297. Telegram From the Embassy in Syria to the Department of State1

646. Deptel 612.2 Embassy believes Khuri-Malik warning unduly alarmist and doubts that Communist party take-over GOS imminent. However anti-west and leftist drift from which Communists, who numerically weak here, benefit and which they can continue exploit, is growing danger.

Basic features of Syrian political situation are 1) universal resentment against Israel and corollary resentment against US as power primarily responsible for Israel’s existence; 2) unreasoning faith in undefined and perhaps undefinable “Arab unit”; 3) public ignorance or apathy on most other foreign issues; 4) demoralization and complete fragmentation of conservative elements in government; 5) opportunism of Syrian political figures (e.g. Asali, Shuqayr, Azm); 6) disproportionate influence of organized aggressive left-wing anti-western minority (ASRP) under indigenous leadership (Hawrani) but Communist-infiltrated; 7) army officer groups, decapitated by murder Colonel Malki,3 allied to ASRP and ready intervene in politics; 8) Syria is the rope in tug-of-war between Egypt and Iraq and between Saudi Arabia and Iraq (note Ambassador Malik’s reference [Page 526] to Syria as “key” in April 8 conversation with Secretary4); 9) French intrigue in order maintain a fancied “special position” in Syria; 10) Egyptian, French and Saudi aid to left wing and opportunist elements often by means of bribes, threats or promises or a combination thereof.

Relatively favorable economic situation based on expanding agriculture has cushioned ill effects of previous military excursions into local politics.

Syrian Cabinet nominally headed by Prime Minister Asali is in fact dominated by Foreign Minister Azm. It rests on anti-west and anti-Iraqi coalition of CP, ASRP and venal politicians frequently under French, Saudi and Egyptian influence. Conservative elements (largely populist, nationalist, independent), often pro-Iraqi and less hostile to west, are disorganized and frequently lack resolution (President Hashim Al-Atasi an exception). Regardless of personal beliefs and interests, conservatives rarely willing take political risk inherent in openly pro-west attitude (CFI one) first paragraph.5

This fundamental anti-US and anti-west orientation stimulated by inevitable political histrionics about Palestine problem gives many Syrians a perverse satisfaction in opposing any US project, even when in Syria’s own interest. This is one of the Communists’ principal assets in Syria, and foreign agents use it to lead the Syrians into devious paths.

The CP headed by Bakdash and directed by Kremlin appears to have been a minor though troublesome factor thus far. If CP infiltrators succeed in taking Communist ASRP group, subversive potentialities of CP will be vastly increased. Too much importance should not be attributed to fact Bakdash and Hawrani have just had their first public quarrel over the grant of a petroleum exploration concession. Weakness of recent Syrian Cabinets, aggressive tactics and skillful propaganda moves (e.g. two Soviet vetoes in UN6) have given CP a seat in Parliament and a useful aura of respectability, while CP profits, almost without effort, from the anti-Iraqi anti-Turkish and therefore anti-western activities of ASRP and opportunist deputies.

The leftward drift toward a more uncompromising anti-west official attitude has been discernable since before the Syrian Parliamentary [Page 527] elections last September. Much of the impetus comes from abroad, and few signs indicate that Syrians themselves can or will stop the trend, especially when pushed along by France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, each for its own reasons. Naturally this Embassy has no proof of Saudi payments or details of Egyptian or French intrigue which would stand a lawyer’s test. However, the circumstantial evidence and the multiple reports from respectable local sources are convincing if not conclusive. This Embassy suspects that Iraq … indulged in parallel intrigue but on a much smaller scale.

If the trend continues over any considerable period there is real danger that Syria will fall completely under left-wing control either by a coup or by usurpation of authority with unpredictable consequences.

Along with other members of the Embassy staff I have given much thought for several months to the problem of stopping the accelerating Syrian drift to the left. There is no easy solution. The Syrian conservatives may yet display enough courage and resolution to stop the left-wingers, but reliance solely on local politicians exposed to foreign influence and hamstrung by Palestine issue may turn out to be forlorn hope.

In my opinion, the only promising measures are those which correct the cause of the trouble. Those which only treat or publicize the symptoms might be harmful rather than helpful. The Khuri–Malik suggestion, unless backed by the kind of political influence which has currency here, is believed to be in the latter category.

Recently the GOS has been endeavoring, with only minor success, to establish a connection between the USG and January unproven SSNP plot against the state.7 It is my belief that a State Department declaration, or a series of them, as suggested by Malik, would be locally interpreted as admission of US implication and that new impulse would be given toward signature ESS pact. Such signature would in any event be a political victory for the leftists, and a defeat for Iraq, Turkey and the West; but it would be a resounding triumph if carried out after public condemnation by the USG.

Arguments based on reasonableness, true Syrian interest or economic or technical aid will, in my opinion, have little appeal and be unavailing. Arms aid does not have the appeal it had in the days of Shishakli.

I see no way for the US to secure popular Syrian support for its NE objectives without some modification of US policy toward Israel. [Page 528] The Syrians would doubtless demand US support for imposition on Israel of the UN resolutions on Palestine, but they usually ask the maximum and settle for less. In no event would the Syrian reorientation be swift.

To secure enough conservative support in the Syrian Government, as opposed to the people and to stop the leftward drift, the following would have a positive appeal:

Tripartite powers, if French concurrence could be obtained, and in any case USG, to come out publicly against the ESS pact; US privately to lay a restraining hand on French, Egyptian and Saudi activities, and perhaps to make a few threats in private about possible Iraqi intervention as well; US and UK encourage Jordan and Lebanon enter Turko-Iraqi pact. Caution about Western non-recognition in event of a coup, a development loan (by Iraq), Turkish offer of facilities on the Taurus railway,8 and Turkish generosity with regard to Syrian property rights in the Sanjak of Alexandretta9 might be bargaining points (British Ambassador believes latter three points would be helpful). A suitable press and radio campaign not directly attributable to the US–UK could help. Iraqi and Lebanese assistance would be useful (Embtel 64410). Finally, constant private educational campaign should be conducted among Nationalists to make them aware of ultimate dangers to themselves of continuing cooperating with Leftists, and among Nationalists and Populists to make them see wisdom of renewing conservative cooperation. A difficulty is that each of the measures suggested above involves the US, UK, and Syria as well as other countries. Only the Department can decide which, if any, of the measures suggested above it is able and willing to adopt.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 783.00/5–755. Secret; Priority. Repeated to Amman, Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Jidda, London, Paris, Ankara, and Tel Aviv.
  2. Supra.
  3. See Document 295.
  4. On April 8, Malik discussed the Bandung Conference and other matters with Dulles. The memorandum of conversation, by Francis Allen, is not printed. (Department of State, Central Files, 780.5/4–855)
  5. Not further identified.
  6. Reference is to the Soviet votes in the Security Council on January 22, 1954 (resolution concerning the Syrian-Israeli dispute over the waters of the Jordan River), and on March 29, 1954 (resolution concerning Israeli transit through the Suez Canal). For documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. IX, Part 1, pp. 1482, and footnote 2, p. 1486.
  7. Reference is presumably to the alleged plot surrounding the assassination of Malki.
  8. The Taurus railroad traversed the Taurus mountains in southwestern Turkey and linked inland regions with the Mediterranean Sea.
  9. Alexandretta, at the head of the Bay of Alexandretta, was a former port and district within the Ottoman Empire. The area was mandated to the French following World War I and later handed over to Turkey in 1939. Subsequently it was known by its Turkish name—Hatay.
  10. In telegram 613 to Damascus, May 6, the Department requested the Embassy’s comments as to the advisability of a coordinated U.S–U.K. campaign by Voice of America and Cyprus radio aimed at exposing the current situation in Syria. (Department of State, Central Files, 783.001/5–655) The Embassy in Damascus responded in telegram 644 on May 7: “Doubt value of suggested campaign. Detailed reply follows.” (Ibid., 783.001/5–755)