Syria Table of Contents


After independence in 1946, Syrian leaders established a parliamentary democracy, which failed because politics remained centered on personalities and because factional, sectarian, and tribal rivalries persisted. Such a situation was not conducive to domestic unity, much less to national consensus or political momentum. The multiparty political system gave way to a series of military dictatorships, then to Syria's subordination to Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR) from February 1958 to September 1961. Since 1963, when the Baath Party came to full power in Syria, political competition has evolved and shifted within the party. Under the party, the role of the military has been especially significant.

At independence, power was concentrated in the hands of a wealthy oligarchy of landlords, industrialists, merchants, and lawyers. Most of this aristocracy urban Sunni Muslims who derived their influence from inherited wealth and social position, as well as from their early involvement in the Arab nationalist movement. Their political experience, however, was entirely based on opposition, first to Ottoman Turkey and then to France and Zionism. They had no precedent for a more positive platform of national reconciliation and integration, mass mobilization, and popular welfare.

The most prominent political organization in 1946 was the National Bloc, a loose alliance originally formed in 1928 by leading members of landowning families and other well-known individuals. This group was wealthy and well educated, chiefly at French and Turkish universities or at French- and American- operated colleges in Lebanon and Egypt. Their priority was eliminating the French while maintaining their personal power. They had little contact with the masses and did not seek to bridge the traditional gap separating the upper classes from the rest of society.

Of the various political parties forming Syria, two had risen to prominence by mid-1947: the National Party and the People's Party. The National Party, which dominated the government until 1949, represented the industrialists of Damascus, leading businessmen, and prominent landlords. It was dedicated to continuing the power of men who had long worked together not only for independence but against union with Jordan and Iraq.

Until 1949 the People's Party was the principal opposition. It represented the interests of the merchants and landlords of Aleppo against domination by Damascus. The party had a strong interest in agricultural issues--in contrast to the National Party's focus on industry--and close ties with Iraq, with which many of the members had strong commercial and trade relationships. The two parties therefore embodied the major traditional political divisions within Syria: the rivalry between Aleppo and Damascus and that between those who favored unity with the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria) as opposed to those who favored unity with the Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Jordan and Syria).

Along with these parties, a new party was evolving. The Baath Party can be traced to 1940, when two Damascene secondary schoolteachers, Michel Aflaq and Salah ad Din al Bitar, were inspired by the Arab renaissance movement. In 1943 the term Baath (meaning resurrection) became associated with the movement, and in 1944 the movement was transformed into a party. In April 1947, the Baath Party held its first congress, which was attended by around 250 members. Most were Syrians, but Jordanian, Lebanese, and Iraqi students in Syrian schools were also present. Most of the original members were students, teachers, professionals, and public employees--the kernel of Syria's emerging new middle class. The congress elected Aflaq, the party's philosopher and ideologue, as "dean," the equivalent of secretary general. Bitar became the organizational and administrative leader.

In 1947 the Baath Party was a marginal political force. It was organizationally weak and unprepared to assert itself effectively. Gradually, it broadened its constituency beyond the narrow circle of students and intellectuals to include the urban lower middle class, which was attracted to the party's proposed program of social and economic reform. At the same time, the party's unflagging emphasis on Arab nationalism evoked considerable support from the military's officer corps.

The constitution adopted by the Baath founding congress of 1947 extolled the motto of "Unity, Freedom, and Socialism" as an integrated concept, in which no one element could be attained without the other two. Of the three, however, Arab unity was considered first among equals as the primary catalyst of Arab resurrection. Socialism was not an end in itself but a means to achieve the higher ends of freedom, unity, and socioeconomic justice.

Aflaq rejected a doctrinaire definition of socialism. He maintained that his socialism aimed at more than merely equalizing wealth and providing food, shelter, and clothing; instead, it aimed at the higher goal of freeing an individual's talents and abilities. This higher goal was to be attained not through evolution but revolution, which he described as a "violent wrenching away" and an awakening and self-purification. Baath dogma exalted the individual, who was to be free in action, thought, and opportunity in a democratic, parliamentary, constitutional state.

The doctrine of a single, indivisible Arab nation was central to Baathist ideology, and statehood was regarded as parochial, negative, and doomed to failure. Baathist doctrine condemned colonialist imperialism, which was and is held to include Zionism, negativism, restrictive state nationalism, sectarianism, and racial and ethnic prejudice. The Arab superstate envisioned by the Baathists was to be founded on a secular, rather than Islamic, framework. However, Christians and other religious minorities were admonished to regard Islam as a "beloved cultural heritage." Furthermore, religious life and values were to endure in an atmosphere of religious toleration. In foreign policy, the party advocated nonalignment with the superpowers and espoused neutrality. Aflaq and Bitar were impressed by Marxist visions of a utopian society free of exploitation but were not won over to communism, which they regarded as subservient to Soviet interests and therefore detrimental to Arab national self-determination.

In 1949 popular dissatisfaction with the performance of the conservative ruling elite reached a peak, giving the Baath Party an opportunity to play a more prominent role in Syrian politics. Army officers were angered by what they perceived as civilian bungling of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. This anger paved the way for Brigadier General Husni az Zaim to stage Syria's first army coup d'état, an event that presaged the rise of the military as the controlling force in Syrian politics. The bloodless takeover, which was widely applauded by the press, opposition politicians, and much of the public, marked the permanent transfer of political power from the traditional landowning elite to a new coalition of young intellectuals, army officers, and the small but growing middle class. The Baath Party welcomed the coup and hoped the Zaim regime would stamp out the government's endemic corruption and usher in parliamentary politics.

However, the Zaim government did not bring stability. Rather, four more military coups were staged prior to Syria's unification with Egypt in 1958. Beneath the facade of dictatorial rule, proliferating Syrian political parties were locked in chaotic competition with the Baath Party for dominance of Syrian politics. Partisan rivalry was particularly intense for the allegiance of the armed forces, which party organizers realized would control the government. The conservative National Party and People's Party waned in influence, while the semifascist Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded in 1933 by a Lebanese Christian, Antun Saadeh, gained numerous adherents. The SSNP called for the creation of a "Greater Syria" encompassing Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus. The Syrian Communist Party (SCP), headed by Khalid Bakdash, was small, but its tight organization and disciplined following gave it far greater importance than its size alone would have merited. Another party, the Arab Socialist Party (ASP), was a serious contender for the allegiance of the middle class. The ASP was founded in 1950 by Akram Hawrani as an outgrowth of the Youth Party he had established in 1939. His doctrine followed closely that of Aflaq and Bitar. Hawrani's followers were drawn mostly from Hamah and Homs; they included teachers, students, urban workers, and numerous associates organized by his relatives. In addition, he cultivated many followers in the armed forces.

In early 1953, the ASP merged with the Baath Party, combining the well-developed ideological framework of the Baath Party with Hawrani's grass-roots organizational base. No substantial changes were required in the merger except the insertion of the word socialist (ishtiraki) in the new party's name. Hawrani also found no difficulty in accepting Aflaq's 1947 constitution, which continued in toto as the scripture of Baathism, and the founding year of the Baath Party is still considered 1947.

The new Baath Party quickly became a serious challenge to all existing parties. The intense rivalry between the Baath Party and the SSNP climaxed in the April 1955 assassination of Colonel Adnan Malki, the deputy chief of staff and a leading Baathist, by a sergeant in the SSNP. Following the assassination, the SSNP was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and its leaders either fled the country or were convicted of conspiracy. Consequently, the SSNP disappeared as an effective political force in Syria.

In 1957 the Baathists entered into a partnership with their erstwhile adversaries, the Communists, in order to crush the residual power of conservative parties. This left-wing alliance succeeded in eliminating the right wing. However, in the last months of 1957, the Communists and other radicals came to dominate the left-wing alliance, while the Baath Party's power eroded.

Fearing the Communists' growing power, the Baath Party drafted a bill in December 1957 for union between Syria and Egypt. Because Arab unity is a sacred aspiration, the Baathists knew that neither the Communists nor any other politicians could openly oppose it. In February 1958, Syria joined Egypt to form the UAR. The Baath Party realized that President Gamal Abdul Nasser's declared hostility to political parties would mean the end of its legal existence but gambled that the communist movement, which was being ruthlessly persecuted in Egypt at the time, would be damaged disproportionately.

The Baathists were partially correct. Hawrani, titular head of the Baath Party, was appointed vice president of the new republic. However, all real power resided in Nasser's hands, and Syria was governed as a virtual colony of Egypt. On September 28, 1961, a military coup took Syria out of the UAR, and in December 1961, a general election for the constituent assembly was held; Communists and Nasserites were banned from running for office. Although a few Baathists were elected, the majority of the new assembly consisted of members of the conservative People's Party and National Party. People's Party leader Nazim al Qudsi was elected president.

From 1961 to 1963, Syria was in a state of near anarchy. Coups and countercoups, street fighting between Nasserites, Communists, and Baathists, and battles between rival army factions plunged the nation into chaos.

Early in 1963, a group of senior officers conspired to stage yet another coup. To build their alliance within the military, they joined forces with a group of Baathist majors and lieutenant colonels, who turned out to be more formidable than they or anyone else realized. The original group of officers had been transferred to Egypt during the union as a form of internal exile because of their suspected opposition to the UAR. Irritated at Egyptian dominance of the union, they organized the secret Military Committee, which was dedicated to seizing power. They deviated from the Baath Party's pan-Arabism in championing Syrian nationalism. Having grown up for the most part in relatively poor rural areas of Syria, these men strongly advocated land reform and other socialist measures. Most of the committee belonged to minority groups. For example, the original core of conspirators consisted of three Alawis and two Ismailis. Later, the Military Committee was enlarged to include fifteen members. Only six of these members were Sunni Muslims; the remainder consisted of five Alawis, two Druzes, and two Ismailis.

The coup, subsequently called the Baath Revolution, occurred on March 8, 1963. Baath Party cofounder Bitar was installed as prime minister, and, within several months, the Baathists had maneuvered their non-Baathist associates out of power. The Baath, Party, especially its military component and its "Regional Command as opposed to its National Command, has dominated Syria since.

Although the Baath Revolution was bracketed chronologically by prior and subsequent coups, countercoups, and power struggles, it was far more than another convulsion in the body politic. Rather, it marked a crucial turning point in Syria's postindependence history. Because of the coup, the focus of Syrian politics shifted markedly to the left, where it has remained since. However, just as the Baath Party became ascendant, the military officers who had commandeered it as a vehicle for their own rise to power abandoned its original egalitarian ideology by establishing a military dictatorship. In 1966 the party's cofounders, Aflaq and Bitar, were expelled from the party and exiled from Syria. Bitar, in an interview conducted several weeks before he was assassinated in Paris in July 1980, reportedly at the hands of Syrian intelligence, said "The major deviation of the Baath is having renounced democracy . . . the two real bases of the regime are dictatorship and confessionalism. The Baath Party, as a party, does not exist." Assad's November 1970 takeover of Syria in a bloodless coup--the Corrective Movement--cemented Baath Party dominance in Syrian politics. Yet, as Assad created the political institutions through which he would rule, he sought to liberalize the political situation, albeit within carefully circumscribed limits, to diversify support for his new regime. For example, in February 1971 he established the People's Council as an appointed deliberative body; following adoption of the Permanent Constitution in 1973, it became an elected body.

In 1972 Assad instituted a multiparty system by creating the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of the Baath Party, the SCP, and three small left-wing parties--the ASP, the Nasserite Syrian Arab Socialist Union, and the Socialist Union Movement. In 1987 this coalition continued to govern Syria with its seventeen-member Central Command, which coordinated the activities of the five parties. Although the Baath Party was unquestionably the dominant party in the coalition, and the other parties were nearly invisible, Syria remained one of the few Arab nations with multiple legal political parties.

In 1978 Assad pledged to implement a "new formula" that would rehabilitate and incorporate some of the old conservative political parties from the pre-Baath regime under the NPF umbrella. Although the new formula was never implemented because Syria was beset with internal security problems, in 1987 the NPF retained an open-ended framework that could expand to include diverse elements. Assad appeared committed to broadening his regime's support, so long as broadening did not diminish his power.

The Baath Party Apparatus
The Syrian Communist Party
The Power Elite
1982 - 1987 Political Developments

More about the Government of Syria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress