This week's question | 2007-07-02

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

Although the title ?Father of Syria?s Independence? can be attributed to Shukri Al Quwatli, it has to be bestowed with some degree of qualification. He was, in effect, foremost representative of a political coalition that succeeded in co-opting the struggle for independence ;it included other leading historical figures such as Hashem al Atassi, Saadallah al Jabiri, Jamil Mardam Bey, Faris al Khouri and others drawn mainly from the landowning and wealthy urban merchant class. The National Bloc, as the formation was  called, emerged through the thirties and forties as the principal proponent of the nationalist cause ,and  custodian of the strategy of achieving it ?through a combination of constitutional, electoral and political action- distinct from earlier attempts at armed struggle (eg the 1925 Syrian Revolution led by Sultan Pasha Al Atrash). The National Bloc was also at odds,often vehemently so, with other more ?radical? nationalist leaders such as Abdul Rahman Shahbandar who stood against the policy of attempting to compromise with the French government. The biggest cause of contention was the signing in 1936 of the Franco-Syrian Treaty which promised independence for Syria but with several strings attached. Shahbandar took up the populist cry against the treaty ,denouncing the ?betrayal? of the National Bloc. It was therefore, natural , that when he was assassinated in 1940 ,National Bloc leaders were falsely suspected of involvement.

As it happened, the Treaty never came into operation ,the French failing to ratify it. In the years that followed Al Quwatli gradually rose to clear and undisputed prominence in the ranks of the National Bloc. With Syria gaining formal independence in 1943, he became the first elected President  of the new republic. His real test of leadership, however was to come in 1945, when the French, in the wake of the end of the Second World War and their emergence from the long years of Nazi occupation, attempted to regain their imperial hegemony in the Levant. They equivocated about their final withdrawal from Syria, and tried to wrest out of its leadership conditions for a treaty that will maintain their sphere of influence. Quwatli and the National Bloc , in contrast with 1936,  would  not budge.  At the end of May 1945, the French unleashed their fury: shelling Damascus and storming the Syrian parliament building. The country rose as one, and, following the intervention of British forces who formed a major part of the Allied wartime presence in Syria, the French backed down.

This was Al Quwatli?s finest hour. Under his leadership and resistance to the crudest form of intimidation and blackmail, the country stood firm. A year later the French forces withdrew, without any conditions. Syria became the first country in the post-colonial era to achieve full and unfettered independence. It set a precedent for other Arab countries in the years to follow.

From that peak of achievement Al-Quwatli, and the political class he led, soon began to slide down the scale of political acumen and survivability. The long years of struggle against the French ill-prepared him for the challenges of running an independent country, especially one strongly imbued with a nationalist spirit that could not be contained within its narrowly-defined frontiers. Also, its fledgling liberal democracy seemed set to serve the interests of a socio-political elite, and could not spread its culture or agenda to a mass population increasingly politicised, educated, alienated and feeling the weight of underprivilige.

It was the Army in the end, which gave vent to the new forces brewing below. Al Quwatli  fell victim to the first  coup in 1949 led by Husni Al Zaim. Even when he regained power in 1955 ,he was never beyond the intimidatory power  of the military, bolstered by the Baathist and Communist forces in and outside parliament. He became more of a figurehead president. And in early 1958 when the powers behind the scenes, represented by a group of army officers, agreed with the Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the creation of a Union of the two countries ?a full merger rather than a federation which was the preferred choice of the then beleagured Syrian leadership- Al-Quwatli meekly gave in.

Al-Quwatli?s place in Syrian history is assured. Above all he symbolised the Syrians? defiance of an outside enemy trying to impose their will on the country. This stands true today as it was in 1945. His failures, though, will not go unnoticed. Chief amongst them was the inability to convert a successful leadership  that delivered independence into a  resilient, competent ,and outspreading force fit for the post-independence era.

Ghayth N Armanazi
28th June 2007