Uncovering Syria (II): We Are All Baathists

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Baathists consolidated their power constitutionally through Article 8 and opposition to the party was systematically marginalized through a variety of incentive and coercive measures. (Photo: REUTERS - Murad Sezer)

By: Basheer al-Baker

Published Friday, September 2, 2011

The Baath Party is the leader of both state and society according to Syria’s Constitution. But a much-touted constitutional amendment will not dislodge the party from its privileged position in Syria, for Baathism has become a way of life for generations of Syrians.

When someone is born in Syria, they become members of the Baath Vanguards Organization. Later, they join the party’s Revolutionary Youth and as students, they enter into the National Student Union, after which they graduate to Baath Party ranks.

The story of the Baath Party is entwined with the lives of generations of Syrians, many now - both old and young- awaiting the moment when the party of “Unity, Freedom and Socialism” will finally be held accountable for its actions. Some have already died, while others anticipate an end to the long political nightmare of living under its rule.

The origin of this nightmare dates back to 8 March 1963, when Syrians found themselves caught in the eye of a political storm that eventually destroyed all it touched, later transforming the nation’s political life into a barren desert for many years. The country’s history of political pluralism was reduced to a faded monochrome. Truckloads of country boys were brought into the cities, chanting ‘Make way, we are the Baathists, make way! After God, we worship the Baath Party!” while school children memorized lyrics, such as “The wheels of fate have turned and the Baathist revolution has come.”

What revolution? That was the question confronting many Syrians still traumatised by their country’s secession from the United Arab Republic in September 1961. The union was a short lived pan-Arab project between Syria and Egypt, lasting only three years. It fell apart upon the release of secret Egyptian intelligence documents that accused the Baath party of conspiring against the union.

Historical evidence suggests that there was no revolution. The Syrian Baath Party usurped power on March 8 in an overnight coup. Iraqi Baathist Ali Saleh al-Saadi famously said “we arrived on the American train.” He advised his comrades in Damascus to slaughter several thousand “so that people don’t say the March 8 revolution was a bloodless revolution.” His catchphrase, “No blood, no revolution,” would become the fodder of many future political satires and dark humorists.

The party turned on its comrades first, consuming a number of its founding fathers, including Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, Munif al-Razzaz, Jalal al-Sayyed and Amin al-Hafiz. At the time in 1966, observers believed that the left wing of the party was squeezing out the right one; however, in hindsight, we now know it signalled the first move by a group of young military officers, who hailed from the countryside, to establish themselves as power brokers in mainstream Syrian politics. This group of Salah Jadid, Mohammad Omran, Abdel Karim al-Jundi, and other young officers aligned themselves with other public figures who supported transforming the Baath into a leftist party espusing materialism as it founding ideology, following the theories of prominent intellectual Yasin al-Hafiz, who later regretted his influence on the process. Among the most influential civilian figures were Yousef Zuaiyin and Noureddin al-Atassi; but they were both idealistic and oblivious to the contradictions and hidden power struggles taking place in the party. These would come to a fore in late 1969 when Syria decided to back Palestinian fighters in the battle between the latter and Jordan’s King Hussein. Hafez Assad, the Syrian Minister of Defense at the time, used the opportunity to carry out a bloodless coup d’etat on 16 November 1970. During this purge, known as the Corrective Movement, Assad imprisoned his Leftist military and civilian comrades – Jadid, Zuaiyin, and al-Atassi – and publicly shamed them as reckless opportunists. He ascended the ladder to Syria’s top post in 1971, assuming the role of Syria’s president.

The period prior to the Corrective movement, from 1966 to 1970, is the richest in the history of Syrian Baath Party politics and featuring three distinct characteristics that separated it from other parts of the party’s past. First, there were intense debates within the party about its political orientation, with many members tending towards establishing the party as a Marxist movement. Some proponents of this direction organized regular meetings with members of the Syrian Communist Party in hopes of forming a vanguard party. Some were so taken with socialist ideas that they began to call for emulating Soviets and Chinese policies in agriculture and defense.

The second characteristic of this period is the appearance of a revisionist current within the Syrian Communist Party led by Riad al-Turk. This group called for an end to Soviet influence on party policy and a shift towards objectives and programmes better suited to the Syrian and Arab context. This group held significant sway through the Politburo of the Syrian Communist Party, leaving the once influential Secretary-General of the party Khalid Bakdash a minority in the leadership ranks. Al-Turk’s group played a critical role in laying the foundations for a new leftist current in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

The third characteristic is the birth of a new Left following extensive debates by younger party members and coinciding with a critical review of the July 1967 Arab defeat by Israel. Revolutionary leagues formed and attracted many students and youth desiring a new and modern Syrian politics. These leagues later became the Communist Labor League and eventually evolved into the Communist Labor Party.

The advent of the Corrective Movement within the Baath Party in these circumstances was an opportunity to create links between it and the bloody events of Black September in 1970 [when King Hussein’s forces clashed with militant Palestinian organizations, resulting in thousands dead and deported and the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan]. Assad’s unsupportive stance towards the Palestinian Fedayeen in Jordan earned him regional and international blessing when he led the military coup, and subsequently influenced his actions in Lebanon, particularly during the 1976 military intervention against the Lebanese National Movement and its Palestinian allies during Lebanon’s civil war.

Hafez Assad’s perspective on powersharing was clear from his first day in power. Despite his poor, rural background, he was a political conservative influenced by local, regional, and international interests. He patronized the business community, mended fences with regimes in the Gulf, and opened channels to the West.

The Corrective Movement represented a clear split in the the Baath Party’s history in Syria. It’s not enough to look at the party’s role, but also at society’s view of the change. Prior to the Corrective Movement, the Baath Party was considered pure, and its leadership and members were paragons of integrity who shunned corruption and acted as bearers of a moral vision of state governing. They emulated revolutionary leaders of Latin America and East Asia, and especially those of Cuba and Vietnam, who they believed were untainted by the trappings of power and privilege. Prime Minister Yousef Zuaiyin drove a Volkswagen, President Noureddine al-Atassi didn’t wear a necktie, and the Interior Minister walked around in sandals instead of shoes. The party denounced corruption and considered bribery a great sin. Their moral rectitude and integrity earned them respect among the public, as well as their enemies, such as feudal landowners, whose properties were nationalized and redistributed to farmers. Many capitalists fled abroad and helped build the economies of neighboring countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, often at the expense of the Syrian economy that opted for socialism.

The Baath Party turned a new page in 1970. Its membership would no longer be restricted, conditional, and selective. It opened its doors to all Syrians. The party’s atmosphere changed drastically. Within three years, it had become the Party of power, and membership offered access to employment, wealth, and security. Since the Corrective Movement, the special treatment accorded to Baathists and members of the Revolutionary Youth is unquestionable, even at the level of university admissions. An enormous bureaucracy – with its many beneficiaries – was forged in record time. The public image of a Baathist transformed into that of an opportunist or a member of the security and intelligence apparatus developed and fortified during Assad’s rule.

Baathists consolidated their power constitutionally through Article 8 and opposition to the party was systematically marginalized through a variety of incentive and coercive measures. Those who refused to accept the Baath’s right “to lead state and society” and join the puppet National Progressive Front would be isolated and excluded. The Baath Party quickly became the only political player, though the broader party had little sway in determining Syrian politics. True leadership rested in the hands of Hafez Assad, who engineered a political life without partisan or party politics.

The stated objectives of the Baath Party – Unity, Freedom, and Socialism – were greatly neglected during this period. Arab Unity, which the Baathists considered their ultimate objective, was abandoned and replaced by a boundless enmity for the other Baathist regime in Iraq. The National Action Pact of 1979 proved to be a setback for Arab nationalism, as both countries spent a good deal of energy fighting one another. The second objective, Freedom, is described in Baathist literature as the freedom of Arab peoples from colonialism. However, decades after colonialism ended in Syria, and a new generation grew up without experiencing colonial rule, the ‘colonial enemy’ remained a pretext for depriving citizens of freedoms. The third objective, Socialism, became synonymous with the spread of poverty, inept state planning, and a public sector incapable of providing shelter for the elderly or fair earnings for people. Meanwhile, the regime’s crooked figures built a parallel economy based on corruption and organized pillaging of public funds. State industries went bankrupt, agriculture regressed, and the countryside fell into a decay. The deterioration slowly crept towards the cities, which are now encircled by slums seething with the frustrations borne of inequality and a coercive state security apparatus that knows no bounds in meddling with people’s lives.

Amidst these gross social troubles, the role of the state changed, especially with the expansion of the security apparatus. The propaganda machine continued to reify the Baath Party, which now turned to the task of ‘domesticating’ the public. Every Syrian is born a Baathist and joining the Revolutionary Youth is compulsory. Every Syrian child is brainwashed in a manner unparalleled outside of North Korea. Many everyday symbols filling the lives of Syrians – from statues to anthems – serve one purpose: raising children to love the leader.

When the senior Assad died, there was an opportunity to end Syria’s Baathist nightmare. For a brief period, Syrians breathed the air of the Damascus Spring. Forums set up during this period provided new oxygen and even members of the Baath Party welcomed the opportunity for free expression. But the Old Guard soon reasserted itself, beginning with former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who warned of the threat that Syria might fall into political anarchy, as had happened with Algeria after the demise of one-party rule in 1988. Bashar Assad assumed power as Syria’s president, succeeding his father. The Damascus Spring was stillborn.

Five years later, a glimmer of hope appeared during the Tenth National Baath Party Conference in 2005, where there were internal discussions about corruption and political and media pluralism in Syria. The resulting proposals were shelved, except for a cursory reference to the conference during Assad’s second speech on April 16 of this year, where he touted the government’s awareness of the need for reform.

During his ten-year rule, Bashar Assad has sought reform along the Chinese model, allowing for economic liberalization to generate growth and recovery, while holding out on wider political reforms. These changes have spread a new spirit among Syrians who now want to benefit from the positive aspects of liberalization, while also pursuing their rights to political pluralism and free expression.

Uncovering Syria (I): Tales of a Spying State

This article is translated from the Arabic edition.

Comments

i would like to know about the role Baath party played in the emergance of Hafiz Alassad

Very good historical article. Accurate & true.
However, I did not find any mention regarding the role Syria played against Israel, particularly in channeling military aid to Hizbullah, without which, South Lebanon would have remained under Israeli occupation.
"The balance of power" prevailing today in the Near East is the only chance for a possible peace with Israel, based on some justice to the Palestinians (pre 67 borders) + the return of occupied territories to Lebanon & Syria.
This Baath regime MUST change to the better of the Syrian people but Syria MUST remain the cornerstone in confronting Israel & supporting Hizbullah & Hamas. Without these cards in our hands, Israel will refuse any peace...in the coming 100 years, at least

If you want to know about the Syrian Israeli conflict, this webpage touches on it. http://www.countriesquest.com/middle_east/syria/history/baath_party_rule...

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