Two Stages of the Syrian Ba’ath

Stamp Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Ba'ath's Founding

Again inspired by Hanna Batatu’s excellent book, here are some notes on the first two of the three stages of the Ba’ath Party in Syria. I haven’t mentioned the party’s development in Iraq.

The first Ba’ath was the old Ba’ath, and it was led by ideals. The party’s founders, Michel Aflaq (a Christian) and the two Bitars (Sunnis) were the sons of grain merchants from the Damascus suburb of Maydan, and were genuinely motivated by the desire for a unified Arab state. They were of the commercial class that felt most immediately the loss of the natural Arab marketplace entailed by the Sykes-Picot partition and the actions of the French Mandate. The French had ceded Arab-majority areas north of Aleppo to Turkey, and in 1939 handed over the entire Iskenderoon governorate (which had an Arab and Alawi majority) in return for Turkish neutrality in the approaching European war. From 1925 to 26 the Druze had risen against the French under the anti-sectarian slogan ‘Religion is for God and the Homeland For All.’ The Ghuta peasant-gardeners, aflame with the nationalism of nearby Damascus, also struck, and the French bombarded the Ghuta with artillery and planes. The 1948 fall of Palestine added impetus to the pan-nationalist agenda. Sunnis from Deir ez-Zor, now cut off from their kinsmen and marketplaces in Iraq, were also attracted to Arabism.

Before it became a party of policemen and bureaucrats the Ba’ath was a party of schoolteachers (the leadership) and schoolboys (the mass membership). Pedagogic aims run deep in the Ba’ath’s family history. The subject of instruction at this stage was an unfeasibly romantic vision of the Arabs, something beyond the traditional nationalist picture of the Arabs as a people united by language and culture, in other words by historical forces. The Ba’ath saw the Arabs as a nation outide history, as an eternal creative force and unified will (Henri Bergson’s philosophy was important), and Ba’athist rhetoric transported spiritual language into nationalist discourse. Umma Arabiya Wahida, goes the slogan, Zat Risala Khalida. Or One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message. Umma hitherto referred to the Islamic community, not the Arabs, and Risala is the word used for God’s message transmitted by Muhammad, the Rasool. Like Zionism, Stalinism, fascism and hedonist-consumerism, the Ba’ath was one of the 20th Century’s attempts to secularise and channel people’s religious impulses, to provide a substitute for the crumbling or crumbled traditional religions.

Itinerant doctors and intellectuals as well as teachers spread this message to the provincial towns and countryside. The Ba’ath was very big indeed in secondary schools. But the party’s merger with Akram Hawrani’s peasant-based Arab Socialist Party in 1953 brought it a mass membership for the first time.

The Ba’ath’s pan-Arabism stood midway  – ‘geographically’ speaking –between the Greater Syrian nationalism of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the internationalism of the Syrian Communist Party. The SSNP was suppressed after it assassinated the Ba’athist officer Adnan al-Malki and the Communists never recovered from their disastrous decision to follow the Moscow party line and recognise Israel, but these two parties were the Ba’ath’s primary competition until the 1958 union of Syria and Egypt in the United Arab Republic. The UAR’s only legal party was Egyptian president AbdulNasser’s Arab Socialist Union. The Syrian Ba’ath therefore dissolved itself in 1959.

Both AbdulNasser and the dream of union were wildly popular in Syria, yet the UAR failed miserably. In effect, Syria became a colony of Egypt, its economic planning, government and security put under the control of Egyptians. Syria had already experienced dictatorship, but the UAR installed a police state for the first time. This mukhabarat model later spread to Iraq and Libya. Sadly, this questionable achievement of AbdulNasser’s has been more lasting than his nationalist and socialist victories. The UAR, in any case, fell apart in 1961 and so, more or less, did the Ba’ath Party. Opposing reunification, Akram Hawrani broke away to refound the ASP. The Ba’ath remnants squabbled over the correct response to Nasser’s version of unity.

Meanwhile a clandestine military committee of Ba’athist officers, including Hafiz al-Asad and Salah Jadid, had been founded in 1959 with the aim of seizing power by coup d’etat. The Ba’ath was now military-based, rural, and contained a disproportionately large membership from the heterodox sects, the sons not of cashcroppers but of middling to lower village notables. This is the second Ba’ath, what Batatu calls the transitional Ba’ath.

In coalition with Nasserist and independent officers, the Military Committee staged a successful coup in March 1963. For the rest of the decade various factions jostled for control within government; the losers were killed, exiled or imprisoned. This period saw the rule of the young, the passionate, the hasty and the wildly enthusiastic. As Salah Jadid came to the fore the country experienced Soviet-style economic planning, nationalisation of private companies and redistribution of agricultural land. Jadid spoke of a “people’s war” against Israel but didn’t prepare for one. Hafez al-Asad took a more pragmatic line on class warfare and showed a more realist understanding of regional power politics, seeking reconciliation with other Arab states.

Then came the June 67 defeat. Syria lost its airforce and, shockingly, the entire Golan Heights including the city of Qunaitra. Syrian soldiers fought fiercely to defend the city, but panicked and fled when they heard Communique No. 66, issued by Asad, which stated that Qunaitra had fallen before it actually had. Batatu asks if Asad, as Syrian conspiracists whisper, deliberately lost the Golan. The conspiracists, but not Batatu, wonder if Asad might even have been paid to do so?

These theories have never made sense to me. Why would a man who’d been a committed nationalist since his schooldays choose to go down in history as the man who lost Arab land to the Zionist state? Why, if he were a simple traitor, would Asad reorganise the army to fight more successfully in 1973? Why did he then play the Lebanese game so consummately in the 80s that all of Israel’s Lebanese war aims were thwarted? Yet al-Asad was in charge of the army in June 67 and it was Asad who issued the ill-famed Communique. Perhaps the Ba’ath wished to spur the Soviet Union into action on Syria’s behalf by announcing the fall of Qunaitra, or perhaps it wanted the UN to pressure Israel into a ceasefire. But Batatu suggests the problem was amateurism. Asad failed to check reports from the front of an Israeli tank column near Qunaitra, assumed the city had fallen, and scrambled to save his military. In any case, the army had been profoundly weakened by its politicisation and the years of purges, and communications as a whole were poor.

The defeat sharpened the struggle within the Ba’ath through 68 to November 70, when Asad defeated Jadid and the Syrian Ba’ath entered its third stage. And that’s the topic of another post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: