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The Rise of the Syrian Ba‘th, 1940–1958: Political Success, Party Failure

  • Nabil M. Kaylani (a1)


There is much controversy among Ba'thists as to whether Zaki al-Arsuzi or Michel 'Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar were the real founders of the Ba'th. The answer to this question is academic because the Ba'th was an idea representing national aspirations long before it took the shape of a political party. Its origins go back to the Arab revolt of 1916 and Faysal's ill-fated attempt to unite greater Syria under the Hashemite crown. When the French forcibly expelled Faysal from Damascus, they also frustrated a generation of Syrian nationalist youth who for a fleeting moment stood up for liberation and unification. During the interwar period, pan-Arab patriots agonized over their plight under the Mandate and nourished visions of ‘resurrecting’ the ancient glories of the Umayyads.



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page 3 note 1 Sami, al-Jundi, Al-Ba'th(Beirut, 1969), p. 19. Zaki al-Arsuzi was originally the head of the Arab resistance in the sanjaq of Alexandretta, where he captured the admiration of the Syrian nationalist youth and became a veritable national symbol to them. After the loss of the sanjaq, he moved to Damascus, but remained politically active. The victorious radical Ba'thists of the 23 February 1966 coup have acknowledged al-Arsuzi instead of Michel 'Aflaq as the ‘spiritual father’ of the Ba'th.

page 3 note 2 Ibrahim Salama, , Al-Ba'th min al-Maddris ila al-Thakanat (Beirut, 1969), p. 5.

page 3 note 3 Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, pp. 19–20. The League attempted a comeback in 1954. but without success.

page 4 note 1 Ibid. pp. 20–32.

page 4 note 2 Salama, , Al-Ba'th, pp. 5–6.

page 4 note 3 'Aflaq's flirtation with communism in this formative period has been viewed differently. Some maintain that he became a Marxist while in Paris. (See Kemal H. Karpat, ed., Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East(New York, 1968), p.185.) Others assert that he remained a full-fledged communist until 1943. (See Walter Laqueur, Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East (New York, 1956), ch. 12, p. 330, fn. 15; and Gordon H. Torrey, Syrian Politics and the Military 1945–1958 (Columbus, Ohio, 1964), p. 117, fn. 68.)

page 5 note 1 Patrick, Seale, The Struggle for Syria: a Study of Post-War Arab Politics 1945–1958 (London, 1965), p. 10.2

page 5 note 2 Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 6.

page 5 note 3 Kamil Abu Jaber, on the other hand, mentions that the Ba'th party was established in 1943. See The Arab Ba'th Socialist Party History, Ideology and Organization (Syracuse, 1966), p. 23.

page 5 note 4 However, the present internal organization of the party was not instituted until 1957. Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 33. A good discussion of the party's organization and structure appears in Abu Jaber, The Arab Ba'th, pp. 139–45.

page 5 note 5 Aside from 'Aflaq's works and the constitution of the Ba'th, translated from Arabic in 1957 by the department of PSPA, American University of Beirut, the party's ideology is canvassed in Abu, Jaber, The Arab Ba'th, pp. 97–138. See also Gordon H.Torrey,‘The Ba'thideology and practice’, Middle East Journal, vol. XXIII (1969), pp. 445–54.

page 5 note 6 Michel, Aflaq, Ft Sabll al-Ba'th(Beirut, 1963), p. 181.

page 5 note 7 Ibid. p. 163.

page 6 note 1 Michel, Aflaq, M'arakat al-Maslr al-Wahid (Beirut, 1963), p. 18.

page 6 note 2 Aflaq, , Sabil al-Ba'th, p. 332.

page 6 note 3 Ibid.p. 214. The economic policy of the party is loosely outlined in its constitution, articles 26-37.4

page 6 note 4 Ibid.p. 229.5

page 6 note 5 Hazem Zaki, Nuseibeh, The Ideas of Arab Nationalism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1959), pp. 165–6.

page 7 note 1 Muhammad, Amran, Tajribati Ft al-Thawra, vol.I (Beirut, 1970), p. 8.

page 7 note 2 Ibid. p.115.

page 7 note 3 Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 34.

page 8 note 1 Abu, Jaber, The Arab Ba'th, p. 33.

page 8 note 2 Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 62.

page 8 note 3 Ibid. p.49.

page 8 note 4 It was originally established in 1938 by one of Akram's relatives, ‘Uthman al-Haurani’.

page 8 note 5 Patrick Seale maintains that Haurani used the Arab Socialist party (the changed name of al-Shabdb as of 1950) ‘as a screen’ for his SSNP allegiance (Struggle for Syria, pp. 87 and 38), whereas Al-Jundi mentions that Haurani withdrew from the SSNP as early as 1938 (Al-Ba'th, p. 62).

page 8 note 6 Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 63.

page 8 note 7 Salama, , Al-Ba'th, p. 6.

page 8 note 8 Seale, , Struggle for Syria, p. 10, fn. 6.

page 8 note 9 'Adnan al-Malki went with Haurani to Iraq, but it is not clear whether he was one of the detainees.

page 9 note 1 Seale, Struggle for Syria, p. 40. His co-operation in 1943 with affiliates of the National Bloc was probably unavoidable if he was to succeed. Elections to the Syrian parliament at the time entailed certain steps: each 100 voters chose a representative, and the chosen representatives elected delegates to parliament. It was thus relatively easy for landowners and traditionalist forces to influence voters and manipulate the polls. Besides, the power and popularity of the National Bloc was such that hardly anyone could hope to win the elections without its support or tacit approval. Not until 1947, and owing to public demonstrations instigated in part by the Ba'th, were direct one-step election procedures instituted. Al-Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 44.

page 9 note 2 Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 44.

page 9 note 3 Salama, , Al-Ba'th, p. 6.

page 9 note 4 Haurani frequented the headquarters of al-Ihyd' al-'Arabi.

page 9 note 5 Meetings between members of al-Shabdb and al-Ihyd' are known to have been held in the Moulin Rouge cafe in Damascus.

page 9 note 6 Al, Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 41.

page 9 note 7 Seale, , Struggle for Syria, p. 41.

page 9 note 8 Ibid. p.38.

page 9 note 9 For a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of praetorianism see Samuel P., Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies(New Haven, 1968), pp. 197283.

page 10 note 1 Amran, , Tajribati, vol. 1, p. 152.

page 10 note 2 Abu, Jaber, The Arab Ba'th, p. 29.

page 10 note 3 Laqueur, , Communism and Nationalism, p. 154.

page 10 note 4 Nuseibeh, , Ideas of Arab Nationalism, pp. 6

page 11 note 1 A brief, but the best and most accurate, description of Haurani's aims and tactics in the rural areas around Hama appears in Seale, Struggle for Syria, pp. 39–40, 177 and 183.

page 11 note 2 Torrey, , Syrian Politics, p. 61; and Laqueur, Communism and Nationalism, p. 159.

page 11 note 3 Among the officers who fought with Haurani was Adib al-Shishakli, who subsequently became the strongman of Syria.

page 11 note 4 Torrey, , Syrian Politics, p. 156.

page 11 note 5 Developments of the Quarter’, Middle East Journal, vol.III in (1949), p. 327.

page 11 note 6 Majid, Khaddouri,‘Constitutional developments in Syria’, Middle East Journal, vol.III in (1951), p.149.

page 11 note 7 Amos, Perlmutter,‘The Arab Military Elite’, World Politics, vol.22(1970), p. 298.

page 12 note 1 Huntington, Political Order, p. 202.

page 12 note 2 Ibid. p.198-208.

page 12 note 3 Ahmad I, al-Fil, Suriyyd al-JadidaFt al-Ii, qildbain al-Awwal via al-Thani (Damascus, 1949), P- 33.

page 12 note 4 Syria and Lebanon. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2nd ed. (New York,1954). P- 475

page 12 note 5 Amran, , Tajribatl, vol. I, p. 163.

page 12 note 6 Ibid. A native of Hama, Shishakli's association with Haurani went back to the early forties. When Haurani rallied to Za'im, Shishakli was given command of the armored column which overthrew Quwatli. When Haurani turned against Za'im, Shishakli was summarily dismissed from the army. When Hinnawi with Haurani's aid toppled Za'im, Shishakli was not only restored to full rank, but given command of the important First Brigade at Dar'a. Seale, Struggle for Syria, pp. 86–7.1

page 13 note 1 George, Lenczowski, The Middle East in World Affairs(MIthaca, 1962), p. 349. After his ouster, Hinnawi took political refuge in Lebanon where he was assassinated by Hirsho al-Barazi in revenge for the execution of Muhsin al-Barazi.

page 13 note 2 The Syrian constitution of 1950, warmly pan-Arab in tone, made no reference whatsoever to the proposed Syro-Iraqi union. Concerning the ill-feeling between the army and the People's party see Hasan al-Hakim, Muthakardtl Safahat Min Tarlkh Suriyyd al-Hadith 1920–1958, vol. n (Beirut, 1966), p. 55. Al-Hakim became Prime Minister of Syria in 1951 because the People's party was vetoed out of office by the army. His memoirs include a useful listing of all the Syrian cabinets between 1918 and 1958.

page 13 note 3 Lenczowski, , Middle East, p. 349.

page 13 note 4 Joseph S., Roucek,‘Syria: a lesson in geopolitics’, Current History, vol. 22 (1952), p. 221.

page 13 note 5 Shishakli also suspended the 1950 constitution and promulgated a new constitution in 1953. He also took care, for the sake of legitimacy, to have himself elected as president.

page 13 note 6 George, Kirk,‘The revolutionary current in Arab Asia’ in Peter Calvocoressi, Survey of International Affairs(London, 1955), p. 196.

page 13 note 7 Quite apart from an obvious clash between two domineering personalities, the falling out between Haurani and Shishakli was precipitated by the former's insistence on land distribution, an issue which Shishakli never took seriously.

page 13 note 8 Salama, , Al-Ba'th, p. 7.

page 13 note 9 An unknown number of high-ranking officers were also dismissed from the army (Lenczowski, Middle East, p. 353). On his arrival in Lebanon, Haurani accused Shishakli of arresting seventy-six officers and ‘selling-out’ to western imperialism (Torrey, Syrian Politics, p. 218).

page 13 note 10 The old name al-Shabdb was discarded in 1950.\

page 13 note 11 The merger presumably took place in January 1953 (Torrey, Syrian Politics, p. 218;and Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 7).

page 14 note 1 Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 7.

page 14 note 2 'Aflaq later indicated that he and Haurani decided to join forces in order to effectively meet the threat of the People's party.

page 14 note 3 On the difference in organization between the Ba'th and Haurani's Arab Socialist party see Abu Jaber, The Arab Ba'th, p. 34.

page 14 note 4 The Communist party did not participate in the Horns pact. (Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 7. But see Seale, Struggle for Syria, p. 134.)

page 14 note 5 It is generally acknowledged that these demonstrations were perpetrated principally by Haurani. See also Torrey, Syrian Politics, p. 233.

page 14 note 6 A detailed account is given by Seale, Struggle for Syria, pp. 134–45.

page 14 note 7 Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 9.

page 15 note 1 Ousted Ba'thist officers such as al-Malki and Qannut were immediately reinstated and given sensitive commands, and a partial purge of anti-ARSP officers was carried out. Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 9.

page 15 note 2 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 7 October 1954. Out of the sixteen ARSP seats, five were carried by Haurani's list in the muhqfaza of Hama, where the entire list of traditionalist 'Abd al-Rahman al-'Azm was defeated. In contrast, Bitar, in spite of Haurani's support, was barely elected in Damascus. Apart from their success in converting students, the Ba'thists failed to acquire a mass following in Damascus, where a substantial bourgeois class with a predominantly traditional outlook remained unaffected by Ba'thist propaganda. For a revealing analysis of Damascus, its society and the failure of ARSP in understanding it, see Al-Jundi, Al-Ba'th, pp. 38–39.

page 15 note 3 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 6 October 1954.

page 15 note 4 Salama, Al-Ba'th, p. 10.

page 16 note 1 Al-Hayat (Beirut), 19 October 1954.

page 16 note 2 When a rapprochement between the People's party and National party made possible, in the teeth of ARSP opposition, the formation of a cabinet headed by the independent Faris al-Khurv. about 200 persons (mostly Ba'thists) demonstrated outside the parliament building shouting against the new government and accusing Premier al-Khury and Minister of Interior Ahmad Qanbar of treason. Al-Hayat (Beirut), 4 November 1954.

page 17 note 1 His brother Riyad al-Malki was a prominent Ba'thist leader.

page 17 note 2 He was a sergeant in the Syrian army. After assassinating al-Malki he committed suicide on the spot.

page 17 note 3 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 23 April 1955.

page 17 note 4 In all, there were eight death sentences and eighteen prison terms ranging from 12 to 25 years. See Labib Zuwiyya Yamak, The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: an Ideological Analysis (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), p. 70; and Lenczowski, Middle East, pp. 360–61.

page 17 note 5 Laqueur, Communism and Nationalism, p. 161.

page 17 note 6 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 9 June 1955.

page 18 note 1 Ibid.

page 18 note 2 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 17 February 1956. The declaration came also in response to intensified fighting along the smoldering front with Israel.

page 18 note 3 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 18 February 1956.

page 18 note 4 For the composition of al-Ghazzi's government see Al-Hakim, Muthakardtt, vol.n, pp. 226–7.

page 18 note 5 The full text of the national pact appeared in Al-Jarida (Beirut), 8 March 1956. Its major stipulations were the following: 1. Non-recognition of the forceful occupation of Palestine. 2. Opposition to all foreign military alliances in the Arab world. 3. Adoption of a policy of positive neutralism. 4. Strengthening the Arab Jordanian army through financial aid. 5. Support of the Arab Maghreb in its struggle against imperialism. 6. Betterment of relations with Islamic nations. 7. Industrialization. 8. Fortification of the villages adjoining the border with Israel. 9. Provision for an extraordinary tax and the reconsideration of the entire tax system. 10. Completion of the armament project. Thus the pact was not only strictly nationalistic, anti-Israeli, anti-western, but manifestly pro- Egyptian as well.

page 18 note 6 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 5 April 1956; and Al-Haydt (Beirut), 21 April 1956. The party was at the same time pressing for immediate unification with Egypt, especially after President Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir signified his willingness to effect such a unity. Al-Haydt (Beirut), 17 April 1956.

page 18 note 7 Al-Haydt (Beirut), 21 April 1956.

page 19 note 1 Al-Hayat (Beirut), 3 June 1956.

page 19 note 2 Lenczowski, Middle East, pp. 364-

page 19 note 3 Al-Hayat (Beirut), 9 and 15 June 1956.

page 19 note 4 Al-Hayat (Beirut), 6 July 1956.

page 19 note 5 Al-Hayat (Beirut), 7 July 1956.

page 19 note 6 Al-Jarida (Beirut), 6 January 1957. More often called the red millionaire, Khalid al-'Azm, who supported the ARSP and the Communists, presents a baffling case. Although he came from a prominent traditionalist family and owned large tracts of land and many buildings, al-'Azm did not hesitate in siding with the leftist forces against fellow traditionalists. His ultimate purpose was presumably the presidency, which he was known to covet very strongly. Since any opposition to the rising tide of leftist nationalist sentiment would have been fatal to his political career, he apparently elected to ride the crest of the wave instead of being swamped by it. Al-'Azm's career is a tragic testimony to the disunity and failure of the Syrian traditionalists.

page 20 note 1 Al-Jarida (Beirut), 4 January 1957.

page 20 note 2 'Amran, Tajribati, vol. I, p. 13.

page 20 note 3 Al-Jarida (Beirut), 21 March 1957.

page 20 note 4 'Afif al-Bizri presided over the military court which tried and convicted the traditional figures implicated in the ‘Iraqi plot’. See George Kirk, ‘The Syrian crisis of 1957’, International Affairs, vol. xxxvin (i960), p. 59.

page 20 note 5 Al-Jarida (Beirut), 29 October 1957.

page 20 note 6 Al-Jarida (Beirut), 9 October 1957.

page 21 note 1 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 15 October 1957.

page 21 note 2 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 19 October 1957.

page 21 note 3 The fundamental differences between the ARSP and the communists and the reasons for their collaboration were explained by 'Aflaq in Al-Hayat (Beirut), 24 May 1956.

page 21 note 4 Torrey, Syrian Politics, p. 378;

page 21 note 5 Torrey, ‘The Ba'th_ideology and practice’, p. 456.

page 22 note 1 Al-Jundi, Al-Ba'th, p. 36.1

page 22 note 2 Although more pragmatic and precise than 'Aflaq, Bitar nevertheless was in relative agreement with his life-long friend, and together they constituted a separate wing in the Ba'thist leadership that was quite distinct from that of Haurani.

page 22 note 3 Sallma, Al-Ba'th, p. 7.

page 23 note 1 Abu Jaber attributes this outcome to 'Aflaq's inability or unwillingness to assume responsibility. (The Arab Ba'th, p. 14. But see 'Amran, Tajribatt, vol. I, p. 14.)

page 23 note 2 This was clearly demonstrated by the crisis inside the party in July 1957 over the issue of the Communist alliance.

page 23 note 3 'Amaran, Tajribati, vol. I, pp. 12–13.

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