Aug 28, 2004 | Syria and the 1948 War in Palestine | By Joshua Landis
This is a re-post of the article “Syria and the 1948 War in Palestine“, written by Joshua Landis and first published on august 28, 2004. Due to its length it will be published in two parts. It’s an in depth study about Syria’s role during the pre- and post-period of what the Israeli call ‘the War of independence 1948’. It’s re-published at crethiplethi.com with permission of the author, Joshua Landis. We hope you enjoy reading this article and find the provided (background) information helpfull to get a better picture of the different political motivations of the key players during the 1948 war. You can read part 2 here.
A shorter version of this article was published as: “Syria in the 1948 Palestine War: Fighting King Abdullah’s Greater Syria Plan,” in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., ‘Rewriting the Palestine War: 1948 and the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 178-205. (It has also been translated and published in French and Arabic.)
Shukri al-Quwwatli’s war policy during the conflict in Palestine was a disaster both for his presidency and for democracy in Syria. Indeed, the two had become intimately intertwined. In retrospect, it is easy to argue that Syria should never have pushed for war in Palestine. Had Syria not acted as the whip in the Arab League driving the others toward war, the United Nation’s partition plan might well have been carried out; and Israelis would have lived in a much smaller country. After all, who can deny that the Palestinians would have been better off had the Arab League not entered the conflict? King Abdullah was determined to work out a peaceful partition with the Jews, and the British were ready to oversee it.
Most popular accounts of the conflict give two principle reasons for why the Arabs went to war. First, the Arab people considered the partition plan to be highway robbery; it gave over 50 percent of Palestine to the Jews, although they constituted but a third of the population and owned a mere seven percent of the land. No Arab leader, the argument goes, could have accepted such a deal without being lynched. Second, Arab governments believed they were stronger than the Jews and calculated that they could overwhelm the inconsequential Zionist forces and “push them into the sea.” Although the first argument is sound, the second is myth. The Arab leaders all hoped to avoid war, which promised few benefits and many dangers. We now know that early military assessments by the Arab League and individual states of their ability to defeat Zionist forces in the impending conflict were unanimous in warning of the superiority of the Zionist military, which outnumbered the Arab forces at every stage of the war. Certainly, the Syrian leadership was painfully aware of the weakness of the Syrian army and had little or no faith in the ability of the “Arab leaders” to cooperate effectively against the Jews or win the war in Palestine.
This begs the question then of why President Quwwatli and Prime Minister Jamil Mardam were so adamant about opposing partition and pushing for war. Indeed, Syria’s role in shepherding the reluctant Egypt and Saudi Arabia toward war is little appreciated. Of all the Arab states, Syria was the most adamant about the need to go to war. Indeed, it was the first in and the last out of the war and, thus, bears much responsibility for the extent of the nakba or disaster that befell the Palestinians as a result. So why would Syria encourage the Arab world to go to war in Palestine even as it prepared for defeat?
In short, President Shukri al-Quwwatli went to war not for pan-Arab notions of unity or brotherhood, but to prevent that very same spirit from undermining Syria’s independence. He hoped to block King Abdullah from carrying out his Greater Syria unity scheme. During the first years of independence, Quwwatli lived in constant fear that King Abdullah would invade Syria to unify the central Syrian lands which had been divided by the European powers at the end of World War One. The instability and general border rearrangements brought about by the UN’s decision to partition Palestine, Quwwatli understood, presented the Jordanian monarch with his best opportunity to realize his dream of Greater Syria, first by expanding his kingdom over the Arab portions of Palestine and then by striking north at Damascus itself. Throughout the conflict, President Quwwatli’s main concern was to halt Hashemite plans to rule the Levant. First and foremost, he had to stop the Jordanian monarch from acquiring the eastern half of Palestine, only then could he concern himself with the emergence of a Jewish state in the western half.
From the outset of the war, the primary concern of the Arab states was the inter-Arab conflict and the balance of power in the region. In this respect it is useful to view the 1948 war primarily as an inter-Arab struggle or an Arab civil war, and only secondarily as a war against Zionism and the Jews. The widespread public desire for Arab unity threatened weaker governments and rulers, such as Syria’s, by de-legitimizing them and pitting them against other Arab rulers in the desperate scramble for leadership of the nationalist movement that all hoped to master.
Quwwatli, Shukri al- (1892-1967, also spelled Quwatli and Kuwatli), Syrian statesman and first President of independent Syria. He was born in Damascus, schooled in Istanbul, and joined an Arab nationalist secret society during WWI. During the Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927, he raised money in Egypt and emerged as an opponent of the revolt leaders Sultan Pasha al-Atrash and Abd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar because of their pro-Hashemite politics. He was a founding member of the National Bloc, which emerged after the collapse of the revolt as the main party opposing the French occupation while Atrash and Shahbandar languished in exile. He became the leader of the National Bloc in 1940, following the assassination of Shahbandar, who was making a come back in Syria politics once pardoned by the French in 1937. Several top leaders of the Bloc were implicated in his assassination and fled to Iraq, leaving Quwwatli in charge.
He was elected President in 1943 and worked to liberate Syria from the French, who evacuated Syria in April 1946. In 1949, he was overthrown by a military coup led by Husni al-Zaim, who had Quwwatli imprisoned for a short period before he was allowed to go into exile in Egypt. After a series of military coups, free elections were once again held in Syria, and Quwwatli was elected President again in 1955. In February 1958, he signed the Union Pact with Egypt to establish the United Arab Republic with Gamal Abdel Nasser as president. He died in Beirut, Lebanon on June 30, 1967.
The initial desire to avoid war
The Arab leaders wished they could defeat the Zionists and preserve Palestine for the Arabs; nevertheless, few believed it was possible. From 1946 on, every Syrian newspaper and parliamentary block warned that the country would have to go to war and demanded that the government arm the country and prepare to save Palestine. The President and his ministers closed their ears to the uproar that surrounded them. They were too busy trying to establish a measure of internal order and stability to worry about Palestine. Just keeping their governments in office for more than six months at a stretch taxed every ounce of their political skill and cunning. Moreover, Quwwatli refused to strengthen his army because he feared the disloyalty of its officers and the possibility of a coup. Instead he kept it small and scattered in rural barracks far from Damascus where it could do the least harm; its top officers were kept under constant surveillance. When it entered Palestine on 15 May 1948, the Syrian army had only 10,000 officers and men and was unequipped to fight a war, which is the most telling indication that Quwwatli did not want and was not prepared to fight a war.
President Quwwatli and the leaders of his government decided as early as 1946 that Syria could not save Palestine. `Adil Arslan, an intimate of the President who represented Syria at the UN during 1948 and who sought to become minister of defense during the war, was a keen observer of Syria’s lack of preparation. He records in his diary that Syria’s leaders were caught in a dream when it came to Palestine — a dream that he labored in vain to wake them from. In December 1946, Arslan warned the President that Syria needed to begin buying arms and to vigorously oppose President Truman’s campaign rhetoric in favor of allowing more Jewish immigrants into Palestine. The American president effectively hijacked British policy in Palestine during his presidential campaign by promising to send 100,000 Jewish European displaced persons to Britain’s mandate as soon as he came to power. This reversed Britain’s policy of restricting Jewish immigration to 15,000 a year and undermined the 1939 White Paper which had promised a unitary state in Palestine. Arslan wrote:
We brought up the situation in Palestine during a meeting with the President of the Republic, and we said that the policy of silence that we were adhering to over the American entrance into the situation is encouraging President Truman in his belief that he can grant Palestine to the Jews. Prime Minister Sa’dallah Bayk defended the policy of silence, and the President of the Republic said: ‘The Americans and the English refused to sell us arms or to help us to reorganize our army.” I said: ‘Their refusal will continue so long as we don’t open negotiations with others, such as the Russians, Czechs, or Irish.’ He said, `No, we would only gain the enmity of the British.’ They were not convinced and both agreed that the rescue of Palestine at this time was impossible. ‘Izzat Darwaza agreed with them because he believes that the Egyptians, once they get full independence, will be able to save Palestine. I became very sad about a people who delude themselves with such dreams. When Syria was not independent it cared much more about Palestine. The same will also be true for Egypt.
Arslan’s concerns were well placed. Although Syria had won complete independence, its leaders were still under the thrall of European power. If Syria went to the Soviet Union or other anti-British power for arms, the President argued, Britain would unleash the Hashemites, giving Jordan the green light to take Syria. Rather than admit Syria’s powerlessness to the public or prepare Syrians to accept the partition of Palestine, however, Syrian leaders hid behind pronouncements of Arabism and victory. Most never believed they would be called to account for their rhetoric because they convinced themselves that Britain would never actually give up Palestine, or that Egypt would be able to defend it, some even believed that world opinion or a shared sense of human justice would somehow prevent the worst from happening. A few, like Faris al-Khuri, the Christian President of the Parliament, were bold enough to advance the idea that Syria accept the partition Palestine as the best and only viable solution. But they were quickly silenced.
Syria’s leaders kept their heads buried in the sand until September 1947. Arslan, at the beginning of that month continued to lament the President’s inaction on Palestine. He writes:
Poor Palestine. No matter what I say about defending it, my heart remains a turbulent volcano because I cannot convince anyone of importance in my country or in the rest of the Arab countries that it needs anything more than words…. Because we have a small and ill-equipped army, we cannot stand up to the Zionist forces if they should suddenly decide to launch a strike at Damascus. We would be reduced to gathering together the Bedouin tribes to fight against them.
President Quwwatli and his small coterie of ministers began to see that war in Palestine might become necessary only when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine published its majority recommendation on 8 September 1947. The UN declared that Palestine should be partitioned into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Another wake-up call came later in the month when Britain announced that it would abandon its ill-conceived mandate to the authority of UN, thereby dashing lingering Arab hopes that Britain would oppose the UN decision. Widespread demonstrations broke out in Syria’s major cities. The Syrian public was unanimous in demanding Syrian intervention in Palestine; the parliament quickly gave voice to the country’s wishes by unanimously calling for action in Palestine as well. The Arab League followed suit by denouncing partition in its turn. As one Syrian deputy remarked, “the public’s desire for war is irresistible.” Unable to turn back the tide of war fever that swept the country in September, the government decided to ride it into the unknown.
From the outset, President Quwwatli and his ministers prepared for defeat. They knew they could not possibly win a war they had so long tried to deny, with an army they had done their best to destroy. All the same, Syria began to swing into action faster than other Arab countries. Defense Minister Ahmad Sharabati ordered arms from Czechoslovakia, most of which later sank off the coast of Britain when the ship transporting them caught fire. Foreign Minister Na`im Antaki wired his ministers abroad to purchase arms wherever they could, but the western powers had already placed an arms embargo on the Middle East by that time, severely limiting Syria’s ability to find willing sellers. Syria’s minister in Paris, Khalid al-`Azm, thought he might get around the government ban by going directly to French arms companies to buy weapons, but he quickly discovered that he was outfoxed by the two Jewish ministers then serving in the French cabinet, who managed to foil every arms purchase he negotiated. `Azm did not blame Syria’s ill equipped army on the Great Powers and the embargo, however. Like `Adil Arslan, he placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Syrian government, which had steadfastly refused to build up the army until September 1947, when it was too late. He writes:
To the many who say that the Great Powers banned the export of arms to the countries of the Near East, I answer that the ban was issued only in 1947, but before that it was permitted and possible, whether from the Great Powers or from others such as Switzerland or Belgium during the years: 1945, 1946, and the beginning of 1947…. But the [Arab] heads of state contented themselves with giving ringing speeches and taking cheap popular positions while the army remained without arms or ammunition, without training or organization, and without a unified command of loyal officers.
Unlike the Syrians, the Zionists were savvy circumventers of the arms embargo, which quickly led to their gaining an important military advantage in arms. In this regard, American Jews were particularly helpful in shipping readily available surplus WWII weapons to Israel, which they could buy on the open market. By June 1948, Israel had added three Flying Fortresses to its growing air force. They were used to bomb the Syrian front lines and downtown Damascus in July. Ironically, they hit the residence of the U.S. Attaché, slightly wounding him and destroying his home.
The other front where Syria took the initiative in September 1947 was in the Arab League. President Quwwatli and Prime Minister Mardam sought to coordinate with other Arab states to head off the partition proposal in the UN. Syria proposed that the matter be turned over to the International Court of Justice in The Hague; the proposal was defeated. The Arab League asked that all countries accept Jewish refugees “in proportion to their area and economic resources”; the league’s request was denied in a 16-16 tie, with 25 abstentions.
Public pressure to go to war and Syria’s legacy as the source of Arabism help explain why the Syrian leadership took the initiative to thwart the UN’s partition plans. They also explain why President Quwwatli abandoned his anti-war stand earlier than other Arab leaders. But public pressue and Arab nationalism were not the only concerns of the President; in fact, they were not his leading concerns. Quwwatli took the initiative in opposing the UN plan because he feared it would unleash King Abdallah’s Greater Syria Plan. This fear dictated his diplomatic and military strategy from September 1947 on.
Abdullah Ibn Hussayn Ibn Ali was the Emir of Transjordan until independence in 1946, when he was coronated King. Transjordan would later become known simply as Jordan and the monarch known as King Abdullah. Abdullah I Ibn Husayn Ibn Ali Amir of Transjordania (1921-1946), King of Transjordania (25 May 1946), King of The hashimite Kingdom of Jordan (1946-1951).
The threat from Jordan
After becoming the ruler of Transjordan, King Abdullah made no secret of his ambition to unite the central Arab lands of Greater Syria, which included Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The ultimate object of his desire was a throne in Damascus. His brother, Faysal bin Husayn, had been elected King of (greater) Syria by the Arab Grand Committee at Damascus on 8 th March 1920, having taken the city during the Great Arab Revolt of WWI. Only months later, the French crushed the emerging Syrian state at the Battle of Maysalun on 23 July and redrew its borders. Driven from Syria, the Hashemites, supported by many Syrians, continued to champion the legitimacy of Greater Syria. Abdullah assumed leadership of the cause when his brother Faysal, having become King of Iraq, died in 1933. No sooner did Syria and Jordan gain independence in 1946, than Abdullah called for the immediate unification of Syria under his crown, believing he could win not only British support for his plan, but also the broad masses of Arabs who were calling for unity.
Shukri al-Quwwatli had good reason to fear Abdullah’s Greater Syria Plan. His own army was small, badly trained, and unreliable. To make matters worse, the president suspected that many of his top officers had either been in contact with King Abdullah himself or his agents in Syria. The Jabal Druze, positioned on the Syrian-Jordanian border, was in full revolt against Damascus by the fall of 1947, having defied Quwwatli following his annulment of the summer parliamentary elections in the province. Its Atrash leaders, renowned for their military prowess, were threatening to secede to Jordan and had positioned themselves to act as the bridgehead for a Jordanian strike on Damascus. King Abdullah sounded out the Druze in both Syria and Lebanon about unifying their regions and giving them a large measure of autonomy within a Greater Syria in exchange for their support in helping to create it.
A border incident could easily give Abdullah the pretext he needed for a move on Damascus. In contrast to Syria, Jordan was a stable state. Its army, the Arab Legion commanded by British officers, was by all accounts the best trained and “by far the most loyal and efficient” fighting force among the Arab League states. Its commander, General John B. Glubb, or Glubb Pasha as he was known, always favored the notion of a Greater Syria acting as the centerpiece of British policy in the Middle East. As he explained to the British government: “It is not fanciful to imagine the Arab Legion as the nucleus of the Army of Greater Syria in the future.” The Prime Minister of Egypt, Nuqrashi Pasha, also acknowledged that the Jordanian army was superior to either the Egyptian or Syrian armies when he proposed to the Arab League in October 1947 that they pay for the Jordanian army to serve as the guardian of Palestine.
From President Quwwatli’s perspective, the war in Palestine offered Abdullah the ideal opportunity to bring down Syria’s republican regime and to push forward his ambition to reestablish Hashemite rule in Damascus. Each stage of Syrian planning for the war in Palestine makes sense when seen through the lens of President Quwwatli’s fear of Abdullah and the possibility that the Jordanian monarch would win British support for his Greater Syria plan.
‘Adil Arslan was horrified that Quwwatli was concerned about the Jordanian danger more than he was the danger of Zionist expansion. In July 1948, Arslan wrote in his diary:
Our brother Shukri has been terrified of Greater Syria for a long time. He was always anxious and slept fitfully because he was plagued by nightmares of the Jordanian army sweeping down on Damascus… But when the Palestine war came and underscored the Arab need for the Jordanian army and made clear the merits of that army, then suddenly, our friend [Quwwatli] encouraged Hajj Amin al-Husayni to declare the existence of his state in and began to eliminate every Syrian from the field of battle who… spoke highly of Abdullah’s army. Now, on being informed that his policy in Palestine will lead Abdullah to make a move in the Jabal Druze, his nightmares have returned.
Like many Syrians, Arslan believed that Quwwatli’s anti-Hashemite attitude was shortsighted and self-interested. Even if King Abdullah wished to annex much of Palestine to Jordan, Arslan reasoned, the Arabs should support him in order to save the Palestinians from being conquered by the Jews. So long as Jordan could keep Palestine from becoming Jewish, Syria had the moral and practical obligation to assist it. Syria’s military weakness made it a necessity; Arabism required it. Arslan did not think King Abdullah was as bad as Quwwatli made him out to be. In May 1948, he wrote:
Shukri Bayk’s view of the Palestine problem is wrong because Abdullah does not merely want to expand his kingdom, whether it be to the West (Palestine) or North (Syria). If he can save Jerusalem with his army and participate in destroying Tel Aviv then let him have Palestine… The honor of the Arab nation is greater than that of thrones and presidencies.
Arslan believed that because Jordan’s army was the only instrument capable of saving Palestine, Syria needed to swallow its pride and defer to King Abdullah. Quwwatli believed the opposite. To him, King Abdullah’s army and ambitions presented Syria with its greatest external threat, more important even than that of the nascent Jewish state.
To make maters worse, Jordan encircled Syria with a series of alliances during the lead up to the war. Abdullah signed treaties with both Turkey and Iraq in 1947. From Turkey, Abdullah sought support for his Greater Syria plan in exchange for Syria renouncing all Arab claims to the province of Alexandretta, which Turkey had annexed from Syria in 1938. In April 1947, Abdullah announced a treaty of “Brotherhood and Alliance” with Iraq. The two Hashemite kingdoms had long sought to form a federation. Abdullah was determined to pursue close cooperation between the Hashemite monarchies to ensure the success of his Greater Syria plan. He could not allow for intra-Hashemite competition to scuttle his plan. As one American official explained, King Abdullah’s “vision and goal was a reunited Syria in federation with Iraq.” It would be built “on the unity of the Hashemite House and the strong fundamental oneness of national aspirations.”
Shortly after Jordan and Iraq signed the Brotherhood Alliance, Iraq likewise signed a treaty with Turkey, which meant that Syria was surrounded on four of its borders by enemies, agreed on Jordan’s plan. Quwwatli could only see in this a sinister intent. He was not alone in his fears. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshal also suspected that “the treaties reflected high policy moves away from the Arab League by the two Hashemite rulers with or without British approval.” The American secretary of state suspected that the Hashemites were serious about pushing forward with their Greater Syria plan and would drag Great Britain along with them, kicking and screaming if need be. The question for many, including the Americans, was not only if Britain would stop the Hashemites, but could they. What if the Hashemites moved without Britain? Would the British give up their position in the region, which was growing ever more dependent on the Hashemites, in order to punish them?
To Quwwatli, Britain’s policy toward the Greater Syria plan was of ultimate importance. Unlike the Americans or even the Saudis, who questioned Britain’s true inclinations on the Greater Syria question, Quwwatli believed that the British secretly supported and nurtured Abdullah’s plans to expand his kingdom. He believed that “Abdullah was the sheep and Britain the shepherd” on matters of high policy. Though Quwwatli badgered British officials on the Greater Syria question, insisting that they denounce it clearly and completely, the British refused to allay Syrian concerns. Instead, they trotted out their usual set of stock phrases: “Her Majesty’s Government’s attitude is one of strict neutrality” on the matter of inter-Arab rivalries. The question of Arab unity is a “matter exclusively of concern to the peoples and states of the area.” These “reassurances” fooled no one. As the US Secretary of State George Marshall correctly observed, these platitudinous formulas only “encouraged Abdullah to advocate Greater Syria.” Who could believe that they were actually meant to dissuade? President Quwwatli also believed that Britain would not retreat from the region without a fight. Iraq and Egypt both refused to renew their military treaties with Britain due to widespread public outcry, while Jordan willingly and eagerly renewed its defense agreements. Would not Britain realize that their only true base of support in the region was Jordan and the Hashemites in general?
This assessment on the part of Quwwatli was not fanciful or far-fetched. After all in February 1948, Britain signed on to Abdullah’s plan to divide Palestine with the Zionists, thereby agreeing to the first step of Abdullah’s Greater Syria plan. This was in direct defiance of the United Nations partition proposal, which called for two states in Palestine. Although the British did seek to curb Abdullah’s Greater Syria rhetoric during the fall of 1947, London’s efforts were too little, too late. Quwwatli never trusted the British. It should also be remembered that the British did in fact take up the cause of Syrian unification following the 1948 war. First, during the summer of 1949 following the Hinnawi coup, when British sought to facilitate federation between Syria and Iraqi, and second, in 1956, at the time of the Suez Crises, when Britain helped develop Iraqi schemes to topple the Syrian government and unite the two countries. President Quwwatli was not wrong in his assessment of Great Britain’s grand strategic interests in the region. He was merely uncertain how far Britain would push them in 1948. But by turning against Britain, the only western power that had a direct interest in limiting the size of Israel, Quwwatli undermined all prospects of containing the chaos of partition.
The Foreign office believed that by helping Jordan acquire the Arab-designated half of Palestine it would at once limit the borders of the proposed Jewish state and preserve stability and Britain’s position in the region. Had Syria not opposed Britain so resolutely, it could even be argued, Britain would have been less tempted to place all its bets on the Hashemites. This is counter-factual history, however. The point is that Quwwatli understood Abdullah’s Greater Syria project as a serious threat. He believed that Britain would back Hashemite plans for unity in the Levant when it suited them. As the architect of Syrian independence, he was not willing to leave his borders unprotected. Syria’s desire to contain Jordan guided its policy toward the division of Palestine.
Syria’s attempt to contain Jordan
In August 1947, Quwwatli became convinced that Abdullah was planning to use military force to carry out his Greater Syria plan. During Syria’s summer parliamentary elections, the pro-Greater Syria candidates that Abdullah had hoped would win seats in parliament, faired badly. Quwwatli had been able to thwart many of their campaigns. With their lack luster showing, Abdallah abandoned hope that he would be able to carry out the merger of the two countries through constitutional means. This left him no choice but to intervene directly into Syrian affairs. On August 4, Abdullah sent the president of his cabinet to hand-deliver a letter to Quwwatli, demanding the establishment of an “All Syria Congress,” based on the one that had elected his brother, Faysal, King of “Greater” Syria in 1920. Now that the Arab states were independent, they should be unified according to the wishes of the people to create a Greater Syrian state, and thereafter its union with Iraq, he insisted. Quwwatli was appalled by Abdullah’s insolence and said as much in a press conference he assembled shortly after to denounce the Jordanian king. He insisted that any move toward Arab unification would have to go through the Arab League and be voted on by its members.
Incensed, Abdullah went to the press and people himself. On 12 August, he accused the Syrian leaders of being “supporters of disunity, separation, and surrender” because they were obstructing “union or federation of the country.” He also attacked Syria’s “French” republican system along with its borders as being illegitimate and foreign inventions that defied authentic Arab tradition and national imperative. He said:
A mere regional republican system, founded as a result of frontiers devised for the convenience of Mandatory Powers and maintained by force of arms, can never overrule the validity of a solemn National Covenant. The National intelligence is insulted by those who claim that the covenant of the Arab League involves the retention of the Arab World in its present form which retards Arab progress by maintaining frontiers imposed by colonization.
Soon after this broadside against Syria’s leaders, Abdullah told the Beirut press that he was prepared to use “force” to return Syria to its pre-colonial and rightful borders “if he failed to secure his objective by peaceful means.” To counter Abdullah’s provocations and threats, Quwwatli decided he must construct a defensive pact tying together Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria in a formal military alliance against his Hashemite foe and to protect Syria’s independence.
The Arab world had been split into two blocs over the issue of Hashemite unity schemes from the very foundation of the Arab League in the spring of 1945. The British Ambassador to Cairo, who reported on the inaugural meeting of the Arab League in March 1945, predicted bleak prospects for Arab unity because of the “mutual suspicion and fear” of the Arab leaders caused by Iraq’s Fertile Crescent and Jordan’s Greater Syria plans to unite with Syria. He summed up his report by stating, “It was inevitable… that, in spite of rivalries between Abdullah and the Iraqi Royal Family over Syria, the two Hashemite Powers should find themselves standing together against the Egyptian bloc.
The Egyptian bloc consisted of the countries threatened by Hashemite ambitions, or which sought Egyptian aid or protection. For them the League was a refuge. Although its stated goal was to build Arab unity, its covenant guaranteed the sanctity of the Arab state system as it had been outlined by the European powers after WWI. No border changes could be made without the approval of all League members, for it assured “the preservation of their independence and sovereignty from all aggression by all means possible.” This guarantee of independence provided considerable moral and legal comfort to weaker states like Syria. It also brought Egypt into the very center of Mashriq (Eastern Arab) politics as a counter-weight to the Hashemites and their British backers, President Quwwatli looked to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as natural allies of Syria from his earliest days in politics. When he was elected president in 1943, he threw his weight behind the creation of the League and did everything he could to augment the notion that it act as the sole legitimate arbiter of inter-Arab politics. This gave Quwwatli ideological cover to denounce the unification schemes put forward by his restless Hashemite neighbors, while claiming to be fully supportive of Arab unity.
The League’s greatest problem was that it had no teeth. Moral and legal strictures alone could not protect Syria from Abdullah’s Arab Legion. To gain real security, Quwwatli had to transform the Egyptian bloc into a formal defensive alliance. That is what he set out to do in August 1947 following Abdullah’s threat to pursue unity by force. His efforts mark the beginning of an important turning point in the formation of the two countervailing alliances — the Hashemite Bloc and the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian Bloc — that completely frustrated Arab efforts to coordination their defense of Palestine during the 1948 war. Arab divisions permitted the Zionist forces to divide and conquer with brutal effectiveness.
It is worth noting that the hardening of these alliances took shape not in reaction to the rise of Zionist power in Palestine but in reaction to Jordan’s Greater Syria Plan and Hashemite efforts to take Damascus. President Quwwatli, from the start, was the principal advocate and primary engine for this alliance. His efforts began in August 1947, well before Syria or the other Arab states began to mobilize in earnest for war in Palestine.
To lay the groundwork for his military alliance, Quwwatli dispatched his personal secretary and soon-to-be Foreign Minister, Muhsin al-Barazi, to visit the kings of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Barazi delivered a letter to King `Abd al-`Aziz Bin Sa`ud in which President Quwwatli explained the seriousness of the Hashemite threat to both states and asked for a concerted response. Quwwatli explained that he would counter Abdullah’s Greater Syria plan with a unity plan of its own. Syria would announce that Jordan and Syria must unite, but that Syria would absorb Jordan, not vice versa, and that the backward monarchical system of Jordan be transformed into a republic, free from any alliance with a foreign power. Quwwatli planned to use Syria’s democracy and unencumbered independence as his trump cards. Quwwatli asked King `Abd al-`Aziz to announce this plan over the radio at the same time as Quwwatli did. To add teeth to their propaganda campaign, Quwwatli also asked the Saudis to incite the tribes of Jordan to revolt against their monarch and to move Saudi troops to the Jordanian border, at which time both Syria and Saudi Arabia would demand that Ma`an and `Aqaba, Jordan’s two main southern cities, were Saudi territory and begin to agitate for their immediate return to Saudi sovereignty.
The Saudi King was amenable to only part of this plan: the propaganda campaign. However, he also agreed to incite the Jordanian tribes against King Abdullah with a bit of money. On the issue of announcing that Ma`an and `Aqaba belonged to Saudi Arabia, he demurred, claiming that the dispute was being mediated by Britain. “The British were Arabia’s friends,” he said. He let Barazi know that he was not prepared to ruin his relations with the United Kingdom for the sake of Syria. When pressed by Barazi, `Abd al-‘Aziz admitted that he concurred with Quwwatli that the British were behind Abdullah’s stepped-up Greater Syria agitation. Why? He explained that he believed “the British wanted revenge” for Egypt’s refusal to sign a new Anglo-Egyptian treaty, extending British base rights and other privileges in Egypt. In Ibn Sa`ud’s view, Britain was the master puppeteer in the region. Every time Egypt refused to cooperate with Britain, he noted, Abdullah and the Hashemites pressed their Greater Syria plans with renewed vigor. All of these maneuverings were linked to Britain’s over-arching policy of extending its influence in the region.
The Saudi monarch did have some ideas of his own. He insisted that `Abdullah’s plan was in reality a “Zionist-imperialist plot” and that this should be exposed in their joint anti-Hashemite propaganda campaign. When Barazi asked the Saudi monarch whether he believed that King Abdullah could actually use the Arab Legion to take Syria and if he believed that Glubb Pasha, the Arab Legion’s British commander, would act on Abdullah’s orders even if Britain opposed them, King Abd al-Aziz fell silent, refusing to reply directly. Instead, he answered by quizzing Barazi about Syria’s internal problems and in particular about whether the government could control the Druze. ‘Abd al-Aziz suggested that if Syria were not so weak internally, it would not be vulnerable to Abdullah’s machinations and Quwwatli would not have to plague himself with unanswerable questions about Glubb Pasha’s true loyalties. He advised the Syrian government to pay money to the Druze Atrash leaders. End the Druze revolt, shore up internal unity, and Syria would do just fine against the Hashemites. The Saudis returned frequently to the issue of Syria’s internal problems during their three days of discussions. Syria would have to get its own house in order before it could ask its allies to take risks on its behalf.
At the end of his talks, Barazi declared that Quwwatli wanted to sign a formal military treaty of mutual defense with Saudi Arabia if the King would agree. ‘Abd al-Aziz wasted no time in declaring that such a treaty was premature. Firstly, the Egyptians had to sign their agreement with the British, and secondly, this agreement would have to be negotiated through the Arab League and not as an independent arrangement. “I do not want to give an excuse to our enemies to leave the League,” `Abd al-Aziz declared. When Barazi insisted that the alliance was not directed against the League, but merely to counter the Iraqi-Jordanian Treaty of Friendship which had been announce earlier in the year, and to demonstrate the unity of purpose between Arabia and Syria, the Saudi monarch replied, “the understanding between us is stronger than any treaty.”
Furthermore, he explained, Egypt would be angered if it was not included. But if Egypt were included, Britain would believe the alliance to be directed against it so long as the Egyptian problem remained unresolved. Thus Barazi was stymied. `Abd al-Aziz would not jeopardize his relations with the British for Syria by signing an anti-Hashemite treaty. Perhaps the British would turn against Saudi Arabia itself? The King had too much invested in the British and preferred that Syria remain the stalking horse for an anti-Hashemite alliance; he advised Barazi to first approach King Farouq with the idea of a treaty: then they would see. The lesson the Syrian leaders learned from the Saudi monarch was that if they wanted Arab cooperation to stop Abdullah, it had to be in Palestine. The defense of the republican regime in Syria would have to be Syria’s battle alone.
On the eve of his trip to Egypt on 25 August, Muhsin Barazi cabled Damascus about the need to attack Abdullah for his “Zionist and Imperialist” plot and desire to see the creation a Jewish state. The next day, the Syrian Prime Minister, Jamil Mardam, convened a press conference and announced:
I did not wish to join issue with the king (Abdullah) but he published his manifesto in his capacity as Head of State. It was signed by him and was full of sophistry. Syria would welcome the annexation of Trans-Jordan to Syria because it is a part thereof. We shall fight against the scheme because it is Zionist and Imperialist and aims at partition of Palestine and the Establishment there of a Jewish State.
King Abdullah was incensed by the new accusation that he was a Zionist-imperialist agent. He instructed Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai to reply, clarifying his original statement and refuting Mardam’s accusations:
The statement… was no more than a sincere and innocent call for complete national unity as the basis of the welfare of the nation. This unity was the declared policy and the aim of the Arab Revolt for liberation, and, as Jamil Bey himself admits, this unity is still one of his own aspirations as well as one of the hopes of every Arab who is loyal to his nation and faithful to his national principles….
I feel sure that His Excellency will not hesitate to agree with me that the aims of the Covenant [of the Arab League] were not division and separation but the reverse… There is no Arab who can deny that the unity of Syria which is our national and political object, is anything but an important state on the way to the achievement of their ultimate ambition …
This call is a statement of national principles which aims at Unity of the different parts of one nation with the sole object of increasing its might and dignity and I regret it should be met with a charge so fantastic as to describe it as a ‘Zionist and imperialistic scheme aiming at partitioning Palestine and the institution of a Jewish State.’
Rifai defended Jordan’s position on Palestine by explaining how the King was the Arab leader most sincere in fighting for Arab unity and dignity for which all Arabs longed. He had fought for the principles of unity and Arabism from his earliest days in leading the Arab Revolt and had publicly stated to the U.N.D.C.O.P. that he rejected the institution of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. Abdullah had fought for Arab unity in deed and not merely in word. The only reason Jamil Mardam would describe Abdullah’s efforts to build a strong, unified Arab state as a ‘Zionist imperialistic scheme,’ claimed Rifai, was because Mardam was “so barren of argument” to justify Syria’s policy of division and separation in the Arab world that he was reduced to calling white, black and black, white. Although Rifai refrained from saying it outright, he implied that the real Zionist strategy was that being pursued by Syria – using the Arab League as an excuse to keep the Arabs divided and weak. How could such a strategy help Palestine?
The war of words had begun in earnest; each side claimed to be the true representative of Arabism and to have the best interests of the Palestinians at heart; both claimed that the other was guided by nefarious designs and petty self-interest. Speaking for the Egyptian bloc, Syria maintained the moral high ground because it was truly independent of direct imperial influence and could wrap itself in the new legitimacy offered by the Arab League. Its single drawback was that it offered no realistic plan for saving Palestine, only one for frustrating Jordan’s Greater Syria designs. Jordan, which enjoyed the merit of a realistic plan to save Palestine, or, in truth, perhaps half of Palestine, was cursed by its British connection. In the dawning age of Arab independence, the Hashemite link to Great Britain was toxic. It forced Abdullah to dissemble and suggest that he intended to fight the Jews in all of Palestine when in reality he could offer only half. Neither could he argue openly that the Arabs needed British help in 1948. Growing nationalist sentiment and Britain’s own record of helping the Zionists made such an effort hopeless. The propaganda campaign was devastating to Abdullah’s reputation.
Today, pro-Hashemite historians still seek to vindicate Abdullah’s plan for its realism and to revive his reputation from the tarnishing accusations of treason that began with Mardam’s attack. The relationship between Jordan and Britain was not one of domination but “alliance” and “teamwork” after independence in 1946. They point out that no more than 50 British officers and diplomats resided in Jordan and generally left internal affairs to ordinary Jordanians. This happy relationship contrasted sharply with other mandates, such as Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine, where no less than 3,000 foreign officials meddled in the minutia of political life. Mardam’s accusations still rankle today for they cost Abdullah and those loyal to him dearly in 1948.
The propaganda war over Greater Syria and Arab unity broke out in earnest as Muhsin al-Barazi landed in Cairo. In his discussions with King Faruq, Barazi hardly mentioned the looming issue of Palestine or the nature and ambitions of the Jews. Instead, their conversation revolved around the intentions of King Abdullah and the British toward Greater Syria; both sought a way to organize the other Arab states against Anglo-Hashemite expansionist plans. Like Ibn Sa`ud, King Faruq refused to agree to a military alliance with Syria despite Barazi’s entreaties and dire warnings about Abdullah’s military plans. Barazi assured Faruq that Ibn Sa`ud was with Syria and that the Saudi monarch “spent many sleepless nights because of the problem.” The Saudi King, Barazi wrote in his journal, “considered the entrance of the Sharifs into Syria a direct threat to his country… because they would then turn and attack him.”
Faruq explained that Egypt was engaged in delicate negotiations with the British and hoping that they would withdraw most of their forces from his country. It was no time to provoke White Hall with an anti-British alliance, he explained. Instead, the King suggested, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon should work out an “oral” agreement about a political alliance at the next League meeting scheduled to be held in Beirut in October.
Faruq agreed with Barazi that “King Abdullah and [the Iraqis,] Abd al-Ilah and Nuri al-Said were willing instruments carrying out Britain’s aims toward the Egyptian question, Palestine, and the Greater Syria question.” He was also convinced that Abdullah was working with the Zionists, who he called the Arabs’ greatest enemy. Because of this treachery, Faruq insisted, the most important step for Syria to take was to “expose in their public announcements the Zionist-imperialist aspect to Abdullah’s plans.” Neither King Faruq nor Ibn Sa`ud was willing to grant Syria’s chief request: a formal alliance to contain Jordan.
Barazi’s trip reveals the central role Syria played in pushing the Arab states to create a military alliance within the League to confront King Abdullah and his British backers before the Palestine issue took center stage in Arab strategic considerations. Only in September of 1947 did war seem imminent when the British announced their intent to withdraw from Palestine and the UNSCOP put forward the Palestine partition plan. Even then, Arab governments hoped that they could prevent partition by defeating the plan in the General Assembly vote, a hope that was dashed on November 29, when two thirds of its members voted for partition. But even after the partition vote in November, Syria remained the driving force behind Egyptian and Saudi decisions to commit their regular armies to the efforts to organize for action in Palestine. As always, Quwwatli’s primary motive was to thwart the aggrandizement of Jordan. At every step, he had to nudge and prod the Arab league states into action to resist the UN partition plan in Palestine. If the Arab states did not actively fight against partition, he knew, Jordan would snap up the Arab parts of Palestine with British help and be well on its way to forming Greater Syria.
Neither Abdullah nor the British foresaw any real resistance from the Palestinian Arabs to their emerging plan to have Jordan split Palestine with the Jews. The presence of the Abdullah’s Arab Legion in Palestine “signaled to the Arab population there that it was the only Arab force that could protect them against the Jews.” Furthermore, the weakness of Palestinian political leaders convinced both countries that “when the moment of truth came, the Arabs of Palestine would support the King and accept partition and annexation.”
Of course, neither Britain nor Jordan could foresee that the Arab League would be able to throw up a serious roadblock on their path to a peaceful partition during the early winter months of 1947; the Arab League had done almost nothing to organize resistance to the emerging Anglo-Jordanian plan. During the fall of 1947, the Arab League states held a number of meetings in which they promised to resist partition, but did little. The Hashemites states were able to throw dust in the air. Egypt and Saudi were happy to let the matter ride for fear of annoying Britain or having to commit treasure or troops to Palestine. They did what divided bodies often do; they established a Technical Committee of military experts to issue reports on the situation. The League appointed General Ismail Safwat, a former Iraqi Chief of Staff, to head the committee. He was tasked to “ascertain the defense needs of Palestine” and coordinate Arab military efforts. General Safwat wrote a series of reports noting with escalating alarm the growing strength of the Zionist forces and Arab weakness. He demanded a massive and coordinated Arab mobilization for war. On the whole, his advice was ignored, and his efforts to establish an overall general command failed due to inter-Arab mistrust.
A week after the UN partition went though on 29 November, the Arab premiers met in Cairo, where they again issued a three page report condemning the UN partition plan and promising to keep Palestine united and Arab. This time they were forced to act. Syria was willing to shoulder responsibilities the others were not. It had a forward-looking plan that Quwwatli had been preparing since September based on General Safwat’s recommendation to build an army of Arab volunteers.
Needless to say, King Abdullah understood perfectly well that Quwwatli’s plan was meant to scuttle his hope to take charge of the partition process and annex the Arab half of Palestine to his Kingdom. Barely able to contain his anger, he attacked the notion of a pan-Arab fighting force and let it be known that he was not prepared to commit Jordanian troops to combat. But if there were to be an Arab force, he insisted, it would have to be under his leadership. He could count on Iraqi support, however, all the other League states, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinians supported Syria. Interestingly enough, Abdullah was almost saved by squabbling among his opponents. During the meeting, Quwwatli received a cable from Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that he could mobilize 10,000 Egyptian fighters and place them at the disposal of the Arab League. When the Arab leaders celebrated this welcome news, King Farouk became enraged. He was in the midst of a violent struggle with the Brotherhood at home, and here they were trying to upstage him in the League with expressions of nationalist zeal. Farouk walked out in protest. In the end, however, he had little choice but to move ahead with Syria’s plan, though his heart was not in it.
About the Author:
Joshua M. Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is a member of the School of International and Area Studies. Joshua Landis teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio. He was educated at Swarthmore (BA), Harvard (MA), and Princeton (PhD). He has lived over 14 years in the Middle East and received numerous grants to study in the region, including three Fulbright grants and one from the Social Science Research Council.
 Walid Khalidi, “Revisiting the UNGA Partition Resolution,” Journal of Palestinian Studies, 27:1 (Fall 1997), pp. 5-22.
 Avi Shlaim, “The Debate About 1948,” in IJMES, Vol. 27, 1995, pp. 287-304.
 Works that investigate the war from the perspective of Arab actors and share some of the conclusions presented here are: Michael Doran, Pan-Arabism before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; and Zvi Elpeleg, The Grand Mufti, Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 1989. Also see Zvi Elpeleg, “Why Was `Independent Palestine’ Never Created in 1948?” The Jerusalem Quarterly, 50, 1989, pp. 3-22; and Moshe Ma‘oz, Syria and Israel: from War to Peacemaking, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
 The growing number of diaries, memoirs and memorandum written by Arab statesmen of the 1948 period that have now been published make infrequent mention of the threat posed by Israel. Their pages are filled with the jockeying of the Arab states.
 Arslan, Mudhakkirat, (11 December 1946) p. 661 & 801.
 Ibid., pp. 643, 653, 672, 679, 701.
 Ibid., (10 September 1947) pp. 800-801.
 USNA, Memminger (Damascus) to Sec. of State, “Damascus Demonstrators Demand Syrian Army Intervention in Palestine,” (27 April 1948) 890D.00/4-2748. The “irresistible” quote is from Husni al-Barazi, deputy from Hama.
 Khalid al-`Azm, Mudhakkirat Khalid al-`Azm (Memoirs of Khalid al-`Azm), vol. 2, Lebanon, 1972, pp. 343-347.
 Ibid., p. 384. The first shipment of French arms arrived in Syria during the last month of 1948, after which France became Syria’s major arms supplier during most of the 1950s until the Soviet Arms deal of 1956, which was also brokered by `Azm. He maintains that he could have bought arms during his first months in Paris during the summer of 1947, if only Jamil Mardam had facilitated his efforts.
 Though the Syrian government complained bitterly to American officials in Damascus that the airplanes proved the U.S. was not respecting its arms embargo, U.S. officials announced that the planes had been acquired from American civilians over whom the U.S. government had no control. The Syrian government censored all press reports about the provenance of the bombers in order to avoid further stirring up the passions of the local populace. The bombing of Damascus continued for three days and took place after the first cease-fire had been accepted. USNA, Memminger (Damascus) to Sec. of State, “Syria, Monthly Political Review – July – 1948,” (31 July 1948) 890D.00/7-3148.
 Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York: Pantheon Books, 1987, p. 123.
 Ilan Pappé, “Sir Alec Kirkbride and the Making of Greater Transjordan,” Asian and African Studies, 23 (1989), p. 49.
 General J. B. Glubb, “A Note on the Future of the Arab Legion,” as quoted in Maan Abu Nowar, The Struggle for Independence, 1939-1947: A History of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2001, p. 305
 Ibid. p. 247; Doran, Pan-Arabism, p. 113-116.
 `Adil Arslan, Mudhakkirat: 1948, pp. 121-22.
 Ibid., p. 109-110.
 FRUS, 1947, Vol. 5, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971: Ambassador Wadsworth (Baghdad) to Secretary of State, (June 12, 1947) fn. p. 749.
 Maan Abu Nowar, The Jordanian-Israeli War, 1948-1951: A History of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Reading: Ithaca Press, 2002, p. 69.
 Nowar, Struggle for Independence, p. 234-35.
 Ibid., p. 235-36; Muhsin al-Barazi, al-Mudhakkirat Muhsin al-Barazi, 1947-1949 (Memoirs or Muhsin al-Barazi). ed. Khayriyya Qasimiyya, (Beirut: al-Rawad lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi`), 1994. p. 15.
 Abu Nowar, Struggle for Independence, p. 232.
 Ibid., 237.
 PRO, Lord Killearn [Miles Lampson] (Cairo) to London, 23 March 1945, FO 371/45237, E2091, as quoted in Thomas Mayer, “Arab Unity of Action and the Palestine Question, 1945-48,” Middle East Studies, Vol. 22, 1986, p. 342.
 Avi Shlaim, “Israel and the Arab coalition in 1948,” in Rogan and Shlaim, eds. The War for Palestine, pp. 79-103.
 Barazi, Mudhakkirat, pp. 18-19.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 PRO. Mr. J. Scrivener to Mr. P. Garran, 28 August 1947, OF 371/61495; Abu Nowar, The Struggle for Independence, p. 233.
 PRO. “Manifesto Issued by Samir Pasha Rifai, on 27/8/1947,” FO 371/61496; Ibid.
 Abu Nowar is a fine example of a pro-Hashemite historian who argues intelligently and persuasively for Abdullah. The arguments here are taken from his conclusion to The Struggle for Independence.
 Barazi, Mudhakkirat, pp. 44-53.
 Ibid., p. 46.
 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
 Ibid., p. 48.
 Joseph Nevo, King Abdallah and Palestine: A Territorial Ambition, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996, p. 81.
 Walid Khalidi, “Selected Documents on the 1948 Palestine War,” Journal of Palestine Studies, XXVII, no, 3 (Spring 1998), pp. 60-105; included is General Ismail Safwat, “A Brief Report on the Situation in Palestine and Comparison between the Forces and Potential of Both Sides,” pp. 62-72.
 Sami Moubayed, “Upcoming Arab Summit Stirs a Nest of Problems,” Gulf News, 10 October 2002.