The Baath Party Apparatus

Syria Table of Contents

The Baath Party has never been a mass party. Although party membership has expanded considerably beyond the several hundred activists of the 1963 revolution, regime policy has kept membership relatively small. Although Aflaq and Bitar rejected communism, they intentionally emulated the Leninist organizational model of a vanguard elite. Party admission has been highly selective, particularly at higher echelons. Recruits must be nominated by a member and pass through a rigorous initiation period of at least two years before becoming members. The Baath Party has attempted to limit membership to the ideologically committed, believing that indiscriminate recruitment would dilute the party's effectiveness. In the late 1960s, for example, class origin was a determining criterion, and anyone from a class judged hostile to the party's goals, regardless of his or her personal political beliefs, was excluded.

In the Assad era, however, membership criteria were relaxed. In 1987 the Baath Party had approximately 50,000 full members and a further 200,000 candidate members in probationary status. The Baath Party administered a panoply of "popular organizations" whose membership was not exclusively, or even primarily, Baathist. Thus the party incorporated many Syrian citizens while restricting full-fleged membership.

Nominally, the highest body within the Baath Party was the National Command, whose status dated from before the party split in 1966. This twenty-one-member body was composed of about half Syrians and half Arabs from other countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as Palestinians. Theoretically, the National Command was the embryonic government of a future unified Arab nation, and it embodied the fiction that Syria continued to place priority on pan-Arabism. Although Syria in 1987 still paid lip service to the pan-Arab slogans that were a driving force in the party in the 1940s and 1950s, the National Command's power was more symbolic than real. Although the National Command potentially could play an evangelical role in creating new Baath Party branches in Arab countries and could support existing branches, Syrian policymakers have de-emphasized such a role. In actuality, the National Command, headed by Assad in 1987, provided honorary posts for some figures who had been retired from active Syrian political life and for others waiting in the wings to assume greater responsibility.

The actual executive core of the Baath Party was the twentyone -member Regional Command, also headed by Assad, which directed Baath activities in Syria. Its name referred to the Baath consideration of Syria as one region within the larger Arab nation. In 1987 Syria's three vice presidents, prime minister, minister of defense, armed forces chief of staff, and speaker of the People's Council held positions on the Regional Command. The other Regional Command members were solely Baath Party functionaries, including the party secretaries of Aleppo and Hamah, and the party representatives who headed the party bureaus of higher education, trade unions, and economy.

Below the Regional Command was the Central Committee, created in January 1980 at the seventh Baath Party regional congress as a conduit for consultation and communication between the Regional Command and its subordinate local branches. At the eighth Baath Party regional congress in January 1985, the Central Committee's membership was increased from seventy-five to ninety-five. Its most important task was to elect the Regional Command, a task that had previously been the responsibility of the delegates to the regional congress meeting in plenary session. The Central Committee was also intended to represent the regional congress when the latter was not in session.

Subordinate to the Regional Command was a layer of nineteen branch commands: one in each of the thirteen provinces, one each in Damascus and Aleppo, and one in each of the country's four universities. Typically, the provincial governor, chief of police, mayor, and other local officials were members of the Branch Command, but the branch secretary and other executive posts were held by full-time party functionaries. Farther down the organizational chart, each provincial district or quarter of a city had a party organization commensurate with its size. At the grass-roots level, the party was organized into circles or cells of three to seven members, a remnant from the party's past as a secret organization. Three to seven circles in turn comprised a division, and several divisions formed a section. Each section represented a village or neighborhood.

The Regional Command and the Central Committee were elected every four years at the regional congress. Delegates of the branch organizations elected the Central Committee, which in turn elected the Regional Command. Although Assad and his intimates set the agenda and controlled results of the regional congresses, the rank and file nevertheless had an opportunity to complain and voice opinions about important national issues. During the eighth regional congress in January 1985, the 771 branch delegates expressed remarkably candid criticism of corruption and economic stagnation.

Baath Party presence in the armed forces was separate but parallel to that in the civilian apparatus. The two wings of the Baath Party joined only at the Regional Command, where both military and civilian members belonged to the Regional Command and where delegates from party organizations in military units met at regional congresses. The military wing of the Baath Party has established branches down to the battalion level. The leader of such a branch was called a tawjihi (political guide). Not all military officers were party members, but it was almost a prerequisite for advancement to flag rank.

Baath Party appointees included a five-member Inspection and Control Committee, elected in 1980 and charged with enforcing the statutes of the Baath Party and monitoring internal affairs, discipline, and deviation from party norms. "Deviation" was defined in the Party Security Law, passed in 1979, which imposed a prison term of between five and ten years for any party member joining another political organization or anyone infiltrating the Baath Party to work for the interests of another party. Prison terms were also set for such offenses as attacking party offices, obstructing party activities, and attempting to obtain classified party documents or confidential information. If carried out at the instigation of foreign interests, such infractions carried the death penalty.

Through its People's Organizations Bureau, the Baath Party administered a number of organizations, including its own militia, the People's Army. Other organizations were the Revolutionary Youth Organization, Union of Students, Women's Organization, Peasants' Federation, and General Federation of Trade Unions. Each organization was supervised by a member of the Regional Command; a popular organization with a large membership in a given province might have a provincial branch command responsible for its activities. These organizations inculcated Baath values in their members, provided new recruits, and extended services to various social groups.

The coming generation was carefully cultivated by the party. Indoctrination began with membership in the Vanguards, an organization for grade-school boys and girls. Vanguard members attended summer paramilitary training camps operated by the armed forces. Later, youth joined the Revolutionary Youth Organization, Union of Students, or General Federation of Trade Unions.

As befitted a party founded by teachers and that for many years recruited its members from secondary schools and universities, the Baath Party still catered to the intellectual and educated elite. The organizational parity of party branches in universities, having student bodies of only several thousands, with party branches in provinces, having populations of hundreds of thousands, testified to this partiality. Furthermore, the Baath Party operated its own school system, the apex of which was the Higher Political Institute, which was the graduate department of political science at the University of Damascus.

Nevertheless, the party has been working assiduously for years to increase the number of peasants and workers in its ranks. In the mid-1970s, the Baath Party instituted a special mobilization campaign throughout rural agricultural areas of Syria to swell enlistment in the Peasants' Federation. It was claimed that union membership was growing by 30,000 people per year.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress