Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist
By Stefan Winter
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016
This week marks the 80th anniversary of a now famous petition, supposedly addressed by six ‘Alawi notables from the Latakia region—including Hafiz al-Asad’s grandfather Sulayman al-Asad—to French prime minister Léon Blum on 15 June 1936. The six ‘Alawi notables criticize the negotiations undertaken by the Front populaire government for the independence of Syria; they decry the “spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims” against the ‘Alawis, Jews, Yezidis and other minorities and reject the idea that the Governorate of Latakia (the “Alaouites”) be included in the rest of Syria. They propose that the Alawi State be joined with Lebanon rather than Syria and demand to remain under French protection.
The petition, reportedly registered as document “no. 3547” at the French Foreign Ministry, is translated in Abu Musa al-Hariri’s 1984 monograph Al-‘Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun: Bahth fi’l-‘Aqida wa’l-Tarikh, with lengthy excerpts (translated back from the Arabic) appearing in such works as Matti Moosa’s Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988), Daniel Le Gac’s La Syrie du general Assad (1991), and a host of press articles and internet blogs in recent years. A copy of the original together with the Arabic translation is said to be held by the Asad library in Damascus, and in August 2012, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, reacting to a Syrian diplomat’s negative portrayal of French mandatory rule before the UN, invoked the petition as proof of president Bashar al-Asad’s grandfather’s (rather than his great-grandfather’s) pro-French position and reaffirmed that the “official” document is preserved in his Ministry’s archives.
From a historian’s standpoint, however, the petition presents a couple of problems. To begin with, “no. 3547” does not correspond to any actual archive classification (one might expect the Ministry’s holdings to go beyond 4-digit serially numbered items), and no corresponding document has ever been cited in the literature or, indeed, produced by the Minister. The only known image of document “no. 3547” appears to be one provided to Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University and published on www.jewishpress.com in September 2012, from where it has been copied and circulated on numerous internet sites ever since. Either the image, however, or the document collage, is an obvious fake. Already a cursory glance shows that the purported original on the left, prominently stamped with “no. 3547” in red, is written in a long hand typical of French consular correspondence of the early 19th century or before (and appears to concern a commercial account), whereas the petitions submitted to the French authorities in the 1930s were almost invariably written by typewriter. Even more blatant is the black stamp at the top, spread across both the handwritten document and the Arabic typewritten translation: this is in fact an ancien-régime municipal fiscal stamp (“Petit Papier, [x] sous la feuille, Généralité de Paris”)—which clearly displays the classic 3-lily Bourbon coat of arms, a complete impossibility for any document handled by the Third Republic Foreign Ministry in 1936.
Not that the subject and tone of the petition in itself are implausible. On the contrary: many ‘Alawis were in fact opposed to the end of French rule and the eventual inclusion of the “Alaouites” in an independent Syria. The archives of the French Foreign Ministry (the “Quai d’Orsay”), now located in La Courneuve suburb just north of Paris, do contain numerous letters sent by ‘Alawi and other notables to French government officials in 1936 to lobby against Syrian independence, and some of these do reject the prospect of “Muslim majority rule” in the strongest terms, demand the Alaouites’ inclusion in Lebanon or compare the plight of the ‘Alawis and Druze to the discrimination suffered by Jewish immigrants settling in Palestine. None of these separatist petitions, however, correspond to “no. 3547”, and none appear to bear the signature of an Asad.
Historians such as Matti Moosa (who did in fact use the French archives for his book, but can only cite al-Hariri as his source for “no. 3547”) and others have focussed too one-sidedly on these separatist petitions, which supposedly “reveal” that the “Nusayri leaders feared and detested the Sunnite Syrian nationalists” (Extremist Shiites, pp. 286-289). This is unfortunate—because a quick look through the relevant series at La Courneuve shows that there are in reality about as many pro-independence, pro-Syrian-unionist petitions sent by the ‘Alawis in the 1936 as there are separatist petitions. And sure enough, one of these pro-unionist ‘Alawi petitions, dated 2 July 1936 or just two weeks after the supposed “no. 3547”, is signed not by Sulayman al-Asad—but by his son ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad, i.e. the current president’s grandfather.
The virulent, 4-page missive, addressed “in exasperation” to the Ministre des affaires étrangères over France’s “nefarious politics of division”, is signed by 86 ‘Alawi notables in all, including not only the younger Asad (in his capacity as “former member of the constitutive assembly of the Alaouites”) but also by scions of the Raslan, al-Khayyir and other leading families, as well as Ismail Hawwash, head of the Matawira tribe, past representative on the “conseil fédéral syrien” and son of ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, one of the alleged signatories of “no. 3547”. Ridiculing the idea that ‘Alawis could not live together with their Muslim countrymen, the petition goes on to blast in no uncertain terms those of their compeers who would agitate merely “out of personal ambition” and “bad faith” for the continuation of separate French mandatory rule and thereby impede full Syrian union. (See my forthcoming A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 260-261 for details). If there is such a thing as a petition “no. 3547”, this one reads like a straight rebuttal.
The “Asad petition” that is actually contained in the French Foreign Ministry archives, in other words, directly contradicts what has often been claimed (including by Laurent Fabius) about the Asads’ attitude toward the French mandate, and therefore raises a number of questions. Should we conclude that “no. 3547” is a forgery, but if so, why would it be on display at the Asad library in Damascus when it casts aspersions on the Asads’ nationalist credentials? Or could it be that both petitions are genuine, and reflect a real political—in fact a generational—conflict within the ‘Alawi community in 1936, between old-guard separatists like Sulayman al-Asad and ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, on the one hand, and their unionist sons ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad and Ismail al-Hawwash, on the other? This should not come as a surprise, after all, when it is clear that neither the ‘Alawi nor any other confessional community adopted a single, uniform opinion on French rule and independence, when as careful a historian as Patrick Seale has already shown that many ‘Alawi figures were indeed “neither Syrian nationalists nor collaborators” but adjusted their stance throughout the mandate period, depending on their changing political and personal circumstances (Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, pp. 18-23).
What the existence of the unambiguously pro-unionist Asad petition does demonstrate, in any event, is to what extent political myths in current-day Syria are often based on flimsy—or at least partial and very incomplete—evidence, how some writers will purposely concentrate only on the scandalous, irrespective of the archival material available to them, and how bloggers, media commentators and perhaps even the French Foreign Minister will uncritically copy and paste from one another rather than spend 10 minutes actually going through the catalogues at La Courneuve. Spreading unqualified claims about the president’s grandfather, the ‘Alawis or anyone’s historical loyalties is not a recipe for stability in the current context of Syrian politics. The separatist petition “no. 3547”, if it is indeed authentic, must at the very least be weighed against the very genuine unionist petition that is indeed in the archives.
Stefan Winter is associate professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). His previous publications on the ‘Alawis under Ottoman rule are available on his Academia page; A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic is due out from Princeton University Press in September 2016. With thanks to Mordechai Kedar, Pascal Bastien, Stéphane Valter and Joshua Landis for their help with this note.
Addendum (added by Joshua Landis): The following is the shortened text of the disputed 1936 petition published in English translation by Matti Moosa in his book: Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988) pp. 287‑88.
The Alawite people, who have preserved their independence year after year with great zeal and sacrifices, are different from the Sunni Muslims. They were never subject to the authority of the cities of the interior.
The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels….
The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non‑Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief…
The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis‑a‑vis those who do not belong to Islam…
We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.
Here is a more recent publication of the petition in 2013 by “Syria Direct,” a “non-profit journalism organization that produces timely, credible coverage of Syria.” It mistakenly identifies the date of the petition as 1926 rather than 1936, but provides a complete translation of the now disputed petition that cannot be located in the French archives.