Shukri Al Quwatli was probably one of the most important political innovators in Syria and the statesman who helped create its national character even if Baathism eroded most of those attributes.

At a time when a colonial power redefined the definition of interference in the internal affairs of an aspiring republic, he fought the demoralisation of Syrian politics, which was held hostage to contradictory ambitions.

In the words of Sami Moubayed, a well-known Syrian historian, Al Quwatli was a “founding father'' akin to George Washington.

Al Quwatli assumed the presidency for two periods — 1943 to 1949 and 1955 to 1958.

He was loved and despised by many and accused of being a dictator or too willing to embark on a mega nationalist project that turned Syria over to Egypt's Jamal Abdul Nasser.

In fact, he was not a dictator but someone who understood the limits of his power. In time, his enemies outnumbered his friends but no one in Syria cared for the country more.

Political awakening

Al Quwatli was born into a family of prosperous landowners, merchants and bureaucrats of the popular Shaghur quarter.

He attended a Jesuit elementary school before transferring to an elite government-sponsored preparatory institution, the Maktab Anbar.

He then travelled to Istanbul to receive specialised training in public administration, even if he failed to secure an appointment within the Ottoman provincial administration, an experience that marked him in later life.

Upon his return to Damascus, Al Quwatli entered the political arena as a member of the National Bloc, a coalition of Arab parties that opposed French rule.

Like other young men in similar situations, Al Quwatli was involved in Al Fatat, an underground resistance group that sought independence.

He was arrested in 1916, jailed and tortured, which strengthened his resolve.

By all accounts, his courage under harsh treatment enhanced his reputation.

To refrain from divulging the names of his Al Fatat colleagues to the Turks, he attempted suicide. Naturally, the act vaulted him into the limelight.

At the end of the First World War, he was released and accepted a civil service position in the Arab Revolt government.

As he was active in the Istiqlal Party and the Damascus branch of the Palestinian-led Arab Club, French Mandate authorities sentenced Al Quwatli to death in July 1920, forcing him to flee to Egypt.

Before long, he moved to Geneva, where he co-established the Syrian-Palestinian Congress in exile but returned to Damascus in 1924 to lead the nascent Syrian Revolt (1925 to 1927).

He and Sultan Pasha Al Atrash, the revolt's protagonist who happened to be a Druze close to the Hashemites, fell out.

Al Quwatli was exiled once again in 1927, only to return under a general amnesty in 1932, as a protégé of Hashim Al Atassi.

Al Atassi became the nascent republic's first president (under an arrangement that granted partial autonomy to local officials) but was forced out in 1939 because he objected to continued French occupation, a writ that Al Quwatli assumed with gusto.

Without hyperbole, it may be correct to assert that Al Quwatli remade the National Bloc into the primary Syrian nationalist vehicle, which catapulted him to the presidency in 1943.

How he negotiated with Paris and what terms he accepted to gain full Syrian control over the semi-independent political entity have yet to be fully analysed, although he concluded an honourable treaty with France.

It took a lot of energy but by 1946 all French troops evacuated Syrian territory.

His popularity was so high that the constitutional one-term limit was amended in 1947 to allow his re-election a year later.

The vision for Lebanon

It is critical to address Al Quwatli's perceptions of what colonial French activities meant in the Levant.

Paris brazenly dissected Syria in 1920, attaching four significant parts to the newly created state of Lebanon, a decision that Damascus declared null and void at independence in 1946.

Still, Al Quwatli rejected any military attacks against its neighbour to reclaim these territories, once angrily declaring: “Shame on you for asking that! What's the difference anyhow between Syria and Lebanon? Are they not the same nation? These borders — created by the occupiers — mean nothing to us and we do not recognise them.

I won't ask for a single inch back from the Lebanese. Having Syrian territory with Lebanon is just like having Syrian territory with Syria.

And if the Lebanese need more land, all they need to do is ask, and they will get it!'' This was vintage Al Quwatli: to rise above the fray while insisting on intrinsic rights.

The Egyptian connection

Al Quwatli was likewise generous with Egypt in a policy that can only be explained as devotional towards Arabism.

Because of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Syria's poor military accomplishments, Al Quwatli was overthrown in a military coup in March 1949.

Inexperienced officers exiled the former head of state to Egypt as Damascus plunged into a chaotic period of successive coups that paralysed Syrian political life.

When relatively free elections were scheduled by Hashim Al Atassi in 1955, Al Quwatli made his way back to lead the re-branded National Party and was elected president. Although his position was largely ceremonial — because of the growing power of the military — Al Quwatli fell into the pan-Arab nationalist trap.

After 1952 and especially after 1956 Jamal Abdul Nasser's charisma saturated the entire Middle East and Al Quwatli succumbed to the ill-conceived union with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) on February 6, 1958. Given Nasser's “majesty'', the Egyptian would rule the union, which meant that the best Al Quwatli could aspire to was the honorific title of the “First Arab Citizen''.

At the height of the Arab Cold War, Nasser paraded his elusive might, even if the UAR's first anniversary proved to be wobbly.

Al Quwatli and Nasser quarrelled in 1959, with the Syrian being packed into exile once again, which effectively ended his political career.

Why Al Quwatli agreed to abandon Syria's parliamentary system for the sake of union with Egypt in 1958 is still a mystery.

According to one of Syria's elder statesmen and former foreign minister Salah Al Din Al Bitar, Damascus justified the merger for the same reasons that the Syrians advanced to the French in 1936 regarding the four districts in Lebanon: “What is the use of taking back four districts when one day all of Lebanon will be restored to the mother nation, Syria?'' Why bother with territory when one believed “that one day, at a certain point in history, we would be re-united with all of Lebanon'', which, following Al Bitar's reasoning, transcended all Arab lands.

Remarkably, both Al Quwatli and Al Bitar fell into lofty dreams which espoused supra-national objectives at a time when nation-building requirements were far more critical.

Fallout from the Soviet Union

Uncharacteristically, Al Quwatli placed Arab nationalism on the Soviet bloc's pedestal, allegedly because Moscow adopted an anti-Zionist and anti-Imperialist posture.

The Soviets supported Israel starting in 1948 and even when they stridently championed the Arab cause, they unabashedly subjugated all of the Muslim republics in Central Asia.

Although the Soviet Union offered Arab governments economic and military assistance, much of that aid was conditional, which did not deter Arab infatuation.

Beholden Arab governments such as Syria tolerated repeated Soviet incursions into sovereign countries.

In the aftermath of the November 1956 Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, Al Quwatli confided to an American diplomat that the “situation in Hungary is not our affair, and I do not care if 50 Budapests are destroyed'', which was unprincipled.

Al Quwatli's rationality towards a benefactor power was challenged in May 1957, after the Jordanian Crisis, which persuaded him that the radical Arab camp was being isolated.

Likewise, he assessed the 1958 Lebanon Crisis — where the Eisenhower administration opted to implement its doctrine — in terms of a national liberation struggle.

While Al Quwatli understood larger geopolitical interests, he still foresaw the quest for justice as a necessary ingredient of international harmony.

Legacy and impact on Syria

From his safe and free European and, eventually, Lebanese perches, Al Quwatli accused Nasser of imposing a dictatorship on Syria during the union experiment.

Given his background, Al Quwatli never understood and seldom accepted Nasser's land distribution programme and routine nationalisation initiatives towards small-scale industries, which clearly damaged Syria's economy.

At heart he was not a socialist and — it is critical to underscore this point — accepted that citizens were free to choose for themselves.

Undeniable excesses notwithstanding, especially after the Baath Party came to power, Al Quwatli never practised the type of arbitrary arrests that became common in Egypt or in the UAR.

On the contrary, he welcomed dissent as long as it was expressed through political parties.

In short, he led an emotional people at a time when the average Syrian needed rationality.

On September 28, 1961, army officers toppled the UAR regime. While Al Quwatli supported the coup, he could not but assume partial responsibility for that disaster.

According to historian Moubayed, Al Quwatli “wanted to apologise'' and when prompted to criticise Nasser, delivered a televised speech on October 23, 1961.

In the speech he was “very harsh on himself, on Nasser and the UAR regime, saying: ‘Unity does not mean an act of annexation and the presidential system does not mean the separation of the ruler from the ruled.'

He then addressed authorities who administered the union and called them ‘executioners of the people', claiming that ‘it is this system of rule that struck the foundations of unity. It is the system of rule that has 1,001 spies.'

He warned: ‘Had they [Nasser and his men] lasted longer, then the entire republic would have been divided.' He then addressed the Syrian people directly and said: ‘You are responsible for determining your own future.

Ranks and titles come and go but you the people are immortal! I have known you for a long time and am certain that you cannot be wrong.'

Then, in a moment of reality, Al Quwatli expressed for the first time in public, a self-evaluation of his own career and said: ‘I was able to serve your struggle as an ordinary citizen [1892-1943] and as a struggling soldier more than I was able to serve you when I was president and ruler.'

He concluded: “The most that one who has worked in the public field as a child, in youth and in old age can expect is that the ordinary citizen continues to be satisfied with him as a good citizen.''

Pleased with this soliloquy, Syria's new military masters discussed the option of offering Al Quwatli the presidency once again but advanced age prevented him from assuming any ceremonial duties.

When the Baath Party came to power in March 1963, Al Quwatli moved to Beirut and lived there until his death on June 30, 1967.

Coming so soon after the bitter Syrian military defeat — when Damascus lost the strategic Golan Heights — Syrian generals initially refused to allow his body to be buried at home but relented after king Faisal of Saudi Arabia intervened.

He received a lavish state funeral as throngs of Damascenes shut down the old city, mobilised hundreds of thousands in defiance of government orders and paraded his coffin — appropriately wrapped with the Syrian flag — through its streets.

Mourners in the procession chanted: “There is no God but Allah and Shukri Bey is his beloved.

May God have mercy on Shukri Bey, may God have mercy on Syria!'' The defiance on display that day against the military dictatorship of Salah Jadid was stunning, as the people of Damascus lamented a lost leader and a long-lost era.

Al Quwatli's legacy was that of both Syrian and Arab nationalisms, which were contradictory but defined the presidency of a man who was a successful politician.

Amazingly, he presided over the withdrawal of French troops that granted Syria independence but handed the country over to an Egyptian even if the latter's undeniable ambitions were on the global rather the local level.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2008.

This article is the seventh in a series, which appears on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.

Milestones of an eventful journey

Shukri Al Quwatli was born in Damascus in 1891 and became president of the Syrian republic twice, first from 1943 to 1949 and for a second time from 1955 to 1958.

Al Quwatli was an elder statesman whose political career started with his opposition to the French mandate.

He entered political life as a member of the National Bloc, became its leader in 1940 and was elected president in 1943 under French occupation.

After mounting international pressure, Paris pulled the last of its military personnel from Damascus in April 1946, bringing to a close 26 years of near-total hegemony.

Al Quwatli was overthrown in 1949 by a military coup led by Husni Al Zaim and was expelled to Egypt.

His exile ended five years later, following a series of military coups in Syria that prompted various parties to conduct relatively free elections.

Al Quwatli was elected president once again but resigned in February 1958 after Damascus signed the Union Pact with Egypt, which established the United Arab Republic that ushered in Jamal Abdul Nasser as head of state.

He fled Syria in 1963 after a military coup which brought the Baath Party to power and lived in Geneva for a while before returning to Beirut, where he died on June 30, 1967, a mere 20 days after Syria's defeat in the Six Day War.