Keeping an eye on Syria: March 29, 1949
Mar 29, 2009
On this day 60-years ago, tanks rolled into Damascus in the middle of the night. Military units took the sleeping capital in a breeze, under orders from Army Commander Husni al-Zaim. One occupied the Radio Station on Nasr Street. Another surrounded Parliament. A third headed to Police Headquarters. A forth to the residence of Prime Minister Khaled al-Azm. A fifth to the residence of President Shukri al-Quwatli. Syria’s borders with Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon were sealed off, and all telephone lines were temporarily, cut-off. On the next day, the residents of Damascus awoke to see tanks on every street corner—something they had never seen since the days of the French Mandate. One aging shopkeeper famously walked up to a soldier perched atop of a tank and asked:
“What is going on my Son?”
“Hush” said the soldier, signaling the old man to silence, “This is an Inkilab (coup d’etat)!”
The puzzled man responded, “Okay…but, what is an Inkilab?”
The word was new to the Syrian dictionary; it had never happened before. Little did he know that his country was about to be rocked by 20 inkilabs over the next 40-years. 11 of them failed, and 9 succeeded.
The soldier explained that the Armed Forces had taken control of the government and arrested the President of the Republic.
Angrily, the old man said, “You should be ashamed of yourselves; you are doing what mighty France—in all her arrogance—dared not do in this country!”
Nobody in Syria—not even the President knew—what the identity of the inkilab was. Many thought it was Jordanian, thinking that King Abdullah had finally realized his long-held ambition of securing for himself a throne in Syria. Others thought that the newly created State of Israel had gone mad and invaded Syria, since the Syrians were the only Arabs who had refused to sign an armistice with Israel after the war of 1948. When the soldiers spoke in Arabic—with no Jordanian accent—it was clear that the coup was Syrian.
It would have been easier for these soldiers to speak in American English, revealing the identity of the coup d’etat of 1949.
Nobody knew back then that this was the doing of the newly created Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was born in July 1947. It was actually the first overseas operation of the CIA. Stephan Meade, the US military attaché in Damascus, and Miles Copeland, an Embassy official who was working with the CIA and later played a role in bringing down King Farouk of Egypt, were behind the coup. They complained to Washington DC that after the war of 1948, Syria was being stubborn on three main issues:
1) Armistice with Israel
2) Refusing to outlaw the popular Communist Party in Syria
3) Refusing to grant passage rights to the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline), running from Saudi Arabia to Sidon in Lebanon, through Syria.
When Quwatli refused to budge on all three issues, the CIA famously instructed: “If you cannot change the game, change the players!”
Copeland and Meade began searching for alternatives to Shukri al-Quwatli. The broad requirement was: “He must be anxious for power. He must be power crazy.” They added, “We need someone who would have power like no other Arab leader has had before. That is because he will be asked un-popular decisions. People will constantly compare between him and Quwatli and that is why he should not be concerned with what people say of him.”
The first proposed name was Fawzi al-Qawijgi, a veteran resistance leader who had just returned from combat in Palestine. He had a military force under his command, and could take Damascus, but he refused to cooperate with the Americans. The second choice was Ahmad Sharabati, an MIT-trained engineer who had been Minister of Defense yet he too was not suitable, since nobody would listen to him in the Syrian Army. The third option was General Husni al-Zaim, the Commander of the Syrian Army, who Copeland described as, “America’s boy” in Syria; “a popular officer; the soldiers like him, and so does the President.” Copeland remarked, “Zaim has an instinct for being boss. So long as we jump to our feet in his presence and call him Excellence, he will be willing to work with us.”
That is probably why when Condoleezza Rice spoke at the American University of Cairo (AUC) four years ago, she said that for 60-years, America has been more interested in bringing stability than democracy to the Arab World. The Americans reasoned that a brute like Husni al-Zaim would better serve their interests, than a democratically elected president like Shukri al-Quwatli. No sooner had Zaim come to power on March 29, 1949, however, and fulfilled all of America’s demands on Tapline, Communism, and armistice, did the CIA abandon him—which led to his execution by firing squad 137 days later, on August 14, 1949.
In between March 29 and August 14, Zaim toyed with the idea of meeting David Ben Gurion, repatriating 300,000 Palestinians in Syria, and signing peace—not only armistice—with Israel. His Prime Minister Muhsen al-Barazi commented to Meade, shortly before being killed with his boss, that gambling with Syria’s fate, he was risking “political suicide, but this is a price I am willing to pay to get American assistance to keep my country on its feet!”
That is exactly what happened; political suicide. While Zaim was enjoying American support, marching around Damascus looking like Mussolini, Quwatli famously was taken from prison to the Mezzeh Military Hospital, suffering from acute stomach pain. When getting out of the military jeep, he noticed that the Syrian Flag had not yet been raised over the Yusuf al-Azma Hospital. Angrily, he asked the doctor why the flag was not up, although it was way beyond start of the work day, at 8 am? The doctor explained that due to the coup and its aftershocks, the hospital staff had forgotten to raise the Flag of Syria.
“My Son” remarked the veteran Syrian leader, “This flag is your honour and pride! It should always remain raised high up on its mast. If it falls, all of us will fall with it! Always keep an eye on the Flag my Son. And keep your other eye on Syria!”
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.