King Faisal of Iraq. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Beirut: Faisal I, better known to Western readers as the first king of Iraq, was actually the short-lived monarch of a Hashemite kingdom in Damascus.

It lasted for 21 months only and collapsed when the French Army rumbled into the Syrian capital in the summer of 1920, laying claim to its share of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Abiding by its part of the agreement, Great Britain did not object to the toppling of its ally in Damascus, rewarding him instead with an alternate throne in Baghdad.

Faisal Bin Al Hussain, sometimes referred to as Sherif Faisal, was born and raised in Makkah, where his father, Sharif Hussain, served as emir since 1908. He studied in Istanbul and began his career as an MP for Jeddah in the Ottoman Parliament.

In 1916 he took up arms with his father, who launched a military revolt against the Ottomans from Makkah. It was funded and planned by the British, who believed that the Ottoman Empire would only end if it imploded from within, through domestic “fires” and “revolts” launched by the numerous communities and ethnicities under its crown.

The British promised that if Hussain helped the Allies win the First World War, he would get to rule an Arab kingdom headquartered in Makkah, with his son, Ali, as heir to the throne. The second Abdullah would become king of Iraq while Faisal the third would be the king of Syria, with Damascus as his capital.

This was in stark contrast to what Sykes-Picot had in store for the Arabs. The promises to Sharif Hussain were logistically impossible to achieve since, according to the agreement, Syria and Lebanon would go to the French once the First World War ended in Europe, while Iraq and Palestine would fall to the British.

Faisal, therefore, could not become king of Syria without French support and nobody in Paris was willing to offer any.

With British support, Faisal shone as a battle commander in the Great Arab Revolt. His first victory was in Aqaba in July 1917 and the last was the capture of Damascus in September 1918. He declared the city liberated from 400 years of Ottoman rule and was proclaimed by the Syrians as “king of Syria” in May 1920.

The 30-year-old king worked for a modernised and unified country with a centralised administration and modern infrastructure. He oversaw the country’s first elections in 1919, inaugurating its first parliament, and he re-opened the Ottoman Medical School in Damascus, translating all of its literature into Arabic and hiring local professors to teach its courses, renaming it the Arab Medical Academy.

Private newspapers flourished during his reign and parliament debated women’s suffrage years before it was passed in civilised countries like Switzerland. He also established the Arab Language Assembly, the highest international organisation to date promoting the Arabic language, and signed off the modern Syrian currency, army, police, and high school curriculum.

Shortly after setting foot in Damascus, Faisal travelled to France to attend the Paris Peace Conference. This is where he realised that Sykes-Picot was a reality waiting to materialise and that that the promises made to his father before the war were nothing but lies.

The French made their mandatory claims to Syria, as outlined in Sykes-Picot, and sent their army to take Damascus in mid-July 1920. Faisal fought back but his troops were crushed and his defence minister killed in the infamous Battle of Maysaloun.

The mandate was imposed and Faisal was dethroned and expelled from Damascus, with orders never to return. To compensate, the British — who had not lifted a finger to help him that summer — appointed him king of Iraq in March 1921. He ruled from Baghdad until his death at a Swiss hospital in September 1933.