THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE 1950s
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Syria began gravitating to the left after having a series of conservative regimes. The Damascus government was the only Middle Eastern regime which turned down American economic and military aid. By accepting assistance, a country generally agreed to receive American military advisers. According to the American Mutual Security Act, a foreign nation receiving aid was encouraged "to foster private initiative and competition (laissez faire)," something which Syria rejected. According to James Moose, Jr., the American ambassador in Damascus, a pro- communist or leftist-leaning government would also threaten American allies in the area.
Thus, the Syrian regime posed a threat to the United States. National Security Council member Wilbur Eveland was assigned to clandestine operations in the Middle East. Another CIA operative in the region was Archibald Roosevelt, cousin of Kermit Roosevelt who had orchestrated the coup against Mossadegh in Teheran only a few years before. Eveland and Roosevelt met with the Syrian Conservative Party leader and former foreign minister Michail Ilyan in July 1956. They planned to purge pro-communist and leftist sympathizers and to restore a conservative regime to Syria. Ilyan agreed to accept American aid to help topple the opposition leaders.
Three weeks later, the Egyptian nationalist President Gamal Nasser announced that Cairo was nationalizing the Suez Canal. The Eisenhower administration responded by freezing Egyptian assets in the United States, and Britain and France reacted angrily as well. Because of Egypt's close alliance to Syria, the CIA moved up the timetable to October 25 orchestrate a coup in Damascus. The CIA along with Llyan plotted with senior Syrian army officers to seize Damascus and other major cities and that Colonel Kabbani would be placed in power. The CIA kicked in $167,000 for the operation to implement the operation. Once the military regime was established, the CIA promised that the United States immediately would recognize the new government. The next day, the White House approved the coup. But the operation was postponed five days to October 30. Just prior to the military operation in Syrian, the Israeli army attacked Egypt and was moving to seize the Suez Canal. The coup was canceled.
Tensions between the United States and the Syrian government spilled over to 1957. In January, CIA Director Dulles wrote that the Syrian cabinet had "an increasing trend toward a decidedly leftist, pro- Soviet government." In mid-1957 the Defense Department recommended a coup against Syria's leftist leaders.
While plans to overthrow the Syrian government were transpiring, next door in Jordan King Hussein fired Prime Minister Suleiman Nabulsi after it was discovered that a coup against the king was planned by Egypt, Syria, and Palestinians in Jordan. While Hussein was overtly pro-Western, Nablusi followed a neutral course, opposing foreign aid from both the United States or the Soviet Union.
Following the dismissal of Nabulsi, riots broke out in several Jordanian cities, and Hussein blamed pro-communist leaders with orchestrating the violence. On the other side of the globe, Eisenhower sent a fleet of warships -- 18 ships including an aircraft carrier -- into the eastern Mediterranean. The CIA followed by providing secret payments in the millions of dollars each year to Hussein. The king reciprocated by providing the CIA with intelligence reports of the region. After 20 years, the CIA terminated its payments to Hussein.
Soviet aid to Damascus increased in the late 1950s. Moscow provided Syria with both economic aid and military hardware. The Eisenhower administration responded by referring to Syria as a Soviet satellite and a brutal left wing regime. Eisenhower once again dispatched American warships to the region and sent military equipment to Jordan Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. The Soviets claimed that the United States also amassed approximately 50,000 soldiers in Turkey alongside the Syrian border. At the same time, the Soviet Union continued to send more military hardware to Syria as well as to Yemen and Egypt.
The CIA also focused its attention on Egypt, plotting to overthrow Nasser. In January 1957 CIA Director Dulles and Kermit Roosevelt met the heads of state of Saudi Arabia and Iraq and promised them financial support if they would overthrow the Egyptian president. The CIA officials promised Saudi King Saud that the United States would work to weaken Syrian influence in the Middle East. Ghosn Zogby, CIA station chief in Beirut, frequently met with security officials from Britain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. At one meeting, a British official acknowledged that assassination teams were being trained to murder Nasser. In addition Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had directed CIA officials in the Middle East to assassinate the Egyptian president. In 1957 and 1958 the Egyptian and Syrian governments announced that they had uncovered two assassination plots by the United States, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
While these crises continued in the Middle East, the Eisenhower administration and media pointed to the Soviet Union as the cause of tension in the Middle East and particularly in Syria and Egypt. The White House accused Moscow of plotting to dominate the region. The administration maintained that the sole reason for American presence in the area was to repel Soviet hegemony.
Despite these accusations, the Soviet Union called for peace talks with the United States, France, and Britain on at least three occasions between February and September 1957. Moscow also renounced the use of military action in the Middle East.
In January 1958, Syrian and Egypt announced the formation of the United Arab League. Two weeks later, Iraq and Jordan formed the Arab Union. But less than a year later, the Arab League fell apart after a coup overthrew the Iraqi king.
Lebanon continued to be America's closest ally in the Middle East. In the 1952 election, the CIA funded conservative candidates, and in 1957 conservative President Camille Chamoun received CIA money to help support candidates running for the Chamber of Deputies. The CIA also assisted in planning the campaigns of conservative politicians. With conservative members of the chamber backing their president, Chamoun was able to amend the constitution so that in 1958 he could seek another six year term.
In the spring of 1958 Lebanon was on the verge of civil war. Lebanese nationalists increasingly opposed Chamoun's pro-American stance as well as his tyrannical regime. While Chamoun was a Christian, the majority of Lebanese were followers of Islam. Demonstrators took to the streets, clashed with police, and vandalized shops in major cities throughout the country.
In July American troops were dispatched to Lebanon to restore order. Hundreds of aircraft and ships participated in the operation. In the first few days, nearly 11,000 Americans occupied Lebanon. Two weeks later, there were another 4,000 American troops, larger than the size of the Lebanese military. In neighboring countries, CIA transmitters broadcasted propaganda messages into Lebanon.
By the end of July, General Chehab was elected by the Chamber of Deputies and replaced Chamoun as president. Peace was restored by the new pro-American repressive regime, and American troops withdrew three months later.