Episode Eight: Roosevelt and the Syrians

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

While oil was a strategic reason for US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to jumpstart American interest in the Arab world, there were also a variety of other factors, including the US President’s commitment to ridding the Middle East of any Nazi influence. In January 1941, Roosevelt delivered his famous ‘Four Freedoms’ speech at the State of the Union Address to Congress, almost one year before he declared war on the Axis Powers. He spoke passionately of the fundamental freedoms that ‘humans everywhere in the world’ ought to enjoy. These undeniable rights included freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. On paper, his vision sounded hauntingly similar to that of Syria’s National Party. Roosevelt’s speech was indeed well received on the Syrian street—with a grain of salt, however—because of America’s tendency to emerge, and then suddenly disappear on the Middle Eastern political science. After all, America’s indifference to the 1920 French occupation of Syria, despite the King-Crane Commission Report, was still fresh in everybody’s mind. US-educated politicians around Quwatli, like Fares al-Khoury and Ahmad al-Sharabati, advised him to reach out to the US President and to build bridges with the United States, arguing that France and Great Britain were ‘empires of the past.’   

Roosevelt took the first step with Syria by appointing a new consul-general to Damascus, George Wadsworth from New York. He then sent his trusted aid, General Patrick Hurley, to Damascus in April 1943 (al-Qabas, 2 April 1943). What probably expedited FDR’s decision to reach out to Syria was that in 1940, the Republican presidential candidate, attorney Wendell Willkie, had landed at Damascus Airport to drum up Arab support for the Allies against Nazi Germany (al-Ayyam, 30 June 1940). He was the first American presidential candidate to come to Syria and speak directly to community leaders saying that the US ‘did not recognise the special position of any European State in the Levant!’

General Patrick Hurley (Source: The Hoover Institution)

General Patrick Hurley (Source: The Hoover Institution)

Hurley, however, was the most senior US official to visit Syria since the King-Crane Commission visit to Syria 23-years before, back in 1919. An active Republican and decorated US soldier, Hurley had served as Secretary of War under President Herbert Hoover in 1929-1933. In 1941, he was promoted to Brigadier General and dispatched by General George Marshall to the Far East before becoming FDR’s personal envoy on a series of assignments, including Syria, aimed at drumming up support for the US war effort. Hurley arrived in Damascus in the midst of a political storm.  With his cowboy hat and eccentric attire, he was very different from any diplomat Syrians had ever met. Veteran members of the National Party, who only two years earlier had been coloured as pro-Nazi by the United States, held banquets in Hurley’s honour (Salma Mardam Bey, Syria’s Quest for Independence, p. 75). Fares al-Khoury, Ahmad al-Sharabatin, and Adnan al-Atasi were asked to handle the first round of talks, given their flawless English and knowledge of Europe and the United States. 

In an informal meeting at the lobby of the Orient Palace Hotel, they handed Hurley a bundle of petitions gathered by the National Party, signed by Syrian citizens requesting unconditional independence from the Mandate (FO 226/240/9/10/469, French Consul Damascus to MacKenzie at FO, 23 April 1943). Ahmad al-Sharabati opened the meeting saying that what the National Party members represent ‘the voice of the people of Syria’. The new world that the Allies were creating, he explained, should be focused on freedom and dignity of all nations. ‘Syria ought not to be an exception.’ The people of Syria were struggling for freedom, just like the French who had been subjected to humiliating occupation by the Nazis, he explained. ‘There is no such thing as a good occupation and a bad one; all colonialism is bad, medieval, and feeds off misery (of the occupied).’ He added, by siding with the Allies against Hitler, ‘…we are on the right side of history.’ Sharabati talked to him about George Washington University, where Hurley had studied after World War I, and asked about his latest meeting with David Ben Gurion in Palestine. The three nationalists seem to have lectured the US General, which Hurley did not appreciate, describing Sharabati and his friends as ‘of young age’ and ‘junior’ in the rank of the nationalists. Sharabati was only 35; Hurley was in his early sixties. General Hurley noted, however, that Sharabati was ‘the son of a distinguished Damascus nationalist who had been educated by American missionaries (in reference to AUB), yet briefly toyed with Nazi apologists (i.e. the Leaguers) not too long ago’ (FO 226/240/9/10/469, French Consul Damascus to MacKenzie at FO, 23 April 1943).  This Nazi past, he claimed, accounted for his ‘radical views’ and ‘deep hatred’ for the British and the French.

General Hurley then met with Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Khani, the Supreme Islamic Judge of Damascus, who delivered a confidential letter from Quwatli to President Roosevelt. It contained compliments for the US President for championing freedom and justice in the international community (Interview with Abdullah al-Khani by Sami Moubayed, Damascus, 6 September 2010). ‘With no doubt Your Excellency; the presence of the United States of America under your leadership at the forefront of the democratic world is the greatest guarantee of success for the principles of justice and freedom.’ Khani added, ‘All Syrians, who have proven their support for the just cause of the Allies, were pleased with the resumption of parliamentary life in their country. This restores their sovereignty under a constitutional umbrella, and they hope to get their full independence.’ Quwatli probably believed that just as in 1919, the Allies would convene a peace conference to map out the future of liberated territories, trying to force Syria onto the international agenda. Khani went as far as to praise ‘struggling France’ in its war against Germany, hoping that this would score points with the US, and to thank FDR for ‘the hospitality of the American government’ shown to Syrian émigrés living in America, ‘their second home.’ Hurley forwarded Khani’s message and Sharabati’s petitions to the White House, describing them as a ‘clear attempt at writing off Quwatli’s pro-Nazi past.’ He nevertheless wrote to FDR that the senders were, ‘distinguished sons of Damascus.’

Suheil al-Ashi, the military aid to Quwatli, recalled, ‘President Quwatli had full faith in Franklin Roosevelt, convinced that the man was honest in his calls for democracy and wanted to see Syria and other occupied states in the Arab world, independent from European control. The two men had genuine respect for each other, and developed an excellent working relationship during the years 1943-1945’ (Interview with Suheil al-Ashi by Sami Moubayed, Damascus, 2 November 2002). Jamil Mardam Bey remarked in his memoirs, ‘The nationalists, for their part, were pleased that the President of the United States considered them to be a leading force in the country’ (Mardam Bey, Syria’s Quest, p. 76). By meeting members of the National Party, Hurley was granting them de facto recognition of the US government, as the legitimate representatives of the people of Syria. Mardam Bey added, ‘Although they (members of the National Party) had misgivings about America’s Zionist policy, they were preparing the ground for any help they might need from America in event of a clash between Syria and France.’


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

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