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On Eve of the Corrective Movement’s 50th Anniversary: The Search for Ahmad Al-Hassan Al-Khatib

On Eve of the Corrective Movement’s 50th Anniversary: The Search for Ahmad Al-Hassan Al-Khatib

Monday, 2 November, 2020 - 11:15

It’s not clear how they will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Syria’s “Glorious Corrective Movement.” One thing is beyond doubt: Mr. Ahmad al-Hassan al-Khatib won’t be remembered.


Though it is not new, ignoring the man is somewhat bewildering: Those who think that Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad is the one who became president toward the end of November 1970 are mistaken. The man who occupied the post was… Ahmad al-Hassan al-Khatib. Check the archives.


But who is Ahmad al-Hassan al-Khatib? Could it be that the man who became the president of a country with a population of over 6 million people in 1970 is a total unknown?


Searching for the president mentioned earlier is an exhausting process, especially when it doesn’t end with finding him. It is akin to looking for gold in the American West. I checked British journalist Patrick Seal’s book: Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, which some see as an excellent reference while many are skeptical. I only found a single phrase about Khatib in the book, and most of it is about Hafez al-Assad.


He says, verbatim: “On overthrowing Salah Jadid, Asad in turn, seemed to hesitate on the threshold of the top job, contenting himself at first with the title of prime minister and putting forward as head of state a little known Sunni school teacher at the age of thirty-nine of age, Ahmad al-Khatib” (P. 172-3). Here, the discussion about Khatib ends. He doesn’t appear once in any of the subsequent 552 pages. Patrick Seale goes back to Hafez al-Assad and his journey.


I went over more than ten Syrian websites and couldn’t get my hands on any information about his excellency, the former president but the following meager facts:


Ahmad al-Hasan al-Khatib is a Sunni from a village in Daraa close to Jasim called Nimr. He joined the Arab Socialist Baath Party, obtained a BA in Arabic literature from Damascus University, and then taught in this field for several years. After the coup d’ etat of February 23, 1966, a coup of the Baath’s “left” against its “right,” he was elected head of the Syrian Teachers’ Syndicate. He assumed the Presidency of the Republic on November 18, 1970, two days after the Corrective Movement.


Little is known about Khatib’s presidency, aside from the fact that his many congratulators kept him busy. Unusually, no picture of him appeared during that short presidential term. The printers were busy distributing photos of another man, Hafez al-Assad.


On February 22, 1971, Khatib resigned following a referendum in which Assad received almost 100 percent of the vote, making him president. On the same day, the man who had resigned was named president of the “People’s Assembly,” i.e., Syria’s Parliament. A “Constituent Assembly’s” establishment was also announced, and he was appointed its president and kept his post until September 1971. With the agreement to establish a “tripartite union” with Egypt and Libya in 1971, he was appointed head of the “Union of Arab Republics’” government. Between 1970 and 1975, Khatib was a member of the Baath Party Regional Command. He passed away in 1982.


In comparison, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who also played the role of interim president, did so between June 10 and July 17, 2000, for 37 days. Khaddam’s “reign” was shorter than Khatib’s “reign”, which lasted 95 days.


But while Khaddam and Khatib share their Baathism, Sunnism, rural roots and, most importantly, being bridges for the father and son’s ascensions to leadership; the difference is that Khaddam was very well known and a pillar of the regime that Hafez had established, first as foreign minister and then as vice president. For his part, Khatib became a parliamentary speaker in a non-parliamentary system, he was appointed head of the “Constituent Assembly” that was never established, and named the head of an Arab Union that never emerged. Many leadership positions where he led nothing. As for his death, it was perhaps the only occurrence that was more overlooked than his life. No one knew about it. Maybe it didn’t occur!


Why this concern for Ahmad al-Hassan al-Khatib? Because he is the foundational symbol of the “Corrective Movement’s” distortion, which Hafez and Bashar’s reigns were subsequently built on. It is also because he was one of its victims. He was foundational at least three times: first of all, his presidency has chronological precedence; second, his experience revealed what public posts in the Syrian regime mean in practice, as well as the nature of its institutions and their limits; third, because the Khatib lie is among the “corrective” regime’s most successful lies, and the most eloquent indications of this success is that the Syrians have forgotten the name of the man who had been, once upon a time, their president! The world also took part in forgetting!


The above is not a preview for a movie. It is an attempt to describe reality when it is stranger than fiction.


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