The Baath Redirections of 1966 and 1970

Syria Table of Contents

By the summer of 1965, Hafiz began seeking to limit the influence of the Alawis and Druzes. His own political orientation had begun to shift toward compromise, moderation, union, and the slowing down of socialism. In September 1965, he removed Jadid from the post of army chief of staff, but the latter entrenched himself in his party position as secretary general of the Regional Command. On December 21, 1965, the National Command dissolved the Regional Command and removed Jadid's three supporters from the five-man presidency council.

At the same time, Hafiz dismissed the cabinet of Prime Minister Zuayyin, who had become a regionalist. He then called on the perennial Bitar to form a new cabinet (his fifth) and recalled General Umran as minister of defense. On Hafiz's authority, extensive transfers of Jadid's supporters in the army were planned. On February 18, 1966, Aflaq condemned the Jadid faction for "degenerating into regional separatism" and (although he himself had assisted the process) for the military usurpation of party and government power from the civilian leadership. Thus, the stage was set for a confrontation between the two parts of the Baath Party.

On February 23, 1966, Jadid, the Regional Command, and their army units seized the government in the bloodiest of the many coups d'etat since 1949. The general public, however, displayed no inclination to fight for one Baathist military faction against the other.

Hafiz, wounded in the fighting, was arrested and imprisoned; the old National Command was denounced and expelled; and Aflaq and Bitar were read out of the party. Later released, both took refuge in Lebanon. One of the first acts of the Regional Command after seizing the radio station was the announcement of the appointment of Major General Hafiz al Assad as minister of defense.

On March 1, 1966, a new government was formed. Jadid remained outside the formal structure of government, directing affairs through his position as party leader. So as not to appear as an outright military dictatorship, the regime designated prominent regionalist Baath civilians to office: Nureddin Atassi as president of the republic; Yusuf Zuayyin, again as prime minister; and Ibrahim Makhus as foreign minister. All were physicians and representatives of the urban intellectuals. The first two were Sunnis; Makhus, an Alawi. In the Regional Command, the top five positions were held by Jadid, Atassi, Zuayyin, Makhus, and Assad, in that order.

On September 8, 1966, a military countercoup attempt was led by a Druze, Salim Hatum, a leading partner of Jadid in the February 23 coup. Although Hatum's men actually arrested President Atassi, the army chief of staff Major General Ahmad Suwaydani, and Jadid himself, the attempt failed when Assad threatened to send the air force against Hatum's forces. The Workers' Battalions, a proletarian national guard organized by Khalid al Jundi and influenced by the Chinese Red Guard concept, also declared for Jadid. Agreement was reached between the factions for an exchange of prisoners, and on the following morning Hatum and his associates fled to Jordan. He returned to Syria in early June 1967 to fight, he said, against Israel; he was arrested and shot.

The traumatic defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 War with Israel discredited the radical socialist regimes of Nasser's Egypt and Baathist Syria. The Jadid faction, which included Atassi, Zuayyin, and Makhus, was particularly hurt. The defeat strengthened the hands of the moderates and the rightists and was the catalyst for Assad's ascent in Syria.

In the fall of 1968, open controversy developed between Assad, reportedly representing a moderate faction centered in the military, and extremists of Jadid's civilian regime. Although Jadid's power in the party remained strong, in March 1969 an ostensible compromise was reached between Assad and Jadid. The new government formed in May made minor concessions to broadening the political base but represented no real change in domestic or foreign policy. The rank order in the party's hierarchy remained unchanged. Assad continued as minister of defense. A number of Syrian Communists were arrested, and their leader Bakdash again left the country.

The conflict between the Jadid civilian wing and the Assad military wing of the party continued through 1970, and the government, although reported to be widely unpopular, remained in firm control of the country. From time to time different measures bore the influence of the two factions. Party purges had decimated the air force, which suffered from a critical pilot shortage, and Assad succeeded in restoring to duty a number of air force pilots who had been retired for political reasons. The Regional Command headed by Jadid, rather than the Ministry of Defense, retained complete control of its institutionalized Palestine guerrilla force, As Saiqa (Thunderbolt).

In its radical revolutionary role, the regime proclaimed support for the guerrilla movements but, while polemically assailing Jordan and Lebanon for their efforts to control Palestinian guerrillas in their territories, did not hesitate to control the guerrillas in Syria. As Saiqa was not allowed to launch operations from Syrian soil against Israel because of the danger of reprisal, but was frequently used within Syria for party security purposes.

In inter-Arab affairs, the Jadid and Assad factions largely negated one another. Syria remained at odds with most Arab states, especially Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

In September 1970, the Jordanian army launched attacks on PLO camps and on Palestinian refugee camps that were under the control of PLO units; most were in the vicinity of Amman. Jordan's King Hussein ordered the assaults in response to efforts by the PLO to implement its avowed policy of deposing Hussein and other Arab monarchs. The hostilities in Jordan--which became known by the PLO and its supporters as Black September--had a profound impact on the Arab world and particularly on the government in Syria.

During the civil war that lasted 10 days, Syria sent some 200 tanks (nominally of the Palestine Liberation Army--PLA) to aid the PLO forces. Iraq, Syria's Baathist rival, had a force of about 12,000 men stationed near Az Zarqa northeast of Amman; these troops did not participate in the fighting and withdrew to Iraq a few days later. The United States dispatched the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean, and the Israeli air force openly assumed a posture of military preparedness. Most important, the Syrian air force refused to provide air cover to the Syrian tank brigade, which came under severe attacks first by the Jordanian air force and then by the Jordanian army. On September 23 and 24, the Syrian expeditionary force withdrew from the battle zone and returned to Syria.

Syria's military fiasco in Jordan reflected political disagreement within the ruling Baath leadership. The Jadid faction argued for full support of and participation with the PLO in Jordan; Assad and his associates opposed such action. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was fear of a devastating Israeli reprisal, Assad refused to commit his air force to support the tank units. Jadid and his supporters were militarily and politically humiliated.

The Baath Party's tenth congress, held in Damascus, lasted two weeks and ended November 12, 1970. This conference, labeled an extraordinary session of the National Command, underscored Jadid's continuing control of the party apparatus. It adopted resolutions reaffirming the government's position in internal and foreign affairs and censuring Assad and his chief of staff Major General Mustafa Tlas on the grounds of improper military influence in the government.

On November 13, 1970, army units arrested Jadid, Atassi, and Zuayyin along with several others and seized the centers of communication without effective opposition. Although a few minor demonstrations occurred, the overthrow was virtually bloodless. Jadid was detained under guard; Atassi, in house arrest. The others were soon released.

On November 16, the Regional Command of the Baath Party issued a statement saying that the change that had occurred was a transfer of power within the party showing that the party's progressive rank and file were stronger than the misdirected forces of dictators. A new party congress was to be convened to reorganize the party; a national front government was to be organized under revised Baathist leadership; and a people's council, or legislature, was to be formed within three months. Continued support for the Palestinian cause was affirmed.

On November 19, 1970, the Regional Command announced the designation of Ahmad al Khatib, a respected but hitherto little- known politician, as acting chief of state and of Lieutenant General Assad as prime minister and minister of defense. Assad then formed a 26-man cabinet, consisting of about one-half Assad Baathists and the balance scattered among Socialists, Nasserists, Independents, and Communists. This cabinet met for the first time on November 23, 1970. In a press interview Assad claimed that the change in government had been neither a coup nor the result of political conflict along lines of military-civilian division, but a natural development in the party's revolutionary movement, often referred to as the "Correction Movement."

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress