Images above: Miles Copeland, a former trumpet player for Glenn Miller then a CIA agent, is questioned by a BBC interviewer about his role in the 1949 military coup in Syria
Foreign Interference in Syria – a Background Check
After the First World War, an American Commission sought the views of people across Greater Syria, which then included Palestine, Lebanon, areas of Turkey, and, of course, Syria as we know it today. The subsequent King-Crane Report indicated that the vast majority of Syrians wished for “complete political independence for Syria”. The recommendations of the report were ignored, and it wasn’t made public until three years later.
The American Commission’s efforts to ascertain the wishes of the Syrian people seemed benign, even worthy. However, the 20th century gave cause for Syrians to suspect the intentions of all great powers, including the U.S.
The seeds for the foreign interference in Syrian affairs today were planted a long time ago.
War Propaganda and the U.S.
The United States didn’t officially enter the First World War until April 1917. By participating in the war even at that late stage, America was in a position to ‘shape the peace’.
Today, what is most relevant about America’s participation in WW 1 was the U.S. government’s reliance on a sophisticated propaganda machine to ensure mass support for its participation. The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created by President Wilson to promote the war and it successfully used newspapers, academics, artists, and filmmakers to do just that.
The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state. (Ref: Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War)
There were guidelines for journalists who wanted to stay in the ‘official loop’ and there was virtual censorship of dissenting voices.
The United States may not have had a direct stake in Syria’s future immediately after WW 1 as France and Britain plotted to control Greater Syria. However, the U.S. did interfere directly in Syrian affairs once France finally withdrew its forces.
In 1949, two years after Syrians had voted in the first elections held since Syria became an independent state, the CIA helped orchestrate the first successful military coup in the new nation, so helping to usher in two decades of political instability.
The introduction to the 1982 CIA report, “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies”, indicates why the United States might have an interest in undermining the Syrian government. (Some reading between the lines may be necessary.)
Syria is a crucial player in the Middle East equation because of its involvement in the Arab-Israeli problem, its presence in Lebanon, and its unique relationship with the Soviet Union. The stability of the Assad government is an area of extreme concern since it could have a direct impact not only on the Middle East peace process and regional stability, but on US-Soviet relations as well.
Foreign Interference in Syria
As it does today, foreign interference in Syrian affairs dominated the history of Syria in the 20th century. This is something Syrians would be well aware of; however, timelines presented to a western readership today tend to ignore it, and instead focus on the ascension of the Ba’ath Party in Syria with particular emphasis given to the coup that brought Hafiz al-Assad to power in 1970. Focusing on the interference of great and regional powers in Syria over the 20th century can present a perspective closer to that of a Syrian citizen’s. For example, it helps explain why Syrians might be dubious about any French or British claims to represent their interests, and highly suspicious, too, of the intentions of the United States and any ‘opposition’ groups it funds in the 21st century. For mainstream Syrians, fighting for Syria against countries intent on forcing it into submission has defined national heroes.
Timeline – Syria in the 20th Century
- 6 May 1915: Twenty-one Arab intellectuals and nationalists were hanged by Turkish authorities in the city squares of Damascus and Beirut. It is commemorated as Martyrs’ Day, a national holiday in Syria
- 16 May 1916: The Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed; it was a secret British and French agreement to divide Greater Syria between Britain and France
- 1 Oct 1918: The Anzac 3rd Light Horse Brigade entered Damascus, followed soon after by T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Forces
- 31 Oct 1918: Armistice concluded with Turkey but there was trouble in towns north of Aleppo as Turkish forces under the command of General Ali Ihsan created disturbances (NB: General Ihsan had been implicated in the massacre of Armenians)
- 10 Dec 1918: A Massacre is committed by Anzacs in the village of Surafend, Palestine, then part of Greater Syria
- July 1919: The General Syrian Congress declared Syria sovereign and free. Arabic became the official language of Syria
- March 1920: Syrian nationalists declared Syria’s independence; the Kingdom of Syria was established with Faysal al-Hashimi as king
- April 1920: The Arab world was partitioned into mandates; the San Remo Conference imposed French governance over SyriaJuly 1920: The French army entered Syria; King Faisal surrendered. However, Yusuf al-‘Azma, Faisal’s minister of war and chief of staff, ignored the King’s surrender and led a small army to confront the French advance not far from Damascus. Yusuf al-‘Azma was killed and his forces defeated
- 1 Sept 1920: The French High Commissioner declared that the ‘State of Greater Lebanon’ was thereby separated from Syria; hence, overnight families found they lived in different countries
- 24 July 1920: The League of Nations formally approved the French Mandate of Syria
- 2 Dec 1922: The King-Crane Report was published, but too late for the views of Syrians to be heeded
- Sept 29, 1923: The League of Nations officially assigned Syria and Lebanon under the French Mandate
- Oct 1925: French aerial and artillery bombardment led to the destruction of a large section of the old city of Damascus and many deaths
- March 1926: French Governor-General Maurice Sarrail bombed Damascus for 48 hours; around 1,500 people were reportedly killed
- 1925-1927: The Great Syrian Revolt; To weaken Arab nationalism, France divided Syria into states based to some extent on the sectarian make-up of regions. Most Syrians opposed the French mandate and the division into states, so there were revolts in all the Syrian states
- 1938: The Syrian national anthem was written – its words reflect the independent and proud spirit of the people of Syria
- 1939: In the lead up to WW2, to discourage Turkey from allying with Nazi Germany, France ceded the Syrian province of Alexandretta to Turkey; Turkey signed a mutual aid pact with France and Britain
- June 1941: Indian and Australian soldiers together with British and Free French forces defeated the Vichy French in Damascus
- 1941: Syria declared itself an independent nation, but de Gaulle’s Free French considered Syria came under French rule still
- July/Sept 1944: Despite French opposition, first the Soviet Union and then the United States granted Syria unconditional recognition as a sovereign state
- March 1945: Syria became a charter member of the United Nations
- May 1945: (Free) French troops shelled the Syrian parliament and attempted to arrest government leaders; around 500 people were killed
- Feb 1946: A UN resolution called on France to evacuate Syria
- April 15 1946: All French troops were off Syrian soil
- April 17 1946: Syria celebrated Evacuation Day, which became a national holiday.
- July 1947: The first democratic elections in Syria were held
- 1948 and onwards: Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled their towns and villages to Syria
- 1949: The CIA organized its first successful military coup in Syria; it was authorized by President Truman; a key CIA agent involved was Miles Copeland Jnr, a former trumpet player in the Glenn Miller band; Syrian Army Chief of Staff Husni Zaim overthrew President Shukri Quwatly.
In 1949, Deane Hinton, a State Department political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, declared, 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. Washington’s Long History in Syria, by Ernesto J. Sanchez, July 12, 2013
- 29 Nov 1951: U.S.-backed military coup installed a president friendly to Washington (Ref: Douglas Little)
- June 1955: Those charged with the assassination of Col. Adnan Malki in April 1955 reportedly planned a coup to overthrow the government and approached U.S. authorities for support
- March 1956: British PM Anthony Eden and Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd decided to authorize the British Secret Intelligence Service to mount Operation Straggle to “establish in Syria a Government more friendly to the West”, using covert operations which included staged border incidents in Turkey, the mobilization of various rural tribes, the use of right-wing guerrillas, and even perhaps the Iraqi military; the Iraqi government gave financial support to ‘opposition’(Ref: Bonnie Saunders)
- 1957: ‘Harold Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a CIA-MI6 plan to stage fake border incidents as an excuse for an invasion by Syria’s pro-western neighbours and then to ‘eliminate’ three leading figures in Damascus. This was in response to concerns that Syria was pro-Soviet and the fact that Syria had ‘control of one of the main oil arteries of the Middle East, the pipeline which connected pro-western Iraq’s oilfields to Turkey’. (Ref: Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot, by Bed Fenton, The Guardian 27 Sep 2003)
- Aug 12 1957: The Syrian government announced the discovery of an American-engineered coup attempt. Syrian army surrounded the U.S. embassy in Damascus; “the U.S., along with Turkey and Iraq, was considering an action that could have escalated into a full-scale, Soviet-U.S. confrontation” (See Wikipedia: The Syrian Crisis of 1957)
The American mistake in Syria from August through November of 1957 was representative of recurrent post-World War 2 actions cloaked in containment doctrine that consistently mischaracterized local, national struggles in much larger, and inappropriate American Cold War terms. THE SYRIAN CRISIS OF 1957: A LESSON FOR THE 21st CENTURY, by Kevin Brown p.23
- Feb 1958: Syria and Egypt (under President Nasser) united to form the United Arab Republic
- Sep 1961: The UAR broke up after a right-wing coup backed by Jordan and Saudi Arabia (Ref: Patrick Seale)
- 1962: Egyptian agents, funds and explosives poured into Syria across the Lebanese border
- 1963: A state of emergency was declared by Amin al-Hafez, president of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command
- 1964: Amin al-Hafez crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama
- 1965: Amin al-Hafez ordered the execution of Eli Cohen, a Mossad spy who had befriended him
- 1966: Following a coup, Amin al-Hafez took refuge in Iraq
- June 1967: Israel destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces; killed 10,000 Egyptian soldiers in four days; attacked the USS Liberty, killing American sailors; attacked and occupied Syria’s Golan Heights, expelling around 120,000 inhabitants (Ref: Patrick Seale)
- Nov 1967: UN Security Council Resolution 242 was passed.
In 2008, Robert Fisk wrote the following about Resolution 242: It was passed in November 1967, after Israel had occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai and Golan, and it emphasises “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”…. The Israelis say that they are not required to withdraw from all the territories – because the word “all” is missing and since the definite article “the” is missing before the word “territories”, its up to Israel to decide which bits of the occupied territories it gives up and which bits it keeps.
- 1976 – 1982: the Muslim Brother campaign in Syria tried to overthrow the government through terror, funded and armed from outside, and supported by, among others, Saddam Husayn, King Husayn of Jordan, the United States and Israel (Ref: Patrick Seale)
- May 1982: The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency report, “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies” concludes, The Syrian dissidents modus operandi will continue to be terrorism, particularly bombings and assassination.
- 1989: Oded Yidon’s Plan for “Zionist Israel” was published in Israel and titled: “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties”:
From Yidon’s essay: The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unqiue areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today. Ref: “Greater Israel”: The Zionist Plan for the Middle East, The Infamous “Oded Yinon Plan“. Introduction by Michel Chossudovsky (Global Research, 29 April 2013)
This 20th century timeline focusing on some of the foreign interference in Syria indicates that whether Australia’s role in regards to Syria is magnanimous or perfidious depends on the allies we choose, not on any good intentions we may have towards Syrians.
Images of Syrians in the 21st century