Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party – Syria Region
The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party – Syria Region (Arabic: حزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي – قُطْر سوريا Hizb Al-Ba'ath Al-Arabi Al-Ishtiraki – Qutr Suriya), officially the Syrian Regional Branch (Syria being a "region" of the Arab nation in Ba'ath ideology), is a neo-Ba'athist organisation founded on 7 April 1947 by Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and followers of Zaki al-Arsuzi. It was first the regional branch of the original Ba'ath Party (1947–1966) before it changed its allegiance to the Syrian-dominated Ba'ath movement (1966–present) following the 1966 split within the original Ba'ath Party. The party has ruled Syria continuously since the 1963 Syrian coup d'état which brought the Ba'athists to power.
|Regional Secretary||Bashar al-Assad|
|Assistant Regional Secretary||Hilal Hilal|
Salah al-Din al-Bitar
|Founded||7 April 1947|
|Student wing||National Union of Students|
|Youth wing||Revolutionary Youth Union|
|Paramilitary wing||Ba'ath Brigades (2012–2018)|
|Membership (2010)||1.2 million|
|National affiliation||National Progressive Front|
|Regional affiliation||Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party (1947–1966)|
Syria-based Ba'ath Party (1966–present)
|Colours||Black, Red, White and Green (Pan-Arab colors)|
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Founding and early years: 1947–1963
The Ba'ath Party, and indirectly the Syrian Regional Branch, was established on 7 April 1947 by Michel Aflaq (a Christian), Salah al-Din al-Bitar (a Sunni Muslim) and Zaki al-Arsuzi (an Alawite). According to the congress, the party was "nationalist, populist, socialist, and revolutionary" and believed in the "unity and freedom of the Arab nation within its homeland." The party opposed the theory of class conflict, but supported the nationalisation of major industries, the unionisation of workers, land reform, and supported private inheritance and private property rights to some degree. The party merged with the Arab Socialist Party (ASP), led by Akram al-Hawrani, to establish the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in Lebanon following Adib Shishakli's rise to power. Most ASP members did not adhere to the merger and remained, according to George Alan, "passionately loyal to Hawrani's person." The merger was weak, and a lot of the ASP's original infrastructure remained intact. In 1955, the party decided to support Nasser and what they perceived as his pan-Arabic policies.
Syrian politics took a dramatic turn in 1954 when the military government of Adib al-Shishakli was overthrown and the democratic system restored. The Ba'ath, now a large and popular organisation, won 22 out of 142 parliamentary seats in the Syrian election that year, becoming the second-largest party in parliament. The Ba'ath Party was supported by the intelligentsia because of their pro-Egyptian and anti-imperialist stance and their support for social reform.
The assassination of Ba'athist colonel Adnan al-Malki by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in April 1955 allowed the Ba'ath Party and its allies to launch a crackdown, thus eliminating one rival. In 1957, the Ba'ath Party partnered with the Syrian Communist Party (SCP) to weaken the power of Syria's conservative parties. By the end of that year, the SCP weakened the Ba'ath Party to such an extent that in December the Ba'ath Party drafted a bill calling for a union with Egypt, a move that was very popular. The union between Egypt and Syria went ahead and the United Arab Republic (UAR) was created, and the Ba'ath Party was banned in the UAR because of Nasser's hostility to parties other than his own. The Ba'ath leadership dissolved the party in 1958, gambling that the legalisation against certain parties would hurt the SCP more than it would the Ba'ath. A military coup in Damascus in 1961 brought the UAR to an end. Sixteen prominent politicians, including al-Hawrani and Salah al-Din al-Bitar – who later retracted his signature, signed a statement supporting the coup. The Ba'athists won several seats during the 1961 parliamentary election.
Coup of 1963
The military group preparing for the overthrow of the Separatist Regime in February 1963 was composed of independent Nasserite and other unionist, including Ba'thi officers. The re-emergence of the Ba'tha's a majority political force aided in the coup; without a political majority the coup would have remained a military take over . Ziyad al-Hariri controlled the sizable forces stationed at the Israeli Front, not far from Damascus, Muhammad as-Sufi commanded the key brigade stationes in Homs, and Ghassan Haddad, one of Hariri's independent partners, commanded the Desert Forces. Early in March it was decided the coup would be brought into action March ninth. But on March fifth several of the officers wanted to delay the coup in hope of staging a bloodless coup . It was presumed that the Nasserite were preparing a coup of their own which effectively canceled the delay. The coup began at night and by the morning of March eighth it was evident that a new political era had begun in Syria.
Ruling party: 1963 onwards
The secession from the UAR was a time of crisis for the party; several groups, including Hawrani, left the Ba'ath Party. In 1962, Aflaq convened a congress which re-established the Syrian Regional Branch. The division in the original Ba'ath Party between the National Command led by Michel Aflaq and the “regionalists” in the Syrian Regional Branch stemmed from the break-up of the UAR. Aflaq had sought to control the regionalist elements – an incoherent grouping led by Fa'iz al-Jasim, Yusuf Zuayyin, Munir al-Abdallah and Ibrahim Makhus. Aflaq retained the support of the majority of the non-Syrian National Command members (13 at the time).
Following the success of the February 1963 coup d'état in Iraq, led by the Ba'ath Party's Iraqi Regional Branch, the Military Committee hastily convened to plan a coup against Nazim al-Kudsi's presidency. The coup – dubbed the 8th of March Revolution – was successful and a Ba'athist government was installed in Syria. The plotters' first order was to establish the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), which consisted entirely of Ba'athists and Nasserists, and was controlled by military personnel rather than civilians. However, in its first years in power, the Syrian Regional Branch experienced an internal power struggle between traditional Ba'athists, radical socialists and the members of the Military Committee. The first period of Ba'ath rule was put to an end with the 1966 Syrian coup d'état, which overthrew the traditional Ba'athists led by Aflaq and Bitar and brought Salah Jadid, the head of the Military Committee, to power (though not formally).
After the 1967 Six-Day War, tensions between Jadid and Hafez al-Assad increased, and al-Assad and his associates were strengthened by their hold on the military. In late 1968, they began dismantling Jadid's support network, facing ineffectual resistance from the civilian branch of the party that remained under Jadid's control. This duality of power persisted until the Corrective Revolution of November 1970, when al-Assad ousted and imprisoned Atassi and Jadid. He then set upon a project of rapid institution-building, reopened parliament and adopted a permanent constitution for the country, which had been ruled by military fiat and a provisional constitutional documents since 1963. Assad continued to rule Syria until his death in 2000, by centralizing powers in the state presidency. Hafez's son, Bashar al-Assad succeeded him in office as President of Syria and Regional Secretary of the Syrian Regional Branch on 17 June and 24 June respectively. At the beginning, Bashar al-Assad's rule was met with high expectations, with many foreign commentators believing he would introduce reforms reminiscent of the Chinese economic reforms or those of Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union.
Bashar al-Assad's rule was believed to be stable until the Arab Spring took place; the revolutions occurring in other parts of the Arab world acted as an inspiration for the Syrian opposition, leading to the Syrian Civil War from 2011 onwards. It is generally believed that the Syrian Regional Branch plays a minor role in the conflict, having been reduced to a mass organization, and real decision-making taking place either in the military, the al-Assad family or Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Despite this, the party remained loyal to the government almost in its entirety throughout the civil war, probably out of concerns that the overthrow of the al-Assad family's rule would result in its own demise as well. Several militias were formed by Ba'ath Party volunteers to fight against insurgents, with the most notable being the Ba'ath Brigades. The civil war also resulted in a referendum on a new constitution on 26 February 2012. The constitution was approved by the populace, and the article stating that Ba'ath Party was "the leading party of society and state" was removed and the constitution was ratified on 27 February.
The Regional Congress is supposed to be held every fourth year to elect members of the Regional Command. Since 1980, its functions have been eclipsed by the Central Committee, which was empowered to elect the Regional Command. By 1985's 8th Regional Congress, the Regional Command Secretary was empowered to elect the Central Committee. The 8th Regional Congress would be the last congress held under Hafez al-Assad's rule. The next Regional Congress was held in June 2000 and elected Bashar al-Assad as Regional Command Secretary and elected him as a candidate for the next presidential election.
Delegates to the Regional Command are elected beforehand by the Regional Command leadership. While all delegates come from the party's local organisation, they are forced to elect members presented by the leadership. However, some criticism is allowed. At the 8th Regional Congress, several delegates openly criticised the growing political corruption and the economic stagnation in Syria. They could also discuss important problems to the Regional Command, which in turn could deal with them.
The term Regional Command (Arabic: Al-Qiyada Al-Qutriyya) stems from Ba'athist ideology, where region literally means an Arab state. According to the Syrian Constitution, the Regional Command has the power to nominate a candidate for president. While the constitution does not state that the Secretary of the Regional Command is the President of Syria, the charter of the National Progressive Front (NPF), of which the Ba'ath Party is a member, states that the President and the Regional Command Secretary is the NPF President, but this is not stated in any legal document. The 1st Extraordinary Regional Congress held in 1964 decided that the Secretary of the Regional Command would also be head of state.
The Regional Command is officially responsible to the Regional Congress. The Regional Command is supposed to be subordinate to the National Command, and official media portray it as such to stress the government's commitment to Ba'athist ideology. Since al-Assad's rise to power, the National Command has been subordinate to the Regional Command. Before the schism between the Military Committee led by Salah Jadid and the Aflaqites, and the ensuing 1966 Syrian coup d'état, the National Command was the leading party organ. The Regional Command has been a powerful institution in Syria until its disbandment. The Regional Command was disbanded in February 2016.
The Central Committee (Arabic: Al-Lajna Al-Markaziyya), established in January 1980, is subordinate to the Regional Command. It was established as a conduit for communication between the Ba'ath Party leadership and local party organs. At the 8th Regional Congress held in 1985, membership size increased from 75 to 95. Other changes was that its powers were enhanced; in theory, the Regional Command became responsible to the Central Committee, the hitch was that the Regional Command Secretary elected the members of the Central Committee. Another change was that the Central Committee was given the responsibilities of the Regional Congress when the congress was not in session. As with the Regional Command, the Central Committee is in theory supposed to be elected every fourth year by the Regional Congress, but from 1985 until Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000, no Regional Congress was held.
The Military Bureau, which succeeded the Military Committee, oversees the Syrian armed forces. Shortly after the 8 March Revolution, the Military Committee became the supreme authority in military affairs. The party has a parallel structure within the Syrian armed forces. The military and civilian sectors only meet at the regional level, as the military sector is represented in the Regional Command and sends delegates to regional congresses. The military sector is divided into branches, which operate at the battalion level. The head of a military party branch is called a tawjihi, or guide.
In 1963, the Military Committee established the Military Organisation, which consisted of 12 branches resembling their civilian counterparts. The Military Organisation was led by a Central Committee, which represented the Military Committee. These new institutions were established to stop the civilian faction meddling in the affairs of the Military Committee. The Military Organisation met with the other branches through the Military Committee, which was represented at the Regional and National Congresses and Commands. The Military Organisation was a very secretive body. Members were sworn not to divulge any information about the organisation to officers who were not members in order to strengthen the Military Committee's hold on the military. In June 1964, it was decided that no new members would be admitted to the organisation. The Military Committee was built on a democratic framework, and a Military Organization Congress was held to elect the members of the Military Committee. Only one congress was ever held.
The lack of a democratic framework led to internal divisions within the Military Organisation among the rank-and-file. Tension within the organisation increased, and became apparent when Muhammad Umran was dismissed from the Military Committee. Some rank-and-file members presented a petition to the Regional Congress which called for the democratisation of the Military Organisation. The National Command, represented by Munif al-Razzaz, did not realise the importance of this petition before Salah Jadid suppressed it. The Military Committee decided to reform, and the Regional Congress passed a resolution which made the Military Organisation responsible to the Military Bureau of the Regional Command, which was only responsible for military affairs.
The party has 19 branches in Syria: one in each of the thirteen provinces, one in Damascus, one in Aleppo and one at each of the country's four universities. In most cases the governor of a province, police chief, mayor and other local dignitaries comprise the Branch Command. The Branch Command Secretary and other executive positions are filled by full-time party employees.
Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, the two principal fathers of Ba'athist thought, saw the Ba'ath Party as a vanguard party, comparable to the Soviet Union's Communist Party, while Al-Assad saw it as a mass organisation. In 1970 he stated, "After this day the Ba'ath will not be the party of the elect, as some has envisaged ... Syria does not belong to the Ba'athists alone."
Since 1970, membership of the Ba'ath Party in Syria expanded dramatically. In 1971, the party had 65,938 members; ten years later it stood at 374,332 and by mid-1992 it was 1,008,243. By mid-1992, over 14 percent of Syrians aged over 14 were members of the party. In 2003, the party membership stood at 1.8 million people, which is 18 percent of the population. The increase in membership was not smooth. In 1985 a party organisational report stated that thousand of members had been expelled before the 7th Regional Congress held in 1980 because of indiscipline. The report also mentioned the increased tendency of opportunism among party members. Between 1980 and 1984, 133,850 supporter-members and 3,242 full members were expelled from the party.
The increase in members has led official propaganda, and leading members of the party and state, to say that the people and the party are inseparable. Michel Kilo, a Syrian dissident, said, "The Ba'ath does not recognize society. It consider itself [to be] society." This idea led to Ba'athist slogans and tenets being included in the Syrian constitution. In 1979, the Ba'ath Party's position was further strengthened when dual party membership became a criminal offence.
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According to Subhi Hadidi, a Syrian dissident, "The Ba'ath is in complete disarray. ... It's like a dead body. It's no longer a party in any normal sense of the word." Hanna Batatu wrote, "Under Assad the character of the Ba'ath changed ... Whatever independence of opinion its members enjoyed in the past was now curtailed, a premium being placed on conformity and internal discipline. The party became in effect another instrument by which the regime sought to control the community at large or to rally it behind its policies. The party's cadres turned more and more into bureaucrats and careerists, and were no longer vibrantly alive ideologically as in the 1950s and 1960s, unconditional fidelity to Assad having ultimately overridden fidelity to old beliefs."
It is rumored that Al-Assad discussed the possibilities of abolishing the Ba'ath Party when he took power in 1970. According to Volker Perthes, the Ba'ath Party was transformed under Assad; Perthes wrote, "It was further inflated such as to neutralise those who had supported the overthrown leftist leadership, it was de-ideologised; and it was restructured so as to fit into the authoritarian format of Assad's system, lose its avant-garde character and became an instrument for generating mass support and political control. It was also to become the regime's main patronage network."
The Ba'ath Party was turned into a patronage network closely intertwined with the bureaucracy, and soon became virtually indistinguishable from the state, while membership rules were liberalized. In 1987, the party had 50,000 members in Syria, with another 200,000 candidate members on probation. The party lost its independence from the state and was turned into a tool of the Assad government, which remained based essentially in the security forces. Other parties that accepted the basic orientation of the government were permitted to operate again. The National Progressive Front was established in 1972 as a coalition of these legal parties, which were only permitted to act as junior partners to the Ba'ath, with very little room for independent organisation.
يا شباب العرب هيا وانطلق يا موكبي
ya šabāba-l'arbi hayyā wanṭaliq yā mawkibī
Arab youth, raise and march to fight your enemies,
|1971||Hafez al-Assad||1,919,609||99.2%||Elected |
|2000||Bashar al-Assad||8,689,871||99.7%||Elected |
Syrian People's Council elections
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Many posts in the public sector, the military and government were generally reserved for Baathists, which helped boost party membership. By 1981, some 375,000 people had joined the party. By 2010, this number had reportedly risen to 1.2 million - nearly 10% of the population.
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- Zîser, Eyāl (2007). Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power. I.B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-84511-153-3.