Neo-Baath Dominance, 1963-66

Syria Table of Contents

During the period of union with Egypt, the first stimulus for revival of the Syrian Baath Party came from a group of Syrian officers stationed in Egypt who styled themselves the Military Committee. This committee at one time or another included a Sunni, Amin al Hafiz; a Druze, Hamad Ubayd; and two Alawis, Muhammad Umran and Jadid. After the secession from the UAR in 1961, the Syrian Baath Party was formally reestablished at a party congress in May 1962. At this time, Hawrani was dismissed from the party on doctrinal grounds for opposing Arab unity. After the coup, these Baathist associates progressively moved to displace the coup leaders from the senior positions in the army and the newly formed, self-appointed, and largely anonymous National Council of the Revolutionary Command. It was with this latter body that effective power rested and not with Bitar's cabinet, as was clearly demonstrated in the provisional constitution decreed on March 24, 1963, and in its replacement promulgated on April 25, 1964.

The coming to power of the Baath Party in 1963 is sometimes referred to as "the revolution," although the March 8 coup was not executed by the Baathists and did not actually initiate the great social revolution postulated in Baathist ideology. In any case the party was supreme, but factionalism continued within the Baathist regime.

Five major centers of power existed in Syria. The National Council of the Revolutionary Command, preeminent in 1963, was changed by the Constitution of 1964 into the NCR, was enlarged in membership, and became an appointed legislative body. Highest authority was vested in a five-man presidency council elected from its membership. Other power centers included the Ministry of Defense and the top army command echelon, the government structure of prime minister and cabinet, the Regional Command, and the National Command. The dominant clique at any time had representation in all of them; many officials held multiple offices with positions in two or more power centers; and top level coordination of the centers was accomplished, in effect, by an interlocking directorate.

Broad factional differences developed between pan-Arab nationalist adherents to the old-guard Baath leadership of Aflaq and Bitar on the one hand and those who became known as regionalists, emphasizing Syria first, on the other. A principal area of contention was their attitudes toward Arab unity, specifically toward some kind of reunion with Egypt or union with Iraq or both.

Aflaq's nationalists varied from strong to moderate in their support of union, although they wanted it on their own terms and at a rapid rate, with a high priority. In contrast, the regionalists, while giving lip service to unity, varied from weak moderates favoring a go-slow approach with low priority to opponents of union. In the regionalist camp were the rising Alawi Baath officers Jadid, Assad, and Umran.

The neo-Baathists as a whole believed that the nationalization and land-reform measures started under Nasser but reversed during the conservative interregnum of September 1961 to March 1963 should be restored. The question centered on the rate of movement to socialization. Aflaq's adherents favored a moderate, slow approach, whereas the regionalists tended to favor extensive measures quickly carried out. The regionalists became known as radicals, the radical wing, or "the extremists." They also inclined to the establishment of closer, more exclusive ties with the Soviet Union than the old guard, which viewed an exclusive Soviet position of influence as nothing but a new form of imperialism.

Discussions with President Nasser in Cairo resulted on April 17, 1963, in a statement of intent to form a union of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. This venture, however, collapsed by July 22. In Syria a major pro-Nasserite military coup attempt in early July was put down with severity by Hafiz, the minister of interior and military governor. This coup attempt served thereafter to justify Baathist monopolization of power; it confirmed the change in style from the pre-1963 pattern of relatively bloodless coups and marked the advent to the top power position of Hafiz, who was to become a virtual dictator for the lext two and one-half years.

On July 27, 1963, Hafiz acquired the additional titles of president of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command, president of the republic, commander in chief, and minister of defense. He was also a member of both the regional and national commands of the Baath Party. In November he became prime minister, although from time to time he called on civilians, such as Bitar and Yusuf Zuayyin, to hold this post.

From the outset Hafiz aligned himself with Aflaq's old-guard civilian wing of the party, which was dominant in the National Command. This was to their mutual benefit, and the civilian leadership allowed the military Baathists a free hand in purging and structuring the forces into an "ideological army". Coordination between military and civilian party functions was restricted to the top level. This free-hand policy proved to be a mistake for the civilian leadership. Ties of party discipline with the military wing were dissolved and an intensifying military-civilian split developed. In a reversal of positions, the military Baathists became sponsors of the civilian old guard, which then found itself in the role of junior partner.

During party congresses from 1962 to 1964, strong bids for power were made by a new Marxist faction of the party, which, although finally overcome in party maneuvering, exerted influence and precipitated events having lasting effects. At the congress of October 1963, propositions evincing a new ideological tone were adopted. Identity with "oppressed peoples everywhere" was declared, in contrast to the old Baathist limitation to the Arab nation, and terms such as class struggle, scientific socialism, and popular struggle were injected. These generic Marxist phrases were not, in fact, employed in the sense commonly understood in Marxian dialectic but were considerably altered by an Arab nationalist context. Their use, nevertheless, indicated a leftwing drift in the Baath Party. In particular, the notion of popular struggle was used to support the Maoist doctrine of the "people's war of liberation," which became a tenet of neoBaathist ideology in its endorsement of the Palestinian guerrilla movements against Israel.

The regionalist side of the political spectrum welcomed the aspects of the leftward drift in ideology that both mitigated the intense Arab unity theme of the old guard and called for a more intense commitment to nationalization and socialism. The military Baathists welcomed the leftist doctrinal rationale for subordinating individual liberties to the society as a whole. The military, however, took strong exception to the left-wing's demand for exclusion of the military from politics and to personal assaults on the "rightist character" of many Baathist officers.

Hafiz and the inner core of the Military Committee, along with Aflaq and Bitar's old guard, successfully engineered the expulsion of the Marxist wing from the party's Regional Command at a conference early in February 1964 and from the National Command later the same month. A new 15-member Regional Command was then formed and included seven officers of the Military Committee.

Hafiz sought to balance his position by developing support among different factions, even including the politically excommunicated Hawrani, and he made considerable use of both Alawi and Druze officers. In November 1963, he installed the Alawi Baathist Jadid in the key post of army chief of staff. Jadid emerged as a staunch regionalist.

Hafiz's right-hand man in the Baath military-political structure was Umran, another Alawi but of a different tribe from that of Jadid and the latter's quietly rising associate, Hafiz al Assad. By the end of 1964 Umran had reversed his stance on several issues, including the matter of Hawrani and union, and was then at odds with Hafiz. He was removed from party position but allowed to take the post of ambassador to Spain.

At the party convention of April 1965, the military and civilian branches of the regional party were constitutionally merged, and the top post of secretary general of the Regional Command passed to Jadid. The contention between the older AflaqBitar Baathists and the regionalists had long been organizationally reflected in contention between the National Command and the Syrian Regional Command over the location of principal party power. Assumption of control of the Regional Command by Jadid brought to that post an Alawi who was a senior military officer, the strong man of the shadowy Military Committee, and the staunchest proponent of regionalist Baathism.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress