This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
by Mark Curtis
In 1956–7 there were at least two Anglo–American plots which planned to overthrow governments in Syria; although neither was ultimately carried out, the planning behind them illustrates Anglo–American preparedness to work again with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The problem for Britain in Syria was that, following a series of military coups since the late 1940s, a succession of governments included officials of the nationalist Baath Party, who supported Nasser’s anti-imperial policies and promoted close relations with Moscow. In February 1956, the Foreign Office’s Levant department tersely summarised the situation:
‘Governments [in Syria] are unstable; the army is deeply engaged in politics and increasingly under the influence of the extreme left; and there is much communist penetration. The Syrians have just concluded a considerable arms deal with the Soviet bloc. There is every reason to try and save Syria before it is too late.’
But, the same report acknowledged, overt action by Britain would be a dangerous move ‘because of Arab nationalist reactions, international repercussions and the possible strengthening in Syria of those elements who are against us.’ The Foreign Office’s preference was therefore to enlist Iraq, ‘a brother Arab’, to the task of ‘winning Syria to our camp’.
The following month, the British Cabinet agreed that a serious attempt should be made to establish a more pro-Western Syrian government – to ‘swing Syria on to the right path’, as Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, Michael Wright, put it. Working in conjunction with the US, ‘Operation Straggle’ was an ambitious plot to promote a coup in Damascus. As MI6’s deputy director, George Young, described it:
‘Turkey would create border incidents; the Iraqis would stir up the desert tribes and the Parti Populaire Syrien in Lebanon would infiltrate the borders until mass confusion justified the use of invading Iraqi troops.’
The British ambassador in Damascus, Sir John Gardener, also wanted to provide funds to the anti-Left Arab Liberation Party to stifle moves to create a union between Egypt and Syria. An additional feature of the British plotting was to ‘attach Syria to the Iraqi state’, Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd told Anthony Eden. This should not be attempted now, Lloyd stated, but ‘we may want to go further at a later stage in connection with the development of the fertile crescent’.
As well as approaching tribes along the Syria–Iraq border, Operation Straggle involved trying to enlist the Muslim Brotherhood in creating unrest in the country. British officials were well aware of the rising political power of the Syrian Brotherhood; in December 1954, Gardener told Anthony Eden, then foreign secretary, of ‘monster demonstrations arranged by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria’, which took place after Egypt’s clampdown against the movement. Another official noted that ‘the Brotherhood have succeeded in a comparatively short time in establishing an influential position in Syria.’ But the effects of this were not positive to British interests since they would ‘only … increase existing tendencies to nationalism and anti-Western feeling.’ Thus, once again, similar to policy in Iran and Egypt, Britain was covertly conniving with Islamist forces to achieve a specific objective while recognising them as being detrimental to long-term British interests.
Operation Straggle, which had involved months of planning, was eventually foiled in October 1956 by the Syrian authorities, who arrested some of the main conspirators. But British plotting with the Americans against Syria resumed soon after the failed invasion of Egypt, and by September 1957 a report entitled the ‘Preferred Plan’ was circulated by a secret working group meeting in Washington. The planning was boosted by the Syrian government’s signing of a technical aid agreement with the Soviet Union and the appointment of a pro-communist figure as army chief of staff. Despite the misgivings about the Muslim Brotherhood, this new plan once again involved soliciting them and stirring them up in Damascus; the Brotherhood’s involvement would be key to provoking an internal uprising as a prelude to the Syrian government’s overthrow. Backed at the highest level in Britain, the plot envisaged arming ‘political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities’ – which is likely to have included the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Preferred Plan, carried out in coordination with the Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese intelligence services, again aimed at stirring up the tribes on the Syria–Iraq border and also the Druze community in the south of the country, as well as utilising Syrian MI6 agents working inside the Baath Party. The plan read:
‘CIA is prepared and SIS [Secret Intelligence Service or MI6] will attempt to mount minor sabotage and coup de main incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals.’
Also, ‘CIA and SIS should use their capabilities in both the psychological and action fields to augment tension’ in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The plan also incorporated another typical feature of British agitation: violent ‘false flag’ operations, blame for which would be pinned on official enemies, which had proved successful in removing Musaddiq from power in Iran. Thus staged frontier incidents and border clashes would provide a pretext for Iraqi and Jordanian military intervention. Syria had ‘to be made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments.’ This meant operations taking the form of ‘sabotage, national conspiracies and various strong-arm activities’ – to be blamed on Damascus.
The Anglo–American plan also involved Prime Minister Harold Macmillan authorising the assassination of key Syrian officials. ‘A special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals’, the plan read, continuing, ‘Their removal should be accomplished early in the course of the uprising and intervention and in the light of circumstances existing at the time.’ The head of Syrian military intelligence, the chief of the Syrian general staff and the leader of the Syrian Communist Party were all approved as targets. Yet in the end the 1957 plan never went ahead, mainly because Syria’s Arab neighbours could not be persuaded to take action. The plan was ditched in early October in favour of a strategy of ‘containment plus’, which involved enlisting pro-Western Arab states and exiled opposition groups to maintain pressure against Syria.