At the meeting in Damascus on 5 February, 1948 to organize Palestinian Field Commands, Northern Palestine including Samaria was allocated to Qawuqji's forces, although Samaria was de facto already under the control of Transjordan (Levenberg, 1993, p. 198).
The target figure for recruitment was 10,000, but by mid-March 1948 the number of volunteers to have joined the Army reached around 6,000 and did not increase much beyond this figure. The actual number deployed might have been as low as 3,500, according to General Safwat. Its ranks included Syrians, Lebanese, including a few hundred Druze and Circassians, Iraqis, Transjordanians, Muslim Brothers from Egypt and Palestinians trained in Syria. There were also a few Yugoslavs, Germans, Turks and British deserters.
Syria’s reasons for building the Army of Liberation were several. Syria's President Shukri al-Quwwatli knew that the Syrian Army was undependable and useless as an instrument of war; therefore, it was much safer for Syria to influence the situation in Palestine by building up a force that was to be paid for and armed by all the Arab League countries. Egypt was to pay for 42% of the costs, Syria and Lebanon 23%, Saudi Arabia 20%, and Iraq the remaining 15%. Just as important as the financial reasons for building an Arab League force was the need to protect the Syrian army itself. By sending the volunteer army into battle, Quwwatli hope to spare Syria from exposing its own troops to defeat, which could leave the country exposed to attack from Abdullah and possibly Jewish forces. If the volunteer army were defeated, the loss and embarrassment would be borne by the Arab League in general and the Palestinians in particular, not by Syria alone.
Another advantage to an irregular army was that it could be sent into Palestine well before the British officially withdrew from their mandate on May 15, 1948. None of the Arab states were willing to declare war openly on the British. Thus, Syria would not officially be opening hostilities against the British troops, who still bore responsibility for security in Palestine. Furthermore, if the Arab countries failed to commit their armies to fight in Palestine — a possibility which seemed likely as Egypt agreed to participate only four days before the war began on May 15, 1948 — the Syrian government would still be active. It would retain leverage in Palestine and be able to tell the Syrian public that it had done more than the other Arab countries to help the Palestinians. Most importantly, however, the ALA was to be used as an instrument to nip Abdullah’s Greater Syria plan in the bud and to keep him from expanding his state over half of Palestine.
The evolution of President Quwwatli’s military objectives in Palestine is recorded in the diaries of Taha al-Hashimi. Hashimi was an Iraqi pan-Arab nationalist and long-time intimate of Quwwatli, whom the Syrian president wanted to head the Liberation Army rather than General Safwat, Egypt’s candidate. Hashimi was ultimately appointed Inspector General of the ALA and placed in charge of recruitment and training of the troops at the Qatana headquarters. His office was in the Syrian Ministry of Defense and he met daily with Syria’s political and military leaders. Hashimi records that in October 1947, shortly after the UN Special Committee on Palestine recommended partition as a solution and after Syria had failed to win either Saudi Arabia or Egypt over to the idea of an anti-Hashemite military alliance, Quwwatli explained:
The Greater Syria plan will start from the Arab part of Palestine. Because of this I have ordered the Syrian army to move to the Syrian-Palestinian border. The force which has taken up position there is 2,500 men. Also Lebanon will send 1000 men to its border. As soon as the forces of Iraq and Jordan enter Palestine, we will enter and take al-Nasira and the North.[fn]
Quwwatli’s strategy in Palestine was designed from the outset to prevent Abdullah’s possible advance north to Damascus. In the best case, Quwwatli hoped to acquire some of northern Palestine for Syria. A second reason for Quwwatli’s hesitation to commit Syrian military troops was that he had failed in his early efforts to reform the army and questioned the loyalty and effectiveness of its leadership. Although the head of the military, General Atfah, swore to the Minister of Defense in May 1947, that the Syrian army was “the best of all the Arab armies, the best army in the Middle East,” the brigade commanders scoffed at this ridiculous assessment and cabled the President to warn, that “the army is not worth a red cent.”[fn] Quwwatli was fully aware of the problems in his military. "The real problem is to reform the Syrian army and to solve the problem of its leadership," he confided to Taha al-Hashimi in September of 1947.[fn]
Until the army could be strengthened, he hoped to keep it out of the fighting. In its stead he built the Arab Liberation Army. "It is imperative that we restrict our efforts to the popular movement in Palestine,” Quwwatli concluded. “We must strengthen it and organize its affairs as quickly as possible.”[fn] Prime Minister Jamil Mardam gave a lengthier explanation for why the Syrian army could not be sent into Palestine in November 1947, and why a volunteer army was needed.
Because [the Arab governments are undependable], I have decided... on the necessity of strengthening Palestine with arms and men and organizing their affairs and appointing a leader to take charge of their matters. The popular movement in Palestine is responsible for saving the situation, with the help of the Arab governments. This is because I doubt in the unity of the Arab armies and their ability to fight together....
If the Arab armies, not least of all the Syrian army, are hit with an overwhelming surprise attack by the Jewish Haganah, it would lead to such a loss of reputation that the Arab governments would never be able to recover.
The best thing is to leave the work to the Palestinians and to supply them with the help of the Arab governments. Ensuring an effective leadership in Palestine is of paramount importance and needs to be done with the greatest of haste. If the movement is destined to failure, God forbid, then it will be the people of Palestine who fail and not the Arab governments and their armies. So long as the position of the Kings and Amirs is one of caution and plots, this is the only sound policy.[fn]
As Mardam makes clear, he knew the Syrian army could not withstand an attack by the Haganah; he knew his Arab allies were undependable; and he did not want to risk the “loss of reputation” that would inevitably ensue. That is why he and Quwwatli were determined to limit their own involvement in Palestine to the ALA.
When Hashimi spoke to the President a few days later about Mardam's plan, President Quwwatli reiterated Mardam's concern that the government could not withstand the Syrian army's defeat in Palestine. As he had explained to Hashimi before, "the real problem is with reforming the Syrian army and solving the problem of its leadership." Because of these concerns, he said, "it is imperative that we restrict our efforts to the popular movement in Palestine. We must strengthen it and organize its affairs as quickly as possible. The trouble is that the Mufti [Hajj Amin al-Husayni] will not permit Fawzi al-Qawuqji to take the leadership in Palestine."[fn]
The next several weeks of intense negotiations between Quwwatli, the Mufti, Qawuqji and other Arab leaders over the question of who would direct the popular resistance in Palestine were a complete failure; agreement was impossible. The Mufti refused to hand control over to Qawuqji. He claimed that Qawuqji would "sell" himself to the English, and added that, "if Qawuqji accepted partition, [I] will kill him with [my] own hands."[fn] The Mufti insisted that Palestine did not need the volunteer army and that all money should be given directly to him.[fn] King Abdullah, in an effort to dismiss the Mufti, claimed he could save Palestine on his own. "Why don't the Arab countries send their armies directly to [me]?" he inquired. Meanwhile Abdullah was arming his own supporters in Palestine who rejected both the Mufti and Qawuqji.[fn] As for King Faruq of Egypt, he wanted nothing to do with any of them. He said, "The Arabs ought to get rid of all three of them: the Mufti, Abdullah, and Qawuqji."[fn] The question of who would take command of the Arab and Palestinian military campaign and what their objectives would be was never resolved.
Disposition of Army of Salvation (ALA) Forces
|Samaria||3,000 - 4,000|
|Galilee||1,000, in groups of 50-100 under a central command|
|Jerusalem city||a few hundred|
|Jerusalem district||perhaps 500|
|Jaffa Town||200 or more|
|Gaza district||perhaps 100 Egyptians|
This disposition of forces, away from the main warfare areas and close to the Syrian border, where it could create a buffer between Syria and Transjordanian forces, indicates their real objectives and missions (Levenberg, 1993, p. 200).