On 8 March 1963, the Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria through a military coup staged against President Nazim al-Qudsi and his prime minister Khalid al-Azm.
At first, it wasn’t referred to as a revolution but simply a coup, no different from any of the six successful coups that had rocked the young republic since 1949. It was not until mid-April that the term “revolution” came in and was popularised by state media.
Syria’s coup came just one month after Ba’athist officers had seized power in neighbouring Iraq after toppling and killing of Abd al-Karim Qasim.
The timing triggered a competition over Ba’athist legitimacy between the two countries that was to last until Saddam Hussein’s downfall in 2003.
A Nasserist officer named Ziad al-Hariri appointed himself chief-of-staff of the Syrian army and seized power in Syria in 1963. Its declared objective was to bring down what was termed “the session regime” — the preceding government that toppled the Syrian-Egyptian Union back in September 1961.
The Ba’athists were staunch supporters of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and considered themselves the true champions of Arab unity.
Immediately after seizing power, they went into talks with Nasser about restoring the union republic, but it never returned.
The Ba'athists were staunch supporters of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and considered themselves the true champions of Arab unity. Immediately after seizing power, they went into talks with Nasser about restoring the union republic, but it never returned.
A Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was set up, inspired by the Egyptian model that had been established after the toppling of King Farouk in 1952. The constitution was suspended, and the RCC was given broad legislative powers, replacing those of the Syrian parliament. A series of controversial measures came in, stripping hundreds of politicians and old-money notables of their civil rights, all accused of having supported the "crime" of the session regime.
Major figures were collectively struck down. President Nazim al-Qudsi was sent to jail. Khalid al-Azm, a five-time premier, took asylum at the Turkish embassy in Damascus. His property was confiscated, and he was exiled to Lebanon, where he died in 1965.
The RCC cranked out back-to-back decrees banning all political parties, apart from the Ba'ath, and cancelling the licenses of 47 publications, ranging from general interest magazines to political dailies.
Syria became a one-party state with only two newspapers, the party organ al-Ba'ath and a government daily that was created on 1 July 1963 called al-Thawra, or The Revolution. Everything and everyone affiliated with the pre-1963 era was eliminated from Syrian society. History books were described as capitalist, pro-Western, and ultimately wrong.
Ba'ath rule was brought down forcefully in Iraq in 2003, but it continues in Syria as of March 2023, on the 60th anniversary of the 8 March coup.
From the roots of the Ba'athism in Damascus, to this notable milestone, Al Majalla charts the trajectory of a movement that ran two nations and shaped geopolitics in the Middle East and the world for over half a century.
Ba'ath rule was brought down forcefully in Iraq in 2003, but it continues in Syria as of March 2023, on the 60th anniversary of the 8 March coup. It is a movement that ran two nations and shaped geopolitics in the Middle East and the world for over half a century.
The birth of the Ba'ath party
The official birth of the Ba'ath party took place in Damascus on 7 April, 1947 although its ideology pre-dates that conference by roughly seven years.
Its founders were two schoolteachers from the conservative al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus: Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), a Greek Orthodox, and Salah al-Bitar (1912-1980), a Sunni Muslim.
They had both studied at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, where they had come under the influence of the French Communist Party, returning to teach at the all-male al-Tajheez School of Damascus in 1934.
Aflaq taught history while Bitar taught maths and physics. They were also inspired by another schoolteacher who had also studied at the Sorbonne, Zaki al-Arsuzi (1899-1968), who had just set up an intellectual movement called al-Ba'ath (The Revival).
It aimed at expelling the French and merging Syria with the wider Arab World. Arsuzi's ideas never transformed into a political party but remained more of a political gathering of like-minded intellectuals from the Syrian middle class.
A permanent rivalry would soon emerge between Arsuzi and Aflaq, over ownership of the Ba'ath doctrine. Arsuzi would mock Aflaq, who wore a Turkish fez hat saying: "How can someone hope to lead a revolution in a fez?"
Like Arsuzi, Aflaq and Bitar would hold weekly gatherings for young men of their social milieu, either at the Rashid Café or the Havana Café, two venues favoured by the Syrian intelligentsia. There they would debate the deteriorating state of the Arab world, claiming that their duty as intellectuals was to awaken the Arabs from decades of slumber.
That would only be achieved through emancipation of the Arabs from European occupation followed by the creation of a classless society were power would be in the hands of the working class. They chose a name for their gathering, Haraket al-Ihy'aa al-Arabi (Movement of Arab Revival) which was soon changed to al-Ba'ath, much to Zaki al-Arsuzi's displeasure.
In July 1945, Aflaq and Bitar applied for a party license, which was rejected by French authorities. They had to wait for another two years, until after the French left Syria on 17 April 1946, before formally establishing their party.
The founding conference was held at the Rashid Café in Damascus (now the premises of the Russian Cultural Centre) in April 1947. A four-man executive committee was formed with Aflaq as amid, or dean, and Bitar as secretary-general.
Jalal Sayyed from Deir ez-Zour was brought onboard along with Wahib Ghanem, an Alawite physician. He would soon set up a branch at his clinic in Latakia, which attracted a number of schoolchildren, among whom was the young Hafez al-Assad. Zaki al-Arsuzi was given no position in the new party, nor was he invited to attend its founding conference.
The founding Ba'athist conference was held at the Rashid Café in Damascus in April 1947. A four-man executive committee was formed with Michel Aflaq as amid, or dean, and Salah al-Bitar as secretary-general. Jalal Sayyed from Deir ez-Zour was also brought onboard along with Wahib Ghanem, an Alawite physician
The years of activism 1948-1958
During its early stages, the Ba'ath remained a mostly urban, middle-class party, with very limited influence in the Syrian countryside. In 1948, Aflaq volunteered to fight in the Palestine War, blaming then-president Shukri al-Quwatli for Syria's defeat. In March 1949 Aflaq supported a successful coup which deposed al-Quwatli, engineered by Army Commander Husni al-Za'im.
But Aflaq was given no position in the new regime and during the Za'im era, the Ba'ath Party was outlawed. When his criticism of Za'im became too loud, Aflaq was arrested and tortured at Mezzeh Prison — reportedly by being confined in a barrel of faeces — which forced him to sign a document renouncing his Ba'athist ideas.
When Za'im was toppled in August 1949, a cabinet of national unity was formed by former president Hashem al-Atassi. For the first and last time in his career, Michel Aflaq served as minister of education between until December 1949.
The party would then support the ambitions of Colonel Adib al-Shishakli, a brave officer from Hama who staged two coups, one in December 1949 and another in November 1951. Aflaq knew Shishakli from their shared days in the Palestine War and saw in him promise for a true Arab nationalist. He hoped that Shishakli would make him something of an ideological mentor—when and if he came to power.
That didn't happen, however, and no sooner than Shishakli had completed his takeover than he cracked down on the party and forced it to dissolve. Aflaq and Bitar were exiled to Lebanon, along with a former Hama MP Akram al-Hawrani. He too had fought in Palestine and was founder of the Arab Socialist Party.
In exile the three men took the historic decision to merge their parties into one entity, now called the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party. It was Hawrani who would give the Ba'ath its current form and structure, branching out to minorities and the Syrian countryside.
The role of Akram al-Hawrani
Al-Hawrani was far more charismatic than Aflaq and Bitar. He was far more connected to ordinary Syrians and far more ambitious and vengeful, coming from a land owning family that had lost all of its property. He despised Syria's moneyed elite.
It was Akram al-Hawrani who would give the Ba'ath its current form and structure, branching out to minorities and the Syrian countryside. Al-Hawrani was far more charismatic than Aflaq and Bitar. He was far more connected to ordinary Syrians and far more ambitious and vengeful.
His Arab Socialist Party was founded on Marxist ideology and centred around a cult of personality. He lashed out against the feudal establishment, accusing them of hoarding the country's wealth and enslaving the farmers who ploughed the land.
The villages, he remined the peasants, had no electricity, water, clinics or schools. Al-Hawrani called on farmers to rise in revolt. He would visit them at their homes, remind them they did not own their farms and say: 'If you work with me, this land could be yours!' He positioned himself as God-given saviour of Syria's peasantry, who made up 2 million of its 3.5 million population.
He is also credited with single-handedly introducing new terms into Syrian politics like 'classless society' and 'rule of the working class.' Before al-Hawrani, such terminology was completely absent from the Syrian dictionary.
Prime Minister Khalid al-Azm claimed that al-Hawrani pledged to 'fill the empty stomachs of farmers' with promises of land ownership. His 'Land Belongs to the Peasant' campaign took Syria by storm. Thousands answered his rallying cry and chanted: 'Fetch the basket and the shovel to bury the Agha and the Bey.'
Al-Hawrani turned agitation into violence and encouraged his supporters to burn crops, attack landlords, and make the villages too dangerous for their owners to enter. The Damascus daily al-Fayha wrote: 'Ever since your youth, you have been feeding on spite, malice, and dissension. You love to play with fire, even at the risk of burning yourself, your people, and your country.'
With the downfall of the Shishakli regime in February 1954, the three Ba'athists Aflaq, al-Bitar, and al-Hawrani returned home to contest the first post-Shishakli parliamentary elections. So successful was the Ba'ath, thanks to Akram al-Hawrani, that it won 17 out of 142 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
To put that in perspective, their share in the 1949 parliament was one seat only. Al-Hawrani became speaker in 1957, and al-Bitar was appointed foreign minister while Khalil Kallas, another Ba'athist, became minister of economy.
The Syrian-Egyptian Union (1958-1961)
Aflaq, al-Bitar, and al-Hawrani wholeheartedly supported the Syrian-Egyptian Union in February 1958, and Bitar was tasked with negotiating its terms with President Nasser. When the Egyptian leader asked for Syria's conditions for union, Salah al-Bitar replied: 'We have no conditions, Mr. President.
It was the stupidest answer any responsible official could ever give. With that single phrase, Bitar gave Nasser full authority to devour Syria, politically, economically, and militarily.
Al-Bitar was tasked with negotiating the terms of a union with Nasser. When the Egyptian leader asked for Syria's conditions for union, Salah al-Bitar replied: 'We have no conditions, Mr. President.' It was the stupidest answer any responsible official could ever give. With that single phrase, Bitar gave Nasser full authority to devour Syria, politically, economically, and militarily.
Unlike al-Bitar, Nasser had plenty of conditions. He wanted to do away with political parties and impose a strictly censored press. He wanted to discharge politicised officers from the Syrian army and suspend the Syrian constitution, while dissolving its current chamber of deputies.
He also wanted the union charter to be signed in Egypt, only after the entire Syrian parliament was flown to Cairo for additional legitimacy.
And finally, he wanted the capital to be Cairo, rather than Damascus. When union was finally created in February 1958, Bitar was appointed minister of culture while Hawrani became vice-president of the United Arab Republic (UAR).
The two men eventually fell out with Nasser and resigned. They were among the first to support the succession coup on 28 September 1961, which they would later regret.
During the union, a group of Ba'athist officers stationed in Cairo had formed a military committee to defend the young state from its many enemies. It included Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid, among others.
Being Syrian they were arrested by Nasser hours after the coup. Upon release and return to Damascus, they were discharged from the Syrian army for being pro-Nasser.
8 March 1963
On 8 March 1963, they took sweet revenge, taking part in the coup that brought down the union republic. At 33, al-Assad became commander of the Syrian Air Force while Jadid was made chief-of-staff in July.
Akram al-Hawrani, whose relations with the officer junta had soured, was expelled from the party and sent into exile. He never returned and died in exile in 1996.
Salah al-Bitar was appointed prime minister while Aflaq remained in his position as secretary-general of the party, hailed as something akin to spiritual idealogue, or "godfather" of the Ba'ath state.
Along with al-Bitar they launched a socio-political revolution in Syria, breaking with the past in every possible manner. Their era witnessed the closure of independent newspapers, termination of all other political parties, confiscation of property, redistribution of wealth, and nationalisation of private banks, schools, and over 220 factories in January 1965.
Aflaq remained in his position as secretary-general of the party, hailed as a "godfather" of the Ba'ath state. Their era saw the closure of independent newspapers, termination of other political parties and the confiscation of property, redistribution of wealth, and nationalisation of banks, schools and factories.
A 37-year-old Nasserist, General Louai al-Atassi, was chosen to chair the RCC, but he would resign that July, after Nasserist officers were purged from the army for trying to stage a coup against the Ba'athists.
A four-man presidential council was automatically created to replace him, headed by General Amin al-Hafez, a Aflaq protégé who ruled until he too was toppled, this time by Salah Jadid, on 23 February 1966.
Aflaq and Bitar were banished, with orders never to return to Syria. Amin al-Hafez was sent to jail, where he would remain until 1967.
He was then exiled to Iraq and given asylum by Saddam Hussein — who since 1968 —was leading the rival branch of the Ba'ath Party in Baghdad, serving first as vice-president under Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr then as president from July 1979.
Saddam and Syrian Ba'athists
The Iraqi branch of the party had been established as early as 1951. As in Syria, it attracted members of the middle class and impassioned soldiers and officers in the Iraqi army.
In February 1963, it took part in a coup that toppled and killed Abd al-Karim Qasim, propping Abdulsalam Aref as president. He was an independent, but his prime minister, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, was a member of the Arab Ba'ath. In 1968, Bakr became president of Iraq until he was brushed aside by Saddam Hussein, who ruled until 2003.
During those years, Saddam was very keen on welcoming Syrian Ba'athists who had fallen out with their comrades in Damascus.
Prime on the list was Amin al-Hafez, who remained in Baghdad until 2003, and Michel Aflaq, who had originally set up base in Beirut but moved to Iraq where he was received with red carpets and hailed as the founder of the ruling party.
His homage in Baghdad coincided with his comrades in Syria crossing off his name from all Ba'ath literature, acting as if the party had never known a man by the name of Michel Aflaq.
Both he and Bitar were sentenced to death in absentia on charges of conspiracy against the party they had established. Bitar chose Paris as a permanent exile, where he led a group of banished Ba'athists until he was gunned down in 1980. Aflaq would live for another nine years.
Salah Jadid and the officer class resented Aflaq and Bitar. In his seminal book Asad: Struggle for the Middle East, British journalist Patrick Seale describes the relationship between the two:
"They (the military men) condemned him (Aflaq) for being a remote autocrat, for having ditched the party, for his "rightist" views, but there was also a gulf of generation, education, and style separating them.
City born and bred, steeped in the graces and formalities of Damascus, Aflaq and Bitar were already well into their fifties, whereas the officers were some twenty years younger, where sons of peasants, with the earth scarcely out from under their fingernails."
"The older men had studied at the Sorbonne where they had read European literature and philosophy, and grown to be at ease with abstract ideas, whereas apart from military training, the soldiers had hardly gone beyond the basic curriculum of a provincial secondary school. Men so different could not hold each other in esteem."
In September 1970, Aflaq clashed with his Iraqi hosts for failing to assist the Palestinians in their war with King Hussein of Jordan. Aflaq lobbied extensively for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, prodding President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr for armed Iraqi intervention to save the Palestinian commandos in Amman.
Bakr, however, refused to involve his troops in battle, and in disgust, Aflaq returned to a self-imposed exile in Lebanon. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out in Beirut in 1975, he returned to Baghdad and made his peace with Saddam, where he would often be seen seated to his right at state functions, always treated with utmost respect.
During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Iranian used Aflaq's presence in Baghdad to trash Saddam's image, claiming that he had fallen under the spell of a "Christian infidel." That prompted Saddam to claim, after Aflaq's death on 24 June 1989, that the Ba'ath founder had converted to Islam.
When Saddam's regime was overthrown in March 2003, Aflaq's home in Baghdad was attacked and destroyed. His precious books, outlining Ba'ath Party doctrine, were burnt. Michel Aflaq's grave was demolished and a statue of him in Baghdad was draped with the US flag before it too was brought down by the mob.
Milestones of the Ba'ath party
1947: The Ba'ath Party is formed in Syria. 1951: An Iraqi branch of the party is established in Baghdad. 1954: The Ba'ath Party wins 17 seats in the Syrian Parliament. 1958-1961: The Ba'ath is outlawed during the Syrian-Egyptian Union. 1963: Within a one-month interval the Ba'ath seizes power in Baghdad and Damascus between 8 Febraury-8 March. 1963 (18 July): Colonel Jassem Alwan tries and fails to seize power in Damascus, resulting in a bloody showdown between the Nasserists and Ba'athists. 1965 (January): The Ba'ath Party orders the nationalization of private banks and factories in Syria. 1966: An internal rift triggers the 23 February coup, staged by Salah Jadid against Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Bitar, and President Amin al-Hafez. 1967: The Ba'ath Party suffers a major blow with the Six-Day War with Israel, which leads to the occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. 1967: Amin al-Hafez is released from jail and choses Baghdad as a permanent exile. 1968: The Ba'ath Party seizes full control of Iraq, via President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and his deputy, Saddam Hussein. 1970: Hafez al-Assad stages the third coup in Syria since 1963, coined a "Correction Movement." Salah Jadid and head of state Nur al-Din al-Atasi are arrested. His slogan is to "restore the party to the people." 1973: Syria adopts its new constitution, with Article 8 naming the Ba'ath Party as "leader of state and society." 1978: Syria and Iraq temporarily reconcile to oppose Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's Camp David Agreement. 1978 (October): Syria and Iraq debate a union project, with Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr as president and Hafez al-Assad as his deputy. The project is aborted by Saddam Hussein, in his capacity as deputy head of the Iraqi Ba'ath. 1979 (July): Saddam becomes president of Iraq. 1979 (November): Relations are suspended between Syria and Iraq. 1980 (September): Outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War where Syria takes sides with Iran against Saddam. 1980 (July): Salah al-Bitar is assassinated in France. 1989 (June): Michel Aflaq dies in Baghdad. 1991: Syria joins Operation Desert Storm for the liberation of Kuwait, sending troops to Saudi Arabia to fight Saddam Hussein. 1996 (February): Akram al-Hawrani dies in exile. 1997 (June): Borders are re-opened between Syria and Iraq and Tarek Aziz visits Damascus in November. 2000 (October): Syria sends a government delegation to Baghdad, breaking the US-imposed embargo. 2003: The toppling of the Ba'ath Party rule in Iraq. 2012: Syria's new constitution drops Article 8, naming the Ba'ath as leader of state and society.