Damascus During World War II

Episode Nine: The 1943 Elections 


Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

In May 1943, Quwatli and his team began campaigning in major Syrian cities. They visited every home in Damascus, attended every rally, and met with the leaders of Syrian society, from mosque preachers and clergy to industrialists, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and farmers. The Damascus Chamber of Commerce held countless banquets and feasts in their honour as they spoke daily at bazaars, schools, and trade unions. Quwatli then traveled to Homs in central Syria to secure the blessing of ex-President Atasi (Yusuf al-Hakim. Souria wa al-Intidab al-Faransi, 330-331). It was Atasi who had brought Quwatli into the National Bloc, after all, back in 1932 and who first appointed him to government four years later. Quwatli and his comrades then headed to Aleppo via Hama, where they were received lavishly by Najib Agha al-Barazi, a wealthy landowner and former founder of the National Bloc. Most of the city’s 50,000 inhabitants came out to welcome the president-in-waiting and his friends. The socialist leader Akram al-Hawrani, a rising star in Hama politics and future nemeses of both Shukri al-Quwatli and Ahmad al-Sharabati, observed the welcome demonstrations with scorn, noting in his memoirs many years later:

His delegation arrived in Hama and was greeted by people from all classes of society. On both sides of the road were a large number of armed men who came out to welcome and protect the (Quwatli) delegation.  A car was waiting at the city gates, decorated with flags and flowers. He mounted with Saadallah al-Jabiri and they were barely able to penetrate the assembled crowds. Cheers were ripping through the sky. It took them three hours to drive from the town gates to its main square. There, Shukri al-Quwatli walked into a hotel and appeared on its balcony, where he gave a speech to the masses. In short, the welcome was filled with excitement and splendour. He then headed to the residence of Tawfiq al-Shishakli (a Bloc chief who had died in 1940) where city notables lined up to endorse his candidacy. Among those present were Raif al-Mulki, Uthman al-Hawrani, and Ignatius Houwaik who pointed at Quwatli and said: “I support this man! I support him over and over, after the assembled men here have all confirmed his leadership.” Syria, in its first stages of independence, has searched right and left for one of its sons to lead her towards independence. Today, it has found that leader. So far he has been endorsed by all of Syria and today, receives the backing of Hama, the heart of Arab nationalism (Akram Hawrani, Muzakarat, vol. II,  252).

Quwatli and his team, filled with confidence, then drove to Aleppo in northern Syria. This time, there were no crowds on both sides of the street, certainly no welcoming demonstrations. The Aleppo Street did not like Quwatli. The city’s politicians always complained that they were left out of important decisions when it came to Bloc strategy. They felt ignored by the Damascus political class. The city’s leader Saadallah al-Jabiri was firmly supportive of Quwatli; they were friends since high school, after all, and allies since World War I. The same could not be said of a second generation of Aleppine leaders who had led a breakaway faction of the Bloc after its failure to prevent the annexation of the Sanjak in 1939. They had joined the Shahbandarists in their loud campaign against the Bloc and were certainly not ready to see a National Bloc president in Damascus, yet again. The Syrian capital had produced two presidents since 1932: Mohammad Ali al-Abed and Sheikh Taj, and Homs had its share with Hashem al-Atasi. They wanted a president from Aleppo who would answer to the city’s social, economic, and political ambitions. The same applied to all Prime Ministers since 1918, not a single one hailed from the ‘capital of the north’.

Akram Hawrani

Akram Hawrani

Spearheading the opposition to Quwatli were two notables, Nazem al-Qudsi and Rushdi al-Kikhiya. Qudsi was an AUB-trained attorney while Kikhiya was a respected landowner and exceptionally charismatic statesman. Quwatli met with the two men for five long hours, and yet, found himself unable to soothe their fears. They desired union with Hashemite Iraq and greater commercial ties with Baghdad. They wanted a lion’s share of cabinet seats, and the premiership—which he promised to give to Saadallah al-Jabiri if elected. They were uneasy about a rumour making the rounds in Aleppo that Quwatli had met with the pro-French Police Chief and ex-Premiere Bahij al-Khatib, promising to sign a deal with France granting it long-term economic and military concessions, similar to those granted in 1936 (Nasuh Babil, Sahafa wa Siyasa, 170).

Jabiri had to intervene, using his influence to secure a written pledge from the city elders in favour of Quwatli’s presidential bid. Ahmad Khalil al-Moudarres, Hasan Fouad Ibrahim Pasha, and Abdul Rahman Kayyali all put their name to the document, leaving Qudsi and Kikhiya as political outcasts, for now. Jabiri worked hard on turning the city’s mood in favour of Quwatli and so successful was he that on May 18, Kikhiya was obliged to downplay his previous criticism and send a statement to the Damascus press, explaining what exactly he had discussed with the president-in-waiting (Al-Inshaa, 18 May 1943). Nevertheless, Aleppo ran for Parliament with four lists. Two were headed by the National Party leaders Saadallah al-Jabiri and Abdul Rahman Kayyali. Moudarres headed a third list of independents and the fourth was headed by Qudsi and Kikhiya. Saadallah al-Jabiri swept Parliament with a landslide victory for his pro-Quwatli list.

Shukri al-Quwatli

Shukri al-Quwatli

The parliamentary elections went smoothly during the 10 July primaries. Voter turnout, however, was low in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. Barely one third of eligible voters showed up at the polls (Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 690). Despite the colossal efforts of the National Party, people were indifferent, saturated by hunger and poverty. Quwatli’s team pressed ahead with their campaign, going door-to-door to remind people that voting was a national duty. The National Party did better during the second round on July 26. Quwatli’s list, with little surprise, swept Damascus, as did that of Adnan al-Atasi in Homs (Radwan Atasi, Hashem al-Atasi, 602). The National Party list also emerged victorious in Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama. When it was time to elect a president, Shukri al-Quwatli stood unopposed, winning an 118 votes out of the total of 120 in the Chamber of Deputies (al-Ayyam, 3 August 1943). From his campaign headquarters at the Dankiz Mosque, Quwatli declared victory on 2 August 1943. He was now the fourth president of the Syrian Republic. A parade escorted him from the mosque in Sanjakdar to the old Bzurieh Market, near the Azm Palace. Quwatli had finally made it to the top, after a political career that spanned three decades. He was sworn-in as president of Syria on 17 August 1943.

Fares al-Khoury

Fares al-Khoury

Fares al-Khoury, was then elected speaker of Parliament. He had been there once before during the Atasi era. He and Shukri al-Quwatli went a long way back, having first met during World War I as active members of al-Fatat, a Syrian underground party opposing Ottoman rule. Both were arrested by the Ottomans and incarcerated in a stone dungeon at the Bzurieh Market. Although trained in math at AUB, Khoury had practiced law as a young man, excelling as an attorney in Ottoman courts. He went on to teach law, author books on the subject, and even signed off PhDs in law, though he himself had no academic qualification in the subject. The armed uprising of 1925 never impressed him, as he argued that France would never leave Syria by force and that the mandate regime had to be dismantled, one piece at a time, through a political process. This explains why during the revolt he agreed to hold cabinet office under the pro-French Prime Minister Ahmad Nami. In 1927, he was one of the founders of the National Bloc’s policy of ‘honourable cooperation’.  He was one of the most highly educated members of the entire Bloc leadership, spoke fluent English and French, and had a good grasp of international politics and history.

Quwatli knew the limits of his popularity. The local strongmen, or qabadayat, were among his fans and so were working professionals from the Syrian middle class, and the upper crust beys and pashas of Damascus society. Khoury’s dominant influence could be felt strongly in the Parliament. First, the ten-seat bench usually reserved for mandate officials was removed completely at the Speaker’s orders. No Frenchman was allowed to attend the inauguration of the Chamber. Six showed up, but were politely turned away by Khoury: ‘We apologize; this is exclusively a Syrian event. No mandate officials allowed!’ General Spears was invited, nevertheless, and so was the American diplomat in Damascus, George Wadswroth. When the military band began playing the French National Anthem, they too were interrupted by Khoury, who asked them to replace it with the newly-composed Syrian anthem, Humat al-Diyar. The British Consul, clearly impressed with Khoury’s performance, remarked: ‘Fares Bey would make a good chairman of any assembly!’ (Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, 603). 

Saadallah al-Jabiri

Living up to his earlier pledge in Aleppo, Quwatli called on the celebrated Saadallah al-Jabiri to form a government. He was Quwatli’s age, born in 1893. Jabiri hailed from one of the most prominent landowning families in Syria. Educated in Istanbul, he was conscripted into the Ottoman Army at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. This is when he joined al-Fatat and made friends with future members of the National Bloc. Along with his future in-law Riad al-Sulh, Jabiri was active in lobbying for women’s suffrage at the Syrian Chamber, which he first entered in 1919. In January 1920, he walked out on the chamber to join the Aleppo Revolt of Ibrahim Hananu, smuggling arms and money to rebels in northern Syria. When the French occupied Syria in 1920, Saadallah al-Jabiri was arrested and jailed at Safita Prison then exiled to Egypt for two years. Upon his return he founded an underground movement in Aleppo called the Red Hand Society. It was modeled after a similar group in Damascus, the Iron Hand Society, led by Shahbandar.

In 1927, Hananu brought Jabiri and his brother into the ranks of the National Bloc. One year later, he served in the Constitutional Assembly and became deputy president to Hashem al-Atasi. When Hananu died in 1935, Jabiri was seen as his natural successor in Aleppo. Quwatli and Jabiri developed a strong working relationship coordinating seamlessly to orchestrate the General Strike of 1935. Jabiri also played an instrumental role in hammering out the ill-fated 1936 Franco-Syrian Treaty.

The new President and his Prime Minister carefully handpicked all ministers in the new government. It was a seven-man cabinet, with four members hailing from the National Party. Five of the seven were former prime ministers.


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal.

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