Husni al-Za'im

Husni al-Za'im
حسني الزعيم
President of Syria
In office
11 April 1949  14 August 1949
Preceded by Shukri al-Kuwatli
Succeeded by Hashim al-Atassi
Prime Minister of Syria
In office
17 April 1949  26 June 1949
Preceded by Khalid al-Azm
Succeeded by Muhsin al-Barazi
Personal details
Born 1897
Aleppo, Syria
Died 14 August 1949 (aged 52)
Damascus, Syria
Profession Statesman, soldier
Religion Sunni Islam
Military service
Service/branch Ottoman Army
French Army
Syrian Army
Years of service 1917–1949
Rank Brigadier General
Battles/wars 1948 Arab–Israeli War

Husni al-Za'im (1897 – 14 August 1949) (Arabic: حسني الزعيم) was a Syrian military man and politician. Husni al-Za'im, whose family is of mixed Turkish and Kurdish ancestry,[1] had been an officer in the Ottoman Army. After France instituted its colonial mandate over Syria after the First World War, he became an officer in the French Army. After Syria's independence in 1946 he was made Chief of Staff, and was ordered to lead the Syrian Army into war with the Israeli Army in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The defeat of the Arab league forces in that war shook Syria and undermined confidence in the country's chaotic parliamentary democracy.

Coup of 1949

On 30 March 1949, al-Za'im seized power in a bloodless coup d'état. There are "highly controversial" allegations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered the coup.[2] Most of the evidence currently available suggests that the decision to initiate a coup was Za'im's alone, but Za'im benefited from some degree of American assistance in planning the operation.[3]

Syria's President, Shukri al-Kuwatli, was briefly imprisoned, but then released into exile in Egypt. Al-Za'im also imprisoned many political leaders, such as Munir al-Ajlani, whom he accused of conspiring to overthrow the republic. The coup was carried out with discreet backing of the American embassy, and possibly assisted by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, although al-Za'im himself is not known to have been a member. Among the officers that assisted al-Za'im's takeover was Adib al-Shishakli and Sami al-Hinnawi, both of whom would later become military leaders of the country.

Al-Za'im's takeover, the first military coup in the history of Syria, would have lasting effects, as it shattered the country's fragile and flawed democratic rule, and set off a series of increasingly violent military revolts. Two more would follow in August and December 1949.


His secular policies and proposals for the emancipation of women through granting them the vote and suggesting they should give up the Islamic practice of veiling, created a stir among Muslim religious leaders (Women's suffrage was only achieved during the third civilian administration of Hashim al-Atassi, a staunch opponent of military rule). Raising taxes also aggrieved businessmen, and Arab nationalists were still smouldering over his signing of a cease-fire with Israel, as well as his deals with US oil companies for building the Trans-Arabian Pipeline. He made a peace overture to Israel offering to settle 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, in exchange for border modifications along the cease fire line and half of Israel's Lake Tiberias.[4] Settling the refugees was made conditional on sufficient outside assistance for the Syrian economy. The overture was answered very slowly by Jerusalem and not treated seriously.[5]

Lacking popular support, al-Za'im was overthrown after just four and a half months by his colleagues, al-Shishakli and al-Hinnawi. As al-Hinnawi took power as leader of a military junta, Husni al-Za'im was swiftly spirited away to Mezze prison in Damascus, and executed along with Prime Minister Muhsin al-Barazi.


al-Za'im worked hard to abolish wearing the fez, claiming that it was outdated headwear taken from the days of the Ottoman Empire. He is credited for giving support to women's the right to vote and run for public office in Syria. The law had been debated at the Syrian Parliament since 1920 and no leader dared to support it, except Zaim.

Once, senior Muslim clerics demanded an audience with the president, objecting to the increasingly liberal lifestyle being promoted by Syrian women. One issue of particular concern was the mixing of men and women at the Grand Hotel in Bludan.

Zaim said yes, granting them an audience at the same hotel. When the clerics walked in that evening, he had them seated around a dining table, then snapped at one of the waiters, "Please prepare dinner, bring the whiskey, and call in the dancing girls!" Zaim looked back at his guests, who were horrified at his attitude, and no longer dared demand enforcement of Islamic codes. During the 137 days of his rule in Syria, however, Husni al-Za'im never executed anybody. He did have creative ways of punishing those who disobeyed him, however. When the quality of bread dropped to unacceptable levels, Zaim ordered all bakers to walk on the gravel, barefoot, until blood flowed from their feet.[6]


Husni al-Za’im's wife Nouran, was the first lady of Syria from April to August 1949. The marriage took place in 1947, two years before Husni al-Zaim became President of the Republic. In order to please his young wife, Zaim asked her 11-year-old sister Kariman to live with them in Damascus. He treated her as a sister as well, and sent her to the Lycee Laique (one of the finest preparatory high schools in town). Another sister Orfan, would visit them often, and took up the habit of playing with a guard, Abdel Hamid Sarraj (the chief of security at the president's office who went on to become head of the intelligence bureau and minister of interior during the union years with Egypt 1958–1961).

During the incidence of al-Za'im's arrest, and when the guards came to arrest him, Zaim got dressed and said goodbye to his pregnant wife. "Relax" he asked her, "I will be back soon to receive our first baby together!" Niveen (his daughter) said, "My mother and aunt told me that the couch they had been sitting on was riddled with bullets. Sarraj knew in advance that an attack was coming and told them to go upstairs to keep them from harm's way." Less than a week before the coup—which led to the execution of Za'im and his Prime Minister Muhsen al-Barazi—Nouran's cousins came to him, saying that they had confirmed intelligence information, saying that Sami al-Hinnawi (his comrade from the war of 1948) was planning to have him killed. Zaim summoned Hinnawi and directly asked, "Sami, my brothers-in-law are telling me you want to kill me?" Hinnawi replied, "Impossible. How can I kill my leader and friend?" After the president was arrested on 14 August, Nouran and her sister were kept under house arrest for an entire week. "No food was brought into the house," said Niveen. A Senegalese guard tried helping them by passing his own food through the window.[6]


  1. Rejwan, Nissim (2008), Arabs in the Mirror: Images and Self-Images from Pre-Islamic to Modern Times, University of Texas Press, p. 152, ISBN 0292774451
  2. Wilford, Hugh (2013). America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Basic Books. pp. 94, 101. ISBN 9780465019656.
  3. Wilford, Hugh (2013). America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Basic Books. pp. 100–103, 107–108. ISBN 9780465019656.
  4. Jeffrey Sosland, Cooperating Rivals: The Riparian Politics of the Jordan River Basin, SUNY Press, 2007 p.32
  5. Elmer Berger, Peace for Palestine: First Lost Opportunity,University Press of Florida, 1993 p.264 n.7
  6. 1 2 Farah Sudki, The story of Nouran and Husni al-Za'im, Forward Magazine, November 2008
Preceded by
Shukri al-Kuwatli
President of Syria
1949(4 months and 3 days)
Succeeded by
Hashim al-Atassi (military rule)
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