Hashim al-Atassi

Hashim al-Atassi

name = Hashim al-Atassi
هاشم الأتاسي

imagesize =
order = President of Syria
primeminister =
vicepresident =
term_start = December 21 1936
term_end = July 7 1939
predecessor = Muhammad 'Ali Bay al-'Abid
successor = Bahij al-Khatib
term_start2 = December 1949
term_end2 = December 24 1951
predecessor2 = Husni al-Za'im (Military Rule)
successor2 = Fawzi Selu (Military Rule)
term_start3 = March 1 1954
term_end3 = September 6 1955
predecessor3 = Adib Shishakli (Military Rule)
successor3 = Shukri al-Quwatli
office4 = Prime Minister of Syria
term_start4 = August 17, 1949
term_end4 = December 24, 1949
predecessor4 = Rida Pasha al-Rikabi
successor4 = Alaa al-Din al-Durubi Basha
term_start5 = May, 1920
term_end5 = July 28, 1920
predecessor5 = Muhsin al-Barazi
successor5 = Nazim al-Kudsi
birth_date = 1875
birth_place = Damascus, Syria
death_date = December 5, 1960 (aged 85)
death_place = Damascus, Syria
spouse =
party = National Bloc
religion = Islam

Hashim Bay Khalid al-Atassi (1875 -December 5, 1960) ( _ar. هاشم الأتاسي) was a Syrian nationalist, statesman and its President during 1936-1939, 1950-1951, and 1954.

Background and early career

He was born in Homs to a large, landowning and politically active family. He studied public administration at the Mülkiye Academy in Istanbul, and graduated in 1895. He began his political career in 1888 in the Ottoman province of Beirut, and through the years up to 1918 served as Governor of Homs, Hama, Baalbek, Anatolia, and Jaffa, which included the then-small suburb of Tel Aviv. In 1920, after the World War I defeat of the Turks, he was elected chairman of the Syrian National Congress, the equivalent of a modern parliamentFact|date=March 2008. On March 8, 1920 that body declared independence as a constitutional monarchy, under Faisal I. He became prime minister during this short-lived period, for French occupation soon followed under the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and a League of Nations Mandate (Also see: San Remo conference). During his tenure, Atassi appointed the statesman Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar, one of the leaders of the Syrian nationalist movement against the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as Foreign Minister. He delegated Shahbandar to formulate alliances between Syria and Europe, in a vain attempt to prevent the implementation of a French Mandate. France moved quickly to reverse Syrian independence. The French High Commissioner Henri Gouraud presented Faisal with an ultimatum, demanding the surrender of Aleppo to the French Army, the dismantling of the Syrian Army, the adaptation of the French franc in Syria, and the dissolution of the Atassi Government. Shahbandar’s efforts to compromise with Gouraud proved futile, and Atassi’s cabinet was dissolved on July 24, 1920, when the French defeated the Syrian Army at the Battle of Maysalun and imposed their mandate over Syria.

The French Mandate

After the dissolution of the Kingdom by the French, Atassi met with a group of notables in October 1927 and founded the National Bloc, which was to lead the Syrian nationalist movement in Syria for the next twenty years. The Bloc was a political coalition movement that sought full independence for Syria through diplomatic rather than violent resistance. It founders were a group of landowners, lawyers, civil servants, and Ottoman-trained professionals from Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Lattakia. Atassi was elected permanent President of the National Bloc. In 1928, he was also elected President of the Constituent Assembly, and charged with laying out Syria's first republican constitution. The assembly was dissolved by the French high commissioner in May 1930 because of its adherence to the 1920 proclamation, and Atassi was imprisoned by the French for several months at Arwad Island. After being freed, he renominated himself for the presidency but lost the first round of elections and dropped out of the second, giving his endorsement to the independent Mohammad Ali al-Abid, who became president in the summer of 1932. In 1928 and 1932, he became a deputy for Homs in Parliament.

First President of the Republic

Atassi initially supported the Abid regime but became disenchanted from the new President when Abid appointed two French stooges, Haqqi al-Azm as Prime Minister and Subhi Barakat as Speaker of Parliament. In 1934, Abid negotiated a treaty with France that promised gradual independence from the mandate but kept the Syrian Mountains under French control. Atassi severely criticized the treaty, arguing that no independence was valid unless it encompassed all of Syria’s territory. He called for a 60-day strike to protest Abid’s proposed treaty. The Bloc mobilized massive street-wide support for Atassi’s call and most shops and enterprises closed down and riots raged daily, crippling the economy and embarrassing Abid before the international community. In defeat, the French government agreed to recognize the National Bloc leaders as the sole representatives of the Syrian people and invited Hashim al-Atassi for diplomatic talks in Paris. On March 22, 1936, he headed a senior Bloc delegation to France, and over a six-month period, managed to formulate a Franco-Syrian treaty of independence. Atassi’s treaty guaranteed emancipation over a twenty-five year period, with full incorporation of previously autonomous territories into greater Syria. In return, Syria pledged to support France in times of war, offer the use of her air space, and the right for France to maintain military bases on Syrian territory. Other political, cultural, and economic attachments were made and Atassi returned to Syria in triumph on September 27, 1936. Hailed as a national hero, he was elected President of the Republic by a majority vote in November 1936, the first head of state of the modern state of Syria.

World War II

However, by the end of 1938 it became clear that the French government had no intention of ratifying the treaty, partly due to fears that if it relinquished its colonies in the Middle East, it would be outflanked in a war with Nazi Germany that was brewing in Europe. Atassi resigned on July 7, 1939 as the French continued to procrastinate about full Syrian independence and the withdrawal of French troops, and public discontent at the delay boiled over onto the streets. Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar returned to Syria at this time and agitated against Atassi and the National Block for failing to secure French ratification. Atassi's resignation was also influenced by the French decision to cede the Syrian province of Alexandretta (current day Iskenderun in Hatay Province) to Turkey, enraging Syrian nationalists. The ex-President retired to his native Homs and spent one year in seclusion, refusing to take part in political activity. Following his resignation, several years of instability and French military rule followed. The 40s overall were dominated by the politics and machinations of World War II and its aftermath. Syria was occupied by British and the Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle which did not leave until 1946. In an attempt at appeasing the Syrians, de Gaulle promised independence and visited Syria to elicit support for France. He visited Hashim al-Atassi in Homs and invited him to resume the presidency, assuring the veteran leader that France wanted to turn a new page in her relations with Syria. Atassi refused, however, claiming that his recent experience showed that France could not be trusted in her promises of independence. In 1943, rather than re-nominate himself, Atassi endorsed the election of Shukri al-Kuwatli, a well-established Damascus leader who had risen to prominence under Atassi’s patronage, as President of the Republic.

Atassi took no active part in the final struggle for independence but supported the Kuwatli regime, which lasted from 1943-1949. In 1947, while Syria was facing a prolonged cabinet crisis, President Kuwatli called on his old mentor to form a government of national unity. Due to a tense political atmosphere, however, and increasing anti-Kuwatli sentiment within political circles, Atassi was unable to intervene to save the administration. He also argued with President Kuwatli over presidential authority and conditioned that it would have to be curtailed if he became prime minister, but Kuwatli refused. In March 1949, the Kuwatli regime was overthrown in a coups d'etat by Chief of Staff Husni al-Za'im, who headed a military cabinet for four months before he himself was overthrown in August 1949. Following this development, leading politicians called on the aging Atassi to create a provisional government that would supervise national elections and the restoration of civilian rule. He complied and formed a cabinet that included representatives of all parties, including the leftist Baath Party of Michel Aflaq, who he appointed Minister of Agriculture. Under Atassi's auspices, a new electoral law was adopted, and women voted for the first time in the election of November 15-16, 1949. Atassi served as Prime Minister from August to December 1949, after which a parliamentary majority nominated him for a second term as president.

Second Presidential term

Atassi’s second term in office was even more turbulent than his first. He came into conflict with the politicians of Damascus for supporting the interests of the Aleppo notability and their desire to unite with Iraq. He supported the People’s Party of Aleppo and appointed its leader Nazim al-Qudsi as Prime Minister. The party was vehemently pro-Iraq and sought a union with Baghdad. One of the Atassi administration’s most memorable actions was the closure of Syria’s border with Lebanon to prevent the rampant influx of Lebanese goods into Syria. During the years 1949-1951, he undertook serious talks with the Iraqi government over the union issue. Atassi received senior Iraqi leaders in Damascus, including Crown Prince Abd al-Illah and King Faisal II, for technical discussions on union. This angered Syria's emerging military strongman Adib Shishakli who claimed that the Hashemite family of Baghdad should have no jurisdiction whatsoever over Damascus. Shishakli demanded a change in course, yet Atassi remained adamant and refused to submit to military pressure. In response, Shishakli arrested Atassi’s Chief of Staff Sami al-Hinnawi, a People's Party sympathizer, and several pro-Iraqi officers in the Syrian Army. He then demanded that one of his right-hand-men, Colonel Fawzi Selu, be appointed Minister of Defense, to ensure that pro-Iraqi influence in Syria remained under control. Fearing a head-on-clash with the military, Atassi reluctantly accepted the demands. In December 1951, however, President Atassi asked Ma’ruf al-Dawalibi, another member of the People’s Party, to form a cabinet. Dawalibi accepted the job but refused to give the Defense portfolio to Fawzi Selu. As a result, Shishakli launched another coup d’etat, arresting the Prime Minister and all members of the People’s Party. All ministers and pro-Hashemite statesmen were also abducted and Parliament was dissolved. In protest, President Atassi presented his resignation to the disbanded Parliament, refusing to submit it to Shishakli, on December 24, 1951.

Opposition to military rule

During the Shishakli years (1951-1954), Atassi spearheaded the opposition, claiming that the Shishakli regime was unconstitutional. He rallied the support of disgruntled officers, pro-Hashemite politicians, and members of all outlawed political parties, and called for a national uprising. In February 1954, Shishakli responded by arresting his son Adnan and placing the veteran statesman under house arrest. Such was Atassi's stature in Syria as its elder statesman, that Shishakli dared not subject him to the indignity of outright imprisonment. The officers mutinied, political leaders mobilized against the regime, and an armed uprising broke out in the Arab Mountain. On February 24, 1954, the regime of Adib al-Shishakli was finally overthrown. Six days later, on March 1, Atassi returned to Damascus from his siege in Homs and reassumed his duties as President. He restored the cabinet of Ma’ruf al-Dawalibi, who had been in-office before Shishakli’s coup in 1951, and restored all pre-Shishakli ambassadors, ministers, and parliamentarians to office. He tried to eradicate all traces of the four-year Shishakli dictatorship.

Final years

In what remained of his term, the 80-year old President tried to curb the influence of military officers and worked relentlessly against the leftist current that was brewing in Syria, characterized by socialist ideology, pro-Soviet sympathies, and blind adherence to the policies of the socialist leader of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser who were supported by members of the president's own powerful clan, such as Jamal al-Atassi and Nureddin al-Atassi. Atassi defied President Nasser and worked in vain to keep Syria out of his socialist orbit. Unlike most Arab leaders, Atassi believed that Nasser was too young, inexperienced and ideological to lead the Arab world. The Syrian President cracked down on Nasserite elements and clashed with his own pro-Nasser Prime Minister Sabri al-Asali, accusing him of wanting to transform Syria into an Egyptian satellite. In 1955, the President was tempted to accept the Baghdad Pact, an Anglo-American agreement aimed at containing Communism in the region, but Nasserite elements in the Syrian Army prevented him from doing so. He rallied in support of Hashemite Iraq, whose leaders were competing with Nasser over pan-Arab leadership, and was allied to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id. Atassi then dissolved the cabinet of Asali and appointed Fares al-Khoury, a moderate statesman, as Prime Minister. Atassi dispatched Khury to Egypt to present Syrian objections to Egyptian hegemony over Arab affairs.


President Hashim al-Atassi ended his term in September 1955 and retired from political life, elderly and infirm. In 1956, his son Adnan was implicated in an Iraqi-linked conspiracy that attempted to topple the pro-Nasser regime of President Shukri al-Kuwatli. Adnan was brought to court and sentenced to death on the charge of treason. Out of respect for his father, however, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It was believed that the officers who administered the military tribunal were especially harsh with the son out of vengeance for the father, for attempting to curb military authority during his second and third terms (1949-1951 and 1954-1955). The former President, however, refused to visit his son in prison, as a mark of resentment against the militarization of Syria. He died in his ancestral home in Homs during the union years with Egypt on December 6, 1960. His funeral was the largest in the history of his native Homs, attended by senior members of the United Arab Republic (UAR) regime of President Nasser.

It is noteworthy to mention that two members of his family, Luai al-Atassi and Nureddin al-Atassi, went on to serve as heads of state in the 1960s. Amid the confusion and violence that often formed the background of Syrian republican history, he stood out as a man of sound principles dedicated to constitutional methods of government. He is respected by all players in Syrian politics and is one of the few politicians of the pre-Baath era who was not criticized by the Baathists when they came to power in 1963. Atassi's biography was published in Syria in 2005 by his grandson. He did not leave behind any daily memoirs.


* Sami Moubayed "Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000" (Cune Press, Seattle, 2005).
* Encyclopædia Britannica

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