“The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist,” By Stefan Winter

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.

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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.

Kedar1

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.

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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.

Ali Sulayman al-Asad (1875 – 1963) Grandfather of President Bashar al-Asad

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.

The Alawite people are certain that they will find a strong and faithful support for a loyal and friendly people threatened by death and annihilation and who have offered France tremendous services.

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.

Comments (22)


Ghufran said:

The article is a clear departure from numerous claims spreaded by anti regime sources which tried relentlessly to convince their audience that the alawites including Assad’s grandfather are agents of France and anti Syrian who do not want syria to be one country. The actions of rebel forces speak louder than words. Even after losing tens of thousands of their own men since 2011 the voices of separation among alawites are too isolated and never gained traction. Coastal areas became the new home for millions of sunnis while alawites were completely forced out of territories controlled by rebels. In summary, the fabrications created by thawrajiyyeh on the subject defy reality on the ground and are now providing further proof that this armed rebellion has nothing to do with freedom and democracy, instead we can easily conclude that it was a violent fascist movement that aims to build a fake majority rule using religion as a cover to establish a new theocracy not different from that of their stated enemy iran except that it is worse, much worse.

June 15th, 2016, 1:08 am

 

Majedkhaldoun said:

To call the revolution in Syria a violent Fascist movement is far more than nonsense and the facts stays that the Alawis hate Sunni, and that alone disqualify them from governing Syria where 80% are Sunni, the fact is that the Alawi reluctantly joined Syria after France recruited many Alawis to the Army before the independence, the fact is that Assad regime is a corrupt criminal regime stays the most brutal animalist regime supported by those who want to change history, the fact is that half million Syrian have died because a dictator wants to stay in his chair rather than accept democracy, the fact was that the Alawi wanted France to stay occupying Syria, and the change in their declaration to join Syria was the refusal of France to let them join Lebanon, so Lebanon stays Christians majority and they were given many jobs in the Syrian army, Alawis represent less than 11% of Syria , that if we included Alawis in Iskandarone province, if this is excluded they are less than 7% of Syria population , the fact that the cities at the coast were in their majority are Sunni, the fact is that we Sunni never mistreated Alawis after the independence, they did, the fact is that calling for freedom and democracy is a noble goal they hate and refuse,instead they betrayed Syria and gave up the sovereignty to Iran and Russia ,betraying our Arab nationality while the lie to us and tell us they are Arab nationalist ,the Assad regime is a criminal regime that must go and freedom and democracy must replace such septic dirty criminal regime

June 15th, 2016, 8:44 am

 

habib said:

So yet another consistent claim from the “opposition” is exposed as a fraud. Not surprised. But I’m sure the lie will be repeated, with even more photoshopped documents.

June 15th, 2016, 12:27 pm

 

ALAN said:

America is fighting terrorism, which spreaded by US itself using a huge military alliance is not it?
Do you begrudged the defense of your origin country fighting against the terrorism with using a military alliance?
So no place for chatter about the sale of sovereignty
The time of American dictation has gone, and entered the time, in which can be punished the gods of democracy in your degenerated western world.
Justice for the Iraqi entity and Iraqi land, contaminated with American depleted uranium.
Justice for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and the list goes on…

June 15th, 2016, 1:19 pm

 

Sami said:

This is an argument over symantecs really. His great grand father was against the union while his grand father was for…

Either way you crack the nut you still end up with an imbecile who inherited the presidency. That alone shows you what the Assad clan thinks of Syria. After all assadists claim Souria Al-Assad!

June 15th, 2016, 3:03 pm

 

ghufran said:

Sami, Syria would have been in a different place today if the opposition focused on the Assads and their cronies instead of dehumanizing a whole sect and resorting to violence and oppression, like the regime, and taking terrorists as allies.
On a different subject, the cease fire brokered by Russia was a trap or a big mistake at best because it lacked enforcement mechanism especially at the Turkish-Syrian borders, that led to the death of many soldiers, today another cease fire seems unlikely until somebody watches the filthy Othmani Sultan in Ankara.

June 15th, 2016, 4:44 pm

 

ALAN said:

The task has become double, rules of the game changed. The United States, Britain, and France have begun moving in Special Forces soldiers to assist in the mission of destroying the Syrian government, a mission that Israeli, Jordanian, and Turkish officers have joined in as well. The plan is now complete, NATO entered the Syrian territories and create a new reality that will not be changed except by the biggest and most dangerous war
Kerry used an arrogant tone. Seems the United States wants to duel again in ٍnew Saigon with a global lineup.

June 15th, 2016, 4:53 pm

 

Sami said:

Ghufran,

I do agree some what with what you wrote. However, the crux of the problem remains which is the grusome silencing of people with real ambition for change. From the Assad to the Islamisist, they kill torture and silence all the moderate voices so the choice will be between two evils.

F*ck them. I won’t subscribe to this narrative. I still maintain that Syrians deserve better and can accomplish better than these two sad choices.

June 15th, 2016, 5:58 pm

 

habib said:

5. Sami said:

Did you read the article? The document appears to be false, or at least suspect.

June 16th, 2016, 5:55 am

 

Mina said:

Many who have Syrian relatives should join this man in his action.
https://www.rt.com/news/346898-paris-sue-google-twitter/

If not for FB and Twitter and Google making profit out of it, foreign djihadists would never have been able to reach the contacts enabling them to flood Syria

June 16th, 2016, 8:05 am

 

Sherifa Zuhur said:

Have seen & reviewed this document and the others as part of my research at the Asad library. I don’t think this is an original argument, Dr. Winter. Nor do I agree that there are “as many” pro-unionist petitions as separatist. Instead, I think one should see this document for what it was — an attempt by local elites to retain autonomy in their own area with French support. The parallel was in the Druze area (and which documents, I began scrutinizing). You claim there is no known image other than Kedar’s (????) I have copied this document, but it’s in my packed library – in any case, it is what I cited and not quotes from others works. I also don’t see why you are saying it “can’t be located in the French archives” – and are claiming that the appearance of the document is incongruous to its date, when in fact that is NOT the case! I’m shocked and suggest you revisit your premises! Fyi, researching at the same time as I was – were other Fulbrighters and we discussed this doc, although I was the only one who accessed it.

June 16th, 2016, 8:59 am

 

Majedkhaldoun said:

If you do not believe in democracy and freedom , you do not deserve democracy and freedom
if you want freedom and democracy , you must accept it first and practice it

June 16th, 2016, 10:28 am

 

ALAN said:

Before summarizing your naive thoughts, you need to think carefully about the disposal of economic slavery that govern you as millions of Americans for the benefit of millitary industrial companies and bankers and Arsat Al-pentagon and Sharameet of intelligence .
Pathetic

June 16th, 2016, 12:54 pm

 

ALAN said:

Violation of Syrian territory by the special NATO forces is beginning of the declaration of open war with NATO
Syria needs to arm to the teeth.

June 16th, 2016, 1:45 pm

 

Ghufran said:

The war in north Latakia near borders with Turkey is not over but may be coming to an end after many Turkmen militias withdrew from the area. Nusra is trying to fill the vacuum but there are serious doubts whether that will work.

June 16th, 2016, 2:23 pm

 

ALAN said:

14. GHUFRAN
نصرة، تركمان و عبيد الفستق كلهم عند الحدود التركية ـ يعني حدود الناتو و البلطجة مستمرة بواسطة مشغليهم داعري السياسة الغربية، الذين لا يفهمون الا بمنطق القوة. حيث القوة تفرض الكيفية. مدة طويلة للعب بدون قواعد تنتهي باستخدام قوة مفرطة يليها صمت طويل… ستكون النهاية

June 16th, 2016, 4:04 pm

 

Observer said:

“Violation of Syrian territory by the special NATO forces is beginning of the declaration of open war with NATO
Syria needs to arm to the teeth.”

Thank you for a great wonderful joke that made me laugh all evening.

How come this superb armed forces lost 70% of the territory of Syria in the first place.

As for the grand father who gives a rat’s ass about ancestors (except Mjabali) of course.

Isn’t the actions of the current regime enough? This blog post is an abomination of silly irrelevant and inconsequential postings of this militia and that militia.

It just proves there is no Syria there is nothing but mafia that has a country.

Have some Kool Aid

June 16th, 2016, 9:25 pm

 
 

Majedkhaldoun said:

question
What would happen to Syria comment once Assad is gone?

June 17th, 2016, 9:18 am

 

Alan said:

18
It will work on the division of the dividend based on a new type of partition and fragmentation geometries

June 17th, 2016, 10:42 am

 
 

mjabali said:

Observer:

The article above is lovely to say the least.

It shows how some of you Sunnis fabricate stories about the Alawites and then the majority of you Sunnis believe it.

If you want to insist that this is the work of few Sunnis: the question here is why almost all of you Sunnis repeat these exact slanders about the Alawites?

Do you remember when you claimed that the Alawites were helping the Crusades?

June 17th, 2016, 1:21 pm

 

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