The Origins of Dictatorship in Syria

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When analysing the Syrian conflict, the historical context is an area often approached superficially, with historical ethnic tensions having been the main area of study. Other events have therefore been somewhat neglected – one particular case is the role of American covert action in destabilising Syria’s nascent democracy during the early 20th century. When one examines the early years of Syria’s independence, various important details emerge that parallel the current predicament, including a US-Russian standoff partly attributed to US covert actions.

In the period 1949-57, the US conducted three large-scale operations. The first was done to overthrow Syria’s nascent democracy, and then to engage in ‘course corrections’ when respective installed dictators strayed from the US’s preferred policies. However, to understand the motivations underlying these actions it is necessary to understand the geopolitical context of the period.

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Syria achieved independence from its French protectorate in 1946 and became a democratic parliamentary republic. As now, Syria occupied a strategic location in the Middle East, bordering the US ally Turkey to the north, and Israel to the south. It was a focal point of early-Cold War US foreign policy in the Middle East. Importantly, the post-WWII rebuilding of Western European depended significantly on the steady flow of petroleum from Arab Gulf countries to the Mediterranean.1.Little, Douglas. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958. Middle East Journal 44.1 (1990): p. 52

Therefore a stable, US-friendly government in Damascus was viewed as vital for the development of Western Europe as a stable anti-communist region. Instability or communist takeover in Syria was deemed unacceptable and thus all available means were used to prevent this.

In early 1949 the young Syrian state was at odds with Washington. First, Syria was at war with American ally Israel.2.Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. p. 34 Furthermore, Syria was the only Middle Eastern country blocking an ARAMCO (Arab American Oil Company – US-lead oil conglomerate organising export of oil from Saudi Arabia) pipeline which was to bring the vital Gulf oil to Western Europe.3.Anderson, Irvine H. Aramco, the United States, and Saudi Arabia: A Study of the Dynamics of Foreign Oil Policy, 1933–1950. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1981. p. 171–175 Last, there were indications that nationalist elements in Syria were preparing a military campaign to conquer and annex Turkey’s province of Alexandretta from Turkey.4.CIA intelligence report SR-1/1, 03/12/48, CREST archives Turkey, of course, was an important US ally.

Under these circumstances, CIA operatives struck an alliance with the Syrian Army Chief of Staff Husni al-Zaim.5.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, March 18, 1949, CIA CREST archives. Their mutual goal was to depose the troublesome democratic government and bring a pro-US leader to power that could stabilise the country. Al-Zaim, the prospective coup-leader, requested for “US agents to provoke and abet internal disturbances which would be essential for a [successful] coup d’etat.”6.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, March 19, 1949, CIA CREST archives. The support was provided, and on 30 March 1949 Colonel Zaim successfully staged his coup, taking control of Syria.7.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III. Thus Syria’s nascent democracy was crushed in favour of a pro-US dictatorship.

Despite some initial doubts, the coup quickly proved to be a boon to US-Syrian relations as Colonel al-Zaim’s achievements became apparent. The CIA agent in charge of Syrian operations, Stephen Meade, reported that “over 400 Commies in Syria have been arrested.” Furthermore, the new dictator gave the green light to the vital ARAMCO pipeline that the previous government had long blocked.8.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, April 15, 1949, CREST archives. Zaim also made the unexpected step of announcing a plan to negotiate peace talks and improve relationship with Israel, an unprecedented move in Arab-Israeli relations. Zaim even declared his intention to improve relations with Turkey, another crucial boon to US interests.9.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, April 15, 1949, CREST archives.

Although most in the CIA applauded Zaim’s instalment and his ‘virtuoso performance’10.CIA intelligence report SR-2/1, 04/04/49, CREST archives , which produced welcome results from the US’s point of view,11.Little, Douglas. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958. Middle East Journal 44.1 (1990): p. 51 the destruction of Syria’s democracy soon plunged the country into decades of political chaos. It appears that the only person on the US side who foresaw this development was Deane Hinton, a young political officer on the Syrian mission who said “I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end”.12.Copeland, Miles. The Game of Nations: The Amorality of Power Politics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970. p.52 Although the statement cost Hinton his post, the words later proved prophetic.

Indeed, the military reign of Colonel al-Zaim was abruptly ended four-months later on 14 August 1949 when one of his former army associates, Sami al-Hinnawi, seized power. Zaim was executed after a show trial.13.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III. Instability continued when yet another of Zaim’s former military cooperatives, Adib al-Shishakli, overthrew al-Hinnawi soon afterwards in the year.14.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III. This perpetuating chaos forced the CIA into action once again, as officials in Washington could not afford to have such political instability rule over such an important country. Analysts feared that this could lead to an anti-US or communist takeover.15.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III.

In a desperate attempt for stability and to curb rising left-wing influence, in 1951 American officials encouraged al-Shishakli to completely dissolve the already-weakened parliament and declare a full military dictatorship. Washington officials believed it would be easier to influence a single leader than a host of politicians. Washington thus formally recognised al-Shishakli’s government and began an initiative to encourage him to figuratively “come to the West”.16.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III.17.Worcester, Douglas. Memorandum to the State Department, December 15, 1951, NARG59 archives. But shortly after the situation was looking favourable to the US, yet another coup occurred. Al-Shishakli was overthrown by another part of the army on 25 February, 1954.18.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III.

Clearly, the initial efforts of the US to bring stability to Syria backfired, causing political and military chaos similar to that of today. Not only did the 1949 coup and its successive dictatorships fail to bring stability, but some historians argue they gave birth to anti-Western and anti-American sentiments that often characterise Arab-nation political sentiments. The CIA was aware that their puppet dictators were deeply unpopular among the Syrian population. A CIA memo dated February 4th, 1954 stated, “Shishakli has no positive popular support … [he] now must rely increasingly on police repression and brutality to maintain his position.” Furthermore, the CIA recognised that that “Shishakli – lacking popularity of Nagib and character of Atatürk – unlikely to be a secure ruler of Syria.” Their support and assistance to repressive strongmen antagonised the local population, creating fertile ground for the emergence of anti-Western leaders, as became the case.19.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter IV Print.

Indeed, when looking at the subsequent history of Syria, it can be seen how the cycle of instability and coups, which were instigated at least partly by the U.S intelligence services directly lead to the predicament of today.

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On March 8th 1963 in a conspiracy by high-level military officials the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath party was brought to power.20.Rabinovich, Itamar. Syria Under the Ba’th, 1963-66: The Army-Party Symbiosis. Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1972. Print. This cemented the status of Syria as an adversarial state to the United States, as the anti-imperialist platform of the Ba’ath party was inherently opposed to any U.S meddling in the area.21.Imam, Zafar. Iraq-2003, the Return of Imperialism. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2004. p.55 After a series of power struggles and coups (1966 and 1970) this culminated in the rise of Hafez al-Assad to power who ruled until 2000, when his son Bashar al-Assad succeed him.22.Imam, Zafar. Iraq-2003, the Return of Imperialism. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2004. p.55

American historian Douglas Little wrote, “By resorting to clandestine quick fixes in Syria, Washington succeeded only temporarily in bottling up what would become by the end of the decade a torrent of Arab anti-Americanism.”23.Little, Douglas. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958. Middle East Journal 44.1 (1990): 75. It is useful to recall the lessons learned from the events of 1949 onwards when judging present day political and military situations in Syria and perhaps policymakers should look to the past to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.

References   [ + ]

1.Little, Douglas. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958. Middle East Journal 44.1 (1990): p. 52
2.Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. p. 34
3.Anderson, Irvine H. Aramco, the United States, and Saudi Arabia: A Study of the Dynamics of Foreign Oil Policy, 1933–1950. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1981. p. 171–175
4.CIA intelligence report SR-1/1, 03/12/48, CREST archives
5.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, March 18, 1949, CIA CREST archives.
6.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, March 19, 1949, CIA CREST archives.
7, 13, 14, 15, 18.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III.
8, 9.Record of telephone conversation between CIA agent Stephen Meade and G-2 Intelligence directorate of the CIA, April 15, 1949, CREST archives.
10.CIA intelligence report SR-2/1, 04/04/49, CREST archives
11.Little, Douglas. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958. Middle East Journal 44.1 (1990): p. 51
12.Copeland, Miles. The Game of Nations: The Amorality of Power Politics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970. p.52
16.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter III.
17.Worcester, Douglas. Memorandum to the State Department, December 15, 1951, NARG59 archives.
19.McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years., 2015. Chapter IV Print.
20.Rabinovich, Itamar. Syria Under the Ba’th, 1963-66: The Army-Party Symbiosis. Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1972. Print.
21, 22.Imam, Zafar. Iraq-2003, the Return of Imperialism. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2004. p.55
23.Little, Douglas. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958. Middle East Journal 44.1 (1990): 75.

Erik M. Kannike

Writer and Editor for the International Review. Currently serving in the Estonian Defence Forces. Following MENA and global (geo)political developments. Email: erikkannike@gmail.com

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