Battle of Maysalun
|Battle of Maysalun
|Part of the Franco-Syrian War|
French General Henri Gouraud on horseback inspecting his troops at Maysalun
|Arab Kingdom of Syria|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Henri Gouraud
| Yusuf al-'Azma †
Yasin Kiwan †
|12,000 troops (backed by tanks and aircraft)||1,400-3,000 army regulars, Bedouin cavalrymen, civilian volunteers|
|Casualties and losses|
|24 killed (French claim)||~150 killed (French claim)
~1,500 wounded (French claim)
The Battle of Maysalun (Arabic: معركة ميسلون), also called The Battle of Maysalun Pass, was a battle fought between the forces of the Arab Kingdom of Syria and French Army of the Levant on 24 July 1920 near the town of Maysalun, about 12 miles west of Damascus, towards the Lebanese border. At the battle, the better equipped and trained French forces decisively defeated the Syrians.
Towards the end of the First World War, British-supported Hejazi forces defeated the Ottoman forces in the Middle East and captured Damascus on 30 September 1918. An independent Kingdom of Syria was proclaimed in Damascus on 8 March 1920, with Faisal ibn Hussein of the Hashemites as its king. This unilateral action was immediately repudiated by the British and French and the San Remo Conference was called by the Allied Powers in April 1920 to finalise the allocation of League of Nations mandates in the Middle East. This was in turn repudiated by Faisal and his supporters. After months of instability and failure to make good on the promises Faisal had made to the French, the commander of French forces General Henri Gouraud on 14 July 1920 gave an ultimatum to Faisal declaring he surrender or fight.:215
Combatants and arms
French forces amounted to some 12,000 troops, mostly from Senegalese and Algerian units, and consisted of ten infantry battalions and a number of cavalry and artillery units. Among the participating units were the 415th Infantry Regiment, the 2nd Algerian Riflemen Regiment, the Senegalese Division, the African Riflemen Regiment and the Moroccan Sipahi Battalion. A number of Maronite volunteers from Mount Lebanon reportedly joined the French forces as well. The French Army was equipped with plain and mountain artillery batteries and 155mm guns, and backed by tanks and fighter bombers. The commander of the French forces was General Mariano Goybet.
The Syrian forces that fought in the battle consisted of the remnants of General Hassan al-Hindi's disbanded Syrian Army unit based in Anjar, a force of Syrian regulars from disbanded army units in Damascus and Bedouin camel cavalry assembled by General Yusuf al-'Azma, and numerous civilian volunteers and militiamen. Estimates put the number of Syrian soldiers and irregulars at 3,000 or 4,500. Most army units had already been disbanded days prior to the battle by order of King Faisal as part of his acceptance of the terms set out in General Gouraud's 14 July ultimatum. According to historian Eliezer Tauber, of the 3,000 soldiers and volunteers al-'Azma attempted to mobilize, only 1,400 fighting men actually showed up to the battle.
Part of the civilian militia units were assembled and led by Damascene merchant Yasin Kiwan, former imam of the Umayyad Mosque, Abd al-Qadir Kiwan, and the Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamdi al-Juwajani. Yasin and Abd al-Qadir were killed during the battle. Shaykh Muhammad al-Ashmar also participated in the battle with 40-50 of his men from al-Midan. Other Muslim preachers and scholars from Damascus, including Tawfiq al-Darra (ex-mufti of Ottoman Fifth Army), Sa'id al-Barhani (preacher at the Tuba Mosque), Muhammad al-Fahl (scholar from the Qalbaqjiyya Madrasa) and Ali Daqqar (preacher at the Sinan Pasha Mosque) also participated in the battle.
The Syrians were equipped with rifles discarded by retreating Ottoman soldiers during World War I and those used by Bedouin cavalry during the 1916 Arab Revolt. The Syrians also possessed a number of machine guns and about 15 cannon batteries. According to various versions, ammunition was low, with 120-250 bullets per rifle, 45 bullets per machine gun, and 50-80 shells per cannon. Part of this ammunition was also unusable because many bullet and rifle types did not correspond.
On 23 July Syrian War Minister Yusuf al-'Azma set out from Damascus with his forces who were divided into northern, central and southern columns each headed by a camel cavalry units. French forces launched their offensive towards the Maysalun Pass and Wadi al-Qarn on 24 July shortly after dawn, at 5:00.
The first clashes took place at 6:30 when French tank divisions stormed the central position of the Syrian defensive line while French cavalry and infantry units assaulted the Syrians' northern and southern positions. The Syrians' camel cavalry were the first Syrian units to engage the French. Syrian forces initially put up stiff resistance along the front, but lacked coordination between their different units. At one point early in the battle, they managed to briefly surround two Senegalese units. French artillery took a toll on the Syrians and by 8:30 am the French had broken the Syrians' central trench. By 10:00, the battle was effectively over.
At 10:30, French forces reached al-'Azma's headquarters, unhindered by the mines en route that had been laid out by the Syrians. According to one version, when French forces were about 100 meters in the distance, al-'Azma rushed to a Syrian artilleryman stationed near him and demanded him to open fire. However, before any shells could be fired, a French tank unit spotted al-'Azma and shot him down by machine gun. In another account of events, al-'Azma had attempted to mine the trenches as the French forces approached his position, but was shot down by the French before he could set off the charges. Al-'Azma's death virtually marked the end of the battle, although intermittent clashes continued until 13:30. Retreating Syrian forces were bombed from the air and harried by the French on their way toward Damascus.
After the battle, General Gouraud addressed General Goybet as follows:
GENERAL ORDER No. 22
Aley, 24 July 1920
- "The General is deeply happy to address his congratulations to General Goybet and his valiant troops: 415th of line, 2nd Algerian sharpshooters, 11th and 10th Senegalese sharpshooters, light-infantry-men of Africa, Moroccan trooper regiment, batteries of African groups, batteries of 155, 314, company of tanks, bombardment groups and squadrons who in the hard fight of 24 of July, have broken the resistance of the enemy who defied us for 8 months ... They have engraved a glorious page in the history of our country." - General Gouraud
Initial estimates of the casualties which claimed 2,000 Syrian dead and 800 French casualties turned out to be exaggerated. The French Army claimed 24 of its soldiers were killed, while around 150 Syrian fighters were killed and 1,500 wounded. King Faisal observed the battle unfold from the village of al-Hamah, and as it became apparent that the Syrians had been routed, he and the Syrian cabinet, with the exception of Minister of Interior 'Ala al-Din al-Durubi who quietly secured a deal with the French, departed for al-Kiswah, a town located at the southern approaches of Damascus.
French forces had captured Aleppo on 23 July without a fight, and after their victory at Maysalun, General Goybet's troops besieged and captured Damascus on 25 July. Within a short time, the majority of Faisal's forces fled or surrendered to the French, although parties of Arab groups opposed to French rule continued to resist before being quickly defeated. King Faisal returned to Damascus on 25 July and asked al-Durubi to form a government, although al-Durubi had already decided on the composition of his cabinet, which was confirmed by the French. General Gouraud condemned Faisal's rule in Syria, accusing him of having "dragged the country to within an inch of destruction", and stating that because of this, it was "utterly impossible for him to remain in the country". Faisal denounced Gouraud's statement and insisted that he remained the sovereign head of Syria whose authority he was "granted by the Syrian people". Although he verbally dismissed the French order expelling him and his family from Syria, Faisal departed the country on 27 July with only one of his cabinet members, Sati al-Husri.
The French took control of the territory that became the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. France divided Syria into smaller statelets centered on certain regions and sects, including Greater Lebanon for the Maronites, Jabal al-Druze State for the Druze in Hauran, the Alawite State for the Alawites in the Syrian coastline and the states of Damascus and Aleppo. Gouraud reportedly went to the tomb of Saladin, kicked it, and said: "Awake, Saladin. We have returned. My presence here consecrates victory of the Cross over the Crescent."
Although the Syrians were decisively defeated, the Battle of Maysalun "has gone down in Arab history as a synonym for heroism and hopeless courage against huge odds, as well as for treachery and betrayal", according to Iraqi historian Ali al-Allawi. According to British journalist Robert Fisk, the Battle of Maysalun was "a struggle which every Syrian learns at school but about which almost every Westerner is ignorant". Historian Tareq Y. Ismael wrote that following the battle, the "Syrian resistance at Khan Maysalun soon took on epic proportions. It was viewed as an Arab attempt to stop the imperial avalanche." He also states that the Syrians' defeat caused popular attitudes in the Arab world that exist until the present day which hold that the Western world dishonors the commitments it makes to the Arab people and "oppresses anyone who stands in the way of its imperial designs."
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