing this empirical evidence, I develop in parallel a theoretical argument that the mutual imbrication of military and civilian technologies of occupation renders problematic the analytical distinction between sovereign, disciplinary, and governmental forms of power that characterizes Foucauldian analyses. So, while the book may be what social scientists euphemistically describe as “empirically rich,” it also makes broader conceptual arguments regarding power and modernity that extend beyond the bounds of French Mandate Syria.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
DN: The book is a revised version of my doctoral thesis, which was undertaken in the Department of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Like many doctoral dissertations, it emerged as a product of and reaction against my earlier academic training. As an undergraduate, I received a traditional Oriental Studies education in Arabic, alongside the study of modern French literature, which inclined me towards literary theory, especially its Marxist, deconstructionist, and especially post-colonial variants. I retained from those years a certain sensitivity to discourse, power relations, and Eurocentrism, not to mention a profound and slightly annoying epistemological skepticism. However, my move to the social sciences in graduate school reflected my underlying sense that it was not only language that structured social action. The unique disciplinary environment of SOAS, where political science remains hospitable to non-positivist approaches, gave me the autonomy to bring my interests in post-colonial critique, sociology, and culture to bear on a substantive piece of empirical historical research.
J: How does your work contribute to and/or diverge from recent scholarship on Syria?
DN: In the twenty years or so since Philip Khoury’s magisterial volume on French Mandate Syria, there has been some superb historical work on the interwar period. Yet to some extent, Syria’s rich colonial experience has yet to provide theoretical insights for the historical and social sciences more broadly (here I’m thinking along the lines of work by Timothy Mitchell, Joseph Massad, Paul Rabinow, or George Steinmetz, for example). I hope that this book might suggest one way to bring concerns explicitly informed by social theory to bear more directly on the historical experience of French Mandate Syria.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DN: As it sits at the intersection of modern Middle Eastern history, historical sociology, and interpretive political science, I would hope that the book is able to reach readers in each of these fields.
Although it is a research monograph, chapter two of the book provides a historical overview of the Mandates system in the Middle East and outlines the architecture of the colonial state in Syria. I hope that this chapter, at least, might make a useful addition to undergraduate syllabi that consider the making of modern states in the region.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DN: I’m currently working on two projects, one for the future, the other more immediate.
First, I have a long-standing interest in the different forms and technologies of knowledge production that shape state formation in the Arab Middle East. For example, how are the possibilities for state intervention into society contingent upon the state’s understanding of that society? While based at the British Institute in Amman in 2012, I began to explore the nature of social science research in Jordan, which I hope will provide insights from which to develop a future comparative project looking at the politics of social knowledge in the Mashreq more broadly.
But for now, I still haven’t written the book about Syria that I set out to write. So my immediate project is to trace the historical development of state, space, and capital in Syria from the end of the Ottoman period up to the present day. Since publishing Occupying Syria under the French Mandate, I’ve been exploring ideas about spatiality, scale, and the state as developed in contemporary critical geography and international political economy, which I find to have immense untapped potential for the study of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. Next year I’ll be joining the faculty at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, which will provide a stimulating interdisciplinary environment in which to work on this new project.
Excerpts from Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation
Savagery and Restraint: Qualifying Syrian Rebel Violence
Chapter two described how Syrian nationalists used the League of Nations to contest the moral basis of the French Mandate on the grounds that the tutor was less civilized than the tutee. In response, the Mandatory Power reasserted the superiority of its values and mounted a fierce counter-attack by publicizing “the truth” about Syrian violence. The French contrasted how the Troupes du Levant and the Syrian rebels used violence, emphasizing the limited, instrumental aims of their own military operations against the gratuitous, wild and uncontrolled violence of the natives. French representations of Syrian savagery stand in stark contrast to accounts from the rebels themselves, who established a unified command to coordinate the Revolt and enforced the limits of “acceptable” violence upon the different rebel bands. French violence was most sharply distinguished from rebel violence not in its extent, scope or reach, but in the language of scientism by which it was justified. The quantification of violence was an essential part of this justification, enabling violence to be employed as a proportionate and effective practice of modern government—a practice which could not, by definition, be adopted by the Syrians themselves.
The controversy generated by Syrian nationalist accusations of French military excess was taken seriously in both Paris and Beirut, the seat of the Mandatory Power. In addition to the independent Raynal and Daclin inquiries into military and civilian misdeeds, the Troupes du Levant conducted its own internal investigation. The aim was less to refute allegations of misconduct than to divert international attention to the misdemeanors of Syrian rebels themselves. As ammunition for the counter-attack against the Syrian-Palestinian Congress, the French military in the Levant sought to catalogue the atrocities supposedly committed by Syrian rebels. Instead of relying on the scientism that characterized Raynal’s work, the internal military investigators used the colorful rhetoric of colonial sensationalism in compiling their reports.
One such document, probably drafted in early 1926, recites a bloody litany of Druze savagery against the wider Syrian population. It speaks of the villagers of ‘Ayn ‘Arab, hacked into pieces by Druze warriors who then dance around their dismembered bodies. It conjures the image of the residents of Kafr Mashki being anally penetrated by rifles which then fired from within the victims’ impaled bodies. It tells of the fates awaiting those defeated by the rebels: a French aviator who had his heart torn from his corpse and devoured by a Druze warrior who bragged of his escapade to his comrades; a Christian villager who was buried up to the neck and had his head set on fire; and those who fell at the Battle of Mazra’a who had their sexual organs severed and inserted into their mouths. “Such are the war customs of the Druze insurgents,” warns the report. “Hearing these atrocities, the heart is frozen with horror and the true mission of France in this terrible struggle becomes clear: it is to protect and to safeguard the unfortunate inhabitants who are victims of these murderers.”
Such vivid claims considerably hyperbolized the eyewitness accounts of Druze violence collected by the military’s own endeavors. Most of the testimonies from the villagers of ‘Ayn ‘Arab make no reference to dancing Druze: just one statement reported that the Druze had performed the dabkeh around one man who had been shot. Medical reports for thirteen men killed by rebels at Kafr Mashki near Rashaya suggest that while seventy-five-year-old Kozma Ayyub was indeed killed from shots fired into his anus, the remaining twelve died as a result of bullets and knife blows with more conventional entry points.
Even when specifically ordered to provide the details of rebel atrocities witnessed over previous months to the military hierarchy, French officers were largely unable to provide evidence of savagery. On a few occasions, officers could report incidents in which corpses had been defiled, but the number of such cases bear little relation to the prominent position given to such mutilations by the French military.
The scarce Syrian documents surviving from the Great Revolt and the more abundant memoirs written by rebel leaders, Druze or otherwise, make almost no mention of the physical injuries either suffered or inflicted by their enemies. Policing the boundary between “atrocity” and “act of war” as marked out upon the bodies of individuals seems to have held little interest to the rebels. Of greater importance to them was ensuring that violence remained within acceptable limits at the collective level.
Conclusion: Theorizing Violence, Space, and Power in French Mandate Syria
In Mandatory Syria, the various practices that constituted the regime of occupation were never merely instrumental. Such policies as the geometric formation of the French column, the scientific regulation of brutality and the grid-like construction of urban space in Palmyra and al-Qamishli are best understood not as the most objectively rational or technocratically efficient manner of organization, but as embodiments of a particular mode of order, a way of doing things which Foucault names “discipline.” In Foucault’s work on Western Europe, discipline emerges in the eighteenth century and is subsequently complemented, or perhaps replaced, by less controlling and more free-flowing forms of power that are content to govern the conduct of conduct. This indirect control may shape the subjectivities of individuals (the ethics of the self) or the collective circulation of a population (sécurité), but the basic condition of its operation is a lack of coercion.
In French Mandate Syria, the colonial regime brought into being governmentalized space through the desert policing of Badiyat al-Sham, the grand designs of contemporary urbanists and even the pamphlets distributed to Syrian villagers by the Troupes du Levant. At the same time, the co-existence of discipline and governmentality with widespread and some- times quite spectacular practices of colonial brutality and violence presents a challenge to Foucauldian schemas of power. As Chapter one pointed out, the problematic simultaneity of these different modalities is unsatisfactorily resolved by an appeal to anachronism or paradox. Colonial violence, in particular, cannot be fully explained by the conceptualizations of power paradigmatic in Postcolonial Studies. Both controlling discipline and man- aging governmentality function through freedom: in Foucault’s formulation, violence destroys the space in which freedom may be practiced. Disciplinary power and governmentality are each abrogated by sovereign violence.
Yet, as we have seen, this triangular theorization bears little resemblance to the practices and processes at work in Syria under the French Mandate. By adopting a perspective in which colonial violence can be taken seriously as an embodiment of power—rather than its nemesis—we recognize that the relationship between practices of violence and the different modalities of power must be determined empirically, rather than posited a priori. In Syria, colonial violence can only rarely, if at all, be assimilated to sovereign power; more often than not, colonial violence provided an essential channel through which more ostensibly modern forms of disciplinary and governmental power were produced. As Chapters three and four highlighted, the characteristic features of modernity emerged in and through the practices of colonial violence in Syria.
After establishing that violence can act as a technology of the modern rather than the sovereign power, the following chapters problematized the distinctions between different forms of power. Chapters five to seven explored the manifold ways in which power is manifested spatially. In the Foucauldian paradigm, sovereign space exists as a state that has been cleansed or purified by an act of elimination or destruction; disciplinary space is striated, segmented and strictly regulated; the space of sécurité is a realm of permission, movement and circulation. But once again empirical reality fails to respect the boundaries between these different forms of power. The regulated space of the colonne rests on rebel movements borrowed from the mobile ‘isabat; the smooth management of the Syrian desert is underpinned by technologies of police coercion; plans for a free-flowing, securitized Damascus are built upon the rigid lines of discipline. Upon close inspection, the theoretical distinctions between different forms of power seem to vanish before our eyes.
The occultation of analytic constructs within the real world is nothing unusual. But the evidence from French Mandate Syria should not necessarily be taken as empirical refutation of these theories of power. After all, discipline, sécurité and governmentality are not intended to describe discrete empirical regularities. They are analytic distinctions—ideal types, if you will—which may or may not correspond historically or sequentially to real situations or moments. It is only when such abstractions are reified into the format of a typology, when they provide grounds for classification, that they become problematic. This tendency to build theoretical constructs through which to categorize the world is itself a representational mechanism by which modernity seeks to enframe reality, to create the possibility of a world-object that is out there, outside and beyond the internal subject. The apparent confusion between different forms of colonial power, then, needs to be located within a broader problematic. Rather than asking how it is possible to explain the empirical simultaneity of theoretically contradictory modes of power, we should inquire into the conditions produced by these contradictions. For if the space of modernity as a whole is neither smooth and abstract, nor striated and regulated, nor dominated and destroyed, but is an unruly assembly of elements and forms of power, and if this modernity is produced by representations and practices which both determine its borders and erode its boundaries, then our current conceptualizations of “modernity” seem strangely inadequate.
[Excerpted from Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation, by Daniel Neep, by permission of the author. © 2012 by Daniel Neep. For more information, or to order a copy with a 20% discount, click here.]