What is happening in Syria feels like one of the last gasps of the age of the military dictators. An old way of running the world is still desperately trying to cling to power, but the underlying feeling in the west is that somehow Assad’s archaic and cruel military rule will inevitably collapse and Syrians will move forward into a democratic age.
That may, or may not, happen, but what is extraordinary is that we have been here before. Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite – and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that “the Syrian people are naturally democratic” and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites – and a new world of “peace and progress” would inevitably emerge.
What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.
I thought I would tell that story.
In 1968 a CIA agent called Miles Copeland wrote a book called ‘The Game of Nations’ that revealed what went on in 1947. Back then Copeland was part of a mangement consulting team in Washington who were working out how America should contain the threat of communism in the Middle East, now the old European Empires had gone. This was before the CIA existed, and Copeland describes how they got together an odd group of diplomats, secret agents left over from the war, advertising men from Madison Avenue, and “pipe-smoking owls” (which is what intellectuals were called in those days).
Copeland describes an impassioned lecturer telling this group that their aim should be to change the leadership in the countries in the Middle East:
“Politicians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt seem to have been elected into power, but what elections! The winners were all candidates of foreign powers, old land-owners who tell their tenants and villagers how to vote, or rich crooks who can buy their votes. But peoples of these countries are intelligent, and they have a natural bent for politics. If there is a part of the world which is crying for the democratic process the Arab World is it.”
They decided to start with Syria.
Compared to what was to come, it was all very sweet and innocent. Elections were due in Syria in 1947, and the Americans decided to give “a discreet nudge here and there”. This involved warning landowners, employers, ward bosses and police chiefs not to intimidate the voters. The American oil companies were paid to put up big posters telling the Syrians to “vote for the candidate of your choice” (apparently this baffled all the Syrians because the posters didn’t mention any candidates by name). Hundreds of taxis were hired to take voters to the polls free of charge. And the Americans brought in automatic, tamper-proof voting machines.
It didn’t go as expected. The landowners and other elites ignored all the warnings and intimidated everyone. There were massive gun fights and scores of people were killed. The taxi-drivers bonded together and sold themselves to different candidates – promising to make their passengers vote the “right” way. The voting machines didn’t work properly because of irregularities in the electric current, or were sabotaged. Two did work – but the losing candidates refused to accept the verdict of “imperialist technology” – and got recounts by hand, which strangely made them win.
And worst of all, most of the pro-American candidates defected to other foreign powers. The Americans had nobly refused to give them any money – so the Russians, the French and the British stepped in and bribed them – and the candidates changed their allegiances.
The Americans were upset. So they decided they would have to go further. The chief diplomat in Damascus was called James Keeley. The solution he said was to find a way of “quarantining” the Syrians from the corrupting forces that had wrecked the election so they would become more self-confident. More “naturally democratic”. Here is a picture of James Keeley.
And the way to create this “quarantine” was by engineering a military coup. According to Copeland, Keeley believed that America should get rid of the present elected leaders, bring in a short period of dictatorship which would protect the Syrian people and thus allow them to develop self-confidence and stronger personalities, and within a few years a real independent democracy would emerge.
And that is what the Americans did. In 1949 a “Political Action Team” was set up that went and made friends with the head of the Syrian army, Husni al-Za’im. Copeland was part of the team and he is completely open about what they did.
“The political action team suggested to Za’im the idea of a coup d’etat, advised him how to go about it, guided him through the intricate preparations in laying the groundwork for it…Za’im was ‘the American boy’. “
Here is a picture of the American boy – General Za’im and his limousine.
And Za’im promised the Americans he would throw all the corrupt politicians in jail, reform the country, recognise the new state of Israel, and then bring in proper democracy. All the Americans were convinced that it was a brilliant plan – except for one man, a young political officer called Deane Hinton. Copeland describes a moment when they were out in Damascus planning the coup when Hinton turned to the rest of the group and 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.”
Deane was promptly kicked out of the group and ostracised. The coup happened in March 1949. It was the first post-war military coup in the Middle East. It was a great success and the American celebrated “opening the door to Peace and Progress”
But then Za’im immediately went back on all his promises and turned into a violent tyrant. He got so bad that five months later a group of his subordinates surrounded his house and shot him to bits. And then they mounted another violent coup, this time with no promises. As Copeland noted – Hinton had been right. The Americans had started something – they had “opened the door to the Dark Ages” in Syria.
Here is Copeland interviewed in 1969. He is reflecting ruefully on the disaster they had created in Syria. His is the voice of a generation of Americans who had tried to intervene to bring democracy to the Middle East – not just in Syria but later in Iran and in Nasser’s Egypt. The “Game” he refers to is a management game-playing exercise the CIA did in the 1950s when planning the interventions. It’s aim was to predict how all the “players” in the country would behave.
As a result Syria was torn apart by miltary coups throughout the early 1950s. Then in 1954 the parliamentary system was restored. The politicians – and most of the Syrian people – were now terrified of America, not just because of the interventions and the coup, but also because of their support for Israel. In response the new government turned to the Soviet Union for economic aid and friendship.
Here is a fascinating film made in 1957. The BBC reporter, Woodrow Wyatt, goes to Syria with the aim of proving that everyone there is a communist. But repeatedly they tell him that this is not true. Both students and millionaire businessmen insist they are not a Soviet satellite, that they like capitalism. They just fear America because of its plots – and they have turned to the Soviets as a message to America. They also see Israel as America’s agent.
Just before Woodrow Wyatt arrived the Syrians had uncovered yet another CIA plot to overthrow the government. Three CIA men had been expelled, and even Wyatt has to admit in the commentary that the evidence for the plot is strong.
In fact it was true. The Americans had been planning another military coup, code-named Operation Wappen. The CIA man in charge was called Howard “Rocky” Stone, and he terrified the Syrians because he always stared intensely at them. But Stone did this because he was almost completely deaf – and he was trying to read their lips.
But while all the Syrians interviewed in the film dislike America, they also all have a hero. He is President Nasser of Egypt. What inspires them is Nasser’s dream of a united Arab world that would be strong enough to challenge America and the western powers.
But Syria also had its own fast-growing version of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism – and it was even more epic in its vision. It was called the Baath party. It had been started by a Syrian Christian called Michel Aflaq – and Aflaq’s dream was to rouse the Arabs from what he considered a living death. To free them from the shackles of tribalism, sectarianism, the oppression of women and the cruel autocracies of landowners. All these made the Arabs feel inferior – and that was then exploited by the Western empires, and now by America. In the process they had turned the Arab people into powerless zombies.
Here are some pictures of Aflaq.
Baath meant rebirth – and that was what Aflaq wanted to bring about. His aim was freedom not just from America and the old empires, but he also wanted to bring about personal liberation from mental and social chains that were holding the Arabs back. It was an extraordinary fusion of Arab nationalism, grand ideas from the French Revolution, and modern socialist theories which wanted to transcend the deep sectarian divisions in the Arab world.
Then, in 1958, Syria and Egypt merged as countries to become the United Arab Republic, led by President Nasser. Aflaq believed that is was the beginning of a united Arab world and under pressure from Nasser he agreed to dissolve the Baath party as a separate entity. But he and the other Baathists quickly discovered that Nasser wanted to use the opportunity to destroy the Baath party because he saw it as a rival to his pan-Arab vision.
Here is part of a film shot in Syria in 1961 at the very moment when the UAR was falling apart. It records the growing hatred of Nasser among the Syrians. I particularly like the posters of American Hollywood starlets – with Nasser’s face stuck on them. He’s just as bad as the Americans now.
Faced with growing chaos in Syria, five young Baath party members who were also army officers decided they would save the country. They set up a secret committee within the army and planned to bring about the Baath vision in Syria. They would create a united Arab world where Nasser had failed. One of them was a young Hafez al-Assad.
And the Baath idea was spreading. At the same time, a group of Baathists in Iraq were plotting to bring down the nationalist ruler of the country – General Qassim. And in February 1963 they struck first. But the coup they mounted wasn’t all that it seemed – and the reason was that yet again the Americans had got involved.
The Baath party had emerged and risen to popularity precisely because it promised to liberate the Arab people from foreign intervention and control. But in the strange twists and turns of Middle Eastern power struggles the Baath in Iraq ended up coming to power in a coup that was in large part organised and funded by the CIA. And one of the CIA’s “assets” in that coup was a lowly member of the conspiracy – Saddam Hussein.
The reason the Americans got involved was simple. General Qassim depended on the Iraqi communists for power. The Baath party hated the communists because they saw International Marxism as their biggest rival to their dream of uniting the Arab world. And the CIA wanted to get rid of the communists in Iraq. So Bingo – why not help the Baath party? And that included giving them a list of the communists in Iraq that they should kill. (The elimination list was given to them by a Time Magazine correspondent who was really a CIA agent – and it was out of date)
This is a photograph of a group of some of the Iraqi Baathists of that time – including a young Saddam.
Here is a section from the film I made called It Felt Like a Kiss. It tells the story of Saddam’s involvement in the Baath-CIA coup of 1963 set to music and images, and also sets it in the wider context of a growing uncertainty within America itself at the time.
But the Syrian Baathists weren’t going to be outclassed. A month later they mounted their coup, and this time without the CIA’s help. Hafez al-Assad was one of the leaders. Everything went fine until Assad arrived outside one of Syria’s main airbases to take it over. The officers refused to let him in because they said he wasn’t really a Baathist, he was a Nasserist. Assad stood for hours shouting “I’m not a Nasserist, I’m a Baathist” at the airmen. The revolution was held up as they argued over the niceties of Pan-Arab theory.
But it succeeded. And it now looked as if the Baath vision might really spread across the Arab world. Nasser was furious – he used everyone’s favourite political insult. He called them “fascists”.
Here is a comedy sketch the BBC programme That Was The Week That Was did two days after the 1963 coup in Syria. It’s not very funny, but it is interesting because of the prism through which it sees the coup. The “joke” is that the coup will only happen when the western media arrive. The plotters are waiting for the Panorama reporter to turn up because they know that coup will not be real until it is reported by the west.
It is an early example of the techno-orientalism that is being repeated today in the media’s firm belief that it is the western social media networks that made possible the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt.
The dream of Baathism was to overcome the sectarianism that had always riven the Arab world, to create a secular society in which everyone was included. But now, as Assad and his four friends on the secret committee took power, that sectarianism rose up to possess and distort their revolution.
Of the five conspirators, three of them – including Assad – came from the Alawite sect. They were a Shia sect who lived in the western mountains of Syria. The two others were Ismailis – another branch of Shia Islam. Traditionally power in Syria had resided with the old Sunni landowning and merchant class of the plains who also made up the bulk of the population. The seizing of power by Assad and his conspirators was a dramatic reversal. It was the triumph of a low-class peasant population and lower middle class urbanites against the old metropolitan elites. And the Sunnis hated it.
The hatred went deep because when the French ruled the country they had practiced a programme of divide and rule which deliberately fomented and exaggerated the sectarian divisions in the country. Faced with this, Assad began to follow a logic that would destroy the very core of Michel Aflaq’s dream of a united Arab world. Assad wasn’t a sectarian, but he moved through the army and the institutions of state ruthlessly installing those he trusted into positions of power – while removing, often bloodily, Sunnis, Druze and other members of the old elite Syrian class. And many of those he installed were Alawites, like him.
In the process Assad also came into conflict with the other four members of the secret committee behind the revolution. So he destroyed them too. Until, by 1969, there were only two men left – Assad and an austere General called Salah Jadid. Assad couldn’t get rid of Jadid because he was protected by the ruthless Bureau of National Security. So Assad sent troops to the one petrol station where all the security bureau jeeps refuelled – and grabbed them one by one. When the head of the bureau realised that he was defeated, he rang one of Assad’s allies and then shot himself so that his enemy could hear the gunshot.
Here is some footage – beginning with the celebration from the early days of the revolution among the urban poor – as the Baath party free them from the old bosses. Followed by images of the strange Baath state that Assad then created in Syria. It was centred round countless images of Assad as a the heroic leader of the nation. It is very odd because, unlike Saddam who was doing the same sort of thing in Iraq, in every image and statue Assad looks like a middle manager.
Assad believed that this ruthless exercise of power was necessary because of the deep sectarian divisions. It was a strange echo of the American diplomat in 1949 who believed that a military coup was needed to “quarantine” the Syrian people – because Assad believed that the naked exercise of power by an elite was necessary to enforce a genuinely plural society. To quarantine the Syrians from their sectarian past.
And many Syrians greeted it with a sigh of relief after the relentless chaos and violence of the past twenty years. They welcomed the stable state Assad created for fear of the alternative – and as a result he became popular with millions of Syrians.
But what he had also created was a repressive state that resorted to violence and fear to maintain its rule.
Here are some unedited rushes – shot in 1977 – of the city of Hama. They are labelled Stockshots in the BBC archive. But since 1982 they have become more than that. They are one of the few film records that remain of a city that was practically destroyed by Assad as he struggled to put down an uprising by the disgruntled Sunnis, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the town. The accepted estimate is that Assad’s security forces killed 10,000 people – and bulldozed many of the buildings – to try and wipe away yet more of his enemies.
But he wasn’t successfull, Hama is yet again one of the main centres of the revolt against Assad’s son’s regime.
Nobody knows what is going to happen in Syria today. The optimistic view is that a new generation is emerging who really want a proper representative democracy in which all groups can negotiate with each other without violence. The pessimistic view is that those sectarian divisions, encouraged by the French – and then incubated further by the Assad family – will re-emerge. In truth no-one knows.
But there is a terrible naivety in the West’s view of the ongoing revolt in Syria. It forgets its own history and the role it played in helping create the present situation.
Back in the 1950s America set out to create democracy in Syria, but it led to disaster. It was by no means the only factor that led to the violence and horror of the Assad dictatorship, but its unforeseen consequences played an important role in shaping the feverish paranoia in Syria in the late 1950s – which helped the Baath party come to power. And while the Western powers no longer remember this history, the Syrians surely do.
The man who had originally created the Baath vision, Michel Aflaq, was forced into exile in Iraq. He died in 1989 – a sad man, convinced that Assad had destroyed his dream of a united, confident Arab world.
The Iraqi Baaths hated the Syrian Baaths and they embraced the exiled Aflaq. After he died they built a grand mausoleum for him in Bagdhad. Here is a photo of what had happened to the mausoleum by 2006. It had been turned into a gym for the invading American troops. You can see Aflaq’s tomb behind the weights and the table football.
One idea of personal transformation had been replaced by another.