The Syrian Prime Minister was a double agent who gave crucial intelligence to David Ben-Gurion

File:Jamil Mardam Bey with Prince Faisal.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Jamil Mardam with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince (later king) Faisal

By Meir Zamir

First published in Haaretz newspaper on November 13, 2020

In the summer of 1945, no one was more hated by French officials in Syria and Lebanon than Jamil Mardam. Intelligence information obtained by France revealed that Mardam, the prime minister of Syria under the French mandate there, had been recruited by Brig. Iltyd Clayton, head of MI6 in the Middle East, and by Nuri Sa’id, the Iraqi prime minister. Mardam had also reportedly agreed to a plan whereby Syria, after the expulsion of France from its mandated territories, would unite with Iraq and with Transjordan under the Hashemite family, and Britain – which controlled those two countries – would enjoy hegemony in Damascus as well. For Mardam’s part in what was called the “Greater Syria” plan, he received handsome sums and was promised that he would rule in Syria, under the Hashemite monarch.

That information was only the opening round in a dramatic – and previously unknown – episode that helped shape the Middle East as we know it. What happened was that the French decided to exploit the situation for their own purposes and began to blackmail Mardam. They threatened to publish the documents in their possession and to leak the information to his political foes. Mardam ultimately resigned in August 1945 after consulting with his British handlers, but they did not know that he had capitulated to blackmail and had become a double agent. In that period, with the future of the region hanging in the balance, Mardam provided the French with valuable information about the intentions of the British military and intelligence services in the Middle East.

But the story doesn’t end there. Research in French and Israeli archives, together with a perusal of Syrian government documents, now shows that the Syrian prime minister was actually handled by a Zionist intelligence agent together with the French. The information that was conveyed through his auspices to David Ben-Gurion was critical to the Zionist leader’s strategy during the period leading up to the state’s establishment.

The remarkable resonance of David Ben-Gurion's actions - The Jewish  Chronicle

It all began in October 1945, when the French encountered a new problem. Mardam had been appointed Syria’s ambassador to Egypt and its envoy to the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, but the French had a hard time utilizing him there without arousing suspicion. The solution was to recruit Eliahu Sasson for the mission of relaying the information provided by Mardam.

Sasson, who was then the head of the Arab division of the Jewish Agency’s political department, had been appointed by Agency head Ben-Gurion in February 1945 to coordinate cooperation with French intelligence. The Syrian-born Sasson knew Mardam and had met with him in 1937, when the latter had served an earlier term as prime minister. The French, who were well acquainted with Sasson and thought highly of his operational capabilities, began to collaborate with him in handling Mardam.

Eliahu sasson.jpeg
Eliahu Sasson

The documents show that on November 12, 1945, Sasson met with Mardam in Cairo; he did so again six days later, when Mardam visited Jerusalem as head of an Arab League delegation to arrange Palestinian representation in the League. Following these encounters, Ben-Gurion met with Sasson, and in a diary entry of November 22, related details of the Jewish Agency official’s conversations with Mardam. This is one of the few occasions when Mardam can be identified directly as an intelligence source of Ben-Gurion’s. In the years that followed, both French intelligence and Sasson concealed by various means the fact that Mardam was the source of information, in order not to expose him.

However, information first uncovered in the diary of Maurice Fischer, an intelligence officer in the military headquarters of the Free French Forces in Beirut, who had previously served in the Haganah pre-state militia and was later to become Israel’s first ambassador to France, provides additional evidence that Mardam was an important source of information for Ben-Gurion. Fischer writes that Mardam revealed the secret Anglo-Iraqi plan to establish the so-called Greater Syria to Zionist agents in Cairo.

Further confirmation of the Syrian envoy’s importance vis-a-vis the Zionist effort appears in a report by Nahum Wilensky, who served as liaison between Fischer and the top ranks of the Agency’s political department. In a report in September 1945, he noted that a “[French] general related, among other items, that the French are in possession of authoritative documents attesting that many Syrian leaders received sums of money from the English. The French are waiting for a propitious moment to publish these papers, and in the meantime are using them to put pressure on the leaders named in the documents. Heading the list is Mardam.”

From July 1945, Ben-Gurion had prepared for the possibility of an attack by the Arab states should the Jewish state declare its independence. But the information from Mardam turned the spotlight elsewhere. Ben-Gurion learned that the immediate threat to the establishment of the Jewish state lay not in an attack by Arab armies, but rather in the plan of British military commanders and intelligence agencies in the Middle East to thwart that development by various other means. These included declaring the Haganah militia a terrorist organization and disarming it, and implementing the Greater Syria plan, under which a limited Jewish entity would be created in Mandatory Palestine, but not an independent state. It was apparently also Mardam who revealed the fact that British intelligence had recruited an agent who was operating in the Jewish Agency and conveying to his superiors information about the discussions being held by the Agency’s leadership, including copies of the minutes of its most secret meetings.

According to the information passed on by Mardam, the Arab rulers who were fearful of Soviet intervention had decided to assist the British in the event of an all-out war in the Middle East between the Soviet Union and the West, while London’s policy was to play for time in order to rehabilitate its economy and set relations with the United States on a solid footing. As to the Palestinian question, in deliberations of the Arab League council concern was expressed that ongoing Jewish immigration to Palestine would allow the Haganah to field an army of an estimated 80,000 troops and that “we will never be able to match them in preparation and organization, even if the English help us.” Accordingly, the Arab leaders wanted the British Army to remain in Palestine.

In the end, the Greater Syria scheme was foiled by the Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud, who saw it as a threat to his kingdom. He enlisted the support of U.S. President Harry Truman and the State Department, resulting in heavy pressure being brought to bear on London. On July 14, 1946, the British government was compelled to declare that it did not support the Greater Syria project. Nevertheless, the British military and secret services in the Middle East continued their efforts to establish a Hashemite Greater Syria as part of a regional defense alliance against the Soviet threat.

Back to Damascus

The events that occurred in 1946 confirmed the accuracy of the information conveyed by Mardam about British military intentions in Palestine. To begin with, in May of that year Brig. Iltyd Clayton, in collaboration with Abd al-Rahman al-Azzam, secretary of the Arab League and also a British agent, initiated a meeting of the heads of the Arab states at the Inshas Palace in Cairo. The conference’s resolutions asserted for the first time that Zionism constituted a danger not only to the Palestinians but to all the Arab states. A second meeting of the Arab League council was held in June in Bloudan, near Damascus. Some of its resolutions, which were secret, stated that the danger existed of a military confrontation with the Zionist movement, and in that case the Arab states would be duty-bound to assist their Palestinian brethren with money, arms and manpower.

Mardam was present at the Bloudan discussions, as was Sasson, who returned thereafter to Jerusalem with the information about the secret resolutions.

Subsequent moves by the British military and secret services corroborated Mardam’s information. On June 29, 1946, in what was known as “the Agatha Operation” – or “Black Sabbath,” in Hebrew – British Army units arrested leaders of the Jewish Agency, notably foreign policy head Moshe Sharett, confiscated files in the Agency’s Jerusalem headquarters and raided a large number of kibbutzim in a search for illegal arms. The true goal of the operation was to disarm the Haganah and replace the “extremist leadership” – first and foremost Ben-Gurion – with more moderate figures.

The British operation largely failed, as details about it had leaked to the Haganah’s leadership two months earlier. Ben-Gurion escaped arrest, as he was in Paris at the time. The British also tried to find proof of French support for the Zionist movement – the files of Eliahu Sasson were among the first they seized – but they found nothing that might suggest it.

King David Hotel bombing - Wikipedia
The King David Hotel

To justify the Agatha Operation, on July 25, three days after the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the British government published a “white paper”, which included intercepted coded cables which it claimed indicated that the leaders of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah were responsible for acts of terrorism. Two days later, Ben-Gurion held a press conference in Paris in which he sharply condemned the blowing up of the King David Hotel by the Revisionist Irgun (Etzel) militia, rejected the claims of Jewish Agency and Haganah involvement in terrorism and imputed responsibility for Black Sabbath to the commanders of the British Army in Cairo and to officials in the Foreign Office.

He was more explicit in a message to the Mapai party conference on August 23: “The assault of June 29 was prepared in March or April this year by the initiators of British policy in the Middle East – the most reactionary circle of the diplomatic, military and colonial bureaucracy, whose center is in Cairo.” After all, Ben-Gurion had known about these schemes earlier, from information provided by Mardam.

Strings and triggers

In December 1946, Clayton forced Syrian President Quwatly to remove the prime minister, Saadallah al-Jabiri, because of his part in scuttling the Greater Syria plan, and to replace him with Jamil Mardam. The move was intended to make it possible for Mardam to ensure a parliamentary majority for the plan. But Mardam now began to distance himself from the British, although MI6 continued to see him as a trusted agent, and to demonstrate greater readiness to cooperate with the French. Indirect corroboration of this is found in Syrian government documents. For example, Mardam cautioned his ambassador in London about intrigues of “our British friends who are warning us about French attempts to stir ferment among the Druze and the Bedouin tribes in the Syrian Desert against the government in Damascus, when in practice their agents are responsible for this.”

Mardam’s return to Damascus from Cairo enabled the French to run him directly, without Sasson’s mediation. In the summer of 1946, France had established diplomatic relations with Syria and established a consulate in Damascus in which intelligence agents operated under diplomatic guise. These representatives were able to meet with Mardam in their official capacity without arousing suspicion.

In any event, after the failure of British efforts to resolve by force the problem of the Jews in Palestine, the mission was imposed on the Arab armies. I have described this stage, which began in August 1947 and reached its peak with the invasion of the nascent Jewish state by the Arab armies following the state’s establishment, in May 1948, in two previous articles:

Intelligence Documents Reveal What Ben-Gurion Knew, May 14, 2020

Israel’s Secret war for Syria’s Independence, June 20, 2018

René Neville, the French consul in Jerusalem, rightly termed Clayton and other British agents as “string pullers” and the Arab leaders who were maneuvered by them as “squeezers of the trigger.”

In the wake of the defeat of the Arab states in the 1948 war, storm winds of political, social and economic unrest swept the old regimes in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. One of the victims of the upheavals was Jamil Mardam. In December, following an acute political-economic crisis in Syria, he was again forced to step down as prime minister. He spent his last years in Cairo, where he died in 1960, with the chapter in his life in which he collaborated with the French and the Zionists remaining unknown until now.

In February 1947, Ben-Gurion met in London with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and praised Mardam as a moderate Arab leader. Probably, had circumstances permitted, Ben-Gurion would have expressed himself even more warmly about the Syrian prime minister.

Meir Zamir is professor emeritus at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His book on the secret Anglo-French war in the Middle East and Israel’s establishment will be published in 2021. His article “The Role of MI6 in Egypt’s Decision to Go to War Against Israel in May 1948” was published in May 2019 in the British journal Intelligence and National Security.

APPENDICES

  1. April 15, 1944    Secret agreement between the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Sa’id  and the Syrian Foreign Minister, Jamil Mardam Bey

We, Nuri al-Sa’id and Jamil Mardam Bey, have agreed:

  1. To work together for Syria’s liberation from the yoke of the colonizers and for the unity of these countries.
  2. To strive for the formation of an Arab Hashemite state including Syria.
  3. The head of the kingdom will be and can only be Jamil Mardam. The latter, who will be the sole leader of the kingdom, will be second in rank after the designated sovereign.
  4. Nuri Sa’id undertakes to work towards the realization of this plan and to accept the authority of the chosen sovereign.
  5.  The two parties undertake to respect this agreement, which God is the only witness thereof.

                                                       Signed: Nuri al-Sa’id and Jamil Mardam

Two copies made

Author’s note: An identical agreement was signed again on September 15, 1944.

2.  March 5, 1945        Extract from a letter from Emir Abdullah to his nephew, the Iraqi Regent Abd al-Ilah

Greetings. You are most certainly aware that we placed our hopes on Jamil Mardam’s promises and on his agreement with Nuri Pasha. Today the Prime Minister gave me positive proof of Jamil’s treason and double dealing. In reality, he only reached agreement with Nuri Pasha through ruses and hypocrisy. I think that this whole intrigue, from start to finish, is some mischief on the part of General Spears, the British ex-Minister Plenipotentiary in Syria. May God protect you.

                                                                                    Your Uncle   S/ Abdullah

  • March 26, 1945        Extract from a letter from Emir Abdullah to his nephew, the Iraqi Regent Abd al-Ilah                                                                                   

My beloved son,

  I repeat it to you today and advise you to avoid slipping into the chasm the Jews and Americans want to throw us into. You know just how well-intentioned I was towards the Jews and how hard I tried to find agreement or understanding with them. When the occasion presented itself to them, they showed zeal toward Shukri al-Quwatli and Jamil Mardam. I am convinced that the latter is still betraying us despite all the money he has taken from us. The Jews today only seek to reach an understanding with all the Arab presidents except me, because they are convinced that I would not work against them.  They support them to the Americans, neglecting me, as if my success was not theirs.

4.   August 20, 1945   Mardam’s letter of resignation                                              

Secret                                                                                                              

                                                From Jamil Mardam Bey

                                    to         H.E. the President of the Republic

            I have just found out about the letter my colleague the Minister of the Interior kindly addressed to you and in which he makes unfounded accusations against me. 

            I do not seek to exonerate myself, because my innocence is clear to see. Only those with evil intentions doubt it; but I beg Your Excellency to ask my colleague to provide proof and I will then be ready to account to anyone. I am convinced that there is no proof and that there are only rumors (rumors spread by lackeys of the French, enemies of this fatherland) who infiltrate government services and populist circles to reach the ears of my colleague the Minister of the Interior.

            I challenge anyone to show me the weak point in the policy I have followed. I do not see anyone with the right to complain about me except for the French colonizers who I have the honor of treating as my implacable enemy. I cannot allow or accept being accused by a colleague on simple suppositions.

            Anyway, while handing you my resignation I want to provide Parliament with an explanation.

August 20, 1945                                                          The Minister of Foreign Affairs

                                                                                                S/ Jamil Mardam Bey

5.   January 1, 1946    President Quwatli informs his Cabinet members of British pressure to agree to Greater Syria plan

 Secret

From the President of the Syrian Republic

to the noble Council of Ministers

     The mission of General Clayton, head of the Special Section of Arab Middle Eastern Affairs, has two aims:

     First: to convince us that Syrian unity will come about;

     Second: to seek an understanding between Syria and Turkey.

     For the understanding with Turkey we have confirmed to him that we have given our agreement and that we want it within the limits of the British memorandum that has been presented to us.

     As for unity, he presents us with two plans:

     – Syrian unity including Syria, Transjordan and part of Palestine with a plebiscite on the nature of the regime and on the choice of king if the regime is a monarchy.

     – Arab unity including Iraq, Syria, Transjordan and part of Palestine. Then the King would be Faisal (King of Iraq) and there would be three guardians to the throne. Laws, rules, armies etc., would be unified.

     Having highlighted our clear will for independence and having asked his opinion on France’s attitude and the agreement concluded with it, he said, “This is not under discussion; when you want unity, everything will be settled with France.”

     Our replies were negative but were tied to Great Britain’s attitude towards us by comparison with France. If Great Britain attained the removal of French troops from Syria and Lebanon it will then be possible for us to discuss the plan he has presented. Before that, any discussion is impossible.

                                                     The President of the Syrian Republic

                                                                                     S/ Shukri al-Quwatli               

6.   November 29, 1946    Syrian Prime Minister Sa’adallah al-Jabiri is threatened by top MI6 agent

Top secret   

                                                      The Syrian Legation in Cairo

                                                         To the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

The insolence with which the Friend of the Arabs, General Clayton, received me today was beyond a joke.

            He was not bothered about laughing at all our efforts, saying,

            “You are playing around (like children), you don’t know what you want or where you are going.” I was unable to hold a conversation with him; in fact, he seemed to have only one aim, which was to get me angry. I remained calm and replied,

            “I have nothing to do with you. I represent an independent country; you yourself are the agent of a friendly power, but for me you are not its representative, so I cannot recognize you.”

            He shot back, “You will know me well enough once I’m in Damascus.” In reality, I could not know where this conversation was leading; it seems that he unveiled his whole plan during the course of a conversation he had with him, to our friend Jamil whom he immediately sent to you.

November 29, 1946

                                                                                                 Sa’adallah al-Jabiri

7. January 17, 1947     The Syrian Ambassador in London informed Mardam on British suspicions of secret Franco-Zionist collaboration in Syria

The Syrian Foreign Ministry – Damascus

            British politicians fear above all a Franco-Jewish agreement and they are convinced, here, that France itself is conducting a skewed policy with them and that Socialist-Communist intrigues will not allow the reaching of a sincere agreement between France and Great Britain. And this agreement, if it is ever signed, will not have any real importance for France has for a long time before being on an equal footing with Great Britain, in the event of a global conflict with the Soviet Union.  For all these reasons, they are convinced that France, which has been unable to maintain its position in the Middle East, would shake hands with the devil himself to stop Great Britain signing as the more important party. They admit that if there is agreement with the Jews, already accomplished or possible, the help that France will provide to the Jews will be powerful, even if the modalities remain secret.

            Also, they are very closely watching the two French legations in Damascus and Beirut, because they are in areas favourable to Jewish activity. The British spy on everything that happens, fearing that the French Consulates, with their money, will come to the aid of the Jewish rabbis but, so far, nothing tangible has confirmed this.

            The leaders here force us to register these realities in order to know what view of them we should take: as enemies who only want to hunt and intimidate us.

17 January 1947                                                          The Minister Plenipotentiary

Negib el Armanazi 

8. May 8, 1947   Mardam to Armanazi on the French Legation’s activities in Damascus                                               

                                                Top secret

            Rest assured that the French Legation in Damascus is closely supervised: its staff will be unable to undertake any action likely to harm us.

            As for the content of the advice officials in the Foreign Office gave us, I am convinced that its intention is to hide their intentions, for, it is quite clear to us that from now on the French are completely incapable of doing anything in Syria.  For, as you know, they do not know their lines of action; they begin with culture, cinema, religious schools and all that is simply “small beer” (unimportant). But our English friends warn us of the French intrigues towards the Bedouins and the Druze and the truth is that it is they themselves who incite them against us.  Well, at the moment, we cannot subdue them for fear of the English who protect them, and if they served the French now we would not hesitate for a minute to subdue them.

            The reply you will give to the Foreign Office is that we thank them for their directives and advice which we will take into consideration.

            But the thing we would like you to make them take note of is that we do not want the Legation of Great Britain to be more important than the French Legation, because it is important to us to bring an end to this foreign Legation movement in our country and when we want to have contact with a foreign Power we have our Ministers Plenipotentiary there.

            The fact is that insulting France no longer worries people here, because they are now convinced that all those who attack the French are simply instruments of the English, so the Syrian government wants to make people understand that it is not a British tactic, but that must not stop us observing French activity and ending any movement by France in our country.

8 May 1947                                         The Foreign Minister

                                                                                                                                                  Jamil Mardam Bey

9.   June 3, 1947    Mardam’s complaint to Bevin about activities of British agents

Top secret                                                                                                                   

                                             From the Syrian Legation in London

                                                to H.E. the British Foreign Secretary

Dear Minister,

     For the seventh time I call Your Excellency’s attention to the intrigues of British officers who have the upper hand over the army of Transjordan from where aggression is directed against Syria and Syrian independence.

     What makes the situation even more delicate is that the plot organized against Syria is welcomed by all the British officials in the Near East.

     Neither the Syrian government, nor the Syrian people, would ever have thought that Great Britain had helped Syria drive France out so that British sovereignty could replace French sovereignty in Syria, for Transjordan and King Abdullah, as is well understood, are working to achieve British sovereignty and British interests and no more.

     To prove our good intentions, I place before Your Excellency the Soviet memorandum which was presented to us and to which we have so far refused to reply.

     But if the British Government were to push us to despair, we would have recourse to any foreign aid whatsoever to safeguard our independence which, today, is threatened more than at any other time in the past.

     I hope that you will want to undertake an act that will put an end to the state of extreme tension which, in the Middle East, creates a man with illegitimate appetites who acts with the acknowledged inspiration and advice of the British.

Yours sincerely,

                                                                          The President of the Council,

                                                                               The Minister of Foreign Affairs

                                                                                         Jamil Mardam Bey

10. 18 November 1947     Mardam on British consent to an Arab invasion of the Jewish state

Top secret

From H.M. Minister [Alex Kirdbride], Amman

To: Foreign Office

Syrian Prime Minister [Mardam] telephoned Samir [Rifai-Jordanian P.M.] on the evening of 15th November and said that the British representative in Damascus had informed him that His Majesty’s Government would have no objection to the invasion of Palestine by the Arab States once the British forces had withdrawn. He asked Samir if he could obtain confirmation at Amman that this was the case.

I informed Samir that I could not confirm the statement and that I did not believe that His Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires at Damascus had said any such thing. I pointed out that Jamil’s request for confirmation was suspicious and would not have been made if a statement of the kind reported had been made in such ambiguous terms.

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