This week's question | 2007-07-02

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

One of the great debates about Shukri al-Quwatli?s role in Syrian history is over the reasons he consented to united Syria with Egypt in 1958. As president, he was perhaps the one civilian, who might have blocked the merger, negotiated by Syria?s military Baath Party leaders. I have always wondered what went through his mind when he signed the UAR agreement with Nasser.

Here is how I think of problem that he faced and of his possible motives.

First, we should not see the Baath and Quwatli?s National Party as opponents in all things. On the level of national ideology, they were twins. They shared a common pan-Arab idea and fiercely opposed the Greater Syrianists, the only other conception of the nation to find wide support within Syria. Although the Baath and National Party were class opponents, drew their constituents from different parts of Syria, and differed bitterly over questions of social justice and the economy, they shared Arabism and a common strategic vision of Syria?s place in the Middle East. Both looked to closer ties with Egypt and the Arab League to bolster opposition to Iraq, the Hashemites and the Anglo-American effort to support the Baghdad Pact. Both parties, centered in Damascus, as they were, pursued similar foreign policies.

This helps explain Quwatli?s willingness to submit to the Baath?s turn toward Egypt and Gamal Abdul Nasser at a time when the Hashemites and Western governments were seeking to bring the People?s Party and the Hizb al-Qawmi al-Suri, or PPS, to power in Syria. In a sense, Quwatli had to choose between his class background and his Arabism in 1958. He chose Arabism. He chose Damascus over Aleppo, and he chose Egypt and the Arab League over Iraq and the Hashemites, his old enemies. The Baath Party, as the winners in Syria during the last 40 years, has written the nation?s history.

Baathist analysis insists that the paramount struggle of the age was the class struggle, pitting the Sunni notables of Syria?s great cities against the rest. This analysis, although partly true, overlooks the national question, which was just as important. Syria split along regional lines. Aleppo and the north was divided from Damascus and the south in its most fundamental conception of the nation and its interests. The landed and mercantile class failed to cooperate together to protect their class interests. They were badly split.

The north-south divide formed the main political battle line of the independence era. Among upper class constituents, Quwatli?s National Party, based in Damascus, stood again Aleppo?s People?s Party. The middle class was divided along regional and ideological lines in much the same way: the Baath Party, based in Damascus, stood against the Syrian Social Nationalist Party that allied itself with the People?s Party and supported the Greater Syria idea of uniting with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, rather than with all Arab countries extending from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Had class interests been the predominant factor driving the upper classes, they would have cooperated to stay in power and defend their property and power against the rising forces of the lower classes and countryside. They did not. This helps to explain why Quwatli supported the Baath over rich Aleppines, who he saw as traitors.

By 1958, the failure of the Greater Syrianists was almost complete. The Baath had smashed the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1955, following Adnan Malki?s murder. The People?s Party had been badly weakened and many of its most important leaders were in exile or prison following the failure of the two Western and Iraqi inspired coup attempts in 1956 and 1957. This caused the Syrian Ship of state that had always been torn between Iraq and Egypt?s orbit to lurch decidedly toward Egypt. Whereas, Nasser?s star was on the ascendant after Suez; the Hashemites had all but burnt out. Perhaps Quwatli felt there was really no alternative to the Baath and Nasser.

The only possible alternative for Quwatli in 1958 would have been to swing his influence behind Khalid al-Azm, who hoped to keep Egypt and Nasser at bay by building up an independent Syrian alliance with the Soviet Union. Azm, the ?red millionaire,? had built up an impressive coalition of tribal independents and the communists in order to position himself as the ?third way.? He had been the architect of Syrian economic independence, as Wael argues. He appealed to the lower classes, the countryside, and the soviets in a direct challenge to the Baath, which saw all three of these as their natural constituency. As a Damascene notable, Azm was competing with Quwatli on his home turf. The two had become bitter rivals. Quwatli's determination to frustrate Azm's rise to power suggests that Quwatli remained a local zaim, rather than a true national leader, who respected the constitutional spirit of the republic. He could not bear to see power pass to another, whose strategy and conception of Syria differed from his own.

Quwatli's greatest failing in this respect was during the late summer of 1948 in the aftermath of Syria's failure in the 1948 war, when Jamil Mardam's government had collapsed. Syria faced a prolonged government crisis as Quwatli maneuvered to create a new government at a time when he was weak and unpopular. The whole country called for a government of national unity. They had lost faith in Quwatli's ability to lead the nation and demanded a move away from the narrow government constructed of ministers drawn from Quwatli's small group of personal supporters, most of whom represented Damascus. To rebuild government on a solid footing, Quwatli should have offered a share of power to the People's Party, the largest single party in parliament, which was centered in Aleppo and Homs and led by Nazim al-Qudsi, Kikhiyya, and the Atassis. Quwatli refused to do this. Khalid al-Azm and others explain in their memoirs that Quwatli considered the People's Party to be treasonous because it was pro-British and pro-Iraqi. Rather than permit them a share of power in order to win the support of parliament, he built an extremely narrow government, nominating Khalid al-Azm as Prime Minister. In order to put down the continuous demonstrations that broke the calm of the capital's streets, Quwatli was forced declare emergency rule and order Husni Zaim to place the Army on the streets. In order to solve his political problem, Quwatli turned to the army rather than permit his political opponents to take the priministership or share power. In refusing to permit a political solution to the troubles boiling up from Syrian society, Quwatli found an extra-parliamentary answer to strengthen his rule. It has been argued that by placing the army into the center of Syria's political life, Quwatli precipitated the coup that swept him from power months later. Husni Zaim learned how to rule the country under Quwatli's orders. As soon as Quwatli and Zaim differed, it was all too easy for the Chief of Staff to take power himself. He had learned how to contravene constitutional rule under Quwatli.

He refused to pave the way for others to come to power, preferring to maneuver against and weaken competitors, even if they were members of his own party. This may be the most important criticism of Quwatli.

Khalid al-Azm presented a direct challenge to both Quwatli and the Baath, who were equally determined to see him fail. In this sense, Quwatli and the Baath became strategic partners. They shared a common national ideology; they were both based in Damascus and saw Aleppo, the Hashemites, and the West as their opponents. In 1958, they made common cause. Quwatli was staying true to his core beliefs. On Independence Day in 1946, he proclaimed that he would ?never raise the flag of Syria above that of the Arab Nation.? He had always turned to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as Syria?s natural counter-weights to the Hashemites, who he despised. He had always championed the interests of Damascus over Aleppo. It is in this light, that we must try to understand Quwatli?s turn towards Nasser and his willingness to sacrifice Syrian independence, which he had championed so fiercely against the French and Hashemites. From his perspective, it may have been the lesser of possible evils. What is more, the Arab idea was something he had championed from his youth.