On this date in 1949, Syrian President Husni al-Za’im and his Prime Minister Mohsen Berazi were seized in a military coup, conducted to a court martial, and immediately put to death.
An ethnic Kurd, al-Za’im had cut his teeth in the armed forces of two different empires — the Ottoman and the French — before Syria attained independence following World War II.
The ambitious al-Za’im had got out from under a Vichy-era prison sentence for corruption and established himself as army chief of staff in time for the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Syrian forces’ underwhelming performance in this campaign set the stage for what would follow — both for al-Za’im and, arguably, down to the present day.
Syria actually sported an open and democratic polity; it had a successful election in 1947. But the civilian leaders were essentially wealthy landowners who, having successfully led the movement for independence, had scant agenda for actual governance save enriching themselves and their allies. It was “an edifice of nepotism and mismanagement … [a] creaking network of family patronage and administrative venality.”
A stagnant economy, kleptocratic elite, and political malaise came into sharp focus with the debacle of the Arab-Israeli War. Arab commander Fawzi al-Qawuqji would charge that feckless Arab elites ran the war “from behind their office desks, and in accordance with their own personal interests, ambitions, and whims.”
Encouraged by the United States — just then breaking into the growth industry of short-sighted oil patch coups — al-Za’im overthrew the civilian government to “put things right and restore this nation its honour, its dignity and its freedom.”
This undergraduate thesis makes a case for the Za’im coup as the turning point normalizing and privileging military intervention in Syrian politics. This was the fear of a young American diplomat in Syria, who reckoned American support for the coup “the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in … we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.”
So it was that on this date the next domino toppled, a counter-coup that ended al-Za’im’s installment of the dictatorship series most abruptly.
Colonel Sami Hinnawi, an officer who had served under Husni Zaim, then sat as president of a “higher war council” of 12 senior officers, which tried the President and Prime Minister and condemned them to death. Sentence was carried out at once at the Mezza fortress near Damascus. Mohsen Berazi was shot first. He protested, although Husni Zaim, who stood by waiting his turn, urged him to be quiet.
–London Times, Aug. 15, 1949
Hinnawi last another year before a relative of Mohsen Berazi assassinated him in revenge, and on it went. It was during Syria’s sequence of unstable military juntas in the 1950s that the young Hafez al-Assad earned his stripes in the Syrian air force.
Assad would eventually execute a much more permanent takeover, rule the country for 30 years, and upon his death in 2000, bequeath leadership to his son Bashar — a fellow who, as of this writing, stands in some danger of winning an entry of his own in these pages should his ruthless crackdown against pro-democracy protesters prove unavailing.