This series was written by an author who wishes to remain anonmyous
Part 2: Ba’athism & Hafez Al-Asad
The current uprisings in Syria cannot be understood without analyzing the historical forces that have shaped the country and its people. Part 1 of this series looked at the rise of the Syrian state after World Wars I and II. Here, in Part 2, we will discuss the emergence of Syria’s Baathist party and the dominance of Hafez Al-Asad, the previous long-standing ruler of Syria and father of Syria’s current leader Bashar Al-Asad.
The Rise of the Ba’athists
The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, or simply Ba’ath,1 was an ideological blend of Arab nationalism and socialism. Strongly opposed to Western imperialism, embracing non-alignment, and seeking to unify the region under one “Arab nation,” the party was founded in Damascus in 1947 by Michel Aflaq and Salah Al-Din Al-Bitar. From its inception, the Ba’ath party was regularly targeted by successive Syrian regimes, while also engaged in a bitter rivalry with Syria’s Social National Party (SNNP) and Communist Party. In 1952, General Adib Shishkali, Syria’s ruler, exiled a number of prominent Ba’athist leaders, dealing what appeared to be a fatal blow to the party’s future. The Ba’athists, however, were able to survive this setback by merging with the country’s Arab Socialist Party2 in 1953. The merger, which brought the Socialist Party under the Ba’athist banner, was pivotal for Syria’s domestic politics and for the Ba’athists in particular, as it helped broadcast the Ba’athist message to rural areas and, most crucially, facilitated its spread into military circles.
As a result of Shishakli’s overthrow in 1954 and subsequent free elections, the Ba’ath party won a number of seats within the Parliament and various ministries. Still, conflict with the SNNP, the growth of the Communist Party, and factionalism within Syrian politics continued to be major obstacles. In response to these challenges, the Ba’athists strongly supported unification with Egypt. However, the disheartening experience under Nasser’s rule eventually caused some Ba’athists to move away from this position. In 1961, Akram Al-Hawrani, a Ba’athist figure and former leader of the Arab Socialist Party, Al-Bitar, and a group of sixteen other Syrian politicians signed a statement calling for Syrian independence from Egyptian rule.
Under the pretext of securing this independence, Abdul Karim Al-Nahlawi, a lieutenant colonel within the unified Syrian-Egyptian army, headed a coup supported by the right-wing, businessmen, and landowner elite that ended the union. A year later, Al-Nahlawi conducted a second coup in order to position himself as the country’s sole ruler. The secessionist coup received little support from the public, particularly from the nationalists who formed the bedrock of the Ba’ath Party. As a result, the Ba’ath party split. A number of its members established the Socialist Unity Vanguard, while Al-Hawrani attempted to revive the Arab Socialist Party. In the aftermath of this split, the Ba’ath party maintained its support for unification with Egypt, albeit with a more nuanced approach to the issue.
Inspired by the Ba’athist take over in Iraq a month earlier, Syrian Ba’athist Army officers from the National Council of the Revolutionary Command engineered a successful coup against Al-Nahwali on March 8, 1963. The coup was possible both because of the unstable political environment as well as because of the support given by pro-Nasser and independent military officers. The National Council of the Revolutionary Command had been founded only four years earlier as a secret group created by Syrian officers stationed in Egypt whose goal was to “safeguard the union” between the two countries. Founding members included Mohammed Umran, Salah Jadid, Ahmad Al-Mir, Hafez Al-Asad, and Abd Al-Karim Al-Jundi.
In the coup’s aftermath, Al-Bitar was appointed head of a national unity government composed of Ba’ath members and supporting parties such as the Arab Nationalist Movement, the Arab Front, and the Socialist Unity. However, real power remained within the National Revolutionary Command Council, which governed the country from behind the scenes. Although the government considered uniting the country with Egypt and Ba’athist Iraq, the plan failed to materialize due to upheavals within Iraq as well as a failed coup against Syria’s new Ba’ath government. Because of this coup, a state of emergency was proclaimed, with security forces were given sweeping powers to arbitrarily arrest and detain. Under the pretext of war with Israel and as a bulwark against instability, this state of emergency was only recently lifted after forty-eight years.
In the aftermath of the coup, the Ba’athists consolidated their power, with all major ideological rivals, particularly the pro-Nasser and Communist groups, removed from positions of authority. However, in time, ideological schisms emerged within the government. In 1966, a radical faction of neo-Ba’athists, headed by Chief of Staff Salah Jadid, conducted a bloody coup against the old guard. Many of the party’s long-time leaders, including Aflaq and Al-Bitar, were exiled. The coup created a massive rupture between Syria and the region’s other Ba’athist country, Iraq. When the later provided safe haven to Aflaq following his exile, an animosity between the two countries developed that ended only with the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003.
After the 1966 coup, Jadid appointed Nureddin Al-Atassi party chairman and state president, Yousef Zouayyen prime minister, Ibrahim Makhous foreign minister, Abd Al-Karim Al-Jundi as security chief, and Hafez Al-Asad as defense minister.
The Dominance of Hafez Al-Asad
Two factions emerged within the new government. The first was focused on incorporating radical Socialist theories into practice, emphasized a people’s war against Israel, and was highly critical of reactionary regimes, such as Saudi Arabia. This faction was led by Salah Jadid. The other faction, led by Hafez Al-Asad, was more “pragmatic,” uninterested in actively resisting Israel and willing to work with neighboring Arab states, regardless of their ideological leanings.
Two dramatic events augmented the enmity between these factions. The first occurred with the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights during the 1967 War. Although this defeat occurred during Al-Asad’s tenure as defense minister, he and his supporters blamed the loss on their opponents within the government. The second turning point occurred as a result of the bloody the battle, known as “Black September,” that erupted between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian government in September 1970. The Jadid faction attempted to send in a brigade headed by the Syrian-backed Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) to support the PLO. As Israeli fighter planes flew in to support the Jordanian forces, the PLA was forced to retreat. Hafez and his supporters were furious, calling the act reckless. Shortly thereafter, in November 1970, Hafez ousted Jadid and his supporters from the government in a bloodless coup known as “The Corrective Movement.” A new constitution was drafted in 1971 and with that began Hafez’s thirty year rule over the country.3
With Hafez Al-Asad’s rise came a number of changes to Syrian politics and the Ba’ath party. Amongst these was the slow death of Ba’athism as the prominent ideological force in Syria. In its place, pseudo-sectarianism and outright cronyism took root. From 1970 onwards, Hafez developed a patronage system, filling Syria’s powerful political institutions with members of the Alawite community, particularly his family members and those individuals close to him.4 Although membership in the Ba’ath party was still necessary, the importance of Ba’athist ideology at the policy level decreased considerably. As a result of the patronage system and the cronyism it engendered, a transfer of power occurred away from the military to the interior ministry and the state security institutions. The rise of the state security apparatus, which developed into a large organization with multiple subgroups and factions in constant competition with one another, was a necessary part of Hafez’s policy of complete state control over the country.5
That Hafez’s regime was able to ensure long-term stability and its own survival was, in itself, an important element of its character. In order to maintain his grip on power, Hafez was merciless towards any threats to his rule. Amongst these threats, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood represented the most significant challenge to Hafez’s regime. Throughout the 1970s, the organization attempted to participate within the political arena but faced repression. The ongoing struggle between the Brotherhood and the Hafez regime culminated in an all-out onslaught by the Syrian security forces, headed by Hafez’s brother Rifa’at, on the city of Hama on February 2, 1982. Hama was considered to be a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold and major support base for the organization. As a result of the attacks, parts of the city were soundly flattened with the number of dead ranging between 10,000 to 30,000. The massacre terrified the entire Syrian population and effectively extinguished all internal opposition towards Hafez’s rule. By 1984, Rifa’at has turned against his brother, staging a coup against Hafez, who was hospitalized at the time due to a heart attack. Although the coup was a failure, Rifa’at was appointed Vice President as a short-term compromise. Eventually, however, he was exiled to France, although he nominally held the post of Vice President until 1998.
With this focus on internal threats, Hafez’s “external enemies” received little attention. Instead, Syria’s “foreign enemies” were used as a convenient excuse to maintain the police state and to portray the government as an agent of resistance against Israel and supporter of Arab unity. In fact, the 1973 October War was the only time Israel faced any military threat from Syria during Hafez Al-Asad’s rule. Although the war did not bring any substantial gains for the Syrian side, it was widely construed as a victory. Since the 1974 ceasefire, however, the borders between Israel and Syria have been completely peaceful. Strikingly, as Israel illegally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 and ramped up colonization of the territory, the Syrian response remained muted and no action, diplomatic or otherwise, was taken. In the rare instance when clashes did occur with Israel, it was mainly within Lebanese territory and played out through proxies.
Hafez’s policies in Lebanon are a quite telling example of the hollow mantra of resistance and Arab unity propagated by his regime. In 1976, Syria sent 40,000 troops into Lebanon to support the Phalangists and its right-wing allies against the Palestinians and Lebanese left-wing groups doing battle in the country’s civil war. The intervention was backed by the Arab League, and accepted by the Americans and Israelis. Throughout the civil war, the Syrians switched alliances with such regularity that by the end of the civil war it had worked with all opposing groups at least once. In 1989, the Taif Agreement was signed, officially ending the conflict. While Syrian troops were expected to stay for only another two years, Syria remained the de-facto administrator of Lebanon for the next sixteen years.6
With regard to other Arab leaders, Hafez maintained hostile relations with a number of regional regimes, notably Iraq.7 Such was the antagonism between these two countries that when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Syria was the only Arab country to publicly support the Iranians. Towards the Palestinians, Hafez was no more welcoming. The regime loathed PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and supported rival factions in order to break Arafat’s monopoly over Palestinian affairs and to commandeer the Palestinian cause. During the Lebanese civil war, Syrian forces took this hostility out on Arafat’s Palestinian supporters inside the country. In the War of the Camps, Syrian troops, supporting the Shiite Amal party and pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, blockaded and bombarded a number of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in order to rout out Palestinian groups linked with Arafat. Although the number of those killed is unknown, it has been estimated in the thousands.
Outside the region, Hafez As’ad regime demonstrated a remarkable adaptability to changes in global geo-politics. Beginning in the 1950s, the USSR was the main financial and military supporter of Syria. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Syria recalibrated its foreign policy to create a more positive relationship with the United States. Syria was not, however, completely submissive to U.S. interests and continued its alliances with nations and organizations that did not conform to the U.S. agenda. During the 1990s, Syria began to actively support Hezballah in Lebanon and provided safe haven toHamas leaders such as Khaled Meshaal who was exiled from Jordan in 1999. At the same time, Syria also joined the U.S. coalition formed to oppose the 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, participated in the Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991, and held direct talks with Israel in October 1991. Additional talks with Israel were held in December 1999, inspired in large part by the peace agreement signed between Jordan and Israel in 1994. These talks were, however, indefinitely postponed a month later when Israel refused to return all of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Soon thereafter Hafez suffered a fatal heart attack, dying on June 10, 2000 at the age of 69. Prior to his death, Forbes estimated his wealth at approximately $2 billion, acquired primarily from Syria’s oil and agricultural resources.
This phase of Syrian history, particularly the long rule of Hafez Al-Asad, sheds light on the extraordinary nature of the current protests. The sheer brutality of the 1981 Hama massacre created a paralyzing fear within Syrian society. Since then, the country has lacked any credible opposition groups and has been dominated by a security apparatus that has been particularly effective in quashing internal dissent. However, it is in large part because of the absence of such organized opposition groups that the current protest movement has been able to survive. Decentralized and organic, without one leader or organizing body, the movement has defied government attempts to quash its power. At the same time, this decentralization has also prevented the movement from developing a coherent strategy, leaving the protestors individually vulnerable to state violence. This lack of leadership has made the majority of Syrians reticent to become involved in a phenomenon whose future trajectory and chances of success remain unclear.
In Part III of this series, we shall examine the 11-year rule of Hafez Al-Asad’s son, Bashar, and the no-dashed hopes for change that his leadership originally brought.
1 In Arabic, “ba’ath” means “resurrection”, “renewal”, or “renaissance”.
2 The Arab Socialist Party, which derived massive support from the peasant class, had also gained support in the military.
3 Hafez ibn Ali ibn Suliman Al-Asad was born on October 6, 1930. He came from a poor Alawite family, originating fromthe town of Qardaha in the Latakia area of Syria. He joined the Ba’ath Party at the age of 16, and then attended the Homs Military Academy in 1952. In 1955, he became a lieutenant in the Syrian Air Force and was involved in defending Egypt during the Suez Crisis. While stationed in Cairo, He he joined the National Council of the Revolutionary Command.
4 It would be a simplification to refer to the system as entirely sectarian. The point is that Hafez’s associates and family were the beneficiaries of this new system, and that many them happened to be from the Alawite community. Other groups prospered as well, as long as they acquiesced to Hafez’s rule.
5 The current number of security groups is unknown, though some commentators speculate that there are at least 12 independent security groups within the state security apparatus.
6 In Lebanon Syria as well as Saudi Arabia exerted significant influece over the country.
7 Other than Israel, the only other country Syrians were barred from traveling to was Iraq.