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by Kenny Coyle

Syria’s Ba’ath Party has been in power since 1963, and for half a century it has shaped and guided the country’s fortunes in war and peace. Yet little attention has been given to the nature of Ba’athism and its attempts to adapt to changing Syrian and international conditions.

Ba’athism emerged as an ideological trend in the Arab world in the early 1940s. In 1947, the Arab Ba’ath Party was founded in Damascus as a fusion between two small pan-Arab groups. Its key leader was a Greek Orthodox politician Michel Aflaq, but among the early top leaders were also Sunni Muslims and Alawites.

In Arabic, Ba’ath means renaissance or rebirth. Aflaq argued that after centuries of Ottoman and European domination there was an opportunity for a desperately needed Arab reawakening.

The founding congress outlined the central Ba’athist philosophy, namely that the Arabs belonged to a single nation and needed a single state in which to realise their “eternal mission.”

The Ba’aath opposed colonialism and imperialism and supported full citizenship for women.

It defined the Arab nation as stretching across all Arabic-speaking areas, including those in Africa.

However, this also put it in conflict with Greater Syrian groups like the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which sought to unite the Arab provinces of the old Ottoman empire, from Iraq to Palestine, but excluded Arab-speaking Africa. Citizenship could be extended to a non-Arab living on Arab soil provided he “detached himself from any racial grouping.”

By using non-racial and non-religious criteria to define Arab citizenship, Ba’athism could widen its appeal. The Ba’ath also had the advantage of looking beyond the artificially imposed frontiers drawn by the colonial powers.

Its obvious weakness was its lack of appeal to the many non-Arab minorities living within the Arab world, in particular the very substantial Kurdish population.

The party’s programme promised to eradicate class distinctions arising from the unjust distribution of wealth. Although it subsequently adopted the slogan “Freedom, Unity, Socialism,” in 1949, socialist elements had been absent from Aflaq’s earlier group, the Arab Ba’ath movement.

But during the late 1940s and early ’50s, the Ba’athists tried to boost their socialist credentials. In 1952, a merger with the Arab Socialist Party created the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.

Reflecting its social base in the Syrian middle strata and intelligentsia, the Ba’athist version of Arab socialism rejected concepts of class struggle.

Instead, it promoted an idealist notion of a culturally based Arab spirit, and so opposed communism’s materialistic and internationalist perspective.

Yet learning from the resilience of the communist parties’ structures, the Ba’ath copied the organisational forms of underground Leninist parties, with small cells connected vertically to the party body immediately above, enabling the Ba’athists to survive periodic bouts of repression.

Organisationally the Ba’ath party was to be run by a national command, a single leadership across the Arab and based in Damascus, while individual countries were to be administered by regional commands.

Ba’athism had emerged at a turbulent time. The humiliating defeat of the Arab states during the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1948 created widespread discontent against their existing ruling elites.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union’s last-minute support for a two-state solution in Palestine/Israel in 1948 created confusion and disillusionment among many sympathetic to communism.

Post-independence Syria was particularly volatile – between March and December of 1949 alone, there were three different military coups.

Eventually Adib al-Shishakli took power, but his increasingly personal dictatorship was overthrown in a revolution of 1954, which brought the Ba’ath, the Syrian Communist Party (SCP) and other leftist forces into an informal, anti-dictatorship coalition.

After 1954, the main beneficiaries of Syria’s new democratic freedoms were the Ba’ath, which was rewarded with senior government posts, and the SCP, which saw its general secretary become the first communist elected to any Arab parliament.

1956 proved to be a further turning point – the attack by British, French and Israeli forces on the Suez Canal radicalised the Middle East. While elsewhere, the prestige of the Soviet Union and the communist movement was badly dented by events in Hungary, an opposite reaction occurred in the Middle East.

Here, the USSR – despite its support for the creation of Israel in 1948 – was now seen as the Arab world’s strategic ally. Syrian communists had also been taking advantage of their new-found political space to make substantial advances.

However, the biggest winner of 1956 was Egyptian president Gamal Nasser, whose resistance to Western and Israeli aggression turned him into a hero across the Arab world.

A pan-Arabist like the Ba’athists, Nasser also promoted his own brand of Arab socialism.

This apparent convergence of programmes soon propelled both Egypt and Syria into a United Arab Republic (UAR). Nasser’s price was the dissolution of all political parties, including the Ba’ath and the SCP.

The Ba’ath agreed, misjudging that its ideological influence would be strengthened in a broader Arab republic.

But the fusion was bitterly opposed by the Syrian communists, who believed the merger was economically unviable and that Nasser would throttle the democratic freedoms which Syria had just begun to enjoy.

The communists were proved correct on both grounds. The SCP was viciously persecuted and Nasser’s autocratic style soon provoked a split, and the UAR broke up in acrimony in 1961.

Although the Ba’ath party was reconstituted, the debacle over the UAR and recriminations over the liquidation of the party intensified inner-party factionalism.

Ironically, Nasser had transferred key Syrian Ba’athist officers to Egypt, but the result was that they established a clandestine military command, including Salah Jadeed and Hafez Assad, which gradually dominated the party on their return to Syria.

In February 1963, the Iraqi Ba’ath overthrew the progressive government and then in March, a pro-Ba’athist government took power in Syria.

While in Iraq the Ba’ath launched an anti-communist witchhunt, in Syria the party was swinging to the left.

The old-guard rightists including Aflaq were progressively sidelined, then expelled and exiled. Salah Jadeed led a second intra-Ba’athist coup in 1966 which cemented this leftward shift, opening up closer co-operation with the Syrian communist party, which was offered cabinet posts while still technically illegal, and boosting links with the Soviet Union.

Effectively there were now two Ba’ath movements, with Syria and Iraq headed in divergent directions.

In a further and final coup in November 1970, Jadeed was himself overthrown by his defence minister Hafez Assad, who curtailed his more radical and pro-Marxist policies. Jadeed was imprisoned until his death in 1993.

Despite initial communist opposition, the SCP at first saw Assad’s move as a further blow against civilian politics and the party suffered sporadic repression.

The SCP and Assad were formally reconciled in 1972, with the communists joining the National Progressive Front a Ba’athist-led coalition, very much on the latter’s terms.

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