Daniel Neep, Occupying Syria under French Mandate, 2012

Neep, D. Occupying Syria under French Mandate. Insurgency, Space and State Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The present book analyses the exercise of violence in Syria during the French Mandate in order to understand its relationship with “modern power” and its importance in the control of the space in the “modern state.” Daniel Neep searches for the limits of the contemporary understanding of the nature of power polishing parts of the too-European Foucauldian theory. In the process, he includes violence as a necessary mechanism for the construction of “the modern” in the colonial world.

In the classical debate between the constructive violence of Thomas Hobbes and the destructive violence of John Locke, power always precedes the exercise of violence. Later on, Michel Foucault and Hannah Arend understood violence as antithetical of modern power which, in opposition, is based on indirect control. Relying on anthropology of violence, Daniel Neep proposes a decolonisation of violence which commences with divorcing the term from its normative connotations and he focuses on the forms and shapes of violence disregarding the stigmas of illegitimacy and despotism. As a result, during the French Mandate violence precedes and constructs the modern power of the state in the colony.

The display in Damascus of defeated corpses of the 1920s uprising, when most rebels were in rural areas, was a metonymy of violence that symbolised further collective punishment in the process of defining the sovereignty of the state. Nevertheless, complementary strategies, as the distribution of leaflets calling for the surrender, bring Neep to the conclusion that: “[c]olonial violence sought to provide an opportunity for Syrians to display the behaviour that the French recognised as a sign of modern, governable and rational subjects – a rationality which they understood as producing subjects who were pacified and compliant” (64-65) Hence, violence was exercised to provided the conceptual grounds for the allowance of submission.


A very interesting topic of the book is the relationship between the dominion over space and the implicit temporality of each strategy implemented. The conception of the modern state and its relation to the control over space is paradoxically based on the absence of space itself, except as a stage where battles are fought between states and its population. Charles Tilly understands territorial control as a result of war expansions; Michael Mann imagines the control of the state as spacial penetration through a centralised organisation; and Anthony Gidden stresses the administrative apparatus and its technological order.

However, according to Daniel Neep, the construction of the modern state through the imagination of an abstract space based on encyclopedic knowledge, cartography and other technologies is challenged by the experience of French Mandate Syria. Although this sort of knowlege was built by different commissions and policing corpses, its purpose was to mimic the local expertise and reproduce the movement strategies of the rebels in order to defeat them. In this way, the mathematically designed European army fell in disuse and was eventually abolished giving way to more flexible military and police units.

“Power was conceptualised not as static presence in space that accompanied occupation, but as dynamic movement through space. For French, territorial control was equated with superior ability to cross that territory” (104, italics in original) Hence, “[t]he characteristic motion of French columns and Syrian bands reminds us that space is above all a practise quality, and enactment of dynamic movement which creates space as it unfolds.” (118-9)

Nevertheless, space was also constructed through a disciplinary power on a malleable material. Before trying to mimic the movement of the rebels, the French authorities designed a plan to “reorganise” the natural environment of the Ghuta region, although eventually it was not put into practise as the rebels fled before. In the same fashion, the reconstruction of cities, as well as the construction of extramural new neighbourhoods, resembled the nouvel villes constructed in North Africa along geometrical structures. Furthermore, the construction of military garrisons and permanent stations for archaeological purposes, were designed along the same regulations even adding Greek façades and French-like urban structures in the hopes the locals would adopt a European style of life.

Yet, not the whole territorial space of the Mandate needed to be reconstructed or dominated: the desert regions were subjected to a security control that allowed certain sphere of autonomy. The Bedouin migrations and regular razzias were conceptualised as problems by the French office as long as they interfered with their authority and exceeded the “natural environment” of tribal rivalries and desert disputes. Nevertheless, in the colonial imagination, hygiene, both medical and ideological, was a risk the Mandate tried to resolve by administering the movement through the desert routes and allocating regulated spaces to each tribe. Of course, the Bedouins had a much more flexible understanding of the desert line and the control of the freedom of movement was undermined by continuous disregard of the measures implemented by the Mandate.

Regarding the construction of space and its relation to modern sovereignty, there is a relevant lack in this book: the analysis of the drawing of internal boundaries and the definition of overlapping, yet differentiated statelets within constitutional practises. Although this absence is understandable, as the borders were not implemented through physical violence, the legal sphere resulted in the exact space that Daniel Neep identifies with the possibility of submission as a ‘modern subject’. The defeat of the rebels in 1920s provided the opportunity for urban elites to negotiate autonomy under the authority of the Mandate through legal means. Hence, the relation between the realm of legality, the forefront foundation of contemporary global state-system, and its origins in the practises of physical violence are only pointed at as the conclusion of this book, and not thoroughly analysed as a mechanism of ‘legal or symbolic violence’.


Dr. Neep

“What this book has sought to remind us, were such reminder ever needed, is that physical violence is not a relic from a bygone age or some evolutionary throwback to a more primitive state of existence, but an integral part of our modern civilisation from which we can neither distance nor disassociate ourselves.” (210) Consequently, for Neep, physical violence must not only be included in the process of constructing the “modern power”, but its implementation was in fact, in the case of Syria, necessary foundation for the opening of a space of ‘modern submission’.

In addition, an analysis of ‘modernity’ in the light of colonial violence and control over space, it appears that the Foucauldian paradigm of ‘sovereign space’ (cleansed through elimination of obstacles), ‘disciplinary space’ (segmented and strictly regulated), and ‘space of sécurité’ (as a realm of permission) is only an ideal distinction at a theoretical level. The borders and boundaries of each of this spaces are blurry and overlapped constructing an “unruly assembly of elements and forms of power” (209), which directly contradicts the neat nature of ‘the modern’ itself.

Furthermore, the conception of modernity as an exclusively European manufactured concept is put into question as violence was not a one-way mechanism. The responses of the population under the Mandate, either direct confrontation or indifference, shaped to a certain extent the strategies that the French officials put in practise.

In sum, this book stands out as a necessary reconfiguration of Foucauldian theory in the intersection between violence, power and modernity. It is needless to say that the implementation of strategies of sovereignty in the colonies laid the foundations for the shaping of the concept of political power not only in ‘the Rest’ but in the core of the empire. Hence, in order to properly understand the nature of ‘modern power’ and the global structure of ‘modern state’ our knowledge must originate in the exercise of violence and the construction of sovereignty in those territories where ‘there was no soverignty’.


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