Damascus During World War II

Episode Six: The Presidency of Sheikh Taj

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

Under pressure from Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle decided to restore a limited form of self-rule to Syria. There was only one politician in Damascus who still had power and presidential ambitions. His name was Taj al-Din al-Hasani. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, the ex-Prime Minister had first surfaced on the Syrian stage back in the mid-1920s. Back then, served as Prime Minister in 1928, when there was no presidential office in Syria, ruling for three years with no parliament or constitution. He returned to the job for a two-year tenure during the presidency of Mohammad Ali al-Abed, from 1934 until 1936. Al-Hasani was a turbaned cleric, he returned to Damascus from Paris after the 1940 occupation of France. His comeback, after an absence of nearly five years, created a buzz in political circles. Politicians and community leaders showed up at his mansion in al-Halbuni quarter of Damascus to welcome him back home. Given his well-known connection to French intelligence it was generally assumed that his views reflected those of policy-makers in Paris. General Dentz was automatically suspicious of Sheikh Taj, accusing him of being a puppet for the Free French and the British. He stationed troops around al-Hasani’s residence, keeping tabs on all of his visitors. It was a dramatic change for someone who, a few years back, had been tainted as France’s strongest supporter in Syria. The siege was eventually lifted after the Vichy force were defeated in Syria during the summer of 1941 (Inaam Taj al-Din al-Hasani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed in Beirut, 10 September 1999).

During de Gaulle’s Damascus visit, he met with Sheikh Taj for three hours. The Syrian statesman said that running Syria strictly through French proxies will never work anymore. If he were to return to office, it would have to be through some kind of pairing with the National Bloc (Mounir al-Ajlani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed, 20 August 1999). He advised that a partnership be made, under French auspices, between him and Jamil Mardam Bey. Several back-to-back meetings took place between Sheikh Taj and Jamil Mardam Bey; archenemies of the past, potential allies of the present. Mardam Bey carried out the talks with Sheikh Taj behind the back of what remained of the National Bloc leadership (Mounir al-Ajlani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed, 20 August 1999). The two men shook hands on a verbal deal: if either of them were called upon to become president, he would appoint the other prime minister (Babil, Sahafa wa Siyasa, p. 155). In a fury of diplomatic activity, Sheikh Taj informed the US and the British consuls of his agreement with Mardam Bey (Babil, Sahafa wa Siyasa, p. 155).

Shukri al-Quwatli, of course, was left in the dark on this agreement. He would have never approved it, having set his sight, by now, on the Syrian presidency. When de Gaulle consulted with Syrian politicians, the supporters of Abdel Rahman al-Shahbandar put forward Sheikh Taj’s name for the presidency, simply to prevent the return of a National Bloc figure (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, Hakim to Fares al-Khoury, 1 September 1941). The National Bloc once suggested making Hashem al-Atasi president although they knew that the aging Atasi would refuse the job. Quwatli knew that this would never pass since the French were also not interested in exploring such a comeback. The only two Bloc members who openly refused to endorse Atasi were Fares al-Khoury, and not surprisingly, Jamil Mardam Bey (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, Hakim to Fares al-Khoury, 1 September 1941). De Gaulle finally concluded that the man best fit for the presidential office in Syria was Sheikh Taj. He was reliable, tough, and well experienced in Syrian politics and international affairs. General Catroux was tasked with informing Sheikh Taj that he would become the new president of Syria. However, and to avoid the accusation of being appointed directly by the French, al-Hasani suggested being officially asked by France to assume the job the way the British Faysal to assume the throne in Baghdad in the early 1920s (Inaam Taj al-Din al-Hasani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed in Beirut, 10 September 1999). Catroux agreed, sending an official letter asking him to assume the presidency on 12 September 1941. The letter started out addressing Sheikh Taj as “Your Excellency” and ended with “Respectfully yours, Mr. President.” The very same day, Sheikh Taj responded with a written acceptance, thus becoming the third president of the Syrian Republic (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, working with Taj al-Din, 15 September 1941).

Sheikh Taj immediately called upon Jamil Mardam Bey to become prime minister, but this was categorically vetoed by both Shukri al-Quwatli and General Catroux. Neither the Free French nor the National Bloc would ever hear of it, putting a damper on Mardam Bey’s ambitions. Instead, Sheikh Taj invited Abdul Rahman Shahbandar’s former right-hand man, Hasan al-Hakim, to fill the position. Shahbandar’s followers, frantically trying to salvage what could be saved of their careers, accepted the nomination. Sheikh Taj also called on Zaki al-Khatib, another of Shahbandar’s men, to act as Minister of Justice. Sheikh Taj also appointed an Alawite and Druze as cabinet ministers, for the first time since 1918. Munir al-Abbas, a politician from the Syrian coast, was made Minister of Public Works. He was charged with building roads and improving irrigation and the infrastructure in the towns and villages of the State of Lattakia, which was soon going to be re-incorporated into Syria. Abdul Ghaffar Pasha al-Atrash, uncle of Sultan Pasha, was made Minister of Defense.

On 12 January 1942, the Alawite and Durze statelets were finally and permanently returned to Syria (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, Unity of Syrian lands, 12 January 1942). One week later, Sheikh Taj hosted a grand reception at the Grand Serail, celebrating the victory that the National Bloc had failed to achieve between the years 1936 to 1939. Nationalist leaders, Alawite and Druze notables, and French officials mingled together in the main reception hall, all showering the new Syrian President with homage. In celebration of the event Sheikh Taj issued a collection of postal stamps, carrying his picture and the Syrian flag.

On 27 April 1942, Foreign Minister Fayez al-Khoury sent a cable to world capitals, announcing that, in accordance with General de Gaulle’s pledge, Syria was finally declared independent (al-Ayyam newspaper, 28 April 1942). The French and British armies would remain stationed in Syria until the end of the war in Europe, he added. Letters of recognition flooded the Syrian Presidential Palace. The first to write to Sheikh Taj was King Farouk of Egypt, followed by Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and King George VI of Great Britain. Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia all followed suit (al-Ayyam newspaper, 29 April 1942). King George II of Greece made a state visit to Damascus, followed by the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iraq refused to recognize Sheikh Taj, furious that the job had not gone to a Hashemite royal. When the new President wrote to the Regent Prince Abdul-Illah, he got a brief and very impolite response from Baghdad (Arab Foundation, Emir Abdul-Illah, 306).

The success was short-lived, however. Sheikh Taj died while in office on 17 January 1943. He was 58. His funeral was attended by General Spears, General Catroux, the President and Prime Minister of Lebanon, and the entire National Bloc command (Mounir al-Ajlani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed, 20 August 1999). His sudden demise, however, put everybody in Syria in a difficult position. Neither the French nor the British were ready for the power vacuum, and nor were leaders of the National Bloc. In March 1943, Ata al-Ayyubi was called upon to supervise parliamentary and presidential elections. They were set to take place in July.

 

Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

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