Arab Socialist Renaissance Party – the Ba’th
Commentary by Rick Francona
The present-day Ba’th* Party, or the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, has its roots in the Arab Renaissance Party, which was formed in Damascus, Syria in the 1940s by two French-trained Syrian teachers, Michel ‘Aflaq and Salah Al-Din Bitar. ‘Aflaq was the driving force behind the development of the Marxist-oriented Ba’th ideology, while Bitar was a more public figure who later became the Prime Minister of Syria.
The Ba’th Party in Syria
The Renaissance Party held its first congress in 1947 and put members on the ballot in the 1949 Syrian elections. To broaden the appeal and increase its membership, the party merged with the Arab Socialist Party in 1953, becoming the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party. The next year it participated in the overthrow of the Shishakli dictatorship and won 15 seats in the subsequent elections. It was then that the party gained notoriety in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
In 1958, the Ba’th Party was a key player in Syria’s union with Egypt (and later Yemen) to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) under Gamal Abdul Nasser (Jamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir). The Ba’th thought that this union would lead to the adoption of the Ba’th as the ruling party and the first step in a serious pan-Arab movement. However, Nasser demanded that all parties other than his National Union be abolished. This eventually led to the dissolution of the UAR in 1961. By 1963, the Ba’th had regained their strength and supported a military coup. There were splits in the party and a series of coups between several factions. By 1970, the power struggle was won decisively by an air force pilot, Hafiz Al-Asad. This last internal Ba’th coup is called the “Correctionist Movement” (al-harakat al-sahihiyah). Hafiz Al-Asad remains the leader of the Syrian Ba’th Party and President of Syria.
Today in Syria, it is almost impossible to see the Syrian national flag flying alone. Normally it is paired side-by-side (never above on a single staff) with the Ba’th Party flag. Syrian officials explain that the Ba’th Party flag represents the single Arab nation espoused by the Ba’th, and the Syrian national flag represents one Arab state of the larger Arab nation.
The Ba’th Party has been integrated into all facets of the Syrian government. For example, when officers graduate from the military academies and are commissioned into the Syrian armed forces, they take an oath to the Ba’th Party, not to the Syrian constitution or Syrian people.
The Syrian and Iraqi Ba’th parties grew more hostile toward each other in the 1960s as each nation sought to assume the role of leader of the Pan-Arab movement. During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, Syria supported the Iranians, on occasion allowing Iranian aircraft to use Syrian airbases to conduct strikes against Iraqi targets. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Syria contributed its 9th Armored Division to the coalition; the division saw action against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in February 1991. There has been some lessening of tensions in last two years. Iraqi delegations have visited Damascus to discuss trade and reopening of the borders that have been closed since the Iran-Iraq War.
The Ba’th Party in Iraq
In Iraq, also in 1963, the Ba’th Party seized power, but they were forced out of power after only seven months. The party was forced into hiding; it immediately instituted reforms and made plans to recapture power. General Ahmad Hasan Al-Bakr became secretary of the Regional Command of the Ba'th Party in 1964, and a civilian politico – Saddam Husayn – became his deputy. Their next attempt at seizing power in 1964 failed, and both Al-Bakr and Saddam were imprisoned. Al-Bakr was later released and Saddam escaped. The Ba’thi revolutionaries were finally successful on July 17, 1968, when they stormed the Presidential palace and seized power. General Al-Bakr became the new president, elected to that office by the newly established Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Because of advancing age and ill health, Al-Bakr relied on Saddam Husayn to exercise much of the power of the presidency.
Ahmad Hasan Al-Bakr remained the president until July 1979, when the RCC “transferred” all presidential powers to Saddam Husayn. This transfer came after Al-Bakr “insisted” that he be replaced by Saddam. In reality, the older president had been a virtual prisoner in his palace under the thumb of Saddam. Saddam not only assumed the presidency, but also became the secretary general of the Ba’th Party Regional Command, chairman of the RCC, prime minister of Iraq, and commander in chief of the armed forces. With the exception of the prime minister’s position, Saddam retains all of these positions today.