The Survival of the Syrian Ba’ath Party: Domestic Politics or International Support?

This piece was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of the Yale Review of International Studies.

Photo caption: The Syrian dynasty.


Introduction

While the Syrian civil war has no precedent in the modern history of the Levant, the survival of the Ba’ath party through the seventh year of the war was far from unprecedented. The generation of Syrians that have witnessed no ruler other than the Assad family saw no political alternative to the Ba’ath Party. The geopolitical importance of Syria to Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the maneuvering of these foreign actors are crucial to analyzing the survival of the Party. However, this analysis must also account for the complexities of the political, social and economic landscape that the Ba’ath Party managed to create domestically before the uprising of 2011. Despite the unique character of the Syrian Revolution in Syria’s modern history, it is certainly not the first political crisis that the regime has survived. The Ba’ath party has outlasted the collapse of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in the sixties, an Islamic uprising in the seventies, economic stagnation in the eighties, the end of Soviet protection era in the nineties, and, the power transition from father to son at the start of the 21st century. This paper challenges the perception that credits the Ba’ath Party’s survival to the support of its international allies and examines the historical techniques and experiences that the party developed to ensure its hegemony. By doing so, this paper argues that the party’s success in establishing a sustainable and rapidly shifting social base, developing efficient state and security apparatuses, and adapting to the changes in the international and economic arena contributed to its survival until the uprising of 2011.

 

History of the Ba’ath Party

The word “Ba’ath” is the Arabic for rebirth, or resurrection, a renewal of the conception of Arabness around the three main pillars of Michel Aflaq’s thought, the founder of the Ba’ath Party: Unity, Freedom and Socialism. As early as the 1940s, the party’s activities responded to the decades-old colonial presence in the Levant. In the early Ba’athist mindset, the Arabs should abolish the artificial colonial boundaries to give space for the Arab civilization to flourish and renew itself.[1] The freedom that Aflaq envisaged was freedom of speech and belief as well as the freedom of the Arab Ummah from foreign domination. The Ba’ath party formally entered the Syrian political space in July 1947 elections in coalition with the communists. The Party’s activism soon centered around shifting the country’s rule away from the order of the notables.

The Party’s appeal to Arab Unity prompted the Ba’athist leaders to sacrifice the party to form the United Arab Republic (UAR). But after the coup of 1961 which dissolved this unity, the party overrid the elected politicians in government and abused its power to incorporate family members and relatives of party members in the bureaucracy, many of whom were minorities. The party’s focus on peasantry interests appealed to the Alawite youth, including Hafez Al-Assad, who would become Syria’s Defense Minister and subsequently the president through his military coup, “The Corrective Movement.” The rise of the Ba’ath party and its transformation to a personality cult of one leader culminated in amending the constitution in 1973, making the Ba’ath “the leading party of the society and state.”[2]

 

Establishing a Social Base

The party’s appeal to minorities in the post-UAR era would give it a social base through kinship and clientelism. The regime used the rise of a minority-based “petit-bourgeois” to undermine the power of local Sunni elites and notables. However, to describe Hafez’s Ba’athist regime as merely maintaining Alawite hegemony is to ignore the complexities of power structures in Syria. Hafez recognized his inability to rule a Sunni majority country with a minority-based government. He was determined to incorporate urban Sunnis whose economic prosperity was dependent on the success of the Ba’ath party. In Syria: Revolution from Above, Raymond Hinnebusch reasons, “[Being] anxious to placate urban Sunnis, especially Damascenes, [Hafez Assad] deliberately co-opted significant numbers of them into the top ranks of the party and many non-party technocrats into the government… forge an alliance with a section of Damascene private bourgeoisie.”[3] Assad’s Alawite as well as Sunni social base in the country was therefore key to his party’s survival.

The Ba’ath party also relied on its appeal to peasants as one of its four power pillars.[4] By the end of the French mandate in Syria, private agriculture was controlled by a small sector of landlords. Frustrated at the reluctance of the French colonial powers to restructure the power dynamics, the peasantry, led by Akram Al-Hawrani, instigated scattered revolts that began in the early 1940s. Hawrani managed to secure land redistribution policies issued in a decree by Adib Al-Shishakli in January 1952.[5] As Shishakli’s rule solidified, he exiled Hawrani to Lebanon, where the latter met Michel Aflaq and formed a coalition which would be called the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. The Ba’athist land reforms materialized during Hafez Assad leadership. Through its broad political agenda, the Ba’ath party formed a coalition of urban class, schoolteachers, government employees and others, with revolutionary peasants. By the end of 1980s, the peasantry formed more than 13% of the Ba’ath Party members (Hinnebusch 81), making them the second largest profession in the party membership, after students.

While it would be a mistake to label the regime solely Alawite, the regime security apparatus did have a disproportionate representation of Alawites. Hafez managed to fill the party collegial leadership with an Alawite coercive body. The officers around Hafez Assad, until the early 1980s, were tied to the Party by means of kinship and clientelism: Hafez’s brother, Rifat, as the commander of the Defense Detachments, Hafez’s son-in-law, Adan, as the commander of the Presidential Guard. Other Alawites were Ali Haydar commanding the Special Forces to repress domestic rebellion and Ibrahim Al-Ali commanding the Popular Army.[6] The presence of Alawites, kinsmen of Hafez Al-Assad in the party leadership, secured the position of Assad in the party and gained him what Zisser calls “the Alawi Orbit” in his book, Asad’s Legacy: Syria in Transition. Zisser argues that the Alawi takeover of Syria was firmly established by the “Corrective Movement,” the military coup in 1970 that allowed Hafez to appoint himself as a president and his fellow Alawites in the central leadership of the party.[7]

Political Alternatives?

Any analysis of state opposition in Syria requires a careful examination of the rise of political Islam and party dissent. The fact that the only political alternatives for Syrians were those two unpopular options limited the capacity to establish a regime apart from the Ba’athist Party.

The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1944-1946 to restore the roots of Islam and prevent the westernization and secularization of the country. The Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan) entered the political discourse after winning 10 seats in the parliament in the 1961 elections. Hinnebusch argues that in its early stages, the Ikhwan faithfully represented the interests and values of roughly half of the Syrian population: non-Damascene urban elites, lower and middle-class Sunnis and some fractions of the secular oppositionist left.[8] The ideology of Syrian political Islam stood in sharp contrast to Baathist attitudes in the country: The Ikhwan envisaged a Sunni-ruled Syria with the Shari’a law as the main source of constitutional legislation. Al-Ikhwan rejected notions of secular Arab nationalism and worked with the marginalized urban Sunnis to promote political Islam as a viable source of governance.

The Ikhwan revolt started as early as 1977 and lasted until it was brutally crushed in Hama in 1982. Their political activism was initiated in mosque sermons, which soon turned into street protests calling for the fall of the regime. During the Ba’ath era, the Ikhwan developed a social base among urban middle-class Sunnis who were mostly affected by the regularization of foreign trade, restrictions on imports and capital management. Moreover, scholarships, jobs and university admission programs mostly favored Alawites, which made political Islam particularly appeal to the Sunni youth. However, the Sunni resentment was by no means unanimous. As discussed earlier, upper-middle class professionals collaborated with the regime, which realized that the support of the urban Sunni elites was conditional upon the party’s maintaining its hegemony in the country’s main urban center. By spring 1980, the Ikhwan had a large enough social base that they organized protests in four different urban centers: Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. In Aleppo, entire neighborhoods fell out of government control while in Hama, the infamous massacre where more than 20,000 people were murdered by government militants.[9] The shelling of the major urban centers after the uprising of 2011 would become reminiscent of the coercion previously used against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The movement was an urban one: small Sunni populated cities like Hama, Homs and Aleppo. It has reinforced the urban-rural divide which the Ba’ath party maintained by uplifting the peasantry. Moreover, the increasingly polarized climate intensified as urban workers and rural peasants became wary of any return to feudalism. Although the Muslim brotherhood promised to champion minority rights, other religious and ethnic minorities feared a Muslim hegemony in Syria. Although political Islam was on the rise, Arab nationalism appealed to more people, as Hafez Assad managed to depict its regime as a secular, pro-peasantry and anti-Zionist.

On the far extreme opposite of political Islam, a major threat to the Hafez Assad rule culminated in 1984 with a coup attempt by his brother Rifaat Assad. Being the major perpetrator of the Hama Massacre, Rifaat held key party positions, exemplifying the trust that Hafez held for him. Meanwhile, Rifaat managed to develop a keen relationship with the historical enemies of the regime: the Lebanese Maronites, the Americans, and the urban bourgeoisie. By doing so, Rifaat expanded his state and society network to Alawites on one hand, and elements of the Sunni majority on the other. He promoted a pro-western, pro-Bourgeois Syria. It is precisely the following analysis of the state and party apparatuses that would prevent him from succeeding.[10]

When Party and Security Apparatuses Meet:

The state, military and security service apparatuses are conditional to the survival of the Ba’ath Party. After the party took over in Syria, the word Mukhabarat (Intelligence Services) becomes not only emblematic of Syrian political discourse, but also of Syrian jokes, proverbs and sometimes children’s games.

The regime that Hafez Assad carefully orchestrated and bequeathed to his son, Bashar, seeks legitimacy through its formal apparatus and practices repression through its informal one. In his book Asad’s Legacy, Zisser carefully explores the differences between these two aspects of governance. The former consists of the executive, legislative and judicial powers outlined in the constitution. It outlines the role of Majlis Al-Sh’ab (People’s Assembly), the Supreme Court, the government and the presidency. It is through this apparatus that the party legitimates itself: 60% of the People’s Assembly are members of the National Progressive Front, a coalition of the Ba’ath Party and other approved parties in Syria and 40% are independent candidates. Moreover, 60% of the formal government apparatus are Sunni appointees, matching the percentage of Sunnis in the population.[11]

However, the informal apparatus consists of the senior military commanders and heads of security services. The status and strength of this apparatus is not outlined in the constitution but is foundational for maintaining the power structure. 90% of the informal apparatus (heads of intelligence services and military commanders) are Alawites. It is precisely through integrating the Ba’ath party into the informal apparatus that the regime maintains its power. While the military consists of high percentage of Alawite kinsmen and clients to the Assad family, the Ba’ath party and the formal apparatus are politically and denominationally diverse. The presence of different intelligence and party agencies ensures that all sides watch each other while also watching the opposition, whether political or civil. This is Assad’s version of “checks and balances.”[12]

While building a complex repressive military apparatus, the regime has also maintained other elements of populist authoritarianism. By the time Hafez Assad took power in 1970, the party membership was 65,000, rising to 374,000 in 1981 and to almost 1 million in 1992 and 1.8 million by 2005.[13] This exponential increase in party membership represents the wide spectrum of organizations affiliated with the Baath Party: trade unions, popular organizations (Munazamaat Sha’abiya) to include peasant unions, youth and women empowerment organizations and professional associations (Naqabat Mihaniya) of doctors, lawyers and engineers.[14] While party membership benefited a significant percentage of the population, the top-down control was maintained by counting only 30% as full party members. This has ensured a rule by those closest to the Assad family and a popular base through which the party maintains its power.

It is thus unsurprising that Syrians have grown accustomed to looking to their right and left in coffee shops before engaging in political discussions. The strong relationship between the military, the party and the government apparatuses ensures the development of effective surveillance, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and torture of dissidents. The Hama massacre is only one of the long list of oppressed urban disturbances that the Ba’athized military (or militarized Ba’ath) managed to repress. By the end of the 1980s, the military has repressed no less than seven urban disturbances and one military coup attempt.[15] The accumulating number only serves as a major deterrent for future civil action.

Dynamism: Was the Ba’ath Party driven by political and economic circumstances?

It is not unrealistic to attribute the rise of the Ba’ath Party to the frustration of the lower and lower-middle classes of the society in the pre-Ba’ath era. The French Mandate’s reluctance to change social structure in Syria and its reliance on nobility mobilized the disaffected classes — notably the peasants, minorities and rural classes — to overthrow the notable order.[16] The Ba’ath Party emerged from a mixture of socialistic proletarian revolution and political pan-Arabism. Once the regime was firmly established, however, it went through economic and political conditions, namely the UAR, the rise in oil prices during the Six Day War, the economic crisis of 1986, and the private sector transformation in the 2000s. Arguably, the ability of the Ba’ath party to undergo transition through these economic and political circumstances allowed it to survive.

The socioeconomic strata that the regime targeted before and after the UAR era shifted. After the UAR was dissolved, the Ba’ath Party leadership acknowledged that the mass political mobilization and social revolution would achieve the goal of Arab Unity. This stood in sharp contrast with Aflaq’s conservative and reformist approach and created a strong divide in the party membership: Nasserist elements mostly constituting an urban middle and upper classes, and anti-unionist elements, through which the new minoritarian, mainly Alawite, leadership evolves.[17] The ability of the Ba’ath Party to rid itself of the unionist elements expanded its popularity and social base, especially among the minorities and peasantry. Moreover, the party successfully incorporated proletarian elements of the society through radical economic reforms and nationalizations of industry and finance.

Being the commander-in-chief of the army and the secretary general of the party, Hafez Al-Assad managed to depict himself and the party leadership as main political forces capable of defying Israel during the October . Although the army failed to regain lost territories, it had performed much better than in the 1967 war, which won more legitimacy to Hafez Assad’s rule. This coincided with the proclamation of the Ba’ath Party as the leading party in society and politics in the constitution. The internal turmoil produced by this change in the constitution was later ignored by the outbreak of the war. In his Syria: The Rise and Fall of the Ba’ath Party, Samer N. Abboud argues that the boom in oil prices in 1970s to Arab states has fueled petrodollars to Syria in form of grants to support its efforts against Israel. This, subsequently, allowed Hafez to control the expansion of state, distribution of resources and consolidation of power.[18]

Another source of turbulence that the state successfully overcame was the decline in oil prices in the mid-1980s. The regime tackled the crisis by approaching a historic antagonist: the private sector. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, businesspeople developed stronger patronage relations with the regime.[19] The liberalization of the political and economic spaces has brought about a regime ideology shift to compromise its hegemony for the sake of compensating for the loss of revenues with the rise of private sector power. This inclusion, however, was not complete. Most of the businesspeople benefiting from the economic liberalization were the ones with direct access to the regime and were the most embedded in the political elite. The small size, family-run businesses suffered from limited production, complicated regulations, fear of asset seizure and regime suppression.[20] By doing so, the regime ensured ties with private sector businesspeople to maintain revenues while excluding the majority from the political decision-making.

Dynamism during the Bashar era?

Finally, what occurred in Syria during the Bashar Al-Assad era in the 2000s was a diffusion of economic authority from public to private sector through transfers of responsibility for social welfare from the state to the market. The private sector was increasingly seen as the main source of the economic growth. This was a way for the party to alter the embeddedness of the public sector in state operations and replace it with the private sector through economic and political liberalization. The state attempted to create parallel private and public sector while allowing for investment in finance, insurance, education and health care to shift Syria’s fiscal dependence away from oil revenues.[21]

However, the dismantling of the government power in social sectors such as housing and education due to the marketization of the economy created uncertainty among households and businesses. The basic objective was to diversify the economy while keeping the authoritarian political structures effective in the economy. But this did not save the economy from the uncertainty: unemployment rates were increasing while wage rates did not match the increasing costs of living.[22] The declining agricultural subsidies and the neglect that the government demonstrated towards the agricultural sector of the economy both declined the productivity of Syrian agriculture and led to the movement of rural migrants to urban peripheries.[23] This has tremendously decreased the social basis that the party has relied on during the early 1970s. The abandonment of the Ba’athist socialist policies “placed political and social pressures on the Syrian populace for which there was no political outlet to express discontent or mobilize.”[24] It is precisely the attempt to liberalize the economy while maintaining the populist authoritarianism that would shape the public discontent in the country until the uprising of 2011.

Conclusion

While the global and international arenas certainly influenced how the Syrian civil war unfolded, certain domestic factors also caused the revolution in Syria largely driven by youth. An entire generation of Syrians lived through and learned from the Ba’ath regime’s brutality. The older generation recognized that the regime developed economic, political and social strategies to attract a percentage of the population while abandoning the other. When everything else fails, what Zisser called The Informal Apparatus, and what the Syrian people call Mukhabarat would step in to crush any attempt for opposition. The ability of the Ba’ath party to attract minorities, peasantry, rural classes and a fraction of the social elite has given it a long-lasting support that would fragment the Syrian society in the future. Building a gradually more powerful state, party and security apparatuses would prove useful in the suppression of any political alternatives, namely political Islam and Rifaat’s coup. Finally, the ability of the regime to maintain its power while going through political, economic and social transformation would soon prove crucial for its survival. These factors resulted in the absence of organized and coordinated bodies for opposition and in the shaping of the limitations and the possibilities that Syrians can achieve through their revolution. What Syrians envisaged as the epitome of Syrian courage and honor would soon be known to the world as The Aborted Revolution (Al-Thawra Al-Mujhada).

 


 

Bibliography

Abboud, Samer Nassif. Syria. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016.

Devlin, John F. The Baʻth Party: A History from Its Origins to 1966. California: Hoover Institution Press, 1979.

Haddad, Bassam. “The Formation and Development of Economic Networks in Syria: Implications for Economic and Fiscal Reforms, 1986–2000.” In Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited, edited by Steven Heydemann, 37-76. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. Syria: Revolution from Above. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

McHugo, John. Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years. New York: New Press, 2015.

Rubin, Barry M. The Truth About Syria. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Seale, Patrick. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Zisser, Eyal, and Itamar Rabinovich. Asads Legacy: Syria in Transition. London: Hurst & Company, 2001.

 

Endnotes

[1] John McHugo, Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years (New York: New Press, 2015), 119.

[2] Ibid., 184.

[3] Raymond A. Hinnebusch, Syria: Revolution from Above (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), 67.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 47.

[6] Hinnebusch, Syria, 69.

[7] Eyal Zisser, Asads Legacy: Syria in Transition (London: Hurst & Company, 2001), 20.

[8] Hinnebusch, Syria, 93.

[9] Ibid., 92-101.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Zisser, Asad’s Legacy, 25-29.

[12] John F. Devlin, The Baʻth Party: A History from Its Origins to 1966 (California: Hoover Institution Press, 1979), 63-68.

[13] Barry M. Rubin, The Truth About Syria (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 45.

[14] Hinnebusch, Syria, 83.

[15] Ibid., 85-86.

[16] Samer Nassif Abboud, Syria (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016), 13.

[17] Ibid, 27.

[18] Ibid., 31.

[19] Bassam Haddad, “The Formation and Development of Economic Networks in Syria: Implications for Economic and Fiscal Reforms, 1986–2000,” in Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited, ed. Steven Heydemann (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[20] Abboud, Syria, 23-33.

[21] Ibid., 36.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Ibid., 38.

[24] Ibid., 40.

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