The only Arab nationalist party worthy of this name remains the Ba’ath, various movements of the Nasserist type were incapable of bringing about the creation of an ideological and political force in Arab countries. So Ba’athism must be studied as the singular representative of Arab unionist ideology, an organized party not limited to a simple movement of opinion, however large it is (yesterday, Nasserism, today maybe Gaddafism).
The Ideology of Ba’athism
The Ba’ath party offers the unique case of being the only Pan-Arab political party (if we make an exception in the very original case of the Syrian Popular Party – Translator’s note: Better known as the SSNP today) to have tried to elaborate a truly “national-revolutionary” doctrine with a certain degree of coherence, thanks to the political and historical analyses of its founder and leader, Michel Aflaq (a Greek-Orthodox Syrian), firstly in numerous articles disseminated, and above all, in the complete volume “Fi sabîl al-Ba’as,” published in Damascus in 1959, at the time of the Syrian-Egyptian Union, within the United Arab Republic.
There Aflaq analyses his nationalism and its opposition to Marxist philosophy.
“The Arab Nation has an independent history from the history of the West and Europe; the theories and organizational forms coming from Western civilization and born from the conditions proper to the West do not correspond to the needs of the Arab milieu and do not encounter a favorable welcome there.
The Arab Nation is not a small nation of secondary importance that can adopt a message other than its own, walking in the steps of another nation and feeding from its scraps…
Marxist doctrine is a danger for the Arabs because it threatens to make their national character disappear, and because it imposes a partisan, tendentious, and artificial point of view on modern Arab thought, destroying the freedom and completeness of this thought.”
Yet for Aflaq, a non-Muslim, Arab nationalism remains “inspired” by Islam, but in a fashion quite different that that advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood or Colonel Gaddafi.
“Every nation … possesses an essential motive force … at the time of Islam’s appearance this motive force was religion. In effect, only religion was capable of revealing the latent forces of the Arabs, of realizing their unity … Today … the prime motive force of the Arabs is nationalism … The Arabs are crippled in regards to their freedom, their sovereignty, and their unity, thus they can understand the language of nationalism…”
The Ba’ath party, while recognizing the positive role of Islamic religion in the awareness of Arab unity (under the form of the Ummah, the community of believers), is thus a secular nationalist party.
But the Ba’ath party also presents itself as a socialist party:
“The socialism of the Ba’ath is in perfect agreement with the vibrant society of the Arab Nation.
It limits itself to organizing the economy for the purpose of redistributing the wealth of the Arab world, laying the foundations of an economy that guarantees justice and equality between citizens and promoting a revolution in production and the means of production…
Our socialism is impregnated with a philosophy that arises from the Arab milieu which has its own needs, historical conditions, and particularities. The philosophy of the Ba’ath does not approve the materialist conception of Communist philosophy… Our socialism relies on the individual and his free personality. Ba’athist socialism believes that the principle force of a nation resides in mobile individuals who push men to act; thus it avoids the abolition of private property, merely limiting it … in order to prevent all abuses …
Our socialism can only be definitively imposed in the framework of a Unitary Arab State, that is to say when the entire Arab people liberates itself and when shackles that oppose the success of socialism such as imperialism, feudalism, and the geographical borders imposed by politics disappear.”
In an interview with Benoist-Méchin (in Un printemps arabe), Michel Aflaq presented his definition of the Nation and its relations binding the individual to the historical community in a particularly compelling fashion: “We are Arab nationalists. We want to raise man to his supreme dignity. This goal is only realizable in a national framework. Man is only fully himself within the nation. The nation is the theater inside of which man plays the role of his individual destiny. Suppress the theater and there is no longer a role. Suddenly, man crumbles, stripped of meaning.” (pg. 340)
The Soviet positions taken in favor of the Arab cause, in particular in the Palestinian affair, the important interests of the USSR within the Arab world, often cause people to think that Arab nationalism has entered into a pact with international communism, even becoming a subsidiary. The question arises, in particular in the case of Ba’athism, due to the very good relations between the Moscow and two Ba’athist regimes in Iraq and Syria.
The reality is a bit different as the Arabs have added to the permanent hostility of Islam towards Marxist materialism, the discovery of a Soviet imperialism as heavy as those which preceded it
Even at the time of the first flirtation between Arab nationalists and the Soviet Union, the leaders had already made clear distinction between the USSR and the Arab Communist parties.
Thus the founding manifesto of Ba’athism (drafted by Aflaq) declared in 1944:
“We are not against the Soviet Union; we make a very clear distinction between the USSR and the local Syrian Communist Party. The Arabs see no reason to oppose a great state like the Soviet Union, that since its formation, has shown sympathy for countries that fight for their independence. Our goal is to establish amicable relations with the Soviet Union by the means of official and inter-governmental treaties and not by the intermediary of the local Communist party. The triumphs of Communism here are due to a weakness of spirit. But a well informed Arab cannot be a Communist without abandoning his Arabism, the two are incompatible; Communism is foreign to that which is Arab. It will be the greatest danger to Arab nationalism if the latter is incapable of giving a systematic definition of its goals.”
From this time, the Ba’ath party lucidly judged that Communism would develop in Arab lands by playing the card of chauvinism and anti-imperialism; in this lens, if Arab nationalism was not ideologically structured, it would be literally absorbed by Communism. Hence the efforts of Aflaq to give his party a coherent ideological apparatus capable of being a response to the Marxist challenge. To achieve this, the Ba’athist action in favor of “Arab socialism” was conceived in order to pull the rug out from under the feet of Marxist propagandists. But this “Arab socialism” (common to all unification movements elsewhere) had no common point with Marxist-Leninism. It is a simple projection of nationalism, a means of making this nationalism realizable, as Aflaq explicitly recognizes:
“Arab nationalists understand that socialism is the surest means of realizing the rebirth of their nationalism and their nation because they know that today’s Arab fight rests on all Arabs and if they are divided into masters and slaves, their participation together in this combat is not possible.
Said otherwise, we think that the Arabs can only realize their rebirth if they are convinced that their nationalism means justice, equality, and dignified life in society.”
This “Arab socialism” only attracts the classical Marxist response: “Petit-bourgeois populism!” “Social fascist demagogy!”
In any case, Ba’athist socialism is identical to the socialism of all the Fascist type movements and Aflaq limits himself to distinguishing himself from the Western Fascist thinkers (despite his hostility to “ideologies foreign to the Arab world” which he mostly did to fend off Communism), while refusing the Marxist divides of the class struggle.
Historical Overview of Ba’athism
The Ba’ath party constituted in Syria in 1944, before spreading to many Arab countries; thus it must be studied country by country (or rather, according to Ba’athist terminology, region by region).
The Ba’ath party in 1944-1945, implanted solely in Damascus, only constituted a little movement of intellectuals, around Michel Aflaq and his friends. The restrained role that it played did not prevent it from being forbidden by the dictatorship of colonel Shishakli in April 1952; it would be authorized again in September 1953 and undertake a process of unification with a small related party: the Arab Socialist Party (al-Hizb al-Ifrikayets al-Arabi), created in 1950 by Akram Hourani. The two movements united a little later under the name, definitively, of Ifrikayets al-Ba’as al-Arabi: the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party.
During the free elections of 1949, the little party only obtained four seats, on the other hand the unified party would assure itself very solid positions during those in 1954, after the fall of the dictato, winning 16 seats.
Under the direction of Shukri al-Quwatli, the president of the Republic since August 1955, Syria oriented itself to the left, and in the elections of May 1957, the National Progressive Front (formed by the Communist Party, the Ba’ath, the Cooperative Socialist Party, and the National Party of al-Quwatli) took the elections over the parties of the right (The People’s Party, the Arab Liberation movement of the ex-dictator Shishkali, and the Muslim Brotherhood). Rapidly the Communist Party, enormously expanded its influence and infiltrated the National Party to the detriment of the Ba’athists, hostile to Marxism. In November 1957, in order to save Syria from Communism, the National Assembly voted, under pressure from the Ba’ath and the National Party (taken over by its right wing), in favor of a resolution of union with Egypt, a union that would be realized on February 1st 1958, under the name of the United Arab Republic. The Communist Party was soon outlawed by the new unionist regime, but the Ba’athists were rapidly “brought to heel” by the Nasserites (in particularly by the omnipotent colonel Sarraj, head of the security services and then interior minister of the “Syrian province” of the UAR).
In December 1959, the Ba’athist ministers resigned and their party became clandestine until the military putsch of September 28th 1961, which lead to the split of the UAR and gave birth to a liberal regime reauthorizing parties (except the Communist Party, which would remain outlawed until February 1966 and the SSNP which remained outlawed). The elections of December 1961, after the collapse of the unionist regime, were only a very limited success for the Ba’ath party, the conservative parties were assured a large majority in parliament:
People’s Party: Thirty two seats (the great winner of the elections), National Party: (purged of its left wing elements) 20 seats, Muslim Brotherhood: sixteen seats, Ba’ath Party: twenty four seats.
The other seats went to independents and minor parties; as for the Arab Liberation Movement and the Cooperative Socialist Party, they didn’t survive the disappearance of their founders.
In the period that followed, the moderate government (the Ba’ath party was in the opposition) was exposed to the rash actions of ambitious officers. The Ba’athists prepared a coup with pro-Nasserite officers, a putsch that abruptly broke out on March 8th 1963.
The success of the putsch was rapid and a National Revolutionary Council was constituted under the command of general Atassi, while the head of the Ba’athist right wing Salah al-Din Bitar, formed the new government, with a strongly Ba’athist majority. Conservative personalities were struck with punishments, among them, Akram Hourani, who had broken with his former friends in the Ba’ath party and recreated his own movement, in alliance with right wing forces.
A new United Arab Republic was born on April 17th 1963, but less than fourteen days after the creation of the Syrian-Egyptian-Iraqi federation (the Ba’ath had just taken power in Baghdad), the Ba’athists and Nasserites began to openly oppose each other.
May 13th 1963, Bitar constituted a new ministry, purely Ba’athist, which lead the Nasserites to enter into the opposition. The latter attempted a coup on July 18th 1963, which failed miserably. Nasser totally broke with the Ba’ath, while general Amin al-Hafez became President of the National Revolutionary Council. The NRC enacted a provisional constitution on April 25th 1964 that insisted on the unitary role of Ba’athist Syria.
Hafez then sought rapprochement with the Nasserist unionists and freed the imprisoned in July 1963. He became the head of the government on October 3rd 1964, then proclaimed the nationalization of the country’s mineral and energy resources on December 22nd of the same year, these first measures were followed by another series of new nationalizations at the start of 1965.
Violent struggles for influence occurred within a Ba’ath party weakened by the collapse of the Iraqi Branch. The influence of Aflaq progressively diminished and he was named to a purely honorary post as Party Head, while the doctor al-Razzaz succeeded him in the vital post of Secretary General of the Ba’ath Party. As for the “left wing” Ba’athists, in the style of Zouayyen and general Salah Jadid, they clearly gained ground within the divided party.
From September 1965, Zouayyen formed the new government, while the National Command (that is to say inter-Arab, Syria was part of an already existing Arab Nation according to the Ba’ath party) directed by Hafez and Aflaq opposed the Regional Command, lead by Jadid.
General Hafez, in December 1965, dissolved the Regional Command and replaced the leftist Zouayyen by the rightist Bitar. But, on February 23rd 1966, Jadid, in a coup, arrested Hafez while Aflaq fled to Lebanon (the eternal asylum territory for Arab politicians unfortunate enough to be forced to flee their country).
Zouayyen returned to government and became closer to the USSR, authorizing the Communist leader Khalid Bakdash’s return to Syria.
At the start of September 1966, the National Command mounted a counter-coup relying on the Special Forces of colonel Salim Hatum, but the putsch was aborted.
All these quarrels took place within a minuscule party: four hundred members(!) according to Flory and Mantran, in their excellent work: Les régimes politiques des Pays arabes (aux P.U.F.), a figure that seems too low however.
On the other hand the figure of seven thousand militants, given in Syrie (Editions Rencontre) by Simon Jargy (at the start of 1960s) is certainly exaggerated.
We can reasonably think that 1500 to 2000 Ba’athist militants (out of a total population of more than five million) is close to the truth. Religious disagreements played a large role in these quarrels, the Sunnis were rather moderate, while the dissident Alawite sect rather ranked among those favorable to left wing extremists.
The military disaster of June 1967 struck the “leftists” of the Ba’ath party terribly, who held two of their best armored brigades (no. 10 and 50) in reserve in order to face a possible internal putsch from the right, and the army, despite sensational statements, was very poorly prepared for this test for political reasons: “Nearly seven thousand officers (80% of the officer corps) were eliminated since September 28th 1961 and especially since March 8th 1963. Two of the most energetic army generals were then in prison: Amin al-Hafez (ex-head of government) and Omran (ex-minister of defense)” (François Duprat, « L’Agression Israélienne », numéro spécial de Défense de l’Occident, July-August 1967, page 45).
Likewise, colonel Hatum, specialist of commando operations, who returned from his Jordanian exile in order to fight the Israeli army, would soon be arrested and executed under the pretext of conspiracy.
Progressively, the moderate elements of the Ba’ath party regrouped around general Assad, minister of defense, utilizing the faults of the left to take it over. Assad would climb to supreme power by using the disaster of September 1970, when Syrian unionists and the Sai’qa – the Ba’athist branch of the Palestinian Resistance – were crushed by the Jordanian air force, the Syrian air force (remaining obedient to its former leader. Assad) did not support them. Jadid and Zouayyen, held responsible for the piteous failure endured, were removed from the government and Assad henceforth controlled the situation.
In an effort to democratize his regime, Assad organized more or less free elections, after having concluded an accord with Communist Party and Nasserist elements. The results did not diminish the supremacy of the Ba’ath, which was assured the lion’s share within the National Progressive Front: Ba’ath Party: One hundred eleven seats, Communist Party: seven seats, Arab Socialist Union (Nasserists): six seats, Arab Socialists: three seats, independents: thirty three seats. The opposition was limited to four camouflaged Muslim Brothers.
Likewise, Assad had to break a violent agitation against the “atheism” and “socialism” of the Ba’ath, directed by clandestine Muslim Brotherhood, remaining powerful in Syria.
The most serious test for the Ba’athist regime would indisputably be the October War, during which Syrian and Egyptian troops surprise attacked the Israeli, to general amazement. The Syrians, energetically lead, were those who obtained the most dangerous results for the Zionist entity by taking a large part of the Golan Heights over three days. Even if the powerful Israeli counter-attacks ended in the retreat of the Syrian Army, it gloriously redeemed its failures from 1967. Its new prestige reinforced the position of Assad who accomplished the task of which the ultra-left always spoke, without ever trying to embody it.
From the end of the hostilities, Assad practiced a very flexible policy in order to avoid being cut off from Egypt, but he had to face a renewed opposition on the part of his left wing enemies, who were forced to appeal to Iraq, where they organized the Front of Exiles, charged with regrouping all the Arabs hostile to a peaceful compromise with Israel.
Thus, the fate of Assad and his tendency is directly linked to the success or failure of the Kissinger Plan in the Middle East.
The clandestine Ba’ath only played a tiny role under the Hashemite monarchy, and only really surfaced when general Kassem seized power on July 14th 1958.
It entered into struggle at the advent of the new regime against the three parties then representing the popular support of Kassem: the National-Democrat Party (left wing socialist), the Iraqi Communist Party, The Independence Party, fascistic and linked to Rashid Ali al-Gailani, the leader of the Pro-German revolt of officers in “Golden Square.”
However, rapidly, a new political division was created when Kassem began to pose as a rival to Nasser. The Ba’athists, unionists themselves, made a common front with colonel Arif (true organizer of the rising July 14th 1958 rising), the Independence Party, and Ali al-Gailani, but Kassem broke the plot and bloodily crushed the unionist rising of general Chawaf in Mosul, in March 1959.
The popular militias and the Communist Party (which held its congress in the city at the time) played a large role in the crushing of the unionist putsch and thus extended their influence. Kassem was forced to bend and when he accepted, on January 2nd 1960, the authorization of these parties, he favored the birth of a dissident Communist Party (while the Ba’athist and the first true Communist Party remained outlawed).
Zaim (Leader) Kassem was accumulating failures, failing to annex Kuwait in June 1961, then he had to face the revolt of Mullah Barzani, in Kurdistan, where his army was bogged down without results.
Ba’athists and Nasserists, benefiting from the embarrassments of Kassem, returned to plotting against the Zaim and, on February 8th 1963, they entered into action. They only had weak support: an armored battalion, a few hundred Ba’athist militants, four MIG 17 planes, also some very thin Nasserite support; but they acted with a savage determination, massacring Kassem (in front of television cameras) and forming National Guard, directed by general Hassan al-Bakr. This National Guard, formed from the youth massacred the communists and progressives who, after, after a moment of hesitation (which would be their fatal flaw) rushed to the aid of the Zaim. Thirty thousand militants of the left were victims of the repression unleashed by the Ba’athists following the victory of the uprising, the massacre was the work of Ali Saad al-Saadi, head of the Ba’athist right wing in Iraq.
The Nasserist Arif formed the National Command Council of the Revolution, but the Ba’ath party appeared as the master and welcomed Michel Aflaq in grand style, shortly after the Ba’athist victory in Damascus, on March 8th 1963.
But the Ba’athists were divided among themselves, the Iraqi Regional Direction, the ultra right of Saad al-Saadi and Kazzar entered into conflict with the National Direction of Aflaq, which sought to limit its ambitions in order to avoid open conflict with Arif.
Arif benefitted from Ba’athist dissent and, on November 18th 1963, dissolved the Regional Direction of the party and its secular arm, the National Guard, whose young members were a bit too eager to pursue their police operations and never ceased to clash with the regular army. Moreover the rupture between Nasser and the Ba’athist provoked the anger of unionists who would support Arif in the struggle against the Ba’ath party.
On December 18th 1963, Arif banned all the parties, after having broken the poorly coordinated resistance of the National Guard (who the moderate Ba’athists did not support) and openly appealed to Egypt.
On July 14th 1964, it formed an Arab Socialist Union of Iraq, destined to be the only party in the country, on the model of the Arab Socialist Union in Egypt, and created a singular Political Command with Egypt in October 1964, which hardly had any concrete results, so Arif did not succeed in regulating the Kurdish problem, hesitating between war and negotiation.
Arif died in a mysterious helicopter accident (more likely sabotage) on April 13th 1966. His brother succeeded him but he had none of his qualities and the regime became, very quickly, incapable of facing the rising discontentment.
In July 1968, a putsch of discontented officers, without heavy political coloration, permitted the Ba’ath to come closer to power, Ba’athists then came to eliminate their associates and seize total power, while the former head of the National Guard general al-Bakr became the head of state. The Ba’athists of Iraq, members of the right wing of the party soon clashed with the Syrian leadership and welcomed Aflaq, who left Beirut to settle in Baghdad.
The political police directed by Nazem Kazzar (who saw a role in the liquidation of the Iraqi left in 1963) and the military branch of the Ba’ath party, (directed by Mohammed Fadel and including the officers who were members of the party) organized a terror regime and eliminated Hardan al-Tikriti, particularly influential in the army. It was also by terror that the minuscule party could stay in power, a few hundred members at most (still less, doubtlessly, than in Syria) that we can legitimately, perfectly believe was cut off from the masses. The regime, at first very poor in their relations with the Communists and the USSR, ended up the resolving their contentions with the Russo-Iraqi treaty and by the entry of two Communist ministers into the progressive coalition government in May 1972.
The failed putsch by Kazzar on June 30th 1973 (concluded by thirty five executions following the murder of General Shihab, minister of defense in the Saddam Hussein government, by the chief of police, during his attempted escape to Iran) caused this evolution to stop and the government was entrusted to the Ba’athist National Direction and thus to Michel Aflaq, increasingly right wing.
Despite the National Action Pact concluded on July 17th 1973 between the Ba’ath party and the Communist Party, leading to the constitution of a National Front, the Ba’athist right wing emerged undefeated from the bloody failure of Kazzar. As Eric RoulIeau said, in an article L’Irak à l’ombre des intrigues, in Le Monde on July 20 1973:
“Paradoxically, the elimination of Nazem Kazzar contributed to the reinforcement of the right wing of the party whose ideology was reflected by former head of security. In effect, the conservatives, notably the military, put responsibility for the past events on the left – in particular Saddam Hussein. They argued that all those who were implicated in the plot were considered, more or less, as men devoted to him… They were utilized to reinforce the powers of the civil and radical faction of the Ba’ath party to the detriment of the army. The latter … would now require effective participation in the exercise of power, a reorientation of internal politics in the sense of firmness regarding communists and Kurdish autonomists, as well as in foreign policy, considered too favorable to the Soviet Union.”
A new test of strength between the nationalist tendency of the Ba’ath and the Hussein influenced left seems very likely now in Iraq, Bakr, a centrist moderate could play a decisive role in the conflict. Iraq leads the Front of Exiles and appears as the center of resistance to negotiations with Israel. Moreover, the rupture seems to be on the verge of unleashing of a new war, regarding relations between Kurds and the Ba’ath party, permitting the right wing of the Ba’ath party to rapidly reinforce its position. Aflaq and his friends have not openly said their last word in Iraq.
Other Arab Countries:
Ba’athist cells, most often clandestine, exist in a certain number of other Arab countries. A Ba’athist group was dismantled in Tunisia by the police in 1970. The Ba’athists were very active in Jordan, even on the parliamentary level, before their elimination by the royal government. However, they pursue clandestine action there. There also exist small clandestine groups in Egypt.
In Lebanon, in 1958, during the civil war, the Ba’ath played an important role under the direction of Abdel Medjid Rafi, who sought to constitute a revolutionary government against the legal government many times. However the audience of the party was limited, though, it succeeded in obtaining a representative in the last elections, favorable to the Iraqi branch of the Lebanese Ba’ath, which had also broken into rival factions.
To this day there are no formations in the Palestinian Resistance that are not divided by this rivalry, for either one there are at least:
-The Sai’qa, the second most important formation in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (after Fatah), under the complete control of the Ba’athists in Damascus. Until Assad’s seizure of power, the Sai’qa constituted essential military support for the left wing of the Syrian Ba’ath Party.
-The Arab Liberation Front was created by Baghdad to counter the Sai’qa and prove Baghdad’s interest in the Palestinian struggle. Its importance remains very limited, but we can believe that it may rapidly increase its number of effective members, because of its decidedly oppositional positions to the negotiation processes underway. The Front has already obtained the support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine of Doctor Habash.
(Text published in issue 1 of La Revue d’histoire du fascisme, 1973).