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Sultan Al-Atrash: An icon of Syrian resistance

Sultan Al-Atrash in the Arabian desert after the Syrian revolt against the French occupation. Credit: Library of Congress/Photographer unknown

Even though the focus of most of the world has shifted away from events in Syria, the demonstrations that began in the mountainous region of Sweida in 2023 continue. This should come as no surprise to those who know the story of a local Druze hero named Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, an iconic Arab leader who was born in Sweida on March 5, 1891, and whose spirit continues to live on in the people of the region until now. 

For all of his life, Sultan Al-Atrash shunned the allure of power and authority, deliberately choosing to live a simple life in such an admirable way that he achieved a position of great influence with not only his many admirers but his enemies as well, despite his lifelong aversion to fame and fortune.

A man of principle known for his extreme patriotism and courage, Al-Atrash was deeply committed to the national unity of Syria and went to great lengths in rejecting any policies or settlements that would contribute to the division of the country. For example, hoping to gain his support during their occupation of Syria, Al-Atrash was presented with an opportunity by the French to become ruler of a state named after Mount Druze, but he adamantly refused. 

Al-Atrash experienced many victorious moments but also the loss of his brother, Mustafa Al-Atrash, during one of the battles

After a series of events that sparked a revolutionary spirit and calls for revolution amongst his people that further amplified his opposition to the French colonizers, Al-Atrash eventually declared a formal revolution of the Druze people in 1925. Leading a series of devastating attacks on French forces in several locations, Al-Atrash experienced many victorious moments but also the loss of his brother, Mustafa Al-Atrash, during one of the battles.

As a result of their initial success, Sweida became the first focal point of a larger national movement as the Druze Revolution with Al-Atrash as its leader gathered support from other Syrian leaders and became a springboard for a broader Syrian revolution. Even though the revolution’s assaults on the French did not lead to their immediate withdrawal, the leadership skills of Sultan Al-Atrash and his peers became legendary due to campaigns like the battle in which 400 rebel soldiers managed to crush 13,000 French soldiers at Al-Mazra’a.

Despite the excellent warrior skills of the rebels, French occupation forces were able to intensify their battles with modern weaponry, eventually forcing Al-Atrash and his rebels across the border into Jordan. Forced to move on by the British, the rebels sought refuge in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula where they remained until the signing of the 1936 treaty which granted them unconditional amnesty. 

Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash died in 1982 at the age of 91 but continues to be regarded as a folk hero and symbol of patriotism, courage, and secularism

Upon returning to Syria, Sultan Al-Atrash was welcomed with a massive reception in Damascus, evidence that he was extremely popular and held in high regard by the people of his homeland. Reflecting upon his experiences after his return, Al-Atrash subsequently wrote a book titled The Events of the Great Syrian Revolution as Narrated by its Supreme Commander Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash.

The spirit of revolution would continue to burn in the heart of Sultan Al-Atrash for the rest of his life, even as he alternately participated in, and stood in opposition to, a series of governments in Syria. Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash died on March 26, 1982 in Sweida’s Al-Qrayya at the age of 91 but continues to be regarded as a folk hero and symbol of patriotism, courage, and secularism by the Druze in Syria. Many poems and popular songs have been written about him but it is his own words “Religion is for God, the fatherland is for all” that continue to inspire and be the slogan of the revolutionaries in Sweida today.

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