1949-1958, Syria: Early Experiments in Covert Action

Article/book #: 24412
Title: 1949-1958, Syria: Early Experiments in Covert Action
By: Douglas Little  
Date of issue: May 2003
Topic(s) addressed: People/entities mentioned in this item: Timeline event(s) mentioned in this item:
   30 Mar 1949:Military coup in Syria
   14 Aug 1949:2nd Military coup in Syria
   19 Dec 1949:3rd military coup in Syria



The CIA secretly encouraged a right-wing military coup in 1949. Repeated CIA covert action during the following decade stimulated Arab anti- Americanism, drove the Syrian left closer to the Kremlin, and made overt military involvement more likely.

In late 1945, the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) announced plans to construct the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (TAPLINE) from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. With U.S. help, ARAMCO secured rights-of-way from Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian right-of-way was stalled in parliament.

Violent anti-U.S., anti-Israeli demonstrations in November 1948, forced Prime Minister Mardam to resign. He was succeeded by Khalid al- Azm. During this crisis, CIA operative Stephen Meade, made contact with right-wing Syrian army officers.

Declassified records confirm that beginning in November 1948, Meade met secretly with Syrian Army Chief of Staff Col. Husni Zaim at least six times to discuss the “possibility [of an] army supported dictatorship.” U.S. officials realized that Zaim was a “‘Banana Republic’ dictator type” with a “strong anti-Soviet attitude.”

Meade and Zaim completed plans for the coup in early 1949. On 14 March, Zaim “requested U.S. agents [to] provoke and abet internal disturbances ‘essential for coup d’etat’ or that U.S. funds be given him [for] this purpose.” Nine days later, Zaim “promised a ‘surprise’ within several days” if Meade could secure U.S. help. As rumors of a military coup grew stronger, Assistant Secretary of State George McGhee arrived in Damascus, ostensibly to discuss resettling Palestinian refugees but possibly to authorize U.S. support for Zaim. Shortly thereafter, students protesting government corruption and mishandling of the war with Israel took to the streets. On 30 March, Zaim staged his coup, arrested Quwatly and suspended the constitution. Meade reported on 15 April that “over 400 Commies [in] all parts of Syria have been arrested.”

Zaim’s performance far exceeded Washington’s expectations. On 28 April, he told the U.S. ambassador that Syria was resuming peace talks with Israel and would consider resettling 250,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. On 16 May, Zaim approved ARAMCO’s TAPLINE. Two weeks later he banned the Communist Party and jailed dozens of left-wing dissidents. In July, he signed a Syro-Israeli armistice. Zaim anticipated swift U.S. approval for $100 million in military and economic aid. However, on 14 August, Zaim was overthrown and executed by Col. Sami Hinnawi.

Almost at once, the frictions that had bedevilled Syria-U.S. relations reappeared. Elections in November produced a victory for Hinnawi’s Populist Party, which announced plans for a Syrian union with Iraq’s Hashe-mite dynasty. On December 19, 1949, Col. Adib Shishakli ousted Hinnawi in Syria’s third coup in nine months. This was the first of what would become seven civilian cabinets in 23 months.

The U.S. again encouraged a military quick-fix, this time with Shishakli cast in Zaim’s strongman role. Shishakli had approached U.S. officials in March 1950 seeking “military aid for army modernization ‘to maintain order.’” U.S. officials realized that Shishakli was “one of the strongest anti-Communist forces in the country.” Washington hinted that Syria might soon receive U.S. weapons.

U.S. officials confirmed in early July that “Shishakli had been making friendly overtures.” One of his chief lieutenants asked the U.S. military attaché, “What do you want us to do?” Shishakli had a “cordial 2 hour discussion” with the CIA’s Miles Copeland and others at the U.S. embassy on November 23, 195l. When Ma’aruf Dawalibi, long regarded by U.S. observers as pro-Soviet, announced a week later that he would head Syria’s eighth cabinet in less than two years, Shishakli dissolved parliament and set up a military dictatorship.

U.S. officials were aware of Shishakli’s plans in advance and welcomed his coup. Chargé d’affaires Harlan Clark cabled Washington on 30 November that “if U.S. is to profit from new sit[uatio]n, it will be more than ever necessary...to show Shishakli how and when we can help him.” The State Department won Pentagon approval “on political grounds” within days for “early delivery to Syria...of a limited amount of selected military material.”

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