On Syria’s turbulent history of coups

Syria has a long history of coups which have defined and shaped its current policy

Dr. Halla Diyab
Dr. Halla Diyab
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This article is the first of a three-part series on Syria’s coups.

Syria has a long history of coups – or “inqilabat” - which have defined and shaped its current policy and therefore raises the question of whether Syria is the state of “coups” rather than the state of “revolutions”? Over the decades, history has proven that there is no place for people’s revolt and no forms of democratic political reform in Syria and the only feasible form of political and regime change is a military coup. This is due to the overwhelming influence and role the Syrian military institutions have had in the Syrian political sphere throughout its modern history.

March 30, 1949 witnessed the first bloodless military coup in the history of Syria; a coup led by Brigadier General Husni al-Za’im, the Syrian army chief of staff. He succeeded in toppling the civil government and temporarily arresting Khalid al-’Azm (the prime minister), and Shukri al-Quwatli (the president) at the military hospital in Mezza , Damascus. Al-Za’im pioneered the militarization of the Syrian national identity, by merging the leadership of the army with that of the Syrian political system, fostering the concept that Syrian people and the army were one and gradually Syria acquired a military culture.

The implication was and interdependent relationship between the valiant army and the Syrian citizens. The army started to represent the tower of Syrian national strength and the citizens in return pledged allegiance to the army and contributed to its immunity and expansion. Unlike al-Za’im’s keenness on a clean coup that developed his credibility as a legitimate leader, Colonel Adib Shishakli (who assisted al-Za’im in 1949) led Syria’s second military coup in December 1951 and formed a ruthless autocratic military system.

By 1970, Syria was exhausted by political unrest and the continuous chain of military coups

Dr. Halla Diyab

Shishakli initiated the Arab Liberation Movement in 1953 which promoted pan-Arabism, Arab unity, women’s emancipation and limited socialist reform. Shishakli overwhelmingly strove to centralize the political authority in his grip and his fears of the rising of Druz minorities of Jabal al-Arab – or Druz Mountain - climaxed with his brutal shelling of the Druz community to crush any prospective revolt to his rule. Shishakli’s insecurity about his power led him to arbitrarily arrest active officers in the Syrian Army and ranking politicians, including Adnan al-Malki, the former President Attasi and his son, and also Mansour al-Atrash, the son of the Druz leader Sultan Basha al-Atrash.

Coups befall Syria

This led to the fall of Colonel Adib Shishkali’s reign and Syria plunged into the third military coup in 1954. In retaliation to the brutality committed against the minority Druz by a Sunni military government, the Druz officers backed the 1954 coup and consequently the relationship between Syrian citizens and the army were doubted, bringing the Arab nationalist and socialist spirit to power. In 1954, the upheaval was at its peak and Syria was on the verge of civil war but Shishakli backed down and the era witnessed a lot of political unrest. With Syria entering the union with Egypt in 1958, the Syrians (especially the young intellectuals) were falling for secular nationalism and the Baath party was the right fit especially for the minorities who believed in its firm secularism and aspired socio-economic equality as a way to protect themselves from Sunni dominance. The failure of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vision of Pan Arab-nationalization and the ultimate Arab union, and the growing unrest over Syria’s seceding from the union on September 28, 1961 was troublesome. The secession from the union was the result of a coup carried out by disenchanted Syrian military officers who declared Syria’s independence from the United Arab Republic and pledged allegiance to an independent Syrian army. The year of 1963 witnessed the resurrection of the Syrian army with Military Committee of the Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, leading Syria to its historical coup which brought Hafez al-Assad to power.

1963 saw a monumental change in the dynamics of the military coup as the individuals behind the coup were Alawite minority military personnel; Muhammad Umran, Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad. Syria’s political façade was changing with a minority ruling a majority through the legitimate mechanism of the Syrian army. But the shared comradeship of the three minority leaders did not stop another coup from erupting in 1966 and power was ultimately seized by Hafez al- Assad in 1970. Salah Jadid expelled Muhammad Umran from his position in 1966 and jailed him in Mezzeh Prison. In the so-called 1970 “Corrective Movement,” Air Force General Hafez al-Assad overthrew Jadid’s regime to face the same fate of Umran and imprisoned him in Mezza prison until his death.

By 1970, Syria was exhausted by political unrest and the continuous chain of military coups which erupted almost every two years. Hafez al-Assad had the cold-blooded ruthlessness of a military man and the intelligence of a sharp politician and started a new decade of nationalist socialism. Syria, meanwhile, lay waiting to be controlled.


Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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