On March 30, 1949, Brigadier General Husni az Zaim, army chief of staff, staged the first of Syria's numerous coups. He was cheered by the political opposition and the urban masses who were tired of high prices and an inept bureaucracy. Zaim, first backed by the British and then by the French, was recognized by Arab and Western governments and was elected president of Syria after abolishing political parties and proposing himself as the only candidate. He ratified an agreement with the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company (Tapline) and declared himself ready to support a Middle Eastern-North Atlantic Treaty Organization if the United States would give economic support to the area.
Syria's second coup was led by Brigadier General Sami al Hinnawi, who arrested Zaim and Prime Minister Muhsin al Barazi on August 14, 1949. After a trial before the Council of War, both were executed. Under the provisional government of Hashim al Atassi, a new electoral law was adopted, and women voted for the first time in the election of November 15-16, 1949. Although Hinnawi's coup returned Syrian government to civilian politicians, the army remained watchful in the background.
With the departure of the French, however, unity among the leaders disappeared. Aleppines contested with Damascenes for dominance in commercial and political life; the Druzes pledged allegiance to Druzes, the Kurds to Kurds, and tribal peoples to tribal institutions. Alawis, the poorest yet largest of the minorities, tried to rebel from Sunni Muslim control. Rural leaders contended with urban leaders; the progressive, increasingly secularized, younger generation vied with the older, religious-minded leaders. Politicians differed over the kind of government Syria should have--monarchy or republic, parliamentary or presidential democracy.
Although Zaim was deposed less than five months later in a countercoup, his brief whirlwind rule was crowded with constructive action as well as oppressive measures. His achievements included the start of construction on the Euphrates River project to bring water to Aleppo; initiation of the Latakia harbor project; building of new roads and hospitals; framing of new civil laws, commercial laws, and penal codes; granting of suffrage to women; and the abolition of private waqfs (charitable religious endowments). But Zaim's personal ambition depleted the treasury and lost him political support.
The legacy of ancient Syria, the Arab empire, Ottoman rule, and the French Mandate left the people of Syria with loyalties to both their own nation and their neighbors. During the period of the French Mandate, Syria's leaders--though often competing with each other for power--were generally united in their single goal of freedom from French rule. Conflicts between diverse groups were postponed, as Syrian unity was essential for the independence fight.
Syria began its independent life under the presidency of Quwatly, backed by a splintered parliament without real leadership. The nation's first crisis was the independence of Israel, fruit of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In May 1948, Syrian troops invaded Israel in conjunction with other Arab armies.
Although most leaders agreed that the Syria they inherited was merely a part of a larger Arab nation, they disagreed on the form such a nation should take. Trade-minded Aleppines preferred Iraq and the Hashimites, as did some of the older leaders who had joined Faysal in 1918. Young, educated Damascenes rejected the Hashimites, who they felt were backed by the British. The cultural heritage of France and the American ideals of democracy induced many Syrians to look westward for friendship. Others looked north to the Soviet Union, which from the Syrian point of view had no record of intrigue in the Arab world.
Toward the end of 1948, Syrian politicians became profoundly disappointed with their government's failure not only to defeat Israel but also to regain the former province of Alexandretta, to free blocked assets in France, and to maintain an independent currency. Prime Minister Azm tried to cut army expenditures, find backing for the Syrian pound, and construct a new pipeline from Iraq to the Syrian coast. He failed in all of these efforts.
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