187. Memorandum From the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Berry) to the Acting Secretary of State1

SUBJECT

  • Egyptian-Syrian Union

In accordance with your request, NEA has prepared the following brief study of the proposed Egyptian-Syrian union. It has been coordinated with R.

Background

Egyptian-Syrian union became an active issue shortly after conclusion of a Syro-Egyptian military pact in October 1955. Enthusiasm for union was then confined essentially to Syria, and it still is. Since 1955 the campaign for union has been periodically revived in the Syrian parliament and press. Nasser has consolidated his influence in Syria during the past two years, but until recently delayed serious consideration of union. Although on November 17, 1957 Syrian initiative led to the adoption of a joint resolution by the Egyptian and Syrian parliaments declaring support of the principle of federal union, observers then had little idea that practical steps toward union would soon follow. Meanwhile, however, a struggle for power within the Syrian ruling coalition made an immediate union useful to the Socialist, anti-Communist Party faction in the coalition.

In mid-January the pro-communist Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army, Bizri (accompanied by other high ranking Syrian officers), and the Socialist Foreign Minister, Bitar, traveled separately to Cairo to present to Nasser their separate views on the internal situation in Syria and on Egyptian-Syrian union. Our information from Cairo indicates that although he dealt rudely with Bizri, Nasser reached an agreement in principle with Bitar and the officer group for union in the near future on Egyptian terms.

Syrian Points of View

The unanimity with which Syrian political and military leaders proclaim their approval of Syrian-Egyptian union conceals a number of divergent views and interest. The Arab Socialist Resurrectionist Party (ASRP), of which Bitar is a leader, has had Nasser’s backing in the past and now favors a union which would strengthen the position [Page 410]of the ASRP vis-à-vis the Communist Party and its allies. Many conservative and independent politicians who have previously had private doubts about union are now in desperation prepared to accept union as a possible means of checking further communist advances. The Communist Party, on the other hand, must support union publicly, but is aware that Nasser’s terms for union might involve anti-communist measures. Pro-Soviet opportunists who realize that union is being pressed by the ASRP to check their power have no alternative but to try to ride with the current and stay on top. The badly factionalized Syrian Army is jealous of its own prerogatives, but now appears willing to accept a union which might open new positions in government to favored officers.

Egyptian Position

Nasser’s reluctance to limit his freedom of action in the area by embracing a union with an unstable ally has placed him in a strong tactical position in dealing with Syrian impatience. It now appears that Nasser has been convinced that his dominant position in Syria can only be maintained by acceding to the insistence of his supporters in Syria that union must not be further delayed. Bitar and the others have in effect put Nasser on the spot.

Prospects

According to our information, Nasser has agreed with Syrian leaders that the political provisions of union will be implemented within the next six months and on Nasser’s terms, which include: one President (Nasser) residing in Cairo; one Parliament; one Party (thus eliminating overt Communist Party activity); one Army; and one diplomatic service. The integration of the Syrian and Egyptian economies involves more difficult discussions which will probably be delayed for some time.

Nasser will be assured of obtaining his terms in substance as well as in form only if he can bring the Syrian Army securely under his control and curb the power of the Communist Party and extreme pro-Soviet politicians. Although he now appears capable of achieving these objectives, there remains a critical period for delicate political maneuvering before even the short-run durability of a union on his terms is assured. The long-run durability of a union of two noncontiguous countries with different traditions and cultures is even less certain, although the termination of such a union once fully implemented might be more difficult than leaders in both countries now realize.

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Effects of Union on U.S. Interests

So far as U.S. interests are concerned, the short and long term implications of Egyptian-Syrian union are not identical. Although it may be in our immediate interest that Nasser’s position in Syria be strengthened in the hope that the influence of the Communist Party will thereby be curbed, in the long term Egyptian-Syrian union would tend to freeze Syrian orientation in an unnatural direction, reducing the possibility that Syria would strengthen its ties with Iraq. It would facilitate Nasser’s domination of the Arab world. Union might complicate and exacerbate the relations of Egypt-Syria with Israel and with other Arab states, particularly Jordan which would be under increased pressure to provide the lacking geographical link. The Government of Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally sought to influence Syria, would fear the extension of Nasser’s hegemony. The Government of Iraq would not welcome the extension of Nasser’s dominion to the frontier of Iraq or the setback of its ambition to bring Syria within its own sphere. Turkey would likewise look with disfavor upon union. Furthermore, we could not assume that union with Egypt would in the long run solve the problem of Syrian instability; nor is it likely that Egyptian-Syrian union would contribute to the peaceful solution of basic problems in the area in a manner consistent with U.S. interests. Only if Egyptian-Syrian union were accompanied by effective measures to eliminate entirely the influence of the Syrian Communist Party and its allies would the short term advantages of union possibly outweigh what we foresee as its long term disadvantages.

This matter is a delicate one in view of the widespread public desire in the Arab states for greater Arab unity and of the apprehensions of the pro-West Arab states over this move. We must proceed cautiously in determining our position, especially our public position. We are of course not in a position effectively to prevent some kind of union from taking place if both countries desire it. Our position on union between one or more Arab states has been to favor any such step which meets the freely expressed wishes of the people involved.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.83/1–2558. Secret. Drafted by Eagleton and cleared by Starr.