1949: Husni al-Za’im, Syrian president

3 comments August 14th, 2011 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Syria,Treason

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1976: Three terrorists in Syria

2 comments September 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1976, three Abu Nidal terrorists were hanged before the Hotel Semiramis in Damascus, barely 24 hours after they had entered it and taken 90 hostages in a bid to win release of Palestinian prisoners.

Palestinians Muhammad al-Barqawi and Mouatassem Jayyoushi and Iraqi Jabbar Darwish suffered Syria’s first public execution since an accused Israeli spy more than a decade before — and as the late Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad had pledged, justice was swift and ruthless.

The security of the citizen is sacred. We shall not be soft in this matter. We shall hit back very hard and we denounce this criminal action committed by the gang, which acted as if it was in Israel.

They were the surviving 75% of a quartet of gunmen who early the previous morning had seized the hotel, barricaded themselves on the fifth floor, and attempted to make their trade. Plainly, it didn’t quite work out; the attempt precipitated a battle with Syrian troops which saw the fourth terrorist killed, along with four of the hostages. The Supreme State Security Court condemned the captured men to death overnight; the sentence was carried out between 6:00 and 6:30 the next morning.

New York Times coverage of the raid and the execution is unfortunately behind the paper’s paid-login firewall, but a photo of the execution shows onlookers ringing a single wooden frame for what must have been a short-drop hanging. An unused fourth noose, possibly symbolically present for the killed fourth terrorist (or possibly not; there’s no explicit comment on it), hangs beside the dead men.

So why the grievance? That June — “Black June,” to the Palestinians — Syria had bailed on hard-line Palestinians and entered the Lebanese Civil War on the side of Phalangist Christians,* just as they were on the verge of being overrun. It was the second time in six years that a neighboring Arab power had turned its guns on Palestinians. (In 1970, Jordan had expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization in “Black September.” Lots of black in the Palestinian annals.)

And why the Iraqi, among the hanged?

Palestinian terrormeister Abu Nidal had hung out his shingle in Iraq, then under the control of a rising young dictator destined for the gallows himself, but who grasped the opportunist potential of backing the Palestinian cause while states like Jordan and Syria visibly sold it out. Television crews had a few words in edgewise with the doomed men the evening before their hanging, and they claimed to have trained for their abortive mission in Iraq.

* This put Damascus on the same side as Israel.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Palestine,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Syria,Terrorists

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