Revisiting the Malki Affair
On April 22, 1955, a charismatic young Syrian army officer was gunned down on a football field. The assassination of Adnan al-Malki brought about the one of the first political crackdowns in Syria’s history. The Malki Affairs and its aftermath shed light on one of the country’s earliest shifts towards authoritarianism along a sharp turn towards anti-western sentiment.
The first sign that Pax Syriana was coming to an end was the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. Demonstrations against Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the West were held in defiance in Damascus. State-organized rallies across the capital illustrated the regime’s discontent with the political blowback that followed the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Part of this discontent was exhibited through the widespread display among the crowds of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) flags along Adnan al-Malki Boulevard. The black flags emblazoned with the red hurricane device signaled the official return of Pan-Syrian nationalism in the country where it was banned since the 1955 assassination of the boulevard’s namesake, who was the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Syrian army and a rising star in Syrian politics.
Malki’s assassination rocked Syria and brought about a harsh crack down on the SSNP that ultimately eradicated them from Syrian politics for fifty years. It was also a major political spectacle that marked a turning point in the country’s brief return to democracy back to a long era of authoritarianism under the Baath.
Today, the SSNP has not only been rehabilitated in Syria’s political sphere but the movement is now fighting on the side of the regime against opposition forces on multiple fronts. The party’s militia, the Eagles of the Whirlwind, has fought in Homs, took part in the siege of Aleppo, and the recently recaptured desert town of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS). The dramatic turnaround for the once outlawed movement, officially legalized in 2005, is striking. Prior to the start of the current civil war the details surrounding the so-called “Malki Affair” was one of Syria’s greatest mysteries. Who ordered his killing and why continue to be debated. The story of the assassination and ensuing purge are essential to understanding Syria’s history and the SSNP’s eventual reconciliation with the Baath and perhaps their future in Syria.
Adnan al-Malki’s background and political activities
Colonel Adnan al-Malki came from a dominant Sunni family in Damascus made his career in the Syrian army and like much of the country’s officer corps, was a graduate of the Homs Military Academy. Despite never being an official member of Michel Aflaq’s Baath Party, he was strongly affiliated with the movement and was well-known as a firm support of Nasser and Pan Arab nationalism. His brother Riad al-Malki was a staunch Baathist and later become an MP in the Syrian parliament. The renowned historian Patrick Seale described him as having a “strikingly European” appearance.
Malki’s first major political intrigue came when he became a central player in the plot to overthrow Shishakli, organizing with former President Atassi and the influential Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. He worked closely with the leftist nationalist Akram al-Hawrani and encouraged him to unite his Arab Socialist Party with the Baath movement, which Shishakli had outlawed. In 1953, Malki famously confronted Shishakli on the airport runway after the President had returned from a visit to Egypt. The young officer handed over a list of demands which included allowing political pluralism, freedom of press, and for Shishakli to abolish his Arab Liberation Movement party and relinquish power. The strongman accepted the list from him and consequently rounded up the document’s signatories to throw them in jail, Malki included.
A 1946 photo shows al-Malki marching as an army cadet during Syria’s first Independence Day.
After the fall of Adib al-Shishakli’s regime in 1954, Malki endured an intense spell of popularity, even overshadowed his army superior. Politically astute, hardworking, and willing to risk his life for the Palestinian cause and his ideals and justice, he was widely admired and had a large following in the army. By all accounts, Malki appeared destined to become a powerful political leader in Syria’s post-Shishakli era.
Malki was restored to his position in the army, becoming deputy Chief of Staff. The army’s Chief of Staff, Shawkat Shuqayer, was a Lebanese Druze and was always regarded by many Syrians as a foreigner. In fact, Shishakli had tapped him for the role, specifically because of sect, he was considered politically vulnerable and therefore a safe bet in coup-prone Syria. Shishakli even once said, “Shuqayer has no past and no future!” Though Shuqayer retained his position, his background brought much of the public support and from within the army to Malki.
Malki continued his foray in politics and was instrumental in corralling his fellow army officers to support the efforts to achieve a political and military unification with Egypt. There was even speculation that Malki would’ve launched a coup if Prime Minister Faris al-Khury not abandoned his attempts to move Syria towards the western sphere of influence. He regularly represented the official position of the government and the army in the press. For example, in February 1955, Malki spoke to the Syrian newspaper, al-Jihad for an interview, in which he downplayed the prospects of a Turkish military incursion along the Syrian border.
The Baath Party, during this time, had been in a fierce competition with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. George Abd Messih had just taken command of the SSNP after the execution of Antun Saadeh in 1949 and was struggling to implement his control over the party’s factions. Malki was soon engaged in a public spat with Abd Messih, who accused him of using Arab nationalism to secure power for Syria’s Sunnis. Malki, in turn, tried to intimidate the SSNP leader by promising to hand him over to Lebanon, where he had been sentenced to death in absentia for the July 1951 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Sohl.
Colonel al-Malki in his army office in 1954
The fierce competition between the two parties played on within the army. Another opponent of Malki was a fellow army officer, Ghassan Jadid, who, through his friendship with Shishakli, became the head of the Homs Military Academy. Jadid was an Alawite and a leading figure in the SSNP. He used his position at the academy to recruit officers to the party, a move which riled Malki. Jadid also rivaled Malki in his charisma and Ghassan’s brother Salah was a member of the Baath who helped retained a level of contact between the two parties. Salah later became a leading architect in the establishment of the United Arab Republic and essential for aligning Syria with the Soviet Union.
The political rivalry extended outside of the military all the way through Syria’s educational institutions, polarizing a generation of youth. A young Hafez al-Assad recalled how during his school years, when asked your religion, you were either a Baathi or Qawmi (the latter meaning nationalist, taken from the party’s name in Arabic, al-Ḥizb al-Suri al-Qawmi al-‘Ijtima’i).
The Assassination and political motives
On April 22 1955, Malki was attending a football match between the Syrian army’s team and an Egyptian team at the Damascus Municipal Stadium. A gunman approached and fired two shots, killing the colonel instantly. The gunman identified as Yusuf ‘Abd al-Rahim, a military policeman and an Alawite member of the SSNP who killed himself on the spot. Two other party members, Badi Makhlouf and Abdul Munim Dubussy were in attendance at the match and were arrested as accomplices.
Malki’s killer, Yusuf ‘Abd al-Rahim, an Alawi military policeman and SSNP member
The main theory is that Rahim was selected by George Abd Messih since the former had been denied entrance to the military academy due to his sect. Another potential motive seldom discussed was put forward by the US State Department, which claimed that Malki had crossed Rahim by fathering the child of his teenage sister, who was employed as a domestic aid in his household. Patrick Seale reported that thousands of Alawite women worked in homes across the capital as servants, often in dismal conditions. Though this story was never proven, the status of Syria’s religious minorities would have political implications for both the SSNP and the Baath during the subsequent crackdown and well into Syria’s future.
Ghassan Jadid, army officer and SSNP leader
The most dominant story is that assassination was ordered by George Abd Messih due to his personal feud with Malki. Ghassan Jadid stated during his trial that this was the case since the assassination occurred without the knowledge of the party’s leadership. Another view was that the assassination was actually perpetrated by Egyptian intelligence in order to galvanize support for Arab nationalism and secure a free reign to eliminate the threat of the SSNP. Though Arab nationalism was already immensely popular in Syria, the country still had a slew of political parties across the ideological spectrum. Furthermore, anti-western sentiment wasn’t completely present at all levels of Syrian society, a trend that would change dramatically after the purge commenced.
A military court that held the show trials for SSNP members. The leftist army officer Afif al-Bizri, seated in the middle, later became the army’s Chief of Staff.
The show trials that followed the assassination have often been compared to the trials carried out by Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s. This period marked a turning point where the Baath now had the opportunity to finally isolate and eliminate their primary competitor. The Baath and Communist orchestrated a full scale purge of the SSNP. First, the Arab nationalists and leftist factions urged parliament to implement a state of martial law. Other parties resisted but eventually a compromised was reached. A military tribunal would be carried out with full power to investigate and arrest anyone suspected of being connected to the assassination, which quickly had morphed into a larger anti-government conspiracy.
The SSNP’s official party organ, al-Bina’ was burned to the ground. The SSNP’s members were accused of purposely destroying their own offices and documents to cover up evidence of their conspiracy against the Syrian government. The SSNP, shut out of the press, was reduced to facilitating their meetings and activities in secret. To offer a counter narrative, they handed out pamphlets and flyers in which they claimed they were the victims of a Zionist plot facilitated by the Communists and Baathists. Some of these materials took on an anti-Semitic tone with complaints of Jewish “exploitation and fraud.”
“Accused of the crime of the assassination of Adnan al-Malki.” Issam al-Mahayri and Juliette El-Mir Saadeh, Antun Saadeh’s widow on the far left.
Thousands of the party’s members were rounded up and paraded through the military tribunals for a certain verdict of a lengthy jail sentence. Issam al-Mahayri, the SSNP’s leader in Syria, was arrested and forced to testify against his fellow party members. Once a leading journalist and co-owner of the Daily Press Corporation, Mahayri was publically ridiculed by the courts and his influence greatly diminished and he became ostracized from Syria’s political sphere. He was eventually sentenced to a long spell in Damascus’ Mezzeh Prison.
The crackdown on press freedoms trickled across the political spectrum. Even non-SSNP outlets fell victim to the Baathist-Communist witch hunt. Husni al-Barazi, who owned the al-Nas (the people), an anti-communist outlet, was forced to close after an editorial discussed the allege torture of SSNP suspects and connected the mistreatment to the Baathist Speaker of the Parliament Akram al-Hawrani. Other newspapers and outlets quickly learned to adhere to the official government line concerning the Malki Affair and the military tribunals.
Army Chief of Staff Shuqayer suggested that the party was dominated by sectarian minorities, such as Alawites and Christians, and therefore sought to isolate Syria from the rest of the Arab world through their plan to eventually establish a Pan-Syrian state as stipulated by the party’s ideology. Many Alawites who were not members of the SSNP fled to Lebanon since they feared the growing extent of the purge.
The emergence of Syria as a mukhabarat state during this period is well known. Abdul Hamid al-Sarraj, who had been appointment as head of intelligence in March 1955, a month prior to the assassination, was tasked with investigating and implementing the purge of the SSNP. Imprisonment and torture were tools used by his Deuxieme Bureau. Badi Makhlouf, Abdul Munim Dubussy and Fu’ad Jadid protested at their trial that their confessionals had been extracted under torture, describing secret interrogation sessions involving severe beatings and electric shocks.
Makhlouf, a first cousin of Anisa Makhlouf (the wife of Hafez al-Assad), said the torture was not even comparable to what the early Christians had suffered from under the Romans. Despite his defense, Dubussy and Makhlouf were executed by hanging and Fu’ad Jadid was sentenced to life imprisonment. Fu’ad Jadid reportedly had his death sentence reduced since his brother Ghassan had been killed in Beirut outside the SSNP party headquarters by agents of Sarraj.
Another component of the show trials was the allegation that the SSNP was working in concert with the Americans and western intelligence. A memo by the U.S. State Department from July 1955 lamented the prevailing views of the Syrian political establishment that the U.S. government was using the anti-communist SSNP in order to undermine Syria’s sovereignty. This was manifested prominently in the “Sharabi letters,” an alleged correspondence between Issam Mahayri and Georgetown professor Hisham Sharabi. Dr. Sharabi was an early member of the SSNP and had served as an editor for their magazine, called al-Jil al-Jadid (The New Generation) before seeking refuge in the United States. The letters supposedly revealed that Dr. Sharabi had helped Mahayri obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. with the goal of organizing an anti-leftist movement in Syria to counter the Soviet’s presence in the Middle East. This evidence allowed Sarraj to claim that Syria had been able to defeat an imperialist conspiracy which was being facilitated by “indigenous anti-communist elements.”
SSNP leader Issam al-Mahayri (second from the right) in Mezzeh Prison in Damascus in 1957 following the purge of the party in the wake of the assassination.
The Malki Affair’s Legacy
Malki’s funeral on April 23, 1955.
The assassination propelled Malki to a level of veneration and praise that was unprecedented in Syria. The sculptor Fathi Kabawah was commissioned to design Malki’s statue. Riad al-Malki also authored a biography of his brother. Malki, as a martyr, became the embodiment of Pan-Arab nationalism that cemented the Baath into Syria’s political and social fabric for a generation and fixed the country onto its course for an eventual union with Egypt. Sultan Pasha al-Atrash wrote a memorial for his fallen comrade in al-Jundi (The Soldier) magazine in the summer of 1955:
There is no civilization that had more victims and martyrs
like our beloved Arab civilization.
If peoples’ lives ended with death
the martyr’s life begins with death.
That was the fate of the immortal
Adnan al-Maliki, who lived two generous lives,
a short life hard lived until his last breath,
and another long lived in the peoples’ consciousness.
Therefore, Adnan did not die
and here he is personified in the leader
Col. Shawkat Shuqayer and in every
comrade of his fellow free officers,
but also in every Syrian citizen,
because in every one of those
Adnan, in his beliefs and values,
Adnan in his determination for liberation and development.
Adnan in his keenness for Arab unity.
There is no harm on us and this situation, if
we lost Adnan yesterday — although it was a huge loss — and no
harm in sacrificing more like Adnan tomorrow. Because they are eternal in
the consciousness of the nation forever.
Adnan al-Malki Square in Damascus in the 1960’s.
The show trials and systematic purge in the wake of the Malki Affair was not the last. Others included the November 1970 Corrective Movement, the fallout after Damascus Spring of 2000 and most recently the regimes attempts to maintain control at the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the civil war. Whether or not the Assad regime can fully reconstruct the police state that existed before 2011 is yet to be seen.
The SSNP is now heading the reconciliation efforts on behalf of the regime under the leadership of Ali Haidar. An SSNP member relayed to me how negotiating with local rebels is a delicate process that takes time and has to carefully distinguish between Syrians and foreign fighters. Many Sunnis that have fled to neighboring countries (often characterized as an ethnic cleansing campaign orchestrated by the regime, will ultimately face the choice of either staying abroad or returning home after the conflict. This sectarian crisis is also playing out against the backdrop of an internal “demographic engineering,” most recently facilitated by the four towns agreement. The prospect of a post-war purge indeed hangs over all sides involved in the conflict.
The Malki Affair and the purge forced the SSNP underground where they reemerged in Lebanon. The incident also expedited Nasser’s domination over Syria. It solidified the Baath’s hold on the army and created the foundations for the Assad family’s power. Today, Arab nationalism, weakened and long since tainted by the years of the Baath’s authoritarian rule, once again competes with the old but familiar ideology of Pan-Syrianism. The SSNP and their fierce red hurricane, both surrounded by the darkness of the past, have returned to Syria at the behest of the Baath, but for how long?
This article was originally posted on Syria Comment: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/revisiting-malki-affair-christopher-solomon/