As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday in Moscow, relations between the two countries were tense. After the White House accused the Kremlin of trying to cover for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s role in a deadly chemical-weapons attack on civilians last week, the Trump administration said there’s “no question” that a future Syria will have a leader other than Assad. Exactly how that transition will occur remains to be seen, though President Trump says the U.S. has no plan for “going into Syria.”
But the U.S. has intervened in Syrian leadership succession in the past.
In fact, as Syrian Independence Day approaches on April 17, it’s worth recalling that the 1946 conclusion of French control of Syria — the event commemorated by the annual holiday — was shortly followed by the overthrow of Shukri al-Quwatli, the country’s first elected president and a leader of the drive for Syrian independence. The Mar. 30, 1949, coup by Syrian Army Chief of Staff Col. Husni al-Zaim was “one of the first covert actions that the CIA pulled off,” since it had been created in 1947, according to Douglas Little, professor of history at Clark University.
The origins of the dispute go all the way back to World War II. In international meetings around the time of the close of the war, as the shifting borders of the Middle East were contemplated by the world powers, it had been decided that the U.S. would take a special interest in Syria if France followed through with its promise of independence. The U.S. also decided to take an interest in Saudi Arabia, hoping for mutual advantage given the nation’s rich oil stores. Around this time, in 1943, Syrians chose Quwatli, an elite nationalist critic of French rule, to be their first elected President.
Part of the U.S. interest in Syria involved setting up a training mission to reshape the fledgling Syrian army and provide it with arms. Quwatli was eager to see this idea through, as the core of the military had been put together by the French and had previously shown themselves to be willing to fight against the nationalists. Many drawn to military service were also part of the Alawite minority, which was generally worse off socioeconomically than the land-owning merchant class of Sunni urban notables who dominated politics. “Quwatli thought the training mission would be the perfect pretext to purge the military of many of the officers recruited from the ‘minority communities’ by the French, officers whose loyalty he distrusted,” says Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “He hoped to use the American training mission as cover for this purge and to build up the morale and loyalty of the officer corps more generally.”
Before long, however, it became clear that this arrangement would not go smoothly.
In late 1947, the U.S. had voted for the U.N. resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews. Syria objected to that plan and was particularly infuriated by the fact that many Palestinian refugees leaving the newly formed Israel were going to Syria, overwhelming the likewise young neighboring nation. As it became clear that war was on the horizon — the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 — the U.S. realized that weapons provided to the Syrian army might end up being used against Israel, and decided to scratch that idea of a training mission. Moreover, they coordinated with France and the U.K. to impose a wider arms embargo on the region, and later tried to help broker a truce. Syria was one of the governments most resistant to a truce, Landis says.
In the wake of that conflict, Quwatli made a decision to block the passage of the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (TAPLINE) from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean through Syrian land. Landis argues that only what was going on with the Palestinians would have been enough for Quwatli to pass up the much-desired money that the oil pipeline project would have provided the nation. (Landis also adds that evidence shows that the end of the American military mission in Syria led Syrian officials to contemplate going to the Soviet Union for arms, “which was the beginning of Syria’s relationship with Russia.”)
“Everyone blamed Quwatli for this lost war in Palestine,” says Landis. “This led to chaos in the streets and widespread public anger and demonstrations by the many emerging political parties in Syria. Quwatli declared emergency law, and put the army on the streets to beat up the demonstrators and make them shut up. But then he tried to dismiss Zaim, the head of the army, accusing him of corruption and the loss of Palestine — at which point, the army felt like it was unfairly treated and being used as a scapegoat.”
Ziam assured the CIA that, if the U.S. recognized his government when he took power, he would fulfill America’s agenda on oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. appears to have agreed to support the coup. Beginning in November 1948, CIA operative Stephen Meade met secretly with Zaim at least six times to discuss the “possibility [of an] army supported dictatorship,” declassified records now show. And Zaim kept his promise. After overthrowing Quwatli, he agreed to a truce with Israel and the pipeline across Syria. He also arrested hundreds of communists and banned the party.
But the benefits for the U.S. were short-term, as in 1956, Syria signed a friendship agreement with the USSR. The U.S. backed another attempted coup in 1957, but this time it was unsuccessful.
Landis adds that there’s a line that can be drawn from that moment in 1949 to the assumption of power in the early 1970s by Bashar Assad’s father Hafez Assad, and eventually the rise of the current Syrian leader, who is part of the Alawite minority community that had been so well represented in the military back then. “The reason there is a civil war today is because much of the Sunni majority rose up in protest and wanted to get rid of this Alawite military dictatorship. [Demonstrators] began to ask America and the Gulf countries, which were trying to counter Iranian and Shiite influence in the Arab World, for assistance and America helped them,” he says.
The situation in 1949 and the situation today are different in countless ways, not least because back then Syria was newly independent and had no other “strong external patron,” as Little puts it, the way they do in Russia today.
But one lesson has stood the test of time, as Tillerson himself pointed out earlier this week: “Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term.”