Tag Archives: damascus

1946: Sulaiman Murshid, Alawite prophet

On this date in 1946, Alawite prophet Sulaiman Murshid (German Wikipedia) was hanged by the newly independent state of Syria as a traitor and a blasphemer.

In the mid-1920s, this shepherd turned demigod* on the coast of French Mandate Syria began reporting mystical visions, and soon gathered a following — and then, a larger and larger following.

Shia Alawites are a small minority in Syria, maybe 12% of the present-day population, so it might have been key to Murshid’s success that he so happened to begin his mission in a short-lived Alawite State created within the French Mandate. (Neither keen on his movement nor inspired to arrest it, the colonial French dismissed him as la Thaumaturge de Jobet Burghal.) It was a cradle in which a peasant obscurity grew into a political as well as a prophetic power — a tribal chief who could command armed men and rents.

Come 1936, the Alawite State folded into the Syrian Republic, and by that time Murshid’s adherents were so numerous that they promptly elected him to parliament.

Although this arrangement offered Murshid new vectors of ascent, the environment turned speedily hostile after France withdrew and Syria gained independence in 1946. Murshid’s entity was intrinsically inimical to a centralizing nation-state, and his lowly origins, suspect ethnicity, and half-heretical messianism all tended to set him at odds with Damascus. He was arrested for subversion by Syria’s nationalist first president Shukri al-Quwatli and hanged on Merdsche Square.

Murshid’s sons carried on the movement, whose followers, the al-Murshidun, were persecuted in the years after his death until fellow Alawite Hafez al-Assad ascended to the presidency in 1970. Today their sect numbers in the six figures.

* For more on Murshid’s background and the initial growth of his movement, see “Suleiman al-Murshid: Beginnings of an Alawi Leader” by Gitta Yaffe and Uriel Dann in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1993).

1949: Husni al-Za’im, Syrian president

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.