The League of Nations Mandate System:The Masking of Colonial Policy in the Middle East
Imane Drissi El-Bouzaidi
November 22, 2012
After World War I, the Paris Peace Conference was held to resolve issues concerning the future of the international system. Article 119 of the Versailles treaty highlighted the issue of how to deal with “territories that were liberated from German and Ottoman colonial authority but considered to be not yet capable of self-government.” The solution that was established was a Mandate System, which was described in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. In the Middle East, Britain obtained the Palestinian and Mesopotamian Mandate; whereas, France obtained the Syrian Mandate. This essay will analyze the League of Nations Mandate System in the Middle East, and argue that it was ultimately a failure because it masked the hidden agendas of the Mandatory powers, suppressed minority and cultural rights, and created internal divisions.
There have been many general critiques of the Mandate System in the Middle East, yet the most pervasive is that it was a continuation of “imperial power policy.” At this time, a negative connotation began to establish over the concepts of empire and colonialism because of the popularization of Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism principles, idea of self-determination, and the lack of domestic support for the process. As a result, Britain and France needed a way “to conceal their division of the spoils of war under the color of international law.” Article 22 tried to portray the process as a situation where the Mandatory powers were helping as opposed to exploiting their mandates. It referred to the actions of the Mandatory powers as a “responsibility,” to help “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves,” so that they can “stand alone,” and on “behalf of the League.” The phrasing and vocabulary were used consciously as an attempt to legitimize the process; however, in reality the system was merely a way to mask colonialism and the continuation of foreign rule over former colonies. If the Great powers had humanitarian and altruistic motives, then they would have been more willing to take mandates that were in more need of assistance, yet there was tremendous competition for the more developed Mandates that possessed resources, which they could ultimately exploit. Robert Lansing makes the argument that there were imperial motives to using the Mandate system because it worked to prevent Germany from reducing its war indemnities. If the territories were given directly to Britain and France, then Germany could ask that their value be subtracted from the Allies’ claim for war reparations; but instead the Great Powers were able to attain both new possessions and war reparations simultaneously.
Another failure of the Mandate System was the weakness of the supervision, which meant that the Mandatory states were not accountable for their actions. Robert Lansing highlights this critique by asking: “assuming the mandatory...works an injustice upon another party, can or ought the Mandatory be held responsible?” The League of Nations tried to create a system of accountability with the establishment of a Permanent Mandates Commission(PMC), which was an independent institution that acted to supervise the Mandates. Each Mandatory nation was supposed to create an annual report to give to the commission, which would then analyze the report and issue an advisory opinion to the Council. However, in practice the commission was ineffective because it could not verify the reports with inspections and make sure that it was accurate in explaining the reality of the situation; therefore, the League of Nations had limited access to information. Another issue is that even though the members of the commissions were intended to be independent actors, “their prescriptions usually matched the predispositions of their own states.” Ultimately, the Mandate System lacked adequate and unbiased supervision.
The last general failure of the Mandate System relates to difficulty in interpreting the League of Nations. The system was approached in different ways, which meant that the League of Nations could not establish a consistent strategy to dealing with the mandates. This paper will assess the different approaches of Britain and France in dealing with the mandates in the Middle East. Each of these states used different strategies and consequently had different shortcomings. The first Mandatory power that will be presented is France.
France: Approach and Failures
France obtained the Mandates of Syria and Lebanon in 1920. Their approach in dealing with the Mandates was through a nationalistic and cultural approach. This was based on the idea of “mission civilisatrice,” which was the belief that France had a moral duty to spread its language and “benefits of her civilization” to the entire world. This was the tactic used in Syria and Lebanon because promoting the French language and culture was supposed to be a way to gain political influence and further foreign interests. The French state sponsored mission schools, such as the Mission Laique Francaise (MLF), to spread French culture through the education system. French policy also focused on building up the political importance of the Syrian coastal area because this had a large population of Christian and Alawite people.
There were many problems with France’s approach and use of the Mandate System. Firstly, France exacerbated sectarian tensions because it appeared to be partial to the Christian population because of its self-proclaimed historical role as the “traditional protector of Christians” in the Middle East. The Turks recognized France’s “right to protect” the Christians in the Levant since the 15th century, and this remained unchallenged until the First World War. As a result, “France’s obligations to the Catholics and Uniates of the Levant were made out to have deep historical roots, and could be used...to justify policies which were almost bound to be unacceptable to much of the rest of the population.” One of the actions that France took was partitioning Syria to create the state of Lebanon where it could serve as a “safe haven” for the Maronite Christian population and where the Maronites could be a majority. This was not a popular decision among the Muslims in the newly formed Lebanon, and they responded by boycotting the census and refusing to receive Lebanese citizenship cards. In 1958, it was evident that Lebanese Muslims still preferred unification with Syria because violence erupted between Muslims and Christians over the matter. The Muslims were in favour of joining the United Arab Republic (which was a union of Syria and Egypt), while the Christians were not. Therefore, there were long-term negative effects of the Syrian and Lebanese mandate because of how France approached the region with a cultural and religious focus, and did not remain secular and neutral.
The second problem with the French approach to the Mandate system was because of the alternative motives that they had. In theory, France was supposed to take on the Mandates for the purpose of enhancing the “well-being and development of such peoples;” however, it was evident that French motives were largely based on competition and pride. During the war, French troops remained mainly on its own territory, defending from a German attack, while British troops were placed outside Europe in the Middle East, including Syria. The fact that it was agreed earlier with the Sykes-Picot agreement that France would obtain Syria made France desperate to obtain the Mandate as a matter of saving face. More competition came from Italy, which wanted to replace France and take the role of “defender of the Catholics.” After these threats and competition, Syria became a matter of pride and a way that France could prove the strength of its empire. It also was a way to provide itself with more security because having allies can sometimes be unpredictable, yet if France could control these states and create an empire, then it could ultimately force its Mandates to provide assistance.
Another example of why French motives were not based on the right motives was in the way that it resisted and tried to undermine Syrian attempts to gain independence, which was meant to be the ultimate goal of the Mandates. Evidence of this is with France’s action in 1930 to dissolve the Syrian legislative assembly. The government was democratically elected, yet France objected to the fact that it “spoke of the unity of geographical Syria and did not explicitly safeguard the French position of control.” France wanted to prolong its control on Syria so it did not take seriously Syrian and Lebanese attempts for independence. In 1945, violence erupted in response to France’s refusal to transfer control of the armed forces to the Syrian people. France responded by bombing Syria, while Britain intervened to stabilize the situation. This was not the sole example of resistance to the Mandatory power but rather the period was fraught with resistance, such as the revolt led by Youssef al-Azmeh in 1920, the revolt led by Sultan Pasha el Atrash, and the previously mentioned violence in 1945. Ultimately the Mandate system failed because France did not fulfil its obligations to assist its Mandate in obtaining independence. Instead the Mandatory power had other motives, which led to resistance and violence.
Another negative effect of the Mandate System is that France did not have support on the ground and unlike Britain, “France did not have this advantage of a gradual buildup of on-the ground familiarity and experience.” Britain had hundreds of thousands of troops in the Middle East during the war so it had a lot more time to gather intelligence and analyze the situation to determine the best approach to the region. However, France obtained the Mandate in 1920 and did not try to establish a client base. Instead France’s tactic was to buildup the military but this ended up undermining democracy in the long-term because it led to military coups in the 1940s and 50s Ibid).
Ultimately France’s management of its Mandates became a hindrance because it was not economically beneficial and it served to create tensions with Britain. There were not any major resources in Syria and the Lebanese silk trade was faltering because of the Japanese and Chinese competition so it did not nearly compare to France’s other protectorates and was merely a major expense. An example is France’s Moroccan protectorate, in which “French exports to Morocco was four times greater than it was to Syria, while the value of French imports from Morocco was 18 times greater than it was from Syria.” Also, strategically Syria was of no use because no air or naval bases were established and the state did not connect to France’s other colonial territories so it did not serve as a link. Therefore, the Mandate System had a negative impact on the Mandates (Syria and Lebanon) as well as the Mandatory power, France.
Britain: Approach and Failures
After World War I, Britain obtained the Mandates of Palestine, Transjordan, and Mesopotamia (later known as Iraq). This approach to the Mandate System was significantly different than the French approach. Instead of a nationalist approach, Britain focused on capitalism and how to profit from the region by securing interests and resources. Britain had less domestic support for establishing an empire because of the financial crisis; therefore, it had to be conscious of the military and administrative costs and work to minimize expenses, which it did by having a less direct rule than France. The domestic pressure publicized in the press as the “Quit Mesopotamia campaign,” protested against the costs of the intervention, the number of British deaths, and the number of troops stationed in the region.The British also saw that they were losing the support of the Iraqi people because their major ally, King Faysal, who they relied on to maintain power, was losing credibility. As a result, increasing Iraqi and domestic opposition led Britain to retreat from Iraq and grant them independence earlier than was required, which ultimately was a major shortcoming of its approach to the Mandate.
Britain believed that “the cost of continuing to irritate and disappoint the Iraqis was greater than the risk of promising them independence in 1932” because their failure in the state would be reflected as a failure of the British Empire. When Britain announced its intention to grant Iraq independence, the PMC refused on the basis that a Mandate could only end when a “community [is] able to stand alone without the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a mandatory” and at this time Iraq was unable to maintain its external and internal security without British assistance. Britain dealt with this issue by presenting a reinterpretation of Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant to the PMC, and arguing that the goal of the Mandatory power should be merely to “construct governmental institutions that could deliver the bare bones of de facto statehood.” Britain argued that Iraq did not have to be as strong as itself but just not worse off than any of the weaker states in the League of Nations. Although this state was not what the PMC had intended, the Council decided to allow the Iraqi state to be accepted into the League. A similar situation was evident with the Palestinian Mandate because Britain could not manage the hostilities and expense of the region so it decided to hand over the Mandate to the United Nations. This approach to the Mandate System had negative impacts and has been responsible for continued instability in the region.
Another failure is that Britain’s motives were based on promoting their imperial interests. It wanted to establish the Mandates as stable trading partners and at the same time secure its interests in the Middle East, such as the oil resources and the links to its colonies, India, Egypt, the Persian sea and the Red sea. This was most clear in Iraq because of the oil resources and when Britain ceased its mandate it did not do so not before securing a 75-year concession granted by the Iraq Petroleum Company. Thus, the fact that the Mandate system was clearly used to mask imperialism and geopolitics, delegitimized the system and worked to create resentment and resistance on the ground, such as the Great Iraqi Revolt of 1920 and the 1936-39 Arab revolt in Palestine. Unlike France which did not establish clients and local allies, Britain’s approach was to co-opt resistors and maintain local allies. However, Britain’s allies were not always consistent and in Iraq it was said that “with the old gang in power this country cannot hope to progress very far.” The democratic system that was established “did not allow for or could not accommodate the peaceful transfer of power from the government to the opposition,” and it excluded many political groups, such as the Communists, Arab nationalists, and Islamists. Thus, there was a lot of resentment towards Britain for supporting these local actors that were not popularly supported by the population. Britain also violated the Mandate System’s requirement to protect minority and cultural rights. This was mainly evident in Palestine because the League of Nations Mandate said that when establishing a Jewish home it must be recognized that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”Kharia Kasmieh shows evidence of one way that Britain violated this requirement in how its economic policies favoured the Jewish population and “threatened the livelihood of the [Arab] peasants by dispossession and evacuation.” Ultimately Britain’s role in managing its Mandates in the Middle East has had negative ramifications that are still apparent today.
In conclusion, this essay has attempted to analyze the system of Mandates in the Middle East, namely the British control of Palestine and Mesopotamia (later known as Iraq), and the French control of Syria (later divided into Lebanon and Syria). It has been argued that the Mandate System in the Middle East failed in achieving its obligations because of how it masked colonial policy, it violated the cultural and minority rights of people in the Mandates, and it has led to violent resistance, which still persists in the region. Although both Britain and France had significantly different approaches to the Mandate system, they both used it as a tool to pursue their interests, which was nationalism for France and capitalism for Britain. Analyzing the failures is important to recognize because it helps explain why major destabilization remains in the area.
 Nele Matz, “Civilization and the Mandate System under the League of Nations as Origin of Trusteeship,” Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law 9 (2005): 54.
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 Lansing, 75.
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 Peter Sluglett and Nadine Meouchy, The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspective (Boston: Brill Leiden, 2004) 129.
 Ibid, 111.
 Randi Deguilhem, “Turning Syrians into Frenchmen: The Cultural Politics of a French Non‐governmental Organization in Mandate Syria (1920–67)—the French Secular Mission Schools,” Islam and Christian‐Muslim Relations 13, no. 4 (October 2002): 449.
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 Sluglett and Meouchy, 121.
 Marshall Cavendish, World and Its Peoples: Arabian Peninsula (New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2006), 966.
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 Ibid 121.
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 Ibid, 161.
 Sluglett and Meouchy, 123.
 Ibid, 114.
 Ibid, 126.
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 Sluglett and Meouchy, 447.