60 Years of Baath Party Rule in Syria
On March 8, 1963, adherents of the Arab Socialist Baath Party captured the state in Syria through a military coup. The party has been in power ever since. Meaning resurrection, rebirth, or renaissance, the Baath in Syria remains one of the most overlooked pillars of power in the regime’s authoritarian system.
A grim anniversary for Syria
In 2023, Syria’s future appears to be destroyed as the Baathist motto of Unity, Freedom, and Socialism remain a forgotten rallying cry. Far from being united with the Arab world or establishing a socialist dream of economic prosperity for the Syrian people, the country remains divided by various armed factions, strangled by rampant corruption, intense poverty, and economically isolated under extreme international sanctions. With over ten years of war and a vast amount of destruction, the people’s suffering has only been enhanced with the earthquake that struck northern Syria in February 2023.
However, the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is making new diplomatic gains to end the country’s isolation. He has been receiving Arab leaders and a trend of normalization has played out the last few years to help ease the regime’s delegitimacy. Assad is expected to visit Moscow later this month.
In the early days of the 2011 uprising, the Baath Party was the target of anti-government armed groups, including direct attacks on the Baath headquarters in Damascus. Marking the 60th anniversary of the party’s rule over Syria, study of the Baath remains relevant to understanding how the party is shoring up authoritarian control in the later stages of the Syrian crisis.
From underground movement to the halls of power
The original party was founded by Michel Aflaq in 1947. The Baathist movement has undergone several phases. In its early years, the party faced persecution and existed as an opposition movement. During this period, the Baath merged with the Arab Socialist Party of Akram al-Hawrani and formed the current name by which it is officially known today. Under the Shishakli dictatorship (1949–1954), the Baath was outlawed and its members were jailed, forced underground, or lived in exile.
After Shishakli, the Baath grew in strength and gained a majority in the Syrian parliament. The United Arab Republic (UAR) was formed in February 1958 and lasted until September 1961, when the military tired of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, opted to end the union and orchestrated a coup that authorized seccession from the UAR.
In March 1963, the army once again intervened and seized power. This proved to be a historical moment that would forever alter the country’s power structure and bring Syria under the party’s control for 60 years.
The ’63 coup itself was depicted in an episode of the 2019 Netflix series, The Spy, about the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen. However, the film’s portrayal of the 1963 coup was criticized for its inaccuracy. Tensions after the Cohen affair grew within the Syrian ruling establishment due to the embarassment and the political rivalries within the party.
Shift in direction
A faction closely aligned with the army sought to implement more radical social changes and emphasized the party’s desire to achieve socialism. Salah Jadid’s faction of the Baath was on the party’s hard-left flank. A coup in February 1966 removed the party’s traditional old guard and somewhat softened the Baath’s position on Pan-Arabism.
From 1966 to 1970, Syria under Jadid took a hard turn towards the left and forged a stronger relationship with the Soviet Union. It also fostered a greater relationship with the Palestinian movements that were emerging during this period and helped arm and train various left-wing nationalist Palestinian guerrilla movements.
Syria suffered a major military defeat in the 1967 Six Day War and lost control over the Golan Heights. In addition, the Jadid era witnessed an increase in Syria’s foreign interventions, such as in neighboring Jordan, which led to the 1970 Black September fiasco. This period also saw a new shift in the party as sectarian minorities, most notably the Alawi, gained more prominant positions of power within the party, the army, and the intelligence security apparatus.
Hafez al-Assad’s so-called “Corrective Movement” in November 1970 ended the party’s hardline socialist trend and reverted it back towards a more traditional statist organization that sought to balance the Syrian elite’s economic interest with Assad’s personalist rule. His forces put down several uprisings that were led by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and intervened in the civil war in Lebanon in 1976 to back up the Christian militia factions to keep Beirut from falling under control of the PLO and the leftist Lebanese National Movement.
Hafez al-Assad consolidated his rule, coup-proofing the regime. Hafez’s brother, Rifaat, attempted a coup in 1983, however this gambit failed, and he spent years in exile in France before being permitted to return to Syria in 2021.
From renaissance to regime resilience
The Baath Party’s Central Command marked the 60th anniversary of the March 8th coup with a post on Facebook. It remarked that the date was when the Baathist “knights” seized power in 1963 and opened up a new page in Syria’s history.
The post noted the party’s opposition to French colonialism and wrote that this was symbolically linked to the people’s will to resist foreign domination in the current struggle the regime faces in the present day. The statement further highlighted the 1970 “Corrective Movement” and marked a second juncture of renewal under Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar, in 2000.
The Baath have long been derided as an organization with no ideology and meaning in the 21st century. However, the Baath have still been useful for the Assad regime to mobilize youth and the public to help facilitate and coordinate its efforts to maintain control over the country and respond to various crises. The party was utilized by the state to assist with responding to national emergencies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, wildfires, and the 2023 earthquakes.
Baathism for the 21st century
The Assad regime looks set to survive the 2011 Syrian uprising. With the regime firmly in control of Damascus, the Syrians will now work towards slowly rebuilding ties with the Arab world. As has been seen over the last few years, a policy of reconciliation is underway with Egypt and the UAE among others pushing ahead with the restoration of ties with Assad.
But how will the regime utilize the Baath in the upcoming era? The world appears to be heading towards a calcification of multipolar diplomacy and new alliances. Russia and Iran are increasing their cooperation in the wake of Moscow’s miserable attempt to subjugate Ukraine. China has also warned the United States that it is on a path towards confrontation and conflict with its new, tougher approach towards Beijing.
Assad’s Syria will look to maximize its position in this new global environment. The question of when the U.S. intends to pull out of Syria remains. Turkey is likely to abandon its support for the rebel groups in the north at some point in the coming years. The ruling party will reassert itself into these areas. Beyond Syria, the Baath could attempt revitalize its ideology and political power to increase the regime’s influence in the Middle East (especially in Lebanon) and, consequently, help secure Damascus’ place in the new standoff with the West.
However, the regime remains under sanctions, largely shunned by the international community. Assad’s attempts to resecure legitimacy will remain detested by many Syrian refugees throughout the region. The legacy of the regime’s brutality during the conflict will live on and Syria is yet to endure more years of economic hardships, corruption, security challenges, and questions on how to recover all of its territory. Climate change and drought foment political instability. Future uprising are a distinct possibility.
As for the Baath Party, it remains a state-affiliated organization that exists only to prop up the Assad dynasty. The party, in its beginnings, was once opposed to the old feudal, land-owning families and merchant elites that ruled over Syria. How will Syria look in 2063? Will the Baath someday celebrate 100 years of power? Or will it be eventually be vanquished like the party’s branch in Iraq?
At 60 years, the Syrian regime is now not unlike the Kim dynasty in North Korea. A hereditary dictatorship, Syrians are likely to someday encounter a third generation of Assad family rule from one of Bashar’s three children. Perhaps the Baath Party will move to shed the pretense of Syria as a constitutional republic and formally shift towards a monarchy, to which the ruler in Damascus remains in all but name.