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FLYING THE COUP: SYRIA’S TRIPLE-WHAMMY 1949
Military coups have been a major and recurring theme in the developing world over the past century, and the Muslim world has been a case in point. With the breakdown of centralized empires and the rise of fledgling states riddled with corrupt politicians and overly assertive armies, the military coup has been, and remains, a regular feature of politics in the Muslim world since the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate. FLYING THE COUP takes stock of the long catalogue of coups in the modern Muslim world.
The foundation of Israel and the defeat of the Arab armies had a profound effect on the Arab world, as citizens and soldiers alike turned on their political leadership. Apart from the thousands of displaced Palestinians expelled from their homeland as Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion put forward a policy of eradicating a significant Arab population from the Jewish State, nowhere did the impact of the defeat hit faster and harder than in Syria. Having achieved independence from France just two years earlier, Syria’s next twenty years were characterized by a catalogue of dizzying coups that put paid to the prospects of a civilian-governed state right up till the present day.
Syria had an especial investment in the Arab-Israeli war—which came to be described as “Nakba”, disaster, by Syrian writer Constantine Zureiq in a famous review of the conflict. Historically, Palestine (as well as Jordan and Lebanon) had been districts of the province of Greater Syria, a province that the British were the latest to try and retrieve as recently as the 1930s. While all the Arab states that participated in the 1948 war had ties to the Palestinian cause as their fellow Arabs and, in most cases, fellow Muslims in a holy land sacred to three major faiths, neither Iraq nor Egypt had quite the same cultural and historical closeness that Syria did. The most famous of the irregular militias set up to fight the Zionists, the Arab Liberation Army, was mostly made up of and led by Syrians.
As early as Syria’s official entrance into the conflict, trouble began to brew over the unexpected inefficiency of the campaign. It should not have come as a surprise, in retrospect; the Syrian army was new, largely ill-equipped, and riddled with factions. As soon as it became clear that they would not steamroll the Israeli paramilitaries as had been hoped, the fur began to fly. Nobody quite knew what was going wrong, why it was going wrong, how it could be fixed, and—apparently most pressing—who was to blame.
Early in the war, therefore, experienced commander-in-chief Abdullah Atfah was dismissed for being overconfident in the army’s capability (he bragged, rather incongruously, that Syria had the best army in the region), but his successor, Husni Zaim, was in contrast far too half-hearted and seemed to spend more time cultivating his ties with senior officers than actually commanding the campaign. The defence ministers had an even worse time of it; Ahmed Sharabati, whose links with some Jewish Syrian businessmen were seen as a scandal conflict of interest, resigned on the eve of the war, and his successor, Jamil Mardam, was bombarded with the same accusations: they had, the rumours ran, purposely bought obsolete weaponry from France and pocketed the budget change.
Equally vicious was the sniping match between the civilian government and the army, which felt betrayed by inadequate leadership. Shishakli, for instance, who enhanced his reputation as a tough and hardy commander on the Galilee front, blamed president Shukri Quwwatli for having failed to send reinforcements to maintain the important town of Safad, which fell to the Israelis only shortly after he had captured it. Accusations against the government were echoed by Michel Aflaq, a popular socialist philosopher who had only recently founded the Baath Party, which would eventually achieve infamy in both Iraq and Syria. Aflaq, whose mixture of Arab patriotism and egalitarian socialism would have an enormous impact on regional politics over the next twenty years, brought crowds of protesters to the street. Already neck-deep in controversy, the harrowed government overreacted; interior minister Sabri Asali declared a state of emergency and sent what remained at home of the already strained army into the streets to crush the protests. Naturally, this only turned more people against the government and exacerbated the problem.
As the campaign descended into a definite failure and battered Syrian troops limped home, conspiracy theories began to verge on the bizarre: Muhammad Safa, an army officer, accused the leftist political wing, which included Aflaq’s Baath as well as communist and more moderate socialist parties, of having deliberately undermined the war, and pointed specifically to Akram Hawrani. A socialist who—along with the absent-minded, politically detached writer-cum-politician Abdul-Salam Ujaili—was the only member of Syria’s parliament who honoured his pledge to serve as a volunteer soldier in the war, Hawrani did indeed have a reputation as a serial schemer, and did capitalize on the fallout of the war, but considering the relatively lowly position he held during his short stint as a soldier, it seems highly unlikely that he would have somehow undermined the campaign in any meaningful way.
Ironically given its sinking credibility, the most likely accusation was that of the government, whose most fiery backlash came from Khaled Azm, the prime minister, and a popular young parliamentarian named Munir Ajlani. If there was at any stage a deliberate attempt to undermine the campaign against Israel, rather than just sheer incompetence, it seems likely only to have come from the army top brass. Husni Zaim—the portly, swaggering, cheerful commander-in-chief of the Syrian army—spent the bulk of his campaign in the field strengthening his relations with leading officers and turning them against the government, whom he blamed for the military failures. The campaign, though fiercely fought by most soldiers and officers both in the Syrian army and the militias, was distinguished by a markedly half-hearted and undistinguished command. Adil Arslan, an aristocrat who joined the campaign under Zaim and seems never quite sure what to make of the Syrian commander-in-chief, claimed that in the conflict’s final stages he learned from American ambassador James Kelley, to his astonishment, that Zaim had bent over backwards to accommodate a premature peace agreement, specifically enlisting an army officer named Fawzi Selu—another soldier who seems to have done anything but his actual job—to undertake the mission. And in the short run, nobody benefited more from the fallout of the defeat than did Zaim.
The coup when it came was swift and bloodless. Along with having secured the support of officers such as Adib Shishakli, Fawzi Selu, Sami Hinnawi, Abdel-Hamid Sarraj, and Anwar Bannoud Husni Zaim had also enlisted the support of the fledgling American intelligence agency, the CIA, who feared that President Shukri Quwwatli would tilt Syria towards an alliance with their new rival, the Soviet Union of Communist Russia. Two American agents, Miles Copeland and Stephen Meade, played a leading role. In convincing the Americans that Quwwatli was a threat to their interests, Zaim was among the earliest leaders to anticipate and try to manipulate the Cold War struggle between the United States of America and the Soviet Union to his own benefit.
Unlike several later coups, Zaim’s was not an especially violent one. Whatever his faults, this “pompous, monacled, and ignorant fool”—as Egypt’s critical historian Sami Aburish scaldingly described the dictator in The Last Arab, 2004—was not a vindictive character, and with the army’s most prominent officers on his side and an unpopular civilian leadership posing no major threat, he never went further than imprisonment. Shukri Quwwatli’s most loyal military lieutenant, Suhail Ashi, was not only released along with the deposed president after a brief stint in prison, but also appointed chief of police. Despite his relative leniency, however, Zaim had set a dangerous precedent. The fifteen years between 1945 and 1959 saw no less than forty-seven coups worldwide (Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords, 2008); Zaim’s was the first in the Arab world and for Syria in particular marked the first of no less than ten attempted coups before the Assad dynasty finally cemented an iron fist over the state in 1970. The first of those would snuff out Zaim’s short-lived regime.
Husni Zaim did not help his cause by alienating most of those who may have initially sympathized with him. Syria’s politics were dominated by either socialist or Islamist sympathies; Zaim fell into neither camp. Though the dictator was not against socialism per se, he had come to power by harnessing the staunchly anti-socialist sentiments of the United States of America, and had to at least partially toe the line. And to the Islamic bent that still dominated a sizeable wave of Syrian opinion, Zaim was positively and unapologetically offensive.
Zaim was one of a large number of strongmen in the post-colonial world who saw themselves in the role of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who had matched military brilliance in Turkey’s war of independence with a deeply secularist, Westernized programme. More than a few soldiers turned would-be reformists fancied themselves in Ataturk’s role as the commander who would frogmarch the country into a modern, Westernized revolution. But none of the wannabe Ataturks had his record and reputation as a warrior-cum-founder to fall back on, and met an immediate resistance.
Zaim’s predecessor, Shukri Quwwatli, had struggled to balance his programme of reform with Muslim sensibilities. Zaim by contrast positively swaggered into the arena; in an early instance of one of the Westernizing autocrat’s first stops, vocally encouraging women to remove their veils and cultivate liberal lifestyles that were certain to raise hackles among more conservative members of the Muslim community. When one of the most prominent Muslim conservatives, Abdul-Hameed Tabba, protested these changes, Zaim invited him to discuss the matter at a hotel, where he promptly called in dancing girls and swigged down whiskey, enjoying the scandalized reaction of the preacher to whom he had quite sensationally made his point.
Any support Zaim may have retained in the military evaporated when he turned over Antun Saadeh, a fiery and controversial socialist-cum-Arabist whose ambitions to annex Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbours to recreate “Greater Syria” found a highly receptive audience among the Syrian army and led to his execution in Lebanon after Zaim’s extradition. And in the public eye, Zaim—who had already offended Arabist sentiment by closing his borders with Iraq and Jordan, both of which he threatened to attack in opposition to the Hashemite monarchy—simultaneously went a step too far when in the summer of 1949, even while rattling sabres at fellow Arab states, he was seen to be making overt negotiations with Israel. The wound of “Nakba”, to which Zaim had made his own contribution, was fresh in Arab minds, and though a ceasefire had been agreed a peace overture, and thereby a recognition of the Israeli state’s legitimacy, was a move of political suicide. With other Arab leaders reluctant to support his stance and Israel’s politicians flushed with victory, the negotiations came to nought, except to effectively alienate the Syrian leader.
The leader of this second coup was Sami Hinnawi, Husni Zaim’s most trusted lieutenant and the army chief, and the cast was mainly the same: Adib Shishakli, quietly fuming over the extradition of Antun Saadeh, played a significant role, while Fawzi Selu and Anwar Bannoud—both regular accomplices in Syria’s early coups—also threw in their lot. So too did Suhail Ashi, the Quwwatli loyalist whom Zaim had rather unwisely appointed police head, and the president’s security commander Abdel-Hamid Sarraj.
The burly, grim-faced Hinnawi, like many army officers, seems to have become quickly disillusioned with Zaim’s leadership and planned to return power to a more mainstream politician. This second coup of 1949 was the bloodiest of the lot; Zaim, who was expecting a newborn child, and his prime minister Muhsin Barazi—a former aide of Shukri Quwwatli—were frogmarched into the Mezze Prison outside Damascus and shot in front of Barazi’s son. Just a week earlier, Hinnawi had brushed off Zaim’s suspicions, claiming that he could not plot against his “leader and friend”, while security head Abdel-Hamid Sarraj had been close to the dictator’s family. While Shishakli triumphantly presented the dictator’s corpse to Antun Saadeh’s widow, Zaim’s infant daughter and young widow were both briefly imprisoned. Whatever the dictator’s faults, and they were considerable, it was a wretched way to go.
Sami Hinnawi, a stolid and unambitious soldier more comfortable in the role of enforcer than ruler, quickly ceded power to Hashim Atasi, a veteran civilian whose political programme was more acceptable to the majority of Syria’s opinion. Atasi, a venerable white-bearded statesman with a reputation for integrity, in many ways represented a return to the pre-coup civilian leadership. In a nod to popular sentiment, Atasi retracted the negotiations with Israel—the ceasefire would remain but negotiations and recognition would not. But he also brought some of the less popular policies of his civilian predecessors.
Like Shukri Quwwatli, Hashim Atasi supported the idea of a merger with Iraq to create a northern Arab superstate that could share its resources. This viewpoint owed much to Atasi’s own origins in the northeastern trading town of Aleppo, which would benefit largely from such a deal. But the idea was controversial, especially among the increasingly relevant army, since Iraq was ruled by the Hashemite monarchy that, particularly among the rising left-wing tide, were portrayed as colonial collaborators with the British, French and Israelis. The Hashemite ruler of Jordan, Abdallah I, was seen as having betrayed his Arab brethren in deference to his own personal ambitions, while his younger brethren in Iraq were equally unpopular and had already called in British support to survive a populist revolt during World War II. Adib Shishakli, increasingly powerful in the army, acted fast to launch the third coup of a tumultuous and tone-setting year. Despite a promising start that had included a newly drafted constitution, the second coup’s regime was even shorter than its predecessor.
This coup was perhaps the least dramatic of the lot, and therefore its effects lingered longest. While Sami Hinnawi was quickly arrested and shipped off to Lebanon—where he would be murdered the next year in retaliation for his execution of Muhsin Barazi—the civilian premier Hashim Atasi was retained to give a semblance of normalcy, which only evaporated when he resigned the next year in protest. By then the army and in particular Shishakli had wrested firm control over Syria’s politics. While he rewarded his longtime lieutenants Anwar Bannoud and Fawzi Selu with the superficial spoils of the coup, Shishakli—whose soldierly straight face masked a deceptively calculating and ambitious political brain that would dominate Syrian politics over the next few years—secured his own survival by staying behind the scenes in what amounted to a second-in-command position. Bannoud replaced Hinnawi as army chief, while Shishakli insisted that Selu, the quintessential crony, hold at varying times the portfolios of prime minister, president and defence minister. This third coup left its marks longest on Syria, whose politics have never quite moved on from the tumultuous triple strike of 1949.
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