Coups and Countercoups, 1961-70

Syria Table of Contents

The military coup again brought out all the competing factions and interest groups. In December 1961, all political groups, except the Communists and pro-Nasser factions, participated in a general election for a constituent assembly. Although party labels were not used, only a few known Baathists were elected to an assembly dominated by moderates and conservatives.

The new assembly elected Nazim al Qudsi president of the republic, and he in turn named a conservative, Maruf Dawalibi, prime minister. In January 1962, the assembly repealed major sections of a July 1961 decree that had nationalized various industrial and commercial firms, and, in February, it amended in favor of the landlords the land-reform measures that had been implemented during the period of union.

The new government succeeded in pleasing few and alienating many, and, on March 28, 1962, there was another military coup. President Qudsi resigned, as did the prime minister and the cabinet, and the executive and legislative functions of the government were taken over by an organization called the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces. Demonstrations against this new coup broke out in several of the major cities and, on April 5, the seven military officers who had organized and implemented the coup were sent into exile by other military leaders. On April 10 Qudsi resumed the presidency.

The events between April and September were confusing. According to some factions, the assembly had been dissolved; other groups contended that the assembly had voluntarily resigned; and still others asserted that the assembly continued to exist although it was not allowed to meet. A new prime minister formed a government that restored several of the socialist measures of the UAR period but banned all political parties.

By early September 1962 clashes between pro-Nasser and antiNasser elements had become more violent and more frequent, as had the student demonstrations and terrorist bombings. On September 13, President Qudsi appointed Khalid al Azm as the new prime minister and allowed the National Assembly, supposedly defunct, to convene at his residence. In its single session, the Assembly confirmed Azm's appointment and approved three seemingly contradictory measures: first, the reinstated Constituent Assembly was to be called the Constitutional Assembly; second, the government could legislate in the absence of the Assembly; and third, the government was granted the authority to dissolve the Assembly with the understanding that new elections would be held within one year. On September 20 the Assembly was again dissolved.

Although Azm included representatives of all political factions except the extreme pro-Nasser group in this cabinet, he was unable to govern effectively and, by early 1963, four of the seven military officers who had been exiled after their successful coup in March 1962 made another coup attempt. This time they were unsuccessful, and they again went into exile. Their abortive coup was poorly planned and elicited no discernible support from the military, but in February the government attempted to purge the army of an estimated 120 officers who were believed to pose a threat. On March 8 there was yet another coup by the military, and on March 9 Salah al Din al Bitar, who with Michel Aflaq had founded the Baath Party in the 1940s, became prime minister for the first of several times.

Bitar included five pro-Nasserites in his cabinet, but in early May these five ministers were forced to resign, and 47 officers and 1,000 noncommissioned officers who were believed to be pro-Nasser were forced out of the army. On May 11 Bitar resigned, but a week later he returned to form a new government. During May and June 1963, the situation continued to be confused, and on July 17 and 18 an estimated 2,000 Nasserites attempted a coup. The fighting was intense for a few hours in Damascus, but the coup was crushed. Major General Amin al Hafiz--a Sunni Baathist army officer who had risen with the neo-Baathists-- emerged as the strong man, serving as commander in chief of the armed forces, president of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (subsequently known as the National Council of the Revolution--NCR), deputy prime minister, minister of defense, minister of the interior, and deputy military governor. On August 4, Bitar formed another government, his third in six months.

The attempted coup marked a turning point in the country's domestic affairs. It was the first time that a coup or coup attempt had resulted in widespread violence and loss of life. On July 19, eight army officers and 12 civilians were convicted in summary trials before revolutionary security courts and were executed by firing squads the same day. This pattern of violence was to be repeated by the Baathists in seizing and retaining power.

On November 11, 1963, Bitar again resigned, and Hafiz became prime minister, retaining as well the other posts he previously held. By April 1964 urban unrest had again become serious. In Hamah, for example, the military measures taken to suppress the uprisings resulted in what Hafiz described as "frightful carnage." On May 14, Hafiz resigned as prime minister but retained his other posts, and Bitar formed another government.

Between May 1964 and February 1966, there were frequent changes of government reflecting the contest for power between the centrist and leftist wings of the Baath Party. The occasional urban and town riots, student disorders, and pro-Nasser demonstrations were sternly repressed. During this period Hafiz continued to dominate the public scene, but two other Baathist generals, both Alawis, began to exercise decisive power. On February 23, 1966, these two generals, Salah al Jadid and Hafiz al Assad, joined Nureddin Atassi in a coup that placed the more extremist wing of the Baath Party in power.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress