1860 Mount Lebanon civil war
The 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war (also called the 1860 Civil War in Syria) was the culmination of a peasant uprising, which began in the north of Mount Lebanon as a rebellion of Maronite peasants against their Druze overlords, and culminated in a massacre in Damascus. It soon spread to the south of the country where the rebellion changed its character, with Druze turning against the Maronite Christians. Around 20,000 Christians were killed by the Druze, and 380 Christian villages and 560 churches destroyed. The Druze and Muslims also suffered heavy losses.
On 3 September 1840, Bashir Shihab III, a distant cousin of the once-powerful Emir Bashir Shihab II, was appointed emir of Mount Lebanon by Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I. Geographically, the Mount Lebanon Emirate corresponded with the central part of present-day Lebanon, which historically has had a Christian and Druze majority. In practice, the terms "Lebanon" and "Mount Lebanon" tend to be used interchangeably by historians until the formal establishment of the Mandate.
Bitter conflicts between Christians and Druzes, which had been simmering under Ibrahim Pasha's rule (mostly centred on the firmans of 1839 and later more decisively, of 1856, which equalized the status of Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, the former resenting the implied loss of superiority) resurfaced under the new emir. Hence, the sultan deposed Bashir III, on 13 January 1842, and appointed Omar Pasha as governor of Mount Lebanon. This appointment, however, created more problems than it solved. Representatives of the European powers proposed to the sultan that Lebanon be partitioned into Christian and Druze sections. On 7 December 1842, the sultan adopted the proposal and asked the governor of Damascus to divide the region into two districts: a northern district under a Christian deputy governor and a southern district under a Druze deputy governor. This arrangement came to be known as the "Double Qaimaqamate". Both officials were to be responsible to the governor of Sidon, who resided in Beirut. The Beirut-Damascus highway was the dividing line between the two districts.
This partition of Lebanon was nurtured by outside powers, and animosities between the religious sects increased. The French, for example, traditionally supported the Christians, while the British supported the Druze, and the Ottomans fomented strife to increase their control over the administratively divided region. These tensions led to conflict between Christians and Druzes as early as May 1845. Consequently, the European powers requested that the Ottoman sultan establish order in Lebanon, and he attempted to do so by establishing a new council in each of the districts. Composed of members of the various religious communities, these councils were intended to assist the deputy governor.
This system failed to keep order when the peasants of Keserwan, overburdened by heavy taxes, rebelled against the feudal practices that prevailed in Lebanon. In 1858 Tanyus Shahin, a Maronite Christian peasant leader, demanded that the feudal class abolish its privileges. The demand refused, the peasants began to prepare for a revolt. In January 1859, an armed uprising headed by Shahin flared up. The uprising targeted the Maronite Khazen muqata'jis (feudal lords) of Keserwan, pillaging their land and burning their homes. Having driven the Maronite feudal lords out of Keserwan and seizing their land and property, the insurgent peasants set up their own rule. The Keserwan uprising, as it became known, had a revolutionary effect on other regions in Lebanon. The disturbances spread to Latakia and to central Lebanon. Maronite peasants, actively supported by their clergy, began to prepare for an armed uprising against their Druze masters. In turn, the Druze lords, who had been hesitant to confront the growing assertiveness of Maronite peasantry due to an awareness of the military imbalance in the Maronites' favor, began to arm the Druze irregulars.
In August 1859, a brawl occurred between Druze and Maronite locals in the Metn area of the Double Qaimaqamate's Christian sector. The dispute enabled Maronite Bishop Tobia Aoun to mobilize his Beirut-based central committee to intervene in the matter. Soon after, a Druze muqata'ji of the Yazbaki faction, Yusuf Abd al-Malik, and his fighters intervened in a brawl between young Maronite and Druze men in the vicinity of the Metn village of Beit Mery, which resulted in twenty fatalities. The Druze lords began making war preparations, allegedly in coordination with the local Ottoman authorities, while Bishop Aoun oversaw the distribution of weapons to Maronite peasants. According to historian William Harris, the Christians of Mount Lebanon felt "buoyed by their local numerical superiority, yet despondent because of the hostile Muslim mood in Syria" in the aftermath of the empire's reforms.
In the months of March, April and May 1860, numerous acts of murder, looting and skirmishing took place across the mixed Christian-Druze districts of southern Mount Lebanon, in the Druze run sector of the Double Qaimaqamate. According to historian Leila Terazi Fawaz, these initial acts were "random and unpredictable enough to seem more the acts of lawless men than a calculated war against other sects, especially since banditry was always part of the objective". In March, the father of a Catholic monastery in Aammiq was killed and the monastery looted, and shortly afterwards, a Druze man from Ainab allegedly killed a Christian man from Abadiyeh. These acts fuelled a cycle of revenge attacks that significantly increased in frequency by April.
In April, two Druze men were killed in the vicinity of Beirut, followed by the killing of three Christians outside of Sidon. Two Christians from Jezzine were killed at Khan Iqlim al-Shumar by Druze from Hasbaya on 26 April and the next day another four Christians were killed in Katuli. On 11 May, Christians from Katuli killed two Druzes at the Nahr al-Assal river and three days later two Druzes from Chouf were killed near Sidon. The tit-for-tat killings continued, rendering most of the roads of Mount Lebanon unsafe for travellers. Towards the end of May, Christians were reporting to the European consuls that killings of their co-religionists were occurring in the districts of Beqaa, Arqub and Gharb. The Maronite clergy communicated to each other their increasing concerns regarding the violence and the need to end it, but some clergymen believed the cycle of retaliatory attacks would not stop. With Maronite militias launching raids into Metn and Shahin's forces making incursions into the Gharb area west of Beirut, the Druze muqata'jis held a war council in Moukhtara where the Jumblatti factions and their more hawkish Yazbaki counterparts agreed to appoint Sa'id Jumblatt as their overall commander.
Most sources put the start of the war at 27 May, while the British consul considered 29 May the actual start of full-fledged conflict. The first major outbreak of violence occurred when a 250-strong Maronite militia from Keserwan led by Taniyus Shahin went to collect the silk harvest from Naccache, but instead of returning to Keserwan, proceeded to Baabda in the al-Sahil district near Beirut. The local Druze leadership considered the Maronite mobilization at Baabda to be a provocation to the Druze in the mixed Metn district, while the Maronites saw the garrisoning of Ottoman troops under Khurshid Pasha near Naccache on 26 May as a prelude to a Druze assault. The Ottoman garrison established itself at Hazmiyeh with the support of the European consuls in order to bring order to Mount Lebanon. However, the Maronites considered it a threat since they viewed the Ottomans as allies of the Druze.
On 29 May, Keserwani Maronites raided the mixed villages of Qarnayel, Btekhnay and Salima and forced out its Druze residents. The tension broke out into open conflict later that day during a Druze assault against the mixed village of Beit Mery, with the village's Druze and Christian residents subsequently calling for support from their co-religionists in Abadiyeh and al-Sahil, respectively. The Druze, backed by an Ottoman commander of irregulars named Ibrahim Agha, and Maronite fighters burned down the houses of the rival sect in Beit Mery. The Maronite fighters defeated the Druze and Ibrahim Agha at Beit Mery before withdrawing from the village.
On 30 May, the Keserwani Maronite militiamen attempted to renew their assault against Beit Mery, but were countered by 1,800-2,000 Druze militiamen led by the Talhuq and Abu Nakad clans on the way, prompting previously neutral Maronites from Baabda, Wadi Shahrur, Hadath and elsewhere in al-Sahil to join the fighting. Although casualties among the Christian militiamen were relatively low during the fighting on 30 May, in the renewed battle on 31 May, the 200-strong Maronite force was routed at Beit Mery and forced to retreat to Brummana. By the day's end, the Druze fighters were in complete control of Metn, where clashes were widespread, and between 35 and 40 Maronite majority villages were set alight and some 600 Maronites in the district slain.
Also on 30 May, full-fledged fighting between Druze and Christians occurred in the area of Zahle, when a 200-strong Druze force led by Ali ibn Khattar Imad confronted 400 local Christian fighters at the village of Dahr al-Baidar, prompting Christian militiamen from nearby Zahle to join the fighting. Imad's men retreated to Ain Dara, where the Christians followed them before being defeated. Ali Imad died of his wounds on 3 June; consequently, a 600-strong Druze force was mobilized under the command of his father Khattar Imad. Some 3,000 Christian fighters, predominantly from Zahle, met Khattar's forces near Ain Dara where a major battle took place. The Druze experienced twice as many casualties as the Christians, but ultimately forced the Christians to retreat to Zahle. Between 29 and 31 May, 60 villages were destroyed in the vicinity of Beirut, and 33 Christians and 48 Druzes were killed.
In the last days of May, Druze forces under the command of Bashir Nakad and backed by the Imad and Jumblatt clans besieged Deir al-Qamar. In the first days of June, reports from the town to European consuls reported that starvation was beginning to set in. A relief supply of grain and flour sent by the Ottoman general Khurshid Pasha apparently did not reach the town. Bashir's forces, numbering some 3,000 Druze fighters, launched an assault on Deir al-Qamar on 2 June and another assault the next day. The Christian defenders in Deir al-Qamar initially put up stiff resistance and inflicted heavy casualties on the Druze forces, who managed to raze the town's outskirts. After eight hours of the Druze assault, Deir al-Qamar surrendered on 3 June, partially as a result of internal divisions among the town's Christian militia. Fatality reports ranged from 70 to 100 slain Druze and 17 to 25 Christians. Following its capture, the Druze plundered Deir al-Qamar until 6 June and destroyed 130 houses. Around half of the town's Christian residents had remained neutral and appealed for protection by the Druze, with whom many had long maintained social and commercial ties.
Unlike their co-religionists elsewhere in Syria, the Greek Orthodox inhabitants of Wadi al-Taym were generally aligned with the Maronites of Mount Lebanon, due to shared opposition to Protestant missionary activity, and were loyal to their lords, the Sunni Muslim Shihab emirs of Rashaya and Hasbaya. Fighting between the Shihab emirs led by Sa'ad al-Din Shihab and the Druze led by Sa'id al-Shams and Sa'id Jumblatt had been going on since the last days of May, particularly in Deir Mimas. The clashes led to shoot-outs in Hasbaya between Christians and Druze peasant fighters from various other Wadi al-Taym villages. Before casualties became heavy, emergency Ottoman reinforcements led by Yusuf Agha intervened to back the Ottoman garrison led by Uthman Bey, and stopped the fighting in Hasbaya. Meanwhile, fighting between Druzes and Christians had broken out in nearby Shebaa, prompting Uthman Bey to intervene in the village and then confer with Druze sheikhs in Marj Shwaya ostensibly to gain assurances from them that they would cease hostilities. Not long after Uthman Bey assured the Christians of Hasbaya that Druze attacks would end, Druze forces set fire to a Christian village in Wadi al-Taym and proceeded to assault Hasbaya, where Christians fleeing the clashes had been seeking shelter.
At the advice of Uthman Bey, a large part of Hasbaya's Christian community took refuge in Hasbaya's government house, along with several Shihabi family members, and surrendered their weapons, which numbered around 500 guns. The surrendered guns were soon looted by the Druze and according to the British consul, this had been Uthman Bey's actual intention. The Christians of Hasbaya, along with 150 Christian refugees from Qaraoun, had taken shelter in the government house on 3 June. Some 400 sheltered in the home of Sa'id Jumblatt's sister Nayifa, due to her concerns that the gathering of so many Christians at government house would put so many of their lives in danger. Many Christians did not trust Nayifa due to her frequent hosting of Uthman Bey, who the local Christians increasingly lost trust of, and her family's leadership of the Druzes.
The Druzes of Wadi al-Taym had been receiving numerous reinforcements from Majdal Shams, Iqlim al-Ballan and the Hauran plain, and were quietly backed by Uthman Bey. Led by commanders Ali Bey Hamada, Kenj Ahmad and Hasan Agha Tawil, the Druze forces assembled around Hasbaya on 3 June. Several hundred (possibly up to 1,000) largely disorganized and inexperienced Christian men from Hasbaya mobilized as well. After heavy fighting that day, the Christians, who suffered 26 casualties, managed to briefly push back the Druzes, who suffered 130 fatalities, and proceeded to burn down Druze homes in the area. On 4 June, the much larger Druze force defeated the Christians after an hour-long assault and the Christian forces fled. The Christians had apparently been waiting for Ottoman troops to arrive and protect them as they were promised, but this did not materialize.
Following the Druzes' capture of Hasbaya, their forces proceeded to assault the government house. At first, the Druzes sought out and killed 17 Shihabi men, including Emir Sa'ad al-Din, who was decapitated and thrown off the three-story building's rooftop. The Druze fighters then began killing the Christians who had taken refuge there. Druze fighters massacred about 1,000 Christian males, adults and children, while sparing the women. According to an account by a Christian survivor, "the men were slaughtered in the embrace of their wives and the children at the breasts of their mothers". About 40-50 men survived after managing to escape. The 400 Christians who had sheltered with Nayifa Jumblatt survived because she had them relocated initially to the Jumblatt stronghold of Moukhtara and from there to the port of Sidon, from which they were able to make it to Beirut on a British warship.
In the days after the Druze victory at Hasbaya, violence raged in the southern Beqaa Valley. The hostilities were set off after two Druze men from Kfar Qouq were arrested by the authorities for their suspected role in the deaths of two Christians from Dahr al-Ahmar who were shot down as they were transporting clay pots on their way to Damascus. The Druze men were quickly released by the Ottomans after protests by the local Druze community. The local Druze were angry at the Christians for complaining to the authorities, which led to the arrests, and launched an attack on Dahr al-Ahmar. On 8 June Christians from Dahr al-Ahmar and the vicinity fled to Rashaya, which had an Ottoman garrison, for protection.
As the Christians fled to Rashaya, Druzes began burning down the homes they left behind and assaulted the Christian villages of Kfar Mishki, Beit Lahia and Hawush. The Christians received assurances of safety from Emir Ali Shihab, governor of Rashaya, and the Druze al-Aryan family, which held significant influence in the town. About 150 took refuge in the government house and set up barricades on the streets leading to the building as additional security measures. That same day, a Druze force attacked the town and burnt down Christian homes, forcing many other local Christians to seek shelter in the government house. Several Christians were killed before the Druze force withdrew after a meeting with the Ottoman authorities at Ziltatiat. The Christians remained in the government house upon the counsel of the local Ottoman garrison's commander.
By 11 June, a 5,000-strong Druze force assembled outside Rashaya consisting of local Druze militiamen, the Druze force from the previous Hasbaya battle and Druze troops under the command of Isma'il al-Atrash. Al-Atrash's men had attacked several Christian villages in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains on their way to Rashaya. That day, the Druze force split into two main contingents, with one attacking the Christian village of Aya and the other storming Rashaya. The Shihab emirs of Rashaya, with the exception of two, were slain. The Druze assaulted the government house and killed the men inside, including priests. The combined Christian fatalities from the massacre at Hasbaya and the assault on Rashaya and its neighboring villages were roughly 1,800.
The Druze followed up on their victory at Rashaya by raiding villages in the central Beqaa Valley and the vicinity of Baalbek together with Shia Muslim peasants and irregulars, guided by the Harfush clan. While the Harfushes continued to assault Baalbek, the Druze proceeded back south towards Zahle, which at that time remained the last major Christian stronghold. The Zahalni Christians, largely led by Abdallah Abu Khatir, appealed for support from Maronite militia leaders in Kesrawan and Metn, namely Taniyus Shahin of Reifun, Youssef Bey Karam of Ehden and Yusuf al-Shantiri of Metn. Shahin feared antagonizing the Ottoman authorities and did not respond to the appeal, while al-Shantiri preferred to wait and assess any moves made by Shahin or Karam first. Karam responded positively to the appeal and assembled a 4,000-strong force, but it did not make it further than the Metn village of Bikfaya. After the conflict's end, Karam claimed his abrupt halt was due to prohibitions on further advances by the French consul and the Ottoman authorities.
The Christian force assembled in Zahle numbered around 4,000 men, mostly from Zahle, but also 400 cavalry from Baskinta and a smaller force from Metn. They stockpiled ammunition and had hundreds of horses available for battle. The Zahalni militiamen prepared the town's defences by digging deep trenches around it, building a brick wall at its southern edge and fortifying parts of the town's narrow roads and paths. They stocked foodstuffs and other supplies, and townspeople hid any valuable items in their possession. Meanwhile, Druze forces from Wadi al-Taym, Rashaya, Chouf and the Hauran were assembling in Zahle's vicinity, using the nearby mixed village of Qabb Ilyas to Zahle's south, as their headquarters. Zahalni Christian forces launched an assault against Qabb Ilyas on 14 June. According to an account of that confrontation, the Christians fought "without discipline" and were "heedless of danger", spreading themselves thin across the plains of Qabb Ilyas, with fighters taking up uncoordinated positions and firing their weapons. The Druze defenders forced them to retreat to Zahle. The Zahalni repeated their assault a few days later, but were again repulsed.
On 18 June, Druze forces under Khattar Imad's command and reinforced by Shia peasants and Sunni Sardiyah Bedouin cavalry from Hauran (3,000 men altogether) began their assault on Zahle, some of whose defenders were feuding among each other at the time of the attack. The Druze assault was well-planned according to accounts of the battle, with some of their forces attacking Zahle's well-defended eastern, southern and western sides, while Imad's contingent launched a surprise attack against the town from the north. The Zahalni had not concentrated their fortifications at Zahle's north because they expected that side of town to be safe due to the heavy Christian presence there. Furthermore, they were still expecting Karam's men to be arriving from the north side (they had not yet been notified of his troops' halt at Bikfaya). Imad disguised his contingent as Christians by adorning them with crosses and Christian flags taken from slain Christian fighters in previous battles. Thus, when Imad and his men approached Zahle from the north, its defenders enthusiastically welcomed them, believing them to be Karam's men.
As Imad's Druze forces entered Zahle, they proceeded to burn down its northern neighborhoods. When Druze forces commanded by Isma'il al-Atrash saw the flames emanating from northern Zahle, they stormed the town. Within hours, Zahle was under Druze control. Zahle's residents panicked and fled the town for Metn, Keserwan and al-Sahil. By 19 June, the town was emptied of its inhabitants. The Christians suffered between 40 and 900 casualties, while the Druze and their allies suffered between 100 and 1,500 casualties. The Druze agreed beforehand not to loot Zahle, but the Sardiyah Bedouin tribesmen plundered the town, taking money, horses and jewellery.
The outcome at Zahle held enormous significance for both sides in the war. For the Christians, the fall of the strongest Christian town meant the loss of their principal support base, as the Zahalni supported other Christians in many earlier battles during the conflict. Zahle was believed by many Christians in Mount Lebanon to be unconquerable. According to the British consul, the Christian defeat at Zahle caused many Christians to consequently want to flee Ottoman Syria. The Druze victory at Zahle was a major morale boost for their forces since the fall of Zahle effectively symbolized their total victory over the Christians of Mount Lebanon, which they then controlled indisputably. It was also a cause for celebration among Muslims of all sects in Ottoman Syria because many Muslims viewed its inhabitants as arrogant, and reportedly "suffered from the people of Zahle and heard of their sly deeds", according to the Damascene notable Sayyid Muhammad Abu'l Su'ud al-Hasibi, who condemned what he saw as Druze and Muslim excesses during the conflict. The Muslims of Damascus held celebrations in the city after the fall of Zahle.
Following Zahle's fall, groups of Sunni and Shia Muslims from Baalbek used the opportunity to settle scores with local Christians and plunder the town and its vicinity. Up to 34 Christian villages in the Beqaa Valley were plundered and burned, with many houses and churches destroyed, and harvests and livestock taken. The Shia Harfush clan led the siege and assault on Baalbek, attacking the Ottoman garrison there commanded by Husni Bey and the headquarters of the district governor, Faris Agha Qadro, killing several of the latter's employees. The Kurdish irregulars led Hassan Agha Yazigi that were dispatched by the Ottoman governor of Damascus did not attempt to relieve the siege. Baalbek was largely destroyed and Yazigi's irregulars would later participate in the town's plunder.
Deir al-Qamar had already been captured by Druze forces and its residents had consistently appealed for protection from their friends among the local Druze and from the Ottoman authorities. Nonetheless, following their decisive victory at Zahle, the Druze renewed their assault against Deir al-Qamar on 20 June. In the weeks prior, some of the town's wealthier residents managed to leave for Beirut or gained Sa'id Jumblatt's protection in Moukhtara. However, thousands of Christians remained in Deir al-Qamar and the Druze militiamen were preventing many from leaving. As Druze fighters moved in on the town, ostensibly guarding homes and shops, they proceeded to loot many buildings that had been abandoned by their patrons. The Christian residents did not put up armed resistance against the Druze fighters, and sometime before 20 June the Christians had been disarmed either at the counsel of the district governor Mustafa Shukri Effendi or an Ottoman general from the Beirut garrison named Tahir Pasha. The Ottomans' advice to the Christians regarding disarmament was that it would help in not provoking the Druze.
On the evening of 19 June, a Christian resident and a priest were killed outside the government house in Deir al-Qamar, where thousands of residents had begun taking refuge. Hundreds of others took shelter in the abandoned Ottoman barracks at Beit ed-Dine or the district governor's residence. Meanwhile, Druze fighters from Moukhtara, Baakline, Ain al-Tineh, Arqub district, Manasif district, Boutmeh, Jdaideh, Shahahir, and Ammatour were streaming into Deir al-Qamar from several directions. At least part of these forces were commanded by Sheikh Qasim Imad. The roughly 4,000 Ottoman troops stationed in Deir al-Qamar did not stop the incoming Druzes. On the morning of 20 June, the Druzes assaulted the government house and proceeded to kill the males taking refuge in it, all of whom were unarmed. European consuls who witnessed the killings or their aftermath reported that many women were assaulted as well in an unprecedented manner. Afterwards, the Druzes plundered Deir al-Qamar, which was well known for being wealthy. Unlike in Zahle, the Druzes looted large quantities of horses, livestock, jewellery and other goods. Large parts of the town were burned down. Other Christians were killed throughout Deir al-Qamar.
Nearby Beit ed-Dine and its countryside was also sacked. The plunder in Deir al-Qamar ended on 23 June, after intervention by Sa'id Jumblatt, Bashir Nakad, sheikhs from the Hamada clan, and an Ottoman colonel. By the end of the fighting, much of Deir al-Qamar, which was the most prosperous town of the predominantly Druze Chouf district, was in ruins, and corpses, some mutilated, were left throughout the town's streets, markets, houses and Ottoman government buildings and military installations. Between 1,200 and 2,200 Christians had been killed in the onslaught and many more had fled. By October 1860, Deir al-Qamar's population which had been roughly 10,000 before the conflict, had been reduced to 400. According to Fawaz, the ceasefire negotiated between by the Druze sheikhs and the authorities marked the "end to the most violent phase of the civil war" in Mount Lebanon.
The war in Mount Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley caused inter-communal tension throughout Ottoman Syria. On 23 June, a Sunni Muslim man was killed during a dispute with a Christian refugee in Beirut. The man's death prompted his angry relatives to demand from the Ottoman authorities that the perpetrator be executed. The authorities arrested a suspect and tried him immediately, but by then mobs were forming throughout the city, whose population had doubled due to the influx of Christian refugees. Panic ensued among the Christians in Beirut, and many were assaulted or threatened, including Europeans. The acting governor of Beirut, Isma'il Pasha, deployed troops throughout the city to prevent violence, but ultimately decided that the only way to disperse the mobs was by executing the Christian suspect, who consistently declared his innocence. Although only the actual governor, Khurshid Pasha (who was in Deir al-Qamar), could sanction an execution and the European consuls refused to give their blessing to it, Isma'il Pasha had the suspect executed within twelve hours of the Muslim man's killing to avert further violence. The angry crowds consequently dispersed and calm was restored to Beirut.
Tensions were also raised in other coastal cities such Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre, but their proximity to European warships in the Mediterranean helped maintain calm. Nonetheless, Tyre and Sidon were at the brink of civil war due to violence raging between Sunni and Shia residents and Christian refugees fleeing the war. Hundreds of Christians opted to leave Syria altogether, boarding ships to Malta or Alexandria. In the Galilee, peace was maintained by local Bedouin chieftains, such as Aqil Agha who assured Christians in Nazareth and Acre of his protection. However, in the village of Kafr Bir'im near Safad, three Christians were killed by Druze and Shia Muslim raiders, while the mixed village of al-Bassa was also plundered. A violent incident occurred between a Muslim and Christian man in Bethlehem, ending with the latter being beaten and imprisoned. The authorities maintained calm in Jerusalem, Nablus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo by introducing additional security measures. In the latter city, the Ottoman governor Umar Pasha appeared keen to maintain order, but his garrison was too small to ensure security in the city. Instead, many Christians pooled money together to pay for protection by local Muslims, who formed an ad hoc police force.
In July 1860, fighting spilled over into Damascus. With the connivance of the military authorities and Turkish soldiers, Druze and Sunni Muslim paramilitary groups organised pogroms which lasted three days (9-11 July). 25,000 Christians were killed. The American vice-consul and Dutch consul could narrowly escape the mobs. Churches and missionary schools were set on fire. Many Christians were saved through the intervention of the Muslim Algerian exile Emir Abdelkader and his soldiers, who brought them to safety in Abdelkader's residence and the Citadel of Damascus. The Christian quarter of the old city (mostly inhabited by Catholics), including a number of churches, was burnt down. The Christian inhabitants of the notoriously poor and refractory Midan district outside the walls (mostly Orthodox) were, however, protected by their Muslim neighbors.
Most sources put the figure of those killed between 7,000 and 11,000, with some claiming over 20,000. A letter in the English Daily News in July 1860 states that between 7,000 and 8,000 had been murdered; 5,000 widowed and 16,000 orphaned. James Lewis Farley, in a letter, speaks of 326 villages, 560 churches, 28 colleges, 42 convents, and 9 other religious establishments, having been totally destroyed. Churchill puts the figures at 11,000 murdered, 100,000 refugees, 20,000 widows and orphans, 3,000 habitations burnt to the ground, and 4,000 perishing from destitution. Other estimates claim 380 Christian villages were destroyed.
The bloody events led France to intervene and stop the massacre after Ottoman troops had been aiding Islamic forces by either direct support or by disarming Christian forces. France, led by Napoleon III, recalled its ancient role as protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire which was established in a treaty in 1523. Following the massacre and an international outcry, the Ottoman Empire agreed on 3 August 1860 to the dispatch of up to 12,000 European soldiers to reestablish order. Syrian region was then part of the Ottoman Empire. This agreement was further formalized in a convention on 5 September 1860 with Austria, Great Britain, France, Prussia and Russia. France was to supply half of that number, and other countries were to send supplementary forces as needed.
General Beaufort d'Hautpoul was put in charge of the expeditionary force. d'Hautpoul was quite experienced and knowledgeable of matters in the Middle East, as he had served during the 1830s as chief of staff for Ibrahim Pasha in the Egyptian campaigns in Southern Syria. The French expeditionary corps of 6,000 soldiers, mainly from Châlons-sur-Marne, landed in Beyrouth on 16 August 1860.
General d'Hautpoul had instructions to collaborate with the Ottoman authorities in reestablishing order, and especially to maintain contact with the Ottoman minister Fuad Pasha. Although the troubles had already been quelled by the Ottoman Empire, the French expeditionary corps remained in Syria from August 1860 to June 1861. This was longer than the initially agreed period of 6 months.
The prolonged French presence in Syria was soon objected to by the British government, who argued that pacification should be left to Ottoman authorities.
An important consequence of the French expedition was the establishment of the autonomy of the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate from Ottoman Syria, with the nomination by the Sultan of an Armenian Christian Governor from Constantinople named Daud Pasha on 9 June 1861.