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A Country with a Selective Memory | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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He never took leave from either the national or country-based leadership or from the ruling family. He did not even take leave from the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of his Ismaili sect. Retired Brigadier General Ahmad al Mir Milhim passed away suddenly. He passed away in silence. He probably preferred to depart before the anniversary of an incident that had continued to torture him and that caused him many a sleepless night for roughly 40 years—the anniversary of the Six Day War defeat (1967).

But who was Ahmad al Mir Milhim? How was he involved in the disastrous war? Was he alone to blame for the defeat? On opening Syrian newspapers a few days ago, one could see his obituary. But in a country without memory and under a regime that does like to remember, state-owned newspapers – and all newspapers are state-owned in Syria – failed to present him. Rather the obituary was an advertisement that was possibly paid for by the brigadier’s family before they, along with the population of his hometown of Salamiyah, attended his modest funeral that lacked the presence of the party, the state and the regime. He was laid to rest not far from the tomb of Prince Aly Solomon Khan.

How death can be a blessing before mercy! Death allowed both men to rest as for them, life was alienating. Brigadier al Mir had been blamed for the military defeat as a commander of the Syrian front during the disastrous war. As for Prince Aly Khan, he was defeated in another war—his father, the Aga Khan III had prevented him from succeeding him as spiritual leadership of the sect due to the son’s reputation as a playboy and womanizer. The playboy son stated in his will that he wanted to be buried in the limestone town of Salamiyah on the edge of desert, the hometown of Brigadier Ahmad al Mir Milhim.

I did not know Prince Aly Khan, who used to spend a month every year in Salamiyah, which he loved, away from the press and his busy lifestyle. However, I did know the other “amir”—Ahmad al Mir Milhim. I knew him as a dismissed lieutenant colonel in the early 1960s. Typical of dismissed officers at that time, he would spend many of his days with his “nirgileh” in Damascus’s most popular café. As journalists, we would receive forcibly retired and dismissed officers at Café Havana. We would befriend them in order to find out the secrets of other “defeats” and about the successive military coups that afflicted Syria.

There are [names of] tens of senior officers accumulated in my memory. If I write what I knew about and found out from them, I would relate another history. For me, however, al Mir Milhim was an officer who was difficult. He was an amicable man and was a very polite, friendly, and modest person. Lieutenant Colonel Milhim’s silence did not aggravate me as he was not of great significance when he was discharged by the regime that separated from Egypt in 1961. When the Baath came to power in the 1963 coup, al Mir abandoned Café Havana and returned to service along with hundreds of officers who had been discharged during unity and after separation.

In the 1966 coup, the “Trotskyite” Baath removed its comrade, the “nationalistic” Baath, from leadership and power. All of a sudden, absent Lieutenant Colonel Milhim was promoted to brigadier general and was assigned to the command of the Syrian front, without that being formally announced. When tension escalated between Syria and Israel on the frontline, the commander became a valuable journalistic “catch”. I used to come across him at some Damascene night clubs and restaurants. However, as an officer surrounded by his companions and officers, talking to him was extremely difficult.

We used to say hello from a distance. He had not changed. Neither the senior rank nor the sensitive military position had affected his extreme politeness, amicability and modesty. Undoubtedly it was his “silent” affiliation with the military and the party surrounding the central figure, Major General Salah Jadid that had proposed him for promotion. I had no doubt also that Milhim’s affiliation with the Ismaili sect served him well. He was among the men of Major General Abdul Karim al Jundi, the then security chief and leader of the Ismaili officers’ bloc, which was allied with Major General Jadid’s Alawite bloc.

Despite my fondness of Brigadier Milhim, I was under the impression that this man was not appropriate for the command of the combat front vis-à-vis such circumstances. As tension heightened, I had a certain journalistic intuition that Syria and Egypt were on the verge of a disaster in light of the preparation for the battle. However, I will not refer to the circumstances that brought Nasser’s and Jadid’s regimes together but will rather say that improvisation had culminated in discharging professional, yet politically unreliable Syrian officers a few years before the war. Hundreds of party-affiliated, unprofessional officers were redeployed from their civil posts to displace the dismissed professionals.

Through newspapers and radio stations, Lieutenant Colonel Mustapha Talas, the commander of the central zone (Homs and Hamah) began to speak of the “nut cracker” that would crush Israel. When Israel launched the war, a disaster occurred. Having repeatedly visited the Golan Heights front following every battle with Israel during the 1950s and 1960s by virtue of my work, I was stunned. The high geographical location and the underground hideouts and caves presented a great advantage to the Syrian troops that an army rarely has in modern day warfare.

There was a huge collapse and random and disorganized withdrawal from the Golan Heights began as troops were commanded to “manage their own affairs.” Neither the commander nor the staff command managed to “gather up” the retreating troops who did not fight a real battle.

Retreating troops dispersed onto the districts and streets of Damascus. They lay on the ground, hungry, exhausted and dusty. Officers had fled, leaving their soldiers in an awful mental state. In incomparable solidarity between the army and the people, residents of Damascus left their homes to console and provide food to the soldiers as Jadid’s regime was also withdrawing from the capital towards the north.

As I went around the city in the evening, I watched as boxes were removed from the central bank building. In response to a question that I asked my friend, who was a bank manager, he replied sarcastically: “Money is more precious than the homeland. We have received orders to transfer the bank’s gold and funds to finance resistance against the occupation in the north.” Therefore, Jadid’s regime was willing to sacrifice the Syrian capital, Damascus, and not only the Golan Heights.

In Egypt, a “review” of the situation was conducted shortly after the defeat. Field marshal Abdel Hakim Amer committed suicide and his senior officers were discharged and stood trial. Nothing like this occurred in my native country—Syria. The mistake and improvisation were rectified by managing the military invasion of Jordan. Hafez al Assad saved the regime, discharging the “Trotskyite” party and major general Jadid. The “peaceful” brigadier suffered another defeat. His leader, Major General al Jundi, committed suicide. Following a brief period in prison, Brigadier Milhim was discharged.

How harsh history can be! Although there are many people who claim to be the catalysts of victory, defeat on the other hand seems to only have one holder who is blamed but denies responsibility and so too do his partners. Brigadier Milhim entered history on the back of a donkey as he fled the Golan Heights, according to the Syrian popular account.

The only time I met the defeated commander, I asked him humorously whether the story was true. The man was upset and lowered his head, replying only with a faint smile and maintaining his literary silence. Here is Brigadier Ahmad al Mir Milhim on the 40th anniversary of his defeat, carrying secrets to his grave and maintaining his eternal silence in a country without memory and under a regime that does not like to remember.