Foreground, from left: Iraq’s regent Abd al-Ilah and King Faisal II, with Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id (between them). AP

Israel’s Secret War for Syria’s Independence

Archival documents shed new light on Israel’s secret efforts to guarantee Syria’s sovereignty after 1948, and reveal the surprising relations that existed between the two countries as they each fought for their independence



At the end of the War of Independence, Israel faced a policy dilemma with regard to Syria. The armed confrontation on the border around the demilitarized zones and over the draining of Lake Hula was continuing, and Syria still claimed the waters of Lake Kinneret. At the same time, Israel acted to foil an Anglo-Iraqi plot to seize control of Syria. Documents found in Israeli and French archives reveal new details about Israel’s secret policy at the time to ensure Syria’s sovereignty, a policy that perhaps affords insights for the present period as well.

During 1949, Syria was rocked by three military coups which put an end to the democratic-republican regime and heralded the age of rule by army officers both there and in other countries in the region. The three coups – led, respectively, by the chief of staff, Husni Za’im, on March 30; by Sami al-Hinnawi, on August 14; and by Adib Shishakli, on December 19 – were a direct result of Syria’s failure in its war against Israel, aggravated by the acute economic crisis that broke out in the wake of the military debacle.

Compounding these crises were subversive efforts fomented by the Hashemite regimes in Jordan and Iraq: King Abdullah of Jordan viewed the establishment of “Greater Syria” as the summit of his geopolitical yearnings; and, in Iraq, the regent, Abd al-Ilah, and the prime minister, Nuri Sa’id, each of whom sought, for his own motives, to effect an Iraqi takeover of Syria, whether by means of unification or federation. The military coups signaled the start of years of struggle over Syria; the country became an arena of regional and great-power strife, which persisted until Hafez Assad’s coup in 1970.

In contrast to the policy of the present Israeli government, which has advocated nonintervention in the civil war in Syria, the government headed by David Ben-Gurion viewed a British-backed Iraqi takeover of Syria as a direct threat, and took clandestine measures to foil it. A year after the end of its war against the Arab states, Israel, now a full-fledged state, tried to influence the regional order on the basis of its interests.

By means of an astute use of intelligence materials and secret diplomacy, Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett were able to radically revise the Israel-Syria relations: Israel went from being a threatening force that Iraq and its supporters invoked as a pretext for military intervention allegedly intended to protect Syria, to a regional power whose very threat to intervene averted an infringement of Syria’s independence and sovereignty. Israel’s support for Syria as an independent state, against Iraq’s subversive efforts there, also created a basis for cooperation with King Faruq of Egypt and King Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia.

The Iraqi threat

The origins of Ben-Gurion’s opposition to Iraqi influence lay in the pre-state period. In July 1947, French sources passed on to Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, information suggesting the existence of Anglo-Iraqi collusion, by which senior British officers in Cairo and Baghdad, in coordination with Nuri Sa’id, the Iraqi strongman, were acting to escalate Jewish-Arab tensions to the point of a full-scale war. The alleged scheme aimed not only to prevent the creation of a Jewish state – or, at least, to prevent creation of a state whose territory extended beyond the coastal plain, from Atlit to Ashdod – but also to ensure the support of Arab public opinion for an Anglo-Iraqi defense pact, and at the same time to use a Jewish-Arab war as reason for an Iraqi military invasion of Syria.

Ben-Gurion attached great importance to this information, and at the beginning September 1947, in the midst of the preparations of the Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine – for war, paid a visit to Paris to confirm it. Already in the French capital were the officials who managed the intelligence contacts with France: Ben-Gurion’s Arab affairs adviser, Eliahu Sasson, and the Jewish Agency representative in Paris, Maurice Fischer.

Ben-Gurion viewed Iraq and its leader, Nuri Sa’id, as a major threat to Israel’s anticipated war with the Arab states. Not only was Iraq the spearhead of an extremely bellicose approach in Arab League meetings toward the end of 1947; Sa’id was also working, in collaboration with the British, to promote a plan for a binational state in Palestine to supplant the partition plan.

Ben-Gurion’s apprehensions were well-founded: Iraq possessed considerable economic resources, along with large ground forces and air power. Furthermore, in the Anglo-Iraqi defense treaty (the Portsmouth agreement) of January 1948, the British promised to arm Iraq’s forces and transform them into a modern army.

French agents and their opposites in the Jewish Agency’s political department set out to thwart the Anglo-Iraqi scheme. French sources leaked the details of the plot to Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and to the Egyptian and Saudi monarchs. Eliahu Sasson passed on details of the conspiracy to King Abdullah, who strongly opposed an Iraqi takeover of Syria.

The Anglo-Iraqi move failed due to the counter-activity of a coalition that included the Soviet Union, which operated through the Iraqi Communist Party, and King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, who was aided by the anti-British Iraqi leader Rashid al-Kailani. In the face of mass demonstrations and clashes with the police in Baghdad, in which protesters were killed and wounded, the Hashemite crown prince, Abd al-Ilah, was compelled to retract the ratification of the defense treaty with Britain.

Although an Iraqi expeditionary force took part in the war against Israel, the failure of both the Portsmouth agreement, and in its wake of the Anglo-Iraqi conspiracy, went a long way toward reducing the Iraqi military threat to Israel. Indeed, in September 1948, Nuri Sa’id published a memorandum concerning the negotiations on the Portsmouth treaty with Britain, in which he argued that the cost exacted from the Arabs for the undermining of the agreement was the loss of Palestine.

After the failure of efforts to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state or to reduce its size, Sa’id, again with the aid of British agents, tried to obtain, through military pressure and diplomatic means, what had not been achieved through war. In the second half of 1948 and during 1949, the Iraqi leader intensified his anti-Israeli activity. In talks with other Arab leaders, he urged opposition to any negotiations on an armistice or a peace treaty with Israel, and demanded that preparations be made for a second round of hostilities. He also supported the plan of the United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte and, like the British, tried to get the Negev severed from Israel.

Moshe Friedan / GPO

The Iraqi expeditionary force, which consisted of two brigades that had been involved in the fighting on the central front in Samaria, constituted an additional means to threaten Israel. Even though the Iraqi forces were not involved in offensive action after July 1948, their presence was an important factor in Ben-Gurion’s position during the war regarding Israel’s future borders. In the second half of 1948, the Iraqi expeditionary force was significantly beefed up in arms and manpower, and stood at four reinforced brigades with an armored force and an air force squadron that was located in Jordanian airfields. Thus, in the negotiations for a cease-fire and the future of the West Bank, Israel demanded that King Abdullah pull back Iraqi forces to the east of the Jordan River.

Iraq itself refused to have any contact with Israel, and only after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement, on April 3, 1949, did its forces withdraw to northern Jordan, thus posing a direct threat to Syria. Both the Syrian president and the Israeli prime minister saw this as the second stage of the Anglo-Iraqi plot of July 1947.

‘Black-market diplomacy’

Ben-Gurion’s determination to undercut the British in Syria stemmed from his belief that their influence in Damascus would endanger Israel, and that behind its designs were the same intelligence, army and Foreign Office circles that had tried to block Israel’s creation, encouraged the Arab leaders to go to war against Israel, and tried to reduce its territory. As Sasson warned in a meeting in December 1949, “We have an enemy that is far stronger than the Arabs – the British.”

The same view was espoused by many at the French Foreign Ministry, as well as in the French military and intelligence. They joined Israel in an effort to block Anglo-Iraqi domination of Syria. A French diplomat who was well acquainted with British clandestine activity in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria, labeled it “black market diplomacy” – namely: In tandem with the official policy pursued by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, which prioritized British-French relations (in December 1945, Bevin had signed an agreement in which Britain recognized France’s special status in Syria and Lebanon), other elements in London, as well as in the Middle East, were acting to undermine France’s position in the latter region and in North Africa. Following the coup staged by the pro-Iraqi Sami al-Hinnawi in Syria, and the murder of Husni Za’im, Le Monde, which reflected the views of the Quai d’Orsay, accused the “gang of Stirling, Ferar, Spears and Glubb and their ilk” (British diplomats and Arabist intelligence and military officers) of responsibility for the coup.

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Indeed, the Syrian documents and British intelligence papers that I located in French archives contain numerous testimonies about Nuri Sa’id’s clandestine collaboration with Arabists from British intelligence to engineer an Iraqi takeover of Syria. From the British perspective, the villain of the piece in Syria was President Quwatli, who had retracted secret understandings with British agents by which they would help him get elected president and get rid of the French, in return for which he would recognize Britain’s strategic and economic interests in Syria and agree to have his country join an Iraqi-led Hashemite federation. The British upheld their end of the bargain, but Quwatli now claimed that, with Syrian independence assured, there was no place to trade one colonial regime (French) for another (British).

The Syrian public wholeheartedly supported the country’s newly won independence, following their war of liberation against France, and opposed unity with the Hashemites, whether Iraq or Jordan, which would entail the extension of British influence over their country. Quwatli’s struggle for an independent Syria also had strong support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, from the United States and, behind the scenes, from France, too.

British circles in the Middle East disagreed about how their country’s goals should be achieved in Syria. Among the personnel of the British intelligence center in Baghdad – the second largest in the region, after Cairo – there was considerable support for unification or federation between Iraq and Syria as a means to ensure the stability of the Hashemite regime in Iraq, and they actively assisted Iraqi subversion in Syria. However, intelligence and military circles in Cairo maintained that Syria could remain an independent state, on condition that its leaders sign a defense treaty with Britain and join a regional defense alliance against the Soviet Union.

The escalation of the Cold War during 1948-1949 heightened the pressure on British representatives in the Middle East to ensure the consent of the Syrian government to become part of the regional defense alignment. On January 19, 1949, the British ambassador in Damascus submitted a memorandum to Quwatli, offering the president British recognition of his country’s independence and sovereignty in return for a defense pact. A copy of the memorandum was made available to French intelligence through an agent in the Syrian Foreign Ministry and given to Sasson, who was in Paris at the time.

The Israeli-Kurdish connection

Jerusalem, too, toyed with the idea of provoking regime change in Syria. The idea, first broached in August 1948 by Ezra Danin, Arab affairs adviser in the Foreign Ministry, was not without its logic. In the months that followed, Israel received two requests from Syrian figures of Kurdish extraction for assistance in a seizure of power in Damascus. The first request came from Husni Barazi, who had been prime minister of Syria in the early 1940s and afterward provided information to Shai, the intelligence service of the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state defense force. His idea was for Israel to foment tension on the border with Syria in order to force Damascus to mass troops on the front. This would enable Barazi to take Damascus with the aid of Kurdish and Druze troops, to oust Quwatli and seize power.

The second request, which came from the commander of the Syrian army, Husni Za’im, was more important, because a few months later Za’im staged the country’s first military coup, and seized power. Za’im, who was concerned he would be removed because of the army’s failures, also demanded financial assistance from Israel.

Reuven Shiloah, Ben-Gurion’s adviser on intelligence, had already warned British intelligence agents in February 1948 that the Zionist movement might support a Kurdish revolt if Britain continued to act against the establishment of the Jewish state. This was a warning not to be taken lightly, as in 1945 a Soviet-backed Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq had inflicted heavy losses on the Iraqi army. Indeed, from 1948 to 1952, Israel proffered aid to the Kurds in Iraq, primarily of a diplomatic and propaganda nature, as a counterweight to the Iraqi involvement against Israel.

Among other actions, Israeli representatives acted behind the scenes to get the Kurdish national claims placed on the agenda of the United Nations and its institutions, recruiting to that end American personalities, institutions and journalists. Now the suggestion was to assist a “Kurdish coup” in Syria, taking advantage of the prominent position of Kurdish figures in Syrian politics and the military.

The liaison to Barazi and Za’im was Kamuran Badr Khan, a central figure in the Kurdish national movement, who was in close touch with Maurice Fischer in Paris. The latter supported Badr Khan’s proposal, but Eliahu Sasson, who was conducting secret talks with Arab representatives at the time, was opposed: Israeli involvement in a coup in Syria was dependent on the allocation of the necessary resources, he said. Ben-Gurion and Sharett accepted his approach.

Two days after his coup, Za’im met with the French military attaché in Damascus and confirmed his country’s intention of preserving Syria’s independence in the face of the Hashemites and of Britain, and revealed that he intended to lead the Iraqi leaders astray in order to gain time to consolidate his rule. He also sent a calming message to Israel, through the French attaché, whom he told that he was confident that Israel would not allow the Hashemites to seize control in Syria, because it “doesn’t want the British as neighbors.”

Za’im’s coup did not come as a surprise to Israel, though it was not initially known who was behind it. Nor was Israel worried by Nuri Sa’id’s visit to Damascus and his demand for a defense pact between the two countries against “the Zionist aggression.” Toward the end of April it became clear that Za’im had adopted his predecessor’s policy, tightening Syria’s relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the Hashemites in Iraq and in Jordan. He also took action against Britain and drew closer to France, which supported him militarily and economically.

Za’im’s confidence in his ability to withstand Anglo-Iraqi subversion derived above all from his close ties with the United States. That CIA agents in Damascus were involved in Za’im’s coup is known, but French sources add further details, according to which the coup was “bought” by the Aramco petroleum company. The American firm paid Za’im $20 million for the right to run Tapline, the pipeline that carried Saudi oil to the Mediterranean through Syria.

Roadside murder

The direct relations of Za’im and his Kurdish prime minister, Muhsin al-Barazi, with Israel, and Za’im’s declaration of his readiness to make peace with Israel and to settle hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria, stirred outrage among British officials. Addressing a meeting in London of British representatives in the Middle East, senior Foreign Office personnel sharply criticized Israel. The country’s very existence, they said, was endangering the prevailing Arab regimes, as the Syrian case proved, and constituted a direct threat to Britain’s strategic interests in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Foreign Secretary Bevin met with an Israeli diplomat in London on July 19, 1949, and conveyed to him a conciliatory message affirming Britain’s recognition of Israel along with London’s readiness to accept Israeli control of the Negev.

Israel pinned great hopes on Za’im, and worked clandestinely to ensure his rule. In the armistice negotiations, which had begun on April 5, 1949, the Syrians had adopted a tough posture, as part of Za’im’s effort to portray himself to the Syrian public as the country’s defender against Israel. Ben-Gurion played his part in the show by threatening to exercise force to impose Israel’s conditions on Syria. The prolongation of the talks was also influenced by French pressure on Israel, aimed at ensuring an achievement for their ally. An armistice agreement between the countries was finally signed on July 20, 1949, the last of the accords in the wake of the war. In early August, Sasson suggested to Syrian Prime Minister Muhsin al-Barazi that he come to Damascus or that the two meet in Paris to discuss a peace agreement between the two countries – but it was already too late.

Israel’s sophisticated policy in Syria revealed itself in May-June 1949, when Iraq concentrated thousands of soldiers on its border with Syria as part of its efforts to depose Za’im. On May 21, the Israel Defense Forces received an order to prepare Operation Oren, ostensibly to oust Syrian forces from Mishmar Hayarden in Upper Galilee. In reality, the move was intended to deter the Iraqi forces from attacking Syria, with a warning message sent to Britain as well. The goal of the Israeli operation was defined as the conquest of the town of Quneitra, on the Golan Heights, which would pose a direct threat to Damascus. Together with the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and air force were also classified as an enemy to be fought should they intervene.

In parallel, Egyptian King Faruq promised Za’im to send dozens of warplanes to Syria in order to protect the country from an Iraqi offensive. Za’im, for his part, bolstered his forces on the Syrian border with Iraq and arrested the pro-Iraqi tribal leaders in the Jazira region of northeast Syria. He also asked France to supply arms to his forces urgently, and requested that the Saudi king to mass troops on his country’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, in order to deter the Hashemite regimes from attacking Syria.

Although Iraq was in fact deterred from making direct use of its armed forces against Syria, Iraqi and British agents continued to scheme for Za’im’s removal. On August 4, Prime Minister Barazi uncovered details of a British-Iraqi plot to assassinate Za’im. The publication of the names of the British intelligence officers involved caused extreme embarrassment in Britain. An analysis of the patterns of behavior of Israeli intelligence in Syria during the months that followed raises the possibility that the information about the plot came from Israel. Nonetheless, 10 days later, British and Iraqi agents succeeded in organizing a military coup in Syria through a group of officers led by Sami al-Hinnawi. Za’im and Barazi were taken from their beds at midnight and shot on the road to Mezze, outside Damascus.

The assassination was welcomed in Iraq. Radio Baghdad declared joyfully that, “Two Kurds – Za’im and Barazi – have been removed for supporting French imperialism.” Responding to the French military attaché in Damascus, who was concerned about the repercussions of Hinnawi’s coup, his British counterpart stated that “Syrian-Iraqi unification will not be effected without Syrian support.”

Code-breaking as a policy tool

The British government’s official position was that it was not working to promote Iraqi-Syrian unification or federation, but would not stand in the way of the two countries if their elected representatives were to decide on this course of action. In practice, British agents assisted Iraqi representatives in Damascus with their efforts to ensure the victory of the unification camp. In a propaganda campaign launched in Syrian and Lebanese newspapers owned by Iraqis, and via radio broadcasts, unification with Iraq was presented as the step that would save Syria from anarchy and from an economic crisis, and would become a cornerstone in the struggle against both Israel and French imperialism.

However, both within Syria and outside, substantial forces operated to foil unification with Iraq. Army officers were again active in the opposition; many of them were Syrian patriots who advocated their country’s independence and were apprehensive of becoming a tool of the Iraqi army. King Ibn Saud led the campaign against Iraq’s activity in Syria, investing large sums of money in the effort. King Faruq and French agents were also very active.

Jim Pringle / AP

The intensity of the resistance is reflected in an assassination attempt on Walter Stirling, supposedly the London Times correspondent in Damascus but actually the senior British intelligence figure in the Syrian capital.

The opponents of Anglo-Iraqi control in Syria were ultimately successful. On December 19, Col. Adib Shishakli, of Kurdish descent, led a tank assault on Damascus and seized power in order to save Syria from British influence and avert unification with Iraq.

A number of signs suggest possible Israeli involvement in the coup, including a meeting between Shishakli and Israeli representatives ahead of the event. Either way, there is no doubt that once Shishakli seized power, Israel helped him consolidate his regime, as it had done with Za’im.

Israel possessed an extremely efficient tool to thwart Anglo-Iraqi subversion in Syria. Documents in Israel’s State Archives, which became available to researchers in the past few years, show that at the end of 1948 Israel began to decode encrypted messages between the Iraqi embassies in Damascus and London and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, and between the Iraqi military delegation in Damascus and the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad. The military delegation, which had been formed in early 1948 as part of the Arab League’s coordination plans for the war against Israel, became Iraq’s primary means of subversion in Syria, particularly among the Syrian officer corps. The decoding of the Iraqi communications from London was an extremely important tool, as it shed light on Britain’s secret involvement not only in Syria but across the Middle East.

Even though Shishakli was an avowed foe of Israel – he had joined Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s Army of Salvation in the war against Israel, had commanded the Yarmouk Battalion, which entered Israel in January 1948, and was involved in hostilities in Galilee – Israel took steps to foil the Anglo-Iraqi plots against him. Information was passed to his representatives at the armistice talks about Iraq’s subversive activity, including about plots to murder him and his main supporter, Akram al-Hourani. In addition, the Israeli threat to intervene militarily in Syria in the event of an Iraqi attempt to take control there was a major deterrent factor in Anglo-Iraqi considerations. When a senior French diplomat complained to the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, in early 1952, about the Iraqi efforts to undermine the regime in Damascus, Eden claimed that Britain was neutral and noted Israel’s threats to intervene. But Israel conducted a dual policy in the case of Shishakli, too. On the one hand, there were acute clashes with the Syrian army, even as secret talks were being held about settling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria and signing a peace agreement with Damascus. Shishakli’s overthrow, in February 1954, with direct Iraqi and British involvement, put an end to the contacts.

The Anglo-Iraqi subversion in Syria continued in the years that followed, led by Nuri Sa’id and revolving around the 1955 Baghdad Pact (formed by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the UK), but now American agents were also involved. In 1957, a joint MI6-CIA operation (“Operation Straggle”) to oust President Quwatli, who had returned to Syria from Egyptian exile in 1955, failed. This time, Israel, which was now collaborating with Britain against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, did not intervene.

The obsession with Syria brought about the end of the monarchy in Iraq. In the wake of the Egyptian-Syrian union in 1958, and the pro-Nasser disturbances that broke out in Lebanon that year, Nuri Sa’id ordered a military force under the command of Abd al-Karim Qasem to move toward the Syria-Jordan border. Qasem took advantage of the passage of army units through Baghdad to mount a blood-drenched coup: The members of the royal family were murdered, and the body of Nuri Sa’id was dragged through the city’s streets before a cheering crowd.

Meir Zamir is emeritus professor of Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. A new edition of his book “The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948” was published by Routledge in 2016.

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