A few weeks ago Joshua Landis’s blog ‘Syria Comment’ published a piece written by Chris Solomon titled, “Remember Syria’s Adib Shishakli”. I took notice as the late Syrian President is my grandfather and very little has been written on him due to Ba’ath and Assad regime marginalization over the past six decades.
The piece does an ok job on some of Adib Shishakli’s history, but stretches far to create historical parallels to today’s Syria. Let’s start with correcting and clarifying some basic errors that are repeated in this piece and elsewhere.
One common mistake repeated in this piece is that “Shishakli was a Syrian Kurd”. Shishakli’s identity was rooted as a 1) Syrian and 2) Arab. While his mother was Kurdish, it is well known that in patriarchal Syria most see their identity follow through their paternal line. Syrians never thought of him as a half-Kurd. Neither did he.
Shishakli served in the Arab Liberation Army prior to the 1948 war, starting in 1947. Palestine was a dear cause to him and actions showed it. When my grandmother, Fatina, later asked him what she, with seven children (at the time), would gain by him dying in Palestine – he answered: “A good name! A good reputation! Pride in hearing people say; ‘he left his family to die as a martyr for Palestine!”
The claim in the piece that Shishakli’s rule marked the first time the military entered political life in Syria is contradicted by the fact that previous rulers Husni al-Za’im and Sami al-Hinnawi were military men. Adib Shishakli came to power in 1949, not in 1950 as stated in the piece. He executed the third of 3 coups in 1949 toppling Hinnawi to break the Iraqi/ Hashemite influence in the country and end any currents aimed at unification with Iraq – then still de facto under British control. Shishakli kept the veteran politician Hashem Al-Atassi as President but was the effective ruler until 1951 when he placed Fawzi Selu in that role. He formally took over as President in 1953.
The author claims that Shishakli cultivated a cult of personality – this is a stretch. As noted, it is well known that he was an excellent orator and is credited with utilizing mass media (i.e. radio) to broadly disseminate his messages. However, unlike others before and after him, he didn’t issue stamps or money in his likeness nor obsessively implement symbols of his rule throughout the streets of Syria such as billboards featuring his likeness etc.
The author also mentions the Ba’ath always hated Shishakli, but due to “regarding him as a foreign stooge”. This is ridiculous – the Ba’ath & more importantly Akram al-Hawrani first saw Shishakli as an opportunity to climb the ladder to rule Syria due to his strong nationalist credentials. Shishakli checked both Hawrani & Ba’ath ambitions, proving to be his own man, which resulted in their banishment and exile (along with most political parties).
It is important to remember that the Ba’ath weren’t at that point the dominant party they later became. Hawrani through this period however, was the ambitious agitator who turned on Shishakli and mobilized with the Ba’ath against him. Still, the Ba’ath spent the next six decades vilifying Adib Shishakli due to his refusal to bend to their ambitions.
The emphasis Solomon places on Shishakli’s closeness to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is also exaggerated. He was never a prominent member and while some old SSNP members liked to claim him as their own, Shishakli turned to Arab nationalism (and created his own party: the Arab Liberation Movement) and minimized the SSNP influence in the country. Few years later, when Ba’athists purged the SSNP, it became convenient to connect the SSNP to (their enemy) Shishakli, thus giving a twisted justification to the purge. I’ll return to the author’s SSNP-Shishakli connection later.
The author notes that Shishakli, “perceived the Druze as a threat to his regime”. This is an important claim, but lacks any context – namely national integration efforts in the years preceding Shishakli’s rule. Relations between Sweida and Damascus were tense due to a clash of currents between centralized state authority and autonomy for the province. One example, often forgotten is how the revered Shukri al-Quwatli covertly funded inter-Druze civil strife to weaken autonomous stances and demands for economic and political privileges. Shishakli’s rule further cemented Damascus centralization and deliberately weakened Druze autonomy. This was exploited by Hawrani and the Ba’ath in their planning to topple Shishakli. The antagonism sadly, and tragically escalated as noted by author.
On a side note, Shishakli’s assassination is briefly mentioned as “hiding in exile”. He was not hiding, was out in the open and therefore easily targeted. Still, to this day connections between the Ba’ath and the assassination are murky…but that is a story for another day.
The historical comparisons to make sense of today’s Syria in the piece are forced. Both Adib Shishakli and Bashar Al-Assad came to power, led and ruled in very different ways.
The recurring emphasis on the SSNP seems especially forced – the party over time became a shell of it’s former self with no driving ideology, and was a coopted, yet “accepted opposition party”. As mentioned by the author, the SSNP has resurged since 2011, however this has all to do with militiazation of Assad’s base and nothing to do with it’s heritage from the 1950s, regardless of how younger members today may see themselves as a vanguard against Islamists.
The author also suggests that if Assad wins, the SSNP may have a dominant role that would bring back Shishakli’s legacy. This is absurd for three points:
- Shishakli’s historical SSNP relationship is overstated as mentioned earlier
- Today’s Shishaklis are public regime opponents
- and have no connection to the SSNP
The author also tries to tie Shishakli’s actions in power to safeguard Syrian sovereignty to Assad’s moves today.
This point is laughable as Assad’s actions are about keeping family control (into a sixth decade) while he has relinquished Syria’s sovereignty to his sponsors Russia and Iran.
The author does mention the difficulties of centralized rule, but then says “Aleppo remains the central stronghold for anti-Assad Arab rebel activity”. This is wrong. Idlib technically is. And the anti-Assad current runs all over the country from Deraa to Aleppo to Deir Ezzor.
Finally, the author does nail the key differentiator for Shishakli – when his rule was challenged, he resigned rather than spill Syrian blood. This decision to resign, rather than see Syrians killing Syrians is his long-lasting legacy.
On February 25, 1954, Adib Shishakli resigned from the presidency and sent this letter:
If only those ruling today were such patriots.
Note. This piece was adapted from a recent Twitter thread.