New evidence of torture and misery emerges from Syria daily, as long-anticipated peace talks aimed at ending the civil war make a virtually stagnant start. It is a time of villains, a time devoid of heroes. One wonders how many left in Syria today remember Shukri al-Quwatli.
Quwatli could rightfully lay claim to being one of Syria’s greatest heroes. A constant thorn in the French side during their period of mandate, he spent many years in exile directing the forces of independence. Taking advantage of the instability brought by the Second World War, Quwatli manoevured his National Bloc to the forefront of Syrian politics and was elected President in 1943. By 1946, he had brokered an agreement that forced the final withdrawal of French troops. Syria was independent.
Ousted by a coup in 1949, Quwatli returned from exile and to a second spell as President in 1955, when his successor National Party won free elections. In August 1955, a month before assuming the presidency, he was asked about the future security of his country, which had remained unstable in the post-colonial era:
The President-elect is reported as saying that the Arabs are capable of organising the defence of the Middle East from Tangier to the Persian Gulf without help from anyone…Shukri Bey opposes Syrian cooperation with the West in defence matters.
This British report reinforces the perception of Quwatli as an avowed nationalist and his stance is understandable in a country that for so long was denied independence by foreign powers.
Quwatli further claimed that the ‘strengthening and consolidation’ of the Arab League would ensure Middle Eastern peace.
Taken now, Quwatli’s vision seems both naive and misguided. Yet it should be remembered that, in 1955, the biggest perceived threats to Syrian sovereignty were a resurgence of colonialism and the emergence of an Israeli state.
It could also be argued that Quwatli’s declaration that Western interference in Middle Eastern defence was unnecessary has borne out. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – in addition to the NATO intervention in Libya – have ultimately proved hugely destabilising to regional security.
What Quwatli did not understand or foresee, however, was that it was the Arabs within the Middle East that posed the biggest problem. Religious and ethnic differences have terminally split the region with the manifestation of decades of strife being played out on the scarred battlefields of Syria.
Shukri al-Quwatli was a patriot, an Arab nationalist in every sense. His conviction that Arab solidarity was necessary to secure a peaceful future for Syria led him to becoming a key player in the merger with Egypt in 1958. Perhaps the short-lived existence of the United Arab Republic should have served as a warning.
The Syrian war is an internal Middle Eastern conflict where the lines are blurred between freedom fighters, patriots and ordinary civilians. Oftentimes the ‘enemy’ is simply the common man searching for a better life.
Quwatli’s vision is surely broken and his memory in danger of being eradicated. For how can you have a national hero without a nation?
British correspondence source: (National Archives, FO 371/115519)