This week's question | 2007-07-02

Looking back, how can we give Shukri al-Quwatli his proper place in history

Syria owes her independence to three individuals: Hashem al Atassi, Shukri al Quwatli and Khaled al Azm.

The first was Syria?s conscience, its obstinate fighter for freedom, and the core of its struggle for independence. He chaired the Syrian conference that declared independence in 1920 after evacuation of the Turks, became prime minister during the short-lived independence under King Faisal, and chaired the National Bloc and the Syrian delegation that signed the 1936 treaty with France. He was Syria?s president three times: 1936-1939, 1950-1951, and 1954. After the elections of 1955, he decided to pull out of political life.

The third was the founder of Syria?s economic independence. Khaled Bey al Azm was the hero of the Syrian currency reform, the sponsor of Syrian industry and the founder of the Syrian Harbor in Latakiya.

As I considered where to place Shukri al Quwatli in relation to the other two pillars, I concluded that he is best described (and I am stealing this from my good friend and al Quwatli?s biographer, Sami Moubayed) as Syria?s George Washington.

Neither Atassi nor al Azm created the nation of Syria; Quwatli did.

In 1943, Syrian pro-French President Taj al Husseini died suddenly, and Syria was left with a vacuum. Three years earlier, Abdul Rahman al Shahbandar, a prominent patriotic leader, was cheaply killed. The pro-French government scrutinized most Syrian leaders, who were considered rivals of Shahbandar,  and all either fled the country or remained in their homes. Only Shukri al Quwatli refused to be harassed and pressured. He moved quickly, cleverly and wisely, contacting popular neighborhood  leaders, holding small popular gatherings, and managing, consequently, to restore the popularity of his National Bloc.

At that time, the historic leader of Syria, Hashem al Atassi, was secluding himself from public life after he had to resign from the Presidency in 1939. The other prominent leader, Jamil Mardam, had fled the country into neighboring Iraq: the scene was ready for a new leader.

In addition, Quwatli enjoyed a great talent that Shahbandar, Mardam and Atassi lacked: he was pragmatic, and he used pragmatism to the benefit of his country and himself. He was gifted in talking to people directly, and rarely failed to convince people of what he thought best. During the period that followed the assassination of Shahbandar, Quwatli managed to persuade both the French and the British that he was not a threat to either of them. He mobilized the Syrian population, claiming that he is a better candidate for the Presidency that Hashem al Atassi, because the latter had tied himself to the French with the 1936 Treaty, whereas his own hands were free. At the same time, however, Quwatli and General De Galle were reaching a  compromise to return to the very same treaty.
Quwatli also tried his best to assure the British in Iraq and Jordan that he was the best option for them in the neighboring country.  A person with his popularity promising that he would not oppose their projects in the region was far more appealing to them than somebody announcing day and night that he was a Hashemite supporter and calling for unity with Iraq.

Quwatli?s big victory was his steady relationship with the Saudis. He had their respect and support as Syria?s patriotic leader. And when he died in June 1967, his body would not have been buried at home, if it weren?t for King Fayssal of Saudi Arabia.

However, this dissertation is not about how Quwatli achieved Syria?s independence but how he lost it.

It is during his term of office that Syria yielded its independence and democracy to an autocratic dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who started a new era in Syrian history - an era of fear, mono-toned government, worship of individuals, and hegemony of ideologies, dogmas and slogans, rather than of interests and reality.

After the collapse of the dictatorship of Adib al Shishakli, who ruled the country from 1951 to 1954, Quwatli decided that it was time he returned to the country. He had been abroad throughout the period of military coups d?etat  from 1949 to 1954. When he returned, he received a warm welcome from the Damascenes. He used all his intellect to pave the way for himself to re-occupy his place as President in the Muhajireen Palace. 

In the end, he managed to persuade 92 members of the new parliament to re-elect him President.. This was his reward for spending the entire period believing in civilian governance, continuously rejecting military interference in the political life of the country, and refusing to show special favor to the military leaders who ruled the country for 5 years.

How could this great man agree to sacrifice his democracy to a military colonel? No one ever will know.

Strangely enough, Abdel Nasser had refused all prior calls for Syrian-Egyptian confederation. For years, Syrian politicians had proposed for such unity, but Abdel Nasser always said that it was too early. He even refused the proposal of the open-minded politician Khaled al Azm to unite the armies of the two countries, in order to face the Israeli danger, and to create a mechanism to find a proper foundation for economic unity between the two countries. 

Overnight, Abdel Nasser changed his mind and sought to merge the two countries into one, with a single president, a single cabinet and a single parliament (which, as it turned out, was completely without legislative power).

One night, senior Syrian army officers decided to go to Cairo to discuss the issues of immediate merger with Egypt. They left at midnight,  January 11-12, 1958. On February 22, less than 40 days later, Syria disappeared and was digested by Abdel Nasser's hunger for power.

The then Minister of Defense learned of the military delegation's arrival in Cairo hours later. Quwatli, who was the only person who could have stopped this from happening, read the officers? memorandum, and said slowly that he had been fighting for forty years for pan-Arab unity.  He expressed full support for an immediate merger with Egypt.

Why did Quwatli give up the post he fought for with all his might and his intellect? No one can answer this. But the consequences were very bad. Syria lost her democratic traditions. Nasser monopolized all three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. In addition, he introduced a culture of fear to Syria. He enlarged the power of the secret police to the maximum and introduced the tradition of spying.  For the first time in the modern history of Syria, people became spies, with the job of writing security reports against one another.  As a consequence, innocent people were sent to prison for torture, humiliation and death.

When the union was broken on September 28, 1961, Syria had lost its political innocence, and no matter what efforts were made by the Syrian people and politicians to retrieve democracy, all failed. On March 8, 1963, dictatorship came back to power, through the Baath party this time, and has remained there to the present..

Could Quwatli have stopped the torrential inundation of the nationalists, mid-level military officers, popularists,  and Nasser?s agents? He might have been able to, and he should have tried. If he had failed, people would always remember his stance, as they remember his position on April 30, 1949, when Brigadier Hosni al Zaim arrested him and sent him to jail, seeking his blessing for the first coup d?etat in the modern Syrian history; on that occasion Shukri Bey said, ?NO.?

?This is anti-constitutional,? he would say, pacing his cell like a lion. ?I have been elected by the nation?s representatives and will not give up the trust with which I was decorated by the nation?s representatives. Tell that to Paja Sakka.? Paja Sakka was a gangster who rebelled against the Afghani King in the 1940s. Quwatli?s analogy made him a hero who did not bow to the wind. Nine years later he had a different position towards a similar (or even worse) dictator. The patriotic, democratic lion gave up to Nasser what he had denied to al Zaim. That is one good reason that al Zaim failed to change the face of Syria; Nasser did.

Wael Sawah is a novelist and political writer. He writes in pan-Arab and Lebanese newspapers usch as al-Hayat, an Nahar, and as Safir. His focus is to answer a question ?whether retrieving the liberal experience in the 1940s in Syria is still possible for modern Syria.?