By Amin Elias
Merely by surveying the events of the last hundred years, we can see just how much is happening today in Syria. What is going on there in fact is not simply a battle between the Baath Party and its opponents, nor a merely regional conflict, but a settling of accounts that could change the whole international equilibrium.
Territory divided up between numerous vilayet during the Ottoman epoch (1516-1918), and then a region made up of four states during the French mandate (1920-1946), Syria took on its present form only with the Franco-Syrian Treaty that was signed in Paris on 9 September 1936 when the ‘independent State of Damascus’ and the ‘government of Aleppo’, which had already been unified in 1923, the ‘autonomous territory of the Alawites’ and the ‘Jebel-Druze’, were fused into a single entity – the Syrian Republic.
One section of the Alawites was not favourable to this fusion. The archives contain documents that demonstrate their hesitation as regards this new Syrian entity. In two letters addressed in 1936 by Alawite notables to the Lebanese President of the time, Emile Eddé, and to the Maronite patriarch, Antoine ‘Arîda, the authors proposed to annex the Alawite region to the ‘state of Greater Lebanon’ proclaimed by General Gouraud on 1 September 1920 and seen by the Maronites as the ‘end of their struggle’ and the ‘achievement of their historic dream’. In a memorial (n. 3547) addressed by these notables to the French Prime Minister, Léon Blum, on 15 June 1936, they rejected the fusion of their region with a Syrian state dominated by the Sunnis. According to this document, the ‘Alawite people’ was different from the ‘Sunni people’ both because of its ‘religious beliefs and because of its traditions and its history’. The ‘Alawite people refuses to be annexed by Muslim Syria’ because the Muslim religion, the ‘official religion of the state’, sees the Alawites as ‘infidels’ (kuffâr). This refusal was translated at the beginning of 1939 into a separatist revolt in the Alawite region against the central Syrian power of Damascus. But this insurrection failed.
In parallel with this separatist current, there also existed amongst the Alawites a current made up of intellectuals and activists which shared Arab nationalist aspirations with other personalities of the various confessions that then existed in Syria and Lebanon. One of the primary figures of this current was Zakî al-Arsûzî. After finishing his studies in philosophy in France, al-Arsûzî returned to Syria and in 1932 he became a teacher at a school in the Sanjak of Alexandretta. A strong defender of the arabness, in 1934 al-Arsûzî founded the Arab Resurrection Party (al-ba‘th al-‘arabî). In 1938 he reached Damascus after being expelled from Alexandretta by the authorities of the French mandate. He announced the rebirth of the Arab nation and brought together many young men around his ideas. After being persecuted and forbidden to teach in all schools by the French, he abandoned active politics to dedicate himself to the study of the roots of Arabic words in a philosophical work which glorified the contribution of the arabness to history: ‘The Genius of the Arabic Language’ (Al-abqariyya al-‘arabiyya fî lisâniha).
For the Sake of Arab Resurrection
In parallel with the political activity of al-Arsûzî, two young Syrian intellectuals became involved in Damascus in political life and exalted the Arab rebirth. The first, Michel ‘Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox who had graduated in history at the Sorbonne, and the second, Salâh Bîtâr, a Sunni who had taken a degree in mathematics, managed to unite around them a large number of teachers and students. In 1942 they called their group the ‘Baath movement’ (harakat al-ba‘th). This provoked a reaction from al-Arsûzî who argued that they had misappropriated the name of his movement. Despite a large number of attempts at reconciliation between ‘Aflaq and al-Arsûzî, the two men continued to hold irreconcilable positions. But this fact did not impede a fair number of the ‘Arsûzîsts’, including Wahîb Ghânim and Hafez Assad, from joining the Baath movement founded by ‘Aflaq and Bîtâr, above all after the withdrawal of al-Arsûzî from political life. The movement was baptised at the beginning of 1945 with a new name: the ‘Baath Party’ (Hizb al-ba‘th). This party brought together the followers of al-Arsûzî, amongst whom were a fair number of young Alawites, and the ‘‘Aflaqists’.
Immediately after the withdrawal of French and English troops from Syria at the end of December 1946, and a few days before the declaration of the independence of the ¬Syrian Republic, 247 young men from all the regions of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Trans¬jordan took part on 4 April 1947 in the first conference of the Baath Party. The participants in this conference, who elected Michel ‘Aflaq president of the party as well as an executive committee, adopted a constitution. This date is seen as the official date of the creation of the ‘Arab Baath Party’ (Hizb al-ba‘th al-‘arabî).
During the first years of independence, Syria experienced a notable democratic vitality and a political plurality which was translated into the birth of a large number of parties. In addition to the Baath Party, another six parties occupied the political scene. The National Party, which was formed in 1947, was the child of the National Bloc which was founded in 1927 to call for Arab unity and the independence of Syria. It brought together numerous famous figures such as Shukrî al-Quwatlî, Fâris al-Khûrî and Jamîl Mardam, as well as other representatives of families in whose hands the wealth of the country was concentrated, above all in Damascus. The second, the People’s Party, was created from a scission within the National Party. It brought together personalities who represented the economic interests of Aleppo and the northern region of the country. The third was the Syrian People’s Party which had been founded by Antûn Sa‘âdih in 1932 and whose project was a ‘Greater Syria’ that would include Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq and Cyprus. The Muslim Brothers, a movement founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Bannâ, had supporters in Syria, above all in Hama, Homs and Damascus. Communism was also represented on the political scene by the Syrian Communist -Party, which was led by the inevitable figure of Khâlid Bikdâsh. Lastly, the Arab Socialist ¬Party was founded by Akram Hûrânî in 1950. It was with this party, on the occasion of the ¬second congress of June 1954, that the Arab Baath Party decided to merge in order to create the Socialist Arab Baath Party (Hizb al-ba‘th al-‘arabî al-ishtirâkî).
Situated between Egypt and Asia Minor, on the one hand, and between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, on the other, and being the northern door of the Arab peninsula, ¬Syria was seen as the key to the East. For this reason, during the second part of the 1940s and for the whole of the 1950s, the country was the subject of a conflict between the two principal poles of the Arab political scene: Iraq and Egypt. For both of these countries leadership of the Arab States as a whole was possible only through the conquest of ¬Syria. This last was, in addition, that axis around which revolved the principal diplomatic moves of the international powers. Many decisive battles took place in the field of internal politics at the time of the adoption of the Pact of Baghdad and the Eisenhower doctrine (which Syria rejected).
These rivalries between the regional and international forces were a part of the shift from simple democratic competition to the brutal coups d’état carried out by the generals of the Syrian army. The seven coups led by these officers between March 1949 and March 1963, and the union with Egypt between February 1958 and September 1961, clearly demonstrated the increasing role of the army. As regards the relationship of the Baath Party with Nasserism, at the beginning of the 1960s a Baathist Military Committee (BMC) was formed which was made up of five members, three of whom were Alawites: Mohammad ‘Umrân, Salâh Jdîd, and Hafez Assad. These figures opposed the policy of ‘Aflaq and ¬accused him of accepting the ‘Egyptianisation’ of Syria. After the failure of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in September 1961, in secret they prepared a double coup d’état against the Syrian government and the political office of the Baath Party chaired by ‘Aflaq.
Alawites Step Forward
The 1960s witnessed the appearance of the Alawites, and above all their generals, on the Baathist and Syrian scene. In his book Al-Nusayriyyûn al-‘alawiyyûn (‘The Alawite Nusayris’), Abû Mûsâ al-Harîrî observes that certain Alawite notables and Baathist generals, amongst whom ‘Umrân, Jdîd and Assad, met on a number of occasions between 1960 and 1968 with the aim of finding a way of taking over the Baath Party and the Syrian army in order to control central power in Damascus. Al-Harîrî also refers to another plan which sought to encourage the emigration of the Alawites from their mountains (Jibâl al-nusayriyya) towards the major cities of Tartus, Latakia and Homs with a view to founding an Alawite state with its capital in Homs. This information is not based upon certain evidence but on 8 March 1963 the coup d’état of the BMC was successful. After eliminating the Nasserites and the Communists, the BMC, dominated by Salâh Jdîd and Hafez Assad, was faced by the historic leader of the Baath Party, Michel ‘Aflaq. Three years later, the BMC carried out a second coup d’état on 21-25 February 1966 against ‘Aflaq. The Constitution was suspended. A new regime was created in which any separation of the Baath Party and power was impossible: ‘power is the Baath Party’. The ‘Aflaqists were eliminated and he himself had to flee to Lebanon before later finding refuge amongst the Baathists of Iraq.
However, the struggle for power between the two new leaders, Jdîd and Assad, was not late in beginning. Their rivalry emerged after the defeat of the Syrian army during the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967, a defeat which led to the loss of the Golan Heights. To this defeat were added ideological debates between the group led by Jdîd, who aspired to a radical Marxist doctrine, and the group led by Assad, whose principal concern was to restore the Syrian army without increasing ties of dependence with the USSR. This group wanted economic and military cooperation with the other Arab countries without adopting a Marxist or progressive approach toward them.
The annihilation of the ‘Palestinian resistance’ by King Hussein of Jordan in September 1970, and the attempt by Jdîd to involve the Syrian army in this battle on the side of the Palestinians, something to which Assad was opposed, made the relations between the two leaders of Syria irretrievable. This situation, made worse by the death of Nasser, led Assad to act. He first proceeded to arrest members loyal to Jdîd and to take control of the most important sections of the army. On 19 October 1970 he ordered his soldiers to surround the offices of the civil organisation of the Baath Party and the next day they arrested its most important leaders, including Jdîd. From that moment onwards Assad concentrated all the powers of the Baath Party and the Syrian government in his hands and appointed one of his followers, Ahmad al-Khatîb, as Head of State in Syria. Knowing that the promotion of an Alawite to the office of president would have wounded the sensitivity of Syrian Sunnis (the Alawites are seen as non-Muslims), Assad asked the Lebanese Shi’ite imam, Mûsâ al-Sadr, a friend of his, to promulgate a fatwa which proclaimed that the Alawites were Shi’ite Muslims. Nominated by 173 members of the Assembly of the People as candidate for the presidency of the Republic, Assad became president on 12 March 1971 following a referendum. This action of Assad was baptised ‘the rectification movement’ (al-haraka ¬al-tashîhiyya). In 1973 he proceeded to modify the Syrian Constitution and to eliminate the clause which laid down that Islam had to be the religion of the President. He then had to address fierce opposition on the part of the Syrian Sunni ‘ulamâ’ who threatened to mobilise Muslim crowds against him. As regards military policy, Assad governed everything connected with the army with an iron fist. Because of this policy, top army positions could be held only by Alawite officers or by Sunni or Christian Baathists who had demonstrated strong loyalty to Assad. The opponents of the Baath Party, and in particular the Muslim Brothers, were not authorised to attend military academies. These same rules were applied in the recruitment of members of the secret services. The system was handed down from father to son. Aware of the importance of the army, the current President, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to maintain control over it. No soldier can be mobilised without his approval, as is demonstrated by the challenge that this army has had to address since the outbreak of events in Syria in March 2011.
It was with Assad that Syria, up to that time the subject of conflict between the regional and international powers, was transformed into an active regional force which exercised its influence on the Middle Eastern scene. After establishing a strong central power in Damascus and imposing its authority with all means, including violence, in all the neighbouring regions, the Assads were able to make Syria the central core of a political, military and geo-strategic alliance running from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, passing by way of Iraq. The Sunni leaders of the region such as the King of Jordan, ‘Abdallah; the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak; and the King of Saudi Arabia, ‘Abdallah, identified this alliance with Shi’ite Islam and called it the ‘Shi’ite crescent’ (al-hilâl al-shî‘î). This was condemned by the United States of America which was able to place it in the ‘axis of evil’. It is in this context of geopolitical rivalry between the United States of America and its allies, on the one hand, and Iran and its allies, on the other, aggravated by Jewish and Sunni and Shi’ite Islam confessional effervescence, that one may understand more effectively what is presently happening in Syria. The positions of Russia and of China in relation to the events in Syria make the landscape more complicated. For many observers, the crisis in Syria is no longer an internal question between the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the Baathist regime, on the other, nor a regional confrontation between the Sunni axis, on the one hand, and the Shi’ite axis, on the other. It has become a question that may shift the international balance that was established after the fall of the USSR.
Georges Corm, Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 1956-2010, Gallimard, Paris, 2010.
Henry Laurens, L’Orient arabe. Arabisme et islamisme de 1798 à 1945, Armand Colin, Paris, 1993.
Pierre-Jean Luizard, Laïcités autoritaires en terres d’Islam, Fayard, Paris, 2008.
Patrick Seale, Asad. The Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990.
Al-Dustûr (the Constitution of the Baath Party), Baath Party Information Office, Damascus, 1976.