329. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Allen) to the Secretary of State1
- Adib Shishakli and the Possibility of a Coup in Syria
Introductory: Recent undocumented reports quote Nuri and others as saying that Adib Shishakli, who was dictator of Syria when you met him in May, 1953, may return from exile to take over Syria where the situation is worsening and the newly appointed “national union” cabinet soon faces an uncertain vote of confidence. (Tab A)2 This memorandum discusses Shishakli’s record, his whereabouts since his overthrow in February, 1954, the concern of other governments, and his potentialities in the present situation.
Biographic: Adib Shishakli, now forty-seven and in Saudi Arabia, commanded a group of volunteers in the Palestine war, participated in the Husni Zaim coup d’état which overthrew President Quwwatli in March, 1949, and became Chief of Staff in December, 1949, not long after Zaim’s assassination.3 On the latter date he became the power behind the scenes in Syria. In November, 1951, he abolished the 12-hour anti-Western government of Maruf Dawalibi,4 made Fawzi Selo5 his puppet Chief of State and began to rule without a cabinet and later without a parliament. In June, 1953, he abandoned his background role, was “elected” president, and continued to rule as a dictator, though he denied that he was one. He issued more than 200 “decree-laws”, some of which were helpful, but many of which never left paper. In February, 1954, he was overthrown by a civilian group—backed if not controlled by Army elements—which restored parliamentary government and reinstated Hashim Atasi as [Page 580] President. A sketch of Shishakli’s career up to this point is attached. (Tab B)6
Recent Whereabouts: Following his overthrow, Shishakli flew to Saudi Arabia. Later he made Paris his headquarters. He is reported to have been in France, Spain, Italy, Egypt and Turkey at various times during 1955 and to have returned to Lebanon and Syria incognito during and in connection with the Syrian presidential elections of August, 1955. (Tab C)7 He returned to Paris at some point after the elections which returned Shukri Quwwatli to the presidency last August. He went to Saudi Arabia in March, 1956, and is believed to be there still. Wide speculation surrounded his return to Saudi Arabia. Was he to become commander of the Saudi armed forces and eventually of unified Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi forces? Was he being “called on the carpet” by King Saud? Was he in the “deep freeze” for possible use in Syria? (Tabs E and F)8 There is no clear answer.
Concern of Other Governments: Shishakli’s ties with other governments have recently seemed to rise and fall just as they have with Syrian groupings. (Tab D)9 He has travelled at times since 1954 on a Saudi passport and is believed to have received a subsidy from King Saud, who at one time subsidized President Quwwatli and perhaps still does. Our Embassy in Jidda tends to think he is now out of favor with the King, however, for engaging in harmful and prejudicial activities in France and elsewhere. (Tabs E and F) The Egyptians apparently backed both Quwwatli, the winner, and Khaled Azm previous to the presidential elections of August, 1955, but not Shishakli. Egypt recently, however, has reportedly taken in Shishakli’s family which had heretofore remained in Syria. The USSR knows of him primarily as an anti-leftist.
. . . . . . .
Your Talk with Shishakli: When you talked with him on May 15, 1953 (Tab G),10 Shishakli spoke of the Arabs’ loss of confidence in the US over its support of Israel, and asked for US economic and [Page 581] military aid. He said the menace of Israel and the menace of communism tied together since Syria’s heavy military expenditures for defense against Israel were at the expense of development expenditures which would combat communism. He promised that Syria would never attack Israel, and he favored an Arab-Israel settlement along the lines of the UN resolution. From time to time the US has discussed military and economic aid with Syria, but no agreements have been concluded.
Evaluation of Shishakli: If Shishakli was once the man to govern Syria, he is not, in my judgment, the man to do so now. He may once have given Syria some stability and purpose, exercised restraint and political sagacity, shown considerable discretion and shrewdness in retaining a parliamentary facade, and taken an anti-Soviet stand. Even then, however, he was considered by our Embassy as … a political opportunist. Today he would be likely more than ever, I believe, to snatch at anything which would give him power. In Syria, he has never had the cooperation of many of the pro-Iraqi Populist leaders. He would find it more difficult than ever to stand up to the leftist Arab Socialist Resurrectionist Party (ASRP), which now holds 18 out of 143 seats in Parliament. Moreover, his association with the conservative Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) would count against him. This is the party which the US is irresponsibly but frequently and widely charged with supporting. He is known as being close to the French. … He has long been a heavy drinker and is reported to have accentuated this habit to the point where his health has greatly deteriorated. Finally, the Army is the controlling factor in Syrian politics, and there is no evidence that Shishakli has the necessary support from this quarter. These factors make me believe that if he attempted to return, there might be bloodshed.
Adib Shishakli falls clearly short of the type of leader we should like Syria to have, but he might be better than some other potential candidates. Also, his acceptability would be governed in part by the types of commitments he would be willing to give our friends. Consequently, we should bide our time and await developments before taking any positive position relative to his possible return to power.11
We will provide you separately with a verbal report on current developments.12
- Source: Department of State, NEA Files: Lot 59 D 518, Omega-Syria, Miscl.: 1956. Top Secret. Drafted by Boardman; cleared with Wilkins and Rountree; initialed by Allen; and sent through S/S. The source text contains no indication that Dulles saw the memorandum. Attached to a copy of the memorandum, Ibid., S/S–NEA Files: Lot 61 D 417, is a note from Howe to Dulles, which summarizes Allen’s memorandum and advises that “This memorandum is being handled with extreme care.”↩
- Attached, but not printed. (Telegram 2174 from Ankara, June 22; Ibid., Central Files, 783.00/6–2256)↩
- Husni al-Zaim was assassinated on August 14, 1949, during a coup d’état.↩
- Dawalibi, a prominent member of the People’s Party, had formed a government on November 28, 1951, only to be overthrown during the evening of November 28/29 as the result of the coup led by Shishakli.↩
- Selo held the positions of Syrian Chief of State, Prime Minister, and Minister of Defense after Shishakli’s coup.↩
- Attached, but not printed.↩
- Attached, but not printed; CA–4802, December 23, 1955, was sent to London, Paris, Damascus, and other Middle Eastern posts. (Department of State, Central File 783.00)↩
- Tab E, not printed, is despatch 163 from Jidda, April 14, 1956; it contains a report on Shishakli’s visit to Saudi Arabia. (Ibid., 783.00/4–1456) Tab F, not printed, is despatch 159 from Dhahran, March 31, 1956; it contains a report that Shishakli had visited Dhahran. (Ibid., 783.00/3–3156)↩
- Attached, but not printed.↩
- Attached to the source text. For the memorandum of conversation of May 15, 1953, and the memorandum of a second conversation with Shishakli on May 16, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, volume IX, Part 1, pp. 56–64.↩
- The source text contains lines for Dulles’ approval or disapproval of the conclusions. No response is indicated.↩
- No record of this report has been found.↩