Missing "the Pasha"
Nov 16, 2006
When hearing of the death of Mansur al-Atrash, who passed away at the age of 80 on November 14, I immediately remembered the long talks we had when preparing for my PhD dissertation on President Shukri al-Quwatli and my book "Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000." Atrash belonged to an old school of Syrian politics. Representing a bygone era, he was a man of principel, character, and family heritage.
A socialist and Arab nationalist in principal and practice, he strongly believed in the ideas of the Baath. Although I disagreed with him on many of his views, particularly on the National Bloc and President Quwatli, I could not but respect Atrash for defending his ideas with such vigor—even in old age. At first impression, however, Atrash seemed to be a distant man who did not like to talk to strangers. It took me some time to “break the ice” and get him to speak up about his father Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, and Syrian politics since the 1940s.
Those surrounding him lovingly called him “Pasha” in reference to the title bestowed upon his father by King Abdullah of Jordan in the 1920s. Mansur al-Atrash was a Pasha indeed. Fully aware of the historical name he carried—and the burden that comes with it, he made sure that he crafts an identity of his own, different from that of Sultan Pasha.
I learned a lot from “the Pasha.” I had the honor of meeting many leaders from Atrash’s generation; men who had honored me with an audience—sometimes repeatedly since 1996, channeling unlimited amounts of knowledge, private papers, and memories of Syria.
Mansur al-Atrash was born in the middle of the Great Syrian Revolt, launched by his father against the French Mandate in 1925. He grew up in a land where his father was revered as a national hero. The young Atrash studied political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and graduated in 1948. He then obtained a law degree from the Sorbonne in Paris. In April 1947, Atrash helped found the Baath Party, along with Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar, and became an active member of its political office.
He wrote for the party daily “al-Baath,” and took part in marches, strikes, and parades in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1951 he joined the underground working to topple the military regime of President Adib al-Shishakli. He was arrested twice, once in 1952 for throwing explosives at Shishakli’s residence in Damascus, and the other in May 1953, at the height of the anti-Shishakli uprising. This angered Sultan al-Atrash who had not yet come out to head the anti-Shishakli movement along with former President Hashim al-Atasi. To appease Sultan Pasha, Shishakli released his son shortly afterward, but old warrior refused to tone down his criticism of the Shishakli regime, saying, “I didn’t ask Shishakli for the freedom of my son. I asked him for the freedom of my country.”
Shishakli had clashed with the Baath Party in 1953 and sent Aflaq and Bitar into exile in Lebanon. He then antagonized the Druze community by claiming that they wanted to topple his republican regime. He accused the Druze leaders of wanting to impose a Hashemite monarchy in Syria and of being on the payroll of the Hashemite royals in Amman and Baghdad. Shishakli arrested many Druze leaders, bombarded the Arab Mountain, and placed Atrash’s father, Sultan Pasha, under house arrest.
Mansur joined the anti-Shishakli movement in Homs and channeled arms to the Druze underground. He was instrumental in bringing down the Shishakli regime in February 1954. He also served as a deputy in parliament from 1954 to 1958. In 1956, he was offered a government post in the cabinet of Prime Minister Sa’id al-Ghazi, but turned it down. In the 1950s, Mansur al-Atrash joined the movement of Arab nationalism that was headed by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt. He supported Syria’s merger with Egypt in 1958 and criticized the coup that toppled the union government in 1961. Duringunion, he frequently wrote for the pro-Nasser daily, “al-Jamahir" (The People).
Like many Arab nationalists of his generation he was horrified when the union regime was shattered by a military coup d’etat on September 28, 1961. Union had some mistakes, he said, but the secession regime was nothing but mistakes. In March 1962, the secession Prime Minister Bashir al-Azma called on the Baath Party to assume six cabinet posts, offering Atrash one of them, but he turned it down again, claiming that he was ideologically opposed to the post-UAR regime. In September 1962, Prime Minister Khalid al-Azm appointed Atrash minister of social affairs without consulting him beforehand, and once again, Atrash turned down the post. Many history books, however, wrongly continue to list him as the Minister of Social Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Azm.
In March 1963, the Military Committee of the Baath Party came to power and pledged to restore the UAR. Atrash supported the Baath takeover and allied himself with Syria’s new president, Amin al-Hafez. He was appointed minister of social affairs and labor in the cabinet of Prime Minister Salah al-Bitar and held this post until May 1964. He also became a member of the presidential council, delegated with administering the state’s day-to-day affairs, from May 1964 to October 1965.
On September 1, 1965, Atrash was appointed chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a government body that doubled as a modern parliament. His appointment was part of the power struggle taking place between President Amin al-Hafez, Prime Minister Salah al-Bitar, and Michel Aflaq on one front, and Chief of Staff Salah Jadid and Air Force Commander Hafez al-Asad on the other. The political posts in the RCC that were occupied by the civilians were ceremonial, as Atrash was later to recall. He said, “the officers let us do the talking although, as we later discovered, they had agreed beforehand among themselves what the decisions would be.”
Atrash retained his post until February 14, 1966. One week later, on February 23, an internal Baath Party coup took place and overthrew the administration of President Amin al-Hafez. Mansur al-Atrash was arrested, along with President Amin al-Hafez, and detained at the Mezzeh prison until 1967, released as a result of the Arab-Israeli War. Abd al-Karim al-Jundi, the director of Syrian Intelligence, tried to have him arrested on the charge that he was involved in a coup attempt with Baath Party strongman Saleem Hatum. Mansur al-Atrash fled to Lebanon and remained in Beirut until April 1969. He did not assume any government office after 1970.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.