Paper Prepared in the Department of State2
The Political Union of Syria and Iraq
There is evidence of sympathy among some elements of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples for a political union between the two countries. [Page 1207] Since the fall of 1949 the union question has been a major political issue in the Near East, and wide divergencies of opinion have arisen among Near Eastern Governments and peoples over (a) the desirability of a union between Syria and Iraq; (b) the form of the union; (c) the measures to be taken to implement the proposed union; and (d) the relationship of such a union to other states.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and France are interested in this question chiefly as it relates to (a) the peace and stability of the Near East as a whole; (b) the desires and well being of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples; (c) the interests of the Western countries in the Near East, with particular reference to the United Kingdom’s special treaty position in Iraq, France’s continued interest in Syria and Lebanon, and the close relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia; and (d) the implications of Syro-Iraqi union as regards the Palestine problem.
The modern concept of the political unity of the Arab peoples stems from an intellectual and political movement taking root covertly under the moribund Ottoman Turkish Empire at the turn of the century and is a natural component of the modern Arab cultural renaissance which has been under way since then. Nearly all Arabs today support the idea of the essential “unity” of the Arabic-speaking peoples. The Arab reverses in the Palestine hostilities and fears of Arab countries for their continued security against the Soviet menace from the East, and against what they consider to be the “Zionist menace” in their midst, has strengthened the desire for closer political relations, military coordination and economic cooperation among the Arab states.
Beyond the common denominator of favoring an imperfectly conceived and defined “unity”, however, there is no general agreement either among the Arab governments or among the Arab peoples as to what form unity should take or how it should be accomplished. The Iraqi Government and some of the Iraqi people seem to favor a union or federation with Syria under the sovereignty of King Faisal II, of Iraq, as a first step toward achieving a larger unity; some groups in Syria appear to favor this idea, partly because they believe the union would end the instability in Syria manifested by three military coups within nine months, but other groups and the present Syrian Government are opposed. Some Syrians and Iraqis would favor Syro-Iraqi union if the unified government were a republic rather than a monarchy. Others will accept union only if the British treaty with Iraq and British influence in the latter country is terminated, and nearly all appear to oppose extension of the treaty or British influence to Syria.[Page 1208]
Egypt, which desires to retain its leadership of the Arab world, opposes Syro-Iraqi union and sponsors instead a proposal for collective security among all Arab states and the strengthening of the Arab League. This view is supported by the King of Saudi Arabia, implacable rival of the Hashemite ruling houses of Jordan and Iraq, and the Government of Lebanon and its supporters who fear Lebanon’s independence as a Christian haven will be extinguished by eventual absorption into the predominantly Moslem union. Important opposition groups in Lebanon, however, are somewhat favorable to the union of Syria and Iraq because of their fear of the consequences of continued instability and control by military cliques in Syria.
King Abdullah, of Jordan, is believed still to covet Syria for incorporation into his Kingdom, and for that reason opposes Syria being incorporated under another crown, despite Abdullah’s family ties with the King of Iraq. Israel apparently opposes any sort of unification of Arab states at this time in the belief that such movements are directed against Israel and that the implementation of the union would retard a Palestine settlement. This is disputed by some proponents of union on the grounds that the main obstacle to settlement is Arab fears of Israel which the union might serve to allay.
The Syro-Iraqi union question was officially raised with the United States Government by the United Kingdom on September 29, 1949, which confided to us on a Top Secret basis an approach it had received from the Government of Iraq and the Provisional Government of Syria presenting a plan for federation of the two countries under the Hashemite King of Iraq. The project envisaged at that time is believed to be, for the time being, a dead-letter, because the orientation of the Syrian Government in favor of union was sharply reversed as a result of a military coup-which occurred on December 19, 1949. The Department’s Aide-Mémoire in response to the United Kingdom’s request for our views at that time, however, sets forth the policy of this Government which has remained unchanged to the present. The principal points made in the Aide-Mémoire are as follows:
- “The United States Government … would look with disfavor upon any modification of the status of the present sovereign entities of the Near East accomplished by force or external intervention. However, … this Government would not oppose unions of peoples brought about by the freely expressed wish of the peoples concerned.”
- “…the United States Government should not at this time
adopt an attitude either favoring, acquiescing in or
disapproving … (proposals for union) because:
- There is insufficient evidence on which to base an opinion as to the degree of popular support such a union would find in both countries and the overall effects of the proposed action on the peace and stability of the area. Such information as is available, however, gives this Government certain ground for concern.
- The United States Government considers that it should not in any event, express an opinion in advance of consideration of the proposed move in an open and constitutional way within the two countries, which might in itself influence such consideration, and before the Governments of Syria and Iraq have consulted with other countries which may feel themselves affected.
- In view of this Government’s concern, the United States would, furthermore, before expressing any judgment on the proposals, expect assurances by Syria and Iraq that the proposed union would safeguard legitimate interests of the United States; that it would carry out existing international obligations of the two states; and that it would undertake to respect the independence and territorial integrity of neighboring states.”
Both the British and French Governments have declared positions similar to that stated by the United States Government in paragraph 1 above. However, the tenor of British approaches in the past suggests the Government of the United Kingdom is inclined to be sympathetic to a union which would permit the Hashemite family of Iraq, traditional friends of the British, to predominate in a unified government or federation. Mr. Bevin, in somewhat casual and oblique fashion, orally indicated last fall that he was personally inclined in favor of the proposals then being advanced by Syria and Iraq.
The Government of France, on the other hand, has informally expressed itself as believing the status quo in the Near East represents the best possible political arrangement in the Near East under present conditions. In the French attitude there is undoubtedly a modicum of distrust of British intentions and apprehension lest the United Kingdom extend its influence to Syria, a country where France, prior to 1945, enjoyed predominant influence.
The attitude of the Department on this question lies on neutral ground between British enthusiasm and French opposition to the union movement. Although it might be difficult to mollify Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan if a union took place, there would be no justification for this Government to oppose the spontaneous emergence of a union between Syria and Iraq, achieved without force or external intervention, provided it were clear that the unified state had no aggressive intentions toward other states. On the other hand, there is little evidence to suggest that peace, stability, or capacity to resist Soviet penetration would be advanced by union of Syria and Iraq so long as deep cleavages as to the desirability, form, means of implementation, and relationship to other states of the union persist among the governments and peoples of the Near East. There would thus be no contribution to United States interests in giving encouragement to the movement and any suggestion of intervention by this [Page 1210] Government in favor of union would undoubtedly incur deep resentment among peoples of the Near East, particularly in Saudi Arabia where US strategic interests are of vital importance.
One further aspect of the problem which the UK, especially, must thoroughly consider is whether the effect of the union would be to strengthen, leave unchanged, or attenuate the British strategic position in the Near East (which the United States Government supports). There are some proponents of union, particularly among nationalists in Iraq, who see in the union movement the possibility of consolidating anti-British elements in Syria and Iraq in a concerted drive to eliminate the special facilities enjoyed by the UK under the present Anglo-Iraqi treaty.
Although there are scattered and inconclusive reports of intrigue in Syria to unseat the present highly unstable Syrian government and to promote union, which, if successful in attaining its objective, could change the picture suddenly, there seems to be little prospect of formation of Syro-Iraqi union at this time because of the present Syrian Government’s negative attitude and the sharp adverse reactions the movement would engender elsewhere in the Near East. It is believed the British Government realizes the practical obstacles presently standing in the way of the union movement, and, as mentioned above, the French Government is content with the status quo. There thus seems to be no substantial reason for the question to be given an important place at the meeting.
If either the British or French governments should for some reason wish to raise the question in the discussions, it is believed the United States Government should recommend that the Western countries allow events to take their course and limit their activity to expressing, when and where appropriate, their opposition to any attempt by force, external intervention, or intrigue, to prevent the government and peoples of Syria and Iraq from making their own decision.
- The CFM files are a consolidated master collection of the records of conferences of Heads of State, Council of Foreign Ministers and ancillary bodies, North Atlantic Council, other meetings of the Secretary of State with the Foreign Ministers of European powers, and materials on the Austrian and German peace settlements for the years 1943–1955 prepared by the Department of State Records Service Center.↩
- This paper was prepared by the Bureau of Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs and cleared with the Office of Western European Affairs and the Office of British Commonwealth and Northern European Affairs. It was written as background material for the Secretary of State in anticipation of the May Foreign Ministers Meeting in London. The subject of the proposed Syrian-Iraqi union was discussed in the preparatory meeting of May 1 but was not discussed in later meetings by the Foreign Ministers. For a description of the May 1 conference, see Secto 75 from London, May 2, in vol. iii, p. 975.↩